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The 2012 Chicago International Film Festival (Updated Oct. 16)
by Erik Childress, Peter Sobczynski & Jay Seaver

This year's Chicago International Film Festival begins by bringing together Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin and closes by bringing Robert Zemeckis back to live-action filmmaking. Stay tuned in this spot as we bring you reviews from this year's festival.



You can purchase tickets for this year's festival HERE and allow us to guide you below.

OPENING NIGHT FILM: STAND-UP GUYS
To put it mildly, the selection of the Opening Night film has been a bit uneven over the years and since this mob comedy, which is receiving its world premiere here, has not yet screened for the press as this is being written, it is impossible to say which side of the proverbial fence it will land on. However, in terms of the star power being lured in to walk the red carpet, it should be a success as co-stars Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Julianna Margulies, Vanessa Ferlito and Addison Timlin and director Fisher Stevens are currently scheduled to appear. If any of you go to the red carpet ceremony, I dare you to yell "Serpentine, Shelly" when Arkin arrives.

THE ABCS OF DEATH
It's a radical idea. An anthology feature consisting of 26 short films. Each director is assigned a letter of the alphabet and must choose a word that deals with death. Already one's head must be filled with the worst possible outcomes. Every anthology film comes with its share of winners and losers. The recent V/H/S only gets one or two (if being generous) right out of six. Twilight Zone: The Movie is known for splitting between two lesser and two superior efforts; one of which produced a segment for the infamous Faces of Death series. Despite the worst that our imaginations can muster for films with only one rule, The ABCs of Death is far more tolerable than even those on the fringe of being horror could envision and overall, it kinda works. The films are presented in ABC order (with the reveal of the word and the director responsible at the end of each) and the first half boasts some of the stronger segments. Spoiling any of them would almost defeat the purpose. Some go for gross. Some go for shock. Some go for simply funny. Directors include mostly indie cult favorites like Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), Xavier Gens (Frontier(s)), Simon Rumley (Red, White & Blue), Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), Ben Wheatley (Kill List) and Adam Wingard (the terrific forthcoming You're Next) to name just a few. Actress Angela Bettis contributes a somewhat amusing one. Personal favorites, surprisingly enough, include one involving a twist on a dogfight and a very funny take on the letter "Q." The worst of the bunch without question comes from slow-burn artiste Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers). His segment is one of the shortest of the bunch and maybe the most off-putting - but in the most obvious of ways. Needless to say if any film school student were handed his word, their first most uninspired idea would likely involve what West filmed. A pretty remarkable little streak considering he also has the worst segment in V/H/S as well. Overall, maybe 13 or 14 of the segments are worth a look. In school that would result in a failing grade, but for anthology films it's a pretty decent B-. (Erik Childress)

ANTIVIRAL
There's no doubt about it that Brandon Cronenberg is a chip off the old block. By block, of course, I'm referring to his father David, and by old, I mean of the days when dad was more interested in the flesh than the mind. In a future that has gone off the deep end about celebrity worship, a company now offers the common folk to actually take a little piece of their favorite stars with them - in the form of viruses they have carried. Nothing lethal mind you, which is a good thing for Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) who has also taken corporate espionage to the next level by infecting himself with the latest spores, molds and fungus to sell to a butcher who...you may not want to know. The story takes a turn for the slightly more mainstream as Syd becomes a ticking time bomb for a virus that killed a well-known starlet and working in tandem with her family must uncover what happened before it's too late. The cult of celebrity is still the driving force of Cronenberg's story, which is a lot ickier in its comprehension than any truly noticeable gross-out moments. Though hypochondriacs with touch phobias may want to stay away, fans of Brandon's dad will find plenty to enjoy and think about even if it has one or two ideas it isn't quite interested in paying off to the most satisfactory of conclusions. Between father and son, Antiviral is certainly the most interesting film of the Cronenberg lineage since A History of Violence and easily the most Cronenberg-y film since eXistenZ. (Erik Childress)

THE BELIEVERS
Back in 1989, scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons stunned the world when they announced that they had discovered what they called "cold fusion," a process of generating energy with the potential to literally change the world if it indeed worked. Alas, no one else could replicate the results they claimed to have achieved, the two were soon dismissed as sloppy scientists at best and publicity-seeking frauds at worst and their careers were pretty much destroyed as a result. As it turns out, there was more to the story than what was reported in the media at the time and this fascinating documentary from Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross explores it in a manner that is both highly detailed and clearly laid out in a manner so that the non-eggheads in the audience can understand what is being discussed. (Peter Sobczynski)

THE BELLA VISTA
Set in a small town in Uruguay, this documentary takes a look at the battle of wills that develops over a once-abandoned soccer clubhouse between the transvestite prostitutes who have transformed it into a popular brothel, the former members of the soccer club who want to reclaim it for themselves and other locals who wish to transform it into a Catholic chapel. The early going is a bit rough--it is a little too aimless for its own good and some of the scenes feel as though they have been staged--but it does tighten up and improve as it progresses and the final scenes have an undeniable power to them. (Peter Sobczynski)

BEYOND THE HILLS
Returning for the first time since his award-winning 2007 drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the grim saga of a woman trying to secure an illegal abortion for her friend, Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu offers up another dark and disturbing story about two young women. This time around, two young women who used to be friends (and, it is hinted, something more) reunite after a spell--Alina has gone off to the city and clearly has some emotional problems while Voichita has found peace in a remote monastery. Alina goes to stay with her friend but responds so badly to the claustrophobic atmosphere that drastic and ultimately tragic measures are taken to "help" her. As you might guess, this film is not exactly a walk in the park and its 150-minute running time may feel oppressive to some. That said, it cannot be denied that Mungiu lives up to the promises of his earlier film and gets powerful performances from his two leads.

BLACK POND
"Black Pond" starts out as one thing (a thriller), becomes another (a kitchen-sink drama), with a great deal of dark comedy mixed into both, and then by the time it's over, seems to be both and neither. It's a strange result, not just ambiguous, but ambiguous in the most unusual of ways. The scandal of the Thompson family at Black Pond has gained some notoriety, it seems, and one track taken by the film shows interviews with the participants trying to explain their roles. Alongside that, the affair plays out, beginning when Tom Thomposon (Chris Langham) has a chance encounter with another man while searching for his dog Boy, who has slipped his leash. The man, Blake (Colin Hurley), is peculiarly open in his way, and soon Tom has invited him back to his house for tea. Tom's wife Sophie (Amanda Hadingue), will later say that it was the first real conversation that she and Tom had shared for months, although Blake's lack of boundaries does later seem odd, at the very least. An unexpected event brings daughters Jess (Helen Cripps) and Katie (Anna O'Grady) back from London, along with roommate Tim Tanaka (Will Sharpe), and by the time the weekend is over, a series of events will take place that undermines the group's relationships and has the police investigating the lot. READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

BLACK'S GAME
Is it weird to call "Black's Game" kind of fun? It is, after all, a movie about gangs and the cocaine trade that doesn't exactly go the hip black comedy route or make its characters cool through their disdain for authority or hyper-capability. But there it is, grabbing my interest and making its characters worth a little affection despite otherwise being a fairly typical crime movie. Not that "psycho" Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson) starts out as a gangster, though he does get in some legal trouble. An encounter with old acquaintance Toti (Johannes Hakur Johannesson) yields the promise of a great lawyer if Stebbi will retrieve something hidden from a crime scene. When Stebbi does so even after having to deal with a thug after the same loot, Toti brings him into the inner circle with partner Sævar K (Egill Einarsson) and girlfriend Dagny (Maria Birta). They're joining forces with Bruno (Damon Younger) to take over Rekjavik's cocaine business, which in 1999 is about to explode. READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

BOYS ARE US
After getting cruelly dumped by her boyfriend, Swiss teenager Mia is convinced by older sister Laura to get revenge on the entire male gender via a plan in which she will pick some random boy, make him fall madly in love with her and then kick him to the curb herself. Needless to say, the plan starts off well enough but soon encounters a few complications, largely involving Mia's true dedication to the scheme and Laura's decision to get involved in the proceedings as well. This is a story that has been seen many times before and while writer-director Peter Luisi throws in a multiple-narrative structure in a presumed attempt to make things seems more substantial, it only seres to muddy up the dramatic waters and keeps viewers from getting emotionally invested in the story. The performances from Joelle Witschi and Deleila Piesko as the two sisters are good but not enough to quite warrant a recommendation. (Peter Sobczynski)

THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE
If you were around in 1989, you probably remember the case in which five black and Latino teenagers were arrested and convicted for the horrifying rape and near-murder of a white woman in New York's Central Park. What you may not recall is that nearly 13 years later, after they had served their sentences and gone one with their lives, all five were exonerated when the real perpetrator eventually confessed to the crime. In this powerful and at times jaw-dropping examination of the case, co-directors Ken Burns (yes, that one), Sarah Burns and David McMahon go through the case in meticulous detail in order to show how the pursuit of justice could go so horribly wrong and what they come up with should send a chill down the spine of anyone who watches it. It clearly appears to have struck a nerve in the corridors of power as the city of New York, who are currently being sued by the former defendants, has just subpoenaed the filmmakers to turn over all of their outtakes. (Peter Sobczynski)

CITADEL
What to make of the apparent growing terror folks in the British Isles seem to have of their cities's poorer neighborhoods, at least when seen through the prism of their movies? There seem to be several "Harry Brown"s for every "Attack the Block", and I'm reasonably certain that I've seen another film with a very similar premise to "Citadel" at this festival a year or two ago. As familiar as its themes may be, though, "Citadel" is a darn good one. The terror of the council blocks starts early; Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) and his nine-months-pregnant wife Joanne (Amy Shiels) are moving out where three hoodie-wearing marauders attack her while he can't escape the balky old elevator to help her. Nine months later, Tom's an agoraphobic basket case, a condition not helped when the town's crazy priest (James Cosmo) tells him that "they'll come to get her", apparently referring to his baby daughter. READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

CLIP
Every film festival worth its salt requires at least one controversy-baiting title to hopefully raise hackles and demonstrate that it still has its edge and it appears that this Serbian entry, in which an insolent and overly sexualized teen girl with a predictably unhappy home life, goes to great lengths to catch the attention of anyone willing to show her even the slightest bit of interest will be filling that particular slot this year. There are plenty of close-up depictions of oral sex, ejaculations and pubic hair shaving on display along with the expected smorgasboard of graphic sex and brutal violence and if it had been directed by a male filmmaker, it would no doubt be dismissed as hateful and overly sordid crap bereft of a point or any remotely likable or interesting characters. As it turns out, it was made by a woman, Maja Milos, and yet, it is still all that and more. On the bright side, there is a title card at the end that assures viewers that no underage actors were utilized during the scenes involving the overly sexual material. Whew! (Peter Sobczynski)

CLOUD ATLAS
Reinforcing my recent belief that films can be best enjoyed by seeing and knowing as little as possible beforehand, Cloud Atlas is nevertheless a film that modern audiences must be prepared for when taking a chance on it. But even the extended six-minute trailer released some months ago cannot do justice to what the Wachowskis and Tom Twyker have accomplished in adapting David Mitchell's novel. To describe its plot would take more than a few sentences. Just know that you have six stories ranging from the colonial days to far into the future. They are connected not by the superficial trappings of personal relationships so often used to surprise audiences without anthological tales of this type, but how such relationships and individual actions affect the next generation. The Butterfly Effect on hyperdrive, if you will. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, Keith David and Susan Sarandon play different characters in the varying stories, sometimes even changing race and sex. That alone is a lot to process for the average moviegoer not used to such stunts which could easily register as silly or confusing while they are trying to piece together this giant puzzle. In fact, the first half of this 160+ film may put-off viewers further with its pacing and seemingly no payoff in sight, potentially evoking thoughts that they may be witnessing the next Southland Tales or Dune. Cult supporters of those films aside, it is the film's second half that should erase any cataclysmic feelings as not only the pacing begins to rev like a treadmill going downhill but the puzzle begins to come together for the audience in glorious fashion. Without being condescended to, each viewer is still allowed to come to their own conclusions about the nature of the universe and how each action causes a later reaction, and their own reaction may be to see the film again. And again. Hopefully we will be able to outlive the debate of its existence between those who feel it to be a bloated mess and others like me who view it as potentially a very important and lasting piece of work. (Erik Childress)

COMING OF AGE
While The Notebook may be the go-to film for the masses hoping to believe in love and passion at an old age, Paul Cox's Innocence may be the go-to one for a film that really explores it. Sabine Hiebler & Gerhart Ertl's Coming of Age promises to cover some of the same territory but loses itself along the way as if it contracted a case of Alzheimer's itself. Rosa (Christine Ostermayer) has been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer. To top off her day, she has lost the lease on her apartment and is getting no help from her daughter. On the worst of days she is spotted by Bruno (Karl Merkatz), a kindly old gent who makes her laugh and walks her to a hotel where he goes for it and plants a kiss. Leaving quickly, we discover that Bruno is actually married and is in an everyday routine he's rather bored with. When another chance meeting develops his relationship with Rosa further, their love affair is discovered and everyone close to Bruno tries to get him to either shape up or be put away. The invented complications that Hiebler & Ertl (also responsible for writing duties) place upon their couple take the focus off of whatever sweetness and romance exists and puts the audience in a position where we are just waiting for it all to be over as well. Coming of Age leads us towards an obvious climax all too quickly and it seems like we barely knew Rosa & Bruno and certainly not in the manner that they clearly wanted to know each other. (Erik Childress)

DRAGON
Though Harvey Weinstein has saddled this movie with a generic name for when he finally gets around to releasing it in the USA (the man can't help himself), the original Chinese name of "Wu Xia" is even more basic - it's the name of the "martial hero" genre as a whole. And while this is certainly not the last word on martial arts movies, it's a nifty and memorable one. The time is 1917; the place is a small village outside Yunnan, China. Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), a humble family man who works at the paper mill, is making a stop at the general store when two bandits come in to rob the place. He hides, but when the criminals start to lay into him, he is able to defend himself well enough to be the last man standing while his attackers lay dead. It looks like he got very lucky indeed, but Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the city detective investigating the incident, finds that one of the bandits was on the nation's most-wanted list, but the blow that killed him is far too incredibly precise to be lucky. Is Jinxi more than just the devoted husband of Ayu (Wang Tei), and what interest does the leader of the 72 Demons gang (Jimmy Wang Yu) have in this? READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

F*CKLOAD OF SCOTCHTAPE
Local filmmaker Julian Grant offers up this self-described "neo-noir musical crime drama" in which a young thug finds himself being set up to take the rap for a kidnapping that went violently wrong and tries desperately to free himself from the web of lies, treachery and betrayal that he is trapped in and also offers up a few songs along the way to boot. Alas, I couldn't tell you how or if it all somehow pulls together because after only about 20 minutes or so, the whole thing--the convoluted narrative, the overdone visual style, the obnoxious characters, even the mere sound of the central character's voice--annoyed me so throughly that I finally found myself shutting off the screener and sparing myself another hour of agony. (Peter Sobczynski)

GIMME THE LOOT
After having their latest graffiti masterpiece defaced by rival tagger, Bronx teenagers Malcolm and Sofia hit upon a brilliant revenge plot--they will sneak into Shea Stadium while the Mets are away and tag the apple that rises from the stands whenever they hit a home run. To pull this off, however, requires a $500 bribe to a security guard and over the course of a couple of days, they struggle to raise the money through any number of con jobs and petty crimes that wind up getting them nowhere. Viewers of this film will understand exactly how they feel because while the premise in engaging enough, it quickly gets bogged down under the weight of the amateurish direction by Adam Leon, deeply unlikable characters and a narrative that seems to be going out of its way at times to be strident and annoying. (Peter Sobczynski)

HOLY MOTORS
The film maybe be titled "Holy Motors" but most people bearing witness to Leos Carax's first feature since 1999's "Pola X" are going to come away from it saying "Holy Shit!!" in response to its jaw-dropping audacity and refusal to conform to most tenets of contemporary narrative cinema. Expanding on the short film that he contributed to the anthology "Tokyo!," the film stars longtime Carax stand-in Denis Levant as a mysterious man named Mr. Oscar who, one fine morning, enters his limousine--a behemoth that makes the car in "Cosmopolis" seem like a hatchback and which has French film icon Edith Scob behind the wheel--and sets off to complete nine assignments for his mysterious employer that find him adopting a number of elaborate disguises and entering situations ranging from a sewer-based fashion show to an elaborate musical number and encountering characters played by the likes of Eva Mendes, Michel Piccoli and even Kylie Minogue. I have been a fan of all of Carax's previous efforts (if you haven't seen his 1992 masterpiece "The Lovers on the Bridge," you should go to Netflix and watch it right this very instant) and even I have to say that I am a bit baffled by what he has offered up this time around--if there is a plot to be had, it remains well-hidden and may perhaps only be teased out by subsequent viewings. That said, it is visually stunning and Carax attacks the material in such a heedless manner--he has been making features for more nearly 30 years and he still feels like a first-timer trying to capture everything for fear that he may never get a chance to do it again--that I was not only never bored for a second but I found myself wanting to watch it again as soon as it ended. (Peter Sobczynski)

THE IMPOSSIBLE
Here is a title that accurately reflects what it is like to imagine yourself on the day of Dec. 26, 2004. That was the day the deadliest tsunami on record tore through Indonesia. It is even more impossible to imagine how anyone could have survived at all. The story of the Bennet family even moreso, but director J.A. Bayona makes us believe it with a visceral and emotional force. On vacation with their three young boys to Thailand for Christmas are Henry & Maria (Ewan McGregor & Naomi Watts). Not two days in after fun in the sun and a happy holiday, the waters hit. Thrown instantly into the chaos of survival, Maria and her oldest, 10 year-old Lucas (a great Tom Holland), desperately try to connect through the debris as the boy is thrust into manhood to get them to safety. With no knowledge if the rest of their family is alive, they look to each other and anyone else they can help along the way until they can make it out or succumb to the harsh realities. The feat of the tsunami recreation alone (a mere 13 minutes into the film) is as technically impressive as anything you're going to see this year and should rank amongst the best disaster sequences ever put on film. But it is the emotional aftermath that is equally as impressive. Bayona has gone from the ghostly terrors of The Orphanage to real-life terror, sticking the landing with a decidedly Spielbergian flair. The theme of altruism takes on great meaning through the other side of this tragedy and the characters bring emotional closure to more than just their own triumphs. This is a terrifying crowd-grabber that, again, lives up to its title if you're wondering if you'll be holding back your own tears. (Erik Childress)


IN THEIR SKIN
The title says "In Their Skin", but the poster reads "Replicas." It hardly matters seeing as how you have seen this all before. Mary (Selma Blair) and Mark (Joshua Close) are taking their young son (Quinn Lord) to their vacation cottage in the hopes of taking some time away from a recent tragedy in their family. The relations between them are nearly as cold as the weather. Good thing there's a neighboring family willing to wake you up in the morning to bring over some firewood. Bobby (James D'Arcy), his mousy wife (Rachel Miner) and their big-for-his-age son (Alex Ferris) get themselves invited over for dinner where further awkwardness develops until things take a turn for the worst and the evening gets even weirder. Start with Funny Games and splash in a touch of Cape Fear and The Stepfather and you roughly are left with little surprises past the somewhat intriguing first act. Whatever success Jeremy Regimbal's film develops along the way is due to D'Arcy doing his best Anthony Perkins and potentially creating one creepily effective psychopath. Once the plot takes shape though, he is left with nothing to do but threaten with a big gun and quickly strip away any semblance of a man with a plan. Joshua Close (the protagonist of George Romero's Diary of the Dead) does him no favors as the husband or the screenwriter by failing to offer a fresh take on an old-school identity theft. In Their Skin gets less suspenseful the more the threat is revealed and by the end we're left more with the disturbing thought that marriage counselors may want to recommend a good old-fashioned home invasion for their clients. It seems to really help couples. (Erik Childress)

JOHN DIES AT THE END
"John Dies at the End" is a cult novel that barely had time to gain a reputation as unfilmable before going before the cameras. Director and screenwriter Don Coscarelli dealt with this by (mostly) sticking to the (relatively) linear first third of the book, but make no mistake - this is still quite the odd story, and the telling is nearly as peculiar. David Wong (Chase Williamson) and his friend John (Rob Mayes) may seem like nothing more than slackers, but they're actually the go-to guys for handling the frequent incursions of the paranormal on their small Illinois town. How did they get started? Well, as as Dave tells reporter Arnie (Paul Giamatti), there was this guy (Tai Bennett) handing out this drug called "the soy sauce", which fundamentally alters one's perception of space and time in a way that others only claim to. The morning after, everybody who took it is either missing or dead, and Dave has to figure out what's going on while avoiding a detective (Glynn Turman) and fielding weird telephone calls from John, when all he really wants to do is get together with Amy (Fabianne therese), the cute girl looking for the dog that turned up next to his car. READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
"Keep the Lights On" is the sort of semi-autobiographical movie that just goes to show that one's real-life drama, even if translated to the screen without a hitch, is not necessarily compelling for others. Director Ira Sachs goes for honesty here, and does well by it, but perhaps could have added something else to the mix. The Sachs surrogate is Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker originally from Denmark but living and working in Manhattan. As the film starts, it's 1998, and a lonely Erik meets Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth) on a phone sex line. Erik is lonely despite being close with his sister Karen (Paprika Steen) and collaborator Claire (Julianne Nicholson), so he and Paul are soon together, but Paul's issues with secrecy and addiction will put a strain on the relationship. READ FULL REVIEW (Jay Seaver)

(NEW!)
MARIE KROYER
The title character of this melodramatic Danish biopic is the wife/muse of painter Peder Severin Kroyer, a woman whose seemingly posh and perfect life is troubled because she wants to be known and loved for herself instead of merely being seen as the appendage of her famous husband. When his increasingly unstable mental condition threatens both her and their child, she finds herself looking for a way out and believes that she has found it in a hunky Swedish composer who loves her for herself. Needless to say, it all goes south for her, partly because of the cruel sexism of the times and partly because she--quite frankly--is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer herself. (I don't care how oppressive the times may have been--if the lawyer and close family friend makes a pass at you that you firmly rebuff, it is probably not the smartest idea to then voluntarily give him power of attorney.) The film was made by the acclaimed director Billie August but by the time it finally lurches to its turgid tear-jerker conclusion, you may find yourself wondering why August was ever celebrated in the first place. Only recommended if you are looking for this decade's "Bride of the Wind" and if you recall that one, you may have seen too many failed biopics about self-absorbed and unlikable artistic muses for your own good. (Peter Sobczynski)

(NEW!)
MEETING LEILA
Arguably the most delightful of this year's festival entries, this deceptive simple comedy deals with an ad agency idea man who, as the story begins, meets and instantly falls for the title character (and since she is played by Leila Hatami, the luminous star of "A Separation," you can hardly blame him). The only hitch--he is a two-pack-a-day man who claims he needs cigarettes to fire up the creative process while she cannot abide smoking under any circumstances and demands that he give it up for good before they get married. Charting his elaborate attempts to dump the habit (not to mention his even more elaborate methods of working around those attempts in order to sneak a smoke), this effort from emerging filmmaker Adel Yaraghi (with a screenplay co-written by no less a figure than Abbas Kiarostami) is a charmer from start to finish that tells a story about the compromises that are made (or at least attempted) in the name of any relationship that can be easily embraced by viewers of all backgrounds and cultures equally. (Peter Sobczynski)

MR. SOPHISTICATION
Ron Waters (Harry Lennix Jr.) is a comedian that looks to be doing pretty well for himself. It helps to be married to a woman (Tatum O'Neal) who owns the club, but Ron keeps the audience entertained and he is even sought out by an old manager (Robert Patrick). Ron is on the rise from a past though; one hinted at involving drink, drugs and infidelity. Given a shot at some greater exposure, Ron takes a trip out of Chicago and begins falling into some of his former vices. Writer/director Danny Green's film begins with a lot of promise. Lennix is an actor that has gone far too underutilized in films over the years and that talent is on display throughout here, especially in the early scenes as he takes to the stage more as a storytelller than joke-meister and we're riveted with every word. What promises to be one of the better films about stand-up comedians devolves into cliche territory all too quickly and can never recover despite Lennix's mature vibe trying to defuse things like the hanger-on (Paloma Guzman) he's carrying on an affair with. Even when the story shifts from his comeback to just becoming a source of suspicion in every scene with the women in his life, Lennix's presence alone may still be worth giving the film a look if just to ask why we don't see more of him. (Erik Childress)

NOT FADE AWAY
In his first major project since the conclusion of a little thing called "The Sopranos," writer-director David Chase moves from organized crime to rock music to tell the story of a trio of New Jersey teenagers who decide to start their own band and keep plugging away at it over the course of the next few years despite the usual obstacles. This may not be the most powerfully original story that you will encounter at this year's festival but thanks to Chase's expert writing and direction, a gallery of wonderful performances from a cast consisting mostly of unknowns (the only familiar faces on display are James Gandolfini as the grumpy father of one of the kids and "Dark Shadows" ingenue Bella Heathcoate as The Girl) and a killer soundtrack of period tunes compiled by Steven van Zandt, most viewers will be too entertained to care. It may not top the likes of "The Commitments" or "Almost Famous" in terms of classic rock movies but it is definitely worthy of being a part of that conversation and, for those worried about Chase's ability to stick the landing in the wake of the controversial conclusion of "The Sopranos," I can assure you that he finds a closing note here that is just about perfect. (Peter Sobczynski)

A CONVERSATION WITH PHILIP KAUFMAN
Over the years, filmmaker Philip Kaufman has directed any number of flat-out masterpieces--including the best version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to date, "The Right Stuff," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Quills,"--helped challenge the MPAA rating system by making the first film to receive the NC-17 rating ("Henry & June") and played an instrumental part in the development of a little film by the name of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Earlier this year, Kaufman returned to the director's chair after a long hiatus (even longer if we all agree to pretend that "Twisted," the artistically anonymous and generally useless Ashley Judd thriller he inexplicably made, never existed) with the acclaimed HBO film "Hemingway & ." Following a screening of his little-seen 1974 drama "The White Dawn," a gripping tale of survival in the Arctic, Kaufman will discuss his long and varied career in an on-stage Q&A with film scholar Annette Insdorf. (Peter Sobczynski)

(NEW!)
RHINO SEASON
Inspired by a true story, the latest work from Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi recounts the story of a poet who was thrown in jail during the Islamic Revolution and released over three decades later into a world where everyone--including his beloved wife (Monica Bellucci), who also spent ten years behind bars--believes that he died in prison, according to government claims. As the man tries to come to terms with the now-changed world while searching for his wife and children, we are also shown what happened to her during that time, chiefly the relentless romantic pursuit by a would-be suitor that culminates in a horrifying act that will continue to have repercussions for the three of them for years to come. Deftly weaving past and present together while telling a frankly melodramatic narrative that he never allows to devolve into soap histrionics, Ghobadi has created a brilliant and haunting work that contains strong performances across the board, a fascinating narrative and some of the most haunting visuals that you are likely to see anytime soon. (Peter Sobczynski)

ROOM 237
In what would end up being my 30th film at the festival, Rodney Ascher's tribute to or dissection of Stanley Kubrick is the one film that peaked the most interest from people upon my return. Any average film fan might see their hackles rise whenever some self-confirmed film scholar start waxing rhapsodic about the inner meaning of an auteur's oeuvre. Believe me, it even drives critics nuts when a pretentious director (especially at a film festival) starts talking about their film's subtext when there is barely even a qualifying text at the forefront. At the same time, breaking down a film to the manner in which Quentin Tarantino dissects Top Gun or listening to conspiracy theorists try to convince you that they are more enlightened than you can be a lot of fun. Ascher's Room 237 is like a mixed concoction of all the fun and frustration one could possibly abide when delving into Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. What is the film really about? That is a question asked time and time again throughout this documentary that mixes voiceover with nothing but film footage to convey everything from walking to a theater to all the supposed evidence that proves each fan's theory; some more wackier than the next. The best of which is the examination that The Shining is a film based upon the worst sins of America's past continuingly resurfacing to haunt us. (Indian imagery is prominently featured throughout.) But at least three times I audibly yelled out "OH, C'MON!" as I wanted to smack some sense into a few of these nuts. Suggesting this was Kubrick's outing of his role in faking the moon landing is pretty fascinating, but trying to sell that a room key actually spells out "MOON ROOM" is lunacy. One guy wants to examine how The Shining is really about sexual repression. Great, as that is as valid a theory as any. But don't try to prove it by trying to suggest a desk filer gives Ullman a visual boner as he shakes Jack's hand. Such things turn Room 237 into its own kind of participatory horror film, but an undeniably fun and wholly interesting one at that. Hopefully Ascher or someone with his ambition will continue this trend by examining all the hidden tricks, gimmicks and stylings of other brain-twisting cinematic treats as they can provide genuine insight into the work of a director. Even if it's all just nonsense. (Erik Childress)

THE SESSIONS
The big money pickup of the Sundance festival (from Fox Searchlight) is also no doubt one of the few films liable to have any Oscar contention in 2012. Based on a true story, the great John Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a poet afflicted with polio from a very young age, who now 38 is looking to put his words into practice. Still a virgin, Mark would like to find a partner before, as he puts it, his expiration date arrives. After an unsuccessful proclamation to his pretty caretaker, Mark is offered a chance to write a magazine piece on sex surrogates. Not prostitutes who, according to Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), want your repeat business while surrogates set limits. Semantics, really. But one that works in Mark's favor as he hires Cheryl to show him the fine art of making love while looking for both permission and absolution through Father Brendan (William H. Macy). Writer/director Ben Lewin (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish) in his first feature since 1994's Paperback Romance, takes the safe route with the material. Never shying away from the nudity or the situations, but softening the language and the moral implications for those in the audience who, again, might be a bit off put at the thought of getting the Lord's thumbs up for paying for sex. Using a healthy dose of humor and some very winning performances, The Sessions (formally titled The Surrogate & Six Sessions) makes for a perfectly nice, if not challenging, film. Hawkes is almost certain to be in the Oscar conversation next year; his physical gauntness outshined by the spirit he projects. We see the inner child in his smile as he experiences the simple pleasures his body has never awarded him throughout his life and even early on when he says "I love you" there is instant heartbreak. Hunt's performance is appropriately tender in her scenes with Hawkes. Her roving accent notwithstanding, she is reduced outside of those moments to talking into a tape recorder questions and thoughts about Mark's upbringing which end the millisecond she hits stop. Cheryl's married life and conversion to Judaism are not helped by editing choices meant to combine timelines and by a bizarre appearance by Rhea Perlman, whose entrance practically demands a sitcom audience cue for guest star applause. Still, as a movie focused on the performances, The Surrogate is often a rather funny film that may convince one or two that a higher power doesn't really care what we do with our own body. That alone would make it a minor success. Hawkes and Macy help make it more so. (Erik Childress)

SHAMELESS
In this generally icky Polish drama, Tadek turns up on the doorstep of sister Anka's home looking for a place to stay. As it turns out, his interest in his sister is not entirely healthy but due to their traumatic shared past, breaking free of each other may not be as easy as it seems. Well-acted but dramatically inert, the film wants to tackle a taboo subject but somehow fails to make anything of interest out of it and in the end, all it does is make one better appreciate what Bernardo Bertolucci was able to achieve with such masterpieces as "Last Tango in Paris" and "Luna," both of which this film owes a debt. (Peter Sobczynski)

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK
The trailer makes it seem like nothing special. A mental case meets a young lady full-of-life who brings him back from the edge by teaming up with him for a dance contest. And it stars Bradley Cooper. But this is why we don't review films based on trailers and the final product is further proof that writer/director David O. Russell has an uncanny act to make so much out of seemingly so little. And he's not the only one. Cooper plays Pat, a guy released from a mental institution where he has stayed for eight months since attacking a man (with good reason.) His bi-polar condition doesn't exactly make him ideal for social situations, particularly when his newfound goals in life include to reunite with the wife he left behind. Mom (Jacki Weaver) coddles him and Dad (Robert DeNiro) is a bit weary and more concerned with his recent bookmaking operation. Then Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who can be equally as brash and on-the-nose without having the diagnosis and is carrying around the consequences of a husband who died young. Through a mutual understanding she agrees to help him get his wife back if he partners up for her therapeutic dance night. Even with further explanation this sounds like a roll-your-eyes attempt at feel-good gobbledygook. But through solid writing (based on the Matthew Quick novel) and actors doing career-best work, the film is a joyous delight front-to-back. Cooper has never been this good, though his performance does lose a touch of its first act boldness and urgency once his characters starts taking his meds. Like with Stone, DeNiro shows again that he's still got a real performance in him and isn't afraid to make good with the comedy either. Even Chris Tucker in a small role (he gets a bit too much credit in the trailer) is nicely restrained and thus practically unrecognizable. But this is a film that ultimately belongs to Jennifer Lawrence and she owns it, thus solidifying her as one of the best actresses of any age working today. Like the force of nature that Tiffany is, Lawrence enters the film and our eyes and ears are immediately tuned in to every word and expression. When she takes to a room filled with a group of alpha males either trying to either knock her down a peg or defend her, Lawrence commands the room in the kind of manner where you are witnessing a star being born. And the Oscar she is likely destined to take home next February for this role will only further enforce that. From Flirting with Disaster to Three Kings to The Fighter and even the underappreciated I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell delivers wonderfully left-of-center entertainment time and time again and this is no exception. Funny, uplifting and a marquee for first-rate acting, Silver Linings Playbook is one of the best times to be had at the movies this year. (Erik Childress)

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SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas tends to divide his work between vast and sprawling epics such as"Irma Vep," "Demonlover," "Carlos") with smaller, character-driven dramas like his previous project, "Summer Hours." This time around, he straddles the two to present the story of Gillies, a teenaged wannabe artist who finds himself swept up in the radical student movement of Paris in the early 1970's and romantic complications involving a couple of young women who, because this is a French movie, are only able to truly express their inner ennui by taking off their clothes a lot. Although there are points where the material gets mawkish enough that it feels like it should be retitled "The Perks of Being a Socialist Wallflower," Assayas keeps things moving along with such grace and sheer cinematic skill that it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the drama he presents even when it threatens to turn into a soap opera. (Peter Sobczynski)

STARLET
Sean Baker's Starlet is a film that takes the old drama of two mismatched people looking for connection and makes it feel just new enough to keep us moving within the journey. The structure is familiar but the dynamics feel fresh. The circumstances look hackneyed but the casualness with which it moves towards its resolution feels right. We feel we know precisely where it is going and yet it turns the wheel just enough to keep us wondering how it will all play out. Jane (Dree Hemingway) rents a room with her friend, Melissa (Stella Maeve) and her boyfriend, Mikey (James Ransone). While the two of them play video games and get high, Jane seeks out yard sales to spruce up her little corner of home. Deciding a thermos would make a good vase, she draws the ire of the elderly curmudgeon, Sadie (Besedka Johnson, in her film debut). Talk about bargains, for mere change Jane buys the thermos and discovers several thousand dollars hidden in the bottom. After using some of the money to buy some essentials, like a diamond-encrusted collar for her beloved dog Starlet, Jane tries to include herself in Sadie's life recognizing that companionship may be more important than money at this point in their lives. Is Jane's newfound Samaritan-ship strictly out of guilt? The screenplay by Baker and Chris Bergoch never puts a direct tag on it and this permeates into further plot turns where characters are confronted with making choices of a moral certitude. Smartly the film allows these turns to feel motivated by the characters rather than a plot desperately trying to insert further drama into the relationships. Though a late hiccup in the Jane/Sadie dynamic feels a little forced, their reconciliation and eventual climax are both perfectly heartfelt, which some might deem impossible based on some of the seedier elements introduced within Jane's world. Both Hemingway and Johnson give solid, believable performances and one could guess that even if Baker & Bergoch's script didn't feel as natural as it does, we would still feel OK spending time with the two portraying their protagonists. (Erik Childress)

SURPRISE SCREENING
It has become a tradition for many film festivals to have one screening where ticket buyers will be in the dark as to the identity of the movie in question until the lights go down and the program begins--the hook is that there is the possibility that the film will be some big-ticket item that no one else has seen before like "Hugo" or "Lincoln," to name the last two such presentations at the New York Film Festival. This year marks the fifth time around for Chicago's version of this but the unfortunate truth of the matter is that, with the exception of Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassuss," the selections have largely been undistinguished titles that were already scheduled for commercial release within a week or so of their presentation (including "Rocknrolla," "The Next Three Days" and "Margin Call"). Therefore, I would suggest that moviegoers not get their hopes up too high that they will be getting an early peek at the likes of "The Hobbit" or "Les Miz"--among local critics, there is the sense that "Hyde Park on Hudson" will get the nod--but at the same time, I will no doubt be there because if I am not and it turns out to be "Passion" or "To The Wonder," I would never forgive myself. (Peter Sobczynski)


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originally posted: 10/12/12 00:44:04
last updated: 10/16/12 03:39:18
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