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Chicago International Film Festival 

The First Days

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Wednesday, October 6

Mansfield Park

It's never fair to judge a screen adaptation of a literary masterpiece by its fidelity to the source--otherwise Volker Schlondorff would qualify as the greatest film director on earth. But one does expect to see at least some token acknowledgment of the work. Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park starts out promisingly enough in its earthy evocation of the fetid, overcrowded, none-too-genteel poverty from which young Fanny Price is "rescued" to begin a life as a poor relation at Mansfield Park. By sharply foregrounding what was once mere background detail, in particular the slavery that supports those to the manor born, Rozema highlights the casual cruelties of the class system. Austen's dry wit has given her plenty to work with in depicting the hypocrisy of the upper crust, but Rozema goes much further, attributing to Austen's phlegmatic, wastrel, or choleric rich all manner of guilt, sadism, and thwarted nobility. All of which might be construed as ideological if not particularly poetic license, were it not that Rozema's Fanny inexplicably mutates into a self-confident Amazon once she grows up. No Austen heroine--probably no Austen character--has ever been so confoundedly heroic; this Fanny Price could not only teach her grandmother to suck eggs, she could probably lay them too. Francis O'Connor is positively glowing in the role, sweeping over the grounds and less enlightened mortals with a flair that assures her of a moral and marital stake in the family's stately home. There's something more than a little perverse about taking one of the most timid, self-effacing heroines in English literature and turning her into a paragon of modern free-spirited womanhood. (RS) (Chicago Theatre, 7:30)

Thursday, October 7

La maladie de Sachs

French director Michel Deville, virtually unheard from since the release of his subtle La lectrice in 1988, has adapted a well-known French novel about a doctor overwhelmed by the moral and medical demands of his isolated village. The film is capably made, but it poaches on the themes, mood, and story of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1950) and even attempts Bresson's brilliant conjunction of form and storytelling. Like the Bresson film, La maladie de Sachs concerns the self-punishing spiritual purification of a rural figure whose values, medical skills, and deeply humanistic empathy for his patients are insufficient to treat their pain. And as in the Bresson, the doctor's own physical deterioration becomes a metaphor for his insignificance. But this movie lacks the transcendent poetic intensity of the Bresson, and its final, protracted third is repetitive. Still, it does have a somber purity, and Deville's work with his actors and his feel for landscapes and physical space is superb. (PM) (Water Tower upstairs, 4:00)

The Junk Food Generation

Writer-director Shinobu Sakagami's first feature concerns a young Japanese woman who meets a homeless Japanese man (Sakagami) in the U.S. They decide to steal drugs from the Mafia, then flee to avoid reprisals. (Water Tower downstairs, 8:30)

The Grandfather

Fernando Fernan-Gomez plays an elderly patriarch in 19th-century Spain who returns to his birthplace to decide which of his two young granddaughters should inherit his wealth. Jose Luis Garci directed and cowrote this feature, the fifth of his movies to be nominated for an Academy

Award. (Water Tower upstairs, 6:00)

That's the Way I Like It

A 20-year-old Bruce Lee fan in 1977 Singapore who lives with his parents and works at a grocery store discovers disco when he sees a local spin-off of Saturday Night Fever. He sees the movie again and again, and is inspired to enter a dance contest with a childhood friend as his partner. Written and directed by Glen Goei. (Water Tower upstairs, 6:15)

New Dawn

The striking originality of New Dawn, Emilie Deleuze's auspicious debut film, lies in its depiction of work--we get to watch a bunch of men learn how to operate heavy machinery. There are few things seen less on-screen than what people do for a living--unless of course they're cops. Alain (Samuel Le Bihan) is no cop. At the film's opening he has what many would consider a dream job, as a video-games tester ("You get paid for that?" asks an awestruck young messenger). But Alain chucks his upscale high-tech position and heads to the unemployment office, where he enrolls in the most change-of-pace job conceivable--a 16-week bulldozer training program miles from the comforts of Paris. His wife and four-year-old daughter are understandably less than thrilled at his impulsive adoption of downward mobility. As his family drifts away, Alain, slightly ill at ease in the rowdy industrial boot camp, is pulled into an amazingly ambiguous quasi-big-brother, quasi-homosexual relationship with a belligerently touchy kid whose passionate knowledge of the types of digging engines is matched by his hopeless ineptitude at handling them. Deleuze filmed at an actual training site using many of its personnel and trainees, and the interactions between them and her stars subtly read as class and culture shock. New Dawn is extraordinary in depicting the complexity of class and gender myths surrounding work and the complexity of one man's emotional response to them. (RS) (Water Tower upstairs, 6:30)

The White Suit

This film marks the not especially monumental directorial debut of popular Yugoslav actor Lazar Ristovski, who's probably best known here for his role in Emir Kusturica's Underground. Ristovski's debt to Kusturica is immediately apparent, though his is a kinder and more humanistic brand of absurdism. A gentle soldier (Ristovski) takes a train home after a telegram from his brother tells him their mother has died and to bring his white suit when he comes. Along the way he meets all kinds of people who do inexplicable things for inexplicable reasons, all having something to do, we can only surmise, with the expression of national character. Everything's meant to be madly surreal and folkloric--a dog that doggedly follows the hero, a baggage car full of fireworks for the engineer's son, a man who travels with his own cow because he's allergic to supermarket milk, a Russian underwater stripper named Carmen with her impassioned impresario/pimp in tow. There are moments when we glimpse what the film could be--the hero says "I love you" to Carmen in 100 different languages in rapid succession while hanging outside her train window. But even these moments come off as mildly endearing at best. As an actor Ristovski possesses enormous charm. As a director he knows only how to cast his hero well. (RS) (Water Tower downstairs, 6:30)

Afraid of Everything

Nathalie Richard, who has done superb work with Jacques Rivette and Olivier Assayas, is the primary reason to see this black-and-white feature from director-writer David Barker. She plays a Frenchwoman who's been permanently injured in a car accident and now suffers from agoraphobia, which effectively traps her in the New York loft where she lives with her American architect husband. Her beautiful, free-spirited sister turns up, capturing the attention of the husband and the couple's circle of friends and intensifying Richard's anguish. The film's ambiguities and off-center moods are intelligently realized, and the claustrophobia and psychosexual underpinnings evoke Polanski films of the 60s and 70s (Repulsion, The Tenant). But ultimately Barker's style drains the life from the film, making it feel like an academic exercise as it becomes increasingly inert, emotionally and dramatically. Richard and the impressive young Belgian actress who plays her sister, Sarah Adler, have some fine moments together--Richard's face can register a deep range of responses--but Barker doesn't give their characters the shape and complexity they deserve. (PM) (Water Tower upstairs, 6:45)

Jason and the Argonauts

Special-effects buffs generally cite this 1963 effort by Ray Harryhausen as the master's masterpiece, and his work does a great deal to enliven the tired plot and vacuous stars (Todd Armstrong, Nancy Kovack) directed by Donald Chaffey. Buff interest of a different sort is provided by Bernard Herrmann's score, one of his finest. (DK) (Water Tower downstairs, 7:00)

The Junk Food Generation

See listing above. (Water Tower downstairs, 8:30)

The Personals

A quiet, attractive, 30-ish woman quits her job as an ophthalmologist and places an ad for a mate in a Taipei paper. She receives more than 100 responses and meets a series of men for conversation, tea, and occasional sympathy. Some prospective hubbies are studied in long single takes, some are revealed in quid pro quo interactions with the heroine, while the remaining interviewees are glimpsed only in rapid montages. Among the most memorable are a betel chewer and heavy smoker who promises to give up both habits if she'll marry him, a shoe salesman with a fetishist's love of his job, a voice actor who carries on animated conversations between his multiple assumed characters, an autistic young man whose mother is looking for a wife to cure him, and a pimp with attitude who's recruiting for his business. Just when The Personals threatens to become gimmicky, director Chen Kuo-fu starts shifting focus from the men to the woman, whose long reflective journeys by train and bus and boat to and from the interviews take up more and more of the film. Her story, revealed in bits and snatches, makes her search appear increasingly enigmatic, tracing a completely different arc and coloring all that went before. (RS) (Water Tower upstairs, 8:30)

La maladie de Sachs

See listing above. (Water Tower upstairs, 8:45)

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad

Gordon Hessler directed this 1974 British feature whose main raison d'etre is some first-rate "Dynamation" special effects from Ray Harryhausen (who collaborated with Brian Clemens on the script), including a ship's figurehead that springs to life and Sinbad crossing swords with a six-armed statue. With John Phillip Law and Caroline Munro. (JR) (Water Tower downstairs, 9:00)

Treasure Island

Scott King uses several Chicago theater actors in this visually striking, formally ambitious first feature about spies trying to cripple Japan's intelligence operations during World War II. Two American cryptographers at a fictional San Francisco naval base are composing correspondence about the identity of a corpse, in an elaborate campaign intended to persuade the Japanese that they've uncovered valuable American intelligence. As a narrative, the film can be frustratingly opaque and peculiar--there's a succession of scenes that seem fundamentally at odds with one another and never quite coalesce into a coherent whole. But as a work of imagination it's impressive, showcasing King's inventive use of spatial and temporal rhythms and diagonal framing and evolving into a fascinating, trenchant portrait of the time and culture as it explores racism, xenophobia, aberrant sexuality, nationalism, and honor. The acting, especially by leads Lance Baker and Nick Offerman, is strong, unconventional, and deeply compelling. King shot the beautifully textured black-and-white images, which are wonderfully complemented by the editing and production design. Not a complete success, but this film's ambition puts a lot of American independent cinema to shame. (PM) (Water Tower upstairs, 9:15)

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Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Duck and Cover Classroom The Time Gallery
August 10
Performing Arts
Manic Mondays Frances Cocktail Lounge
November 20

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