Chicago International Film Festival Peels Back The Layers Of Glass Onion And 2022 Awards Contenders

The Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) recently unfolded, offering the Second City a sneak peek at an assortment of film festival premieres and early screenings of awards contenders that made waves at festivals such as the Venice International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival. Since I'm situated in the Midwest, far away from the plentiful "For Your Consideration" screenings in New York and Los Angeles, CIFF offers yours truly a chance to get a jumpstart on some of the most acclaimed titles that will be vying for Academy Awards next year. This year offered plenty of stellar cinema to sink my teeth into.

The crown jewel of the special presentations at CIFF this year was undoubtedly "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery," Rian Johnson's murder mystery sequel with an all-star cast. The film may not be up for many awards (though "Knives Out" was nominated for Best Original Screenplay), but it was easily the most entertaining and satisfying offering. However, the likes of Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale," Park Chan-wook's "Decision to Leave," Sam Mendes' "Empire of Light," and J.D. Dillard's "Devotion" provided a glimpse at some of the movies that you'll likely see collecting trophies throughout awards season.

Glass Onion is packed with layers of mystery and laughs

"Knives Out" is the kind of original movie that was so fantastic that crafting a sequel that could reach the same high bar was more than a tall order. From the writing to the performances from the phenomenal ensemble cast and everything in between, Rian Johnson crafted one of the most compelling murder mysteries that the genre has ever seen."Knives Out" was a triumph in every sense of the word. That's why I'm shocked and extremely pleased to confirm that, just as our own Chris Evangelista discovered at TIFF, "Glass Onion" is bigger, better, and just plain funnier than its predecessor.

Daniel Craig is somehow even better as the Kentucky fried Benoit Blanc, as the detective finds himself invited to the private island of Miles Bron (Edward Norton), the Mark Zuckerberg-inspired billionaire who has brought together his closest, longtime friends for a murder mystery birthday party. The guests include an outstanding assembly of actors with Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr, Janelle Monáe, Madelyn Cline, and Jessica Henwick. But someone at the party is about to die, and the mystery that unfolds will keep you guessing right up until the very end. 

With a more fast-paced murder mystery, "Glass Onion" is full of lively energy, much of it coming from a script that is significantly funnier than the first film. The sequel is easily more of a comedy than "Knives Out," but it doesn't sacrifice the captivating mystery or the drama that brings about the murder. It merely raises the bar in all the best ways, making for a follow-up that stands on its own rather than trying to recreate the success of the original. Oh, and there are plenty of surprising cameos, alongside a pair of hilarious celebrity references, that make "Glass Onion" an even more satisfying treat.

"Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery" hits theaters for just one week starting on November 23, 2022, and it arrives on Netflix a month later on December 23.

Decision to Leave offers a darkly funny but passionate romantic mystery

When you have a job that requires you to keep up with all the latest movies, it can be hard to go into a theater without knowing a lot about the movie before you've seen it. But every now and then, I'm fortunate enough to remain in the dark and let a film pour over me as something entirely new. Thankfully, this was the case with the latest film from Park Chan-wook, which resulted in a fulfilling cinematic experience not unlike the one I was lucky enough to have with "Parasite," from fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho.

"Decision to Leave" is a mesmerizing mix of genres, as the story follows a murder mystery and twisted romance that unfurls between a skilled detective (Park Hae-il) and a widowed woman (Tang-Wei) who is investigated as a suspect in her husband's death. But as the detective digs into the life and habits of this mysterious woman, he becomes dangerously infatuated, sending both of their lives on a risky trajectory fueled by sizzling romance. 

Hollywood doesn't make movies like this. The way "Decision to Leave" weaves through mystery, dark comedy, and pure passion is masterful and unique. Even the cinematography capturing a simple police interrogation provides a shifting focus that makes you hang on every single word uttered between our two main characters. It also helps that Park Hae-il and Tang-Wei have a palpable tension between them, ranging from romantic to suspenseful, and their performances are endlessly enticing. If you're not already trusting in filmmaker Park Chan-wook, this would be a great place to start. 

"Decision to Leave" is in limited theaters now.

Brendan Fraser is unbelievable in The Whale

Believe the hype. Brendan Fraser is kicking off what will hopefully be a massive comeback with a stirring, remarkable performance in "The Whale," the first film from Darren Aronofsky since "mother!" in 2017. Fraser plays Charlie, a reclusive, tremendously obese English teacher whose health has deteriorated so drastically that he's on the verge of death. In his final days, Charlie tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink), who he left behind with her mother (Samantha Morton). That might sound like a standard film festival formula for a drama that is intended to vie for major film awards. But the involvement of Darren Aronofsky turns it into something more, for better and worse.

Based on the stage play by Samuel D. Hunter, there are some darker dramatic threads dealing with sexuality, temptation, and addiction. But there's also a religious aspect that comes into play, something that Aronofsky has frequently played with in films like "The Fountain," "mother!" and especially "Noah." It's this part of the film that detracts from what is otherwise a rich character portrait. Fraser is able to deliver a career-best performance, which is even more impressive through the incredibly realistic make-up and prosthetics that turn him into a 600-pound, severely incapacitated man. Not a smirk or a wrinkle is lost in Fraser's full face. In fact, almost everyone's performances, including Hong Chau as Charlie's only friend Liz, are award-worthy. It's just a shame that the film surrounding them doesn't measure up to the caliber of the actors in it.

"The Whale" arrives in theaters starting on December 9, 2022.

Empire of Light loves cinema unconditionally

It goes without saying that directors have a passion for cinema. But it's not often that filmmakers are able to illustrate that love in such a direct fashion as offered by "Empire of Light," the latest film from "1917" and "Skyfall" director Sam Mendes

"Empire of Light" focuses on two characters in the seaside town of Margate on the north coast of Kent in southeast England. Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a melancholy theater manager in a beautiful, old cinema house, where she often stares off into the distance as the young employees around her carry on. But she gets a pep in her step when she meets Stephen (Michael Ward), a young new employee with a passion for the cinema, and the two strike up an unlikely relationship. 

Normally, a movie like "Empire of Light" would feel complete focusing only on this relationship. But it feels like there are three different movies fighting for the spotlight. Hilary's sadness comes to the forefront in tragic ways, providing a somber story of depression. Meanwhile, Stephen is struggling with the blatant racism of the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Aside from the relationship between them, the two personal journeys these characters are on never truly feel like they mesh together. Their connection to the cinema that sparked their relationship only feels tangential, but it offers some of the most beautiful moments in the movie, courtesy of projectionist Norman (Toby Jones). 

The result of a movie that feels uneven at times, and never quite finds firm footing. But at the very least, the performances from Olivia Colman and Stephen Ward are magnificent. Even if the movie doesn't feel like an entirely cohesive narrative, there's plenty of charm and emotion to be found. But perhaps the biggest star is the positively stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins. Having such an accomplished director of photography perfectly captures the enchanting Empire movie house at the center of this story makes for an extraordinary meta-meditation of the beauty of cinema.

"Empire of Light" hits theaters starting on December 9, 2022.

Causeway is an impressive, understated return for Jennifer Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence isn't exactly on a comeback trail, but the Oscar-winning actress did take a brief step out of the spotlight while being pregnant. This year, she's back with what could be another award-worthy performance in "Causeway." But the film from director Lila Neugebauer doesn't find Lawrence delivering the kind of big, showy performance that often gets attention during awards season. Instead, Lawrence is playing Lynsey, a soldier who suffers a traumatic brain injury while deployed in Afghanistan and struggles to adjust to life back home in New Orleans, where she doesn't have the fondest memories. It's not the most cinematic drama, opting for a more naturalistic presentation, but it's the characters and the lead performances that demand attention.

While "Causeway" could have easily been an indie that premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival and dug into many of the tropes and cliches often found in festival films, it avoids much of the melodrama that comes with stories like this. Even the opening scenes where Lynsey engages in physical therapy and can't maneuver without assistance don't result in some teary emotional breakdown. When Lynsey returns home, she strikes up a friendship with a mechanic (Brian Tyree Henry) with a tragedy of his own. Thankfully, this doesn't set up an unlikely romance between these two. Meanwhile, Lynsey is desperate to avoid getting comfortable, hoping to be enlisted again as soon as possible. Joining the military was her escape. But she wasn't escaping a drunk mother, and even her imprisoned, drug-addicted brother doesn't play out in some huge, dramatic fashion. "Causeway" overall is an understated drama, and the quiet, contemplative performances by Lawrence and Henry are what make it resonate. 

"Causeway" will hit select theaters and Apple TV+ starting on November 4, 2022.

The Lost King is a charming, quirky, and unconventional mystery

Don't let the poster for "The Lost King" fool you. This is not a romantic comedy where Sally Hawkins falls for a time-traveling king after separating from her husband (Steve Coogan). But the film, based on a true story, does have a quirky charm to it, though it doesn't always work in its favor. 

"The Lost King" follows Hawkins as Philippa Langley, a quiet middle-aged Scottish woman who finds her everyday life, especially the perception of those around her, impacted by myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). This condition has her co-workers looking down on her as if she's simply lazy when in reality, she experiences debilitating fatigue. It's this treatment that leads her to sympathize with the much-maligned King Richard III, the historical figure who was regarded as a usurper and looked down upon because of a hunchback caused by scoliosis. As she digs more into Richard III's past, thanks to an eccentric group of revisionist historians, she comes to believe that the figure has been unfairly treated by history books, and she sets out to prove them all wrong.

The film follows in the footsteps of director Stephen Frears' previous efforts "Philomena" and "Florence Foster Jenkins" by painting portraits of seemingly ordinary people who actually have rather extraordinary stories to tell. In this case, Hawkins gains newfound confidence and poise as she gains the courage to hold her ground while standing up for the monarch who can no longer defend himself. However, I will say there's a part of this film that makes it all feel a bit peculiar. Philippa's driving force comes from seeing visions of Richard III (Harry Lloyd), as recently portrayed in a stage production that inspired her crusade. It serves as more of an inner monologue, but interactions play out between her and the king as if he were really there. It takes some getting used to, but it feels a bit silly at first. The result is a movie that ultimately feels uplifting, even if it's a bit of a strange presentation.

"The Lost King" does not yet have a release date in the United States, but it's playing in the United Kingdom now.

Jonathan Majors and Glen Powell make Devotion soar

With "Top Gun: Maverick" soaring to the top of the box office and right into the hearts of moviegoers around the world, you might be hesitant to tap into another fighter pilot drama so quickly. Thankfully, "Devotion" offers more than just dramatic aerial fight sequences, though there's plenty of high-flying, adrenaline-fueled action in this Korean War drama. However, the driving force of the film is the true story of Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), the first African-American aviator to complete the U.S. Navy's basic flight training program, an impressive achievement for the best of pilots. 

In "Devotion," Majors offers up an understated performance as a man who constantly stares racism in the face throughout 1950, not just from the world around him but even from some of his fellow troops. But it's the manner with which Brown handled the vitriol that allows Majors to deliver a resonating performance. Alongside him is Glen Powell (of "Top Gun: Maverick) as Brown's wingman Tom, a new guy on the scene who has to win everyone over, including Brown himself. It's truly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Though the racial drama and suspense from war offer a fairly paint-by-numbers approach from director J.D. Dillard, a fantastic score and the performances of Majors and Powell make the movie soar higher than it otherwise might. The dynamic between Majors and Powell is one of the greatest assets of "Devotion," as the two slowly build a kinship, though it's not without some hiccups and misunderstandings. However, I would have preferred a better assembly of supporting stars who play the other pilots surrounding them. Thomas Sadoski especially feels miscast as the squad's leader. It also would have been nice if the film's cinematography didn't feel so dark and gloomy. Perhaps it was intended to be a more naturalistic approach, but it doesn't make for engaging visuals. Regardless, I still found myself engrossed in this drama, and it's a solid film.

"Devotion" arrives in theaters on November 23, 2022.

Cate Blanchett is exquisite in Tár

Finally, the Chicago International Film Festival allowed me to partake in a favorite from the Venice Film Festival. Though not an official selection at CIFF, "Tár" expanded into Chicago early in its theatrical run, and I couldn't help but get absorbed in Todd Field's astounding movie.

"Tár" focuses on the incomparable Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár, regarded as one of the greatest living composers/conductors and first female chief conductor of the famed Berlin Philharmonic. The film begins with a simple but pivotal interview in front of hundreds where Tár eloquently illustrates why she's held in such high esteem. Picture it like the "Inside the Actors Studio" for composers. This extensive opening dialogue serves as a perfect set-up for what will eventually become a tragic downfall after Tár's past transgressions and lack of respect for anyone around her, even her lover, results in a chaotic downward spiral that she doesn't even see coming. 

Cate Blanchett delivers a career-best performance as this woman who goes from being incredibly self-assured to losing everything she holds dear. Tár's fall from grace unfolds in a way that feels like a horror movie, with an ominous air always lingering, especially when it comes to how classical compositions are used throughout the film. It serves as both a satisfying comeuppance for those who look down upon everyone surrounding them after finding great success and a cautionary tale for anyone who seeks to make a name for themselves at the expense of others. Simply put, "Tár" is a masterpiece. 

"Tár" is playing in limited theaters now.