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The 40th Annual Chicago International Film Festival

by Collin Souter

The organizers of the 40th Annual Chicago International Film Festival went all out in celebrating their efforts to bring the best of world cinema to Chi-town. For the past 40 years, festival founder Michael Kutza has put a lot of love and care into this yearly event and this year he and his fellow organizers have pulled out all stops. Opening with Bill Condon’s “Kinsey”—a bio-pic about controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey—and closing with the premier of the G-rated “The Polar Express” (with Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks in attendance), the Fest filled the 2 weeks with everything from a yakuza classic to documentaries about the Middle East; from the latest by Jean-Luc Godard to a big-screen presentation of Fox TV’s “Arrested Development”; from a look back at Paul Morrisey’s “Trash” to the latest from Project: Greenlight’s Pete Jones.

Where does one begin? We’ll make it easy.
The Beginning, of course!
After the opening night, the Fest honored Annette Bening with a Career Achievement Award in conjunction with a screening of her latest film, Being Julia. The star power doubled the following night when Christopher Walken attended a screening of his latest film, the family drama Around the Bend. The following week, the Fest honored a homecoming event, dubbing it “Black Perspectives Homecoming Celebration,” in which three Chicago natives—Irma P. Hall, Harry J. Lennix and Robert Townsend—showed up for a two hour celebration of their work on the big screen.

The Fest showcased a total of 165 films (including shorts), up from 139 last year. Aside from Special Presentations of films soon to be released in theaters, the Fest also showcased a variety of films from years’ past as part of its Flashback Series. Among the selections: Father (Hungary), Sheer Madness (Germany), Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (France) and Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, introduced by Roger Ebert. The Fest also honored works in television, via the Hugo Awards, by holding free screenings of episodes of Showtime’s “Huff,” “House” and Fox’s “Arrested Development.”

While the Fest offered an abundance of films to watch, it also took care of those who wanted to learn more about the craft, the business or the politics of filmmaking. This year held three panels where experts from the biz offered their (bleak) outlook on Specialty Films: Finding A Home in the U.S., Making It In the Midwest: Being An Independent Filmmaker In Illinois (which I attended) and Critical Mass: Globalization and Film Criticism Today. For those who want to get a more hands-on lesson in filmmaking, the Fest offered a 30-minute training class in Final Cut Pro HD, Motion and DVD Studio Pro 3. The Fest also continued their Education Program, which allows Chicago students to view selected films they would not normally see in regular theaters and to meet the filmmakers.

Who could possibly take all this in? Not me, that’s for sure, but I did my best to squeeze in as much visual noise as I possibly could. Here’s a re-cap, followed by links to full-length reviews.

RETROSPECTIVES:

(STAR RATING **** - *)

Battles Without Honor and Humanity
Part of the Fest’s Special Presentation line-up, this Japanese yakuza crime epic from 1973 has just been released on DVD for the first time. I’m not a fan of it. It throws too many characters at us all at once and fails to distinguish them or make us care about them. But the style! Any die-hard fan of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series owes it to themselves to see one of the movies that inspired him. Its blood-splattering, innovatively edited action sequences in all their widescreen, Sergio Leone-esque glory should have fans of the genre truly excited. (**1/2)

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction I’ve never seen the original, so this is a whole new movie for me. Samuel Fuller’s war epic has been lengthened from its original 113-minute version to a 158-minute version. Film critic Richard Schickel supervised this “Reconstruction” using Fuller’s original script and production notes. Fuller considered this movie—an account of his experiences in WWII combat—to be his magnum opus, but was sadly denied the chance to release the version he wanted. The movie itself has little in the way of story arc, but as a war movie it’s essential viewing even with an awkward Mark Hamill performance at its center. Like Catch-22, it’s a surreal, maddening and darkly funny account of the madness of war. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum hosted the screening with Richard Shickel in attendance for Q&A. (***1/2)

Grey Gardens/Meet Marlon Brando Part of the Fest’s Flashback Series, the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens originally premiered here in Chicago back in 1976. This hypnotic, tragic film features Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy. The two live in a decrepit old mansion that has officially been declared a health hazard. It’s an uncomfortable movie to watch and has many detractors who claim it’s too exploitative to be taken seriously. I disagree if for no other reason that the two seem truly happy to be together even when they hate one another.

The second feature, the little-seen Meet Marlon Brando features the actor in rare form at a press junket willing to talk about anything except the movie he must promote. Reporters file into the hotel suite one after another asking Brando to talk about his new film. Brando instead takes the interviewers on other conversational paths, insisting that they do not believe “the propaganda” that his new film is great. Both films introduce you to characters too big for fiction. Albert Maysles showed up for this presentation for a Q&A after the screening. (****)


IN OUR NATIVE LANGUAGE

Boricua
Though director Marisol Torres at first falls into the trappings of “indie filmmaking school” by utilizing the oft-used shtick of freeze-framing on a character and naming them in the opening sequence, the rest of the movie feels more fresh and worthy of notice. It follows four stories of Puerto Ricans in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area. One character gets a job as a real estate broker and must cheat his own people; another character, a female college student, must deal with a misogynist who keeps coming onto her; another story deals with a beauty queen who lies about her heritage. The stories culminate almost as you’d expect them to, but the movie has such a vibrant tone and colorful look that one can’t help but follow these characters. (***)

Dear Frankie Supposedly, Miramax pushed the release of this film from this fall/winter 2004 to March of 2005. I guess they just didn’t sense any Oscar potential for a small family drama from Scotland starring Emily Mortimer. She plays Lizzie, the mother of nine-year-old Frankie, a deaf boy with an estranged father whom he hopes to see again. Frankie has been getting letters from his father saying he’ll return soon. After Franckie makes a bet with a kid at school that his father will be coming back, Lizzie, who can’t bear to tell Franckie his father will never be back, fears she may have to find a man to play Franckie’s father for a weekend and then disappear. Once you get past the movie’s pedestrian storyline, it turns out to be a wonderfully sweet movie that does not pander with an ending you would expect. It’s much better than it sounds. (***)

Poster Boy I couldn’t help but get sucked into this low-key little soap opera about a gay college student (Matt Newton) and his ultra-conservative politician father running for office. The story gets told through flashbacks as Henry explains his actions as to why he did what he did to his father (I won’t give away the end). Henry has been trying to keep his homosexuality away from his father (Michael Lerner) and sympathetic mother (Karen Allen). Will the truth come out? If so, when? And what’s with these two other college students who want to try and “out” him? This movie fits in with the fest’s many other gay-themed selections (Brother To Brother, Outing Riley and Bear Cub, among others) and boasts good performances from its young cast, as well as Lerner and Allen, but would you honestly believe these two could conceive a kid who grows up to look like Craig Sheffer? (***)

The Woodsman A quiet, powerful character study about a convicted child molester (Kevin Bacon) who wants to start his life over again after being released from prison. He gets a job in a lumber yard, meets a girl (Kyra Sedgwick) who wants to know more about him and inevitably deals with his past catching up to him. Bacon gives one of his best performances in a delicate role that could have been played in that over-the-top way that Hollywood actors try in order to garner some Oscar attention. Bacon keeps it natural and understated. The tense final scene had the audience gasping, but the movie does not aim to shock. It’s a sad, but hopeful, movie about starting over that only stumbles when Bacon’s character watches from his apartment window another potential child molester make his moves on the elementary school kids. The play-by-play voiceover bit just doesn’t work. The rest of the movie does. (***)

The Wooden Camera This movie keeps with the Festival’s theme of celebrating independent filmmaking (The Souvenirs of Mr. X, Quiet As A Mouse) and youths with cameras (Born Into Brothels). In this English-speaking movie from Africa, two boys in the slums of Cape Town stumble upon a dead body and find two things: A gun and a video camera. One boy takes the gun and inevitably becomes a gangsta. The other boy takes the camera and inevitably falls in love with abstract filmmaking. Like Born Into Brothels, this movie makes its point about how the arts can save our children. Unfortunately, this movie opts for overwrought drama that feels contrived and forced. The young actors are very good, but the movie has an overall feel of an ABC After School Special. (**1/2)


DOCUMENTARIES

10th District Court
Raymond Depardon’s simple, absorbing documentary bares similarities to Yoav Shamir’s Checkoint (also playing at the Festival) in that the filmmaker has been given special, unprecedented access to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of a bureaucratic operation. In this case, we eavesdrop on several cases in a Parisian courtroom presided by a no-nonsense judge who has seen it all and heard it all. Before her stand people who have been caught stealing, driving drunk and carrying concealed weapons. The sadistic pleasure comes when watching these people try to talk their way out of being severely sentenced for their crimes. Like spending an entire day in a courtroom, the movie can be repetitive, but nonetheless fascinating. (***)

The Nomi Song
I’m happy to say that I knew nothing about Klaus Nomi walking into this film. A cult figure of the late ‘70s and a victim of AIDS in the ‘80s, New York-based Nomi had such a powerful, androgynous stage presence that his audience went wild even before he sang a single note. When he did, his high-pitched, eerie, operatic vocal stylings made Tiny Tim sound like Andrew Clarke Duncan. Appropriately enough, Andrew Horn bookends his documentary with footage from a ‘50s sci-fi movie in which an alien crashes onto planet earth. Unfortunately, very little exists in the way of intimate footage of Nomi, which makes this a frustrating experience by default. Still, if you want to expand your encyclopedic knowledge of popular music, this will probably be the best documentary representation of this man’s work. Many of his bandmates and admirers have a lot to say about him, but I wanted to know more. (**1/2)

The Souvenirs of Mr. X
Again, the Festival celebrates the idea of the average person on the street picking up a camera and becoming a filmmaker. This Austrian documentary has too many centers, but starts with documentary filmmaker Arash T. Riahi buying a box of old 16mm films and trying to find the people who made them. He comes across a group of underground independent filmmakers who are now much older, but still find pleasure in making their own little movies. One man has just had a stroke and decides to make a movie about it in hopes of finally winning a major filmmaking award he has been trying to win for years. The “Mr. X” in the title refers to a mysterious filmmaker behind one of the films in the box, but no one in the group knows who the filmmaker might be. The movie has many wonderful moments, but it’s hard to see where Riahi’s focus lies. It feels all over the place. Still, it’s encouraging and inspiring to see this group talk so enthusiastically about the freedom of making their own movies and the care they take in making them as good as they can. (**1/2)


NOT IN OUR NATIVE LANGUAGE

Adam and Eve (Still)
(Mexico) Adam and Eve did not die. They still live amongst us and they could not possibly be more bored. The only thrill they get from living in our culture (or, more precisely, Mexico City), comes from kinky sex with strangers. They spend their evenings prowling the streets for one night stands, but come back to each other at some point during the day. Iván Avila Dueñas’ uses dialogue sparingly in this slow-paced, kinky movie about how sex has become the one thrill still worth seeking in an age where shock value has become a rare commodity, but just when you think Adam and Eve have done it all, a major taboo gets added to the list. It’s an uncomfortable movie and not an easy one to like, but its depiction of Adam and Eve wandering aimlessly, stoically through our streets makes perfect sense. (***)

Buena Vida (The Delivery)
(Argentina) This film depicts the country in its current impoverished state, of which some Westerners might not be aware. The story centers on Hernan, a courier who lives alone in his family’s house. He meets a girl named Pato at a gas station. Looking for a room to rent, Pato ends up moving in with Hernan and the two begin a close friendship that eventually turns to love. The ever-charitable Hernan gets put to the test when Pato’s family—also on hard times thanks to the economy—moves into Hernan’s house for what they promise will be “a short while.” This wonderfully entertaining gem seems like perfect bait for a Hollywood re-make or outright thievery, but an American version would likely fail to put the characters’ plight into context. The economy has driven these people to desperate measures and they will suffer any humility just to have a roof over their heads. The movie strays from a conventional crowd-pleasing ending and settles for something more hopeful, ambiguous and real. (***1/2)

McDull: Prince de la Bun
(Hong Kong) After suffering through and being traumatized by the German import Journey Into Bliss, I felt understandably skittish about taking on another adventure in surrealist fantasy. This visually wonderful and minimalist animated film from Hong Kong at first plays like a feature length Mr. Sparkle commercial, but therein lies some of its charm. Unlike many anime imports, “McDull” manages to engage with its weirdness instead of casting viewers adrift (as I just did with that obscure Simpsons reference). It tells the story of McDull, a piglet who wants his mom to read Harry Potter books to him when he goes to sleep at night. Instead, she spins tales of a fictional character named Prince de la Bun and how he went from being a man of royalty to an ordinary person. This “Prince” also happens to be McDull’s father and his best friend happens to be a pizza. Viewers who don’t bother anymore with the complexities and esoteric nature of anime might want to make an exception for this film (especially since it technically doesn’t fall into the anime category, but you know what I mean). It’s part of a series of “McDull” films, of which I know nothing about. (***)

Shouf! Shouf! Habbibi!
(Netherlands) Maybe it’s because I had just sat through a few of the most depressing movies of the fest that this one just seemed like a breath of fresh air. A movie about a dysfunctional family of Moroccans living in Holland, Albert Ter Heerdt’s “Shouf!” comes onto the screen with an unexpected burst of energy. The movie follows Abdullah, the middle son of this family (he’s in his early twenties). He cannot decide if he wants move to Hollywood to get a job playing a terrorist in a movie about 9/11 or get a standard office job. The only thing he does know: He does not want to get involved in a bank robbery with his friends. Meanwhile, his sister has been involved in a relationship with a Dutch man, much to the dismay of her father. I laughed quite a bit at this movie, a lot more than I expected to. It has a familiar feel to it, almost too American, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the movie got picked up to play in the States and became a modest hit. (***1/2)

The Spectator
(Italy) From Paolo Franchi comes a movie about a woman named Valerie who spies on a man named Massimo from her apartment window and becomes so obsessed with him, she follows him to Rome and immerses herself in his life. She becomes the aid to his lover, Flavia, and assists her in writing her book. Nobody knows the real reason why Valerie has suddenly showed up in their lives and we wonder if she will tell them. The film moves at a tediously slow pace. Valerie’s obsession remains a mystery since Massimo seems like such a flavorless catch. The movie also ends repeatedly when it should have just faded out on a wordless scene in a café where a lot could have been said without saying anything. Instead, The Spectator meanders aimlessly for another fifteen minutes leaving little impression except that the actors did the best they could with the material. (**)

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
(Greece) A festival favorite and one of the Special Presentations, this marks the first in a planned trilogy by Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos that will span the 20th century and end in present day. This film follows forbidden lovers Eleni and Alexis as they flee their hometown and set up a new life for themselves. The events of WWI and II serve as the backdrop as this couple migrates from town to town hoping never to be found by Eleni’s father. An opportunity to serve in the military overseas puts their love to the test. Angelopoulos tells this story in single-take shots that move slowly through the scenery, but in a hypnotic, mesmerizing way. While creating some of the most beautiful images I’ve seen on screen in a long time, he does so while keeping us in suspense and moving us to tears. Unfortunately, with its bleak ending, it remains to be seen if this movie will work better once the trilogy has been completed. As it stands, it’s a beautiful piece about true love transcending poverty and despair, but I’m still curious where all of it is headed. (***1/2)

Turtles Can Fly
(Iraq/Iran) Winner of the festival’s Special Jury Silver Hugo Award, this film takes place in Iraq days before the American invasion. It centers on a sector of camps where people have little to no communication with the outside world, but want to know when the Americans will be coming. The most pro-active person in these camps, a young, energetic boy named Kak—a.k.a. Satellite—helps these villagers by setting up TV antennas so they can watch CNN. Meanwhile, Satellite falls for a young girl in another village who has a baby to look after and an armless older brother who can predict the future. Soran Ebrahim, the kid who plays Satellite, has that same boundless energy that evokes Eamonn Owens in The Butcher Boy, minus the sadistic nature, of course. The movie does not preach for or against the American invasion, but treats it like a pending natural disaster. The cast does a phenomenal job with Bahman Ghobadi’s material, which borders on absurd, but never less than compelling. (***1/2)

Whisky
(Uruguay, Argentina and Germany) Directed by Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, Whisky tells a simple story of two co-workers, Jacobo and Marta, who have been working together for years in a sock factory. When Jacobo’s estranged brother Herman, who also owns a sock factory, pays a visit, Marta agrees to play the part of Jacobo’s wife for the weekend so he won’t feel inferior to his successful brother. The movie takes a low-key approach to virtually everything. It aspires to be a quiet, character driven exorcise in subtlety, a la The Station Agent. As such, it works, but I for one felt alienated and did not feel engaged by it. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a remake over here in the States that looks a lot prettier and feels more contrived. (**1/2)

Other Reviews from the Fest, courtesy of Yours Truly and Erik Childress:

Around the Bend
Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge
Bereft
Born Into Brothels
Checkpoint
Imaginary Heroes
Journey Into Bliss
Ma Mére
Mooladé
Nathalie...
Outing Riley
Pleasure Is All Mine
Quiet As A Mouse
P.S.
Rule no. 1
Schizo
Sideways
Undertow
Up Against Them All



link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1221
originally posted: 10/28/04 14:21:03
last updated: 12/04/04 09:20:12
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