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The 47th Chicago International Film Festival Spotlight (Part One - Oct. 7-10)

by Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski

The 47th International Film Festival is in town from Oct. 6-20 and we are here to bring you some of the high and low lights. Stay tuned for additional days right here and in upcoming features. Plus, a special shout-out to Jay Seaver for a number of films covered at other festivals this year now making their way into the Windy City.

THURSDAY, OCT. 6 - OPENING NIGHT


THE LAST RITES OF JOE MAY
Over the years, the festival has had a tendency to kick things off with an inexplicably substandard film--for every decent opener like "Elizabethtown" or last year's "Stone," there are plenty of selections like "Motherhood" that are so downright awful that their bookings seem to be based less on their intrinsic qualities and more on the result of some ill-advised wager gone horribly sour. While not a complete disaster, this locally-shot feature, in which Dennis Farina (who will be feted by the fest before the screening) as an aging failure of a tough guy who steps in to rescue the single mother who has taken over his apartment from the fists of her abusive and borderline psychotic cop, is not exactly a gem either. Farina is good as always and it is a pleasure to see him in a rare lead performance for the first time since possibly the glory days of the transcendent series "Crime Story." However, the rest of writer-director Joe Maggio's film is little more than a blatant retread of "Sling Blade" that has nothing fresh to offer viewers except for the exceptionally strange sight of Gary Cole essaying the role of an underground kingpin by utilizing virtually the same performance he gave so memorably in "Office Space." (Peter Sobczynski) (7:00 PM)


FRIDAY, OCT. 7


LEA
This French drama from Bruno Rolland tells the story of a young woman from a rural province of France who dreams of going to Paris to study political science. Alas, in order to finance her studies and care for her Alzheimer's-stricken grandmother, she winds up going to work as a stripper and her dream of full independence is thrown for a loop when things inevitably begin to go wrong. (Peter Sobczynski) (4:10 PM)


KING OF DEVIL'S ISLAND
"King of Devil's Island" opens with a story of a harpooner and a whale, which it regularly returns to, but it isn't immediately certain who the whale represents and who the whalers represent, even if the story is being told in the first person. Consider that the film takes place in 1915 Norway, when this activity wasn't nearly so taboo. The point, however, is clear: A powerful opponent is not stopped with a single strike, whether on the open sea or in a boy's reformatory camp. MORE (Jay Seaver) (5:45 pm)


MELANCHOLIA
Before the epic nothingness of Another Earth was ballyhooed into something it never was at Sundance, I kept having to explain how Brit Marling’s insistent hook with the science-fiction element was just that. It was merely just another indie flick about guilt and romantic deception which just happened to have a second planet hovering outside the windows of the closed-in protagonists. Science Fiction is a delicately expansive base and if it is to be included either thematically or for pyrotechnics, one better have a damn good grasp on its purpose. Lars Von Trier, never one to shy away from the depressive acts of human beings. In his latest film, divided into two sections, the first deals with the wedding of one sister (Kirsten Dunst) doing her best to control her manic depressive order. It just happens to be on the eve of a discovery of a distant planet, conveniently named Melancholia, hovering towards Earth. The second finds Dunst battling with that depression while her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) takes care of her and the family (including scientist hubby Kiefer Sutherland) that is doing its best to maintain the possibility that this giant orb is not going to collide with ours. This is a very meditative piece of work that grows in strength as one allows it to absorb them once they leave the theater. This is the best work of Dunst’s career, a haunting, occasionally very funny (and sad) film that is also Von Trier’s best and most interesting film since Dogville. (Erik Childress) (8:30 PM)


RABIES
Israel makes its long-awaited first foray into the slasher film genre with this effort about a brother and sister who run away from home into the woods--when she falls into a trap laid by a psycho, he goes off in search of help and wind up involving a quartet of tennis players, a forest ranger and a couple of cops in the steadily escalating carnage. Although certainly icky enough to satisfy gorehounds and definitely a step up from some of the other horror items on display in this year's festival, this is an okay-at-best genre entry that is more interesting because of what it is than because of anything in it. (Peter Sobczynski) (11:15 PM)


SATURDAY, OCT. 8


WITHOUT
Joslyn Jensen stars as a young woman who takes a job caring for a catatonic old man on a remote island while his family goes on vacation. Sounds like the setup for a horror film (the recent House of the Devil offered a similar setup) but this is more about her inner demons than any ghosts or monsters lurking in the shadows. With little electronic stimulus to keep her attached to the world, she works with what she can while fantasizing about the pictures of another woman she carries with her. Director Mark Jackson does a decent job with encapsulating the boredom of a person alone with little but their thoughts, but unfortunately offers little beyond that to distract us from ours aside from some occasional nudity from Jensen. Though the actress makes a pretty fine debut, the eventual revelations are not all that surprising and when they come we wish more time was spent exploring that as a fuller story rather than a twist to tie a bow on her behavior for the previous 75 minutes. (Erik Childress) (3:45 PM)


MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
One of the most talked-about items at this year's Sundance film festival, this electrifying psychological drama centers on a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen in one of the more striking debuts in recents memory) who mysteriously returns home to her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) after having fled the cult that she had been a part of for the past few years--as the story bounces back and forth between her shrouded past and her attempts to begin a new life, we gradually begin to understand both why she needed to flee the cult and the familial schisms that drove her into their arms in the first place. Thoughtful, scary and enigmatic in equal measures, this is one of the most fascinating films of the year to date and a good part of that is due to the fairly stunning contributions by Olsen--while her last name may be familiar enough (yes, she is the sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), the talent she displays here is anything but and it is almost certain to earn her plenty of acclaim come award season. (Peter Sobczynski) (5:00 PM)


THE KID WITH A BIKE
Another light and frothy romp from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the award-winning directors of "Rosetta," "The Child" and "Lorna's Promise," this one tells the story of a lonely and emotionally damaged 11-year-old boy (Thomas Doret) who is essentially abandoned by his wayward father (Dardenne regular Jeremie Renier) and, despite the efforts of a local hairdresser (Cecile de France) who agrees to serve as a foster parent on weekends, begins to spiral out of control in ways that lead him into potential trouble. Like the Dardenne's previous efforts, it is thoughtful, well-made, well-intentioned and filled with affecting performances but beyond that, they aren't really offering viewers anything particularly new or fresh this time around. I'm not saying that they should do a caper comedy or anything like that but I for one would be interested in seeing them flex their considerable artistic muscles in a different area at some point. (Peter Sobczynski) (5:15 PM)


WOMAN IN THE FIFTH
If you ever felt your Kafka needed a little more Ethan Hawke than this film might have just granted your wish. This described “Kafka-esque” tale involves Hawke as a man who comes back to Paris to see his estranged daughter; estranged cause mom has a restraining order on him. With no money to his name, he exchanges a room at a seedy hotel with a job for its owner by becoming the watchguard buzzing in some unseemly types for backroom deals. Add into the mix a pretty young waitress (Joanna Kulig) and a mysterious socialite (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the tables are set for some intrigue, right? Wrong. A snail’s pace would beat this film in a 40 yard dash by about six days. We languish around miniscule suspicions and a brooding sense that while everything may not be as it seems, it will be as such in the most modern of cinematic clichés. (Erik Childress) (7:15 PM)


MISS BALA
The violence and insanity of the drug wars in Mexico is brought to vivid life in this drama about a sweet and innocent young woman from the outskirts of Tijuana who ventures into Baja California in order to take part in a local beauty pageant, unwittingly becomes caught in the middle of the mayhem surrounding a gangland hit and finds herself being indiscriminately used by cops and criminals in a desperate bid to stay alive amidst the escalating chaos. In telling a story filled with equal parts action, drama, social commentary and dark humor, director Gerardo Maranjo takes viewers on a exhilarating ride that is so wild at times that it may seem to stretch the bounds of credibility until you discover that it was, in fact, based on a true story. Recently named Mexico;s official entry for Best Foreign-Language Film for the next Oscars, this is definitely one of the highlights of the festival's first week. (Peter Sobczynski) (8:00 PM)


THE RETURN OF JOE RICH
After getting wiped out as a result of the economic crash, a loosely connected thug return home to Chicago with the hopes of convincing his highly connected mobster uncle (Armand Assante) to give him a role in the organization--when his uncle demurs, he hopes to get the old man to reconsider by nabbing him and chaining him up in a remote warehouse. This is the kind of painfully derivative and self-conscious gangster drama that clogged the festival circuit about fifteen years ago in the wake of "Reservoir Dogs" and ""Pulp Fiction" but not only does it utterly fail to live up to Tarantino, not to mention "The Godfather" or "The Sopranos" or any of the other mob classics it endlessly refers to throughout, it is so bad that it makes one long for the good old days of Rob Weiss. Be warners, if you do wind up seeing this, you are going to find yourself dropping co-star Talia Shire's bizarrely repeated line "A restaurant wanted my meatballs" into your everyday conversations whether you want to or not. (Peter Sobczynski) (8:05 PM)


CORRODE
Beyond the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and minimalist storytelling, you may get the sneaking suspicion there is something metaphorical going on in Karan Gour's film. It involves Chhaya (Rasika Dugal) who lives in India with her working class husband, Arvind (Alekh Sangal), who becomes enraptured with the image of the Hindu goddess, Lakshmi. At first it's just the want of an unfinished sculpture by a young prodigy unwilling to sell. Then faster than you can call Roy Neary for counsel, she is painting Lakshmi on her walls and having conversations with the goddess of wealth whom she believes can help her bear the child she was never able to. The first half of Corrode is interesting while it chronicles a sad woman's look to spiritual means to help her overcome what life has failed to give her. As her obsession becomes more irrational, we lose faith in Chhaya as any more than just another crazy person praying to the stars (or in this case the Hindu goddess of wealth) looking for some kind of payoff to her existence. It's an intriguing topic done without the necessary irony to draw us in to just another mentally unstable journey. (Erik Childress) (8:25 PM)


THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD
Making his first feature film since his critically acclaimed 2004 debut "Maria Full of Grace," director Joshua Marston goes to Albania to tell the story of a family thrown into upheaval when the father goes on the run after killing a neighbor during a land dispute--as a result of ancient law, his sons are essentially placed under house arrest to prevent them from being killed in revenge while the daughter is forced to drop out of school to take over the delivery route that is their main source of income. Marston does an effective job of demonstrating the ways in which ancient and seemingly archaic customs can still affect lives even in modern society. The only flaw is that unless you are very well schooled in the nuances of Albanian law and society, some of it is liable to seem more than a little confusing at times. (Peter Sobczynski) (8:30 PM)


SUNDAY, OCT. 9


WE HAVE A POPE
Acclaimed Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti ("The Son's Room") return with this entertaining and intriguing comedy-drama that opens with a particularly audacious premise--what would happen if the man selected to serve as the next Pope is suddenly stricken with self-doubt and cannot bring himself to officially step into the position that he has already accepted? That is what happens here and while the Pope-elect (Michel Piccoli) struggles to come to terms with the anxieties gripping him, which include seeing a couple of psychiatrists surreptitiously, slipping away from his Vatican handlers and hanging out with a theater troupe, the other cardinals are forced to stay incommunicado with the outside world while the papal handler goes to extreme efforts to create the illusion that everything is perfectly fine. There are some enormous laughs to had here (one of the psychiatrists, who is also stuck inside with the other cardinals, arranges a round-robin volleyball tournament that also winds up serving as proof of the existence of evolution) as well a thoughtful examination of faith, forgiveness and what can happen when an ordinary man suddenly becomes extraordinary in the eyes of the world, regardless of whether he feels that he deserves it or not. (Peter Sobczynski) (3:00 PM)


COOLEY HIGH
As part of their annual Black Perspectives sidebar showcasing works highlighting black culture throughout the world, the festival is offering up a revival screening of Michael Schultz's wonderful 1975 comedy-drama centered on a couple of teenagers (Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) growing up in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing complex in 1964 as they run afoul with teachers, girls, cops and local criminals. Although it sounds a bit reductive to describe it as an African-American version of "American Graffiti," that is probably the best way to sum up its combination of nostalgia, broad humor and surprisingly heartfelt drama. A cult classic and one of the best films to emerge from the blaxploitation era, seeing it today should be especially poignant in light of the recent razing of the last remaining building of the Cabrini-Green project. (Peter Sobczynski) (5:15 PM)


BULLHEAD
"Bullhead" stands as evidence that if you make the effort, you can find an epic tale in the most unlikely of places. Here, writer/director Michael R. Roskam takes us to a cattle farm in Limburg, Belgium, where seemingly unconnected threads conspire to undermine the seeming solidity of a man who, at least physically, seems indomitable. MORE (Jay Seaver) (8:15 PM)


KAIDAN
This quartet of ghost stories from four of Japan's leading directors--Masayuki Ochial, Shinya Tsukamoto, Lee Sang-Il and Hirokazu Kore-Eda--include the tales of a man with a strange fetish for a young woman's arm, a collection of love letters written to a dying young woman, a monk being confronted with the ghost of a boy that he did not save from drowning and a couple visited by a young boy that they are convinced is actually their dead son. Provided that you prefer your scare stories to be quiet and moody instead of noisy and gory, this is a reasonably compelling collection of tales with Kore-Eda's, the one about the couple with the dead son, being the most effective of the bunch. (Peter Sobczynski) (8:30 PM)


LIKE CRAZY
Sundance has been full of films over the years tracing the path of a relationship from its glorious beginnings to their bitter ends. Some of the best in that time have included the well-known (500) Days of Summer (2008) and Blue Valentine (2010) to little seen, but also solid efforts such as Flannel Pajamas (2006) and Peter & Vandy (2009). This year's entry, Like Crazy, also was one of the most celebrated, and for fine reason. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a teacher's assistant who is fortunate enough to have a pretty girl make the first move. That girl is Anna (Felicity Jones), who leaves a note on his car that leads to an eventual courtship. Things are great until young love gets the better of them and she foolishly decides to overstay her visa, getting her banned from the United States. What's a guy to do? Much like the little seen and very underappreciated Going the Distance from last year, Like Crazy raises the usual questions about the reality of a long distance relationship. Romance novels may believe the happy ending is the bold move to one side of the pond or the other, but there are bigger factors involved. Careers for one. Jealousies another. Even the modern technology of today cannot compare to touch or solve an uncertain professional future. And figuring those things out while apart can lead to resentment rather than yearning. Granted, the hill-of-beans problems of these two all results from a really stupid, avoidable decision and that may cause some resentment in the audience's part. Especially in the treatment of a third party wrinkle represented by Jennifer Lawrence, whom if you just know from Winter's Bone, is going to elicit reactions akin to Tex Avery's wolf. Hard to feel sorry for a dude who has to choose between a gorgeous American and a cute-as-a-button Brit. Like Crazy is not asking us for our sympathies though. Drake Doremus (who made last year's underwhelming but Sundance-title-appropriate, Douchebag) simply lays it out there for us to absorb and think about. Maybe you want them to live happily ever after. Maybe you don't. The two leads are very good together (and apart.) Jones is completely fetching and Yelchin has never felt this natural and real on screen before. Unlike (500) Days, Blue Valentine and Peter & Vandy, Like Crazy does not utilize the back-and-forth to the past to relay happier times. This film plays it straight and genuine and that alone is cause for celebration in relationship stories these days. (Erik Childress) (6:00 PM)

MONDAY, OCT. 10


CINEMA KOMUNISTO
Until his death in 1980, Josip Broz Tito was both one of the key political figures in post-war Yugoslavia and a major cinephile who understood the power of the film in regards to changing and shaping public opinion and to that end, he built the Avala Studio as a mean of producing movies that would document his country's image in the eyes of the world. This fascinating documentary looks at the 40-year history of the studio and contains clips from more than 60 films that they produced during that period as well as the memories of Tito's personal projectionist, who ran upwards of 8000 film for his boss during his long reign. (Peter Sobczynski) (4:00 PM)


HIS MOTHER'S EYES
It would hardly be an international film festival without at least one entry featuring a performance by Catherine Deneuve, one of the leading lights of world cinema for nearly a half-century. In this French drama, she plays a famous newscaster of the Diane Sawyer mode who becomes the target of a sleazeball author who intends on writing an unauthorized tell-all biography and will do practically anything in order to keep the project going, even surreptitiously going to work for his subject as her new assistant and seducing her estranged daughter who has a few secrets of her own that he uncovers along the way. (Peter Sobczynski) (5:30 PM)


A DANGEROUS METHOD
David Cronenberg's latest purports to tell the story of the relationship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as influenced by a cipher of a patient. Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) comes to Jung's hospital as a disturbed mental patient prone to seizures, but under his therapy and the discovery of some disturbing paternal issues begins to come to grips and even pursues a career in psychology herself. Naturally, this comes from all manners of input from Dr. Jung - and the occasional spanking. This flies in the face of Freud's repressive teachings of sexuality and ultimately their friendship becomes one of conflict. These are big ideas worthy of a filmmaker like Cronenberg, but unfortunately this is maybe the tamest and least complex treatment that he has ever presented on the subject. One need look no further than Dead Ringers to see how Christopher Hampton's screenplay (based on his play) knows the words but not the music into fulfilling the dynamic of dual personalities conflicting over one's treatment of their urges. Knightley is very good here, especially in her extroverted early scenes. Though as good as she is, one wishes more time was devoted to scenes between Jung and Freud than the emotional boundaries of what feels like just another affair. Certainly one of the bigger disappointments of the film year. (Erik Childress) (7:00 PM)

For more information on films and screening times, you can head on over to the Chicago Film Festival website.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3310
originally posted: 10/07/11 03:29:30
last updated: 10/10/11 02:36:40
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