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CIFF 2015: In Preview

October 14, 2015

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I can’t believe it’s already that time of the year already, but the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) is back for its 51st year! What does that mean? It means there will be over 150 films – narrative features of varying genres, documentaries and 8 programs of shorts – from over 50 countries. It also means I see and review as many films as I possibly can from all over the world in a short amount of time, hoping I discover some standouts.  In doing so the experience tends to be a blur and while it may not be fair to submitting filmmakers to have their film get caught up in the whirlwind of festival viewing, there aren’t that many other options for eager and curious film enthusiasts but to see as many films as possible.

There will be a total of 137 new features to choose from, including new films by Charlie Kauffman, Peter Greenaway, Michael Moore and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

. Like last year, there will be retrospective screenings to choose from, such as 2011’s “Hugo”, 1968’s “Funny Girl”, 1990’s “To Sleep with Anger” and “Sherlock Holmes”, a silent film shot in Chicago in 1916. Speaking of Chicago filming, there’s a handful of films directed by local talent, such as: Malik Bader, Claire Carré, Stephen Cone, Jack C. Newell and Patrick Underwood. Many of the directors mentioned will be in attendance to promote and discuss their films. Other highlights include an appearance by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, who will speak and screen clips on Oct. 17th as part of the Spotlight: Architecture + Space + Design program and on Oct. 18th, award-winning composer Howard Shore will accept a Career Achievement Award.

Industry Days is a new series of presentations by professionals that debuts Oct. 22nd with a tribute to Chicago producer Gigi Pritzker. Two panels for film enthusiasts ask the questions: “Friend or Foe: Can Critics and Filmmakers Get Along?” and “The Foreign-Language Crisis: Are Subtitled Movies Fading on U.S. Screens?”

The festival runs from Oct. 15th through Oct. 29th and makes its home once again at AMC River East 21 at 322 E. Illinois – except for the festival opener, which is Nanni Moretti’s “Mia Madre” (France/Italy), starring John Turturro, and will be shown at the Auditorium Theater on 50 E. Congress at 6:30pm tomorrow night. Tickets for Opening Night are $23 with $150 VIP including a reception.

Tickets can be purchased at the theater and are $14 for general screenings, with discounts for Cinema/Chicago members, students and seniors. After 10 p.m. prices go down to $10. Weekday matinees before 5 p.m. are $8 For more details, call 312-332-FILM or visit www.chicagofilmfestival.com.

Of the films I’ve been able to seen so far, below are the films I’ve reviewed. Some of them already have release dates this year and the rest have not yet been picked up by a studio. Look for more coverage soon, but here they are in alphabetical order with the date and time of their showings….

 

 

 

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THE ASSASSIN

(Taiwan)

This martial arts epic from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year and it’s easy to see why. “The Assassin” is beautifully filmed with an absorbing story of complex betrayals. Set in the Tang Dynasty in the 19th century that follows a young daughter (Shu Qi) of a general who is kidnapped and trained to become a lethal assassin. When she backs out of killing a high-ranking official, she is ordered to kill her betrothed, forcing her to choose between love, family and the assassin’s code. While those expecting full-on action or something along the lines of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” may be disappointed as the dramatic story takes precedence here, this period piece is nevertheless a gorgeous film with breathtaking composition and exquisite choreography.

Oct. 21st at 6pm & Oct. 23rd at 8:15pm

RATING: ***

 

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A CHILDHOOD

(France)

Writer/director Philippe Claudel (2013’s “Before the Winter Chill” and 2008’s “I’ve Loved You So Long”) delivers a tender tale of Jimmy (a wonderful Alexi Mathieu), a 13-year-old living with his younger brother Kevin (Jules Gauzelin), both of whom live with their addict mother and her criminal boyfriend in a low-income neighborhood in France. Forced to fend for himself and care for his brother, Jimmy longs for the birthday parties, family vacations and tennis lessons he sees his classmates experience, during one hot summer as he navigates his way through his own childhood. Although the storyline feels familiar, Claudel creates an authentic atmosphere with an honest lead performance from Mathieu (reminding me of River Phoenix crime “Stand By Me”) that draws us in and invests us in this boy’s life.

Oct. 21st at 6pm and Oct. 22nd at 8:15pm (director Philippe Claudel in attendance)
Oct. 26th at 3:30pm

RATING: ***

 

 

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EMBERS

(U.S.A.)

After working as an assistant director, director Claire Carré (who co-wrote with Charles Spano and also serves as costume designer, co-producer and editor) takes her shot at her first feature-length film. “Embers” is a unique take on the sci-fi post-apocalyptic subgenre, focusing on several survivors of a global neurological epidemic that leave them with no long-term memory. Each time they wake up, they have to figure out who and where they are, although their basic instincts still intact. At the same time, we’re introduced to a young woman who was raised in quarantine, free from the struggles of survival yet longing to break free. Carré artfully offers a fresh take on end-of-the-world conventions and although there are too many characters here, it’s still an interesting “what if?” scenario that’s played out – as each day is free from the past and uncertain of their future.

Oct. 16th at 8pm and Oct. 17th at 1pm (director Claire Carré in attendance)
Oct. 25th at 11am

RATING: **1/2

 

 

 

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HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY

(U.S.A.)

Henry Gamble (Cole Doman) is turning 17 and his mother and pastor father (Pat Healy), are throwing him a day-long pool party at his home. In attendance are church friends and acquaintances and their parents – some of which are oblivious and judgmental to each other and the increasing hormones of the partying kids. There are underlying secrets however, such as Henry’s burgeoning homosexuality as well as wavering faith amongst certain characters. Chicagoan Stephen Cone wrote and directed this brisk and natural look at the insular atmosphere of Christian youths, which at times feels like an indictment of the church environment. The characters are believable and have real responses to real situations, but ultimately the movies feels like it’s trying to offer too much in a short amount of time.

Oct. 22nd at 3pm, Oct. 23rd at 8pm and Oct. 24th at 11:30am (director Stephen Cone in attendance)

RATING: **1/2

 

 

 

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HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT

(France/U.S.A.)

Those who didn’t know that in 1962 French director Francois Truffaut managed to initiate a sit-down discussion with one of his favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock, will benefit the most from this documentary directed by film critic Kent Jones. The weeklong conversations, which resulted in Truffaut’s detailed book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, offering a candid look at Hitchcock’s work and personality. Jones’s film includes talking heads such as Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, James Gray, Wes Anderson and Olivier Assayas as well as behind-the-scenes clips and photos from Hitchcock’s films. Personally, I would’ve preferred coverage of Truffaut – what Hitchcock meant to him and what the experience was like – but since both icons are dead, Jones is kind of limited to the subject of his film and for me that was fascinating enough.

Oct. 24th at 5pm and Oct. 26th at 6pm (director Kent Jones in attendance)

RATING: ***

 

 

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HOW TO WIN ENEMIES

(Argentina)

A young lawyer obsessed with crime novels, Lucas (Inés Palombo) sees a bizarre one night stand with a beautiful woman that results in the theft of his own secret stash of cash. Using sleuthing skills he’s read about, he begins treating everyone he knows – even friends and family – as suspects and starts backtracking his steps as he looks for clues. The highlight of this light and breezy comedy from director Gabriel Lichtmann is actor Palombo, who effortlessly carries the film by providing Lucas with an energetic and sly wit and sense of humor. Unfortunately, the film is filled with other characters that are far less interesting in a story that’s a little too convoluted.

Oct. 21st at 5:45pm and Oct. 22nd at 9:30pm (actor Inés Palombo in attendance)
Oct. 26th at 2:45pm

RATING: **

 

 

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IN THE SHADOW OF WOMEN

(France)

Pierre (Stanislas Merhar) is a documentary filmmaker assisted by his wife, Manon (Clotilde Courau), near Paris, both of them struggling to get by financially. Their marriage is also struggling, which results in the despondent Pierre starting an affair with a young intern (Lena Paugam) and drives a reluctant Manon into one herself. She comes clean, but when Pierre learns that his wife knows of his affair, he becomes unforgiving and paranoid. Shot in crisp black-and-white, director/co-writer Philippe Garrel sets out to examine the male psyche, yet he offers a wholly unsympathetic male character to follow, conveyed with a blank-slate performance by Merhar. Pierre is definitely a character who deserves to stay in the shadows. Courau’s emotive and open work however is the highlight of a film that really doesn’t offer a new look at a stale marriage. In fact, all the women in this film overshadow this one dud of a dude.

Oct. 24th at 3:30pm and Oct. 25th at 5:45pm

RATING: **1/2

 

 

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IN THE UNDERGROUND

(China)

A documentary from director Zhantao Song’s that takes under the surface of Hebei Province in China, immersing viewers in the dangerous and stressful work environment of coal mining. Among the black sooted faces in the cramped and dark confines is a young worker who has a child on the way, which causes more anxiety about his work/life balance. The wives of these men are supportive, but also share the weight of their work, voicing concerns to their husband’s employers. Song’s camera work is both sparse and enthralling in how he manages to obtain an intimate and claustrophobic look at the human toll of China’s industrialization. Quite and observant, this important film makes its U.S. premiere at this festival.

Oct. 18th at 3:30pm and Oct. 19th at 12pm (director Zhantao Song and producer Shaowei Jia)

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

middledistance

 

THE MIDDLE DISTANCE

(U.S.A.)

Workaholic/alchoholic Neil (Ross Partridge) is a thirtysomething consultant from L.A. who returns to New Buffalo, Michigan in February to settle his recently deceased father’s affairs. He is reunited with his estranged younger brother (Kentucker Audley) and introduced to Rebecca (Joslyn Jensen), his brother’s finance. When Neil’s brother is called away for work, he is left to check off a “fix-it” list with the resourceful and independant Rebecca and soon finds no audience for his defensive pride and arrogance, resulting in a  sobering look at his adulthood. It’s obvious what Chicagoan writer/director Patrick Underwood was trying to do in this dramedy – take down his protagonist a notch or two in Joe Swanberg or Mark Duplas fashion – but the film’s biggest problem is how Neil, whose characterization is broadly stererotypical and portrayal by Partridge is a turnoff – ultimately, the guy is a douchebag. The setting is nice with some solid camerawork, but that’s kind of a deal breaker.

Oct. 23rd at 6pm, Oct. 24th at 12:30pm and Oct. 26th at 2:30pm

RATING: **

 

 

opentables

OPEN TABLES

(USA)

Chicago writer/director/actor Jack C. Newell shot his latest film on a micro-budget in Chicago and Paris within a period of nine months in 2013 over nine months. Many of the locations he used were trendy Chicago restaurants, which is fitting for a story about six couples who meet in restaurants and trade wild stories over dinner about relationships – including a woman who falls in love with an amnesiac, a couple who met through their former partners, and an unforgettably sexy trip to Paris. “Open Tables” is a comedy and it winds up being fun to watch, but what was most intriguing to me is the idea of how people often feel awkward divulging their stories in a social setting (as do the listeners at time) and how tempted we can be to exaggerate or change our truths in order to come across a certain way to those who barely know us.

Oct. 24th at 3:15pm and Oct. 27th at 3pm (director Jack C. Newell scheduled to attend both dates)

RATING: ***

 

 

 

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RADICAL GRACE

(U.S.A.)

You don’t have to be a believer or a Catholic to appreciate this inspiring documentary by Rebecca Parrish, but it should encourage you if you’re either. The film follows three fearless nuns who are investigating and reprimanded by the Vatican when their social justice activities is considered “radical feminism”. As they travel cross-country on their Nuns on the Bus tour, they become the spiritual and symbolic center of a struggle for the future of the Catholic Church, challenging the patriarchal system and winning over the Pop and Catholics worldwide. These stubborn and determined women are inspiring and wind up not only changing the Church, but American politics as well. “Radical Grace” is both uplifting and important.

Oct. 25th at 7:30pm (director Rebecca Parrish and Producers Nicole Bernardi-Reis and Danny Alpert scheduled to attend)

RATING: ***1/2

 

 

 

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REMEMBER

(Canada/Germany)

Atom Egoyan’s “Remember” is proof that a trashy B-movie thriller can make its rounds on the festival circuit. Here’s a movie revolving around a 90-year-old runaway with dementia (Christopher Plummer, expectedly fine) who is given written instructions and sent on a secretive mission by his wheelchair-bound pal and fellow Auschwitz survivor (Martin Landau). Where it goes from there is both unintentionally ridiculous and kind of predictable, but highly entertaining nevertheless. Not an unfamiliar experience considering this is the coming from the director of “Chloe”. Regardless, it’s fun to see these octogenarian talents stretching out their acting chops, even when their trashy Stephen King knock-off material that’s beneath them.

Oct. 27th at 8:15pm (director Atom Egoyan scheduled to attend)

RATING: **

 

 

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SPOTLIGHT

(U.S.A.)

After watching “Spotlight”, it’s easy to forget that writer/director Tom McCarthy dropped the Adam Sandler vehicle “The Cobbler” earlier this year. It’s excellent film that reminds us McCarthy gave us such great films as “The Station Agent”, “The Visitor” and “Win Win”, in the past. Here we have some of the best performances of the year by the likes of Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and Mark Ruffalo, supported by the likes of Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, all bringing an enthralling true story to life involving the Boston Globe uncovering rampant, decades-long sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Challenging and hard-nosed investigative journalism movies are very rare, but here is one that winds up easily being one of the best of the fest and will undoubtedly wind up on year-end lists and have its name called come Oscar nominations are announced.

Oct. 29th at 7pm – CLOSING NIGHT!

RATING: ****

 

 

 

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