Chicago International Film Festival Opens Wednesday on Screens Around Town — Call It a Pandemic Silver Lining

The 57th Chicago International Film Festival recently opened, despite the lingering pandemic. Unlike 2020, the 2021 film festival feels more like the “old normal” rather than the “new normal”. The film festival is the longest-running, competitive film festival in the country, and we’re glad it’s back.

Last year, the festival was restricted to the AMC River East 21 multiplex downtown. That was convenient since festival attendees could easily hop from one film to the next without leaving the building.

But this year, while the AMC River East Complex remains central, other theaters will also screen festival films, including The Music Box, ChiTown Movie drive-in, the Pilsen drive-in, Parkway Ballroom in Bronzeville, and the Gene Siskel Film Center. In all, there are 100 films from around the world.

The festival runs through October 24, 2021, and tickets are available online.

The French Dispatch Opens the Festival

The latest production by filmmaker Wes Anderson stars Bill Murray as the editor-in-chief of a New York-style magazine based in a fictional French city. The name of the fictional city, Ennui Sur Blase, translates as Boredom on Blase. The film also stars Adrien Brody,  Benicio del Toro, Owen Wilson and Frances McDormand. 

Overall, the professional reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes found the film to be delightful, giving it an 81%. The folks at IMDb also liked it, giving the film 7.3 out of 10 stars. 

The Harder They Fall

One of the highlights of the festival for Chicagoans is the Black Western “The Harder They Fall,” starring Idris Elba, Regina King, and Jonathan Majors. Produced by Jay Z, this Netflix film is billed as a revolutionary portrayal of Black people in the Old West. The film marks the directorial debut of Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the script with Israeli-American screenwriter, film director, and producer, Boaz Yakin. Yakin is based in New York City and has been active in the film industry since the mid-1970s.

Filmed in Santa Fe, the bloody tale of revenge purportedly is based on real-life events, revolving around two rival outlaw gangs. Professional reviews on Rotten Tomatoes scored the film with an 81%, while on IMDb, it only scored 5.2 out of 10 stars. Chicagoans can see it now and judge for themselves, but The Harder They Fall debuts on Netflix beginning November 3.

New Team Members at the Chicago International Film Festival

This year, Emily Eddy, Raul Benitez, and Amir George join festival managing director Vivian Teng and the rest of the Chicago International Film Festival team. Amir George grew up on Chicago’s South Side and attended prestigious Columbia College. George also works as a programmer for the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. He was also instrumental in the founding of an experimental touring film program called, Black Radical Imagination.

George’s picks are free to the public and show on the patio of the Parkway Ballroom patio. His selections include the 10-minute short by Amrita Singh, “Winning in America”. The story revolves around a 13-year-old spelling bee champion and her difficult relationship with her father. Part of this touching and perceptive tale is set in Promontory Point in Hyde Park.

Raul Benitez has taken charge of the After Dark programming, featuring horror films. His selections screen both indoors and outdoors. One of Benitez’s picks playing at ChiTown is “Hellbender,” described as a witchy coming-of-age story.

Both George and Benitez appreciate screening their picks outside of downtown, in neighborhoods that don’t often see avant-garde film.

Hellbender, a Film by John Adams and Family

This “witchy coming of age” tale revolves around 16-year-old Izzy, who lives alone in the woods with her mother. Oddly, Izzy plays in a heavy metal band with her mother. The trippy, terrifying tale unfolds as Izzy is overcome by her family’s historic involvement in the dark arts and the supernatural.

Hellbender received a score of 100% from the professional reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.5 out of 10 from real people on IMDb.

Moving into the Future: a Hybrid Festival Model

One holdover from last year is the festival’s hybrid model; many of the films can be seen online, as well as at the theater. Also, theater venues include both indoor and outdoor seating.

Last year, the festival went forward entirely online, as did many other film festivals around the world. Going online also saved Cinema/Chicago, the nonprofit running the festival, around half a million dollars. This year’s hybrid model is expected to save the organization around a quarter of a million dollars.

Moreover, Chicago audiences still fear going indoors to see a movie. Pre-pandemic, festival organizers could predict the days when advanced ticket sales would be heavy. But now, many in the city have adjusted to the new normal, and prefer to watch movies online. But despite that, the festival is more or less back to normal, with in-person screenings.The good news is, many Chicagoans still want the shared experience of the film festival. They want to talk about the films face-to-face with other Chicago art lovers.

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