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A Brief And Not-Entirely-Complete Guide To The 44th Chicago International Film Festival: Week One

by Peter Sobczynski

For the next two weeks, this column will be listing some of the daily highlights screening at the 44th Chicago International Film Festival. This is not a complete guide by any means–I have neither the time nor energy to pull that off but I will be making sure to highlight some of the more intriguing titles and events along with a few to avoid as well. Be sure to check every day or so as more titles are added.

Unless noted, the films and events will be taking place at the 600 North Michigan (600 N. Michigan), the River East 21 (322 E. Illinois), the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph) or the Music Box (3733 N. Southport). For a complete and updated schedule of the films and events or to order tickets, you can contact the festival by calling at (312)332-3456 or by going online to www.chicagofilmfestival.com Tickets are also available through Ticketmaster by calling (312) 902-1500 or going to their website at www.ticketmaster.com



10/16

THE BROTHERS BLOOM (7:00 PM. Harris Theater ): Kicking off this year’s fest is writer-director Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his electrifying debut, the teen-noir drama “Brick.” Although just as stylized as his previous film, this one goes in a completely different direction by telling the wacky and whimsical story of a couple of con artists brothers--moody Adrien Brody and manic Mark Ruffalo--who, along with their ever-present, ever-sexy and ever-silent Asian assistant (“Babel” starlet Rinko Kikuchi), try to swindle a rich-but-lonely heiress (Rachel Weisz) with a grift that takes them around the world. The whimsy is a little forced at times--it feels as if Johnson has collapsed Wes Anderson’s entire career arc in just two films--but the charm of the actors keeps it from going completely off the rails. It may seem a little too flip and flighty to serves as an Opening Night film, but since that designation means that Weisz herself will be walking the red carpet to introduce the film with Johnson, I am willing to cut the programmers some slack.



10/17

THE BOOT CAKE (6:00 PM. River East): In this oddly entertaining work, documentary filmmaker Kathryn Millard travels to a small town in India that is the home to a devoted group of Charlie Chaplin fanatics and follows them around as they search for the titular pastry to serve as the centerpiece of their annual celebration of his birth. It sounds like a strange premise for a film but as she goes along, Millard does a good job of conveying the lasting power of film and how it can touch people across the world.



THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED (6:00 PM. River East): The only American film invited to play at the prestigious Director’s Fortnight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this debut feature from Joshua Safdie follows a young thief (Eleonore Hendricks, who also co-wrote the screenplay) as she serenely goes about lifting purses and wallets from unsuspecting people on the streets of New York.



RAIN OF THE CHILDREN (6:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Before making such visually striking works as “The Navigator,” “Map of the Human Heart” and “What Dreams May Comes,” filmmaker Vincent Ward spent a couple of years living in New Zealand with a Maori woman and her mentally disturbed son. Over 25 years later, he returned and this film is the result--using interviews and dramatic reenactments, Ward examines the life of the woman, her family history and the tribe that she belonged to.



SPARROW (6:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): In a film that sounds mighty close to Luc Besson’s slick and sexy thriller “Subway,” HK action filmmaker Johnnie To offers up superstar Simon Yam as the leader of a band of crack pickpockets who gets them into trouble when he becomes obsessed with the beautiful and mysterious Kelly Lin.



HAPPY-GO-LUCKY (7:00 PM. River East): In 1993, internationally-renowned filmmaker Mike Leigh gave us “Naked,” a corrosive work in which an embittered young man raged against the world over the course of one long and dark night. In his latest work, he gives us a central character who is the complete opposite--a young woman named Poppy (Sally Hawkins in one of the year’s best performances) whose relentless good cheer in the face of everything (when she discovers that her bike has been stolen, she only regrets that she didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to it) enchants some and drives others to distraction, specifically the grumpy driving instructor that she is taking lessons from. It sounds excruciating, I know, but somehow it works wonderfully and the result s perhaps Leigh’s most engaging work since “Topsy-Turvy.” Leigh will be attending this screening as part of a festival tribute to his celebrated career.







JULIA (8:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): After losing her job thanks to her hard-partying ways, a woman (Tilda Swinton) agrees to help her neighbor in a badly-plotted plan to hold her son for ransom and winds up in Mexico with the kid in the trunk while fending off others who want in on the action. I haven’t seen this one yet but the combination of Swinton and director Erick Zonca, who made the wonderful “The Dreamlife of Angels” automatically makes it sound like something worth checking out.


THE WRESTLER (8:00 PM. River East): Rebounding from the undeserved commercial failure of “The Fountain,” filmmaker Darren Aronofsky returns with a low-key tale about an over-the-hill wrestler (Mickey Rourke) who is forced into retirement after a heart attack who tries to establish relationships with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and a stripper who is herself nearing the end of her shelf life (though as played by Marisa Tomei, you certainly wouldn’t notice) while trying to ignore the lure of one last match that could very well kill him. This may be a familiar story but the result is anything but thanks to Aronofsky’s strong and sure direction and a performance from Rourke that is not only the best of his career but arguably the single best piece of acting I have seen this year.



WENDY AND LUCY (8:30 PM. 600 N. Michigan): When filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, “Old Joy,” came out a couple of years ago, it received rapturous reviews that I never quite understood--it was so grim and poky that it felt more like a parody of a low-key indie film than anything else. Thankfully, her latest film, in which a young woman drifting through a small Oregon town on her way to Alaska finds her entire life waylaid when she loses her beloved dog, is a much more interesting and intriguing effort, thanks in great part to Michelle Williams’ subtly wonderful performance in the lead role.



LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (10:00 PM. River East): Every year, it seems that at least one foreign-made horror film emerges to become a hit on the festival circuit with fanboys eager to get on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing. Most of the time, these films rarely live up to the advanced hype but in the case of this Swedish-made take on one of the great horror myths--in which a lonely boy embarks on a sweet and mutually beneficial friendship with the strange girl who moved in next door that isn’t at all affected by the fact that she is a vampire--it more than lives up to the considerable advance word that it has been receiving. Inevitably, Hollywood has already announced that the film will be remade by some of the people behind “Cloverfield”--do yourself a favor and see the original while you have the chance.



10/18

RAIN OF CHILDREN (600 N. Michigan. 12:30 PM): See 10/17 listing.

BEAUTIFUL (1:15 PM. 600 N. Michigan.): In this creepy psychological thriller from South Korea, a woman who feels that her extraordinary beauty has been responsible for her problems in life--ranging from jealous looks and comments from other women to a brutal sexual assault--decides that the only way out for her is to lay grisly siege to her own body.


BOOT CAKE (3:00 PM. River East): See 10/17 listing


DAYS IN BETWEEN (3:15 PM. River East): From German director Lola Randi comes this effort about a woman who finds herself breaking out of her dull and humdrum existence when she borrows the keys to a strange apartment from her freewheeling sister and begins a torrid affair with a stranger that she meets there.


DON’T LOOK DOWN (3:45 PM. 600 N. Michigan):Having developed an acute case of sleepwalking following the death of his father, a 19-year-old Argentinean boy wanders into the apartment of a sexy neighbor. Lucky for him, she takes it upon herself to cure him of his grief by demonstrating that bedrooms are not necessarily for sleeping. In other news, I really want to sleepwalk in Argentina.


SITA SINGS THE BLUES (4:40 PM. River East): If you are still feeling guilty about offending the tenets of Hinduism by watching that “Love Guru” garbage (and I know that some of you did), perhaps you can make up for it by checking out this intriguing animated effort from Nina Paley in which she interweaves the Hindu epic “Ramayana,” a contemporary divorce story and the musical stylings of jazz singer Annette Hanshaw into a bright, colorful and engaging final product.


SPARROW (6:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/17 listing.


WENDY AND LUCY (6:10 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/17 listing


OF TIME AND THE CITY (7:45 PM. River East): After a nearly eight-year absence, acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Davies (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The House of Mirth”) returns with his first documentary, an ode to his hometown of Liverpool. I have not seen this one yet but seeing as how Davies has yet to make a film that isn’t fascinating or utterly captivating, I can pretty confidently suggest that you should check this one out.


BORN IN ‘68 (8:00 PM. 600 N Michigan): In what feels at times like the French equivalent of the great Italian epic “The Best of Youth,” this jumbo-sized film introduces us to three young people in the tumultuous summer of 1968 who decide to start a commune in the woods with some friends and follows them and their children two decades later as they take stock of how both they and the world have changed.


GOMMORAH (8:00 PM. River East): Through the eyes of a group of characters, this Italian drama examines the ways in which Naples’ organized crime industry (known as the Camorra) has managed to infiltrate its way into nearly every aspect of daily life ranging from the expected criminal enterprises to an alleged major investment in the planned rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Just in case you think that this is all just a lot of fictional nonsense, it should be noted that Roberto Saviano, the author of the book that the film is based on, has been living with round-the-clock police protection since his work was published a couple of years ago and a mob snitch recently testified in court that the Camorra intended to have him killed before the end of the year.


SONG OF SPARROWS (8:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Generally regarded as one of the best filmmakers to emerge from Iran over the last decade or so thanks to powerful works like “Children of Heaven” and “Baran,” Majid Majidi returns with a new drama about an ordinary family man (Reza Naji, who won the Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival for his work here) who unexpectedly loses his job and struggles to make ends meet by driving a gypsy cab through the streets of Tehran.



THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE WEIRD (8:30 PM. 600 N. Michigan): In one of the wildest and most entertaining films in this year’s festival, South Korean director Jee-woon Kim (who also gave us the gripping horror film “A Tale of Two Sisters”) gives us a strange and stylish homage to the spaghetti westerns of the late Sergio Leone with this tale of a trio of bandits whose search for a treasure map in 1930’s Manchuria finds them going up against the occupying Japanese army as well as bands of Chinese of Russian criminals. This will be opening commercially in a few weeks, but if you see it now, you can use that time to lord it over your fanboy friends that you saw it before them.


THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED (9:30 PM. River East): See 10/17 listing.


SURVEILLANCE (10:15 PM. River East.): Stepping behind the camera for the first time since her semi-controversial 1993 debut “Boxing Helena,” Jennifer Lynch (daughter of you-know-who) returns with a twisted tale involving a couple of FBI agents (Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond) who arrive in a small town to interview the three survivors of a roadside bloodbath allegedly involving a pair of serial killers on the run to piece together what happened. Whittled down to an hour, this might have made for a vaguely intriguing TV episode but the half-hour or so of padding (including endless scenes of a pair of local cops waylaying motorists and torturing them in bizarre ways) makes it pretty excruciating to sit through, though there are a couple of admittedly arresting moments here and there.


IDIOTS AND ANGELS (10:30 PM. 600 N. Michigan) Famed animator Bill Plympton returns with a hallucinatory fable in which an unmitigated bastard is disturbed to discover a pair of angel wings emerging from his back and is even more disturbed to find that they begin to inspire him to act like a decent person against his will. Although not so much a coherent and satisfying story as it is a series of brief vignettes loosely strung together, some of those individual gags are pretty funny and Plympton’s fluid animation style is always worth watching.


10/19

SITA SINGS THE BLUES (12:15 PM. River East): See 10/18 listing.

KATYN (12:45 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Having already covered various aspects of the dark side of recent Polish history in such films as , internationally acclaimed director Andrzej Wajda with his account of a shocking 1939 incident in which over 120,000 Polish military officers and citizens were summarily executed by the Soviet army and the even-more-shocking attempt on the part of the Soviets to cover up their involvement when the mass grave were discovered by Nazi forces four years larer.

KING OF PING PONG (1:00 PM 600 N. Michigan): In this coming-of-age tale from Sweden, a teenager who is already struggling with more than his fair share of adolescent angst--a weight problem, divorcing parents, an unrequited crush, and a group of bullies--finds things becoming even more complicated following the return of his long-vanished father into his life.

BORN IN ‘68 (1:15 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/18 listing.

HUNGER (3:00 PM. River East): One of the most highly regarded film to play at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where director Steve McQueen won the award for Best First Feature), this wrenching docudrama takes a look at the dying days of Bobby Sands, the IRA leader who starved himself to death while sitting in a prison in Northern Ireland in order to bring attention to his cause. While this clearly won’t be a bundle of laughs, the near-universal acclaim that it has been receiving alone makes it worth checking out.

BEAUTIFUL (3:15 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/18 listing.

SONG OF SPARROWS (4:15 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/18 listing.

BALLAST (5:15 PM. River East): In this award-winning debut film from Lance Hammer (who won the Best Director award at Sundance earlier this year), the unexplained suicide of a man is the unexpected catalyst that brings together his suicidal twin brother, his embittered ex-wife and their 12-year-old son, a would-be thug who has gotten himself into trouble with some local crack dealers. Although not without its merits--the performances are strong and it looks beautiful despite its obviously low budget--but for too much of its running time, it feels too much like a rehash of the films of David Gordon Green and the finale in strangely dull and uninvolving. Hammer is currently scheduled to attend this screening.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (5:30 PM. River East): In what may be the single most crowd-pleasing film of 2008, director Danny Boyle (who has given us films as varied as “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and “Millions”) tells the story a young man from the slums of Mumbai who is in a position to win the top prize on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Unfortunately, he is suspected of cheating--how can an uneducated nobody like him possibly know all of the answers--and as he is being brutally interrogated by local cops trying to extract a confession of guilt, we are treated to flashbacks of his rough life in order to illustrate how he came across the information needed to answer the questions. Utterly charming from start to finish (despite some admittedly dark moments), this is one of the best films of this year’s festival and I suspect that when it is released theatrically later this year, it will really catch on with audiences. Boyle is currently scheduled to attend this screening.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (7:30 PM. River East): Having written some of the most acclaimed screenplays of recent years, such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the always-intriguing Charlie Kaufman makes his directorial debut with a work so complex and baffling that it makes his previous efforts look like child’s play by comparison. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a theater director whose life is slowly coming apart--his wife (Catherine Keener) has taken his beloved daughter and abandoned him in order to pursue a career as a painter in Berlin, a new romance with another woman (Samantha Morton) has fallen apart almost before it has properly started and he is suffering from any number of physical maladies. When he becomes the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, he moves his theater company into an airplane hanger-like structure in order to stage a mammoth work in which they are asked to recreate the details of their daily lives--as the years go by and the concept expands, fiction and reality begin to blend in bizarre and unexpected ways. At least I think that it what is going on here--this is one of those films in which it is almost impossible to fully grasp what is going on until you see it at least a second time. For a directorial debut, this is an incredibly ambitious work and Kaufman should be commended for the sheer audacity of his accomplishment but as it goes on and on and on, you may find yourself wishing that a more disciplined director like previous collaborators Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry had been in charge to give it a little more focus. Kaufman is currently scheduled to attend this screening and to participate in what I suspect will be an exceptionally lively Q&A.

FEAR(S) OF THE DARK (7:50 PM. 600 N. Michigan): In this hallucinatory horror film from France, a group of top animators bring to life a series of short tales of terror involving bloodthirsty dogs, a young girl trapped in a nightmare and, in the most effective story of the bunch, a shy young student finds the girl of his dreams and watches as it all goes horribly and icily wrong. Although visually striking (the black-and-white animation is both exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally creepy), most of the stories ramble on a little too long and the fragmentary nature in which most of them are told grows a little irritating after a while. However, if you are just looking for something stylish to trip out on, this will more than satisfy you.


GOMORRAH (8:00 PM. River East): See 10/18 listing.



10/20

BEAUTIFUL (5:45 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/18 listing.

EVERLASTING MOMENTS (6:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell, whose work has ranged the gamut from such internationally acclaimed works as “The Emigrants” and “Hamsun” to his disastrous Mia Farrow-starring remake of “Hurricane,” returns with the story of an abused and overworked housewife living in Sweden during the outbreak of World War I who is able to escape the humdrum misery of her existence when she comes across a camera and begins looking at the world anew through its lens.

LEMON TREE (6:00 PM. River East): Based on a true story (and with a couple of rumblings from a classic “Simpsons” episode to boot), this drama tells the story of a Palestinian widow whose grove of lemon trees, which run along the Israeli/West Bank border, are ordered to be cut down by the new Israeli defense minister because of his belief that they could be used to help terrorists cross the border. Naturally, the widow protests and she amasses an unusual group of supporters to plead her case, including the defense minister’s own wife.


BALLAST (8:20 PM. River East): See 10/19 listing.

CHERRY BLOSSOMS (8:30 PM. River East): In a work that appears to be somewhat influenced by the works of the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, German director Doris Dorrie (whose past works have included the internationally acclaimed comedy “Men. . .” and the internationally ignored talking penis laughfest “Me and Him”) gives us a serious and straightforward drama in which a woman discovers that her husband is dying of a terminal illness and, keeping the diagnosis a secret from him, insists that they journey to Japan to visit their son. Unlike the program booklet for the festival, I won’t reveal what occurs next except to say that there probably won’t be a dry eye in the house by the time this one comes to its conclusion.

NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (8:30 PM. River East): Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg, two of the sweethearts of the so-called “mumblecore” movement (which are basically ultra-low-budget indie films shot on video in which people essentially sit around in rooms and mumble inarticulately about their lives and their angst) join forces to co-direct and co-star in this effort that sees them playing a pair of lovers struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship.

DELTA (8:40 PM. 600 N. Michigan): In this work from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo, a young man returns to his hometown after a long absence and meets the sister that he never knew he had. Since this tale is loosely inspired by the ancient Greek tragedies, it is probably no surprise what occurs from that point on.

10/21

EVERLASTING MOMENTS (4:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/20 listing.

BOOGIE MAN: THE LEE ATWATER STORY (6:10 PM. River East): Although he has been dead since 1991, the legacy of the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater--the man responsible for the belief that the best way to get a candidate elected to public office was to drive up the opposing candidate’s negative numbers by any means necessary--is still going strong today thanks to the efforts of such disciples as Karl Rove and his ilk. This fascinating documentary takes a look at Atwater’s life and career through startling archive footage and new interviews with friends, colleagues and even Michael Dukakis, whose presidential campaign was essentially skewered thanks to Atwater’s tactics. Director Stefan Forbes is currently scheduled to attend this screening

IDIOTS AND ANGELS (6:30 PM. River East): See 10/18 listing

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (7:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): In a performance that has been receiving raves ever since the film premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Kristin Scott Thomas stars as a cool and reserved woman who has spent the last 15 years in prison (for reasons that are gradually revealed and explained as the story progresses) who moves in with her younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein), who is eager to reconnect with the sibling that she hardly knows, and her family while trying to set up a new life for herself. Although the story itself isn’t much (which is a little odd when you consider that director Philippe Claudel, making his directorial debut here, is actually a well-regarded novelist), the performances from Thomas and Zylberstein are enough to push it over the edge. Claudel is currently scheduled to appear at this screening.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (8:15 PM. River East): Kevin Smith returns to the festival with his hilariously raunchy and strangely sweet film about a pair of lifelong platonic friends (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to make a porno film in order to alleviate their crushing financial woes and who find their personal relationship undergoing a series of unexpected upheavals after filming their big scene together. By the way, when I say “Kevin Smith returns to the festival,” I really mean it--it has just been announced that he is scheduled to be on hand to introduce the screening and take part in one of his infamous Q&A discussions.

HUNGER (8:30 PM. 600 N. Michigan): See 10/19 listing.

10/22

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS (6:30 PM. River East): In this painfully earnest and painfully obvious wartime story, the sheltered eight-year-old son of a loyal Nazi official (David Thewlis) and an ask-no-questions type (Vera Farmiga) move from Berlin to a place in the country that is comfortably situated next to what the kid believes is a farm. While exploring, he meets a kid his age sitting behind the barbed wire surrounding the farm and as the two strike up a friendship, our naïve hero becomes curious as to why the other boy is always wearing striped pajamas with a number and what exactly they are burning in the giant smokestacks that smells so odd. For most of its running time, this tale is turgid, predictable and slightly exploitative but towards the end, it takes a turn that is so insanely preposterous that it almost, but not quite, makes this disaster worth seeing just to see how bad it is. (Imagine “Jakob the Liar” without the subtlety.)

DUKES (7:00 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Robert Davi, whose impassive mug has graced the screen in films running the gamut from “Die Hard” and “License to Kill” to “An American Carol” (where he was actually the only competent element), makes his directorial debut with this musical drama about the members of a once-popular doo-wop group struggling to keep afloat in an industry that no longer has much use for their distinctive type of music.

IDIOTS AND ANGELS (7:00 PM. River East): See 10/18 listing.

PRIDE AND GLORY (7:30 PM River East): Gavin O’Connor, who managed to transcend clichés with his previous film, the genuinely uplifting sports drama “Miracle,” winds up becoming subsumed by them with this completely predictable and fairly wretched cop film in which New York detective Edward Norton is ordered by his Chief of Police father (Jon Voight) to investigate the murders of four cops and discovers that they are related to the dirty dealing of his mildly volatile cop brother (Noah Emmerich) and his completely volatile cop brother-in-law (Colin Farrell). In other words, it is pretty much like a lesser episode of “Hunter,” though that show usually had better acting that anything on display here (Voight is especially wretched) and it rarely dragged things on past the two-hour mark. If you must attend this screening, Gavin O’Connor is currently scheduled to appear as well.

TWO LOVERS (8:15 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Joaquin Phoenix and writer-director James Gray, who previously worked together on “The Yards” and “We Own the Night,” team up again for a third time for this drama in which Phoenix plays an emotionally unstable man who finds himself meeting and carrying on simultaneous affairs with two very different women (Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Wells lust object Vinessa Shaw). I haven’t seen this one yet and to tell the truth, it does sound a little predictable, but if anyone can push through the clichés and make something out of this admittedly familiar conceit, it is Gray.

THE MERMAID (8:20 PM. 600 N. Michigan): Recently named Russia’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign-Language film Oscar, this is an exuberant fairy tale about a young girl who vows at the age of five to never speak again--when she turns 18, she moves to Moscow and meets an oddball salesman who inspires her to both speak again and to do anything in her power to win his heart.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2590
originally posted: 10/16/08 13:50:07
last updated: 10/22/08 23:11:38
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