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KSanders writesDispatches from the 2023 Chicago Critics Film Festival: “Brother,” “Revoir Paris,” and “Starring Jerry As Himself”

by Kyle Sanders

The 10th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival has come to a close! I must say as a first time reviewer, I enjoyed the experience immensely and look forward to doing it all again next year.

Here are some final thoughts of the remaining titles I had on my watchlist:


It's difficult for me to pinpoint just what kind of story Brother wants to tell. Is it about the bond between two siblings born to immigrant parents? A drama about race relations in Scarborough? A gritty take on gang violence and police brutality? Or is it an intimate tale about Black lives? Perhaps it's a little of everything.

From the start, we're introduced to Francis and Michael, two close-knit brothers about to do something dangerous and stupid, but nevertheless, together.

Francis is the oldest, and naturally, Michael defers to Francis for everything. Living in a small apartment with their single Caribbean mother who works late shifts in order to provide for her family, the brothers are often left alone to their own devices.

As they grow older, it's clear Michael is the more studious and obedient of the two. Francis on the other hand--well, nothing is going to get in the way of his dreams.

Director Clement Virgo sets Brother between 1991, during Toronto's early Hip-Hop scene, and 2001. In the latter timeline, things have changed. Michael is an adult, now caring for his unstable mother, and Francis is out of the picture--one can only assume by tragedy.

As teens in '91, they're aware of the crime happening in their community; the territorial dangers of gang culture and the aggressive influence of the police is all over the news and in their own backyard.

As the youngest, Michael is intimidated by the threats of violence surrounding them, but Francis keeps a stoic demeanor. Francis dreams of getting out through Hip-Hop music and is determined to break free of the circumstances he was born into. But with a chip on his massive shoulders, it's only a matter of time before something within him will break.

The world that Virgo builds in Brother is very real, but includes some surrealistic touches. Any scene involving "white authority," be it a shop class instructor or the police, positions these characters out of frame or slightly out of focus. There is never a clear view of their face, as if we're not meant to see them. It felt like I'd been instructed not to look them in the eye, due to some sort of repressive, unspoken rule.

Another scene involving a severely beaten Black teen, maniacally laughing through a bloody and toothless maw, was the sort of disturbing imagery I'm used to seeing in a Jordan Peele or Donald Glover production. The raw tension Virgo builds--accompanied by the gradual buzzing of an electrical current--left me uncomfortable and alert, a feeling I can only imagine communities like this feel every day.

Despite the circumstances surrounding the film's two characters, the bond between Francis and Michael in Brother remains tightly threaded. Despite its Canadian roots, the film is quite relevant in a Black Lives Matter America.



Revoir Paris

It's unfortunate that I had to screen Revoir Paris so soon after another mass shooting in the United States, but sadly, that seems to be the new normal. However, the mass shooting in this film is only part of the story, mostly because our protagonist Mia (Virginie Efira) can't quite remember how it happened.

A mass shooting survivor, Mia is determined to piece together the sequence of events that took place that fateful day in a Parisian bistro. She attends meetings, bonds with fellow survivors, and revisits the scene of violence, hoping for some sort of clue that will spark a memory of her traumatic experience.

It isn't easy for Mia to find her "diamond of trauma" (searching for something good out of misfortune). Director Alice Winocaur keeps the details just as muddy for the audience just as she does for Mia.

We only hear the general facts about the mass shooting through the reciting of police reports or word-of-mouth from those who only heard about it through the news. It's incredibly frustrating for Mia; she can't recall the details of her experience, and those who try to help her--her patient partner and friends--were not there. How could they possibly understand what she's going through?

We certainly see the initial incident take place: the loud burst of rapping gunfire, the sense of confusion, the random screams immediately cut short by deathly silence. The shooter is never identified and barely visible, just quick flashes of running feet.

It's a harrowing moment and, quite frankly, difficult to sit through. The violence is not gratuitous, but the scene will leave you haunted. It will leave you holding your breath and simmering with rage.

Luckily, Revoir Paris isn't so much focused on the event as it is in Mia's understanding of it. Her trauma is shared, and it's not her burden to carry alone. It's sort of bizarre how a tragedy creates a family from its survivors--not just those who witnessed it, but those connected by proxy of those who perished.

Through these individuals, Mia can make something new out of the experience. For her, this trauma isn't about letting go, but embracing it. Revoir Paris treats trauma like completing a jigsaw puzzle: once Mia can find the missing pieces her grieving can be complete.

Revoir Paris is scheduled to be released on June 23rd.



Starring Jerry As Himself

It tickles my fancy anytime a documentary takes cinematic liberties with the facts. And no, I don't mean "creative liberties" either--I mean taking the VERY true and VERY real subject matter and presenting it in such a way that you forget it's not actually a feature film.

This is what you get with And Starring Jerry as Himself, an actual documentary (and I can't stress that enough--it really IS a documentary) about Jerry Liu, a retired immigrant living in Florida who has gathered his ex-wife and their three sons at a restaurant to inform them of some alarming news.

No, he's not dying, but what he's about to tell them is so astounding, so incredibly wild and entertaining, that it's the sort of thing you'd reply with "someone should really make a movie about this!" Well, in Jerry's case, someone actually did.

Director Lawrence Chin casts the actual Jerry, his ex-wife Kathy, and three adult sons Joshua, Jesse, and Jonathan (who made their own family home movies as kids) and recreates the entire incident in question. I don't want to reveal too much, but let's just say it involves Chinese authorities, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a man over sixty who imagines himself to be a secret 007 agent (though James Bond, he is not).

In case you're still not convinced, this IS a documentary, but the way Chin blends the action taking place is unlike any documentary I've seen before. At one point, Jerry is sitting at a table in a restaurant with his family, the camera zooms in as he's about to make an announcement.

All of a sudden, his cell phone rings. He takes the call, gets up, and the camera zooms out to reveal Jerry back at his apartment, no restaurant table, no family. Jerry is now telling his story, and it's three months earlier, as the random phone call he's received has set this unbelievable story into motion.

There's a sense of magical realism used--from the single-take scenery changes to the stilted dialogue taking place-- that makes the documentary feel like a Tommy Wiseau screenplay directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (now wouldn't THAT be something to see?).

It feels so much like a real movie because it uses one of the oldest tropes of narrative storytelling: an ordinary individual placed in extraordinary circumstances. 

Nothing about it feels like a documentary (I did mention that this IS a documentary, right?), as you'll be on the edge of your seat asking "where exactly is this story going?" Even after the big reveal (and the even more sobering lesson learned),

Starring Jerry as Himself is so playfully entertaining, you'll want to watch it all over again. It's so good, one can only hope Hollywood doesn't attempt to produce a film that's based on the documentary that's based on actual events!

The 2023 Chicago Critics Film Festival screens from May 5th to May 11th at the Music Box Theatre

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Categorized: Movies

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