Something tells me the Brazilian movies are going to be a tough sell this year. But in the wake of Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid, it’s worth noting that every year since since 1965 the Chicago International Film Festival has done what the 2016 committee only promised, welcoming people from around the world to compete and share their gifts.
For its trouble, CIFF has always struggled with the second-city syndrome that swept through Daley Plaza last Friday. Unlike the big festivals in Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin, ours has never been, and probably never will be, an international draw.
Yet in presenting new work to an enthusiastic local audience, the festival gives more than it takes: It solicits from its international visitors not their tourist dollars but their stories, ideas, and hopes for the future. And it enables the city’s varied immigrant population to celebrate their old cultures as well as their new one. That ought to be worth a garland.
The festival opens Thursday, October 8, with Katherine Dieckmann’s Motherhood; Dieckmann and star Uma Thurman are scheduled to attend. The program begins at 6 PM with red-carpet arrivals, continues at 7 PM with awards presentations, and concludes with a 9:30 PM reception at the Wit Hotel, 201 N. State. Tickets are $150. The fest closes Thursday, October 22, with Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria. All films screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois; see the info that runs down the right side of this page for ticket prices, advance sales, and other details.
Following are reviews of selected films making their Chicago premieres through Thursday, October 15 (though repeat screenings after that date are also noted); for reviews of films premiering Friday, October 16 through Thursday, October 22, see next week’s issue. —J.R. Jones
Animation Nations Leave the kids at home for this disturbing but delirious reel of short animations. Directed by Francois Alaux, Herve de Crecy, and Ludovic Houplain, the rotoscoped Logorama takes place in an urban landscape of corporate logos and features an armed, Tarantino-esque standoff between Ronald McDonald and a police squad of obscenity-spewing Michelin men. Runaway, directed by ace Canadian animator Cordell Barker (The Big Snit), is a goofy socialist parable set on a train that’s sure to crash if it doesn’t run out of fuel first. And Bill Plympton’s Horn Dog is a characteristically gross vignette about canine sexual desire. 82 min. —Cliff Doerksen
Antichrist This grueling psychodrama by Lars von Trier (Dogville, Breaking the Waves) is the sort of movie that dares you not to take it seriously—it’s dedicated to the Soviet metaphysical filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and the end credits cite research assistants in theology, mythology, misogyny, and the horror movie. If you’re easily cowed by that sort of thing, then this is a masterpiece exposing the divide between human intellect (equated here with male oppression) and nature (defined as “Satan’s church”); if you’re not, then it’s a grisly fuckfest with a library card. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are a couple whose toddler tumbles out a window to his death while they’re boffing in the bathroom (a scene that transpires in slow-motion black and white to a moody string score). A professional shrink, Dafoe decides that Gainsbourg can overcome her crippling grief only by confronting her fear of the forest, so he takes her out to a remote cabin in the woods and all hell breaks loose. I can’t deny this is filled with powerfully primal images, but at least one of them—an eviscerated fox that bellows at Dafoe, “Chaos reigns!”—made me burst out laughing. 109 min. —J.R. Jones
Berlin ’36 Loosely based on historical events, this engaging made-for-TV drama stars the lissome, intense Karoline Herfurth as a Jewish high-jump medalist who hopes to represent Nazi Germany in the 1936 Olympics. Obliged by international pressure to let her train, the Reich nonetheless conspires to knock her out of competition by pitting her against a cross-dressing male athlete (Sebastian Urzendowsky) who’s been raised as a woman by his psychotic mother. A chaste but profoundly emotional bond ensues after the two outsiders are assigned to bunk together in training camp. The movie’s production values fall well short of Leni Riefenstahl standards, but director Kaspar Heidelbach makes the most of an excellent cast and a crisp, unsentimental script. In German with subtitles. 100 min. —Cliff Doerksen
Chicago Overcoat Veteran character actor Frank Vincent (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Sopranos) gets top billing in this modest local production about an aging hit man’s last hurrah. Once the top trigger man for the Chicago outfit, Vincent comes out of retirement to eliminate various witnesses before they can testify against a mob boss (Armand Assante), but a series of missteps leads him into the crosshairs of both his colleagues and a grizzled detective (Danny Goldring). Despite the stock characters and well-trod material, this is an engaging tale, enhanced considerably by Vincent’s perfect mix of vulnerability and steely resolve. (For more see Our Town, page 16.) Brian Caunter directed. 95 min. —Reece Pendleton
Cropsey This disturbing true-crime documentary takes its name from a local bogeyman that video makers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio were warned about when they were growing up on Staten Island. Only later did they discover the factual basis for this urban legend: between 1971 and 1987, five children vanished from the community, all of them suffering from some sort of disability. According to the video, the key to this mystery is Andre Rand, once a staffer at the horrific Willowbrook State School for retarded children; though he insists he’s innocent, he’s been convicted on circumstantial evidence of having kidnapped two of the missing children, and a minister who briefly sheltered Rand recalls him saying that “people that had mental handicaps shouldn’t be alive.” Though Rand now seems likely to die in prison, interviews with the parents expose that as cold comfort. “You never get closure,” remarks one. “That’s just a bullshit word.” 84 min. —J.R. Jones
Face Tsai Ming-Liang (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) pays vague tribute to Francois Truffaut throughout this slow, self-indulgent, but often shockingly beautiful art film. The premise—one can barely call it a story—involves a Taiwanese director (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) invading the Louvre to shoot a movie about the biblical character Salome, assisted by such Truffaut veterans as Fanny Ardant and Jean-Pierre Leaud. This is best appreciated for its strikingly composed and often dynamically colorful long takes: the most impressive, coming early in the film, shows a snow-covered forest decorated with tall vertical mirrors that create a complex, almost magical layering of reflections and comically baffle a stag that wanders into the frame. The movie climaxes with a piercingly erotic Dance of the Seven Veils by Laetitia Casta, an ironic ending given that Tsai already seems to have been granted his every wish. With cameos by Mathieu Amalric, Nathalie Baye, and Jeanne Moreau. In French and Taiwanese with subtitles. 141 min. —J.R. Jones
The Girl on the Train Inspired by a real-life incident that rocked France in 2004, this tangled drama by Andre Techine (Strayed, Changing Times) stars Emilie Dequenne (Rosetta) as a naive, aimless young woman in suburban Paris who’s seduced online by a small-time crook. After he’s busted, she acts out by claiming she was attacked on a commuter train by thugs who mistook her for a Jew, and her tale ignites a media feeding frenzy. The movie’s first part lingers inordinately on the doomed romance, while the second unravels into various subplots involving the fractious family of a prominent Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc) engaged to defend the young woman. In the process Techine glosses over the story’s most potent issue: France’s complicated relationship with its Jewish community. With Catherine Deneuve. In French with subtitles. 105 min. —Andrea Gronvall
The Last Days of Emma Blank An old-school exercise in theater of the absurd, this fitfully amusing Dutch feature centers on a house in the country and the imperious matron who presides over it. Eager to inherit her fortune, her family members have allowed her to press them into service: her husband is the butler, her sister the cook, her daughter the maid, her nephew the handyman, and her brother (writer-director Alex van Warmerdam) the family dog, who humps people’s legs, shits in the yard, and gets locked outside in the rain. I looked at three DVD screeners of this sucker without being able to get to the end credits and ultimately watched the last 30 minutes on a computer at the publicist’s front desk; when the UPS man showed up and asked if there were any packages, I began to wonder whether I was watching the movie or participating in it. In Dutch with subtitles. 89 min. —J.R. Jones
Looking for Eric No one goes to a Ken Loach movie for comedy or fantasy, and while the great British social realist (The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Bread and Roses, My Name Is Joe) is entitled to stretch a bit, this quirky story never comes together. The hero is a glum, middle-aged postman in Manchester (Steve Evets) who’s periodically joined by a wisdom-dispensing vision of footballer Eric Cantona (playing himself). A pleasant sense of community emerges from the postman’s pub crew of Manchester United loyalists, but the movie wanders around forever before a conflict emerges in his stepson’s involvement with a local thug. The zany climax might have worked in another movie; plopped into the middle of Loach’s drab working-class milieu, it seems like a great joke being mangled by someone who can’t tell it. Paul Laverty, Loach’s longtime screenwriter, shares some of the responsibility for this well-meaning misfire. 116 min. —J.R. Jones
The Messenger After being wounded in Iraq, a valorous but emotionally repressed soldier (Ben Foster) returns to the States, where the army, displaying all the irony of a Hollywood screenwriter, assigns to him the wrenching duty of notifying parents and spouses that their loved ones have died in combat. The scenes of him and his partner (Woody Harrelson) showing up at people’s doorsteps recall the landmark cop show Homicide: Life on the Street in their unmitigated anguish. But whenever writer-director Oren Moverman moves past these scattered and admittedly voyeuristic moments into the lives of the two soldiers, the movie drifts into received wisdom, military exceptionalism, and unconvincing romantic subplots. Alessandro Camon cowrote the script; with Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, and Steve Buscemi. R, 105 min. —J.R. Jones
Motherhood You know a director is desperate for laughs when she resorts to a fast-motion sequence, and Katherine Dieckmann deploys one in the very first reel of this indie project: Uma Thurman, playing a harried wife and mother in Greenwich Village, races around her little apartment on a typical morning, tending to her husband and preschool children. Once a promising fiction writer, she now spends her day contending with parking restrictions, rude shoppers, and defensive mothers on the playground, stealing the odd moment to write on her blog. Thurman dials down the glamour with a baggy dress, ratty hair, and horn-rimmed glasses, but comedy is hardly her strong suit, and Dieckmann hands her one stilted sitcom gag after another before downshifting into a self-engaged drama of middle-class bohemian discontent. Anyone interested in the filmmaker should skip this and check out her easy, naturalistic 70s period piece Diggers (2006). With Anthony Edwards and Minnie Driver. PG-13, 90 min. —J.R. Jones
Nymph This supernatural chiller from Thailand has little dialogue but lots of creepy atmosphere. The bravura opening sequence is a long tracking shot in which two men chase a woman through the jungle before catching and raping her; it ends as the camera pulls up and out to reveal the men’s corpses floating in a stream. Some time later a photographer and his adulterous wife leave their city behind for a photo shoot in the rain forest; after the husband is abducted by a shadowy figure, the wife is haunted by guilt and begins to unravel. Writer-director Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Invisible Waves) skillfully escalates the tension but then squanders it with a prosaic conclusion. In Thai with subtitles. 96 min. —Andrea Gronvall