The Reader’s Guide to the 44th Chicago International Film Festival

The 44th Chicago International Film Festival continues through Wednesday, October 29. Following are selected films screening Friday through Thursday; for a complete schedule visit

Reviews by Andrea Gronvall (AG), J.R. Jones (JJ), Joshua Katzman (JK), Dave Kehr (DK), Peter Margasak (PM), and Reece Pendleton (RP).

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (JJ) aFri 10/24, 4:00 PM, Sun 10/26, 1:00 PM, and Mon 10/27, 8:30 PM, 600 N. Michigan

A Christmas Tale French director Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen) sets this overstuffed drama in the northern provincial town of Roubaix, his birthplace, which he also considered in his 2007 documentary L’Aimee. A dysfunctional clan gathers there for the holidays, arguing over a compatible bone-marrow donor for the leukemia-stricken mother (Catherine Deneuve); hovering like a ghost is the memory of the first-born son, whose death has polarized his sister (Anne Consigny) and black-sheep brother (Mathieu Amalric). Characters occasionally address the camera, which helps disentangle the competing story lines of madness, adultery, and betrayal. With Emmanuelle Devos and Chiara Mastroianni. In French with subtitles. 150 min. (AG) aSat 10/25, 6:45 PM, River East 21

Don’t Look Down (RP) aFri 10/24, 10:30 PM, River East 21

El Norte Independent American cinema in the 80s slowly became as slick as the Hollywood product it was supposedly reacting against. Gregory Nava’s 1983 drama about a Guatemalan brother and sister who escape the political oppression of their home country for a difficult life as illegal aliens in the United States, applies a variety of sophisticated rhetorical techniques to a sentimental, manipulative story line. The show-offy style, with its overanalytic editing, rhyming transitions, and portentous accordion inserts, condescends to the puppy-dog siblings by adopting a detached, superior point of view. Nava is clearly less interested in exploring the tragic reality of the situation than in wringing a few tears from Anglo audiences. Though his subject is a serious one and his intentions are apparently noble, Nava has made a film that is essentially indistinguishable from Love Story. In English and subtitled Spanish and Maya. 139 min. (DK) aSun 10/26, 5:00 PM, Music Box

Faces <coR>John Cassavetes’s galvanic 1968 drama about one long night in the lives of an estranged couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) and their temporary lovers (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel) was the first of his independent features to become a hit, and it’s not hard to see why. It remains one of the only American films to take the middle class seriously, depicting the compulsive, embarrassed laughter of people facing their own sexual longing. Cassavetes shot in black-and-white 16-millimeter, using a good many close-ups, and he often takes an unsparing yet compassionate look at emotions most movies prefer to gloss over. Adroitly written and directed, and superbly acted—the leads and Val Avery are all uncommonly good—this is one of the most powerful and influential American films of the 60s. 129 min. (JR) aSun 10/26, 2:00 PM, Music Box

RFear(s) of the Dark Sinister and beautiful, this mostly black-and-white animation from France culls the talents of six artists and designers—Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire—who were asked to explore their most primal fears. Their styles run the gamut from comic-book pen-and-ink (Burns) to expressionistic pencil work (Blutch) to geometric abstraction (di Sciullo), but their sequences all reach past the stock materials of the horror genre into the obscure shadow land of the human psyche. Artistic director Etienne Robial has integrated the artists’ work so smoothly that one hesitates to single out any particular segment, though the one that really made my bowels clutch was Burns’s tale of a virginal college student who’s seduced by a pretty classmate, implanted with larvae, and harvested for a race of giant humanoid insects. In French with subtitles. 85 min. (JJ) aMon 10/27, 6:15 PM, River East 21

Four Nights With Anna A supporting role in David Cronenberg’s <cfri>Eastern Promises<cfr> inspired veteran Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski to return to directing after a 17-year absence; the result is as creepy and menacing as much of Cronenberg’s oeuvre, with a heavy dose of European fatalism thrown in. Artur Steranko plays the repressed custodian of a hospital crematory, who visits his mother’s grave to tell her he finally has a girlfriend. But the object of his affections, a zaftig nurse (Kinga Preis) who lives across a field from him, doesn’t realize she has an admirer who slips her sleeping powder, then expresses his ardor by cleaning her house while she’s unconscious. Flashbacks to a traumatic event years earlier suggest that his stalking may be more sinister than it appears. In Polish with subtitles. 87 min. (AG) aSun 10/26, 7:30 PM, and Mon 10/27, 8:00 PM, River East 21

The Garden (RP) Kennedy will attend both screenings. aFri 10/24, 6:20, and Sat 10/25, noon, River East 21

The Girl by the Lake When a beautiful young woman is found murdered in a provincial town in northern Italy, a surly police veteran (Toni Servillo in a nicely understated performance) is called in from a nearby city to investigate. He quickly assembles a list of suspects, including the dim-witted villager who discovered the body, a neighbor who’s disarmingly cooperative, a hockey coach with a prison record, and the girl’s layabout boyfriend. First-time director Andrea Molaioli shows great skill in moving the mystery along without planting too many red herrings; when the investigator mistakenly decides one suspect is the culprit, his error registers more as a character flaw than a plot device. With Fabrizio Gifuni and Valeria Golino. In Italian with subtitles. 95 min. (JK) aSat 10/25, 8:00 PM, and Mon 10/27, 6:15 PM, 600 N. Michigan

RGo With Peace Jamil Set in Copenhagen’s Arab immigrant community, this Dogma 95 drama recounts an endless cycle of brutal revenge between two families, one Sunni and the other Shiite. Members of each family disparage the other’s religious origins, yet first-time director Omar Shargawi never aims for a political tract. As the acts of violence escalate with numbing frequency, the overwhelmed protagonist tries to balance his desire to tolerate his enemies against his duty to avenge his family members, a seemingly unresolvable dilemma that lends the film much of its raw power. In Arabic and Danish with subtitles. 90 min. (JK) aSat 10/25, 9:45 PM, River East 21

Good (AG) Amorim will attend the screening. aWed 10/29 7:00 PM, Harris Theater

RThe Good, the Bad, and the Weird With a nod and a wink to Sergio Leone, South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) delivers a slam-bang western set in Manchuria after the Japanese invasion in 1931. Dynamic wide-screen camerawork propels the action, beginning with an over-the-shoulder shot as a doofus train robber (Song Kang-ho of The Host) hurtles through connecting railway cars to pilfer a treasure map. The theft sets him in conflict against a hired gun (Lee Byung-hun), a bounty hunter (Jung Woo-sung), assorted bandits, and, in a bravura desert-chase sequence, the Japanese army. Lee’s charismatic villainy and Song’s raffish glee bolster the slim plot, though the revelation here is the tall, lithe Jung, an actor of few words but striking physicality. In Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese with subtitles. 130 min. (AG) aSun 10/26, 8:00 PM, 600 N. Michigan

The Great Buck Howard aFri 10/24, 6:15 PM, 600 N. Michigan, and Mon 10/27, 8:15 PM, River East 21

Ice aSat 10/25, and Sun 10/26, 4:40 PM, River East 21

I’m Gonna Explode Transferred to a new high school, a conservative politician’s rebellious son (Juan Pablo de Santiago) introduces himself to the student body with a talent-show sketch, titled “See You in Hell,” in which he simulates hanging himself. But Mexican writer-director Gerardo Naranjo fails to sustain the wild humor of that early scene, and his feature settles into a decidedly more winsome account of the hero’s friendship-cum-romance with a like-minded classmate (the engrossing Maria Deschamps). After the kids disappear, their respective parents fear the worst and alert the police, yet the whole time the young pals are camped out on the rooftop of the politician’s home in Guanajuato, surveying the skyline like James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo hiding out at the hilltop mansion in Rebel Without a Cause. In Spanish with subtitles. 103 min. (JJ) aFri 10/24, 9:30 PM, and Tue 10/28, 8:15 PM, River East 21

RKatyn Andrzej Wajda has spent much of his long career dramatizing major events in Polish history, and this poignant feature depicts the circumstances surrounding the Soviet Union’s massacre of thousands of Polish officers in the spring of 1940. The film opens with a striking scene that underlines the plight of Wajda’s people in World War II: as hundreds of Poles cross a bridge to flee invading German troops, others run toward them to escape the advancing Russian army. The rest of this feature follows a handful of families over five years as they suffer through the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation that succeeded it. In Polish, Russian, and German with subtitles. 118 min. (JK) aSat 10/25, 1:15 PM, and Sun 10/26, 5:00 PM, River East 21

King of Ping Pong At first glance this Swedish tale of a nerdy, overweight Ping-Pong enthusiast looks like a standard exercise in Nordic deadpan comedy, with long, static takes and sporadic bursts of droll humor. Set in the frigid north country, it follows its sad-sack teen (Jerry Johansson) as he tries to cope with merciless bullies, less-than-enthusiastic Ping-Pong students, and life in the shadow of his girl-magnet younger brother. There’s nothing especially original here, but director-cowriter Jens Jonsson digs below the quirky surface, his deliberative style transforming this into an unexpectedly affecting coming-of-age drama. In Swedish with subtitles. 107 min. (RP) aFri 10/24, 8:40 PM, 600 N. Michigan

Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (JJ) Keys will attend both screenings, aMon 10/27, 4:10 PM, and Tue 10/28, 8:30 PM, River East 21

Of Boys and Men In this over-the-top melodrama, a family man on Chicago’s south side (Robert Townsend) struggles to hold his family together after his wife (Angela Bassett) is killed in a car accident. The father is so distraught that he can’t reach out to his two sons—an upstanding college grad who suddenly turns alcoholic and a high schooler who falls under the sway of a neighborhood thug. Luckily the dad’s sister (Victoria Rowell) steps up just in time to dispense some motherly affection and wisdom. Director Carl Seaton and writer Michelle Amor just can’t take their feet off the gas; the mawkishness is enough to make Tyler Perry blush. 90 min. (RP) aSat 10/25, 7:20 PM, River East 21

Once Upon a Time in the West <coR>Sergio Leone, famous for his spaghetti westerns shot in Spain, dared to invade John Ford’s own Monument Valley for this 1969 epic. He brought back a masterpiece, a film that expands his baroque, cartoonish style into genuine grandeur, weaving dozens of thematic variations and narrative arabesques around a classical western foundation myth. It’s very much a foreigner’s film, drawing its elements not from historical reality but from the mythic base made universal by the movies. Moments of intense realism flow into passages of operatic extravagance; lowbrow burlesque exists side by side with the expression of the most refined shades of feeling. The film failed commercially and was savagely recut by its distributor, Paramount Pictures; copies from the European version may be as close as we’ll ever get to the original. With Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, and Jason Robards; Bernardo Bertolucci contributed to the script. 165 min. (DK) aTue 10/28, 7:00 PM, Music Box

RRevanche An ex-con (Johannes Krisch) runs errands for a Viennese brothel while carrying on a furtive love affair with one of the star attractions (Irina Potapenko); hoping to spring her from the place, he pulls a bank job, but it ends tragically when an unsuspecting policeman (Andreas Lust) intrudes. The action then segues from the city to the Austrian countryside, where the thief is calmed by the gentler rhythms of life and his scheme for vengeance against the traumatized cop takes an unforeseen turn. Writer-director Gotz Spielmann (Antares) avoids the clutter and manipulation of most thrillers, escalating tension almost solely through the characters’ turbulent emotions. In German with subtitles. 121 min. (AG) aSat 10/25, 9:45 PM, River East 21, and Mon 10/27, 8:30 PM, 600 N. Michigan

RThe Secret of the Grain Abdel Kechine is an actor (Sorry, Haters) as well as a writer-director (Blame It on Voltaire, Games of Love and Chance), so one naturally focuses on his movies’ fluid ensemble work. But this 151-minute French drama, his third and most accomplished feature, is even more impressive for its subtle, dexterous storytelling. The first half uses casual conversation to build a rich family portrait, as an aging Arab fisherman (Habib Boufares) loses his full-time gig at a shipyard and commiserates with his grown children and his girlfriend over what to do next. He decides to open a Middle Eastern restaurant and organizes a gala dinner to attract investors, yet these developments arrive not as italicized plot points but as casual remarks in loosely improvised dialogue scenes. Given the languid pace, I was hardly prepared for the cold-sweat suspense of the last act, as latent family conflicts erupt into complications that threaten to sink the high-stakes dinner party. In French with subtitles. (JJ) aTue 10/28, 8:30 PM, 600 N. Michigan

Snow <coR>In summer 1997, a remote village nestled among Bosnia’s wooded hills hums with activity as women harvest fruit and bottle preserves to sell by the roadside; only gradually does one notice an aging imam (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic) and a mute boy, the only males who escaped a massacre by marauding Serbs some years earlier. The heroine of this fable is a beautfiul Muslim widow (Zana Marjanovic) who’s determined to safeguard the villagers’ economic future, despite the resentment of her grieving mother-in-law. In her serene and confident feature debut, director Aida Begic adds ancient folkloric touches to an all-too-modern tale of cruelty, crafting a paean to dreams, hope, tolerance, and forgiveness. In Bosnian with subtitles. 100 min. (AG) aSat 10/25, 3:00 PM, Sun 10/26, 6:00 PM, and Tue 10/28, 4:10 PM, 600 N. Michigan

Sparrow Hong Kong master Johnny To shuns violence for visual ballet in this light but enjoyable underworld drama. Four brothers, led by the charismatic Simon Yam, work the streets as pickpockets, and individually each becomes smitten with the same beautiful and mysterious young woman. Every direct encounter with her provokes an attack by brutal thugs, so the brothers unite to liberate the young woman from the old-school pickpocket behind the attacks. To concludes with a meticulously choreographed duel that features twirling umbrellas in a nocturnal downpour; shot largely in slow motion, it rivals any guns-a-blazing climax in its poetry and drama. In Cantonese with subtitles. 87 min. (PM) aSun 10/26, 1:00 PM, 600 N. Michigan

The Wave aFri 10/24, 4:10 PM, Sat 10/25, 10:00 PM, and Sun 10:26, 3:30 PM, 600 N. Michigan

RWesley Willis’s Joyrides Many Chicagoans remember the schizophrenic musician and outsider artist Wesley Willis, who died of leukemia in 2003, but it took two documentary makers from Cheyenne, Wyoming—Chris Bagley and Kim Shively—to get his real story. Though they began shooting video of Willis several years before his death, much of their work came later, as extensive interviews with his family and friends filled in the gaping holes in his biography. Willis finally emerges as a three-dimensional personality; his use of drawing and music as psychological escape valves is hardly news, but this touching, carefully pitched documentary reveals what he was trying to escape. 77 min. (PM) Shively will attend both screenings. aTK

RThe Wrestler Who’d have thought that Mickey Rourke, a Hollywood punch line with a list of turkeys as long as your arm, would come riding to the rescue of Darren Aronofsky, the formidably arty director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream? Following the flop of his sci-fi fantasy The Fountain, Aronofsky returns with this straightforward drama about a washed-up wrestling star (Rourke) who’s still riding on the fumes of his 80s glory when a coronary forces him into retirement. The famously downbeat Aronofsky captures the grimy texture of life at the bummed-out bottom of the wrestling circuit, but the center of the movie is Rourke’s unimpeachable performance as a man who exults in self-punishment. He looks like a truck ran over him, but at 52 he’s still ripped enough to get away with the role; in the end, the movie is about Rourke’s indomitability more than the character’s. With Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei. R, 105 min. Aronofsky will attend the screening. (JJ) aFri 10/24, 7:00 PM, River East 21