The marketing slogan for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival is “See the big picture.” That imperative may explain why I find this introduction so difficult to write every year: though I’ve watched some 15 features screening in the festival, there are a hundred more I haven’t watched. None of the media poobahs weighing in on the quality of the festival is really in any position to do so (though that never seems to stop anyone). And when local film buffs carp about the festival lineup (as they invariably do), they’re usually complaining about what isn’t there and prejudging what is.
One thing I do know: you’re not going to see the big picture just by seeing the big pictures. The festival’s opening-night slot has become a notorious parking spot for middlebrow, and often mediocre, studio films in need of a publicity bounce (in the last five years: Katherine Dieckmann’s Motherhood, Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner and Stranger Than Fiction, and Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown). And screenings for the most buzzed-about films—Darren Aronofsky’s ballet psychodrama Black Swan, Danny Boyle’s survival tale 127 Hours, Abbas Kiarostami’s philosophical adventure Certified Copy, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s waking dream Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—are already sold out. (The first two will open here commercially in the next couple months anyway.)
But every year I’ve covered the festival, I’ve seen something outstanding that vanishes without a trace. Last year it was Michel Franco’s Daniel & Ana, about siblings trying to recover after being kidnapped and sexually abused; this year it will probably be Michael Rowe’s Leap Year, whose already meager chances of distribution can’t be helped by the fact that it shares its title with a recent Amy Adams rom-com. Sometimes the small picture is the one worth seeing.
The festival opens Thursday, October 7, with a screening of the prison drama Stone and personal appearances by director John Curran and star Edward Norton; see the listings for details. It closes Thursday, October 22, with a screening of The Debt, a Mossad adventure starring Helen Mirren.
Following, in alphabetical order, are reviews of selected films making their Chicago premieres through Thursday, October 14 (though repeat screenings after that date are also noted). For reviews of films premiering Friday, October 15, through Thursday, October 22, see next week’s issue. —J.R. Jones
Besouro African ancestral gods and some fancy dancing help a young black man protect his people from evil white plantation owners in this 2009 Brazilian drama, which is set in the 1920s and based on the exploits of a real-life folk hero. The title character, troubled that he didn’t prevent the murder of his mentor, contacts him through the spirit world and thereby gains new powers—like flying—that enhance his skill at the forbidden art of capoeira (dance plus martial arts). The visuals are colorful and the music seductive, but director Joao Daniel Tikhomiroff skimps on character development: the hero lacks depth, and the villains swagger and sneer like heavies in a bad western. In Portuguese with subtitles. 95 min. —Andrea Gronvall
Bitter Feast Dramatic features that emerge from U.S. film schools rarely suffer from low production values, but they often lack any authentic point of view or connection to real experience. This horror item by Joe Maggio is a prime example of the style that Dave Kehr has dubbed “NYU Beige,” nicely shot but indigestible as storytelling. A caricature of a pompous chef kidnaps a caricature of a self-pitying food critic for some creative torture in the woods. Despite a few “character-building” scenes straight from a screenwriter’s handbook, neither lead registers as a person or even a societal archetype, which has the virtue of making the numerous torture scenes easier to enjoy as purely technical exercises. 105 min. —Ben Sachs
Blame A high school music teacher is taken hostage in his remote home by five teenagers clad in their Sunday finest; they’ve just come from the funeral of their friend, who committed suicide after being seduced and then rejected by the teacher, and they’ve resolved to kill him with an overdose and make the death look like a suicide. This Australian nail-biter by Michael Henry suffers from the fact that the kids’ supposedly perfect crime is so dumb: they leave fingerprints all over the place, their pills are easily traceable, and they bind the victim’s hands and feet, the bruises from which would tip off any investigator. Those distractions recede, however, as their plot falls apart anyway, leaving the teacher to plead for his life and his captors to bicker and turn on each other. Part of the recent wave of low-budget Aussie thrillers, this hardly ranks with such predecessors as Coffin Rock, The Square, and Animal Kingdom, but it’s a solid effort with a few nice twists. 89 min. –J.R. Jones
Come Undone This Italian tale of infidelity owes its appeal to the charming lead actors, who hold one’s attention even during some unlikely plot turns. A wispy blond insurance agent (Alba Rohrwacher of I Am Love) lives with her sweet, rotund boyfriend, but at an office party she meets a handsome married caterer (Pierfrancesco Favino of Angels & Demons), and before long the two are sneaking off for weekly motel rendezvous. Director Sylvio Soldini (Bread & Tulips) suggests that the lovers are bound by their common restlessness and their great sex, but because their liaison doesn’t prompt any significant growth, change, or consequences, the film is more memorable for its eroticism than its drama. In Italian with subtitles. 126 min. —Andrea Gronvall
Conviction As a producer of her own starring vehicles, Hilary Swank is a sucker for true stories of personal heroism (Freedom Writers, Amelia), and she’s finally found a good one in this drama about Betty Anne Waters, a lower-class Massachusetts woman who put herself through college and then law school in hope of overturning her brother’s trumped-up murder conviction. Given the obvious formula at work here, there isn’t much doubt that the plucky heroine will ultimately triumph; what stings is how goddamn long it takes when there’s an innocent man rotting away in prison. Sam Rockwell plays the brother, and in his handful of scenes he skillfully tracks the character’s slow decay from cocky loudmouth to thoroughly beaten man; Swank, delivering her usual spunky turn, suffers badly by comparison. Tony Goldwyn directed a cast that ranges from the excellent (Minnie Driver as a fellow attorney, Melissa Leo as a crooked cop) to the laughable (Juliette Lewis as a trashy woman whose perjured testimony helps put the brother away). R, 106 min. —J.R. Jones
Heartbeats All lipstick and no kiss, this romantic drama by French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is filled with candy-colored, cello-scored studies of the beautiful young characters and their 1950s fashions. Marie (played with impressive hauteur by Monia Chokri) is one of those women with an Audrey Hepburn problem, whereas gay Francis (Dolan) worships at the altar of James Dean; these two pals eventually turn against each other when the tousle-haired Nicolas (Niels Schneider) becomes the apex of their bisexual love triangle. Intercut with this narrative are pointless interview segments featuring another assortment of young lovers apparently unrelated to the main characters. The movie got a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, and one can see why: Dolan’s vibrant use of color can be irresistible. But many of his other effects are insufferably precious (like the jerk zooms dominating the interviews), and the gender-bent Jules and Jim story lacks depth. In French with subtitles. 95 min. —J.R. Jones
Little Big Soldier Jackie Chan stars as a soldier during the waning days of the Zhou Dynasty who captures an enemy general in the aftermath of a battle and hopes to bring him in alive, knowing he’ll be rewarded with a discharge. Despite Chan’s popularity in the U.S., Hollywood has never found a proper use for his acting talents; this odd chase flick, which he also produced and scripted, offers a welcome chance to see him do something other than mug. Like his classic films of the 1980s and ’90s, this is earnest as both entertainment and personal statement, but director Sheng Ding seems unsure whether he’s making a reverent historical epic or a Hong Kong action comedy. Apart from the varied use of natural landscapes, the epic parts are mostly run-of-the-mill, but the movie is rescued from mediocrity by its well-choreographed tomfoolery and Chan’s performance as a folksy scoundrel. In Mandarin with subtitles. 96 min. —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
127 Hours Based on a true story, this drama by British director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) features a terrific performance from James Franco as a cocksure rock climber who gets pinned by a boulder during a solo excursion in a Utah canyon. Boyle loads up on visual gimmickry to indicate the passage of time, the depletion of the hero’s resources, and what’s running through his head. But aside from an exhilarating opening and a gruesome climax, the movie isn’t all that rich emotionally; all the visual razzle-dazzle winds up serving a pat lesson about people needing other people. R, 90 min. —Noel Murray
The Princess of Montpensier This handsome and intelligent historical drama by Bertrand Tavernier (Captain Conan, Life and Nothing But) opens in 1567 during the civil war between French Catholics and Huguenots. After killing a pregnant woman in a chaotic skirmish at a farm, a veteran soldier (Lambert Wilson in an excellent performance) recoils from war; rejected by both sides, he’s taken in by the family of a young prince he once mentored (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). The older man is by far the most interesting, but he’s pushed to the sidelines as Tavernier, adapting a 17th-century story by Madame de La Fayette, focuses on the prince’s unhappy marriage to a free-spirited beauty (Melanie Thierry) and her adulterous longing for his dashing cousin (Gaspard Ulliel). An engrossing subplot tracks the older man’s chaste devotion to the young man’s wife, which Tavernier parallels with his love of Christ; unfortunately the routine love triangle takes up most of the screen time. In French with subtitles. 139 min. —J.R. Jones
A Screaming Man The long history of civil war in Chad has provided ample material for writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and like his previous drama, Dry Season (2006), this one gauges the human damage as it plays out across generations. The premise is oddly similar to that of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic The Last Laugh: when a state-owned hotel is privatized, the 55-year-old swimming pool attendant is unceremoniously demoted to parking-lot gatekeeper, and the modesty of his original position only intensifies the bitterness of his fall. To make matters worse, his grown son inherits his poolside job, though the young man is safer at the hotel than in the army, whose commanders are conscripting young men to fight the rebel forces. The movie’s effectiveness lies in Haroun’s low-key dramatic development; he creates an emotional space where the slights of everyday life can hit like bullets. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 89 min. —J.R. Jones
Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Polyamorous sex shaman Desert “Baba Dez” Nichols of Sedona, Arizona, appears to make a pretty good buck using his lingam to heal good-looking, thirtyish women of their sexual dysfunctions (fat women only get cuddled). But when his “sacred spa work” and other New Age erotic hijinks alienate monogamously inclined Maya, the woman he truly loves, he goes into a spiritual tailspin. Enlisting his many lovers, Nichols tries to shag Maya back into his life through a sexualized version of the philosophy in Rhonda Byrne’s self-help book The Secret (visualize good things and they will be yours). Documentarians Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman clearly aren’t buying any of this, but instead of challenging their creepy subjects, they simply allow them to expose the rancid selfishness behind their relentless smiles, hokey rituals, and hideous, obfuscating jargon. It’s all pretty funny if you’re naturally amused by grotesque delusion. 80 min. —Cliff Doerksen
Stone Robert De Niro is a weary parole officer at a Michigan prison, Edward Norton is the jive-ass inmate trying to win a release, and Milla Jovovich is the jailbird’s kind-of-slutty, kind-of-nutty wife, who keeps coming on to the corrections worker after hours. So many talented people were involved in this modest drama—John Curran directed the biting We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004), and Angus MacLachlan scripted the lovely Junebug (2005)—that I feel as if I should like it more. De Niro and Norton keep each other on their game (the latter is particularly good, his laughable wigger character gradually becoming someone serious and unfathomable), and Frances Conroy is solid as the parole officer’s partner in a long-dead marriage. But you can feel the movie’s gears grinding throughout, first in the rote suspense mechanics and later in the ham-fisted religiosity (conveyed through an endless soundtrack of evangelistic talk radio). R, 105 min. —J.R. Jones
Tamara Drewe Funny and emotionally perceptive, the cartoon strip Tamara Drewe captivated British readers with its serialized update of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and this screen adaptation by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) successfully re-creates the strip’s pastoral tone and cheeky humor. The title character (Gemma Arterton), a sexy columnist for a London newspaper, returns to her rural hometown in Dorset and immediately turns the heads of an adulterous and self-regarding mystery novelist (Roger Allam), a smug rock star on his way down (Dominic Cooper), and a poor but good-hearted handyman (Bill Camp) at a neighboring writers’ retreat. Her opposite number, and the actual protagonist despite the title, is the novelist’s long-suffering and heart-scalded wife, nicely played by Tamsin Greig. Thomas Hardy it’s not, but as far as middlebrow British romances go, better this than Love Actually. R, 111 min. –J.R. Jones
Tony & Janina’s American Wedding Tony and Janina Wasilewski were model immigrants: hardworking, law-abiding, and beaming with freshly minted patriotism for the U.S. Then Janina, who came to Illinois claiming refugee status during Poland’s communist regime, was abruptly deported in 2007, taking the couple’s six-year-old son back home with her. Coproduced by Chicago’s venerable Kartemquin Films, this moving documentary uses the Wasilewskis’ plight as a window onto our absurdly byzantine and arbitrary immigration controls, which tear apart hundreds of thousands of comparably blameless families every year. Director Ruth Leitman deftly balances heartbreaking drama and muckraking journalism. In English and subtitled Polish. 81 min. —Cliff Doerksen
We Are What We Are Not graphic enough for gore-hounds or suspenseful enough for thriller fans, this moody Mexican drama about a family of cannibals aims for the art-house tone of Let the Right One In. When the philandering father suddenly dies, the eldest child (Francisco Barreiro) reluctantly becomes the clan’s provider, egged on by his sister (Paulina Gaitan of Sin Nombre) but belittled by his mother and brother, who may have figured out he’s a closeted homosexual. Coming out at a nightclub, the young man targets an attractive fellow to bring home for, uh, dinner. The story creeps along at a somnambulistic pace, unredeemed by the shallow social commentary or tepid black humor. Jorge Michel Grau directed. In Spanish with subtitles. 89 min. —Andrea Gronvall