Film & TV

Stellar Performances Grace Week Two of the 57th Chicago Film Festival

Aqib Rasheed | The PhoenixThe 2021 Chicago Film Festival concluded Oct. 24 after previewing a diverse mix of upcoming films.

The second week of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival brought stars such as Kenneth Branagh and Rebecca Hall to the event and featured the best performances of the festival. This week also had, arguably, the best and worst movies of the festival.

Here are The Phoenix’s takeaways from the final week of the festival, including insight from actors and filmmakers involved with the movies. 

Kirsty Griffin | Courtesy of Netflix “The Power of the Dog” releases in theaters Nov. 17 before streaming Dec. 1 on Netflix.

‘The Power of the Dog’

After a 12-year hiatus, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion returned to the silver screen with “The Power of the Dog,” a part of the festival’s Masters showcase.

Set in 1920s Montana, the film follows charismatic rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) who finds his world turned upside down when his refined brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a widower, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and becomes a step-father to her son, Peter (Kodi-Smit-McPhee). 

Peter’s flamboyant lifestyle and Rose’s vices trouble Phil, causing him to grapple with his masculinity and experience emotions he’s never felt before. 

“The Power of the Dog” is a complicated watch — the ideas are not explicitly stated and Campion challenges the viewer by employing a lot of subtext. Is the movie about masculinity or is it about intimacy?

No one can say for sure. 

Campion crafts a beautiful and haunting Western, staying with the viewer long after the credits roll. Ari Wegner’s (“Zola,” “Lady Macbeth”) intimate, devastatingly gorgeous cinematography makes it hard for the mind to wander off and Johnny Greenwood’s (“There Will Be Blood,” “Inherent Vice”) fantastic score cements him as one of the key composers of the 21st century. 

It helps that Campion has four terrific leads in this movie.

Plemons (“Game Night,” “Judas and the Black Messiah”) does the most he can with little screen time and Smit-McPhee (“Dark Phoenix,” “Dolemite is My Name”) is a revelation who manages to hold his own in scenes with the three accomplished actors.

Dunst (“Marie Antoinette,” “Melancholia”) improves once Rose starts to unravel — perhaps this is the year the acclaimed actress gets recognition from the Oscars. 

This is Cumberbatch’s (“Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame”) movie from the moment Phil enters the screen. Phil is a complicated character being brutish, misogynistic and humorous all at the same time — Cumberbatch nails each of these qualities making him a frightening presence in a career-best performance. 

Similar to Phil, “The Power of the Dog” doesn’t reveal its hand too easily and sinks into the viewer’s skin. The wait was more than worth it for Campion’s return. 

“The Power of the Dog,” rated R, will be playing in select theaters Nov. 17 and streaming on Netflix Dec. 1.  

Courtesy of Neon and Topic Studios
“Spencer,” a biopic on Princess Diana, releases in theaters Nov. 5.

‘Spencer’

Traditionally, biopics are Oscar-baity puff-pieces masquerading as sensational retellings of people’s lives. Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín challenges that notion with 2016’s excellent “Jackie” and his latest, “Spencer.” 

Even with a limited scope, “Spencer” is a hypotonic and mystifying film, serving both as an homage to Princess Diana and stark criticism of the Royal Family. 

Taking place over a tumultuous three-day Christmas holiday in 1991, the movie is an imagining of what happened at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate at the breaking point of Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ marriage.

By focusing on three days rather than her whole life, Larraín is able to tap into Diana’s psyche and show how much the weighty title of princess negatively affects her mental health. However, the biopic would’ve been stronger had it shown the aftermath of the Christmas holiday.

Just like “Jackie,” the technical elements here are some of the best. The gloomy cinematography captures Diana’s mood and Jacqueline Durran’s (“Little Women,” “1917”) costumes are exquisite and stunning — especially the elaborate, regal and ruffled Disney Princess-like gown.

The best scene in the movie is a montage where Princess Diana dances in various rooms in the palace set to Johnny Greenwood’s (“There Will Be Blood,” “Phantom Thread”) phenomenal, ominous jazz score. Without a single line, Larraín shows Diana is a woman with nothing to lose, like Anne Boleyn. 

Stewart is marvelous — Larraín allows her to be the focal point, giving little to no screen time to any other Royal Family member and she doesn’t disappoint. She perfects Princess Diana’s cadence and her frantic energy, culminating in a devastatingly “Royal” performance. 

Princess Diana never got her happy ending — this is Larraín’s attempt to give her a conclusion she would be content with, passing with flying colors. 

“Spencer,” rated R, will be playing in theaters Nov. 5. 

Aqib Rasheed | The Phoenix
Kenneth Branagh, pictured, wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical “Belfast.”

‘Belfast’

Where “Spencer” is a bold, unconventional biopic, “Belfast” is the exact opposite. Kenneth Branagh’s hokey black-and-white semi-autobiographical dramedy boasts great performances but plays it too safe. 

“Belfast” follows a nine-year-old boy, Buddy (Jude Hill), and his family during The Troubles in 1960s Ireland. As the country enters this dangerous period, Buddy and his family find themselves at an uncertain point, unsure of waiting out this storm in Ireland or moving to another country in the Commonwealth.

“The idea was to have the film be seen through a 9-year-old’s eyes,” Branagh (“Hamlet,” “Murder on the Orient Express) said at a Q&A as part of the festival. 

While this tactic lends to a lighter watch, the movie ends up being pretentious and made to win Best Picture. 

Branagh teases the audience by showing a few riot scenes — only long enough to get the viewer uncomfortable for a few minutes and abruptly move to a disconnected but joyful scene. 

“The contribution of the actors themselves all brought something new to the table,” Branagh said. “And I didn’t feel a necessity to specifically recreate things. I was always looking for the emotional truth.”

In its search for emotional truth, “Belfast” doesn’t know what it wants to be about. Branagh is dealing with multiple topics — political turmoil, kids coming of age, loss, family drama — yet isn’t able to successfully depict any of these themes. 

There are some things to admire, however. The star cast is very charming with Jamie Dornan (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”) and Caitríona Balfe’s (“Outlander,” “Ford v. Ferrari”) Pa and Ma being the best part of the movie. The “Everlasting Love” sequence at the end is one of the best scenes in a 2021 film.

Branagh’s track record as a director isn’t very strong and this one finds itself somewhere near the middle of the pack. “Belfast” isn’t a sharp and acute analysis of a family during a troubling time, but rather, a run-of-the-mill passion-project tailor made for awards season.

“Belfast,” rated PG-13, will play in theaters Nov. 12. 

Chiabella James | Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
“King Richard” will be released in theaters and on streaming Nov. 19.

‘King Richard’

The film festival concluded Oct. 24 at the Music Box Theater with Reinaldo Marcus Green’s overlong, glossy and entertaining “King Richard,” from the Special Presentations showcase. Based on the true story of Richard Williams, father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams, the movie follows his quest to bring his daughters from the streets of Compton to tennis royalty. 

Green’s (“Monsters and Men,” “Joe Bell”) biopic isn’t reinventing the wheel — there are training montages and numerous slow-mo scenes involving a tennis serve — but it’s a true crowd pleaser. The biggest reason why this movie works is due to its casting, starting with mega-star Will Smith (“Men in Black,” “Hitch”). 

As the titular King Richard, Smith gives it his all and turns in one of his best performances. Richard Williams is a complicated public figure and, while the film doesn’t dive too much into his flaws, Smith makes his Richard as layered as possible.

Richard is funny, lovable, frustrating and stubborn. Smith does an excellent job in showing Richard as a man who wanted success for his daughters but also wanted himself to be a part of the story.

Aunjanue Ellis (“Quantico,” “When They See Us”) is effective as the matriarch of the Williams family, Brandi. 

During a Q&A at the festival, she said Green’s “enthusiasm and love…for this story,” as well as the “research he did,” drew her to the project. 

Green’s passion translates well, but the truth is lacking. He chooses to leave out the more uncomfortable parts about the Williams family — the parents splitting or a deep dive into any jealousy between the two sisters. Even with Richard, Green doesn’t want to show all his eccentricities, perhaps in an effort to make him more palatable to audiences. 

Unlike the Williams sisters, the movie doesn’t reach greatest of all time status, but Smith’s exceptional performance carries this biopic and prevents it from being a brutal loss. 

“King Richard,” rated PG-13, will be playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max Nov. 19.

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