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Chicago International Film Festival 

The Reader's guide to week one

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On Tour Borrowing the aesthetics (and, apparently, the wardrobe) of John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), this directorial effort by French actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) begins as a showbiz shaggy-dog story, and Amalric's use of narrative detours is so sly that not until the idyllic ending does one realize the movie is actually a study of two sexually and personally frustrated people. Amalric plays a disreputable tour manager scrambling to find a Paris venue for his troupe of American burlesque dancers (all playing themselves). His neurotic intensity on-screen is counterbalanced by his gregariousness off, which extends beyond his obvious affection for the brassy dames to an effortless naturalism that encompasses crackerjack French dialogue and improvisations in English, surrealist gestures and theatrical flourishes. In English and subtitled French. 111 min. —Ignatiy Vishnevetsky  Sun 10/10, 8:30 PM.

127 Hours Based on a true story, this drama by British director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) features a terrific performance from James Franco as a cocksure rock climber who gets pinned by a boulder during a solo excursion in a Utah canyon. Boyle loads up on visual gimmickry to indicate the passage of time, the depletion of the hero's resources, and what's running through his head. But aside from an exhilarating opening and a gruesome climax, the movie isn't all that rich emotionally; all the visual razzle-dazzle winds up serving a pat lesson about people needing other people. R, 90 min. —Noel Murray  Wed 10/13, 7 PM. Screening as this year's "Festival Centerpiece," with Boyle scheduled to attend and a 9 PM afterparty at Sunda, 110 W. Illinois; tickets are $25 (program) or $50 (program and party). The screening is sold out; rush tickets only.

click to enlarge Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives movie
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

The Princess of Montpensier This handsome and intelligent historical drama by Bertrand Tavernier (Captain Conan, Life and Nothing But) opens in 1567 during the civil war between French Catholics and Huguenots. After killing a pregnant woman in a chaotic skirmish at a farm, a veteran soldier (Lambert Wilson in an excellent performance) recoils from war; rejected by both sides, he's taken in by the family of a young prince he once mentored (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet). The older man is by far the most interesting, but he's pushed to the sidelines as Tavernier, adapting a 17th-century story by Madame de La Fayette, focuses on the prince's unhappy marriage to a free-spirited beauty (Melanie Thierry) and her adulterous longing for his dashing cousin (Gaspard Ulliel). An engrossing subplot tracks the older man's chaste devotion to the young man's wife, which Tavernier parallels with his love of Christ; unfortunately the routine love triangle takes up most of the screen time. In French with subtitles. 139 min. —J.R. Jones  Sun 10/10, 8:15 PM, and Tue 10/12, 8:15 PM.

The Robber The lone-wolf protagonists of Michael Mann's films look like glad-handing Rotarians compared to the stone-faced bank robber and champion marathoner at the center of this Austrian drama. Paroled from a prison term that he's used as a training sabbatical, the criminal (Andreas Lust) reverts immediately to his life of crime, executing armed bank raids with the same steely discipline he brings to his running regimen. Less characteristically, he allows a love affair to compromise his solitude, though it doesn't take long for his girlfriend (Franziska Weisz) to figure out he's the masked man making national headlines. Writer-director Benjamin Heisenberg serves up a lean and solidly satisfying existentialist thriller, based on the real-life exploits of Johannes "Pump-Gun Ronnie" Kastenberger. In German with subtitles. 90 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Fri 10/8, 8:40 PM; Sat 10/9, 3:30 PM; and Mon 10/11, 4:10 PM.

Sandcastle Hushed and often haunting, this debut feature by Boo Junfeng begins as a routine family portrait but quietly develops into a story of genuine historical sweep. A fatherless teenager in Singapore elects to spend the summer with his paternal grandparents before he's inducted into the army, and during his stay the grandfather fills in the boy's dim memories of his late dad, who took part in and was ultimately ruined by the left-wing student protests in Singapore during the early 60s. When the grandfather suddenly dies, the grandmother and the teen move back in with his mother and stepfather, and the old woman's struggle with Alzheimer's disease not only taxes the little family but leads to more revelations about the father's past. The movie slows to a crawl in its last couple reels, and its reliance on the title image borders on the heavy-handed, but Boo's sophisticated twining of personal and national memory is pretty impressive for a young filmmaker. In English and subtitled Mandarin and Hokkien. 96 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/8, 6:15 PM; Sat 10/9, 3:40 PM; and Mon 10/11, 4:20 PM. Boo will attend the 10/8 and 10/9 screenings.

A Screaming Man The long history of civil war in Chad has provided ample material for writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, and like his previous drama, Dry Season (2006), this one gauges the human damage as it plays out across generations. The premise is oddly similar to that of F.W. Murnau's silent classic The Last Laugh: when a state-owned hotel is privatized, the 55-year-old swimming pool attendant is unceremoniously demoted to parking-lot gatekeeper, and the modesty of his original position only intensifies the bitterness of his fall. To make matters worse, his grown son inherits his poolside job, though the young man is safer at the hotel than in the army, whose commanders are conscripting young men to fight the rebel forces. The movie's effectiveness lies in Haroun's low-key dramatic development; he creates an emotional space where the slights of everyday life can hit like bullets. In French and Arabic with subtitles. 89 min. —J.R. Jones  Tue 10/12, 5:40 PM; Wed 10/13, 8:30 PM; and Sat 10/16, 2 PM.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Polyamorous sex shaman Desert "Baba Dez" Nichols of Sedona, Arizona, appears to make a pretty good buck using his lingam to heal good-looking, thirtyish women of their sexual dysfunctions (fat women only get cuddled). But when his "sacred spa work" and other New Age erotic hijinks alienate monogamously inclined Maya, the woman he truly loves, he goes into a spiritual tailspin. Enlisting his many lovers, Nichols tries to shag Maya back into his life through a sexualized version of the philosophy in Rhonda Byrne's self-help book The Secret (visualize good things and they will be yours). Documentarians Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman clearly aren't buying any of this, but instead of challenging their creepy subjects, they simply allow them to expose the rancid selfishness behind their relentless smiles, hokey rituals, and hideous, obfuscating jargon. It's all pretty funny if you're naturally amused by grotesque delusion. 80 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Fri 10/8, 10:30 PM, and Sat 10/9, 10:15 PM. Liebman is scheduled to attend the screenings.

Stone Robert De Niro is a weary parole officer at a Michigan prison, Edward Norton is the jive-ass inmate trying to win a release, and Milla Jovovich is the jailbird's kind-of-slutty, kind-of-nutty wife, who keeps coming on to the corrections worker after hours. So many talented people were involved in this modest drama—John Curran directed the biting We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), and Angus MacLachlan scripted the lovely Junebug (2005)—that I feel as if I should like it more. De Niro and Norton keep each other on their game (the latter is particularly good, his laughable wigger character gradually becoming someone serious and unfathomable), and Frances Conroy is solid as the parole officer's partner in a long-dead marriage. But you can feel the movie's gears grinding throughout, first in the rote suspense mechanics and later in the ham-fisted religiosity (conveyed through an endless soundtrack of evangelistic talk radio). R, 105 min. —J.R. Jones  Thu 10/7, 7 PM, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Screening as part of the opening-night program, with Norton and Curran scheduled to attend; tickets are $35-$40.

Tamara Drewe Funny and emotionally perceptive, the cartoon strip Tamara Drewe captivated British readers with its serialized update of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, and this screen adaptation by director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) successfully re-creates the strip's pastoral tone and cheeky humor. The title character (Gemma Arterton), a sexy columnist for a London newspaper, returns to her rural hometown in Dorset and immediately turns the heads of an adulterous and self-regarding mystery novelist (Roger Allam), a smug rock star on his way down (Dominic Cooper), and a poor but good-hearted handyman (Bill Camp) at a neighboring writers' retreat. Her opposite number, and the actual protagonist despite the title, is the novelist's long-suffering and heart-scalded wife, nicely played by Tamsin Greig. Thomas Hardy it's not, but as far as middlebrow British romances go, better this than Love Actually. R, 111 min. –J.R. Jones  Fri 10/8, 7 PM.

Thunder Soul A precious scrap of American history, this documentary by Mark Landsman tells the story of Conrad Johnson, an inspiring music teacher at Houston's predominantly black Kashmere High School who turned the school's jazz band into a fearsomely hard-charging funk outfit in the 1970s. Most high school stage bands at the time were white ensembles playing ancient big-band numbers, which made Johnson's innovative combination of original funk tunes and big, muscular horn sections seem even more dramatic. Rehearsals for a 2008 reunion concert, honoring Johnson on his 92nd birthday, give his former students a chance to recall his impact on them as a mentor (particularly the boys, lower-class kids who were galvanized by his passion, discipline, and professionalism). Some of the interviewees tend to oversell the story emotionally, but the band's electrifying music speaks for itself. 84 min. —J.R. Jones  Fri 10/8, 11:15 PM; Sat 10/9, 8:30 PM; and Wed 10/13, 2 PM. Landsman will attend the screenings. The 10/9 screening is sold out; rush tickets only.

Tony & Janina's American Wedding Tony and Janina Wasilewski were model immigrants: hardworking, law-abiding, and beaming with freshly minted patriotism for the U.S. Then Janina, who came to Illinois claiming refugee status during Poland's communist regime, was abruptly deported in 2007, taking the couple's six-year-old son back home with her. Coproduced by Chicago's venerable Kartemquin Films, this moving documentary uses the Wasilewskis' plight as a window onto our absurdly byzantine and arbitrary immigration controls, which tear apart hundreds of thousands of comparably blameless families every year. Director Ruth Leitman deftly balances heartbreaking drama and muckraking journalism. In English and subtitled Polish. 81 min. —Cliff Doerksen  Sun 10/10, 7:15 PM, and Sun 10/17, 2:15 PM. Leitman and Tony Wasilewski are scheduled to attend the screenings.

click to enlarge the robber movie
  • The Robber

Tuesday, After Christmas Some of the finest political filmmaking in recent years has come from the Romanian New Wave, whose hypnotic long takes carefully delineate time and space and, in so doing, create a palpable sense of confinement. Radu Muntean's disarming fourth feature manages to apply the same aesthetic to domestic melodrama without curtailing its force. The story, about an investment banker (Mimi Branescu) cheating on his wife (Mirela Oprisor) with a vivacious woman ten years his junior (Maria Popistasu), develops through scenes of quiet, almost voyeuristic intimacy, only to erupt in the final act when the husband confesses. As in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or Muntean's own The Paper Will Be Blue, every character is fully realized (three of the four leads are veterans of those films) and the social observation is cutting. Muntean derives much dread from the nouveau riche milieu, which begins to seem like a thin veneer for the characters' pitiless self-interest. 97 min. —Ben Sachs  Fri 10/8, 7:15 PM; Sat 10/9, 3:45 PM; and Tue 10/12, 4 PM. Muntean will attend the 10/8 and 10/9 screenings.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The dead speak with the living, animals speak to humans, and—thanks to a dense sound mix suggesting musique concrete—the northern Thai jungle just won't shut up in this hypnotic feature by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady). The title character is a tranquil landowner in his mid-60s, attended to by an assistant and family members both living and dead as he slowly dies of kidney failure. In some previous films Weerasethakul used a two-part structure to convey his Buddhist belief in reincarnation; here he moves between worldly and spiritual realms with an eerie fluidity reminiscent of Alain Resnais. As is to be expected, Weerasethakul frequently abandons the story for trancelike contemplations of nature, but never before in his work has the device felt more purposeful. This isn't likely to convert those who find his work boring, but others may find the movie's spell comparable to prayer or peaceful dreaming. In Thai with subtitles. 108 min. —Ben Sachs  Sat 10/10, 3 PM, and Fri 10/15, 6:30 PM. The screenings are sold out; rush tickets only.

Waste Land New York artist Vik Muniz recently returned to his native Brazil to collaborate on a series of artworks with impoverished garbage pickers, or catadores, from the vast Jardim Gramacho landfill in Rio de Janeiro; using all manner of refuse, Muniz created and then photographed giant landscape portraits of selected catadores, with all proceeds from sale of the framed prints going to the subjects. This 2009 documentary by Lucy Walker (Countdown to Zero) records the elaborate project, touching on the sad lives of the catadores and the larger issues of poverty and sustainable growth that inform the art. The movie might have amounted to no more than a sunny eco-parable, but it begins to bite harder when the catadores, captivated by their sudden importance, face the unhappy prospect of returning to their previous existence. The real question, it seems, is whether human beings can be repurposed as profitably as junk can. Joao Jardim and Karen Harley codirected. In English and subtitled Portuguese. 98 min. —J.R. Jones  Sun 10/10, 4:30 PM, and Mon 10/11, 8:40 PM. Walker is scheduled to attend the 10/10 screening.

We Are What We Are Not graphic enough for gore-hounds or suspenseful enough for thriller fans, this moody Mexican drama about a family of cannibals aims for the art-house tone of Let the Right One In. When the philandering father suddenly dies, the eldest child (Francisco Barreiro) reluctantly becomes the clan's provider, egged on by his sister (Paulina Gaitan of Sin Nombre) but belittled by his mother and brother, who may have figured out he's a closeted homosexual. Coming out at a nightclub, the young man targets an attractive fellow to bring home for, uh, dinner. The story creeps along at a somnambulistic pace, unredeemed by the shallow social commentary or tepid black humor. Jorge Michel Grau directed. In Spanish with subtitles. 89 min. —Andrea Gronvall  Wed 10/13, 8:45 PM, and Fri 10/15, 9:15 PM.

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