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CIFF 2014 – IN REVIEW, part 1

October 10, 2014





Happy Anniversary to the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), which turns 50 this year! It is North America’s longest running competitive international film festival. The festival organizers have been celebrating all year, with various screenings and events, but it all comes down to the two weeks in October, from the 9th through the 23rd. This is where the real celebration takes place. While there are special commemorative screenings such as “Breaking the Waves” and “Fanny and Alexander” as well as special guests like directors Taylor Hackford, Oliver Stone, Liv Ullmann and actors Kathleen Turner and Isabelle Hubert, the primary focus of CIFF remains the same as it has been for the past 50 years. That is, to provide an opportunity to discovery new talent from different lands or from right here in Chicago. This is where film enthusiasts in Chicago congregate with anticipation and excitement.

This year, Brendan Hodges and I have actually been able to see a handful of films in advance of the festival’s opening. I definitely plan on seeing more throughout the course of the fest, but so far the films I’ve seen range from fantastic and poignant to boring and uninteresting. My capsule reviews (longer reviews will have to wait for each film’s actual release) are listed alphabetically below:






(Australia) – directed by: Jennifer Kent

“The Babadook” may include a handful of horror conventions we’ve seen before – the exasperated single mother doing her best to raise her hellion son (whose father/her husband died the day he was born) in a creepy old house as well the bizarre haunting of a mysterious creature – but it’s what writer/director Jennifer Kent does with these conventions that make this a legitimately thrilling horror flick. It helps that the performances by Essie Davis, as the grieving widow who works as a nurse in a senior home, and Noah Wiseman, who plays her unruly 7 year-old son, are quite impressive. Their contentious relationship is what pulls us in, has us concerned, even before the titular Mr. Babadook, a malevolent figure from a disturbing children’s pop-up book, becomes an increasing presence. As a parent, I definitely related to that feeling of helplessness, even borderline insanity, in dealing with a troublesome child and here’s one who says everything that’s on his mind. Kent’s visuals and camera angles accentuate the building tension, but the physical and emotional range providing by both actors that will really stay with you long after viewing. 95 min.


Showtimes: October 10th at 11:00pm & October 21st at 8:30pm






(Switzerland/Germany/France) – directed by: Olivier Assayas

Director Olivier Assayas (“Carlos”, “Something in the Air”) re-teams with his “Summer Hours” star, the luminous Juliette Binoche, playing an aging actress who is reluctantly pulled into returning to the stage role which kicked off her career twenty years ago. The catch is she’s not playing an older version of the young ingenue (now played by Chloe Grace Moretz’s arrogant and shallow media sensation), this time she’s portraying the troubled, older woman, threatened by youth. It’s a role that hits a bit too close to home, as haunting memories of her younger self, conflict with how she sees herself now. Surrounded by youth, including her personal assistant (a great turn by Kristen Stewart), “Clouds of Sils Maria” is a mesmerizing dramatic look at an industry that chooses youth over experience. It’s another fantastic character study from Assayas with captivating cinematography and fine art direction. German and English with subtitles. 123 min.

RATING: ***1/2

Showtimes: October 16th at 8:15pm & October 18th at 4:30pm






(Sweden/Denmark/France/Norway) – directed by: Ruben Ostlund

When I heard it’s a story about a family of four vacationing in the French Alps who experience an avalanche, I instantly thought this would be like “The Impossible”. Well, I was surprisingly wrong. Indeed, Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” is full of surprises. There is an avalanche and a family involved, but that’s probably all you should know. That and the fact that “Force Majeure” is an awkward and thrilling look at the family dynamic, specifically marriage. It’s also a look at who we are, who we become under extreme situations and how that affects ourselves and the ones we love. With it’s confident direction and resonating performances, this is a film that will certainly go down as one of the most memorable of the year for me, one which will warrant indepth discussion afterwards and one which I will direct others to. Swedish and English with subtitles. 120 min.

RATING: ***1/2

Showtimes: October 10th at 8:15pm & October 12th at 5:30pm






(Czech Republic) – directed by Martin Dusek

Director Martin Dusek offers a look at the subculture of “tuning” in the Czech Republic. It’s where primarily young men, tale old cars and trick them out with killer sub woofers, neon tubing and glitzy rims. Rad’a is one such young man. His sole focus in life is the Ford Escort that’s he’s turned into a rolling Top 40 jukebox. He may not be able to keep a job, much to the dismay of his mother and within the course of the film, we see him go from one girl to another, but all that matters is his ride. Although the film is categorized as a documentary, it seems much more dramatized with attention to atmosphere than most docs. This makes it hard to tell if Rad’a is an actual person or a first-time actor or both. Not that it matters, it’s just a thought that ran through my head as I watched this doc that revolved around uninteresting subject matter – but then again I’m not a car guy. Czech with subtitles. 66 min.


Showtimes: October 10th at 9:30pm & October 21st at 4:30pm







(China/USA) – directed by: J. P. Sniadecki

Every now and then, I see a feature-length film that gets its message across right away, but then extends longer than necessary – “The Iron Ministry” is one such film. This guerilla-style documentary tours the entire Chinese railway system, capturing a myriad of economic levels (did you see this past summer’s “Snowpiercer”?), but could’ve easily been a short. Shot with DV mini-cameras by American director J. P Sniadecki and produced by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, the film artfully offers viewers an extensive ride, often capturing candid conversations between passengers. While such a contemporary look at Chinese life is potentially intriguing, after about 45 minutes I was quite bored. Mandarin with subtitles. 82 min.


Showtimes: October 10th at 6pm & October 11th at 12:45pm







(Hungary/Germany) – directed by: Ádám Császi

“Land of Storms” follows a young Hungarian man named Szabi, who talented soccer player who pulls away from the sport, retreating to his family’s dilapidated house in the country. While working to repair the house, he becomes physically involved with another young man from the village. This produces an awakening in Szabi and earns ridicule from those that find out. While the film deals with the character’s emotions in a non-manipulative fashion, the films suffers from a familiar story that we’ve seen before. Hungarian and German with subtitles. 107 min.


Showtimes: October 10th at 2pm, October 12th at 12:15pm & October 14th at 8pm






(Azerbaijan) – directed by: Elcin Musaoglu

Immersive and beautifully filmed, “Nabat” is the loosely based on a true story of a strong-yet-weary woman named Nabat (powerfully played by Fatemeh Motamed Arya). She lives on the outskirts with her sick husband Iskender (Vidadi Aliyev) in the mountainous region in Azerbaijan. She is a quiet, hard-working woman who is still suffering the loss of her only son who was a soldier in the looming war. A war that has now come closer to her nearby village, causing the townspeople to evacuate, leaving Nabat with a ghost town. “Nabat” is a film with a compelling character, one whom you can’t help become absorbed with, but with its artful tracking shots and expansive shots of the countryside, it’s a film that offers a raw and personal look at the toll of war. Azeri with subtitles. 105 min.

RATING: ***1/2

Showtimes: October 11th at 2pm, October 12th at 7:45 & October 22nd at 12:15pm






(Finland) – directed by: Samuli Valkama

Marriage doesn’t get easier as you get older. A couple can coast along and get complacent with each other, taking for granted what they have while forgetting who they were so many years ago when they first met. The result can be a stale and loveless marriage. You might as well be roommates, instead of friends and lovers. That’s what happens with Heli’s marriage, but she’s the only one aware of it. Heli (Anu Sinisalo, a captivating and strong presence), a language teacher seeks to satiate her carnal desires by hooking up with one of her hottie students. The results are passionate and humorous, yet also quite honest and real in the way director Samuli Valkama handles the morality and decay of marriage as well as reality of the longevity of Heli’s fling. The performances here are fantastic and the locations are displayed with a rich palette accompanied by a lively soundtrack. “No Thank You” is one of the many Scandinavian films spotlighted at the festival. Finnish with subtitles. 92 min.


Showtimes: October 10th at 8pm, October 12th at 3:45pm & October 16th at 2:15pm





ON BEAUTY (USA) – directed by: Joanna Rudnick

From Chicago’s Kartemquin Films comes the documentary “On Beauty”, which introduces us to one-time fashion photographer Rick Guidotti, who became frustrated by what qualifies as “beauty” in the industry. He started focusing his lens on those who are overlooked or stared at after meeting a young woman with albinism. Director Joanna Rudnick (“In the Family”) follows Rick from New York to Kenya as he encounters vibrant individuals with albinism or genetic conditions, photographing them in such a way that captures their inner essence, far from the morose and med school textbook photos we’ve seen for decades. The women and men we meet are fascinating because of what they’ve endured in life and how they’ve developed a positive outlook due to Rick’s mission to capture them on film as they are, challenging the way they are represented in movies and in real life. “On Beauty” is an important and touching film, yet it’s short length left me wanting more. 75 min.


Showtimes: October 18th at 1:15pm





ZURICH (Germany) – directed by: Frederik Steiner

Here is another film that had me in a post-viewing deep think. It’s about a young woman (superbly played by Liv Lisa Fries) who has invited her mother, sister and grandmother to join in her in Zurich, Germany, to celebrate her 23rd birthday – and watch her die. You read that right. She’s already dying of cystic fibrosis and has decided she’s done living, knowing her painful demise looming. Director Frederik Steiner could’ve easily turned the waterworks on and let them flow throughout, but working off a moving and emotional script from Barbara Te Kok, what Steiner offers is a sensitive, painfully honest and thoughtful look at illness, family dynamics and going out with dignity. As the lead, Fries delivers an impressive range, often providing humor and levity to the heavy subject matter. She’s also in good hands though with a fantastic supporting cast, especially Lena Stolze as her protective mother. “Zurich” could’ve been a sappy manipulative tearjerker. The fact that it’s not is refreshing enough, but the solid cast and the moving story really make this one of the more touching films that I’ve seen so far this year. German with subtitles. 103 min.

RATING: ***1/2

Showtimes: October 10th at 8:15pm & October 11th at 3:00pm


Many of these screenings will also have the director, producer or actor(s) in attendance, so the best thing to do is check the CIFF schedule for listings, that’s where you can also get tickets (which range from $5 to $20). See you there!




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