Worlds Away: Capsule Reviews from the 2003 Chicago International Film Festival
By Collin Souter
Posted 10/05/03 17:11:35
I have always felt that in order to be a good critic, you should have two things going for you: 1. You should at least attempt to make your own movie or write a few screenplays on your own. Know a few things about the fundamentals of the craft through
your own experience. 2. You have to be curious. Movies come in all shapes and sizes and to be a good critic, you should be open to all of them and be more than willing to experience the medium through the eyes of those who exist worlds away from you.
The Chicago International Film Festival brings us a view of the world from artists who don’t often have a firm grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking we employ here in the States. Unlike the traditional studio product, these movies exist on their own terms. They do not all have the likable hero, the cartoonish bad guy, the love interest and the explosion every 15 minutes. They don’t cut scenes down to size so that the average audience can digest them like a Snickers bar. The pace can often be slow. One usually has to keep this in mind when viewing a film from Morocco or Austria. It may not always be your cup of tea, but how do you know until you taste it?
I have seen 20 movies from the Festival so far, and while I cannot possibly write full-length reviews for all of them, I felt a good run-down of capsule reviews would suffice in order to give an idea of the diversity that exists. I guess that would be a good third rule-of-thumb for a good critic: Always get the word out, even if you only have a few words to work with.
The Maldonado Miracle (United States) A Mexican boy illegally crosses over into the U.S. border and hides out in a church hoping to find his estranged father. The boy’s blood drips onto a cross and the small town of unknowing eccentric locals take it as a sign of the divine. A sleepy Peter Fonda plays the town priest.
Actress Salma Hayek follows the same pattern many of her peers do with her directorial debut: Find a safe script that probes a little into deep subjects, employ a restrained visual style and just be happy you finally got the job you “really wanted to do.” Basically, keep it simple. Hayek does the Tom Hanks-Edward Norton-Denzel Washington thing, with the exception of casting herself in a role. Unfortunately, this Showtime production offers little in the way of sentiment that doesn’t ring false. The story of the town dealing with the sign from God says nothing new about the corruption of religion, while the story of the immigrant boy seems much more vital. (**)
A Thousand Months (Morocco/France/Belgium) This movie takes place in Morocco, circa 1981, during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. A young boy, Medhi, serves as the movie’s focal point as his family deals with labor strikes, a teenage idealistic rebel, an imprisoned father, a controversial marriage and a schoolteacher whose chair causes way too much strife. Faouzi Bensaidi’s family drama moves slowly, but the humor, performances and situations keep it interesting enough to warrant a recommendation. Call it a Moroccan “Hope and Glory.” (***)
This Very Moment (Germany) A low-key Hansel and Gretel about two kids’ whose stepmother abandons them out of punishment, only to find that they really have disappeared. This brings about a simultaneous sexual awakening in the stepmother and a sense of despair and anguish from the father who knows nothing about the abandonment being her punishment of his children. A kidnapper eventually comes into play, and the two kids become the object of a ransom situation that goes nowhere. An emotionally distant morality play that gets a little too ridiculous at the end, but it nevertheless has a way of staying with the viewer. A mostly solid debut from director Christoph Hochhausler. (***)
Tamala2010: A Punk Cat In Space (Japan) I can only recommend this to serious Anime freaks. This movie will definitely have its cult, but it suffers from a common trait amongst many sci-fi Anime offerings: An incomprehensible plot. The movie combines the simple and flat look of "The Powerpuff Girls” (of which I am a fan) with the deep texture and surrealism of traditional Anime. The story concerns a foul-mouthed cat who comes to earth and unintentionally becomes a messianic figurehead. I looked forward to this movie and I found its cheerful goofiness quite infectious at first, but it loses steam towards the middle and I left scratching my head trying to figure out what I just watched. Still, it’s damn near impossible to get the closing credits' song out of your head (“Eat a lot of beer, chicken and snacks!”). Directed by, and I’m not making this up, T.O.L. (**1/2)
Empathy (United States) Chicago-based director Amie Siegel probes the inner-workings of psychoanalysis through interesting interviews with psychoanalysts and annoying fictional scenes involving a patient seeing a psychoanalyst and getting frustrating results. While I admire Siegel’s attempt at trying to blur the line between documentary and fiction, I cannot honestly recommend “Empathy” to anybody who does not have a degree in this subject or is not pursuing one. Once this ordeal segues into a documentary about the history of the psychoanalyst’s chair, the movie achieves a level of dryness and boredom from which it cannot possibly escape. (**)
Forest (Hungary) It should have just been called “Seven Short Films about Arguing.” I haven’t seen this many walk-outs during a movie since the first hour of “Irreversible,” which is odd considering some of the stylistic choices the two movies share (seven scenes, shaky camera, backwards sound loops, backwards credits). Still, it’s nothing more than seven different scenes involving two people who perceive their situations differently. We really only see their faces and never their full surroundings. Some scenes are more interesting than others, but the whole affair just gets annoying after a while. Director Benedek Fliegauf bookends the movie with a scene in a Budapest mall featuring every character, a scene that supposedly reveals something about one of the character's bag full of private items. Who cares? (*)
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (France) A group of survivors and soldiers from the days of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia get together in the abandoned prison where unspeakable acts of horror once took place. The two sides try to work out their differences and try to see how such inhumane treatment could be possible for a human being to commit. One man, a victim, asks the key question: “How could you get used to seeing such torture?” The reply from the stoic and seemingly hardened ex-soldiers: “We were following orders so that we could kill the enemy.” But who was the real enemy? Director Rithy Panh lets those involved do the talking without ever resorting to manipulative means (Very little in the way of music and montage here). As a result, the movie is talky and a bit repetitive, but it still carries an undeniable power. (***)
Jon E. Edwards Is in Love (United States) Narcissistic soul singer Jon E. Edwards wants us to know how much he deserves major league success. Yet, one gets the sense that if he achieved it, he'd have nothing left to bitch about. This documentary follows Jon as his mother is taken ill. He leaves New York to be with her in Los Angeles. While Jon certainly has a great deal of confidence and charisma, his welcome wears out after a while and I just wished he would leave me alone. I don’t believe that all documentary subjects should be likable people, but I just didn’t fine Edwards as interesting as he thinks he is. Directed with beautiful black-and-white cinematography by Chris Bradley and Kyle Labrache. (**1/2)
Go Further (Canada) I have a hard time critiquing this one, simply because I’m personally involved in a project that carries the same approach: Instead of a documentary that asks a lot of tough questions, why not focus on a group of individuals who know some answers? Director Ron Mann (“Grass”) follows Woody Harrelson and his group of environmentalist activists on a bus tour across the west coast as Harrelson gives lectures at colleges along the way. The movie is certainly fun to watch, but does not do its cause a great service (most of the people here are stoned most of the time), and it does get hard to take it seriously at times, but again, I admire the spirit more than anything else. Mann was given free use of music from such heavy-hitters as U2, Dave Matthews, Wilco, Natalie Merchant and Red Hot Chili Peppers (among others). (***)
What Jackie Knew (France) The first of two documentaries at the fest that runs less than 60 minutes. (Why not just show them as a double bill if that’s the case?) As somebody who only has a rudimentary knowledge of Jackie Kennedy, I found Patrick Jeudy’s documentary quite engrossing. Weaving together newfound archival footage from the Kennedy estate with photographs and words from Jackie herself, Jeudy’s film only suffers from a narration that, at times, borders on pretentious (“Look at her get off the plane”). Still, it gets to the roots of what made Jackie such an enigma and a public figure way ahead of her time. (***)
Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years (Switzerland) The second of two short docs. I’m a bit disappointed that this film did not contain the newly-found color footage of Chaplin working on “The Great Dictator” (guess I’ll have to buy the recently released DVD for that), but this will do anyway. As a Chaplin fan, Felice Zenoni’s documentary offers little I didn’t already know and the hokey horror-movie approach to the whole gravedigger occurrence had me cringing. Still, I’m always up for Chaplin’s family and friends getting together to recount their memories, good or bad. It also reinstated my desire to never, ever watch Chaplin’s last film, “A Countess from Hong Kong” (it just looks so unwatchable). Flawed, but consider it a good review anyway out of sheer bias. Every critic is entitled. (***)