Film & TV

Simon Rex and Olivia Colman Stand Out at the 7th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival

Courtesy of Brigid Presecky | Hilltop Photo Co.The Music Box Theatre hosted the 2021 Chicago Critics Film Festival, which featured a plethora of movie genres.

The Chicago Critics Film Festival returned to the Music Box Theatre after its 2020 postponement. The event showcased a handful of films — ranging from hopeful Oscar contenders to small documentaries and a 40th anniversary screening of Michael Mann’s classic “Thief” — from Nov. 12 to 14. 

Here’s The Phoenix’s recap of two of the biggest movies at the festival.

“Red Rocket”

Director: Sean Baker
Date: December 10, 2021

R | 2 hour 8 minutes

The best feature at the festival and one of the very best films of the year, Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket” is an uproariously hilarious movie that feels personal and serves as a cautionary tale of American narcissism. 

Remember Simon Rex? Viewers may know him as the guy from the “Scary Movie” franchise or other parody movies, such as “Avengers of Justice: Farce Wars,” which doesn’t sound like a real movie. 

Just like with Nicholas Cage and Keanu Reeves, Hollywood may be seeing the beginning of the “Rex-aissance” with his wildly entertaining, nuanced and phenomenal performance in “Red Rocket.” 

After 20 years in Los Angeles, washed-up sex worker Mikey Saber (Rex) returns to his conservative Texas hometown of Texas City, moving back in with his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss). No one wants him there until he meets 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son), an employee at a donut shop who Mikey finds himself falling in love with and his potential ticket back to the sex industry in Los Angeles. 

Baker (“Tangerine,” “The Florida Project”) specifically wanted Rex since the actor had experience in the sex industry earlier in his career. By doing so, the performance feels authentic and sensitive — Rex has been in this position and understands what Mikey is going through. 

Mikey is funny, crass and full of himself. He’s still living in the glory days of his career and makes sure to tell everyone to search “Mikey Saber XXX,” even if he just got rejected from a potential job. 

It seems as if the industry and his hometown have moved off of him, but Mikey doesn’t feel that way — he thinks he’s still at the top of his game. He has an inherently unlikeable personality, but Rex’s captivating performance gets the viewer invested in this egotistical man’s life. 

The central love story between a 40-some Mikey and a teenage Strawberry is icky and Baker doesn’t romanticize this track — he uses it to show how fractured Mikey is and the dangers of grooming in this industry. Son (“Secret Escort”) gives a confident, wise-cracking performance.

Even in these heavier portions, Baker is excellent at dark humor and “Red Rocket” is one of the funniest movies released in a long time. NSYNC’s masterpiece “Bye Bye Bye” starts off the movie and is featured in the movie’s most outrageous and ludacris scene — a terrific musical choice by Baker. 

It’s bold and a tad overlong, but this movie is the perfect blend of art-house auteurism and commercial cinema. This is a movie general audiences and high-brow critics can appreciate — don’t be surprised to hear this movie and Rex’s name come up during awards season. 

It ain’t no lie, “Red Rocket” is the real deal. The R-rated movie releases in theaters Dec. 10. 

“The Lost Daughter”

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Date: December 31, 2021

R | 2 hour 1 minute

Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t have asked for a better year — something her brother, Jake Gyllenhaal can’t say the same about (see: Taylor Swift’s version of “All Too Well.”). An accomplished actress in her own right, Gyllenhaal (“Stranger Than Fiction,” “The Dark Knight”) ventured into writing and directing with “The Lost Daughter,” which opened the film festival. 

While it can’t decide if it’s a psychological thriller or a drama, “The Lost Daughter” is a striking character study with a painstakingly emotional performance from Olivia Colman and, ultimately, a confident directorial debut for Gyllenhaal. 

Based on the book of the same title, Leda Caruso (Colman) is a middle-aged college professor on vacation at a beautiful resort in Southern Italy. A raucous family from Queens attempt to ruin her vacation but Leda finds herself obsessed with two members of the family, Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Elena. 

Seeing Nina and Elena brings back haunting memories for Leda as she reexamines the job she did raising her two daughters, Bianca and Marta. The movie goes between the current period and the past, where a younger Leda (Jessie Buckley) struggles to balance her career and taking care of her daughters. 

Adapting this novel is an ambitious task: it deals with multiple weighty topics,including motherhood, loss, trauma and infidelity. Gyllenhaal’s precise execution prevents the themes from being a jumbled mess. 

The strongest part about the movie is Gyllenhaal’s ability to portray the harsh reality of parenthood as a horror feature-of-sorts. Buckley (“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” “The Courier”) is in top form as a younger Leda, capturing the conflicts of following one’s dreams while remaining faithful to one’s family. 

It’s Colman (“The Lobster,” “The Favourite”), though, who turns in a fantastic performance and serves as the perfect muse for Gyllenhaal. The Academy Award-winning actress never fails to impress, but her work here is brilliant. The viewer feels sympathy and, at times, anger at Leda for her actions — few actresses can elicit such drastic reactions from the audience. 

Johnson (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” “Fifty Shades Freed”) is sneakily effective. She doesn’t have many lines, however, her pain-filled, alluring eyes do all the talking. Nina and Leda have more similarities than differences and the excellent performances from both drive that point home.

Gyllenhaal isn’t able to fully commit to this movie being an all-out drama or all-out psychological thriller. The movie works when it plays as a psychological thriller and it’s a shame the director doesn’t lean more into it. These are issues Gyllenhaal will iron out in future projects. 

Even with its flaws, this movie shows Gyllenhaal isn’t afraid to be bold and sets her up to be an exciting filmmaker in the same vein as Jordan Peele or Olivia Wilde. 

Sorry, Jake, there’s a new Gyllenhaal in town.

“The Lost Daughter,” rated R, releases in select theaters Dec. 17 and on Netflix Dec. 31.

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