The Reader's Guide to the Chicago International Film Festival: Week Two 

New reviews of selected films screening October 16-22

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

The 45th Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 22, at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois. Unless otherwise noted, tickets are $12 ($9 for students, seniors, or Cinema/Chicago members), and $5 for matinees Monday through Friday (before 5:05 PM). Passes are $110 (10 admissions) and $210 (20 admissions). Tickets can be purchased at Cinema/Chicago, 30 E. Adams, suite 800, Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 6 PM; at River East 21 from noon until the last screening has begun; or from Ticketmaster (312-902-1500 or ticketmaster.com) 48 hours in advance.

Following are new reviews of selected films screening this week, plus a list of films reviewed in our week-one roundup; you can find these reviews at chicagoreader.com. For more information and a complete schedule, visit chicagofilmfestival.org.

Air Doll In this quirky riff on the Galatea myth, Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Maborosi) adapts a manga by Yoshiie Gouda about a blow-up sex doll that comes alive one morning after its owner leaves for work. The incandescent Doona Bae (The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) gives a daring performance as the toy–turned-woman, whose movements gradually become more fluid and whose face reflects more age and experience as she meets a series of loners on the streets of Tokyo. The perspective of a heroine who can expire from the smallest puncture allows Kore-eda to consider the Japanese preoccupation with beauty and the ephemeral, and he finds exquisite sadness everywhere from a birthday party to a curbside trash drop-off. In Japanese with subtitles. 116 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Sat 10/17, 3:30 PM; Sun 10/18, 5:30 PM; and Mon 10/19, 3 PM. Screening by DVD projection.

Coffin Rock Frustrated by her inability to conceive, a wife clashes with her bighearted but possibly sterile husband and, during a drunken night out, impulsively cheats on him with an obsessive and unstable teenager. Of course she instantly gets pregnant, but that predictable plot twist hardly detracts from the impact of this neat little Australian thriller, whose queasy innovation is a gender reversal of Fatal Attaction (the only thing scarier than a crazy lover carrying your child is carrying the child of your crazy lover). The writer-director is Rupert Glasson, who produced the gut-churning horror flick Wolf Creek (2005). 89 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/16, 10:30 PM, and Sat 10/17, 9:30 PM.

Effi Briest Julia Jentsch (Sophie Scholl: The Final Days) plays the title character in this fifth screen adaptation of the German novel by Theodor Fontane. After marrying an aristocrat in his 30s (Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others), teenaged Effi leaves the comfort of her family's Prussian estate for a gloomy manor in a provincial backwater on the Baltic coast. Bored and lonely, she imagines ghosts, but a more corporeal threat exists in the jealous housekeeper (Barbara Auer). In the novel, Effi's attachment to a callow army officer leads to her demise; by contrast, director Hermine Huntgeburth uses it to add a feminist gloss to a handsome but inconsequential fin de siecle drama. In German with subtitles. 113 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Sat 10/17, 12:30 PM; Mon 10/19, 5 PM; and Tue 10/20, 8:30 PM.

Eyes Wide Open Like The Secrets, another in the spate of recent Israeli films about strictly observant Jews, this melancholy drama explores the near impossibility of reconciling religious community life and same-sex love. An ultra-Orthodox butcher (Zohar Strauss), bereaved over the death of his father, reopens the old man's shop in Jerusalem and charitably hires a down-at-heels yeshiva student (Ran Danker) as his assistant. Ignoring rumors about the young man's moral iniquities, the butcher brings him home to his wife and children and into his Torah circle, and gradually the bond between the two men becomes more than spiritual. Strauss and Danker give finely calibrated performances, but this directorial debut by Haim Tabakman is unadventurous, borrowing from the gay-cinema canon but adding nothing new. In Hebrew and Yiddish with subtitles. 90 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Sat 10/17, 8:30 PM; Sun 10/18, 1:30 PM; and Mon 10/19, 4:30 PM.

Made in Hungaria It seems as if every former Soviet satellite will eventually produce its own American Graffiti, and this colorful, cartoonish Hungarian musical is pretty good fun. A cocky greaser (Tamas Szabo Kimmel) reluctantly returns to Budapest in 1963 after three privileged years of pop-cultural immersion in America; the communist power structure, recognizing that teenagers are weary of the state-controlled "Pol-Beat" music, coerces the hero into fronting a talent contest designed to contain the rising influence of Jerry Lee Lewis. The equation of rock and revolution will make lefties happy, though maybe not the rumpy-pumpy chauvinism and idolatory of American consumer goods. Gergely Fonyo directed. In Hungarian with subtitles. 109 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Sat 10/17, 1 PM; Mon 10/19, 8:30 PM; and Tue 10/20, 6:45 PM.

Mammoth In this somber drama by Lukas Moodysson (Together, Lilya 4-Ever), two different families are nearly destroyed by their pursuit of cash across the globe. Video-game entrepreneur Gael Garcia Bernal jets from New York to Bangkok to close a lucrative deal, leaving wife Michelle Williams, a stressed-out surgeon, to cope with their daughter's growing attachment to their devoutly Christian Filipino nanny. In a heavily ironic parallel, the nanny's two sons in the Philippines miss her so badly that the ten-year-old takes drastic steps to earn money he thinks will speed her return. Moodysson's meticulous attention to surfaces allows him to draw a stark contrast between the Americans' affluence and the Asians' poverty, but his final observation—that somehow the rich will muddle through—is hardly a bold statement. In English and subtitled Tagalog and Thai. 125 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Sat 10/17, 8:45 PM.

Mary and Max Adam Elliot, an Australian clay-animation whiz who picked up an Oscar for his short Harvie Krumpet (2003), created this dour but visually exquisite epistolary drama about a friendless, neglected Australian girl (given sympathetic voice by Bethany Whitmore and, later, Toni Collette) who strikes up an unlikely but sustaining pen-pal relationship with an obese, middle-aged New York Jew who suffers from Asperger's syndrome (superbly realized by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Too twee for adults but too profane, worldly, and grim for kids, the film suffers especially from Elliot's unfortunate comic obsession with feces. 92 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Sun 10/18, 6:15 PM, and Tue 10/20, 6 PM.

North by Northwest Cary Grant, a martini-sodden advertising director, awakes from a middle-class daydream into an underworld nightmare when he's mistaken for a secret agent (1959). A great film, and certainly one of the most entertaining movies ever made, directed by Alfred Hitchcock at his peak. With Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Leo G. Carroll. 136 min. —Dave Kehr  Sun 10/18, 5 PM. Supporting player Martin Landau is scheduled to attend the screening; tickets are $12. Screening by digital projection.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire With Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey as executive producers, this drama about an obese, illiterate black teen in Harlem practically guarantees some emotional uplift. But when it arrives, eventually, its authority is unimpeachable, so deeply has director Lee Daniels (Monster's Ball) immersed us in the depths of human ugliness. Played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, Claireece "Precious" Jones could hardly ask for a more ironic nickname: she's raped by her father and verbally, physically, and sexually abused by her mother (Mo'nique), a welfare wastrel determined to keep her daughter locked into the same cycle of poverty that ruined her. A dim light appears at the end of the tunnel when Precious transfers to an alternative school and falls under the guidance of a generous teacher (Paula Patton) and an attentive counselor (Mariah Carey). The girl's story is almost unbearably painful, and when Precious finally reclaims her own dignity and self-worth, her accomplishment seems genuinely heroic. R, 109 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/16, 6:15 PM.

Videocracy Those who consider U.S. television a soul-crushing wasteland and a blight on democracy should get a load of this documentary by Erik Gandini, which argues that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has leveraged his vast media empire to squelch dissent and distract the public from a corrupt government. A native Italian who moved to Sweden in the late 80s, Gandini looks on in horror at the glitzy, vulgar entertainment offered by Berlusconi's numerous TV channels. Though the director hammers at his theme, there's relatively little hard reporting on how Berlusconi has controlled the national discourse; instead Gandini focuses on the spiritual void of Italian media, giving over much of his screen time to profiles of fame-obsessed losers (a high-rolling paparazzi, an aspiring singer who wants to be the next Ricky Martin). 85 min. –J.R. Jones  Fri 10/16, 6 PM, and Sat 10/17, noon.

Who's Afraid of the Wolf? This clever, inventive Czech film by writer-director Maria Prochazkova centers on a six-year-old girl (Dorota Dedkova) who's transfixed by the Little Red Riding Hood story, which her mother dutifully recounts every night before bedtime. Prochazkova integrates the tale's themes of identity confusion and betrayal into her own narrative, which deals with the young heroine's doubt about who her real mother is and a potential love triangle implicating both her parents. An accomplished animator before she ventured into live-action films, Prochazkova uses whimsical drawings to augment the narrative's sense of childlike wonder. This is a first-rate example of a film children and adults can enjoy together. In Czech with subtitles. 90 min. —Joshua Katzman  Fri 10/16, 5:45 PM; Sat 10/17, 4 PM; and Tue 10/20, 4:15 PM. Screening by DVD projection.

Will Not Stop There A former Croatian sniper (Ivan Herceg) enlists a weedy, middle-aged porn stud (Predrag Vusovic) to help him track down one of the latter's Serbian female costars (Nada Sargin). For motives known only to him (though suspected by her), the sniper ransoms the young woman from her brutal pimp and restores her to the house she lost in the war. What starts out as a gripping, witty, and offbeat noir (2008) declines precipitously in the second half, as subplots proliferate, chronology disintegrates, and the stud's omniscient narration (larded with Romany aphorisms about women, life, war, etc) gets old. It's a damned shame writer-director Vinko Bresan couldn't keep it up for the full 110 minutes. In Serbo-Croatian with subtitles. —Cliff Doerksen  Sat 10/17, 11:15 AM; Mon 10/19, 6 PM; and Tue 10/20, 9:15 PM.

ALSO PLAYING

Backyard The real-life epidemic of wo­men murdered just south of the U.S. border inspired this intelligent Mexican thriller by Carlos Carrera (The Crime of Father Amaro). A big-city detective (Ana de la Reguera) is transferred to Juarez to investigate a rash of unsolved killings, and though she and her grudging partner (Marco Perez) nab a prime suspect—a former employee of a wealthy Texas businessman (Jimmy Smits)—they're hobbled by indifference, incompetence, corruption, and the broadcasts of a radio watchdog (Joaquin Cosio). Screenwriter Sabina Berman illuminates the complex global factors that make poor working women targets for sex criminals, while Carrera underscores the daunting scale of the problem with panoramas of a vast and implacable desert. In English and subtitled Spanish. 122 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Fri 10/16, 9:15 PM, and Tue 10/20, 3 PM.

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  Fri 10/16, 8:15 PM, and Sun 10/18, 11:30 AM.

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  Mon 10/19, 8:45 PM.

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  Sat 10/17, 10:45 PM.

Daniel & Ana In Mexico City, an upper-class college student (Marimar Vega) and her younger brother (Dario Yazbek Bernal) are carjacked at gunpoint, ordered into the trunk of their vehicle, taken to a deserted house, and forced to copulate on camera for a sex video. Released to safety but unwilling to tell anyone what's happened, they try without success to return to their normal lives. The premise for this drama sounds like something from a howling telenovela, but under writer-director Michel Franco it transpires in a near hush of fear and shame, broken on occasion by austere passages from Mendelssohn. Opening credits inform us that this is based on a true story and only the names have been changed, but the film's dignity and restraint create such a powerful emotional reality that end credits reiterating the story's origins come as something of a shock. In Spanish with subtitles. 89 min. –J.R. Jones  Sat 10/17, 5:30 PM, and Mon 10/19, 3:30 PM.

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  Mon 10/19, 3:15 PM.

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  Fri 10/16, 3:15 PM.

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Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for Air Doll, Backyard, Backyard: El Traspatio, Berlin '36, Chicago Overcoat, Coffin Rock, Cropsey, Daniel & Ana, Effi Briest, Face, Made in Hungaria, Mammoth, Mary and Max, North by Northwest, Nymph, Who's Afraid of the Wolf?, or Will Not Stop There

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