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Reviews from the 49th Chicago International Film Festival

by Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski

Here you can find coverage of the 2013 festival.

12 YEARS OF SLAVE: Listen to the reviews by Erik Childress, Collin Souter and Nick Digilio from WGN Radio.

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY: Dubbed by many as a masterwork of a play that changed their lives, Tracy Letts' Pulitizer Prize winning effort is now getting the cinematic treatment, only not by William Friedkin. John "The Company Men" Wells takes over directing duties and has one helluva cast as the dysfunctional family who come together when their patriarch goes missing. This puts them in direct contact with their abrasive, pill-popping mother (Meryl Streep) and the kind of general unpleasantness that will make your Thanksgivings look like a Norman Rockwell painting. Letts' material works primarily as an actors' showcase and alongside such names as Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor, it is Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Juliette Lewis who standout. All are second-to-none next to Streep who may be the most despicable on-screen mother since Mommie Dearest though without resorting to the same level of camp. The ongoing drama is by no means groundbreaking and far from life-changing unless it takes a movie for you to recognize these are doppelgangers for your own family. Expected to be a major Oscar player (how can it not be with that pedigree and Harvey Weinstein behind you?) this is a film that goes on two minutes too long; giving audiences a sunny drive conclusion rather than the striking conclusion of abandonment that it obviously ended on stage. See it for the acting. Just don't expect your life to change. (Erik Childress)

BANKLADY: After two disastrous American features (Case 39 & Pandorum) director Christian Alvart returned to his native Germany. And the results are not much better. The potentially fascinating true story of Gisela Werler who robbed a number of banks becomes less of one of financial necessity or thrill seeking than one of a lonely woman trying to impress a guy. That approach could work if more effort was put into her psychologically and the other characters were equally interesting. Nadeshda Brennicke's transformation from dowdy factory worker to stylish, sexy thief is noticeable but so is how little else there is to it. The robbery scenes are not very suspenseful (though one gets credit for being the first to brandish a lit candelabra as a weapon) and as a police procedural it falls even flatter. Ken Duken's performance as the obsessive, somewhat incompetent, officer is laughable in his constant sneering and mugging. One walks away from its insultingly up conclusion in believing that if Gisela had just found the right guy or just had a good screw now and again, none of this ever would have happened. Which would have saved us from Alvart's lifeless work. (Erik Childress)

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR: Ever since it made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or, this epic-length drama chronicling a teenage girl (Adele Exarchopoulos) and the intense relationship that develops between her and a slightly older art student (Lea Seydoux) over the course of several years has been one of the most talked-about films of the year. Granted, a lot of that talk has centered around the long and highly explicit sex scenes between the two actresses (which apparently proved to be too much for Idaho, which has forbidden the lone arthouse theater in Boise from playing it due to a technicality involving liquor laws--don't ask) but it is a testament to the true power of the film that every one of those moments could be removed and it would still be a powerful and passionate moviegoing experience thanks to director Abdellatif Kechiche's deft handling of tricky material and the stunning, career-making performances from the two leads (who shared the Palme d'Or with Kechiche, the first time in the history of the festival that actors have been co-awarded the top prize). At three hours, some may complain that it goes on a little too long but I was absolutely mesmerized from start to finish. One of the very best films of 2013 and an absolute must-see. (Peter Sobczynski)

CHEAP THRILLS: E.L. Katz's debut was one of the highlights of this year's South by Southwest Film Festival. A chance encounter between two old friends (Pat Healy & Ethan Embry), each with their own financial problems, turns into another chance meeting with a rich eccentric and his bored wife (David Koechner & Sara Paxton) who begin offering the pair money in exchange for increasingly exotic dares. This is an idea that could have gone off the rails early, but by maintaining a good sense of humor and not turning anyone into a raving psychotic we are able to focus on the dwindling humanity in the face of economic struggle. Hot off his turn as the nefarious caller in Compliance, Healy is just as good here as the family man headed towards a Dorian Gray-like appearance in the mirror. Koechner has never been better than he is here, again balancing his cheeky thrill-seeker with a refreshing, if cold, sanity. Not for the faint of heart at times and yet never overtly gratuitous, this is one of at least two films playing the festival about the harsh quest for the American dream. (Erik Childress)

CONTRACTED: Having just seen the really quite good "Afflicted" at the Toronto Film Festival this year, another story of a person stricken with a mysterious quickly-working disease still held promise. This one from the female perspective as a kinda-sorta lesbian (Najarra Townsend) has sex with the wrong guy at a party and then experiences three days of hell. Described as Cronenberg-ian in its approach, one must assume it is meant as a reference to Burt Cronenberg, the world's worst authority on alternative medicine and manners. Watching a person disintegrate is an old horror technique though Eric England's film is a particularly unpleasant experience that has nothing to do with bruises and premature bleeding. Everybody in the film is either annoying or off-the-charts stupid and you can add "a real bitch" to Townsend's supposed heroine. She is simply a horrible human being made worse by her circumstances and her endgame cannot come soon enough. Though the outcome, which follows the most ill-advised opportunity to take advantage of sex since Larry Clark's Kids, is painfully obvious and hardly worth the tortuous and decades-late metaphor for AIDS. Expect necrophiliacs to be very pleased however. (Erik Childress)

DESPITE THE GODS: In 2008, filmmaker Jennifer Lynch--best known for her controversial 1993 debut "Boxing Helena" and for being the daughter of you-know-who--went to India to direct "Hiss," a horror-musical-comedy about a modern-day incarnation of the snake goddess Nagin getting her vengeance on those who have wronged her. Needless to say, the production quickly spiraled out of control and filmmaker Penny Vozniak was there to capture all the grisly details. As unmaking-of documentaries go, this one doesn't quite reach the heights of the likes of "Lost in La Mancha" but watching Lynch struggling to keep her sanity and make her film while battling producers and looking after her young daughter is interesting at times--far more so than the version of "Hiss" that was eventually released. (Peter Sobczynski)

DRACULA 3D: Read Peter Sobczynski's review at and his interview with Dario Argento.

ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME: Although presumably best-known to the masses today for her recurring role as Alec Baldwin's irascible mother on the late, great "30 Rock," Elaine Stritch has had a long and distinguished stage career that continues today. This fly-on-the-wall documentary (co-produced by Baldwin) follows the 87-year-old performer as she wraps her final episodes of "30 Rock" and prepares for a string of cabaret appearances while struggling with the increasingly debilitating effects of diabetes. The film, directed by Chiemi Karasawa, doesn't exactly reinvent the cinematic wheel but watching Stritch in her element is so undeniably entertaining that the talking head testimonials by the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Nathan Lane,, Tina Fey and other admirers almost seem superfluous. (Peter Sobczynski)

THE HARVEST: John MacNaughton (director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things and Normal Life) makes his long-awaited return to cinema after a 12-year absence. Even longer if you consider the fate of the well-buried Speaking of Sex. He teams here with fellow Chicagoan Michael Shannon who plays the well-meaning father of a sick child (Charlie Tahan) whose doctor mother (Samantha Morton) is, to put a polite spin on it, clingy. She's also patronizing, paranoid and mean. But just wants her kid to get better, so we can forgive that, right? Enter a young new neighbor (The Possession's Natasha Calis) who has lost her parents and is looking for a new friend. But mom does not approve. Here endeth the description. MacNaughton's name alone should clue you in that more disturbing and twisty fates await this seemingly dysfunctional domestic dynamic. The first twist is a doozy. Subsequent ones then take place well after the audience has likely pieced together all that's left. The approach to make this a modern gothic tale works for a while but is not helped by the two child performances which are both pretty bad and Stephen Lancellotti's script which makes at least one of them incredibly stupid, even by young folk standards. Peter Fonda's grandfather keeps trying to tell us how "far out" things are, but once things are put in motion after the big reveal The Harvest slows down just when it should be getting crazily out of control. (Erik Childress)

HELI: Every festival needs at least one film in the lineup that is meant to shock and startle viewers with its on-screen nastiness and this prize winner from Mexico appears to fill this year's slot. In it, a dopey young police cadet wants to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend--his 12-year-old girlfriend, that is--and decides that stealing a couple of bags of cocaine is the most logical way of attaining that seemingly sensible goal but, needless to say, things to not go well for him, his pre-teen fiancee or her family as a result. The film won the Best Director prize at Cannes for Amat Escalante but while the film does have a starkly beautiful visual style at times, it is largely an alternately brutal and banal bore--the kind of film that seems to be made for critics who like to use words like "transgressive" and "redemptive" a lot in their reviews. As for the nasty bits (the fest program listing even states "Warning: this film contains extreme violence"), I won't go into too many details but if you are the kind of moviegoer who prefers their dogs alive and their male genitalia not to be offered up extra-crispy, you might want to give this one a pass. (Peter Sobczynski)

HONOR DIARIES: In the wake of the Arab Spring uprising that saw women in Muslim-based societies speaking out in ever-growing number about the gender-related abuses they have suffered in the name of "honor," human-rights lawyer-turned-filmmaker Paula Kweskin gathered together nine women's rights activists together to discuss their own personal experiences and how they hope to help instigate changes for future generations of young Muslim women. From a cinematic standpoint, this documentary is as generic as can be but the subjects and the stories they tell (including one who was able to save a cousin from the horror of female genital mutilation by giving her uncle a pamphlet illustrating the barbarity and pointlessness of the "tradition") are undeniably compelling. (Peter Sobczynski)

THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE: Read Peter Sobczynski's review at

MY SWEET PEPPERLAND: In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein, two outsiders arrive in a remote Kurdish village bordering Turkey, Iran and Iraq--a one-time war hero who has been hired to be the top cop and a young woman who has just been hired, in defiance of tradition, to teach at the new school. Inevitably, both run afoul of the townspeople and the local crime lord who runs the area with an iron fist--especially after the teacher gives aid to some rebels up in the hills--and as they face greater and greater ostracism, the two find themselves growing closer together. Although it deals with contemporary issues--such as the region trying to rebuild after the tyranny of Hussein and the notions of "honor" that threaten both the teacher's position and her very life--the film has the look, feel and structure of a classic Western and is probably best appreciated when see through that perspective. (Peter Sobczynski)

NEBRASKA: Alexander Payne has an uncanny knack of tapping into the comedy of pain and the uncomfortable realism that challenges each and every one of us as morally-conscious people. His track record is one of the best out there and his latest may be his best film since Election. Bruce Dern plays an aging patriarch who believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes and will get to Nebraska to collect even if he has to walk. We know he has been scammed, but his son (Will Forte) decides to humor him and personally drive him. They will reconnect with some family and old friends, but like any road trip film (and this is Payne's fourth in a row) they will reconnect with each other. It all sounds so familiar, but Bob Nelson's screenplay is a sly wonder (much like Election) makes you constantly reevaluate your first impression of every character. The black-and-white cinematography feels more like an ironic statement rather than a stylistic choice. On top of it all it is also one of the best treatments of the reality of the American Dream that I can remember without feeling like just another open treatise on the current economic climate. This is an absolutely beautiful film with a great, quiet performance by Dern and a solid dramatic turn by Forte. June Squibb also stands out as one of the most complicated and honest treatments of generational matriarchy we've seen. One of the absolute best films of 2013. (Erik Childress)

PIECES OF ME: If you come away from "Blue is the Warmest Color" wanting to see more of knockout newcomer Adele Exarchopolous--and you will--she stars in a second French coming-of-age film in this year's festival. In this one, she plays a moody teenager who can only relate to her friends and family from behind the lens of the video camera that she is constantly using to document her life. Things come to a head with the sudden return of her older sister, whose unexpected arrival finally forces her to confront her relationships, especially the rocky one with her ailing mother, without the distance provided by her camera. While the film is nowhere close to the achievement that "Blue" is, this is still a fairly impressive film that is carried mostly by another strong and affecting performance by Exarchopolous--if nothing else, this movie proves that she is indeed the real thing. (Peter Sobczynski)

RAZE: Who doesn't love a little girl-on-girl? Not that kind you pervs. Talking about chick fighting? That's what we're promised in Josh C. Waller's debut feature. Kidnapped women, forced to knock around each other, for some underground fight club run by weirdos Doug Jones and Sherilyn Fenn. Plus we have Rachel Nichols, Zoe Bell and (her Death Proof pal) Tracie Thoms amongst the combatants. How exciting is that? Now adjust your expectations because this is a flat-out AWFUL film. The promise of anything goes in the prologue proves to be both an equal disappointment and a foreshadowing that this film is going to be anything but fun. Nothing that ends with a beautiful, innocent woman being helplessly punched to death in the face over and over again can be. On top of that, none of the fight scenes are well-staged or filmed. Even the hope for the terrific Bell to go all kick-ass on her captors is uninspired and unsatisfying. This is ugly, borderline incompetent material that gives a black eye to exploitation. (Erik Childress)

LE WEEKEND: A long-married British couple (Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan), whose relationship seemingly consists of equal parts routine and rancor, embark on an anniversary trip to Paris that starts off disastrously and only grows worse when an unexpected encounter with an American acquaintance forces them to confront their past resentments and face an uncertain future. Despite the contributions of such high-profile participants as director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi, this is a relatively modest production that is driven almost entirely by the cantankerous charms of Broadbent and Duncan and an absolutely hilarious turn by Goldblum that is arguably the best thing that he has done in a while. (Peter Sobczynski)

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originally posted: 10/25/13 01:26:48
last updated: 10/25/13 05:12:38
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