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Chicago's European Union Festival (Week One)

by Peter Sobczynski & Erik Childress

The 15th Annual European Union Festival has started at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center and we will be offering week-to-week coverage of the month long festival from March 2-29.

According to festival tradition, the Opening Night slot goes to a film representing the country holding the presidency of the actual European Union that particular year. This year, Denmark gets their honor and their contribution is a biopic of Dutch comedian Dirch Passer (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) that examines his enormous successful but tempestuous relationship with stage partner Kjeld Petersen, his equally contentious personal life and his struggles to be seen as a serious actor. For those with a fascination with the history of comedy, this film by Martin P. Zandvliet may prove to be of some interest but for others, it will merely prove that the standard-issue rags-to-riches show-biz chronicle is pretty much the same the world over. (March 2, 6:00 PM and March 4, 5:00 PM) (Peter Sobczynski)

Another biopic, this time from FInland and chronicling the decidedly unusual story of Hella Wuolijoki, a leftist woman who went from running a literary and political discussion salon to landing on death row under suspicion by the pro-Nazi government of being a communist spy to becoming a noted author, playwright and broadcaster until her death in 1954. There is far too much to her story to be contained in any one movie and so director Juha Wuolijoki only concentrates on a few key aspects (the birth of her literary career, her time and prison and her relationship with her estranged daughter) in order to keep things simple and the result is a fairly fascinating glimpse at one of the more intriguing figures of the 20th century--sort of like what "The Iron Lady" might have been like if it had been good. (March 3, 2:00 PM and March 6, 6:00 PM) (Peter Sobczynski)

Returning to the kind of horror-comedy hybrid that he mined so successfully with the classic "An American Werewolf in London," the brilliant prologue to "Twilight Zone--The Movie" and the underrated "Innocent Blood," John Landis offers up the latest screen incarnation of the grisly real-life exploits of William Burke and William Hare (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis), a pair of grave robbers in 1820's London whose get-rich-quick scheme of selling fresh cadavers to local medical colleges for "research" turns even more unsavory when their need for a continuous stream of product inspires them to murderous ends. Although no masterpiece by any means, this is a nicely done stab at black comedy with inspired performances from the two leads and some nice bits of nastiness here and there. As for Landis, who has spent the last decade or so working on documentaries and on television, the film may not hit the heights of his best-loved work but it stands heads and shoulders above the likes of "Beverly Hills Cop 3" or, God help us for even mentioning it, "Blues Brothers 2000." (March 3, 3:30 PM and March 5, 6:00 PM) (Peter Sobczynski)

Writer/director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo's film opens with a speech and a very funny sight gag as we realize that impending groom Diego (Quim Gutiérrez) has been left at the altar. His cousin Julian (Raúl Arévalo) goads him into the realization that he needs to get over it ASAP and Diego decides to head back to his hometown where he left the first love of his life, Martina (Inma Cuesta), many years ago. So Diego, Julian and their over-recovering war hero cousin Miguel (Adrián Lastra) head back in hopes to let the healing begin. Arévalo goes from big laughs early on to a more spread-out approach of sentiment later on, but the film is more than pleasant enough as a character ensemble to be worth your time. It is even a film you could easily see Judd Apatow's adapting into an American remake starring Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Jesse Eisenberg in the roles of the respective cousins. You will know who would play whom when you see it. (Saturday, March 3 at 5:15 PM & Monday, March 5 at 6:00 PM) (Erik Childress)

Poets are generally not happy people by nature. They certainly never appear to be in the movies. And yet they continue to make them. Ingrid Jonker (Carice van Houten) has been described as the South African Sylvia Plath, so one should already eliminate happy-go-lucky from their expectations. In the film it is no less than a near-drowning that becomes her meet-cute with writer Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham) and leads to a push-and-pull relationship for the rest of their days. For a woman most well acknowledged for having a poem of hers read by Nelson Mandela during the first democratic gathering of their country, Paula van der Oest spends very little time making Plath's connection to the plight of the black people. The most interesting relationship is the one she has with her father (Rutger Hauer) who just happens to be the Minister of Censorship, which he demonstrates by tearing up one of her poems, and seems to exist only as a convenient catalyst to throw her further into a loveless funk. This is a flat-as-they-come biopic that never fully justifies the importance of Jonker to her country and only reveals to an audience what they already figured about her going in. (Saturday, March 3 at 7:15 PM & Wednesday, March 7 at 8:00 PM) (Erik Childress)

Every film festival contains a few entries that are pretty unspeakable as cinema but which contain enough attractive elements and familiar faces to lure viewers in and hopefully convince them to stick around for something a little more adventurous. Such a film is this limp blend of romance, melodrama and toothless political satire in which oddball scientist Ewan McGregor (imagine the little monster from "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" all grown up and annoying as ever), comely publicist Emily Blunt and cynical government official KRisten Scott Thomas become embroiled in a seemingly hopeless attempt to introduce fly-fishing into the Yemen region at the behest of an incredibly wealthy sheik. Even when you consider that it combines the talents of the director of "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat" (Lasse Hallstrom) and the screenwriter of "The Full Monty" (Simon Beaufoy), this example of punch-pulling Europudding is so blandly innocuous that it barely seems to have enough substance for the image to make it from the projector to the screen. Regardless, it will probably be one of the more popular titles at this year's festival--even though this screening is essentially a preview for its regular commercial release a few weeks later--but no matter what else is screening, you can almost certainly do better by choosing something else that you might not get a chance to see again later. (March 3, 7:15 PM) (Peter Sobczynski)

If Adam Sandler's Barry ever breaks up with Emily Watson's Lena from Punch-Drunk Love, I think we may have found a rebound gal. She's a bit younger, but seems to have some of those same anger issues triggered by her family. Her name is Katarina (Alicia Vikander) and her mom is a condescending, disapproving alcoholic. To the symphony! That is where Katarina ends up and through a case of mistaken identity ends up getting a job there and sparking her own fancy as well as that of the conductor (Samuel Froler). The slow dance between the two of them begins as Katarina sees her promiscuous past begin to fade at the prospect of something more lasting. Anyone who seen any of these affair-laden tryst flicks knows that things are not going to end up on the happiness tip. Writer/director Lisa Langseth though keeps the focus on character though rather than the visual thrills of torrid lovemaking and nudity which are kept to the non-bare minimum. This gives the audience a focus into Katarina that a lot of other films would have failed her on and we end up arriving at a more emotional gratification than we expected. (Sunday, March 4 at 3:00 PM & Wednesday, March 7 at 6:00 PM) (Erik Childress)

Ever been stuck in a car with people that would sooner have you getting out and walking? Don't just count all the road trip movies you have seen. But here is another one involving three friends who take off by car just as they used to do in high school. The threesome includes soldier Gregor (Jure Henigman) who is headed back to Afghanistan, talky gay Andrej (Luka Cimpric) and Ziva (Nina Rakovec )the woman destined to be slept with and/or confessed feelings too. The arc of the Nejc Gazvoda's film is nothing we haven't seen before. Goofing around, jokes that turn into truth and secrets to be revealed. None of which we are very interested in hearing, particularly from a trio that feel more like archetypes than real people. One would sooner want to hop a ride with Hunter & Dr. Gonzo than these boring, frequently unpleasant seat fillers. (Sunday, March 4 at 7:15 pm & Thursday, March 8 at 8:15 PM) (Erik Childress)

For more details you may go the Siskel Film Center Website

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originally posted: 03/06/12 07:58:46
last updated: 03/06/12 08:23:27
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