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A Brief And Not-Entirely-Complete Guide To The 45th Chicago International Film Festival: Week Two

by Peter Sobczynski

Once again, this column will be listing some of the daily highlights screening during the second week of the 45th 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.

This year, all of the events and screenings, unless otherwise noted, will be held at the AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois St.). 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, either by calling (312) 902-1500 or going to their website at www.ticketmaster.com, the festival office (30 E. Adams. Suite 800) and at the River East box-office.


10/16

VIDEOCRACY (3:00 PM): In one of the oddest documentaries at this year’s festival, director Erik Gandini takes an eye-opening look at the media and political worlds of Italy today and examines how one man, President Silvio Berlusconi, has melded the two together to create an all-powerful empire based on manipulation, distraction and pretty girls in tiny outfits. Even if you have no interest in contemporary Italian politics, it is still an eye-opening look at the dangers that can emerge when the government and the media are essentially run by the same person.

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL ‘PUSH’ BY SAPPHIRE (6:15 PM): Arguably the year’s single most overrated movie, this melodrama follows the life of a 16-year-old girl (Gabourey Sidibe) who is offered a respite miserable and hopeless existence--she is essentially illiterate, is pregnant for the second time courtesy of her own father and is the focus of a torrent of physical and emotional abuse from her mother (Mo’nique)--when she is admitted into a special class dedicated to helping girls like her turn their lives around. I will save most of my criticisms for my full review when it opens commercially in a few weeks except to note that while watching its combination of overwrought drama, awkward performances, bizarre cameos (Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey pop up as, respectively, a hunky nurse and a dowdy social worker) and self-consciously lurid tone, all I could think of was the decidedly outre films that John Waters used to make in the 1970’s before becoming respectable. Of course, those films at least knew that they were ridiculous--this one is so solemn and self-important as its heroine overcomes her obstacles that it is no surprise that both Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry bravely signed on as co-producers after it was already made and showered with praise at its Sundance premiere.

WOMEN IN TROUBLE (8:00 PM): In this comedy-drama that has received much acclaim on the festival circuit, a group of disparate women--including a pregnant porn star (Carla Gugino), a pair of call girls (Adrienne Palacki and Emmanuelle Chriqui), a flight attendant (Marley Shelton), a desperate neurotic (Connie Britton) and a therapist on the edge (Sarah Clarke)--find themselves bouncing in and out of each others lives in unexpected ways. Speaking of unexpected, this female-driven film was written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, best known to some of you as the screenwriter of such things as “Gothika” and “Snakes on a Plane.”

BACKYARD (9:15 PM): The story of the mysterious disappearances and deaths of hundreds of women over the last few years in the border town of Juarez, Mexico (which previously inspired direct-to-video vehicles for Jennifer Lopez and Minnie Driver) is given another go-around, this time in a Mexican-made effort courtesy of Carlos Carrera, whose “The Crime of Father Amaro” was an enormous hit in its home country. In this one, a new female police captain (Ana de la Reguera) arrives in town determined to bring the violence to a halt and become entangle in a web of savagery, corruption and Jimmy Smits.

COFFIN ROCK (10:30 PM): The producers of “Wolf Creek” return with another thriller set in an a remote area of Australia, this one involving a woman who, feeling the stress of being unable to conceive a child with her husband after three years, strays for one night in the arms of a young stranger and later discovers to her horror that she is now pregnant and that the stranger is an obsessive psychotic who will do anything to ensure that they remain together. Like “Wolf Creek,” this film has been made with a certain gritty style but after a while, even that will fail to distract you from the fact that you have seen everything that it has to offer many times before.

REVENANT (10:45 PM): If there is some kind of booby prize for the festival’s worst film, this absolutely pathetic horror-comedy is a sure front-runner for the award. After being killed in the line of duty, an American soldier comes back to life after his funeral as a sort of vampire-zombie hybrid and, with the aid of his exceptionally obnoxious stoner buddy, spends his evenings cruising the streets of L.A. and killing off criminals and creeps (nearly all of whom appear to be minorities) in order to feed off of them. I am not sure what the initial idea behind this project was, outside of wondering what “The Big Lebowski” might have been like if it had been made by Lloyd Kaufman instead of the Coen Brothers, but whatever it might be, director Kerry Prior has certainly blown it--the film isn’t funny, it isn’t creatively gross and the only vaguely terrifying thing about it is that it runs for nearly two solid and unendurable hours.




10/17

VIDEOCRACY (12:00 PM): See 10/16 listing.

THE ATHLETE (12:20 PM): Part documentary and part biopic, this unusual film tells the story of Abebe Bikila, an Ethiopian marathon runner who entered the history books when he became the first African to win a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. However, that event turns out to have been only the beginning of his story--without going into much detail (on the off-chance that you don’t know his story), his life took a number of unexpected turns that results in a film that manages to be reasonably inspiring without succumbing to too many of the typical clches found in most inspirational sports movies.

TOMORROW AT DAWN (1:45 PM): In this odd (though not entirely uninteresting) sort-of thriller from Denis Dercourt, whose previous effort was the gripping “The Page Turner,” a young man (Jeremie Renier) with a couple of quirks becomes involved in the world of historical battle reenactments (complete with duels to settle questions of honor amongst the players) and allows it to take over his life. When his more level-headed pianist brother (Vincent Perez) arrives in order to help him, he quickly learns that the line between reality and role-play has blurred for everyone involved and when he inadvertently insults a rival, it sets off a chain of events that could cost him his life.

AIR DOLL (3:30 PM): Hirokazu Kore-eda, the internationally acclaimed Japanese director of such films as “Nobody Knows” and “After Life”,” stumbles horribly with this inane and overlong fantasy about a sex doll that mysteriously comes to life and explores the world around her while her owner is away, even going so far as to get a job in a local video store. Deeply silly and deeply stupid, all the more so because it seems to think it is being profound, this is the kind of all-out disaster that is so egregiously awful, especially considering its pedigree, that the best way to approach it is to simply forget it ever existed. Put it this way--if you see only one film at this year’s festival about an inanimate figure that comes to life and learns what it means to be human, stick with “Astro Boy.”

LOVELY, STILL (5:00 PM): In what is presumably the one new film among this year’s selections that is most likely safe to take your grandparents too, Martin Landau stars as a lonely old man whose life is transformed one Christmas season through a romance with new neighbor Ellen Burstyn. Landau is currently scheduled to introduce the screening.

DANIEL & ANA (5:30 PM): In this dark and decidedly seamy Mexican drama, the charmed lives of a well-to-do brother and sister duo are changed forever when they are snatched off the streets of Mexico City by kidnappers. Unfortunately, their abductors are interested in something other than money from them and what they are forced to do to ensure their release pretty much destroys their lives forever. Well-made, but you are definitely going to want a shower after watching this one

PERSECUTION (6:00 PM): Patrice Chereau, the director responsible for such international hits as “Queen Margot” and “Intimacy,” returns with a drama with Romain Duris as a young man with an extremely possessive attitude towards his long-suffering girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg, a little more benign here than in “Antichrist”) who gets a taste of his own medicine when he is suddenly and relentless pursued by a strange man (Jean-Hughes Anglade) who claims to love him. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of Chereau’s more inspired works--the screenplay is very similar to the more interesting “Everlasting Love” but never gets around to explaining the strange behavior of any of the characters and after a while, it just becomes an exercise in frustration that not even the talented cast can overcome. Chereau is scheduled to introduce this screening.

WOMEN IN TROUBLE (7:00 PM): See 10/16 listing.

THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND (7:45 PM): Bryce Dallas Howard, Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret and Chris Evans star in this previously unproduced screenplay by some guy named Tennessee Williams in which a black-sheep debutante (Howard) enlists a farm hand (Evans) to be her escort--alas, the budding romance between the two is jeopardized by the disappearance of the titular gem. Debuting director Jodie Markell is currently scheduled to introduce the screening.

MAMMOTH (8:45 PM): For his (mostly) English-language debut, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson offers us a painfully banal multi-cultural drama in the vein of “Babel” in which a number of disparate people from all over the world--including a well-to-do New York workaholic couple, the Filipino nanny who essentially raises their child in order to earn money to send back home to her own kids and a sweet-faced Thai woman working as a hooker in order to provide for her child--influence each others lives in unforeseen ways. As one of the New Yorkers, Michelle Williams once again shows herself to be one of the strongest young actresses working these days but beyond that, this fairly excruciating melodrama has nothing new to offer viewers except a reminder that if you are a young boy in need of an explanation of the intricacies of the flesh trade in the Philippines, don’t get it from your grandmother

COFFIN ROCK (9:30 PM): See 10/16 listing.

CROPSEY (10:45 PM): In this creepy and undeniably effective documentary that actually plays more like a horror film at times, co-directors Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman return to their Staten Island hometown to explore how a local urban legend about a child-snatching escapee from a mental institution seemed to come to life when a former attendant at the infamous Willowbrook School (a children’s institution whose harrowing conditions were exposed by an ambitious reporter named Geraldo Rivera) was implicated in the disappearances of a number of local kids over the years. What they discover along the way makes for a fascinating journey that works as straightforward reportage, as an expose of a possible miscarriage of justice (there was no physical evidence linking the accused to the crimes) and as a treatise on why we feel the need to create boogeymen of this type as a way of avoiding the possibility that a seemingly normal person could be capable of such monstrous acts.

REVENANT (11:15 PM): See 10/16 listing.

10/18

RED RIDING (“1974”--1:30 PM, “1980”--3:45 PM, “1983”--5:45 PM): Based on a quartet of novels from author David Peace, this highly impressive and always engrossing trilogy of overlapping films (originally produced for British television and each done by a different director) tells a sprawling tale of murder and corruption in Yorkshire over the course of a decade inspired by real-life events. Julian Jarrold’s “1974” follows an ambitious young journalist (Andrew Garfield) whose investigation into the disappearance of a little girl uncovers some shocking connections between a local businessman (Sean Bean) and some local police that involve big development plans and a string of other girls who have vanished as well. James Marsh’s “1980” features Paddy Considine as a detective who is sent to town to investigate the local police for their inability to capture the infamous Yorkshire Ripper and who finds himself in danger when he uncovers more sinister than mere laziness and incompetence. Finally, Anand Tucker’s “1983” concludes the trilogy when a new child murder similar in style to the ones from nine years earlier inspire a veteran Yorkshire cop to come to terms with his past and come clean about the activities perpetrated by himself and his cohorts. Although each film can stand on its own (my favorite being the “1980” segment), they make the biggest impact when see together. Alas, while the festival was kind enough to program them back-to-back-to-back, they are making viewers buy the tickets for each one separately instead of coming up with some kind of group pass that might have made things easier for everyone.

ASTRO BOY (4:00 PM): Based on the famous Japanese manga/animated series, this CGI epic brings together an all-star cast (including Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Samuel L. Jackson, Nathan Lane and, delivering maybe one paragraph of narration right at the top, Charlize Theron) to tell the story of a highly advanced robot boy (Highmore), designed by a mad genius (Cage) to serve as a duplicate of his late son, who learns what it means to be human when it falls upon him to save the people of Metro City from destruction at the hands of its own overly ambitious leader (Sutherland). While I cannot vouch for how faithful it is to the original source material (not very much is my guess), I have to admit that I was reasonably entertained by its fast pace, bright colors and goofy sense of humor--for the first two-thirds, it actually plays like a sly parody of “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” of all things--and while you shouldn’t break any plans to see “Where the Wild Things Are” in order to catch it, it should provide a decent night’s entertainment for audiences of all ages. One question--considering how little she actually does here, who thinks that the filmmakers hired Theron to do the ultra-brief opening narration simply as an excuse to watch her rock the mike?

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (5:00 PM): To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s beloved comedy-thriller about an ordinary man (well, as ordinary as you can get when you are played by Cary Grant) who finds himself caught up in a bizarre web of mystery and intrigue that finds himself being chased cross-country by the authorities and a group of no-goodniks (led by James Mason) and into the arms of the lovely-but-secretive Eva Marie Saint, the festival will be screening a newly restored print (done as part of its Blu-ray debut next month, the first such release for a Hitchcock film) as part of a special presentation that will also include a post-screening conversation between Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor and co-star Martin Landau. Considering just how utterly perplexing the film is from a narrative perspective (if you doubt me, trying recounting the plot details for yourself and tell me if they all add up), perhaps they can help explain what is going on at any given point.

AIR DOLL (5:30 PM): See 10/17 listing.

MARY AND MAX (6:15 PM): Having received acclaim throughout the world with “Harvie Krumpet,” his award-winning 2003 Claymation short subject tracing the unusual real life story of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome, Australian filmmaker Adam Elliot makes his feature debut with another Claymation work based on an offbeat true story, this one involving the pen-pal friendship that develops over the years between an awkward Australian girl (Toni Collette) and a troubled middle-aged New Yorker (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Though it does play at times like an extended version of “Harvie Krumpet,” this is still a reasonably touching film that is helped immensely by its quirky sense of humor and the excellent performances from its two leads.

THE YELLOW HANDKERCHIEF (7:00 PM) In this road movie from director Udayan Prasad, William Hurt stars as a convict who is released from prison after six years and isn’t sure if his wife (Maria Bello) is willing to take him back. Heading home, he accepts a ride from a troubled young couple (Kristen Stewart and Eddie Redmayne) and as they go forward on their journey, he finds himself coming to terms with both his past and his future. Bello is tentatively scheduled to introduce the screening.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (9:30 PM): In desperate need on money and with nowhere else to go, a sweet college girl (Jocelin Donahue) answers an ad for a babysitting gig in a remote house in the woods on the night of a lunar eclipse. Even after she discovers that the couple hiring her is played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov and that there isn’t actually a baby, she still agrees to stay and needless to say, the evening doesn’t go quite as planned. (Without going into detail, consider the title to be a spoiler.) Although described by most people as a throwback to the horror films of the 1980’s, the latest work from up-and-coming filmmaker Ti West is actually closer in spirit to the genre films from the Seventies. Alas, while the film does have its assets--a nicely unsettling turn by Noonan, a spunky performance from Donahue as the heroine and the greatest scene to ever feature mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig--West’s slow-burn approach to building suspense eventually flames out by taking too long to reach a conclusion that isn’t really worth it in the end.

10/19

AIR DOLL (3:00 PM): See 10/17 listing.

FACE (3:15 PM): The great Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai-Min-Liang (who has already won prizes at the festival on four previous occasions) returns with this effort about a Taiwanese filmmaker struggling to complete his latest film, for which he casts French actors despite being unable to speak the language himself. In many ways, this film serves as a tribute to the late Francois Truffaut, whose “Day For Night” remains one of the key works of the cinema-about-cinema subgenre, and features several of the actors he worked with (including Fanny Ardant and Jean-Pierre Leaud) in supporting roles.

DANIEL & ANA (3:30 PM): See 10/17 listing.

BELLAMY (8:00 PM): It seems almost impossible to believe but during the courses of their respective long careers, renowned French filmmaker Claude Chabrol and international superstar Gerard Depardieu have never worked on a project together until this collaboration. Working in a lighter mode than usual , Chabrol (making his 58th film) tells the story of a Parisian police chief (Depardieu) on holiday with his wife who finds himself embroiled in a case involving a man who confesses to kinda, sorta killing someone, a bevy of beautiful women (including Vahina Giocante) and any number of unexpected twists and turns. This is one that I have yet to see but since even lesser Chabrol is usually more interesting than the better works of most filmmakers, I suspect that this one should have its redeeming values, especially for those of you with a pronounced taste for French filmmaking.

CHICAGO OVERCOAT (8:45 PM): Veteran mob-movie second banana Frank Vincent (the guy who told Joe Pesci to go home and get his shinebox in “Goodfellas”) gets the rare chance to play a lead role in--surprise--a locally-made gangster drama about an aging hitman for the Chicago mob who hasn’t whacked a guy for over two decades. When his jailed boss (Armand Assante) needs a bunch of people who know too much whacked, he sees the job as a way of simultaneously reliving the good old days and earning enough money to finance his retirement--of course, the good old days are long gone and in carrying out his assignments, he steps on enough toes to make himself the target of both the cops and his fellow mobsters. Not a single cliché of the genre has been left behind here and the only remotely surprising thing about it is that it required four screenwriters to compose a script that contains not a single original thought. What little pleasure that there is to be derived from this otherwise forgettable work is Vincent, who somehow manages to bring a certain quiet authenticity to a film that otherwise seems to have been made by and for people who consider “The Boondock Saints” to be one of the crowing glories of the American cinema experience.

10/20

BACKYARD (3:00 PM): See 10/16 listing.

MARY AND MAX (6:00 PM): See 10/18 listing

SURPRISE EVENT! (8:00 PM): For the second year in a row, the festival is offering a top-secret screening of an upcoming release that will only be revealed once the lights go down. Even better, the screening is free, though admittance will be limited to people wearing some of the festival-related apparel available for purchase at the theater or at the fest offices. Although the press release suggests the likes of “Shutter Island,” “Avatar,” “Nine” and “Sherlock Holmes” as possibilities, you would probably be wise to dial down your expectations just a bit--after all, last year’s film turned out to be fricking “Rocknrolla”.

PERSECUTION (8:15 PM): See 10/17 listing.

ABOUT ELLY (8:30 PM): Having won the festival’s Gold Hugo in 2006 for his previous film, “Fireworks Wednesday,” Iranian filmmaker Asghar FarhadI returns with this mystery that starts off as a woman brings a friend of hers along to a reunion of her college friends with the thought that she might hit it off with one of her old classmates, a recently divorced man in search of an Iranian bride. However, things soon take a dark turn when the friend mysteriously disappears, an event that inspires an ever-growing chain of events that pretty much ends up bad for everybody.

10/21

BEST OF THE FEST: All of the screenings today will be of the films that won prizes at the fest’s award ceremony on the 17th. A full list of titles and times will be available at www.chicagofilmfestival.com on the 19th.

10/22

THE YOUNG VICTORIA (7:00 PM): The festival comes to an end with the local premiere of this eagerly anticipated historical drama about the early years of the reign of Queen Victoria featuring Emily Blunt as Victoria, Rupert Friend as Prince Albert (no jokes from the peanut gallery) and a supporting cast including the likes of Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson and Jim Broadbent. As an added incentive, the increasingly goddess-like Blunt, along with director Jean-Marc Vallee, are currently scheduled to hit the red carpet to introduce the screening


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2864
originally posted: 10/16/09 07:39:28
last updated: 10/17/09 08:19:06
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