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A Brief and Not-Entirely-Complete Guide to the 41st Chicago International Film Festival
by Peter Sobczynski

Each day for the next two weeks (barring laziness or ill-advised joyriding with Linday Lohan), this column will be listing some of the daily highlights screening at the Chicago International Film Festival. This is not a complete guide by any means–I have neither the time nor energy to pull that off (especially with all the Ryan Reynolds films in need of reviewing)–but these are some of the more intriguing titles, along with a few to avoid as well. Be sure to check each day as more titles are added.

Unless noted, the films and events will be taking place at the Landmark Century Centre (2828 N. Clark) or the River East 21 (322 E. Illinois). For a complete and updated schedule of the films and events or to order tickets, you can contact the festival by visiting their offices at 30 E. Adams, suite 800, calling at (312)332-3456 or by going online to


SHOPGIRL (River East, 6:30 PM): Based on the novella by Steve Martin (who also wrote the screenplay), this low-key film chronicles the vague romantic triangle that develops between an emotionally reticent millionaire (Martin), an overly emotional goofball (Jason Schwartzman) and Mirabelle (Claire Danes), the Saks glove salesperson that they both are attracted to. Not a bad movie–the three leads are all very good–but the tone of Anand Tucker’s direction is so tastefully restrained that it tends to suck the life out of the proceedings (this could well be the most Canadian film ever made in America) and when he does try to juice things up–as in an extended sequence when a gold-digger (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) sets her sights on Martin and inadvertenly winds up with Schwartzman–the results are more jarring than amusing. Danes and Schwartzman are tentatively scheduled to introduce the screening.

PROTOCOLS OF ZION (Landmark, 7:00 PM): See 10/10.

WELL-TEMPERED CORPSES (Landmark, 8:30 PM): Set in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, this is an oddball black comedy that starts of with a pair of bored coroners making a wager about how many corpses will arrive that evening. Of course, they are swamped and each stiff carries with it an weird story and a gallery of even-weirder friends and family who arrive to claim them.

HAVOC (River East, 9:15 PM): See 10/8

TRANSAMERICA (River East, 9:15 PM): See 10/10.

[i[(Apologies for pulling a Poland yesterday.)

MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (River East, 6:45 PM): See 10/7

PROTOCOLS OF ZION (Landmark, 6:45 PM)
: Many anti-Semitic groups cite “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a throughly refuted century-old text that supposedly details the plan devised by the Jews to take over the world, as a rationale for their beliefs. In the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent rise in anti-Semitic thought (especially in the long-standing rumor that no Jewish people died in the World Trade Center because they were all warned of the attack and stayed home), filmmaker Marc Levin decided to explore why this particular conspiracy theory has held on for so long by discussing its meaning with a variety of people ranging from rabbis to skinheads. Some may be disappointed by its rough-hewn style–Levin prefers confrontation to scholarly analysis–but the end result is a provocative and challenging look at a controversial topic that has more on its mind than simply preaching to the converted.

JOHANNA (River East, 8:45 PM): See 10/7.

FREE ZONE (Landmark, 9:00 PM): See 10/8

TRANSAMERICA (River East, 9:00 PM): A strong central performance from Felicity Huffman is largely wasted in this astonishingly klutzy drama about a transsexual who, on the eve of the final operation that will make her a woman once and for all, discovers the junkie male prostitute son that she never knew that she had. They set off on a cross-country road trip that is complicated by Bree’s refusal to tell the truth about who s/he really is. Dramatically inert and sloppily filmed, this is basically a cable movie blown up for the big screen and, despite the novelty of the main character, winds up being the same tale of people coming to terms with things that you have seen a million times before.


FREE ZONE (Landmark, 6:30 PM): Although this Israeli feature has made the festival rounds over the last few months (including a stop at Cannes, where Hannah Laszlo picked up the Best Actress prize), it unlikely that anyone would have given it the time of day if it didn’t have Natalie Portman as one of its stars. In Amos Gitai unbelievably draggy work (which clocks in at under 90 minutes and feels twice as long), Portman plays a college student in Jerusalem who breaks up with her fiancee and hops into a cab driven by Laszlo. The two go on a journey to the Free Zone in Jordan so that the driver can collect money owed to her. Along the way, they pick up a third woman, the three all come to terms with each other and the audience begins to slowly make their way for the exits.

HOW TO EAT WATERMELON IN WHITE COMPANY (AND ENJOY IT) (River East, 7:00 PM): Fans of last year’s “Baadasss,” Mario Van Peebles’s hilarious and fascinating look at his father, Melvin, and his struggles to get his landmark blaxsploitation film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song” produced and released, will doubtlessly be interested in this full-length documentary on the man and his long and decidedly intriguing career that also includes testimonials from the likes of Spike Lee and others motivated by his works to strike out on their own.

THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (Landmark, 7:00 PM): As the marriage of a pair of upper-middle-class New Yorkers–a once-promising writer whose world now revolves around rejection slips and nubile college students (Jeff Daniels) and a long-suffering wife whose own writing career is suddenly taking off (Laura Linney)–enters its final acrimonious stages, their two sons react to the trauma in troubling ways–the older (Jesse Eisenberg) begins to ape his father (including lusting after the same girl, played by Anna Paquin) and later resorts to plagiarism while the younger (Owen Kline) begins to leave his own unsavory mark wherever he goes. This semi-autobiographical work from Noah Baumbach (who won prizes for his screenplay and direction at Sundance) is a mixed bag–some of the plotting is a bit ludicrous (while I won’t tell you the work that gets plagiarized, I will say that it is highly unlikely that it would take people so long to recognize it as someone else’s work) but the performances, especially from Daniels and Linney, are spot-on.

HAVOC (River East, 9:15 PM) Actually, I believe this is now officially being renamed “The Naked Anne Hathaway Movie.” However, even those desperate to see the delightful star of “The Princess Diaries” and “Ella Enchanted” undressed are going to be thoroughly disappointed by this pointless and ridiculous collection of cliches. In what is essentially a less-coherent version of James Toback’s intriguing “Black and White,” with healthy chunks of “Kids” and “Thirteen” thrown in for good measure, she and Bijou Philips play a pair of overprivileged L.A. teens who abandon their pseudo-toughie classmates for the more “authentic” thrills to be had hanging with real Latino gang members. Badly written, poorly cast (Hathaway is simply too cheerful to be believable as a sullen teen and both she and Philips are far too old for their parts) and more than a little offensive, the biggest mystery about this loser is why the usually reliable Barbara Kopple, the director of such great documentaries as “Harlan County, U.S.A.” and “Fallen Champ,” chose it to make her first foray into the world of narrative film? Of course, some of you may still be interested for the reason mentioned at the beginning of the review. To that end, I will say that they appear three times and that they are both real and spectacular–more than I can say about the film itself.

P (Landmark, 11:30 PM) See 10/7 listing.

THE DARK HOURS (River East, 11:30 PM): See 10/7 listing.


MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (Landmark, 7 PM): Already being touted as a potential Oscar nominee, this period drama from the always-interesting Stephen Frears (whose work ranges from “Dangerous Liasons” to “High Fidelity”) stars Judi Dench as a British aristocrat who tries to revive the sagging fortunes of a Soho theater by hiring a new producer (Bob Hoskins) and staging nude revues.

JOHANNA (Landmark, 8:30 PM): Anyone encountering this truly bizarre Hungarian film (produced by the legendary Bela Tarr) is likely to walk away from it echoing Bill Murray’s immortal line from “Tootsie”: “That is one nutty hospital.” It is a modern-day riff on the Joan of Arc story in which a beautiful junkie (Orsi Toth) OD’s in a hospital and is miraculously brought back to life. She goes to work as a nurse and discovers that she can now heal terminally-ill patients by having sex with them–a bit a news that is greeted less than enthusiastically by the rest of the hospital staff. Oh, it is also a full-scale opera to boot. Weird and definitely not for all tastes but you won’t walk away complaining that you have seen it all before.

P (Landmark, 11:30 PM): An especially twisted horror thriller from Thailand (though directed by Westerner Paul Spurrier), this film centers on the notorious Thai sex industry and illustrates the dangers that are inherent in asking supernatural forces for advice on how to improve one’s pole-dancing abilities. I haven’t seen it yet but the program description alone makes it sound irresistable and a couple of my local colleagues have raved about it.

THE DARK HOURS (River East, 11:30 PM): This is said to be a short-but-sweet psycho-thriller from Canada about a psychiatrist (Kate Greenhouse) from a treatment center who goes off to spend an isolated weekend in the country with her husband and sister and finds it ruined when a patient of hers escapes from the facility and crashes the festivities.

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originally posted: 10/07/05 12:37:56
last updated: 10/15/05 01:05:45
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