Following, in alphabetical order, are reviews of selected films screening through Thursday, October 16 (though repeat screenings after that date are also noted). For reviews of films screening Friday, October 17, through Thursday, October 24, come back next week to read the second part of our festival coverage.
VENUE All films reviewed here, except for Miss Julie, screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois.
ADMISSION Unless otherwise noted, all tickets are $14 ($11 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members). A ten-admission pass is $130 ($100 for members), and a 20-admission pass is $240 ($190 for members). Weekday matinees through 5 PM are $7; late shows after 10 PM are $10. Special packages for opening- and closing-night galas.
ADVANCE SALES In person: Cinema/Chicago, 30 E. Adams, suite 800 (weekdays 10 AM-6 PM) or River East 21 (daily noon-8 PM; beginning September 19, one hour before the first show until the last film has begun). Online: ticketmaster.com/chicagofilmfestival (individual tickets only) or chicagofilmfestival.com. By phone: 24 hours in advance at 312-332-3456; weekdays 10 AM-6 PM.
August Winds This first narrative feature by Brazilian documentary maker Gabri Mascaro plays like a compendium of international art films from the past two decades. As in several dramas by Abbas Kiarostami, the story hinges on an urban professional’s uneasy visit to an isolated rural community; the static long takes of lower-class workers in repose evoke the work of Pedro Costa (Mascaro even re-creates one of the most iconic scenes from Colossal Youth); the immersive sound design, fashioned from field recordings of the Brazilian rain forest, recalls the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul; and the towering natural imagery (also delivered in static long takes) continues the “slow cinema” aesthetic being practiced by middling art-film directors pretty much everywhere. This certainly looks pretty; if you don’t go in expecting a personal vision (or even a distinctly Brazilian one), you might find it diverting. In Portuguese with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 76 min. Actress Dandara de Morais attends the screening. Wed 10/15, 6 PM, and Thu 10/16, 8:30 PM.
The Babadook Filled with references to early cinema and classic fairy tales, this Australian horror film offers a grim, bone-chilling atmosphere but suffers from a schematic narrative. A beaten-down nurse (Essie Davis) grapples with her volatile seven-year-old son (Noah Wiseman), who was born the same day her husband died a violent death. The mother is prone to emotional outbursts and the son to violent and psychotic behavior, so when they’re plagued by a mystical ghoul, one can’t be sure whether it’s real or a by-product of their shared psychodrama. Jennifer Kent directed her own script. —Drew Hunt 93 min. Fri 10/10, 11 PM, and Tue 10/21, 8:30 PM.
Clouds of Sils Maria As with Irma Vep and Clean, French writer-director Olivier Assayas transforms a backstage drama into a meditation on the state of cinema, capitalism, and popular culture. Juliette Binoche plays a movie star who reluctantly agrees to perform in a new production of the play that launched her career three decades earlier; most of the story transpires at the isolated Alpine home of the recently deceased playwright, where the actress goes to prepare for her role, and centers on her relationship with her young personal assistant (Kristen Stewart, who more than holds her own against the star). This recalls Ingmar Bergman’s chamber dramas in the intensity and psychological complexity of the central relationship, yet the filmmaking is breathtakingly fluid, evoking a sense of romantic abandon no matter how pessimistic the cultural critique becomes. With Chloe Grace Moretz. In English and subtitled French and German. —Ben Sachs 124 min. Thu 10/16, 8:15 PM, and Sat 10/18, 4:30 PM.
Concrete Night In a dire Helsinki slum, a 14-year-old boy from a dysfunctional family spends a night cavorting with his hotheaded older brother, who’s headed off to jail the next day. Shooting in black and white, cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg conjures up a stark chiaroscuro that amplifies the sense of desolation, but the images are poetic and stirring rather than debilitating; the dramatic lighting gives the rundown buildings and abandoned construction sites an otherworldly look. Director Pirjo Honkasalo uses reflective surfaces—mirrors, windows, water—to suggest alternate realities where her characters might lead less corrupted lives. In Finnish with subtitles. —Drew Hunt 88 min. Thu 10/16, 9 PM, and Fri 10/17, 6 PM.
Force Majeure If Michael Haneke were recruited to direct an American sitcom pilot, the results might look something like this Swedish feature, about an upper-middle-class family vacationing unhappily in the French Alps. Like Haneke, writer-director Ruben Östlund (Play) employs eerily controlled long takes to conjure an air of doom around his characters, yet beneath the commanding surfaces lie some rather basic observations about marriage, parenting, and social conformism. For a comedy about emotional pain, this is neither discomforting nor terribly funny, and the satire of bourgeois complacency doesn’t cut very deep. A few sequences, though, are potent enough to hint at the squirm-inducing provocation this might have been, namely an awkward double date between the spouses and another vacationing couple that mutates into a long, passive-aggressive debate. In English and subtitled Swedish. —Ben Sachs R, 118 min. Fri 10/10, 8:15 PM, and Sun 10/12, 5:30 PM.
A Girl at My Door A young but resolute policewoman (Doona Bae of Cloud Atlas), reassigned from Seoul to a remote fishing village, becomes the reluctant protector of a motherless schoolgirl picked on by the community, cursed by her drunken grandmother, and periodically beaten by her loutish father. There’s something a little spooky about the girl—”She doesn’t seem like a child; sometimes she seems like a little monster,” another cop observes—which complicates the continually shifting power struggle between the policewoman and the father. As a mystery, this debut feature by writer-director July Jung makes a mockery of such huffing-and-puffing Hollywood exercises as Gone Girl; the tone is quiet and the pace steady, yet the story arcs so perfectly, tracing the heroine’s growing commitment to the child even as their secrets emerge, that I was engrossed for every minute of its two-hour running time. In Korean with subtitles. –J.R. Jones 119 min. Jung attends the Wednesday and Friday screenings. Wed 10/15, 8:30 PM; Fri 10/17, 5:30 PM; and Mon 10/20, noon.
Gonzalez In this debut feature by writer-director Christian Díaz Pardo, a well-intentioned but awkward and shiftless young man named Gonzalez Gonzalez spends his days looking for employment in Mexico City and his nights parked in front of a flat-screen TV that he’s purchased on an overextended credit card. Desperate for work, he hires on at a phone bank for a smarmy televangelist (Carlos Bardem, brother of Javier) and gradually becomes fascinated with the cultish church and its guileful figurehead. Pardo tries to forge a connection between religious hucksters and the global recession, but his script is so facile that the comparison feels tenuous at best. The film’s biggest asset is Juan Pablo Ramirez, whose haunting cinematography captures an impoverished Mexico City in all its mercilessness. In Spanish with subtitles. —Tal Rosenberg 100 min. Diaz, producer Lauro Pino, and actor Harold Torres attend the screening. Sun 10/12, 5 PM; Mon 10/13, 5:45 PM; and Wed 10/15, noon.
I’ve Seen the Unicorn Independent since 1968, the African island nation of Mauritius is one of the last vestiges of British colonialism. It’s also the home of the Champ de Mars Racecourse, the second oldest horse-racing club in the world, and the Maiden Cup, the Mauritian equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. This documentary by Vincent Toi follows five people in the days leading up to the event: a bookie, a Rastafarian gambler, a stable owner, a stableboy, and a famous but aging jockey. If you’re looking to learn more about Mauritius and its recent history, this isn’t a bad place to start, but at only an hour the film is too short to illuminate its five protagonists. In Mauritian Creole with subtitles. —Tal Rosenberg 61 min. Toy and producer Michael Massicotte attend the screening. Sat 10/11, 4:30 PM, and Sun 10/12, 3:15 PM.
The Iron Ministry U.S. director J.P. Sniadecki (People’s Park) shot this experimental documentary about railway travel in China entirely on moving trains, his crew using mini DV cameras to buzz around the various commercial and social activities like curious insects. Like Leviathan, another recent documentary produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, this takes the viewer on one heck of a ride (at some points even venturing underneath the cars). But compared to the earlier film it’s too familiar to inspire a sense of discovery; the overheard conversations touch on social issues (e.g., China’s rapid industrialization and rampant unemployment) addressed more thoroughly in numerous recent Chinese films. In Mandarin with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 82 min. Sniadecki attends the screening. Fri 10/10, 6 PM, and Sat 10/11, 12:45 PM.
The Kindergarten Teacher Nadav Lapid’s second feature is smarter and more unsettling than his first, Policeman (2011), but as in the earlier film, Lapid tends to dilute his provocative ideas with art-movie cliches. The title character is a middle-aged woman suffering from a familiar case of urban malaise; shaken out of her torpor by a student who composes beautiful poetry with the ease of a master, she becomes obsessed with the boy, eventually going mad in her quest to convince the world of his genius. The film oscillates between a lament for the devaluation of poetry in contemporary life and a muted psychological horror movie (the boy’s talent is so uncanny that at times he seems demonically possessed). As a dramatist Lapid can be too oblique for his own good, and his story runs off the rails in the last half hour, yet he generates plenty of food for thought. In Hebrew with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 115 min. Tue 10/14, 1 PM; Mon 10/20, 9 PM; and Wed 10/22, 8 PM.
Miss Julie In this adaptation of the Strindberg play, writer-director Liv Ullmann retains the original period setting but shifts the action to Ireland. One can feel the influence of her mentor Ingmar Bergman in the meticulous staging and the use of close-ups, which seem to scrutinize every inch of the actors’ faces for what they might reveal of the characters’ inner lives. This is so focused that it may strike some viewers as monotonous, though it’s definitely not stodgy; Ullmann always stresses the emotional violence underlying the action. Jessica Chastain is a serviceable but uninspiring Julie; playing the servants, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton deliver some of their best work. 130 min. —Ben Sachs 130 min. Ullman and Farrell attend the screening, part of the opening-night gala; tickets are $50-60 for the film only, $150 with a postscreening reception. Thu 10/9, 7 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph.
The Salvation The decline of the Hollywood western runs parallel to the dwindling of Americans’ faith in their own country; filmmakers overseas don’t have to carry all that baggage, which might explain why the last great western, The Proposition (2005), was made in Australia. The story for this Danish import might have been lifted from an old Randolph Scott movie: an immigrant homesteader in the American west (Mads Mikkelsen), enraged by the murder of his wife and child, kills the slimy perpetrator and winds up marked for death by the man’s brother (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the wicked boss man of a frontier town. Screenwriters Anders Thomas Jensen (Brothers, After the Wedding) and Kristian Levring walk a fine line between the classical and the revisionist western; their story is governed by the grubby political realities of the era but still finds room for the hero to ride off into the sunset. Levring directed; with Eva Green and Jonathan Pryce. In English and subtitled Danish. –J.R. Jones 89 min. Mon 10/13 and Tue 10/14, 8:30 PM.
Speed Walking A small-town boy approaching his religious confirmation discovers the weird, wild world of sex, experimenting with girls and boys, spying on his widower father as the old man screws his hairdresser, and even paying a visit to the local child molester. This icky comedy takes place in 1976, and director Niels Arden Oplev (who did the Danish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) never lets you forget it: the movie is so laden with period kitsch that it feels like a spoof. (I was a little surprised that none of the characters owned a pet rock.) As in Tattoo, the storytelling is almost slick and engaging enough to distract from the rampant misanthropy. If you have any moral compunctions about explicit sex scenes involving underage actors, stay far away. In Danish with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 108 min. Mon 10/13 and Wed 10/15, 8:30 PM, and Wed 10/22, 3:30 PM.
Stations of the Cross A prize winner for best screenplay at the Berlin film festival, this religion-bashing drama tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, enrolled in a traditionalist Catholic study class, who resolves to sacrifice her life to God so that he might grant the power of speech to her possibly autistic infant brother. The priest teaching the class sets her on an ascetic path that gradually leads to anorexia, though the real force behind the girl’s quest is her harsh, unforgiving mother, whose furious moralistic judgments could strip the paint off a battleship. Screenwriters Anna and Dietrich Brüggeman divide their story into 14 uninterrupted takes, each named for a station of the cross, and if you can overlook the hilarity of such rigid formalism serving to indict Christian dogma, their scheme is highly effective. Dietrich directed. In German with subtitles. –J.R. Jones 107 min, Sun 10/12, 2:45 PM, and Mon 10/13, 6 PM.
Still The devilish Aiden Gillen—a familiar face in the UK, but best known here for recurring roles on HBO’s The Wire and Game of Thrones—gives a sensitive performance as a low-rent photographer in North London still grieving over the hit-and-run death of his teenage son a year earlier. His glancing friendship with a schoolboy whose brother has just been killed in a gang altercation invites mounting harassment from the young punks who committed the crime, yet the photographer’s feelings for his dead son inhibit him from taking action against the boys. This debut feature from writer-director Simon Blake shows great promise, though it’s rather an odd bird, veering between intelligent, insightful chamber drama and Death Wish histrionics (the climax is especially overheated). Amanda Mealing contributes a fine performance as the hero’s estranged wife; her scenes with Gillen are the movie’s high point. –J.R. Jones 96 min. Blake and producer Colette Delaney-Smith attend the screening. Sat 10/11, 5:30 PM; Sun 10/12, 5:15 PM; and Wed 10/15, 2:30 PM.
Timbuktu Jihadist rebels invade a desert town in the title region of Mali, laying down a draconian social code and punishing infractions with the lash and worse (in one horrifying scene, offenders are buried in the sand up to their necks and stoned to death). Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako), this Mauritanian drama offers a ringing indictment of Islamic fundamentalism as some of the more devout townspeople urge a more humane conception of jihad on their implacable new guests, and some of the more courageous souls react with outright defiance. Yet the rebels are too flatly characterized for the religious conflict to deepen, and Sissako’s other main story line, tracing a deadly feud between a fisherman and a cattle farmer, adds little to the movie’s political thrust. In English and subtitled French, Arabic, Bambara, Songhai, and Tamasheq. –J.R. Jones 97 min. Wed 10/15, 8:15 PM, and Thu 10/16, 8 PM.
La Tirisia This derivative Mexican art film reduces the recent breakthroughs of Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven, Silent Light) and Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala) to a series of stylistic tics. Set in an isolated, impoverished desert community, the story centers on a lonely young mother whose husband has been working abroad for some time; she ventures into an affair with a salt harvester, then has trouble giving him up when her husband returns unexpectedly. Like Reygadas and Naranjo, writer-director Jorge Pérez Solano employs lots of impressive Steadicam shots and other unexpected formal devices (like switching from wide-screen to a boxier aspect ratio for some of the transition shots), though these strategies tend to distract from the simple story rather than elaborate on it. Solano also works in a few explicit, dispassionately shot sex scenes to make us think about alienation or something like that. In Spanish with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 110 min. Solano attends the Tuesday and Wednesday screenings. Tue 10/14, 8 PM; Wed 10/15, 8 PM; and Fri 10/17, 1:30 PM.
Two Days, One Night An assembly-line worker at a solar panel factory (Marion Cotillard), recently returned to work after an emotional breakdown, discovers that her coworkers, coerced by management, have voted to terminate her employment rather than forfeit their annual bonus; over a long and desperate weekend, she visits them at their homes and begs them to change their votes. The premise for this Belgian drama couldn’t be simpler or more compelling, yet writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike) tease out any number of moral complexities as the heroine learns of her coworkers’ various circumstances (many of them have children, and almost all of them are living hand to mouth). In film after film the Dardennes have proven themselves the cinema’s most acute humanist critics of predatory capitalism; this masterful drama finds them at the top of their game, laying bare the endless uphill battle of getting workers to look out for each other. In French with subtitles. –J.R. Jones 95 min. Thu 10/16, 6 PM, and Sun 10/19, 6:15 PM.
Winter Sleep This compelling psychodrama by Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan contains relatively few of the landscape shots that have become his artistic signature, but this may be his most epic film in terms of narrative design. It charts the slow emotional breakdown of an arrogant actor who has retired to a small mountain town with his divorced sister and his much younger wife. He regards himself as a bastion of high culture, but his noble self-image is hardly borne out by his callous behavior toward the poor family who live on his property. Ceylan presents psychology much as he presented exteriors in his earlier films—as intricate, monumental, and mysterious—and the lengthy, confessional dialogue scenes generate an uncanny vibe. That dissipates in the last hour when Ceylan starts dictating exactly how one should feel about the characters; but until then this is masterfully staged and performed. In Turkish with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 196 min. Sat 10/11, 7:15 PM, and Tue 10/14, 7:45 PM.
The Young Kieslowski The title character arrives for his freshman year at Caltech, anxiety over his virginity overwhelming everything else in his life including his mother’s potentially terminal lung cancer; after losing his cherry with a fellow first-timer, she winds up pregnant—with twins! This indie drama is like Knocked Up without the jokes, social insight, or storytelling skill; writer-director Kerem Sanga has a tin ear for dialogue, poor instincts behind a camera, and no originality. I spent most of the running time wondering how capable indie vets like James Le Gros, Melora Walters, and Joshua Malina ended up in this. —Tal Rosenberg 94 min. Sanga and producer Seth Caplan attend the Thursday screening, joined by actress Haley Lu Richardson at the Friday screening. Mon 10/13, 3:30 PM; Thu 10/16, 8:30 PM; and Fri 10/17, 5 PM.
Zurich In this old-fashioned tearjerker, a young German woman dying from cystic fibrosis travels to the title city, where she intends to end her life on her 23rd birthday. Writer Barbara Te Kok and director Frederik Steiner show sensitivity and restraint in their handling of potentially mawkish material, as does the fine ensemble cast. Though this takes place over just a few days, it creates a vivid impression of the heroine’s entire life; the concise dialogue conveys years of experience, and Liv Lisa Fries (a 24-year-old who’s appeared on German TV since her teens) gives a thoughtful and precise lead performance. In German with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 103 min. Steiner and Fries attend the screening. Fri 10/10, 8:15 PM, and Sat 10/11, 3 PM.