Short and sweet, but equally as sad, I have alas come to the end of my coverage for the 2017 Chicago International Film Festival. But while I didn’t experience a lot outside of the screenings (apart from an amazing reception and the CIFF Awards Ceremony), I did have an enjoyable time watching some outstanding works of cinema.
If you have never attended a film festival, especially as a movie lover, I encourage you to get involved and be a part of a local film organization. It is amazing to see what filmmakers have created and many of their works don’t make it to the big screen. Plus, participating in these organizations helps you to get a picture of the world outside of your own experiences and it allows you to see how peoples’ lives are impacted every day. It is a truly humbling experience, in my view.
But for now, let us continue to my final day of the CIFF.
SAMMY DAVIS JR.: I’VE GOTTA BE ME
Celebrities are among the most visible representatives of humanity, and many show amazing talents in sports, acting, music, and more. However, there are a few that have changed the fabric of entertainment and society because of their ideals, charisma, personality, and unique talents. In Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, director Sam Pollard delves into the life of the child star turned song-and-dance legend, Sammy Davis Jr., and describes the heights and depths of his career. With loads of vintage footage, interviews with prominent celebrities that Davis influenced, and a narrative that shows the immensity of his character, this documentary gives a refreshing take on a peerless entertainer who was a marvel in his profession.
Pollard shows the beginnings of Davis’s career, focusing on his early vaudevillian tap dancing performances with the Will Mastin Trio at the age of three. The film then proceeds through various “phases” of his work as Davis teams with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, gives stellar impersonations of white celebrities that attracted countless audiences, and even became an ambassador for the White House during Richard Nixon’s administration. Surrounding these events are intense periods of racial segregation and polarizing injustices that Davis challenged through interracial relationships, his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, and more. Overall, Pollard and his team show a deeply complex man who was both hated and loved for his beliefs and dreams, constantly fighting battles that tested his character. While not groundbreaking as a documentary, this film provides enough timeless and visually-appealing information that gives Sammy Davis Jr. enough character to move even the most jaded viewer.
What makes a person return to an uncomfortable situation? Is it familiarity, kinship, or something more? In The Endless, the third feature film from horror duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, two siblings are at odds in going back to a disturbing place they once fled. Tired of the world and wanting more than working at a boring job, Aaron Smith (Moorehead) receives a mysterious video tape from a creepy UFO cult that he and his brother Justin (Benson) exited when they were teens. Saying that things are better and that the members want them to return, the message makes Aaron reminisce about the food and comfort that he felt while being there long ago. Justin, however, is not interested in going back and wishes to stay away. Nevertheless, with some convincing by Aaron, the pair decides to make a temporary trip to “Camp Arcadia” and see if anything has improved. Meeting interim camp leader Hal (Tate Ellington) and slowly fitting in with the eccentric group members, it doesn’t appear that much is wrong at first. But brooding in the group is a dark secret that will make the brothers regret coming back.
Now, while this movie doesn’t have a big production budget or many special effects, the ominous atmosphere in the camp is done well and brings a unique level of tension to the film. This is a psychological thriller that messes with the senses and presents an evil force that afflicts everyone near the campgrounds. However, the entity is never revealed and only shows itself through malevolent shadows and lights, repeating events, bizarre noises, and peculiar events that occur throughout the film. Benson and Moorehead also do a great job in showing the otherworldly nature of cults and the deep-seeded forces that drive them via members that are skilled in specific tasks but quite fanatical otherwise. Conversely, some of these events can seem odd and confuse viewers at first; not helping them to understand what is taking place. And coupled with few slow moments, some passable acting, and weird explanations of events, the film can get bogged down in supernatural theories about its setting. But overall, The Endless will leave you questioning the nature of reality in a unique depiction of suspense and illusion.
IN THE SHADOWS
Paranoia forces some people to do crazy things, and in Dipesh Jain’s In the Shadows, it makes one man ostracized by society. In the labyrinthine slums of Old Delhi, Khuddoos (Manoj Bajipayee) is a paranoid gentleman that is alone, depressed, and feels trapped in his neighborhood. Furthermore, he is an eyesore to many of the citizens around town and has been kicked out of businesses for excessive drinking or rambunctious behavior. Adding to his madness, Khuddoos places random cameras around the neighborhood, infatuated with spying on people and constantly checking to see if there is anything amiss around him. One day, however, he hears a boy getting beat by his father through a nearby wall of his house. Obsessed with saving this child and fighting against the madness of his mind, the man must find a way to save the youth and himself in this world of oppression.
Firstly, the premise of this film and how it is displayed is quite interesting. The story is shown through both Khuddoos and the boy Idu (Om Singh). While the two sides are disjointed and take a while to develop, these paths converge in several parts and come together in a jarring final twist that will reveal all about Khuddoos and why he feels so adamant about saving the boy. Secondly, the film shines a light on the issues of child abuse and mental illness. This tale gives a poignant presentation of what happens when someone is subject to various forms of abuse and it makes the viewer think about how children, spouses, and others have suffered trauma and pain due to being mistreated. By the end, In the Shadows brings much of that emotion out and leaves audiences stunned. The majority of the film focuses on Bajipayee who does an absolutely tremendous job in showing a man who is lost in his own mind, while the supporting cast also does great work in further guiding the audience. Ultimately, this film is a touching look into a person’s struggle to break free from the pain of their environment and identity.
Vengeance contributes to awesome stories. Getting revenge not only brings us closer to characters in novels and film, but it also shows how far a person is willing to go for their own desire. Killing Jesús by Laura Mora Ortega is a tale that focuses on an internal conflict where vengeance will test a young girl’s character. Paula (Natasha Jaramillo) is a college student who looks up to her father as an inspirational university professor. While driving Paula home, however, her father exits the car and is gunned down by a youth on a motorcycle. Seeing the face of the murderer as he speeds away, Paula later tries to enlist the help of the police to capture the perpetrator. With their hands tied up in other cases, a frustrated Paula blows up against the lack of effort by the police to bring justice to her family. However, when she later goes out to a club with friends to ease her stress, Paula notices a dancing young man who looks identical to the murderer. Introducing himself as Jesús (Giovanny Rodriguez) in a happy and drunken stupor, Paula decides to get close to him to eventually find retribution. But as she becomes more involved in his life, Paula soon sees that her vengeance will be harder to execute.
From the beginning, this film displays outstanding visual quality. Panoramic shots and close-ups as well as diverse locations filled with lush nature and gritty streets show detailed cinematography with a purpose. The settings feel real and convincing and mesh well with the happenings of the plot. The narrative is also gripping, emotional, and easy to follow. Changes in Paula’s demeanor towards her family after the incident show how desperate she is to kill Jesús, even shunning her mother and brother in the process. But Jesús has an aloof type of charm, despite his ruthless exterior. Showing tenderness towards Paula, he quickly feels that she is the only one he can truly trust while trapped in a life of crime. Overall, the outstanding roleplay by Jaramillo and Rodriguez presents an amazing dynamic and makes the film flow effortlessly. There is very little to hold the film back, in fact, apart from a few dead spots and not seeing Paula’s family for the second half of the film. But by being the recipient of the Roger Ebert Award at the Chicago Film Festival, it is easy to see that Killing Jesús is a treasure of independent film that pits the nature of revenge against pure human emotion.
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