The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 7

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.

 

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Tadanobu Asano with Momone Shinokawa in ‘Harmonium.’ credit: festival-cannes.com

Today features two splendidly twisty, darkly admirable offerings. Kôji Fukada’s Harmonium (淵に立つ – Fuchi Ni Tatsu) (Japan, 2016), set in the present day, starts out following the style of middle-class family dramas so prevalent in Japanese cinemas in the 40s and 50s. But later writers and filmmakers, from Nagisa Oshima, the Art Theater Guild and Seijun Suzuki to Takashi Miike and Takeshi Kitano, took delight in subverting those narrative outlines to explore the psychological extremities beneath all of that. Fukada joins this company with the story of a normal hardworking family, a mysterious stranger returned from the past, and the horrific bottom that drops out from under their contented lives. The film isn’t nearly as explicit as many of these can be, but there’s certainly an element of j-horror-inspired anxiety, even in the absence of actual ghosts, coupled with some film noir karma’s-a-bitch irony and a nonsense ending that somehow makes perfect sense nonetheless. Another small film that I hope gets good distribution – I really liked this one a lot.

Harmonium will be shown on Sunday, October 23rd at 5:30 pm and Monday the 24th at 8:45 pm.

 

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Ha Jung-woo attends to Kim Min-hee in ‘The Handmaiden.’ credit: thefilmstage.com

Park Chan-wook’s superb gothic melodrama The Handmaiden (아가씨 – Agassi) will get a regular run at the Music Box next week, but since you’ll be watching the World Series, it’s probably best to catch these early screenings. This is one of those ‘sooner-the-better’ films, trust me.

Park has taken Sarah Waters’ Dickensian U.K. novel Fingersmith and transposed it to 1930’s Korea; Korea had been under Japanese rule and occupation since 1910, and that sense of bridging hierarchies and cultures between colonized Korea and the entitled Japanese empire is an intriguing new foundation. The film starts with an elaborate swindle; our protagonist, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) will pose as the maid to Hideko (Kim Min-hee), the niece of an extraordinarily wealthy book collector, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) in order to convince her to marry her con-man partner-in-crime, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), whom will then commit her to an asylum forever and abscond with her inheritance.

All, of course, does not go to plan – in fact, there are some jawdropping plot twists and shifts of context that take five-or-ten minutes to settle into; they’re that surprising, that disruptive  and ingeniously well-executed. This is also a very erotic film, which is to say to some that it’s kind of a dirty movie, so you can decide for yourself whether that recommends it or dissuades you. A valuable bar has been raised with the advent of Blue Is The Warmest Color (2014), and this film is example #1. There are a few instances where the lurid displaces the logical, but overall this is an amazing film that may be Park Chan-wook’s mid-career masterpiece.

The Handmaiden will screen on Sunday, October 23rd at 8:15 pm and Tuesday the 25th at 8:30 pm.

 

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 6

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

 

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‘Kékszakállú.’ credit: Chicago Int’l Film Festival

 Kékszakállú is not only part of the Hungarian title of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára), but it’s also the title of a very nicely done filmed meditation on its themes (Argentina, 2016). The opera is based on a Charles Perrault fable from 1697, where Bluebeard’s a rich but ugly aristocrat whose previous wives have mysteriously disappeared. He gains a new wife through an arranged marriage, but she discovers the tortured bodies of his previous wives, and she and some other family members eventually kill him. In the Bartók opera, he’s a little more misunderstood – he marries Judith, who wants to see the other rooms in the castle. Each room he refuses, and each time she talks him into it. The first is the torture chamber (but no bodies) – each room after that has more symbolic significance: a treasury of riches, a beautiful garden, a lake of tears. The final, seventh, room is the hardest to talk him into, but he acquiesces, only for her to find… the other wives, perfectly healthy and living in luxury. The catch, of course, is that none of them can ever leave, including, now, Judith.

Our filmed version here, directed by the Argentinean director Gastón Solnicki, isn’t remotely as dramatic, only dealing with these themes in glancing, associative ways. But what’s echoed is a sense of (quotidian) dread and vulnerability shared by the female characters (in the film, we follow four or five female characters, but three predominate) and the choices they make to move on from their otherwise humdrum (and privileged) young lives. Entering college, finding work in a factory, moving to the big city, running away from home and even just jumping off of a high diving board become oddly suspenseful, despite the film’s languid pace, lack of spoken dialogue and almost-too-pretty visuals. Two different cinematographers and two different editors, along with Solnicki, makes me suspect that the film’s intriguing cohesiveness is more happy accident than deliberate, planned result. But it’s absolutely worth watching, and speaks highly of Solnicki’s taste level and sense of evocative abstraction. At 71 minutes, it’s well worth a look; me, I’m both suspicious and optimistic enough to be looking for what he does next.

Kékszakállú will screen Friday, October 21st at 6:15 pm, Saturday the 22nd at 3:45 pm and Tuesday the 25th at 8:45 pm.

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 5

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

 

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Hiroshi Abe, Taiyô Yoshizawa and Yôko Maki in ‘After The Storm.’ credit: hollywoodreporter.com

Hirokazu Koreeda (sometimes spelled Kore-eda) has sometimes been compared to the Taiwanese directors Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang, who share a patient, deliberate long-take style of visual narrative. But when it comes to the story and characters, his work most reminds me of the great Eric Rohmer. Now, granted, Rohmer explored love, friendship and the vagaries of couplehood in various guises and situations, while Koreeda almost exclusively concerns himself with family dynamics. But they’re both slyly humorous, both have genuine respect for their charmingly flawed characters, and both use a milieu of unadorned realism to emphasize what’s important about these particular people.

His newest film, After The Storm (Umi Yori Mo Mada Fukaku –海よりもまだ深) (Japan, 2016) carries the same graciousness towards his characters, but, narratively, he doesn’t spare them real grief. Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) was once a promising novelist; now he works for a somewhat skeezy detective agency playing unfaithful couples against each other, gambling away most of his earnings, rummaging through Mom’s apartment looking for pawnable possessions of his late father, and consistently failing to come up with child support. Mom and the ex don’t let him get away with any of it, but they also know that he takes after his late father, whom Ryota might have despised more than any of them. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki, quite funny), outlasted her lousy husband, and is now healthy and content. Ryota’s ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki) has recently been seeing a wealthy industrialist (Ryota uses job-time to spy on her as well), and she’s determined to move her life along constructively. And, of course, Ryota dotes on his young son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), who would rather draw walks than hit singles or doubles in little-league baseball.

Each of these characters (as well as Ryota’s sister and his detective-partner) is compellingly presented, and Koreeda even fashions a kind of optimistic suspense out of the proceedings. But he leaves us with no resolved conflicts, no sunny resolutions – only the knowledge that the materials for all of that are right in front of all of their noses, if they so choose. This is a terrific movie, as his last three or four have been (Like Father Like Son, I Wish, Still Walking). He’s a very reliable a filmmaker, almost as much as, oh, maybe even… Eric Rohmer.

After The Storm will be shown on Wednesday, October 19th at 8:15 pm and Thursday, October 20th at 5:45 pm.

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 4

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2. Part 3.

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Eduardo Martínez and Lola Amores in ‘Santa & Andrés.’  credit: Chicago Int’l Film Festival

Santa & Andrés (Cuba / Colombia, 2016) is a modest but solid second feature from director Carlos Lechuga. Santa (Lola Amores) is a tall and rangy single woman who does farm work on a nearby cattle ranch. But she’s also recently been recruited by the official (and officious) Jesus (George Abreu), who may be a love interest of hers but is foremost the local head of the Cuban Communist party for that rural region, who charges Santa with detaining a dissident author who’s been put under indefinite house arrest. Party officials, dignitaries, the press, etc., are attending a “peace forum” nearby, and they don’t want Cuba’s undesirables stirring up any mischief for those three days. So Santa, carrying a kitchen chair, walks to the cinder-block “home” of Andrés (Eduardo Martínez), plants her chair across from the front door, eyes him warily, never smiles and sits sentinel.

Andrés not only wrote books and articles not particularly supportive of la revolución, he’s also made the political miscalculation of being a gay man. Santa theoretically understands why Andrés might constitute a threat to orderly Cuban society, but their progressively-more-civil interactions only serve to convince Santa that he’s a pretty harmless nice guy. The three-day vigil concluded, Santa continues to stop by to see him nonetheless, and they form a furtive and fragile friendship, with Santa learning far more about the details of a gay man’s life than she’s perhaps prepared for, while he provides an unlikely conduit for her to decompress some long-suppressed feelings of her own.

The film primarily feels like a very good short story, and Lechuga tells the tale with an oddly straightforward delicacy – the weather’s always sunny, there are visits to the beach and the bars, but we never lose a sense of gravity, or forget how much more is at stake for both of them. It’s very nice work, and I hope it gets further distribution from here.

Santa & Andrés screens on Tuesday, October 18th at 8:45 pm, Wednesday the 19th at 8:00 pm and Wednesday the 26th at 12:15 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 3

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here. Part 2.

 

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Ilias Addab and Nora El Koussour in ‘Layla M.’  credit: variety.com

Just when I thought I might have been a little hard on a previous film, along comes another that reaffirms my faith and my crankiness. Layla M. (Netherlands, 2016) is a smart and confident film by Dutch director Mijke de Jong that pays real respect to religious belief systems while fearlessly criticizing how humans, and their institutions, stretch and distort them to more self-serving uses.

Layla (Nora El Koussour) is 18, born and raised in Amsterdam and of Moroccan descent. She’s whip-smart and can be contagiously joyful, but she takes her Muslim faith very seriously. Like many politically smart and sensitive teenagers, she participates in street protests and is active online, denouncing what she views as mistreatment of Muslims abroad and calling out injustices in her own hometown. She also helps her Dad coach youth soccer, and video-chats with her devoutly Muslim boyfriend Abdul (Ilias Addab), who by all evidence genuinely loves her. Her family is loving and supportive, but views her political and religious passions as immoderate. As the ‘trouble’ she gets into makes itself more publicly known, her increasingly shamed family reprimands her, which, of course, just leads to further escalation – she is 18, after all. After confronting one of her best high-school friends with the idea that non-committal Muslims should rightfully be killed, she and Abdel decide to marry and elope to the Middle East, where the real work is done. Now she’ll be happy – now she has control over her own fate…

There’s a pretty big difference between characters we like and characters we respect, and both director de Jong and excellent actor El Koussour understand why the latter serves this story far better than the former. Cinematographer Danny Elsen keeps the visual narrative active and involving without crowding his subjects, quite nicely done with such loaded subject matter. It’s easy to conclude halfway through that Layla is just another cult-addled recruit, just another sheeplike disciple, but we know better because de Jong and El Koussour have so thoroughly and honestly demonstrated that that’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong, this film is going to make many of my fellow Westerners very angry. But It’s not just propaganda or provocation – it’s really good filmed storytelling, well-written, well-shot and well- conceived, and I highly recommend it.

Layla M. will screen on Sunday, October 16th at 2:30 pm, Tuesday the 18th at 8:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 2:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

Paolo Virzì is an Italian filmmaker whom I think deserves a little more action than his films generally get. Last year’s (slightly overstuffed) Human Capital was well-received, but didn’t get a lot of next-league distribution. His film previous to that, The First Beautiful Thing, was one of my favorites from that year (2010). And it’s no secret that his 1997 coming-of-age film Hardboiled Egg (Ovosodo) is the absolute favorite Italian comedy of many native Italians. So I’m delighted to see that Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia, which translates to Mad Joy and is, of course, a much better title) (Italy, 2016) continues to parade his smarts, his great sense of humor, his technical skill and his rapport with his actors.

The Countess Beatrice Morandini Valdirana (a spectacular turn from Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who may actually have all of those names or, perhaps, none of them, holds court at the Villa Biondi, a women’s mental institution in Tuscany. She’s an inexhaustible jet of aristocratic, egotistical, self-promoting energy, constantly dishing out advice, constantly declaring what she will and won’t have, and generally distancing herself from anyone with whom she might make any kind of healthy connection. That is until the arrival of Donatella Morelli (Micaela Ramazzotti), a skeletal shell of a woman who allegedly tried to kill herself and her baby son eight-or-so years ago, and has been shuttled around psychiatric hospitals ever since. Beatrice prevaricates and browbeats Donatella with her usual subtlety, and Donatella bares her teeth and suggests that she sod right off. But of course, they escape together, and, of course, there’s a wildly eventful road trip, and, of course, they both confront their pasts and find a way to reconcile their present. That all sounds pretty boring, which makes it all the more gratifying when those outline elements are performed with so much genuine commitment, intelligence, good humor and surprise. Virzì clearly gets an assist from his co-screenwriter Francesca Archibugi, but the real bargain here is paying full price admission for the irreproachable performances of Ramazzotti and Bruni Tedeschi. Wow. (And if you can play hookie on a Friday afternoon, you won’t even have to pay that…). Finally, I’d like to propose that Anna Galiena make a cameo appearance in far, far more Italian films. Like Crazy is probably the best comedy I’ll see all year.

Like Crazy will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 2:45 pm, Monday the 17th at 5:45 pm, and Friday the 21st at 1:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

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Isabelle Huppert and Edith Scob in ‘Things To Come.’  credit: filmsdulosange.fr

Mia Hansen-Løve is the author and director of very thoughtful semi-autobiographical character studies, and her newest film. Things To Come (L’Avenir) (France, 2016), is extraordinarily well-observed. The caveat here is that, while Hansen-Løve is singularly incisive in presenting these characters within the passage of time in the film, it’s easy to walk out of these films with hardly a thought of what you’ve just seen. Hansen-Løve’s admirable accuracy and empathy, weirdly, rarely create genuinely memorable films.

She’s given herself every chance to make an involving one here by casting the great Isabelle Huppert as Nathalie Chazeaux, a passionately dedicated philosophy professor who has enveloped herself in academia, mentoring, publishing, caring for her aging mother and her marriage. But the dependable rhythms of her life seem to be eroding all at once. Her publisher wants to jazz up the well-regarded philosophy textbook she’s authored and updated, much to her chagrin. Her husband Heinz, of 20 years, is revealed to be carrying on an affair, and, when exposed, he chooses the younger woman. A young protégé of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka), seems to be pulled further away from academia by his studies, towards a more France-in-the-sixties non-urban collectivism. Imagine, he really thinks he can just hang out on a farm with two or three friends and publish in perpetuity. Nathalie, of course, encourages her charge, knowing her own younger sympathies towards his leap-of-faith idealism. She’s been there, done that.

Each thing that happens, each obstacle, each small betrayal, is consciously felt and dealt with by the resilient Nathalie. Hansen-Løve doesn’t stint on assessing the toll that the time has taken on Nathalie, but she nonetheless leaves us with a happy and hopeful image – Nathalie caressing her granddaughter, having just fed her children a holiday dinner. One may allege that both Camille in Goodbye, First Love and Paul in Eden overstay what’s interesting about their characters – Hansen-Løve is meticulous about chronicling the passage of time – but the time-palette that Nathalie is working across seems just right. See it for yet another fearsome Isabelle Huppert performance, but also go to watch a good screenwriter get immensely better, and a good director gain even more impressive command of the storytelling medium. This may be Hansen-Løve’s best film.

Things To Come will be shown on Sunday, October 16th at 5:00 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 5:45 pm.

 

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Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseni in ‘The Salesman.’ credit:cineuropa.org

Both Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, and devoted husband Emad (Shahab Hosseni) in Asghar Farhadi’s newest film The Salesman (Forushande) (Iran, 2016) carry a profound fear of not living up to their own standards, and, in that failure, letting down the people they love most. Like another director who excels at the suspenseful domestic drama, Cristian Mungiu, Farhadi takes ordinary people, shifts their seemingly normal lives into abnormal circumstances, and then examines the true colors that emerge.

Emad and Rama (the always-reliable Taraneh Alidoosti) are a longtime couple. He teaches high-school age students in writing and literature, and they both participate in semi-professional theater in the evening – these days, he’s Willy and she’s Linda in their production of Death Of A Salesman. But those aforementioned abnormal circumstances rear their head in a flurry: the apartment building they’ve been living in is rendered unstable in a random construction accident, and they move to a different place made available to them by a friendly fellow cast member, Babak (Babak Karimi). The previous tenant was made unwelcome by the neighbors due to her side-gigs in the world’s oldest profession. And one fateful day, Rama, expecting Emad, leaves the apartment door open for him, but Emad isn’t who walks through. And after the trauma, Rama, as we met her, may never return.

Understandably, the tone of the film darkens as Emad quizzes his neighbors about the previous tenant and works to discover the identity of Rama’s assailant. There are clues, of course, in fact big ones, but they refuse to go to the police – Emad, with a few of his neighbors agreeing, considers the police to be both ineffective and indiscreet. But his own personal investigations veer less towards justice and more towards revenge, and one questions whether he’s properly attending to Rama’s compromised state of mind.

Farhadi always presents to us how women’s lives are shaped, and often warped, by the predominance of male prerogative and power in urban Middle Eastern society. Rama’s reaction to Emad’s idea of the right-thing-to-do tells us everything we need to know about who he’s been up until now and who he really is, and the identity of the assailant is one of the more profoundly awkward reveals I’ve witnessed in quite a while. Farhadi’s writing is superb and the acting is solid, and the overall quality of each of his films is so consistently high that it seems silly to grouse. (He switches between two reliable cinematographers – for this film it’s Hossein Jafarian.) A Separation and The Past felt, to me, far more successful, far more eventfully cohesive, but The Salesman keeps excellent company.

The Salesman screens on Sunday, October 16th at 5:45 pm and Wednesday the 19th at 6:00 pm.

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 2

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois. Part 1 is here.

I suspect that adapting Massimo Gramellini’s bestselling novel proved to be a tough gig for the great Italian director Marco Bellocchio to turn down. His filmed version of Sweet Dreams (Fai Bei Sogni) (Italy / France, 2016) tries to put a more serious-minded, not-so-sentimental edge on the proceedings, but he and his two fellow writers are defeated by the material. A paean to Mommas in tutto il mondo, Sweet Dreams follows Massimo (the impressive Nicolo Cabras), a sensitive but precocious pre-teen boy whose beloved mother dies under mysterious circumstances. Handling that loss as a boy is tough going, and Massimo calls on the assistance of his imaginary guardian demon, Belphégor, to shore himself up. But when we meet Massimo as an adult (now portrayed by Valerio Mastandrea), he’s a distant and somewhat aimless journalist still haunted by loss after all of these years. Perché, Massimo, perché…? Bellocchio’s an irreproachable pro – the film looks great, the story is well-structured, he gets good work from reliable cinematographer Daniele Ciprì and able support from actors Cabras, Mastandrea, Bérénice Bejo and Barbara Ronchi. I just didn’t actually believe any of it.Your results may vary.

Sweet Dreams is showing on Saturday, October 15th at 2:45 pm, Sunday the 16th at 11:45 am and Friday the 21st at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

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Stjepan Perić and Ecija Ojdanic in ‘Ministry Of Love.’  credit: CIFF

Pavo Marinković’s smart comedy Ministry Of Love (Ministarstvo Ljubavi) (Croatia / Czech Republic, 2016) is a thoughtful yet effectively-barbed satire on values, work, relationships and institutional misguidedness.

Krešo (Stjepan Perić) is a biologist who’s having trouble finding steady work. His father-in-law Slavko (Milan Štrljić), though, is a government bureaucrat, and the newest bureau under his charge is the ‘Ministry of Love’, a deceptively-named agency that disqualifies war widows from their widows’ pensions if they’re found co-habiting with new partners. No one in the real world begrudges these women those 20-year-old pensions, but austerity is the rule in governments these days, and the ambitious Slavko assembles a small army of investigators to reclaim pension payments from these scofflaw women.

Krešo isn’t thrilled with his new job as a Nosey Parker, but he has a wife (Olga Pakalović) and son (Oleg Tomac) to support (his boss’ daughter, remember…). He and his deadpan partner Šikić (Dražen Kühn) eventually work out some strategic deceptions that bust some of these minor-league charlatans while sending themselves up the bureau’s lucrative ladder. More experienced government agents are used to being discovered as scoundrels, but Krešo is heartbroken when people he’s come to like in the course of his work end up understandably turning on him.

Marinković makes it pretty clear at the beginning that ‘security and trust’ are the first casualties of well-intentioned government money-grubbing, in Croatia or anywhere else. His visuals are sly but straightforward, unobtrusive and technically proficient, just right for the material. The laughs are dryly consistent and nicely character-driven, and, as with most capable non-American comedies, the characters are honest-to-God grown-ups who gave up adolescence an agreeably long time ago. It’s no comedic masterpiece, but Ministry Of Love is a fun and intelligent 103 minutes in good company that you’ll be glad you spent.

Ministry Of Love will be screened on Saturday, October 15th at 6:00 pm, Sunday the 16th at 8:15 pm, and Thursday the 20th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Pavo Marinković is scheduled to attend the October 15th and 16th screenings.

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Adrian Titieni and Maria-Victoria Dragus in ‘Graduation.’ credit: Mobra Films

The director Christian Mungiu introduced a whole new league of Romanian film with his 2007 Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, and any new release from him is noteworthy. Graduation (Bacalaureat) (Romania, 2016) is yet another examination of regular folks navigating irregular extremity, and it’s riveting work.

Romeo Aldea (veteran Adrian Titieni) is a hard-working middle-aged doctor in the Romanian city of Cluj. His most fervent hope is that his talented teenaged daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) will qualify for scholarships and have a chance to study psychology in the U.K., away from what he sees as an ever-oppressive fate in Romania. But suspicious, seemingly undeserved things are starting to occur – who threw that big stone through their front window? Who shattered the windshield on their car? And, most horrifically, who tried to sexually attack Eliza in broad morning daylight, a very short distance away from her school’s entrance? Eliza escapes with a fractured wrist, and she’s understandably shaken, but Romeo’s biggest concern is her impending final examinations; with her state-of-mind unfairly compromised, he’ll do whatever he needs to do to ensure that Eliza’s scores are high enough to guarantee her big future.

Chicago audiences will no doubt recognize the roundelay of “I know a guy who helped this other guy who can now help you if you go to see this other guy and have him send you to the guy who will hook you up with the guy…” Or perhaps “That’s what other people do – the favor I need isn’t like that…“ That’s not just Chicago, my friends – that’s human nature, and the perceptive Mr. Mungiu understands, and meticulously chronicles, all of those little steps from favor to debt to corruption, from pride to compromise to nausea, and the slow but corrosive effect it can have on ourselves and even the people we love the most. Like 4 Months, Mungiu’s film works in the rhythms of the suspense thriller, even under these more prosaic circumstances, and the camerawork and editing are quite good. (Tudor Vladimir Panduru is the cinematographer rather than the great Oleg Mutu, but the visuals are crisp and efficient. Nice work.) Mungiu won Cannes’ best director award this year, and he may see more in the future. As for this festival, you can regard this terrific film as a must-see.

Graduation will be shown on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm and Sunday the 16th at 7:45 pm.

Pushy and provocative, yet still somehow unconvincing, Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student (Russia, 2016) is yet another study of fanatical religious psychosis rearing its ugly head unbidden within a prosaic white middle-class milieu that couldn’t possibly have fostered it. [Its Russian title, (M) uchenik, is a clever meme – Uchenik means student, Muchenik means martyr.] A high-school age young man, Veniamin Yuzhin (Pyotr Skvortsov) wakes up one morning and informs his single-parent Mom (Yuliya Aug) that he won’t be going to swim class / P.E. anymore. He’s a devout Christian now, suddenly, and won’t stand for Girls In Bikinis. He’ll attend other classes, but he won’t stand for pre-marital sex, or any promotion of homosexuality or any discussion of evolution. These kinds of Bible-spouting characters, who for better or (mostly) worse cause their contemporaries to rethink their prosaic priorities, are generally an excuse for writers to show off how effectively they can edit and reassemble quoted biblical passages to make everyone else seem acquiescent and silly, or to make their primary character look misunderstood or fascist. Or both. The world and his wife are speculating on where all of this homicidal fanaticism comes from, and how to express it within a context that the bourgeoisie will find palatable while still feeling the need for a fainting couch – we have shame, after all. I prefer Luis Buñuel, who presents stuff like this as both worthy of respect and silly, or storytellers like Bruno Dumont or Sion Sono, who embrace the more psychological extremes as part and parcel of committed religious fervor, unapologetically. Serebrennikov is adapting a play written by another here, but he’s fully committed to the material. The festival brochure describes the film as a satire, but it’s almost completely humorless. I found the godbothering here to be a weak substitute for some fairly elementary psychology, the introduction of anti-semitism and sex-abuse accusations to be sloppy button-pushing, and that the film has an ending that only Catherine Trammell would love.

The Student plays on Saturday, October 15th at 8:30 pm, Sunday the 16th at 12:15 pm and Monday the 17th at 2:30 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

 

The 52nd Chicago Int’l Film Festival – Pt. 1

The Chicago International Film Festival is a welcome annual arrival, and I’m delighted once again to provide capsule reviews of as many of the films as I can manage to see. All films are shown at the AMC River East Theaters, 322 E. Illinois St. here in the great city of Chicago, Illinois.

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Stefan Denolyubov in ‘Glory.’  credit: elantepenultimomohicano.com

After a fair amount of TV and short films work, the directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov bring us their third feature film, Glory (Slava) (Bulgaria, 2016), very soon after the well-received 2016 release of The Lesson (Urok).

Glory starts out in Capra-esque Meet John Doe mode, as our shaggy-dog protagonist Tsanka (Stefan Denolyubov) discovers a misplaced pile of cash along the railway lines he inspects every day. He, of course, does the right thing and reports it, which, of course, leads him into an ever-darkening ordeal of manipulation and hypocrisy, courtesy of the public relations arm of the Transportation Ministry.  But where Capra allowed Barbara Stanwyck her sharp edges in order to frame and validate the overall populism of that story, Grozeva and Valchanov use the extraordinary Margita Gosheva, as ministry PR barracuda Julia Staykova, to illustrate their view that the shaggy dogs – indeed, any regular citizens – don’t stand a chance against the greedy whims of the system, nor the people within it who use that power for their own aggrandizement. Grozeva and Valchanov’s narrative transitions from comedy to cautionary tale to blackest irony are unerring, Krum Rodriguez’ camerawork is seamlessly superb, and Gosheva is revelatory. There are many very good films here this weekend, but this one should be near the top of your list.

Glory will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 3:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee), Monday the 24th at 6:00 pm, and Tuesday the 25th at 8:45 pm.

 

A modest but assured directing debut, Mohamed Ben Attia’s Hedi (Tunisia, 2016) seems pretty formulaic on its surface. Hedi (Majd Mastoura) is a meek and mousy younger ‘good son,’ living with his conservative, high-maintenance social-butterfly mother in Kairouan, Tunisia, working a thankless job as one-of-many fleet-car sales agents for Peugeot, and preparing for his arranged marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local dignitary. Nonetheless, his bosses insist that he make sales calls in a faraway territory, and he’s sent to the coastal city of Mahdia to drum up some business despite Tunisia’s ongoing post-Jasmine-Revolution economic doldrums. Disheartened with the pointless sales calls and his prosaic life, Hedi happens upon the spirited Rim (Rym Ben Messaoud) – hired by hotels as a free-lance entertainer and activities coordinator, she leads an engaging and extroverted life- and begins a passionate affair with her.

For all of its seeming predictability, these are extraordinarily well-observed, well-performed characters, and Ben Attia’s mise-en-scène is concise and evocative. Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme keeps a nice balance between claustrophobic interiors, cold and cavernous hotel lobbies and sunny-yet-sparsely-populated beaches, though he comes perilously close to ‘Shakycam’ overuse. Mastoura and Ben Messaoud are both excellent here, and the ending, after all, isn’t as predictable as might be imagined. There are always four or five small gems like this at the Festival every year, and I have no problem recommending this one to you.

Hedi screens on Friday, October 14th at 5:45 pm, Saturday the 15th at 3:30 pm, and Monday the 17th at 3:00 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Mohamed Ben Attia is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.

 

Art-directed feverishly, performed with real conviction by seasoned pros and rife with high-falutin’ concepts and conceits, Roberto Andò’s The Confessions (Le Confessioni) (Italy, 2016) is a film very stylishly dressed up with nowhere to go.

The institution we’re vicariously observing here is the International Monetary Fund, but most of what follows is, of course, fiction. The IMF director is Daniel Roché (Daniel Auteuil), and he is hosting a crucial financial summit of economic ministers in an undisclosed German resort hotel to determine The Next Big Steps. But Roché has invited along a few others – a famous children’s author, Claire Seth (Connie Nielsen), a popular musician, Michael Wintzl (Johan Heldenbergh, a superb Belgian actor whom I daresay is entirely wasted here), and a monk and writer of philosophy, Roberto Salus (Toni Servillo) who seems to have temporarily dispensed with his Vow of Silence in order to, unbeknownst to the others, hear Roché’s confession the night before the summit. And before you can say, “Wait, why are these people here?!” Roché is discovered dead in his room the following morning.

This scenario frees up Andò, and his fellow writer Angelo Pasquini, to lead us along a trail of seemingly profound and mysterious breadcrumbs concerning governments, finance, secret societies, and spirituality. The action splits between ministerial reactions to the aftermath of Roché’s demise (Which report will affect markets more – murder or suicide?) in present time, and a series of flashbacks to that fateful evening conversation between Roché and Salus. The latter would have been a perfectly fine 15-20 minute film, but this one is longer, much longer, with that time taken up with terrific actors saddled with zingers like “Banks are modern secret societies, and, like the Mafia, they don’t need to answer to anyone,” and the children’s book author persuading the monk to talk to the Canadian minister (Marie-Josée Croze, doing her damndest) about her vote…? It’s a mess, but it’s a respectably-budgeted, good-looking mess, so, y’know, that’s worth your $11 or $15 – or not…

The Confessions screens on Friday, October 14th at 6:00 pm and Monday the 17th at 7:00 pm as well.

Director/writer Roberto Andò is scheduled to attend both screenings.

 

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Qodratollah Qadiri and Sediqa Rasuli in ‘Wolf And Sheep.’  credit: Virginie Surdej

Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf And Sheep (Denmark / Afghanistan, 2016) is one of the reasons people bother putting on international film festivals at all. While it’s a remarkable ethnographic portrayal of isolated shepherd culture and society in deep rural Afghanistan, it’s also a surprising mirror on our own Western ideas about commonwealth, family and the fates of our children.

While the grown-ups are in charge in the small village, the town’s large and indispensable population of sheep is entirely under the management of its children, who bring them out to graze every day and ensure the flock’s safe return in evening. Boys and girls don’t mix – indeed, one small flock is maintained by only one girl, Sediqa (Sediqa Rasuli) – and each group amuses itself at their work in specific ways. The boy-shepherds fashion slings to hurl rocks at interloping wolves, and hurl astonishingly pornographic insults at each other. The girls speculate on married life and potential husbands, and derisively lament Sediqa’s bleak fate as the cursed granddaughter of a blind woman who nursed a demon snake. We also meet Qodrat (Qodratollah Qadiri), the handsome and dutiful son whose father’s funeral starts the film. But Qodrat’s mother is taken as a third wife by a village man who isn’t interested in tending children, and Qodrat, blameless, finds himself shunned and derided as well.

Well written and well crafted, Sadat’s film (her impressive debut) won the Cannes Director’s Fortnight top prize this year – there’s a reason. I recommend it.

Wolf And Sheep will screen on Friday, October 14th at 8:00 pm, Saturday the 15th at 1:15 pm and Thursday the 20th at 1:45 pm (an $8.00 matinee).

Director/writer Shahrbanoo Sadat is scheduled to attend the October 14th and 15th screenings.

 

Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg have been on a bit of a run, with the Lindholm-written-and-directed A Hijacking and his providing the screenplay for the Vinterberg-directed The Hunt (Jagten). They’re seasoned pros whose work is always noteworthy, but their newest collaboration, The Commune (Kollektivet) Denmark, 2016), just doesn’t come together as well as it might.

Vinterberg himself, as a child, lived in a communal household, but he’s more interested in examining the dynamic than reliving particular episodes – he’s stated that while the 70s timeframe is the same, his and Lindholm’s film is fundamentally fiction. Erik (Ulrich Thomson) is a longtime architecture professor who is married to Anna Moller (the superb Trine Dyrholm), a well-known local TV news anchor, and they have a teenaged daughter as well, Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen).When Erik inherits the huge house of his late family, he’s reluctant to take it on, but the freewheeling Anna convinces him to invite in their friends and give communal living a try. Vinterberg and Lindholm have created a structure where lots of interesting and intertwining things can happen – it’s a varied and somewhat appealing collection of friends and contemporaries – but the group is too broadly brushstroked, too much of a vague but happy blur, to really leave much of a narrative impression. Anna is happy with the arrangement initially, but her tolerance for liberated adventure is tested when Erik starts an affair with one of his young architecture students, Emma (Helene Reingaard Neumann), and wants to incorporate her into the collective household. It’s this conflict, and its distancing effect on the others, that the film focuses on, most notably in chronicling Anna’s disintegration from cheery and gracious housemother to abandoned and embittered nervous wreck.

Vinterberg is smart to keep the period trappings to a minimum, and it’s all handsomely shot by the young Jesper Tøffner. Dyrholm’s Gena-Rowlands-like fireworks are almost worth the admission alone, but her story unfortunately overwhelms everything else that might have been interesting about the rest of the film.  I can’t generally recommend it overall.

The Commune will be shown on Friday, October 14th at 8:30 pm and Saturday the 15th at 1:00 pm.