I've been very fortunate in the nearly 15 years I've been a part of Ain't It Cool News to be a part of some pretty great events--screenings I or others have put together, conventions, festivals, Butt Numb-a-Thon; you name it, I've probably participated in some way. I've even help put together mini-festivals before for various theaters around the city, and had a fulfilling time doing so. But never in my time as a critic or resident of Chicago have I had more pride in playing a small role in pulling together something as I have in working on the first-ever Chicago Critics Film Festival, weekend-long event taking place at the Muvico Theaters Rosemont (near O'Hare Airport) on April 12-14, 2013.
Pulled together my hard-working fellow members of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the folks at Muvico, the CCFF collects more than 20 features and short films comprised entirely of recent film festival favorites and as-yet undistributed works, all receiving their Chicago premieres at the event. The important thing to understand is two-fold: one, as far as we can tell, this is the first time a film-critics group has ever hosted and produced an event like this; second, each of these films was hand selected by a member of the CFCA because they saw it at a festival in the last year (such as Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, Fantastic Fest, etc.) and went after it. There was no submitting films for this event (and therefore no politics were involved in the selection process); either someone loved the film, or it wasn't considered.
As this event was being conceived, we all agreed that pointing readers to great movies was our core job, but almost as important is spotlighting work that might not have the benefit of big-studio marketing dollars. So the idea being the CCFF was to bring such films to our city. Some of these works have release dates; some do not, so this may be your only chance to see these films on the big screen. And if all goes well, the CFCA plans to make this the first of an annual series sharing films we genuinely love and exposing a wider audience to features, documentaries and short films.
Plus we have incredible guests for many of the features and shorts, as well as a very special appearance by Guest of Honor and Academy Award Winner William Friedkin, who will be on hand Sunday, April 14, to do a Q&A after a screening of one of his classic works, a rarely screened 35mm print of SORCERER (1977), and we're being told that it's a pretty gorgeous print. (This is not the still-being-worked-on digital restoration of SORCERER that is currently being prepared for Blu-ray later this year; this is old-school 35mm, at Mr. Friedkin's assistance.)
And keep checking back here and my Twitter feed (@CaponeAICN) for updates and a few giveaway regarding this festival next week. Until then, allow me to present to full slate of films and schedule (along with the names of confirmed guests, with more likely to be added) for the Chicago Critics Film Festival:
FRIDAY, APRIL 12
7 PM: STORIES WE TELL (with writer-director Sarah Polley Q&A) In this inspired, genre-twisting new film, Oscar-nominated writer/director Sarah Polley (AWAY FROM HER, TAKE THIS WALTZ) discovers that the truth depends on who’s telling it. Polley is both filmmaker and detective as she investigates the secrets kept by a family of storytellers. She playfully interviews and interrogates a cast of characters of varying reliability, eliciting refreshingly candid, yet mostly contradictory, answers to the same questions. As each relates their version of the family mythology, present-day recollections shift into nostalgia-tinged glimpses of their mother, who departed too soon, leaving a trail of unanswered questions. Polley unravels the paradoxes to reveal the essence of family: always complicated, warmly messy and fiercely loving. STORIES WE TELL explores the elusive nature of truth and memory, but at its core is a deeply personal film about how our narratives shape and define us as individuals and families, all interconnecting to paint a profound, funny and poignant picture of the larger human story.
10 PM: "GROW UP, TONY PHILLIPS (with writer-director Emily Hagins and producer Peter Hall Q&A) Who doesn’t love Halloween? All of Tony Phillips’ (Tony Vespe) high school friends, apparently. It’s senior year, and they’ve now decided that they’re too cool for Halloween. When Tony's older cousin (AJ Bowen) returns home right before the holiday, Tony starts to wonder if he really is the dork everyone thinks he is, or if he’s just ahead of the curve. Written and directed by Emily Hagins (MY SUCKY TEEN ROMANCE).
SATURDAY, APRIL 13
11 AM: THIS IS MARTIN BONNER Martin Bonner has just moved to Nevada from the East Coast, leaving behind his two adult children and a life he spent more than two decades building. He’s there working a new job as the volunteer coordinator for a non-profit organization that helps prisoners make the transition from incarceration to freedom. It’s Martin’s first job in two years and he’s recently declared bankruptcy. At the same time, Travis Holloway, a prisoner in the program, is being released after serving twelve years. Sent back into the world with nothing, Travis also finds life in Reno difficult to adjust to, despite the help from his program sponsor, Steve Helms. The stories of Martin and Travis slowly converge, as the two men meet and find that they have much in common, not the least of which is an unspoken need for encouragement and support. Their unlikely friendship blossoms but is put to the test when Travis betrays Martin’s trust in order to reunite with his estranged daughter.
1 PM: Shorts Program #1 (with filmmakers Q&A) Six shorts running 89 minutes. Note: This program is unrated and is for mature audiences only.
2:30 PM: THE INSTITUTE THE INSTITUTE is a feature-length documentary that examines a San Francisco-based phenomenon, where thousands of unwitting residents fell down a rabbit hole and got more than they bargained for. Told from their perspective, the film looks over the precipice at an emergent new art form where the real world and fictional narratives merge to create unforeseen and often unsettling consequences. Examining counter culture, new religious movements and street art, this film takes the viewer on a journey into a secret underground organization teeming just beneath the surface of every day life.
3:30 PM: THE FORCE WITHIN US (with director Cris Macht Q&A) THE FORCE WITHIN US, the sequel to the highly acclaimed and sold-out documentary THE FORCE AMONG US, takes us deeper into the STAR WARS experience than just the obsession of collectibles and costuming. Exploring how and why this epic saga has the ability to possess and alter lives, the film centers on STAR WARS as a catalyst for spiritual rebirth… finding personal meaning in life… and inspiring positive change. It exposes personal connections that are developed through the sagas good versus evil storyline, and the hope that good ultimately triumphs in our world as well as in a galaxy far, far away.
4:30 PM: LEAVE ME LIKE YOU FOUND ME (with writer-director Adele Romanski Q&A) After a year of heartbreak and loneliness, Erin and Cal have forgotten enough of each other’s flaws to get back together. They take what they hope will be a romantic camping trip in Sequoia National Park. Alone in the majestic landscape, they begin to revisit their past relationship. As cracks start to show each is left wondering whether the other has changed enough to make it work this time.
6 PM: THE KINGS OF SUMMER Premiering to rave reviews at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a unique coming-of-age comedy about three teenage friends—Joe (Nick Robinson), Patrick (Gabriel Basso) and the eccentric, unpredictable Biaggio (Moises Arias)—who, in the ultimate act of independence, decide to spend their summer building a house in the woods and living off the land. Free from their parents’ rules, their idyllic summer quickly becomes a test of friendship as each boy learns to appreciate the fact that family—whether it is the one you’re born into or the one you create—is something you can’t run away from. The film co-stars Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.
7 PM: SPARKS (with writer-director Chris Folino and cast members William Katt, Jake Busey, Marina Squerciati and Ashley Bell Q&A) Ian Sparks (Chase Williamson) discovers the dark side of heroism, while going after the nation’s most notorious super criminal he manages to leave his life and reputation in ruins along the way. The tragic loss of his parents as a young boy leaves him scarred in unimaginable ways, but it helps shape his desire to become a “super.” He manages to team up with fellow “super” Lady Heavenly (Ashley Bell), but the arrival of a vicious serial killer, Matanza (William Katt), who unleashes a bloody rampage on the city, destroys Sparks and Heavenly’s partnership and relationship. Racked with guilt, Sparks hits rock bottom, only to be saved by a guardian angel Archer (Clancy Brown), a cop whose own tragedy was linked to the fate of Sparks’ parents. Archer and Sparks discover their common enemy, which brings together a partnership of other “gifted” individuals whose intentions are not as honorable as Sparks. Hitting rock bottom, Sparks looks to make an easy buck, but finds danger along the way. In order to right the wrong done to his life and to his friends, he must face his past and fight for his future. Now all Ian Sparks can do is regain his dignity, seek redemption, and clear his name.
9 PM: THE DIRTIES Matt and Owen are best friends who live in a world of endless movie references and hijinks. It would be perfect, if not for the cruel bullies at their high school who make their lives hell. While working on a movie for class, the lines between fiction and reality blur together in this horrifying look at high school bullying.
10 PM: BLACK ROCK (with producer Adele Romanski in attendance) Three young women—Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Abby (Katie Aselton) and Lou (Lake Bell)—get together for a private campout at one of the iconic settings of their childhood, an empty island off the coast of Maine, to renew their bond of sisterhood. They quickly learn, though, that the island is anything but empty, when they encounter three recently-returned servicemen, who have come to the island to hunt. A misunderstanding quickly turns to tragedy, and the three women soon find themselves the targets of the hunt. What started as a simple playdate to recall old times is now a race for survival.
SUNDAY, APRIL 14
12 PM: Shorts Program #2 (with filmmakers Q&A) Eights shorts running 87 minutes. Note: This program is unrated and is for mature audiences only.
12:15 PM: THE ARTIST AND THE MODEL In German-occupied France in 1943, an elderly sculptor and his wife live in a small town close to the Spanish border. Several years have passed since the 80-year-old artist Marc Cros (Jean Rochefort) stopped sculpting. He has lived through two wars and is disillusioned by the world around him. One day, his wife (Claudia Cardinale) brings home a young woman she sees in the streets. Her name is Merce (Aida Folch), and she is on the run from Franco’s army. The couple offer to shelter her in the sculptor’s workshop. While she is there, she models for what will be the last work by Cros. Slowly, a beautiful friendship is born between the young woman, whose life is just beginning, and the old man, who senses that his end is near.
2:30 PM: SPARKS (with writer-director Chris Folino and cast members William Katt, Jake Busey, Marina Squerciati and Ashley Bell in attendance)--Encore screening
2:45 PM: WHEN I WALK It all started on a family vacation. In 2006, the 25-year-old, vital, handsome, talented Jason DaSilva was on a beach with his family when, suddenly, he fell down and couldn’t get back up. Doctors told him he had multiple sclerosis, and it could lead to loss of vision and muscle control, as well as a myriad of other problems. Jason decided to exercise more, but the problem just got worse. So he turned to his mom. She reminded him that he was a fortunate, privileged North American kid who had the opportunity to pursue the things he loved most—art and filmmaking. So Jason picked up the camera, turned it on himself, and began filming the slow, difficult decline of his body and the miracles he encountered along the way. An emotional and inspirational documentary that is a pleasure to watch, WHEN I WALK is an energizing and self-generating film experience whose creative engine is its young filmmaker’s determination to live and his ability to make sense of being plagued by a devastating disease through the art of cinematic storytelling.
4:30 PM: I DECLARE WAR A group of 13-year-old friends play an innocent game of Capture the Flag in the neighborhood woods, arming themselves with nothing more than sticks, their imagination and a simple set of rules. One afternoon the game takes on a more serious tone and the quest for victory pushes the boundaries of friendship, giving the would-be warriors a glimpse of the darker side of human nature as their imaginations take them beyond the rules of the game and into an adventure where fantasy blurs with reality.
5 PM: THE SPECTACULAR NOW (with director James Ponsoldt Q&A) With sly humor and an intensity of feeling, THE SPECTACULAR NOW creates a vivid, three-dimensional portrait of youth confronting the funny, thrilling and perilous business of modern love and adulthood. This is the tale of Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a high school senior and effortless charmer, and of how he unexpectedly falls in love with “the good girl” Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley). What starts as an unlikely romance becomes a sharp-eyed, straight-up snapshot of the heady confusion and haunting passion of youth—one that doesn’t look for tidy truths. The film was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 DAYS OF SUMMER), and also features wonderful supporting turns from Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who starred in director Ponsoldt's critically acclaimed 2012 film SMASHED.
6 PM: William Friedkin Book Signing William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, KILLER JOE) will sign copies of his book, “The Friedkin Connection.” The long-awaited memoir from the Academy Award–winning director, "The Friedkin Connection" (which includes 16 pages of black-and-white photographs) takes readers from the streets of Chicago to the suites of Hollywood and from the '60s to today, with autobiographical storytelling as fast-paced and intense as any of the auteur’s films.
7:30 PM: SORCERER Special Film Screening (with William Friedkin introduction and Q&A)