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Highlights of the 51st Chicago International Film Festival

by Erik Childress & Peter Sobczynski

Highlights of the 2015 Chicago International Film Festival running Oct. 15-29 at the AMC River East theater.

45 YEARS: Andrew Haigh received a lot of acclaim for his 2011 film, "Weekend", about a one night stand between two men that turned into a relationship. In "45 Years" he examines the tail end of a marriage about to be tested by an old love and announces himself as a filmmaker of subtle power. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play the couple planning their 45th Anniversary party when he is informed that the body of his first love has been discovered. Though known to be dead before they met this sets off a complete reexamination of their entire time together and whether one has spent five decades being nothing but the runner-up. Both performances are terrific but it is likely Rampling headed towards serious award contention as she internalizes the hurt and anger at both herself and her husband for what may have been a life wasted. The final scene is a tour de force of timing and tone which features a final moment from Rampling that will haunt you for well afterwards. (EC)

THE ASSASSIN: After years of anticipation, this martial arts epic from world-renowned filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien (who nabbed the Best Director prize at Cannes earlier this year) finally arrives and his drama, about a skilled assassin (a mesmerizing Shui Qi) is sent off to kill a high-ranking official of the then-crumbling Tang Dynasty but personal matters between her and her target wind up complicating things considerably, proves to have been more than worth the wait. The storytelling is enigmatic to the point of complete confusion at times but it is so formally inventive and visually rich that you will hardly notice that you may not understand exactly what is going on at any given moment. (PS)

CHRONIC: In this turgid and fairly shameless melodrama, Tim Roth plays a hospice nurse who uses his work helping others approach the end of their lives with some sort of dignity to deflect from the myriad problems in his own. Although presumably well-meaning, this is a dreary and depressing slog of a film that offers no discernible point and no surprises to speak of other than a finale that suggests that the late Michael O'Donoghue was an influence and that the entire screenplay somehow won the award at Cannes this year. (PS)

DHEEPAN: The winner of this year's Palme d'Or at Cannes was this French drama from Jacques Audiard about a former rebel in war-torn Sri Lanka who forms an ersatz family with an unrelated woman and child and emigrates to Paris in search of a better life that does not come easily. The early scenes following the three as they attempt to navigate their new situations are undeniably compelling but towards the end of the film, when our hero employs his battle skills to go to war with the drug gangs that have all but taken over the apartment complex where he works, it just turns into another generic bloodbath that lacks the dramatic impact of the first half. Not bad by any stretch but my guess is that most viewers will come out of it wondering how it wound up winning the Palme in the first place. (PS)

EMBERS: Apocalyptic visions of the future seem to be back in style. Not of the Fury Road variety but low-budget journeys through the wasteland in the hopes that minimalist science fiction will give growth to ideas beyond special effects. Claire Carre's "Embers" hopes to join that list almost by osmosis as a group of random characters are left as survivors of some global outbreak. Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva play a couple with no memory of their past each morning. Greta Fernandez plays a woman isolated from the phenomenon in a technologically-sound bunker. Karl Glusman is a scavenger who rapes and pillages as he sees fit. Does it amount to anything? Not really. Beyond the memory-stricken couple the other characters are pretty one-dimensional and add little to the meaning of what is worth surviving. When the most interesting characters are separated halfway through the film is not worth surviving either. (EC)

FUNNY GIRL: As many people who know me can attest, my tolerance for overstuffed movie musicals, especially ones made in the years immediately following the mammoth success of "The Sound of Music" in order to cash in on its record-breaking grosses, tends to be low to nonexistent. As a result, I cannot say that this 1968 screen version of the Broadway smash hit, showing here in a newly restored print, is exactly a favorite of mine but as musicals from this era go, it is probably one of the better ones thanks to some genuinely exciting production numbers (with "Don't Rain on My Parade" probably being the best of the bunch), nifty recreations of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies stage shows and yes, the star-making performance by Barbra Streisand as famed performer Fanny Brice. If you have never seen it before, this is probably the best way to introduce yourself to it. (PS)

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT: In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock, then arguably the most famous filmmaker in the world, sat down with rising French director Francois Truffaut and recorded 26 hours of interviews covering his entire career that formed the basis for "Hitchcock/Truffaut," one of the key books on the subject of cinema. This documentary by critic Kent Jones unveils the story behind the book and its creation and features a number of top filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese, David Fincher and James Grey) waxing ecstatic about their favorite moments from the Hitchcock canon. Actually, there is a lot more waxing than unveiling going on here and while it is fun to watch people like Scorsese and Fincher geeking out on their favorite Hitchcock films, I personally would have preferred a little more detail about how the interviews came to be and more excerpts from the actual interview recordings. That said, film buffs will still want to check this one out, though perhaps with slightly dialed-down expectations. (PS)

IN THE SHADOW OF WOMEN: There may not be an official festival prize for the most insufferable film but if there was, this excruciating effort from the usually interesting Philippe Garrel would be the unquestioned front-runner. In this one, a documentary filmmaker cheats on his devoted wife and collaborator with a beautiful intern, both of who unaccountably love him despite their full knowledge of his unfaithful nature, his ability to overlook his countless failings by lashing out at them for the slightest of reasons, his whininess on the rare occasions when he doesn't get his way and the fact that he constantly looks as if he is in the throes of a super-resistant form of mono. The festival program suggests that it is "a bracingly self-aware unveiling of the toxic male psyche" but trust me, "The Room" was more self-aware than this nightmare. Veteran festival attendees will be amused to note that the end credits to give special thanks to Claude Lelouch, whose breathtaking banal oeuvre has been celebrated there almost since the festival's beginning. (PS)

JAMES WHITE: For anyone that has taken care of or watched a loved one fade away in front of them will find Josh Mond's film a hard watch. That does not mean it is not terrifically acted, but there is an authenticity to its emotional center which makes it rise above countless disease-of-the-week telefilms. Christopher Abbott plays the titular son who is already numbing himself over the death of his father and is now faced with continuing to care for his ill mother (Cynthia Nixon). Mond's screenplay is not laced with manipulative tricks or grand statements about loss. It simply shows the fragility of life and a flawed individual putting on his best game face to be the best person he can be at the worst possible time. Abbott gave one of the best performances seen at Sundance this year where the film won the Best of Next Audience Award. Like "Amour" it may not be a film you want to see a second time, but to ignore the first opportunity would be a mistake. (EC)

MIA MADRE: Continuing the string of mediocre-to-dreadful films that the festival has endeavored to book as their opening night attraction, the latest work from Nanni Moretti follows a filmmaker (Margherita Buy) who is struggling to complete her latest film, a big drama about striking factory workers, while caring for her dying mother in the hospital. The stuff involving the mother is actually pretty good and generates a strong emotional reaction without resorting to the level of a cheap tear-jerker but the stuff involving the making of the film--especially her clashes with a wacko American actor (John Turturro in a performance that makes his turn in "Brain Donors" look subtle and refined by comparison)--is just silly and too often steals focus from the real heart of the story. (PS)

THE MIDDLE DISTANCE: If Garden State upped the ages of its protagonists by about 20 years and took out all sense of quirk and emotion it would look something like Patrick Underwood's "The Middle Distance". Ross Partridge plays a guy in the big city who gets called back to the snowy outback of the Midwest when his father dies and his brother needs help selling the house. When the brother gets called away he gets to spend the week with future sister-in-law Joslyn Jensen who is happy and sarcastic in the way that he is surly and condescending. All of the performances are pretty one-note which is a bit more than screenplay has to offer. The movie could have been called "Turn That Frown Upside Down" and solved all its drama in a much shorter running time. (EC)

ORPHANS OF ELDORADO: In this riff on the "City of Gold" myth, a man returns to his hometown in the Amazon after a long absence to see his estranged father and restart an old affair of a dangerous nature, only to get distracted by another woman--one who seems to have emerged directly from the river--to the point where he is willing to sacrifice everything he has in order to pursue her. The quiet and contemplative storytelling approach employed by director Guilherme Coelho may prove to be frustrating to some viewers but others should find themselves fascinated by this haunting and trippy work. (PS)

A PERFECT DAY: When a dead body turns up in a drinking well in a small village in the war-torn Balkans, a group of aid workers (including Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins and Melanie Thierry) roam the dangerous countryside in search of enough rope to pull it out before it fully contaminates the water but only seem to come up with more red tape at every turn. Instead of trying to turn this story into an earnest-but-dull melodrama, the filmmakers have instead chosen a darkly comedic approach along the lines of "M*A*S*H" or "Catch-22" and while the end result does not quite approach those classics, the amusing screenplay and smart performances help keep it moving along without completely succumbing to despair. (PS)

SPOTLIGHT: Over the years there have been fantastic films about journalism and powerful documentaries about the child abuse afflicted by members of the Catholic Church. Thomas McCarthy's "Spotlight" combines the two as it recounts the true story of how members of the Boston Globe's investigative team uncovered how the Church bureaucracy protected its own by not dismissing but transferring their accused. One of the best ensembles of the year including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and more delicately balance a workplace drama with the tragic emotional core that has been swept under the rug for too long. One of the best films of the year is also rightfully a major contender at this year's Oscars and deserves to be on the Mount Rushmore of films about journalism along with "All the President's Men" and "The Insider". We can argue about the fourth as long as there is a fifth to replace "Spotlight". (EC)

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT: Michael Moore means well. There is no denying that even if you play for the side he rails against. Well, that side might deny anything. But even a card-carrying member of the Common Sense Party (no affiliation to elephants or donkeys) can recognize when Moore overplays his hand. In his first film in six years, Moore comes up with the radical idea of invading countries around the world and claiming their best ideas for America. Or just better ideas like more pointed and affordable education, healthy school lunches and embracing our troubled past as a teaching moment for future generations. Good ideas, one and all, but in Moore's black-and-white presentation there is a fairy tale-like quality to it that glosses over any potential negatives. His trip into prison reform is a particularly troubling bit that Moore would criticize himself if presented in such a fashion from the Right. There are certainly applaud-worthy and funny moments as Moore looks, more than ever, like a tired advocate on his last trip of hope. In the end the film ultimately feels like a greatest hits collection of bits from The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight without the necessary investigative know-how that turns despair into irony and calls for righteous anger. (EC)

WOMEN HE'S UNDRESSED: Australian director Gillian Armstrong returns after a long absence with this highly stylized look at the career of celebrated Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly, who clothed many of the top actresses of his time (ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Marilyn Monroe to Jane Fonda) and took home three Oscars along the way. When it sticks to analyzing his craft, the film is intriguing enough but when the focus turns to the more gossipy aspects of his life (a gay man at a time when to openly acknowledge such a thing was career suicide, he was said to have had an affair with one of the biggest male movie stars of all time), it becomes progressively less interesting, though it does deserve some credit for making an effort to break out of the standard talking head documentary fare. (PS)

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originally posted: 10/17/15 02:24:50
last updated: 10/17/15 02:26:20
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