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KSanders writesDispatches from the 2023 Chicago Critics Film Festival: “The Unknown Country” and “A Disturbance In the Force”

by Kyle Sanders

The Unknown Country

Is there an unspoken rule about "road trip" movies that requires a character to learn something? To have an "ah-ha" moment of some sort? Perhaps it's the many hours spent behind the wheel, passing the flickering buzz of neon signs belonging to motels and gas stations, or the neverending route to anywhere as you find yourself feeling insignificant surrounded by an ever-expansive landscape. You can do some serious thinking on these journeys--especially when you're out on your own.

This is Tana's situation in The Unknown Country. Still grieving the death of her grandmother, Tana (Lily Gladstone) reunites with her estranged Lakota family in the Badlands area of South Dakota. The visit takes her on an unexpected road trip toward the Texas-Mexico border, as she learns more about the wild and precious life of her grandmother's past and how she will carry forth her own generation in time.

Director Morrisa Maltz films the journey with docustyle camerawork, letting the camera gracefully capture Tana with family or new friends in Altmanesque spontaneity. Maltz also pays homage to other filmmakers such as Wim Wenders and Agnes Varda, placing her characters amidst beautiful backdrops of mountain ranges and valleys and highlighting some smaller roles throughout the film.

In fact, these random portraits of individuals who serve as  the "backbone of America" are charming and sweet. "Everyone has a story" spouts one character in particular, a chipper diner waitress whose own narrative would be worthy of a feature film.

But it's Tana's story that matters most in The Unknown Country. The movie doesn't provide us with plenty of exposition to understand Tana's situation, we only receive clues through small talk--those sorts of interactions we have at family reunions with relatives we've not seen in years, or those awkward ice-breakers when meeting new people.

Most of what we learn is through Gladstone's facial expressions: a woman who is grieving but yearns for a breakthrough. Gladstone's ability to express joy through emotional anguish is astonishing. As a woman traveling alone, you're able to at once sense her fear and exhilaration, whether it's avoiding the gaze of strange men at gas stations or traveling down dusty mountain trails.

What she learns on her travels out in The Unknown Country isn't always clear, but it's pushing her towards something needed. After seeing this beautifully shot, quietly acted film, you'll be inspired to head out on the open road yourself!



A Disturbance in the Force

If better stories come from failures rather than successes, why not make a documentary about one of the biggest failures to spawn from the most successful franchise of all time?

This seems to be the motivation behind A Disturbance in the Force, which chronicles the production behind--and the lamentable aftermath of--the Star Wars Holiday Special, a comedy-variety televised event featuring the original cast of the sci-fi phenomenon that aired on CBS during Thanksgiving week of 1978 and quickly made the jump into lightspeed to never be seen again.

Of course, that's not exactly true: bootleg copies have been available on the VHS black market for some time, leading some scruffy-looking nerf herders to upload versions to content-sharing websites. Only the die-hardiest of Star Wars fans know of this two-hour special that creator George Lucas has treated like the bastard who showed up at a family reunion.

While it has remained relatively unknown to general audiences, this documentary finally sheds some light on a bad idea that refuses to stay hidden in the Sarlacc Pit. Collecting interviews with some of the program's creators (including writer Bruce Vilanch and costume designer Bob Mackie) as well as Star Wars' most notable fans (Robot Chicken's Seth Green, Kevin Smith, and "Weird Al" Yankovic), directors Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak not only use The Force to piece together how this special was made, but more importantly, why.

The documentary highlights that brief (and largely forgotten) period between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, when the space saga was only one-third complete and had very little product placement to show for it (hard to believe nowadays, isn't it?).

After a year of shattering box-office records, the public was ready for more, so to coincide with the upcoming Christmas release of Kenner's first batch of action figures (as well as an incentive for the viewers NOT to forget about the movie--as if that were even possible), a holiday special was concocted as a key component in selling merchandise. The rest, as they say, is sci-fi history.

But what is rarely said when discussing the Star Wars Holiday Special, is the context in which it exists: the late 1970s. This wasn't a "peak TV" era; variety shows were produced for the whole family: entertaining enough to kill an hour or so with cheap jokes, schlocky dance numbers, and plenty of B-list celebrity cameos.

The hot plate of "bantha fodder" might look atrocious in the grand scheme of the Star Wars canon, but this was the era of Donny & Marie, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, and The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. "If you don't know the history or the context, you can't appreciate (the special) fully," says one talking head. It's an important point the documentary makes early, to establish where the rails were laid and just how far off TV was ready to throw Star Wars off them!

The documentary traces every step of the special's production: from the hiring of producers (Ken and Mitzi Welch were old school professionals, but knew NOTHING about Star Wars), the writers, and directors, to not only nabbing special guest stars (I certainly didn't know Robin Williams and Cher were approached!), but getting the original cast of the film signed on as well (one word: MONEY).

It seems like every infamous production has budget issues and scheduling delays, and the Star Wars Holiday Special was no exception: changing directors halfway through and leaving two inexperienced editors to try and put together a cohesive story about a made up holiday (earnestly written by George Lucas) intermixed with campy, variety panache (to this day, no one understands why Jefferson Starship showed up--not even members of Jefferson Starship!).

What eventually aired on November 17, 1978 was watched by thirteen million viewers and then quietly forgotten. But the legacy of the Star Wars Holiday Special has remained an anomaly of the franchise. This documentary clearly has a fun, appreciative love for this special, and it wants the audience to feel the same way--it's definitely no Jedi mind trick!

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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