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Making Your Schedule: The 2008 Chicago International Film Festival
by Erik Childress

175 movies. 47 countries. 2 weeks. 1 city. Thatís what you have to work with if youíll be in Chicago for the 44th year of our International Film Festival. After Sundance, South by Southwest, CineVegas and Toronto, Iím always just about film festivalíd out. But itís still nice to see such an elongated celebration of the world of film happening within this great city, already the home to about 200 other local festivals covering documentaries, horror and even the French. On the brink of awards season though, this yearís festival is bringing along the usual crop of foreign flavor, critical contenders and, what I like to call, some of the best of this yearís fests. Of course, not everyone is as fortunate as Iíve been to sample a little taste from the 2008 festival circuit and 175 movies is mathematically impossible to check out even if you had the money, no job and a severe case of sleep deprivation. So Iím going to wittle it down for you, day by day, and make your schedule for you. Add whatever you want to it, but if you miss these selections you will be sorry.

Things kick off on Thursday, Oct. 16 with the Chicago premiere of Rian Johnsonís The Brothers Bloom at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph St.. His follow-up to his fantastic 2005 Sundance debut, Brick, will do if youíre a fan of Wes Anderson and you canít wait for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Sorry, but no short films featuring Natalie Portmanís butt precedes the film, but Rachel Weiszís will be on display. Both in the film and, presumably, a little more discreetly as her elegance will be attendance with the director; alone making the price of a ticket to the premiere a bargain. As for the film itself, if you can get tickets, it will be a nice kickoff to the festival.

But onto The Brothers Bloom. Rian Johnsonís debut feature, Brick, took over a year and to get into theaters after being one of the highlights at Sundance í05. In 2006 he was named the Most Promising Director by the Chicago Film Critics Association and won Best Screenplay awards from the Central Ohio and San Francisco critics. All well deserved. For his follow-up, he has successfully avoided the dreaded Sophomore slump and delivered a film of large ambition (although one could argue his throwback hard-boiled dialogue for Brick was a greater creative risk) with a solid cast that proves he continues to be someone to keep an eye on. If he took a page from Raymond Chandler for Brick, then itís one of Wes Andersonís eyes heís plucked out for his latest. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play the titular brothers (with Babel's Rinko "show my" Kikuchi as their silent Asian partner, Bang Bang), lifelong con artists from their days in and out of foster homes. Ruffalo is the instigator and Brody playing his part out of loyalty and certainly not enthusiasm. They set out on one final con together, to take an eccentric millionairess for a large sum of her inheritance. Rachel Weisz plays the fragile woman whom Brody takes an instant liking to and the feeling is instantly mutual. As she looks for a little adventure in her life, she joins the brothers on a quest involving steam ships, lost artifacts and the shady Robbie Coltrane while Brody is torn between blood and maybe a last chance at a love heís always lost in the past. Despite our instinctual ability to be trying to figure out every last inch of who is conning who, it becomes clear (especially after all truths are revealed) that Johnson is more interested in the people than any false contrivances and pulling rugs. Some may find his anachronisms and colorful dialogue a little too clever and Iíll admit some of the motivations in the final half-hour are a bit convoluted and not fully understandable but its still a very good time punctuated by a good cast, particularly Weisz whose heiress is a vulnerable analomy and its great to see her open up throughout the film. Watch out for brief cameos by Brick stars, Nora Zehetner and a blink-and-you-will-miss (and slightly distracting if you notice) Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Reprinted from my Toronto (Days 0-1) feature.) (

Get yourself to dinner early this night as youíve got one helluva double feature in store for you. And you may even get to see the lovely Ms. Weisz twice. Her husband, Darren Aronofsky will be attending this eveningís 8:00 screening of his latest, The Wrestler, at the AMC River East (322 E. Illinois St.) and if you want to tell people how you saw one of the favorites for this yearís Best Actor Oscar, you must be here.

Mickey Rourke stars as Randy ďThe RamĒ Robinson, one of those past his prime wrestlers not named Ric Flair, whom youíll see usually signing autographs at trade shows or performing in low-rent events for nostalgic fans. After suffering a heart attack backstage, Randy begins to take stock of his life, looking to further his relationship with the stripper (Marisa Tomei) he frequents and reconnecting with the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) whom he left behind years ago. As a guy always prepared for whatís coming in the ring with pre-scripted scenarios and the reassurance that heíll still be friends with his opponent at the end of the day, these are challenges beyond The Ramís psyche and has the potential to cut deeper than those hidden razor blades inside the ring.

The buzz on Rourkeís performance began to build out of Venice and by the time that weekend screening happened at Toronto, it was in full swing. There is little doubt that heís going to be winning a lot of year-end critic awards and the Oscar may even be his to lose. While the Chicago Film Critics Association tried to start the comeback talk in 2005 by awarding Rourke Best Supporting Actor for Sin City, the word is going to be nailed to nearly every write-up that comes within earshot of The Wrestlerís territory. This is the kind of dream role that come along to actors of Rourkeís status; one practically doppleganging his own career and the film rests on his gigantic shoulders. Itís a sad, mesmerizing turn by Rourke, by equal turns a gentle giant and a fallen Jack all in one, imperfect but sympathetic and true to the world that wants him. Robert D. Siegelís screenplay isnít the most groundbreaking by any means, but between the acting trifecta including equally sharp (and hopefully not overlooked) turns by Tomei and Wood and a flair by Aronofsky to not just let the drama dry up the running time, but avoids trapping it in a barrage of overstyilized filmmaking. His handling of the wrestling scene in particular are as involving as any cinematic ring battle weíve been witnessed to and the ending quietly blows up the mythos of Rockyís legendary climax.

If you miss tonightís screening, you may not see Aronofsky and Weisz, but you will have the opportunity to catch it again the following Friday (Oct. 24), 7:00 pm at the AMC River East. But donít miss it. Because then you can go right into your 10 pm choice for the evening. You may have to duck out on Aronofskyís Q&A, but as long as you have a ticket, you should have no problem walking on over to the theater showing Let the Right One In.

Poor little Oskar (KŚre Hedebrant) is not having a good childhood. Just 12 years old, he canít seem to walk a step without being hounded by bullies, he has no friends to speak of and he lives in Stockholm for Godís sake. John Carpenterís The Thing didnít make snow look so dreary. One night though (and it always seems to be night), Oskar sees a young girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) out in the courtyard almost like a watchdog. Their paths draw close, but Eli is intent on keeping herself at a distant. Maybe itís shyness. Perhaps sheís seen Oskar playing with a knife thinking of enacting revenge against his tormentors. Or maybe itís because sheís a vampire. Keeping a secret like that isnít easy, especially when the bloody remains of victims stand out so well in the winter wonderland. But while her hunger requirements are leading questions right to her door, a friendship and first love develops between the two children in a manner that puts most coming-of-age romances to absolute shame.

When I first saw Let the Right One In, the best way I could think to describe it was Untamed Heart meets the best vampire film I have seen since Near Dark. Even if youíre not a horror film fan, you will have loads to respond to in the relationship between Oskar & Eli. And if you are looking for your fix of blood, director Tomas Alfredson surely sprinkles it in and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting his own novel) introduces some neat twists to vampire mythology, including the answer to the question weíve always wondered Ė what happens to a vampire who invites themselves in? With already an English-language remake in the works, you can tell the cult following is already getting ahead of itself and with Cloverfieldís Matt Reeves attached to helm it, they may have indeed found the right one to provide the necessary respect and delicacy to the material, but its impossible to imagine him finding a way to top the first experience. Morose and quiet for much of its running time, Tomas Alfredson and his young actors still inject so much humanity and the darkness that clouds it into every scene that when it develops into its perfectly manicured climax you will be cheering one of the greatest comeuppances you may ever see and will leave your evening on a true high.

If youíre worried about the two films being too close together (festival films will occasionally start a few minutes past schedule), then donít forget you can catch The Wrestler again on Friday, Oct. 24 at the AMC River East or Let the Right One In again on Saturday, Oct. 25 at the 600 N. Michigan theater (above the fantastic Heaven On Seven restaurant.) If you want to end your night with vampires though, you can still keep a double feature intact by checking out Mike Leighís Happy-Go-Lucky playing at 7:00 pm at the River East. You will be simply substituting one clear Oscar nod front runner for another with Sally Hawkins who is wonderful in the film and as close to a lock for a nomination as there is these days.

You are in for a treat this evening. I would almost love to escort each and every one of you to the screening you have to be attending. But every major headliner needs an opening act, right? There are a few suggestions on the table, but youíll have to make a choice between one or the other. Choice #1 begins at 5:15 pm over at the AMC River East. Itís a documentary called They Killed Sister Dorothy. Filmmaker Daniel Junge examines the case of a 73 year-old missionary gunned down in the Amazon jungles. What begins as a tragedy devolves into a conspiratorial crime story. Just how philanthropic was Sister Dorothy? Was she an instrument of piece or of religious and political propaganda. We get to see the trial unfold South American-style (lots of out-of-turn yelling) with a number of late-inning twists that raise more questions that the film doesnít quite have the time to answer. Narrated by Martin Sheen, it would have been nice to learn a little more about Dorothy aside from the teary testimonials of her relatives, but otherwise a pretty interesting tale. Seeing this will give you plenty of time to catch the 8:30 event Iím teasing, or you can work in two movies instead starting at 3:45 pm at the 600 N. Michigan Theater.

The first one could be just for the guys. And not just because it features a beautiful naked Antonella Costa for most of its running time. You might just learn something. For the 80-some minutes of Eliseo Subielaís Donít Look Down a young man gets an education in lovemaking from the stunning Antonella. Having just lost his father, the 19 year-old couldnít have found a better place to finish his sleepwalking and what better to take your mind off things than learning about the Kama Sutra. Costa is distracting enough for guys to remember little of the actual plotting since the middle hour is full of naked lessons. 81 thrusts. Who knew? What the hell, bring your significant other or try and lock eyes with another single in the audience. You never know. Although Iíd still say to wait until after the 8:30 show tonight.

If you arenít alone and are looking to go back to six from midnight, you can try taking your lady to Kelly Reichardtís Wendy and Lucy, 6:10 pm at the 600 N. This is precisely the kind of minimalist filmmaking that so many indie directors feel that they can get away with. Honestly, if the film cost more than $1,000 more than whatever Michelle Williams got paid, I want to know if its possible to blame it for the economic bailout weíre going through. All things aside, I was still able to involve myself in its minimalist running time for the sole reason of being a dog lover. And this is the story of a down-on-her-luck gal played by Williams who loses her pooch companion. Sheís got minimalist money, has a minimalist car that breaks down and has minimalist support from her sister back home. Wrap up a bottle of hooch for the screening. Then take a drink every time Williams says ďLucy.Ē Youíll be dead by minute forty-three. Call it a killing time movie. You may get into it or you might be hoping for Billy Madison to advise her to ďget off her ass and find that fuckiní dog!Ē One thingís for certain though, you will have the perfect antidote at the same theater beginning at 8:30 pm. Come back next week when I reveal the title. Just kidding.

Buy your ticket right now for Ji-Woon Kimís The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The title isnít just having a little fun with the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood classic, itís a full-blown tribute. Not a remake, mind you. Just taking the template of a mysterious gunman, an oddball thief and a treacherous outlaw all searching for treasure and molding it into quite literally the best action movie Iíve seen since I was first introduced to John Woo. Ji-Woon Kim doesnít screw around with slow motion though. No repeats or excessive doves, just excessive everything else. When it comes to set pieces, this film immediately goes to the modern ranks of some of the best and most eye-popping concoctions your eyes have seen in some time. The magnified audacity of just the attempts Kim makes would be enough to garner a recommendation, but in actually pulling them off in the old-school tradition of stuntwork and allowing his cinematographer to zoom out and film them instead of merely catching up makes this a must-see of any genre.

Thatís right. Itís an action film but also a Western as well as a comedy. And comedy of all types Ė screwball, satire, childrenís wackiness Ė all leading up to one of the grandest punchlines of all time after the climactic battle, which is what you need to hear more about. Kimís action sequences arenít just of a stop-and-start nature, nor do they seem shoehorned in simply because its time for another one. They are delicately staged, frantically paced and giddily executed. When was the last time you saw a truly great train robbery? What would you give to see Errol Flynn swashbuckling through the air picking off targets with a rifle like the Terminator? Imagine combining the truck chases of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Road Warrior with the thunderous charges of Lawrence of Arabia and Stagecoach into one exhilaratingly edge-of-you-seat race through the desert. Seriously, have you bought your ticket yet? This is not just grandstanding for some foreign flavor in the wake of garbage like Death Race and Wanted. An American film company may want to remake The Good, The Bad, The Weird, but they honestly shouldnít even try. The great action directors wouldnít dare mess with such greatness and, most likely, it would end up in the hands of some third-rate hack who would film it like youíre sitting in the front row of an IMAX theater. Kimís film is IMAX unto itself and, truth be told, Iíve only seen it on a 40-inch screen so I can only imagine what the theatrical experience is like. Thereís been a lot of talk (mostly in quote whore circles) over films being ďaction-packedĒ or filled with ďthunderous actionĒ (like Appaloosa, which has about three shootouts that last for a grand total of about 72 seconds.) This is the real deal. And when you see it Saturday night (8:30 pm at the 600 N. Michigan), you will walk out, tell your friends about it and accompany them to the second screening on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 8:00 pm (again at 600 N.)


You may be getting home late on Saturday, or at least having trouble getting to sleep, filled with exhilaration after The Good, The Bad and the Weird Ė but get some rest because you have the opportunity to see two more of the yearís best films. And you will need your strength because you will have to go running from one theater to the next.

If you want a little appetizer, give a look to Barry Jenkinsí Medicine for Melancholy. It stars Tracey Heggins and Wyatt Cenac, who is now featured occasionally on The Daily Show. African-Americans can no longer look at Richard Linklaterís Before Sunrise/Sunset and joke about whitey talking their ears off instead of just gettingí busy because now they have their own and the comparison is worthy. Heggins and Cenac play characters who do get busy first, having a one-night stand after a party, and then spending the next day getting to know each other. Instead of going through philosophical contemplations and wannabe dates, they discuss attitudes and issues about their own community and the constant cloud that the color of their skin shadows over. Or is such constant discussion detrimental to their advancement? Very natural and very nicely acted by the two actors. Itís a nice warmup of a think for the day and you can see it at the 600 N. Michigan Theatre at 2:30 pm.

After that, make sure you have your tennis shoes on. First you have to get over to the AMC River East at 5:30 pm. Get there early enough to get a seat on the aisle because youíre going to have a 7:30 film to catch with maybe only a few minutes to spare. Itís a shame you have to rush, but these are the only two times these films are showing at the festival. If you are bringing your elderly parents, get yourself a wheelchair and race the others into the next theater. Youíll be energized enough after the 5:30 film to do it too.

Danny Boyle is a filmmaker whom Iíve always been on the fence about. He burst into America with a considerable amount of cult hype for his first film, Shallow Grave, which turned out to be another violent exercise in style in the wake of the Tarantino arrival. A year later came Trainspotting, a great film for an hour that becomes rather routine in its third act. From there it was suffering through the likes of A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach until 28 Days Later was the second film I saw at my very first Sundance experience in 2003. I liked it then only to find it rather lackluster on a second viewing. Millions was a nice little kids romp that got a considerable amount of praise but was still little more than just a romp to me. And 2007ís sci-fiíer Sunshine was well on its way to becoming one of the better genre entries in years until an inexplicable third act that was incomprehensible and betrayed the superb suspense of the first 75 minutes for a routine slasher chase through a spaceship. A dozen years worth of that resume and yet I somehow receive looks when I announced that Slumdog Millionaire is Boyleís best film by a country mile.

Itís the story of Jamal (Dev Patel), born and traveled through the slums of India to become a contestant on their version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? In the wake of the million dollar question though, Jamal is detained by authorities under suspicion of cheating and even tortured to reveal his methods. With the inspector in charge (Irfan Khan) looking for his own answers, Jamal takes has back through his life as we see how he arrived on the show in the first place. Tragedy follows this poor kid everywhere beginning by being separated from his mother during an insurgent uprising and then placed into the hands of a local pimp where his brother Salim (Azharudin Mohammed Ismail) gets his first taste of underworld authority. Daring escapes and scrounging for money will follow as the two brothers are joined by Latika (Freida Pinto) whom Jamal developed an instant fondness for and whatever little freedom they may stumble upon is almost hopelessly dashed by another obstacle and Salimís increased hunger for the bad boy life.

Simon Beaufoyís screenplay has an eager taste for the kind of Dickensian coming-of-age tales frought with the long journeys from rags to desperate expectations. Where it brims in originality though is the manner in which coincidence and useless knowledge finds a purpose for Jamal as question-by-question we piece together his life and the manner in which fate has created the perfect storm for him. Most films bearing the label of ďcrowd-pleaserĒ think all they have to do is create a happy ending, wipe its hands and fade out. Anyone can win the big game or the lottery. Sports movies concede most of its heroes to the same journey and while we may fall for the occasional averageness of an Express or The Longshots, deep down the greater and more genuine the struggle will connect with an audience for a lifetime instead of just an evening. Slumdog Millionaire is precisely that kind of a movie. It never sugarcoats the chapters of Jamalís story. He is tortured, beaten, suffers great loss, gets a little back and then loses it all again. The way he is able to outsmart the false prophets and we bare witness to the redemption of its characters, this film not only earns its ending, it deserves the full-on Bollywood number by its cast members over the final credits. Just writing about it now, I have precisely the sort of throat lump that only exists from the memory of exhilaration and joy that I felt at the end of a great film. Boyleís direction is perfection and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is masterful in taking us through the color-filled highs and dank lows, especially in one of the few joy-filled moments for the brothers on a train ride that will make fans of Pineapple Express giddy in finally getting to hear MIAís Paper Planes used in such a perfect fashion that theyíll be glad it was just featured in the previous filmís trailer. Slumdog Millionaire is poised to become a major player at this yearís Oscar, possibly snagging that Little Miss Sunshine/Juno Best Picture slot as well as nods for Boyle, Beaufoy and Mantle. Donít miss one of the yearís best. Even Lou Lumenick wouldnít move during it for Roger Ebert in Toronto and wound up smacking him in the knee for bothering him.

And after being on that high, get your butt over to what is becoming (hopefully) one of the most debated pictures of 2008. Yes, RUN to the 7:30 screening of Charlie Kaufmanís Synecdoche, New York because you donít want to miss a frame of it Ė even if youíll probably need to see it a second (or third time) to get all of its brilliant nuances.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Caden Cotard, a small but respected theater director who seems to be surrounded by reminders of failing health. He mistakes newspaper honors as obituaries, the cartoons, commercials and radio shows all have something to say about our eventual decrepitude. Itís hard to even explain it to his young daughter without her getting scared and his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener), reveals sheís fantasized about his death to their shrink, Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis), who is too busy pawning off her own books to truly hear their problems.

At work, box office clerk Hazel (Samantha Morton) is crushing badly and not so secretly on Caden. He canít help but be flattered and certainly wants to act but remains faithful to the wife that packs up for Europe with their child for an art show, only to never return. What seems like a week to Caden actually is several months and with time slipping away more exponentially he embarks on a grandiose theater project involving hundreds of actors to recreate the city life he has come to known. Or more specifically, his own life, with actors playing the people all around him. Replicas are built on a giant sound stage. His Linda Loman, Claire (Michelle Williams) will become his other in and out of the show while the mysterious Sammy Barnathan (Tom Noonan) who has followed the real Caden a good portion of his real life jumps at the chance to play the fake Caden, feeling that he knows the man better than Caden himself.

Thatís only the tip of the metaphorical and paradoxical iceberg that Kaufman is creating for his audience. Ever since he showed us that it was possible to get inside the head of John Malkovich, critics and audiences alike have probably wondering what it might like to be to spend a day inside his. What a fascinating, dark place it must be with an abyss of fanciful possibilities and learned guesses into the collective experience we share called life. His screenplays are fables, melding everyday worries into the discoveries of a realm outside the molds of everyday fiction. Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind rank with little argument amongst the best screenplays of this century. (Top ten for my quick list.) For them he melded with the perfect directors for the time in Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry; visual stylists who had no problems in grasping the complex and unusual storytelling pastiche that Kaufmann puts onto the page. Now heís behind the camera himself directing his own screenplay in a move that is more than just a debut. Itís an intricate piece to the puzzle of self-examination that began when he invented a twin brother in Adaptation and continues into one of the most challenging, exasperating and beautiful works to hit theaters since probably Eternal Sunshine.

Make no mistake about it this is a film that will test you the way few have ever before. Without a doubt, youíll have questions upon leaving the theater, and if you desire enough to see it again at some point you will find at least the beginnings of its answers waiting for you. Unlike the works of David Lynch, Kaufman has not created Synecdoche out of his love for the obtuse. Heís exploring as we all are for those Eternal answers that plague our grasp of growing old and the legacy we leave. You will be laughing, perplexed, saddened and overall ecstatic that filmmaking like this can still exist and inspire generations long after weíre gone. Or you may completely hate it and wonder whatís wrong with me.

Thursday, Oct. 16
7:00 Ė The Brothers Bloom Ė Harris Theater

Friday, Oct. 17
7:00 - Happy-Go-Lucky - AMC River East
8:00 - The Wrestler ĖĖ AMC River East
10:00 - Let the Right One In ĖĖ AMC River East

Saturday, Oct. 18
3:45 - Donít Look Down Ė 600 N.
5:15 - They Killed Sister Dorothy Ė AMC River East
8:30 - The Good, The Bad and the Weird Ė 600 N.

Sunday, Oct. 19
2:30 - Medicine for Melancholy Ė 600 N.
5:30 - Slumdog Millionaire Ė AMC River East
7:30 - Synecdoche, New York Ė AMC River East

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originally posted: 10/17/08 03:39:08
last updated: 10/25/08 09:24:28
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