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Eleventh Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival Recap

After a stunning lineup in its 10th iteration, the Chicago Critics Film Festival ventured back to the Music Box Theatre from May 3-9, 2024 with a less starry yet eclectic group of films. The movies felt more intimate and, in some ways, obscure than previous choices the festival had made. Even its 25th-anniversary screening of Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead felt representative of the festival as a whole. They could’ve picked from a plethora of 1999 classics but picked one that stays true to their wacky MO. Most of the films have premiered at previous festivals and are slated to be released later in the year. While there wasn’t a movie that blew me away like Past Lives did last year, there was plenty to like.

Sing Sing

Colman Domingo in Sing Sing (A24)
Colman Domingo in Sing Sing (A24).

Colman Domingo’s 2023 mainly consisted of being the world’s most charming and endearing actor on the awards circuit for Rustin. While the movie was lukewarmly received, his performance garnered much appreciation and led to his first Oscar nomination. However, while Rustin and Domingo were doing their thing, Domingo had another ace up his sleeve. At last year’s Toronto Film Festival, his film Sing Sing premiered to rave reviews for his performance and the movie itself. Many stated (at that moment) that if Domingo didn’t get a nomination for Rustin, he would surely get one for Sing Sing and some even went on to say he’s a shoo-in for the award in 2024. 

Greg Kewdar’s breakthrough feature opened this year’s festival to a packed house and resonated extremely well with the audience, with sniffles and tears abounding in the auditorium. The film focuses on a group of inmates in the real-life Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) program at Sing Sing Penitentiary. It features two professional actors, Domingo and Paul Raci, and the rest of the cast is played by former prisoners who were a part of RTA (Clarence “Divine Eye” Maclin, David “Dap” Giraudy, and many more). 

Sing Sing comes straight from the heart. There’s so much love, anger, and sadness on display. Whether it’s the celebration of art and its ability to liberate us or the injustice of the incarceration system, there’s nothing artificial about it. Everything feels thought out as if pulling from real-life experiences. And, with a majority of the cast being previous members of RTA, I’m sure most of the movie was developed through these men and their stories. Kwedar (along with Clint Bentley) wrote this movie with Maclin and John “Divine G” Whitfield, on whom the Domingo character is based. The movie is centered on the relationship between Maclin and Whitfield and, more specifically, their relationship to the arts. To some, acting and performance is a job or a hobby; to these men—as one character says in a heartbreaking moment—acting allows them to feel like a real human. Confined by four walls for most of the day, it’s only when the inmates portray other people that they feel they can look beyond those walls.

The blend of performances is a tricky thing because it is evident that Domingo and Raci are playing characters versus the other actors who aren’t acting. Rather, they are recollecting and tapping into a previous version of themselves. All the performances are gutwrenchingly great. Domingo is on a shortlist of the most talented working actors today. There aren’t many who can sink into a character like him, whose quiver can elicit an overwhelming emotional reaction. He captures Divine G’s complex relationship with RTA, both the good days and the bad days. I hope Domingo doesn’t go too far away from the awards circuit, he is surely destined to be called back.

The non-professional performance might be even more impressive. This is where the strength of the movie lies. When these actors deliver their lines or retell a story, it doesn’t feel like we’re watching a narrative feature but a documentary instead. Their laughs feel real, their tears piercing our hearts. Divine Eye is a revelation and I would be ecstatic to see him in the awards conversation later this year. However, because the performance styles are so different, there are times when the actors feel like they are in different movies. Domingo is more theatrical and the other actors are naturalistic. The film also wants to explore Divine G’s unfair incarceration and his arduous journey in being released, but this part of the movie lacks narrative heft. Sing Sing walks a very thin line between movie and documentary and mostly succeeds, but I wonder if a commitment to one film form would have resulted in a smoother watch.

Keep Sing Sing on your radar because this one is poised to be a big player in the fall. By definition, it is Oscar bait, but it almost feels disrespectful to dub it as that. This is such a personal feature with some truly great performances. Domingo is appointment viewing and Sing Sing should be first on the viewing list when it comes out. 

Sleep

The festival’s first midnight/late-night screening was Korean debutante director Jason Yu’s entertaining multiple-genre-yet-genreless Sleep. This movie is a black comedy, horror movie, mystery, and thriller wrapped into one. It has shades of Parasite, yet feels stylistically so different. You can be watching a scene that has you on the edge of your seat in fear and the literal next scene will make you laugh. An unskilled director would have made a mess of this movie and Yu largely has a handle on the genres. This being his first film is quite impressive and has me excited for what he does next.

Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyeon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) are a newlywed couple who are expecting their first child. One night, Hyeon-soo starts saying “someone’s inside” in his sleep, alarming Soo-jin. Over time, she gets more paranoid as his sleeping extra-curriculars get weirder and more dangerous. Soo-jin realizes that if this continues, her baby and she could be at risk.

Sleep is split into three chapters and the opening and closing chapters are the best parts of the movie. The film moves along at a brisk pace and features the best control Yu has over the complicated tone of the movie. The middle portion of Sleep slows down the roller-coaster we thought we were on. It feels repetitive, monotonous, and lacks the momentum we start and end the movie with. What doesn’t falter is Yu-mi’s performance.

I’m not sure how to describe this character or role. It feels akin to femme fatale tropes but is far more funnier than any iteration of that archetype. Yung-mi is committed to the bit, which is something you need for this movie. It never veers into camp or over-acting but matches the tone Yu creates. By the end, Soo-jin’s actions will have you horrified and in immense laughter (plus provide a new appreciation for slide shows).

It’s not a perfect movie by conventional standards, but Sleep is a perfect midnight movie to watch with a big group of people. 

Thelma

Have you wondered, what will Tom Cruise do when he gets older? At some point, his body has got to atrophy because of all the stunts he does for our entertainment. Folks, we’ve got the blueprint. In Thelma, 94-year-old June Squibb shows us that age is only a number and, if you want to be in an action thriller at 90+ years old, then gosh darn it you can do it. Thelma Post (Squibb) is a victim of a phishing scheme and loses a large amount of money. Instead of staying at home and watching Jeopardy!, Thelma decides to embark on a nail-biting adventure to confront the thieves and get her money back.

The Cruise anecdote is a purposeful one because Thelma is watching Mission: Impossible – Fallout (aka the best Mission: Impossible movie) and the movie treats her character like Ethan Hunt. It truly does feel like this role was tailor-made for Squibb. I imagine some believe she should retire and does not need to do movies anymore with her illustrious filmography. Just like Thelma, though, Squibb will not go down without a fight. Thelma will make you laugh, get teary-eyed, and make you want to call your grandmother. There are actual set pieces that are executed really well and I appreciate that director Josh Margolin doesn’t treat this as an SNL sketch. There is effort and genuineness in his execution that this premise needs. Even with a brisk runtime of 97 minutes, the screenplay does lack depth, however, and the movie is searching for a smooth road in the second half. I also think Thelma gets a bit too schmaltzy and saccharine by the end and—even though it feels weird to say—this movie could have used a bit more edge.

It’s rare, though, to see a film so dedicated to the longevity of its lead actor. Thelma doesn’t exist without Squibb and her commitment to the movies. I thought Squibb in her 90s peaked with her wearing a t-shirt in Hubie Halloween that says “Boner Donor,” but Thelma announces to the world that only Squibb will decide when she’s done. 

Babes

Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer as Dawn and Eden in BABES. Photo Credit to Gwen Capistran. Photo Courtesy of NEON. Dawn and Eden hurrying to leave a restaurant as Dawn comedically goes into labor.
Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer as Dawn and Eden in BABES. Photo Credit to Gwen Capistran. Photo Courtesy of NEON.

Film Obsessive’s Jay Rohr wrote an excellent review of Babes that can be found here, so I’ll keep my thoughts short and succinct. We’re probably never getting back to the golden era of comedies from the early 2000s to mid-2010s, but there are movies still being made in that ilk. Some of these are a ton of fun, including Babes

Babes is your typical gross-out, joke-a-minute comedy. The twist is that it features two actresses at the center and is all about pregnancy and motherhood. To put it eloquently, this movie is funny as hell. I found myself laughing throughout this comedy and appreciated director Pamela Adlon for leaving no stone unturned. Both Illana Glazer and Michelle Buteau have terrific chemistry as best friends to the point where you have to assume the duo are buddies outside the camera. Glazer has a very specific style of comedy and, for some people, her schtick will fall flat. I, for the most part, was able to vibe with it, though at times I wish the character and her performance veered away from sarcasm and moved towards reality. 

The star here is Buteau who is outstanding. I wasn’t too familiar with her work and her comic timing is phenomenal, but I thought her dramatic chops were quite striking. She portrays the struggle of raising a newborn baby with a commendable amount of specificity and conviction. Both characters can come off as unlikable (and Glazer’s performance isn’t grounded enough to make us root for her), but Buteau’s sincere and mature performance makes her character feel real. Even though Babes tries to establish itself as something you haven’t seen, you have seen something like this. The movie is far too predictable and drags in its second half, simply because you can map out the forthcoming developments with confidence. I wish Babes was more unconventional because that could have elevated this very funny, solid movie to a great one.

In a Violent Nature

Slasher movies haven’t changed since the inception of the genre, but Chris Nash’s In a Violent Nature attempts to bring a new perspective, literally. This gnarly movie changes the POV from the victims to the killer. Throughout this film, we follow the slasher as he traverses the eerie and vast Canadian forests. And, when I say traverse, I mean prod along for long periods. The movie has a runtime of 94 minutes and approximately 35-40 minutes are walking. While I appreciate a new take on the slasher, I found this to be a mixed bag.

Nash’s background is in practical effects and In a Violent Nature (outside its unique POV) is being sold on having the craziest kills featured in a horror flick. Someone made a recording of the audience reacting to one of the kills at the festival screening, which should be enough for potential viewers to see what’s in store. And, let me tell you, the kills in this movie are absolutely insane. Describing the kills would be a spoiler, but even if I did, they are so outlandish that most people wouldn’t believe Nash’s twisted mind could create these horrifying images. When the slasher is doing his thing, In a Violent Nature is tons of fun. The movie—pun intended—comes to life. The effects are so well executed from the blood to the sounds of bones cracking, just everything about them. You’ll want to close your eyes but will also be howling at the preposterous nature of the killing choreography. When I say commitment to the bit, I am talking about this movie. 

It’s everything outside the kills—the walking, the small portions of the plot, anytime a character talks—that falls flat. The killer walking and, more specifically, the camera slowly following him is scary at first, but this gimmick runs its course very early on. I honestly felt bored at points in In a Violent Nature, just waiting for the next kill to happen. This has been described as an “ambient horror movie” and it is, but that doesn’t explain why the last 20 minutes are so dialogue-heavy and baffling from an execution standpoint. The film is more of a proof of concept for two things. One, Chris Nash is an excellent effects guy and more movies would benefit from employing him in their movies. Two, this gimmick of shooting from the POV of the killer can work and would be fascinating in a movie with a stronger screenplay. Instead of these legacyquels, I’d love to see a Friday the 13th or Halloween movie from the POV of their antagonists. 

In a Violent Nature is a missed opportunity, but the kills might just be enough to watch it in a packed house or on Shudder with a bunch of friends. 

I Saw the TV Glow

A neon green truck emits pink smoke at night.
The use of color in I Saw the TV Glow is breathtaking. Photos Courtesy of A24.

My expanded thoughts on the excellent I Saw the TV Glow can be found here, but here is an excerpt that encapsulates my take on the movie:

“I Saw the TV Glow is a genuinely exciting movie. Very few people are making movies that feel so structurally and directionally unique. I really can’t compare it to any other movie and that’s what’s so cool about. Schoenbrun is inspired by many of the directors I mentioned above, but don’t get anything mixed up. There are shades of Lynch, Malick, and Cronenberg, but this is a Jane Schoenbrun movie, through and through. There is no comparison for it and there probably won’t be one until, maybe, Schoenbrun’s third feature. But, I’d bet a lot of money their third movie will be drastically different. Even if it’s a movie adaptation of the shoddy Pink Opaque, I will be seated. Because, if anyone can make that into an important and one-of-a-kind feature, it’s Schoenbrun.”

The Last Stop in Yuma County

(L-R) Sierra McCormick as Sybil and Ryan Masson as Miles in the western/crime/thriller, THE LAST STOP IN YUMA COUNTY, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA. Teenage couple firing a six-shooter in the desert acting like outlaws they've seen in films.
Sierra McCormick as Sybil and Ryan Masson as Miles in the western/crime/thriller, THE LAST STOP IN YUMA COUNTY, a Well Go USA release. Photo courtesy of Well Go USA.

If Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers had a baby, it would be Francis Galluppi’s The Last Stop in Yuma County. Is it as good as the best or very-good Tarantino or Coen movies? No. But, it shows promise for what should be a really exciting career for Galluppi. The logline of the movie is fairly simple: a group of strangers awaits a fuel truck at a diner to show up at a gas station. The catch? Two of the strangers have just robbed a bank. 

I don’t want to reveal more than that because this movie will be best enjoyed going in as blind as possible. There were plenty of twists, some of which had my jaw drop. In Tarantino/Coen Brothers fashion, there’s some great dark comedy and Galluppi creates some memorable characters. Galluppi’s approach can be best described as mean-spirited, which I found refreshing in a movie like this, but felt he was too mean by the time the film ended. Again, I don’t want to say more, and I imagine some people will really dig the cynical execution. The decisions Galluppi makes are really interesting, some work and some don’t. One consequence of his bold actions is the film stumbles to an end and lacks the rhythm the initial two-thirds of the movie had.

The Last Stop in Yuma County was not on my initial schedule for the festival, but I’m so glad I saw it. It’s a blast to watch and I highly recommend this movie to anyone who wants a western with twists you won’t see coming. 

Written by Aqib Rasheed

AQIB RASHEED is a staff writer at Film Obsessive. Member of the Chicago Indie Critics and served as the Resident Film Critic for the Loyola Phoenix from 2021-2022. An admirer of movies, old and new, from all over the world. President of the Al Pacino and David Fincher fan clubs.

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Robb Wells and John Paul Tremblay as Ricky and Julian in Trailer Park Boys (1999). Screen capture off YouTube. Ricky and Julian on a city street.

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