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KSanders writesThe 2024 Chicago Critics Film Festival, Part 2: A Sundry Second Half of Seniors, Singers, and Scorsese (Oh my!)

by Kyle Sanders

And the 11th Annual Chicago Critics Film Fest continues! Here are the films I was able to catch during the latter half:

Technically, Thelma screened last Saturday afternoon, but due to scheduling conflicts I managed to check out a screener from the convenience of my home. I'm glad I did, because this film about a 93-year-old telephone scam victim who sets out to reclaim the money taken from her was worth it!

June Squibb, the Oscar-nominated character actress who's taken over Betty White's reign of feisty senior citizen roles, leads this quirky comedy with aplomb. An elderly widow unwilling to bend to the concerns of her domineering family, Squibb takes a page out of Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise (including doing her own stunt work!) and provides plenty of action-packed moments, "geriatric style": racing down nursing home hallways in a slicked-out scooter, bravely climbing the perilous steps of a two-story home, and navigating the treacherous paths of antique stores, just to get back what's hers.

With a heist-themed score reminiscent of anything composed by Isaac Hayes (coincidentally, this film co-stars Richard Roundtree--the original Shaft--in his final performance), Thelma reminds us that our tenacity for thrill-seeking never gets old. (Release Date: June 21st)

Thelma

Finances, road trips, heartbreak--these problems can serve as a hallmark for any singer-songwriter, including the protagonist in Dandelion. A struggling Cincinnati musician, Dandelion embarks on a last minute road trip to South Dakota to perform at a motorcycle rally.

The gig doesn't go as she had hoped, but it leads her to a handsome guitarist, who helps provide a creative outlet (not to mention an undeniable attraction).

The story itself is rather formulaic, but the original songs are as top notch as the leading performance of Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk). Director Nicole Riegel's fine camerawork captures the beauty of the South Dakota terrain and the electric chemistry between the two musicians.

Overall, Dandelion is a film about how creativity can come from unexpected places, and how artistry is not so much a means to make a living, but a way of living. (Release Date: July 12th)

Dandelion

Continuing on the theme of music comes Flipside. Documentarian Chris Wilcha sets out to revive Flipside, a New Jersey record store where he landed his first job. The store still exists, but isn't quite the same place he fondly remembers from his youth.

In fact, the entire process of documenting Flipside's legacy has him reflecting on his own--from shelved hard drives of long abandoned projects and the circumstances of life that got in the way.

What's interesting about this documentary is that it allows Wilcha ability to kill several birds with one stone. With unused footage featuring poignant reflections of jazz photographer Herman Leonard as he faces mortality, to the frustrating creative struggles that have hindered writer Starlee Kine, Wilcha is able to thread the needle between a lot of the unfulfilled documentaries that have collected dust over the years (much like Flipside itself).

Flipside is not just about reflecting on the past, but the difficulties of letting it go. (Release Date: May 31st)

Flipside

In What You Wish For, two old culinary school friends reunite in Latin America: Ryan, down on his luck and dealing with gambling problems, and Jack, who seemingly appears well off, having been hired to cook an elaborate meal for some rather wealthy clients.

After a shocking twist of events, Ryan takes Jack's identity to fulfill the profitable opportunity, but soon learns that such a bountiful reward requires an equal atrocity to be committed.

To say that Ryan bites off more than he can chew is an understatement. What he blindly walks into becomes a nightmarish metaphor of classism and privilege. The tension sizzles each step of the way, from a recipe straight out of a cookbook from Alfred Hitchcock.

It's a shame then that the conclusion is bluntly served, wrapping up what could've been a tasty thriller had the filmmakers let it marinate just a little longer. (Release Date: May 31st)

An interesting feature of the festival is their anniversary screenings. This year, they celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, the twentieth anniversary of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and the twenty-fifth anniversary of Bringing Out the Dead, one of Martin Scorsese's most underrated films that surprisingly made very little impact upon its release. 

Since Bringing Out the Dead was one of the few Scorsese flicks I had not seen, I made damn sure of penciling it in on my film schedule. Now having seen it--about a paramedic on the verge of a nervous breakdown (played with burnout brilliance by a never better Nicolas Cage)--I can say it's now one of my favorite non-mob related films of Scorsese's filmography.

The ensemble is packed with reliable performers who always give it their all. Cage's screen time with the likes of John Goodman, Ving Rhames, ex-wife Patricia Arquette, and the late Tom Sizemore is playful yet natural, inspiring genuine moments of comedy and drama.

The camera work is dizzying as always, with fast pans and tilts tracking the frenetic routes of EMT drivers, as well as the chaos that takes place in late night emergency rooms.

And it wouldn't be a Scorsese film without a needle-drop soundtrack, mixing in Van Morrison and Motown with tracks from early-'90s stalwarts like 10,000 Maniacs, REM, and UB40.

The film might not reek with prestige as some of Marty's projects with De Niro and DiCaprio, but Bringing Out the Dead brings out the best in Scorsese and is worthy of being rediscovered.

Bringing Out the Dead

As the festival winded down (and moviegoing fatigue unfortunately started setting in), it was nice to catch a film about quiet moments--particularly those that take place on backpacking hikes in the wilderness.

In Good One, India Donaldson's feature debut, there are several quiet moments that take place between daughter Sam (Lily Collias) and her father Chris (James Le Gros). It's only the inclusion of her dad's oldest friend Matt (Danny McCarthy) that disrupts that quiet kinship, and the parental bond between father and daughter becomes tested.

The daughter of filmmaker Roger Donaldson, India's Good One is intimately grounded, capturing those mundane conversations that take place while hiking, and those awe-inspiring moments of stumbling upon breathtaking views of nature.

The performances seem so organic--every eye roll and exasperated sigh feels earned, and every time a character talks over another or finishes someone's sentence, you feel as though you're sitting around the campfire with them--forgetting you're actually watching a movie. (Release Date: August 9th)

Good One

Forgetting you're watching a movie is what every filmgoer hopes to achieve in their experience. Through good storytelling, convincing performances, and sequences of visual wonder, it can be easily done. The Chicago Critics Film Festival provided me with many of those experiences this year, and I can't wait to see what they come up with next!

And speaking of festivals, don't forget about the 2nd CHIRP Music Film Festival (which I helped co-program!), which takes place May 17-19 at the Davis Theater. Get your tickets now!

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Categorized: Movies

Topics: chicago critics film festival

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