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Films I Neglected To Review: Prepare To Be Astonished
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Far from the Madding Crowd" and "Tangerines" and a brief overview of the Chicago Critics Film Festival.

Yes, this weekend is all about "Avengers: Age of Ultron" to most moviegoers and although it is pretty good, the simple fact of the matter is that it is still going to be around a couple of weeks from now and savvier cineastes might want to consider bypassing the crowds this weekend and taking a chance on something that they might not get a chance to see again anytime soon. For example, those of you in the Chicago area might consider heading up to the Music Box Theatre between May 1-7 and take in one of the presentations of the 3rd annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a week-long festival of upcoming films that have been curated by the Chicago Film Critics Association from such festivals as Toronto, Sundance and SXSW and which are receiving their local premieres. (Full disclosure--I am both a member of the CFCA and a programming advisor for the festival proper.) The festival opens with screenings of "Digging for Fire," the latest comedy from local filmmaker Joe Swanberg (who will be in attendance) featuring performances from Jake Johnson, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick, and "Raiders," a documentary chronicling the misadventures of three kids who set off in 1981 to make a scene-for-scene remake of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" armed with nothing more than a camcorder and plenty of moxie, actually completed it (save for one scene) over the next few years and the regrouped decades later to complete the missing segment and closes with the eagerly anticipated comedy-drama "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl." Throughout the week, there will be 22 other presentations that run the gamut from wild comedy ("The Overnight"), to oddball imports ("The New Girlfriend," "Goodnight Mommy"), short subject programs and even a couple of westerns ("Slow West," with Michael Fassbender, and "The Keeping Room" with Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld). And if you still can't put aside "Avengers," you will be pleased to note that "Age of Ultron" co-star Cobie Smulders will be on hand on May 2 to present two films that she appears in, "Results" and "Unexpected"--others scheduled to make appearances include Bobcat Goldthwait (with his latest film, the documentary "Call Me Lucky"), Adam Pally (to introduce his new comedy "Night Owls") and director James Ponsoldt and Oscar-nominated actress Joan Cusack will be on hand to present their latest work, the powerful drama "The End of the Road." For further information, go to the festival website at but keep in mind--if you can't find at least one film in this lineup that is of interest to you, the problem is all yours.

The works of Thomas Hardy have inspired some great movies in the past--Roman Polanski's "Tess" and Michael Winterbottom's "The Claim" immediately leap to mind--but "Far from the Madding Crowd," the latest screen adaptation of his 1874 novel is not one of them. In bringing their version of the story of the romantic travails of Bathsheba Everdeen (Carey Mulligan), a proto-feminist farmer who spurs the marriage proposals of an essentially decent sheepherder (Matthias Schoenarts) and a prosperous farmer (Michael Sheen) on the belief that they see her as little more than property only to fall into a disastrous marriage with a sleazy soldier (Tom Sturridge), director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls have pared the story down considerably (this version runs a full hour less than the lumbering 1967 version that not even Julie Christie could save) but their attempts at streamlining have resulted in a narrative that feels far too rushed for its own good, especially towards the end when the lack of breathing room between incidents helped inspire some giggles amongst the audience members I saw it with. Another key problem is that of the four main roles, two of them have been badly miscast. While both Schoenarts and Sheen acquit themselves reasonably well, Sturridge is a complete drip as the soldier--he is so shifty and unlikeable right from the moment we first see him that by simply giving him the time of day, our opinion of Bathsheba as a whole is greatly reduced as a result. As for Mulligan, she can be quite wonderful when properly cast but when she is not right for a role, as was the case in "The Great Gatsby," she can come across as shockingly amateurish and that is the case here as well--she always comes across like someone playing Bathsheba--and without an effective grip on the character--rather than as Bathsheba herself. Although it may not have been one of Hardy's best novels, there may well be a great movie to be had from "Far from the Madding Crowd"--alas, this is not it.

One of the nominees for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the Estonian antiwar import "Tangerines" is set in Abkhazia circa 1992, a time when the area was devolving into violent chaos following the collapse of the Soviet union and the departure of Estonians for their native land. One Estonian who remains is Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a carpenter who has elected to stay behind to help his neighbor bring in his yearly tangerine crop. Eventually, the conflict between Georgians and Chechen comes right to his door via a skirmish that leaves several soldiers dead with one from each side surviving. Ivo takes the two enemies into his home and nurses them back to health, forcing the two to put their differences aside while they are under his roof. During their long shared convalescence, they begin to put their differences aside at last and forge a personal peace that is inevitably threatened once the brutality of the real world comes back into their lives.

From a dramatic standpoint, writer-director Zaza Urushadze has not exactly reinvented the wheel here--most viewers will be able to correctly anticipate virtually all of the plot developments on display. That said, a familiar story is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it is well told and that is the case here. Urushadze makes his points about the futility of conflict and how our basic humanity conquers all geographic, ethnic or religious divisions but does so without devolving into overt speechifying. The performances are also strong and convincing throughout, led by Ulfsak's quietly grave presence. Like the wooden crates that Ivo builds by hand to help with the tangerine harvest, "Tangerines" may look simple and unassuming at first glance but it turns out to be surprisingly sturdy and useful when all is said and done.

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originally posted: 05/01/15 22:34:53
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