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32 Reviews for the 41st Chicago International Film Festival

by Collin Souter

The poster for the 41st Chicago International Film Festival reads “Film Capital of the World,” which may be true, provided all films have to do with either break-ups or family dysfunction, which most of them do. In spite of the bizarre reoccurrence of themes (which I guess would be inevitable of any festival that deals with over 100 movies), the Festival offers a strong line-up of previous festival favorites from Cannes and Sundance as well as new discoveries from around the world. It’s a mixed bag of the good and the God-awful and, of course it’s damn near impossible to keep up with each and every film. Here are 30 reviews for 30 films seen, in preference from best to worst.

(On a star rating scarle of 1-4 stars)

In Memory of My Father The first in a series of Family Dysfunction films, this one being the most entertaining and surprising. Writer-director Christopher Jaymes also stars alongside a cast of mostly unknowns, save for Jeremy Sisto (May, Six Feet Under), who steals the movie. A family comes together for a toast to the deceased father of four dysfunctional adults, all of whom bring their relationship problems with them and even get high to avoid their problems. Even the impromptu serenade of “Daddy’s Dead,” sung by almost the whole cast, has an edginess to it that remains prevalent throughout the film. A real find, one that deserves wider exposure. (***1/2)

The Boys of Baraka I actually saw this documentary with another festival earlier this year, but it’s great to see that it’s not getting buried. A woman selects a group of troubled 12-year old boys from Baltimore to take with her to Kenya where they are forced to stay at an experimental boarding school. The goal of the school is to rehabilitate the kids and help them see the world differently, so that when they return to their harsh neighborhoods in Baltimore they can pave a better future for themselves. The transformation is compelling and, in some cases, sad, as some kids stick with the program while others lay doomed to an empty future. (***1/2)

The Weather Man A strong Closing Night film for the Festival (in spite of the fact that it’s the 27th film at the Fest to be either about family dysfunction, divorce or break-ups) , especially for us Chicagoans, many of whom applauded the opening shot of our icy Lake Michigan and our majestic skyline. Nicolas Cage—in his second great performance of the year—plays a downtrodden TV weather man who is trying desperately to put his life back together following a divorce, while his stern father (Michael Caine) constantly hovers over his every move. Director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean, The Ring) proves to be as solid a dramatic director as he is a special effects showman. It could also very well be the best-looking contemporary Chicago film I’ve ever seen. (***1/2)

Look Both Ways Or, as a colleague of mine calls it, death, actually. Another one of those seemingly-unrelated-characters-with-a-common-destiny films that over the years has become a genre in and of itself (Magnolia, 13 Conversations About One Thing, Crash, to name just a few). This Australian film from promising first-timer Sarah Watt centers around a derailed train accident and the many people it affects, from a journalist with cancer to a woman who has premonitions of death and destruction of everything around her, all presented with animation. These sequences lose their freshness after a while, but overall, the movie has a lot to say about immortality and the life we choose to live in the face of death. (***1/2)

Mutual Appreciation The Hipsters finally get their Slacker. Like Linklater’s breakthrough film, you either love this movie for its natural realism and its leisurely pace, or you hate it for being 110 minutes of non-stop gabbing. With its low-key, 16mm black-and-white minimalism and its clear nodding to John Cassavetes and Woody Allen, I found the movie to be refreshing and uncommonly real. Director Andrew Bujalski lets his character speak fluently and without referring to pop culture or being witty for the sake of it. It’s a relationship drama that takes place in New York as a young musician tries to start a new band while his best friend’s girlfriend makes known her admiration for him. (***1/2)

Brick A terrific noir thriller from first-time director Rian Johnson, which got picked up by Focus Features and can expect a theatrical release next year. When young Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds his ex girlfriend dead in a ditch, he takes it upon himself to play detective and investigate. His search naturally leads him to the seedy underbelly of drugs and gang warfare, most of it the mastermind behind a shady hoodlum known only as The Pin (Lukas Haas). The movie stays true to the noir genre with its snappy dialogue, femme fatales and many surprises. Oh, yeah, and it all takes place in a contemporary So-Cal high school, but that doesn’t really matter. (***1/2)

The Puffy Chair Another break-up/divorce movie offered at the Festival, this one a painfully funny and realistic disintegration of two twentysomethings in a long-term relationship who need to decide whether or not they really have a future together. It starts with a roadtrip, for which Josh (co-writer/producer Mark Duplass) must drive cross country to pick up an easy chair he bought for his father on eBay. He reluctantly invites his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton), who constantly corners him into answering her questions as to where their relationship might be headed. Mark and Jay Duplass (who directed) hit very close to home. Their perception of how relationships function clearly comes from experience as there doesn’t seem to be a single phony moment in the film. And it’s very funny, too. (***1/2)

I Am A Sex Addict We all have our vices, but few can be as honest and uncompromising about them as writer-director-star-subject Caveh Zahedi, whose autobiographical pseudo-documentary/re-enactment is as entertaining as it is self-deprecating. Zahedi narrated the movie on the day of his third wedding. The movie chronicles his exploits as a sex addict (with a preference for prostitutes) and how the addiction affected his previous marriages and relationships. What could have been an exorcise in self-indulgence is instead a refreshing and uncomfortably truthful comedy that plays with the narrative form in a way that recalls the best work of Woody Allen. It runs a little too long, but Zahedi is a charming presence and has assembled a strong supporting cast of unknowns. (***)

North Country Hardly groundbreaking, but nevertheless a compelling film about a mine worker (Charlize Theron) who has had enough of the chauvinism and harassment from her relentless male co-workers. She enlists the help of an attorney (Woody Harrelson), but finds little support from her female co-workers or her father. Not nearly as beautiful or as moving as Niki Caro’s previous film Whale Rider, but still possesses some of that film’s poetic beauty, while Theron turns in a much better, more refined performance here than in her Oscar-winning turn in Monster. (***)

Feast Probably the most fun to be had at the Festival in terms of just sheer unadulterated, brainlessness (I also had fun with The Great Yokai War). The latest Project: Greenlight offering goes the horror/comedy route and mostly succeeds. In it, a bunch of lunkheads get trapped in a bar while savage, unidentifiable beasts try to make their way in. It’s a simple premise with a smart, witty script that wisely leaves out any sort of mythology regarding these monsters. Henry Rollins is hilariously cast against type as the sensible fighter who tries his hand at inspirational speeches and fails miserably. The Festival screened a rough cut, so the star rating is pretty loose. As it is, it’s a bit over-edited and doesn’t always hit its mark, but it’s a welcome late night addition after a full day of dry, ponderous, foreign-language fiddle-faddle. Some people I know have complained about the less-than-stellar performances and the lack of character development in the screenplay. Clearly, they don’t go to these movies for the same reason I do. (***)

The Squid and the Whale The third or fourth dysfunctional family/divorce/break-up movie, this one stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as a pair of New York writers—he’s established, she’s aspiring—in the ‘80s who agree to a separation. Naturally, their two sons become the metaphorical tennis balls, going back and forth from household to household. A wonderfully acted film from Noah Baumbach, whose script has a few flaws, one of them centering around a Pink Floyd song. Anna Paquin also stars as a flirty love interest for one of their teenage sons, but who inadvertently becomes the object of lust for Daniels, a little weird considering he played her father nine years ago in Fly Away Home. (***)

The Fever (La Febbre) (Not to be confused with the Vanessa Redgrave film with the same title currently making the rounds at the Festivals.) I could not help notice the similarities between Mario, the main character in Alessandro D’Alatri’s The Fever and Sam Lowry, the main character in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both have barely attainable dreams, both have to deal with the bureaucracy that has run rampant in their respective societies and both reluctantly follow in their father’s footsteps by getting jobs as door-to-door paper pushers for the system they despise in order to make their dreams come true. The similarities end there. The Fever is a likable and earnest film that comments on the ills of society while telling a universal story about filling a role in order to fulfill a dream. The film’s major flaw happens to be the all-too-perfect female love interest: a sexy club dancer and aspiring experimental filmmaker. (***)

Stories of Disenchantment I really need to see this film again. Unfortunately, I had to watch it on a screener and missed the big screen presentation. This indescribable, phantasmagoric odyssey tells the story of a filmmaker, his female best friend and the sexual awakening that occurs when they meet Ainda, a conceptual artist with bat wings. The movie is a visual wonder, clearly influenced by the works of Terry Gilliam, Guy Madden and Jean-Pierre Juenet. It runs a little too long as the storyline gets more and more out there, but it somehow manages to maintain its unique identity while engaging the audience. From first-time Mexican director Alejandro Valle, who I suspect will gain a cult following in the not-too-distant future. (***)

How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (and Enjoy It) Joe Angio’s documentary sheds more light on legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles than last year’s Baadassss!, but it’s not quite as entertaining. Still, it’s a must for film buffs and anyone intrigued enough to want to learn more about the creator of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. The movie touches on Van Peebles’ work as a French novelist, bomber pilot and cable car driver. Angio’s straightforward approach works well enough and it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a true renaissance man. (***)

Elizabethtown Again, I’ve only seen the notoriously panned rough cut at Toronto. Chicago’s Opening Night film (with a tribute to Susan Sarandon) is still one of this town’s better kick-offs, assuming you’re in the pro-Kirsten Dunst camp, which I guess I am. Cameron Crowe’s latest could very well be his most flawed film to date, but it still resonates and says things about human nature in a way that has become his endearing trademark. Crowe remains of the very few filmmakers or artists out there who can be self-indulgent (as he is here), but still be worth listening to and watching. (***)

October 17th, 1961 A TV movie from France about a pivotal day when tensions between Paris authorities and Algerian immigrants reached their peak with violent results. The movie uses fictional characters to tell its story and doesn’t actually take place on one day. It depicts key events from previous months that lead to the senseless beatings of several innocent people, an historical day that has been deliberately erased from many history books. Though not nearly as powerful as Paul Greengrass’ 2002 film Bloody Sunday, about a similar event in Ireland’s history, it’s still worth a look for the performances and as a valuable history lesson. (***)

April Snow Another break-up movie. It’s also the movie Random Hearts should have been, even though it’s just as slow moving and ponderous. This film—about two lovers whose significant others cheat on them and end up in a fatal car crash, bringing the two devastated lovers that much closer together—benefits from a quiet, simplistic approach. The dialogue is sparse and the mood is kept somber throughout. It’s certainly not to everyone’s liking, but I found the overall sadness and leisurely pace to be quite effective. (***)

P Or “phii,” which is Thai for “ghost.” This late night offering comes from Thailand, despite the fact that its director, Paul Spurrier, does not. A delightfully sinister tale about a timid girl who must travel into the city to get some money for medicine to treat her ailing Grandmother, who has taught her will in ancient black magic. When the girl becomes an erotic dancer in a club, her black magic practices unexpectedly come in handy, but a mis-use of the ancient form results in a demonic creature that threatens to take control of her. Not quite Showgirls meets The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the description may make it out to be and it drags a bit toward the end, but it’s well-made and at times creepy little movie that says more about the Thai sex industry than it leads on.

The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai Speaking of sex… This campy little number from Japan came in at the last minute to replace screenings of The Great Yokai War. This movie has a lot of sex on the brain and can certainly be pigeonholed as just another soft-core porno, but its plot is so much fun to describe and, therefore, kinda fun to watch. Sachiko Hanai works in a fantasy sex club. She gets caught in the crossfire between two gun-toting gangsters and gets shot in the head, but does not die. When she sees the bullet hole in her forehead, she sticks her eyeliner pencil in it and taps into a part of her brain she never knew she had. This results in her becoming a philosophical genius and prone to discussing Noam Chomsky during sex. She also gets haunted by images of President Bush and comes into possession of a replica of his middle finger (that which controls the fate of the universe). It gets pretty complicated from there. The sex scenes get repetitive and dull after a while, but the campy, go-for-broke spirit is almost always on display. And how can anyone hate the idea of an anti-George W. Bush porno movie anyway? (***)

The Dark Hours This horror flick from Canada could use a better ending, but its director Paul Fox shows great promise as a craftsman and the performances are unexpectedly strong. In it, a psychiatrist, her husband and her sister spend a weekend in a remote cabin, where they get paid an unwelcome visit from one of her mental patients, who intends on reversing the role of doctor and patient, which escalates in violence and torture. Gruesome and tense, if not a bit predictable, but it does tap nicely into primal feelings of jealousy and suspicion. (***)

Shopgirl Yes, this also counts as a break-up movie (I’ve lost count of how many I’ve covered already). My immediate reaction to Steve Martin’s drama was based on personal experiences of my own. This movie about a lonely sales clerk (Claire Danes) and the two men in her life—wealthy divorcee Martin and charming slacker Jason Schwartzmann— for better or for worse, reminded me of situations in my own life that I had just experienced. Upon reflection, though, it cannot be denied that Steve Martin either mis-cast himself or cast himself too prominently (why must he narrate?). He does the best Lost In Translation imitation he can, but many of the love scenes between he and Claire Danes seem awkward and forced. He still knows how to write painfully accurate and satisfying love stories, but Anand Tucker’s slightly heavy-handed direction might earn the film some unintended snickering. (**1/2)

Mongolian Ping Pong A beautiful-looking film that was shot on video and takes place in the middle of nowhere, China. With a story that borrows a page from The Gods Must Be Crazy, the movie tells the story of a boy and his friends who find a ping pong ball floating in the river and have no idea what to make of it. Eventually, they believe it to be the “national ball of China,” and feel they must make a pilgrimage to return it. The movie’s video presentation looks exquisite, especially on a big screen, but the story is hardly compelling enough to justify it’s 103-minute running time and the intended irony of the story’s conclusion doesn’t quite resonate. (**1/2)

The Wayward Cloud Without question, the biggest WTF!?! movie I’ve seen at the Festival (yes, even more so than Sachiko Hanai). It’s clear now that no matter what Tsai Ming-Liang makes, he will always have a home at the Chicago International Film Festival. This year’s entry concerns a draught in Taipei and how it affects, among other things, the pornography industry. It’s also a love story and a musical. The only other film I’ve seen by Ling-Liang is 2003’s astoundingly dull slide show Goodbye, Dragon Inn. He employs the same devices here—long static shots, hardly any dialogue, “contemplative artiness,” as it says in the Festival schedule—but with slightly more satisfying results. I honestly don’t know how to rate this. You either like this guy or you don’t. (**1/2)

Stoned I can see why longtime Neil Jordon collaborator Stephen Woolley felt intrigued by the story of Rolling Stones’ co-founder Brian Jones to direct his first film about him. It has a certain sexy mystery behind it—was Jones’ death an accident, a murder or a suicide? I won’t tell you Woolley’s version, but like all speculative movies of this sort, it leaves some unanswered questions. The performances are all good and the parts of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are well-cast, but in the end the story lacks a freshness that would separate it from other stories about the pitfalls of excess and fame. The same could almost be said for the film. (**1/2)

It’s Not You, It’s Me Break-up movie #6, I think. This movie reportedly became the biggest box office hit of the summer in its native country of Argentina. Had it been the exact same script and same characters, only American, we probably wouldn’t look twice at it. A man learns from his fiancée that she has cheated on him with a man in the States, just before he’s about to move there. He goes through all the break-up motions, most of them accurate, and finds comfort in the form of a small puppy, which ends up being more trouble than he originally thought. It’s a slight, charming film, but also follows many Rom-Com conventions we’ve seen over and over again here in the States. Plus, how did they get away with doing a word-for-word re-creation of that scene in Swingers where the guy calls the woman he just met over and over again, always getting her answering machine? Word for word, and without a wink. (**1/2)

Two Auroras I found this tedious melodrama off-putting and laughable at first. I felt as though I was accidentally given a bad Telemundo soap opera instead of the screener I wanted. It certainly has that kind of storyline: A woman visits her suicidal son with plans to finally tell him about his real father, a world-famous singer. However, her son now has his energy focused on making a movie of his own and he wants his mother to star in it. There’s really nothing to get excited about until the last 20-30 minutes when the movie delivers a jaw-droppingly grotesque conclusion and one of the most memorable (for better or for worse) moments of the entire Festival. It’s almost worth sitting through it. (**1/2)

The Trouble With Dee Dee At first, this movie comes off rather charming as the title character, an irrepressible socialite named Dee Dee Rutherford, talks her way out of a speeding ticket. Her antics become tiresome to her father (Kurtwood Smith), who decides to cut her off from the family fortune until she learns to behave herself. She then finds herself immersed in the world of homeless shelters, to which she has always made charitable donations. It’s a cute film, but the main character’s antics also become tiring for the audience as well. (**1/2)

Tuning Eee-gads, another divorce drama! This 68-minute drama tells the story of a married couple going their separate ways as the husband takes an interest in prostitutes and the wife takes interest in other men. Meanwhile, their kid practices the piano. It’s a rather dry, nothing-special kind of movie that gets buy mostly on its cinematography. I’m guessing this film was programmed to fill in the Slovenia niche for this year’s Festival. They could have at least programmed it with a short film.

The Masseur The same could almost be said for this tepid exorcise in style over substance. This movie from the Philippines at least attempts a creative narrative arch, but it amounts to very little, as it goes back and forth between a young man’s shift working at a gay massage parlor one night and his father’s funeral the next day. The movie only runs 71 minutes, but there’s so much padding to fill that time that one has to wonder if director Brillante Mendoza had any interest in telling a story at all. How many overhead shots do we need of naked men getting massages? (*1/2)

Havoc Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan once again blows the lid off teenagers doing drugs as a reaction against their rich parents’ indifference, in case he didn’t hammer the point home enough in Traffic. This laughable drama has become better known for Anne Hathaway’s nude scenes more than anything else. She, along with Bijou Phillips, seem mis-cast and too old to be playing a pair of “bored, bored, bored” teenagers who trek out to East L.A. to score some drugs, only to become immersed in the world of gangs and druglords. The fine documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream) has ironically made a movie that has little authenticity. (*1/2)

Night of the Living Dorks Funny in name only. This German horror/comedy owes more to Weird Science than to George Romero and, unfortunately, that’s a bad thing. Three teenagers participate in a voodoo ritual that goes horribly wrong. They wake up as zombies, but still able to talk and think. They just have decomposing body parts and an even more vivacious sexual appetite. And, of course, they become the new cool kids in the school. Cartoonish and at times embarrassing, the movie can better be described as a teenage Death Becomes Her and should not be confused with actual zombie movies. (*1/2)

The Unseen I wish! Unfortunately, I did see this Ode to Every Indie Cliché in the Book. Race relations, a misunderstanding in the past that hangs over every character, a roadtrip involving two unlikely characters, a physical disability (in this case, blindness), southern charm, a house catching fire at the end…you name it. The only thing that distinguishes it is the laughably atrocious performance by vapid VH-1 personality Philip Bloch, who turns in what has to be the most ill-conceived performance of a blind man-child I’ve ever seen. Director Lisa France clearly possesses the luck of Forrest Gump, as there could be no other explanation as to how she got thing into the Fest in the first place. She wrote the script in six days and it shows. (*)

Be sure to check out other reviws from this year's Festival with Peter Sobczynski's A Brief and Not-Entirely-Complete Guide to the 41st Chicago International Film Festival, Parts One and Two.

Plus, full-length reviews of:
Free Zone
The Great Yokai War

link directly to this feature at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1638
originally posted: 11/02/05 20:01:39
last updated: 12/01/05 03:16:27
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