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Chicago International Film Festival 

The Reader's guide to week one

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[Plus: On the "Local" Front: Noteworthy films by Chicagoans—and former Chicagoans—featured in CIFF's Illinois[e]makers series.]

The marketing slogan for this year's Chicago International Film Festival is "See the big picture." That imperative may explain why I find this introduction so difficult to write every year: though I've watched some 15 features screening in the festival, there are a hundred more I haven't watched. None of the media poobahs weighing in on the quality of the festival is really in any position to do so (though that never seems to stop anyone). And when local film buffs carp about the festival lineup (as they invariably do), they're usually complaining about what isn't there and prejudging what is.

One thing I do know: you're not going to see the big picture just by seeing the big pictures. The festival's opening-night slot has become a notorious parking spot for middlebrow, and often mediocre, studio films in need of a publicity bounce (in the last five years: Katherine Dieckmann's Motherhood, Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, Marc Forster's The Kite Runner and Stranger Than Fiction, and Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown). And screenings for the most buzzed-about films—Darren Aronofsky's ballet psychodrama Black Swan, Danny Boyle's survival tale 127 Hours, Abbas Kiarostami's philosophical adventure Certified Copy, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's waking dream Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives—are already sold out. (The first two will open here commercially in the next couple months anyway.)

But every year I've covered the festival, I've seen something outstanding that vanishes without a trace. Last year it was Michel Franco's Daniel & Ana, about siblings trying to recover after being kidnapped and sexually abused; this year it will probably be Michael Rowe's Leap Year, whose already meager chances of distribution can't be helped by the fact that it shares its title with a recent Amy Adams rom-com. Sometimes the small picture is the one worth seeing.

The festival opens Thursday, October 7, with a screening of the prison drama Stone and personal appearances by director John Curran and star Edward Norton; see the listings for details. It closes Thursday, October 22, with a screening of The Debt, a Mossad adventure starring Helen Mirren.

Following, in alphabetical order, are reviews of selected films making their Chicago premieres through Thursday, October 14 (though repeat screenings after that date are also noted). For reviews of films premiering Friday, October 15, through Thursday, October 22, see next week's issue. —J.R. Jones

Besouro African ancestral gods and some fancy dancing help a young black man protect his people from evil white plantation owners in this 2009 Brazilian drama, which is set in the 1920s and based on the exploits of a real-life folk hero. The title character, troubled that he didn't prevent the murder of his mentor, contacts him through the spirit world and thereby gains new powers—like flying—that enhance his skill at the forbidden art of capoeira (dance plus martial arts). The visuals are colorful and the music seductive, but director Joao Daniel Tikhomiroff skimps on character development: the hero lacks depth, and the villains swagger and sneer like heavies in a bad western. In Portuguese with subtitles. 95 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Tue 10/12, 6:15 PM; Wed 10/13, 9:30 PM; and Sat 10/16, 12:20 PM.

Bitter Feast Dramatic features that emerge from U.S. film schools rarely suffer from low production values, but they often lack any authentic point of view or connection to real experience. This horror item by Joe Maggio is a prime example of the style that Dave Kehr has dubbed "NYU Beige," nicely shot but indigestible as storytelling. A caricature of a pompous chef kidnaps a caricature of a self-pitying food critic for some creative torture in the woods. Despite a few "character-building" scenes straight from a screenwriter's handbook, neither lead registers as a person or even a societal archetype, which has the virtue of making the numerous torture scenes easier to enjoy as purely technical exercises. 105 min. —Ben Sachs  Fri 10/8, 11 PM; Sat 10/9, 10:30 PM; and Sun 10/10, 9:30 PM. Maggio is scheduled to attend the screenings.

click to enlarge On Tour movie
  • On Tour

Black Swan After the critical and commercial success of The Wrestler, writer-director Darren Aronofsky pivots from the wrestling ring to the ballet studio, and from a battered Mickey Rourke to the delicate Natalie Portman. She plays a New York City ballerina whose demanding and lecherous director (Vincent Cassel) awards her a starring dual role—as the virginal "White Swan" and the sensual "Black Swan"—in his new interpretation of Swan Lake. Buffeted by her jealous mother (Barbara Hershey), her backstabbing understudy (Mila Kunis), and a frigid perfectionism that badly inhibits her performance as the Black Swan, the dancer begins to melt down as only an Aronofsky character can. The black/white duality isn't terribly interesting, but as in most of Aronofsky's films, an intense horror of the body and its uncontrollability fuels the rhapsodic psychodrama. R, 103 min. —J.R. Jones  Tue 10/12, 8 PM. The screening is sold out; rush tickets only.

Blame A high school music teacher is taken hostage in his remote home by five teenagers clad in their Sunday finest; they've just come from the funeral of their friend, who committed suicide after being seduced and then rejected by the teacher, and they've resolved to kill him with an overdose and make the death look like a suicide. This Australian nail-biter by Michael Henry suffers from the fact that the kids' supposedly perfect crime is so dumb: they leave fingerprints all over the place, their pills are easily traceable, and they bind the victim's hands and feet, the bruises from which would tip off any investigator. Those distractions recede, however, as their plot falls apart anyway, leaving the teacher to plead for his life and his captors to bicker and turn on each other. Part of the recent wave of low-budget Aussie thrillers, this hardly ranks with such predecessors as Coffin Rock, The Square, and Animal Kingdom, but it's a solid effort with a few nice twists. 89 min. –J.R. Jones  Fri 10/8, 8:45 PM; Sat 10/9, 5 PM; and Sun 10/17, 9:45 PM. Henry is scheduled to attend the 10/8 and 10/9 screenings.

Certified Copy The title of this French release translates more precisely as "true or faithful copy," which may give you a better idea where Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) is going with it. Much of the film unfolds as a prolonged walk-and-talk between two layered and often contentious characters: an English art critic visiting Tuscany on a book tour (the fascinating William Shimell) and a French woman living there (Juliette Binoche) who finagles an introduction to the author and takes him on a day trip to the village of Lucignano. Yet Kiarostami sends the narrative spinning about midway through, when the characters' husband-and-wife role-playing for the benefit of a local cafe owner begins to seem like the movie's actual reality. The conclusion is abrupt and unsatisfying, but the philosophical dialogue Kiarostami manages to keep aloft for well over an hour touches on intriguing questions of openness, self-honesty, and personal freedom. In English and subtitled French and Italian. 106 min. —J.R. Jones  Sat 10/9, 6 PM, and Mon 10/11, 6:15 PM. The screenings are sold out; rush tickets only.

Come Undone This Italian tale of infidelity owes its appeal to the charming lead actors, who hold one's attention even during some unlikely plot turns. A wispy blond insurance agent (Alba Rohrwacher of I Am Love) lives with her sweet, rotund boyfriend, but at an office party she meets a handsome married caterer (Pierfrancesco Favino of Angels & Demons), and before long the two are sneaking off for weekly motel rendezvous. Director Sylvio Soldini (Bread & Tulips) suggests that the lovers are bound by their common restlessness and their great sex, but because their liaison doesn't prompt any significant growth, change, or consequences, the film is more memorable for its eroticism than its drama. In Italian with subtitles. 126 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Thu 10/14, 6:10 PM, and Sat 10/16, 2:15 PM.

Conviction As a producer of her own starring vehicles, Hilary Swank is a sucker for true stories of personal heroism (Freedom Writers, Amelia), and she's finally found a good one in this drama about Betty Anne Waters, a lower-class Massachusetts woman who put herself through college and then law school in hope of overturning her brother's trumped-up murder conviction. Given the obvious formula at work here, there isn't much doubt that the plucky heroine will ultimately triumph; what stings is how goddamn long it takes when there's an innocent man rotting away in prison. Sam Rockwell plays the brother, and in his handful of scenes he skillfully tracks the character's slow decay from cocky loudmouth to thoroughly beaten man; Swank, delivering her usual spunky turn, suffers badly by comparison. Tony Goldwyn directed a cast that ranges from the excellent (Minnie Driver as a fellow attorney, Melissa Leo as a crooked cop) to the laughable (Juliette Lewis as a trashy woman whose perjured testimony helps put the brother away). R, 106 min. —J.R. Jones  Sun 10/10, 6 PM.

Erratum In this nuanced and atmospheric Polish drama, an accountant (Tomasz Kot, excellent) returns to his hometown to pick up his boss's imported car and on the way back accidentally kills a drunken vagrant. Stuck in the small village while he cooperates with the police and waits for the vehicle to be repaired, the hero resumes contact with his estranged father (Ryszard Kotys) and tries to uncover the dead man's identity. Encounters that seem sinister at first take on different hues as he gets closer to the truth about both men. Director Marek Lechki achieves a subtle elegance through still moments and small gestures, drawing grace and hope from the least likely situations. In Polish with subtitles. 95 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Thu 10/14, 8:30 PM; Fri 10/15, 6:05 PM; and Sun 10/17, noon. Lechki will attend the 10/14 and 10/15 screenings.

Heartbeats All lipstick and no kiss, this romantic drama by French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan is filled with candy-colored, cello-scored studies of the beautiful young characters and their 1950s fashions. Marie (played with impressive hauteur by Monia Chokri) is one of those women with an Audrey Hepburn problem, whereas gay Francis (Dolan) worships at the altar of James Dean; these two pals eventually turn against each other when the tousle-haired Nicolas (Niels Schneider) becomes the apex of their bisexual love triangle. Intercut with this narrative are pointless interview segments featuring another assortment of young lovers apparently unrelated to the main characters. The movie got a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, and one can see why: Dolan's vibrant use of color can be irresistible. But many of his other effects are insufferably precious (like the jerk zooms dominating the interviews), and the gender-bent Jules and Jim story lacks depth. In French with subtitles. 95 min. —J.R. Jones  Thu 10/14, 6:20 PM, and Fri 10/15, 8:45 PM.

Leap Year Marking off the calendar days until February 29, a young woman in Mexico City (Monica Del Carmen) spends the daylight hours freelance writing for a business publication and her nighttime hours bringing home a series of young men for one-night stands. One of them (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) turns out to be a rough character, and on repeat visits the woman slips into an increasingly brutal and ugly S-M relationship with him. This stunning debut feature by Michael Rowe is so austere and disciplined—no score, no voice-overs, a single set, and a rigorously objective point of view—that its graphic and sometimes upsetting sex scenes never seem exploitative. The end result is a quietly heartrending portrait of a person so damaged and miserably lonely that when her lover asks her how it feels to be pissed on, she replies, "Warm." In Spanish with subtitles. 89 min. —J.R. Jones  Sun 10/10, 5:30 PM, and Mon 10/11, 8:45 PM.

click to enlarge leap year movie
  • Leap Year

Little Big Soldier Jackie Chan stars as a soldier during the waning days of the Zhou Dynasty who captures an enemy general in the aftermath of a battle and hopes to bring him in alive, knowing he'll be rewarded with a discharge. Despite Chan's popularity in the U.S., Hollywood has never found a proper use for his acting talents; this odd chase flick, which he also produced and scripted, offers a welcome chance to see him do something other than mug. Like his classic films of the 1980s and '90s, this is earnest as both entertainment and personal statement, but director Sheng Ding seems unsure whether he's making a reverent historical epic or a Hong Kong action comedy. Apart from the varied use of natural landscapes, the epic parts are mostly run-of-the-mill, but the movie is rescued from mediocrity by its well-choreographed tomfoolery and Chan's performance as a folksy scoundrel. In Mandarin with subtitles. 96 min. —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky  Fri 10/8, 9:45 PM; Sat 10/9, 1:30 PM; and Tue 10/12, 3 PM. Sheng is scheduled to attend the 10/8 and 10/9 screenings.

Louder Than a Bomb This potent, fast-paced documentary about Louder Than a Bomb, the annual Chicago-area high school poetry slam, showcases a range of stellar teen poets as they progress through the semi-finals into the final competition for 2008. Nova Venerable, a poised senior from Oak Park/River Forest, turns memories of her hellish childhood into hypnotic confessionals, while Adam Gottlieb of Northside College Prep exudes a humor, generosity, and verbal firepower that recall the young Allen Ginsberg. The Steinmetz team are cast as the underdogs, despite the fact that they triumphed the previous year; they struggle with their writing and clash with their coach, but when they reach the finals they deliver an electrifying group performance. Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel directed. 100 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Mon 10/11, 6 PM; Sat 10/16, 1:30 PM; and Mon 10/18, 3:30 PM. Jacobs, Siskel, and featured poets are scheduled to attend the screenings. The 10/11 screening is sold out; rush tickets only.

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