The Reader's Guide to the 45th Chicago International Film Festival: Week One 

Selected films making their Chicago premieres at the festival through Thursday, October 15

Red Cliff

Red Cliff

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  Wed 10/14, 8:45 PM; Sun 10/18, 1:45 PM; and Mon 10/19, 5:45 PM.

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  Mon 10/12, 7 PM. Screening as part of a gala presentation, with Dafoe scheduled to attend; tickets are $20.

click to enlarge Backyard
  • Backyard

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  Thu 10/15, 6:30 PM; 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  Thu 10/15, 6:30 PM; 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  Sat 10/10, 7:30 PM; Sun 10/11, 12:45 PM; and 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  Fri 10/9, 11 PM; Sun 10/11, 5:30 PM; and 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  Wed 10/14, 6:15 PM; Sat 10/17, 5:30 PM; and Mon 10/19, 3:30 PM.

Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl A heartbroken young accountant (Ricardo Trepa) reminisces to a bemused stranger on a train (Leonor Silveira) about his doomed and costly infatuation with a mysterious blond woman (Catarina Wallenstein) whose key character flaw is revealed in a series of flashbacks. Born in 1908, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira (Inquietude) can be excused for not caring to learn new tricks, but this mannered, mildy surreal art-house curiosity feels like a diluted Buñuel feature circa 1973. Still, at 64 minutes it doesn't outstay its welcome. In Portuguese with subtitles. —Cliff Doerksen  Sat 10/10, 1 PM; Tue 10/13, 3:15 PM; and Wed 10/14, 6:30 PM.

An Education In London during the early 60s, a precocious 16-year-old schoolgirl (Carey Mulligan) is seduced by a middle-aged grifter (Peter Sarsgaard) so good at his game that even her Pooterish, superficially vigilant parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) see nothing amiss. This British drama is handsomely textured and beautifully acted, though the script (by comic novelist Nick Hornby, from a memoir by Lynn Barber) often feels giddily out of touch with the essential creepiness of the scenario. Director Lone Scherfig and cinematographer John de Borman partially offset the oddly chipper tone with a gorgeously oppressive, gradually darkening color palette, and as a dual portrait of low-level criminality and lower-middle-class insecurity, it’s unique and indelible. The excellent supporting cast includes Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson as strong-willed schoolmarms with opposite responses to the heroine and her situation. 95 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Sun 10/11, 6 PM; director Lone Scherfig will attend the screening, which is $15 ($12 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members).

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  Wed 10/14, 8:30 PM; Thu 10/15, 8:15 PM; and Mon 10/19, 3:15 PM.

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  Fri 10/9, 5 PM; Sat 10/10, 5:30 PM; and Sun 10/11, 12:45 PM.

Hipsters Set in mid-50s Moscow, this exuberant, candy-colored hybrid of Quadrophenia, American Graffiti, and Footloose pits an imaginary subculture of pompadoured, swing-dancing peacocks and their sexually liberated bobby-soxer girlfriends against the puritanical Soviet state. The playfully formulaic plot follows the conversion of a Communist Youth zealot (Anton Shagin) into a leading scenester. Just when things threaten to get gooey, the verbally and visually witty writer-director Valery Todorovsky busts out a zippy musical number proposing that five years of youthful pleasure are all that any reasonable person can expect from life. In Russian with subtitles. 135 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Fri 10/9, 6:30 PM; Sat 10/10, 6 PM; and Sun 10/11, 12:30 PM.

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  Sun 10/11, 8:30 PM; Mon 10/12, 5:30 PM; and Thu 10/15, 3:15 PM.

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  Sat 10/10, 8:30 PM, and Sun 10/11, 3:15 PM.

The Maid In the opening scene of this Chilean drama, a middle-class family throws an after-dinner birthday party for the live-in maid, who's been with the family for 20 years and just turned 41. She's one of them, the family members insist, but as friction builds between the stout, stone-faced woman and the two eldest children, now teenagers beginning to assert themselves, her limits inside the home become all too clear. Further threatened when the mother decides to hire a second domestic, the maid conspires against a series of unwanted partners, locking them out of the house and framing them for various mishaps. As played by Catalina Saavedra, she's a guarded, ruthless, but ultimately poignant character, and writer-director Sebastian Silva studies the levers of power inside the little household as if it were the Politburo. In Spanish with subtitles. 94 min. —J.R. Jones Sat 10/10, 4:30 PM; Sun 10/11, 6 PM; and Wed 10/14, 4:15 PM.

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  Sat 10/10, 8 PM, and Sun 10/11, 7:30 PM. Screening on Saturday as part of a gala presentation, with Foster and Moverman scheduled to attend; tickets for this screening only are $20.

Mother With The Host (2006), South Korean director Bong Joon-ho unpacked the cultural and geopolitical baggage of the atomic monster movie; this follow-up takes on the fractured Freudianism of Hitchcock's Psycho. Kim Hye-ja, known in South Korea for her maternal roles, plays the mother of a mentally and sexually retarded man who's fallen in with a local troublemaker; in one early scene the boy insists to his pal that he's not a virgin, that he and his mother sleep together, though it's not entirely clear whether he should be believed or even knows what he's saying. When a local schoolgirl is murdered, all evidence points to the son, but the mother declares him innocent and stops at nothing to exonerate him. Bong's opening and climactic scenes, in which the old woman bops around to a dance tune amid a vast field of yellow grass, are typical of the movie's cockeyed poetry. In Korean with subtitles. 129 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/9, 9:30 PM; Sun 10/11, 8:45 PM; and Thu 10/15, 3:30 PM.

click to enlarge Motherhood
  • Motherhood

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  Thu 10/8, 7:30 PM. Screening as part of the opening-night program, with Dieckmann and Thurman 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.

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  Wed 10/14, 6:15 PM; Thu 10/15, 9 PM; and Fri 10/16, 3:15 PM.

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, Clareece “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  Wed 10/14, 6:30 PM, with appearances by Lee Daniels and Gabourey Sidibe ($100, $50 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members), and Fri 10/16, 6:15 PM.

Red Cliff Released in China as two movies but edited down to a single feature for U.S. release, John Woo's historical drama takes place early in the third century, when the Han Dynasty, having won a civil war in the north, set out to crush two troublemaking warlords in the south. The battle scenes are everything one might expect: the ringing of engraved blades, blood spray in the open air, swordsmen on horseback wading into foot soldiers as if they were threshing wheat. More impressive, though, are Woo's balancing of the epic and the intimate and his contrasting of male and female power. Running like a gold thread through the war story is the relationship between Zhou Yu (Tony Leung), the southern military strategist; Xiao Qiao (Lin Chi-ling), his devoted wife; and Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), the northern commander, who covets her. At first the married couple's tender scenes serve mostly as relief from the thundering conflict, but by the end Xiao Qiao has turned her feminine strengths into a weapon as effective as any sword. R, 146 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/9, 7:30 PM, and Sat 10/10, 2:30 PM. Woo will attend the screening on Friday as part of a gala presentation ($20).

Ricky Francois Ozon, director of such realistic dramas as Swimming Pool (2003) and Under the Sand (2000), ventures into fantasy with this French feature, which might be read as a parable about coping with "special needs" infants. A single mother (Alexandra Demy), living in a council flat with her seven-year-old daughter, throws herself into an intense affair with a new coworker (Sergi Lopez); after she gives birth to a son, the baby strains the domestic fabric with his incessant crying, provoked not by teething but by the wings sprouting from his back. This is among Ozon's most lyrical and daring films. The daughter (Melusine Mayance), forced to grow up too soon, is both frightening and sympathetic, simmering with jealousy as she makes room for the new men in her home. In French with subtitles. 90 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Fri 10/9, 6:45 PM, and Sat 10/10, 3:30 PM.

click to enlarge Vincere
  • Vincere

Vincere Directed by Marco Bellocchio, this unorthodox historical drama charts Benito Mussolini's rise to power, from his days editing the socialist newspaper Avanti to his founding of the fascist paper Il Popolo d'Italia to his emergence as Italy's supreme leader. Mussolini tried to suppress the fact that his foray into journalism was bankrolled by Ida Dalser, who would become his first wife and bear him a son. In depicting Ida's downward spiral after her husband discarded her for his second wife, Bellocchio intercuts striking archival footage of Mussolini addressing the masses with shadowy scenes of her languishing alone in an insane asylum, where she was forcibly confined after refusing to disavow her marriage. Carlo Crivelli's soaring classical score heightens Bellocchio's operatic tendencies. In Italian with subtitles. 128 min. —Joshua Katzman  Sat 10/10, 5:45 PM, and Mon 10/12, 6 PM.

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Sorry there are no showtimes for An Education, Animation Nations, Antichrist, Backyard, Backyard: El Traspatio, Berlin '36, Chicago Overcoat, Cropsey, Daniel & Ana, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, Face, Hipsters, Looking for Eric, Mother, Motherhood, Nymph, Red Cliff, Ricky, The Girl on the Train, The Last Days of Emma Blank, or The Messenger on Thursday, April 10.
The next date is playing is Wednesday, December 7 .

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