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CEUFF 2019 preview

March 8, 2019

 

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March in Chicago means Madness – not the kind typically associated with basketball here in the States, but rather the kind that finds film enthusiasts lured to the Gene Siskel Film Center for its annual Chicago European Union Film Festival (CEUFF), in an effort to experience some of the best films from Europe in recent years. The madness is in trying to see them all. An absurd, illogical endeavor, but an understanding one considering how enticing the lineup typically each year. Running from March 8th through April 4th for its 22nd year, the largest festival in North America exclusively showcasing films from all twenty-eight European Union nations is a gift to cinema lovers, offering sixty Chicago premieres.

If you’re new to the CEUFF, you can check out a complete rundown of what to expect from the festival here, but if you know what goes down at The Siskel each March, then I won’t go into it.  I will remind you that many of the selected films were submitted for recent Oscar consideration (by their respective nations) in the category of Best Foreign Language Film,  they just didn’t make the shortlist which Academy voters select five nominees from. Still, that means you can expect them to be good – you can even have great expectations for them. Why not hope for the best?

There are films from well-known directors and others from rising who are just starting to get noticed to a wider audience. The possibility of discovery is attractive and exciting! Many of these films have been working the festival circuit for a while now, appearing in Cannes, Toronto and Tribeca (just to name a few prominent festivals) and some are even available on streaming platforms right now – but you didn’t read that here, since I’m encouraging that you attend this festival!

So, follow along with me as I watch as much as I can while losing hours of rest writing about what I see. It’s as good a time as any to click on this site’s “Donate” button and support what I’m doing here. But enough about me. Below are reviews of the six films I’ve seen so far, all of which can be found during the festival’s first week…

 

 

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THE SAINT BERNARD SYNDICATE

(2018/Denmark/100 min.)

Strange comedies are hard to come by and rarely do their attempts stick the landing, but that can definitely be said for the latest work from director Mads Brügger (“The Ambassador”), who tries his hand at wry and dark character-driven comedy and succeeds. Granted, what primarily consists of the ups-and-downs of entrepreneurship in a foreign land, in this case two bizarrely paired Danish opportunists who head to China in an attempt to build a Saint Bernard breeding empire, definitely has its funny moments, there is a refreshing underlying awkwardness that permeates the story. Should we feel sorry for the impatient and eager Frederick (Frederik Cilius Jorgensen) due to his comical missteps or should we show compassion for his former classmate/current potential investor, Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun) who is facing a looming progressive illness? Thanks to two pitch-perfect performances and a sizzling screenplay from Lærke Sanderhoff, the answer is “yes”. Typically serious and uncomfortable material is handled here with such weird fun and a unique oddness, which makes this unpredictable comedy stand out. Past the midway point, the duo pursue Mr. Ling (a hilarious Lee Liheng) an “angel” investor who may or may not bring good fortune and its fun to kick back and watch what unfolds. Sprinkled with adorable close-ups of big, lovable canines, who at times upstage their human costars, “The Saint Bernard Syndicate” winds up being a unique and different comedy.

RATING: ***1/2

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AMATEURS

(2018/Sweden/102 min.)

 

This is the kind of discovery I hope to find as I work my way through the vast selections a film festival can provide. “Amateurs” stands out by simply being itself. There are no pretensions or adherences to a specific style or genre that can be attached to a film that tells a relatable and provocative story in a wonderfully creative, energetic, and intelligent manner. The premise, co-written by Swedish author Jonas Hassen Khemiri and the film’s director, Gabriela Pichler, is a fairy straightforward one, but like the best films, how it goes about its story is what makes a difference. Set in the fictional Swedish town of Lafors, which comes to life when the community learns that a German superstore chain is looking to open a store there. In order to sell their hometown, the civic leaders hire an arrogant filmmaker to make a tourist-friendly video with actors that will deal the deal. At the same time, two imaginative and excited teenage girls, Aida (Zahraa Aldoujaili) and Dana (Tara Aliadotter) set out to make their own film, mostly consisting of themselves and people they know. Equipped with smartphones and selfie sticks, the two girls create a diametrically different film, one that taps into unexpected topics such as immigration, class divisions and racial prejudice. Their amateur approach is infectious and fun, tapping into the kind of spontaneous creativity one hopes to find on film and in real life. The result is an insightful film about a bold movie celebrating who and where you are, both of which find their strength in the hilarious, moving, and random moments that make up life.  (in Swedish, English, Arabic, Tamil, Kurdish, and Bosnian with English subtitles)

RATING: ****

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THOU SHALL NOT KILL

(2018/Romania/120 min.)

The festival’s Opening Night film is from Romania and it’s a drama (possibly a thriller, depending on how it sits with you) that fits alongside many of the bleak, heavy-hitting celebrated films of the Romanian New Wave over the last almost twenty years. It revolves around Cristian (Alexandru Such), a gifted young surgeon who embarks on an investigation at the Bucharest hospital he works at, once he determines the seemingly unknown cause of patient deaths after supposedly successful surgeries. His shocking discovery is that the hospital has been buying and using diluted biocides in their disinfectants, which have resulted in infections and deaths. When he brings this to the attention of his peers, his superiors – even his wife, who also works at the hospital – Cristian’s concerns are brushed aside, mainly due to his brash and rude behavior. How implicit the hospital administration is becomes increasingly intriguing and alarming, resulting in a possible conspiracy in and of itself. What directors Catalin Rotaru and Gabi Virginia Sarga do with the material here is interesting in that it vacillates from a character study to an investigative mystery and then into some psychological territory that is open for interpretation. “Thou Shalt Not Kill” avoids “based on a true story” predictability primarily by presenting a lead character who is atypically rough, an acerbic and arrogant doctor whose attitude and personality overshadow his talent. That may be off-putting for some, but I found it intriguing, something that found me leaning in a little closer to figure out just where the film will go with this character. (in Romanian with English subtitles)

RATING: ***

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GASPARD AT THE WEDDING

(2017/France, Belgium/103 min.)

Originally titled “Gaspard va au mariage”, this rom-com from French writer/director Antony Cordier (“Four Lovers”) follows an eccentric young woman named Laura (Laetitia Dosch), who goes from hitchhiker to wedding crasher, when she is asked to by Gaspard (Félix Moati), a stranger she meets on a train, to accompany him to his father’s wedding. However, it’s not just a date; it’s a proposition. Gaspard offers to pay her 50 euros a day to play the role of his girlfriend while they attend his family’s picturesque property which serves as a working zoo (filled with tigers, zebras, giraffes, etc.), much to her surprise and alarm. The free-spirited Laura doesn’t know what she’s in store for as she begins to meet Gaspard’s family, especially his quirky and feral sister, Coline (Christa Théret), who seems to have an uncomfortable possessiveness for her brother that’s hard to miss. If you think this is “We Bought a Zoo 2”, you’re far from correct. While there are certain elements that have a familiar ring to them, there’s an undeniably brazen sexiness that squeals “European”, which sets it apart from what we typically see from the genre. Still, the predictable subplot of a failing family business that could be up for sale comes across as woefully unoriginal, considering there’s enough to mine with the characters. Despite some great performances from the two main female performers, “Gaspard at the Wedding” is a movie that wants to rise beyond rom-com conventions moreso than it actually does. (In French with English subtitles).

RATING: **1/2

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THE ICE KING

(2018/UK/89 min.)

James Erskine’s documentary about openly gay Olympian figure skater John Curry is being touted as the story of “a lost cultural icon, a story of art, sport, sexuality, and rebellion”, and while it’s all that and more, this immensely talented individual is hardly lost to those well-versed in the figure skating world. Which means that “The Ice King” is primarily for people like me, who knew nothing of him or forgot all about him. Erskine provides a fascinating look at who the stubborn British skater was, who died of AIDS in 1984 at age 44, not just what he did. How he got into skating and came to understanding of who he was almost eclipses the Royal Albert Hall and the Metropolitan Opera performances he would become known for. No doubt though, we get a clear understanding of his artistic impact upon male figure-skating and how the sport was perceived on a global level, becoming a form of expressionism (through extensive consideration of wardrobe, music and choreography) rather than simply athleticism. It’s unfortunate, albeit necessary, to include how Curry was bullied and badgered for his homosexuality, since in many areas there has not been much change in the realm of acceptance. Erskine includes rare footage or Curry’s performances (from early on right up until a final Blue Danube piece), archive interviews, input from friends and collaborators, and actor Freddie Fox, who narrates personal letters from Curry that are illustrated across the screen. He has said to have had as many inner demons as he had outer talent, but what “The Ice King” predominately shows is a true artist living an authentic life and that’s always inspiring.

RATING: ***

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ARTHUR & CLAIRE

(2017/Austria, Netherlands/100 min.)

It takes intuition and a natural understanding of comedy in order to convey amusement out of a serious life situation, but that’s exact what the two lead actors successfully capture in Miguel Alexandre’s “Arthur & Claire”, a dramedy about two seemingly different characters who share a death wish. Arthur (Josef Hader) has come to Amsterdam to die. His first stop upon arriving is a meeting with a doctor friend of his, who shares with him the process of how his medically-induced suicide will occur the next day. Arthur may come across as politely cantankerous, it would appear he has arrived at this final place in life with much thought to detail, yet there are small matters that slip past him and unanticipated factors that disrupt his plans on the eve of his scheduled demise. One prominent factor is Claire (Hannah Hoeskstra), who loudly and unintentionally introduces herself as the occupant of the suite next to Arthur’s in the boutique hotel he is staying at. It doesn’t take long for the two individuals to realize they have the same goal, albeit with different approaches and what occurs throughout the rest of the night is something of a cat-and-mouse routine which find Arthur and Claire trying to keep the other alive. Granted, a story like this looks rather predictable from the outside, how Alexandre (who co-wrote with Hader from a story by Stefan Vögel) does about telling the story becomes instantly curious, funny and quite touching. It helps that Hader and Hoekstra are phenomenal talents, both of whom occupy the screen with an absolutely engaging presence and a gradually revealing sense of humanity, but what becomes quite clear is how this is the type of dramedy that American studios seem to always mess up lately. There are indeed laughs to mine when death is looming, but timing is everything and that is just one of the many qualities “Arthur & Claire” has on display. (in German, Dutch, and English with English subtitles).

RATING: ***1/2

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