My Chicago International Film Festival recap

In case you’re wondering why updates have been few and far between, it’s because I just ended my stint working for the Chicago International Film Festival.  For the past month I have been working roughly 60-hour weeks, and today is my first day off in about a month.  It’s been a lot of fun though, and even with all the work I’ve had a chance to check out all sorts of great films following my shifts.

There were plenty of Oscar contenders in the festival line-up (Black Swan, Fair Game, 127 Hours), but I instead focused on seeing the more unheralded films that I wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to see on the big screen, and in some cases at all.  I figured I’ll see all those big Oscar-type movies in the next couple weeks anyway.  If you read along, you’ll notice one obvious exception.

Among those I didn’t have a chance to see were Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Certified Copy, as they were riding high off their Cannes-fueled buzz and my getting in to see films was dependent on them not selling out.  I also missed out on Russia’s How I Ended The Summer, which took home the Gold Hugo (Chicago’s top prize).

Without further ado, here are my mini-reviews of the wonderful collection of films I did manage to see at the festival.  Enjoy.

Director/co-writer Aaron Katz beautifully blends slacker comedy with genuine suspense in his mumblecore mystery, Cold Weather It’s the story of a forensic school dropout who finally becomes motivated to put his knowledge (and love for Sherlock Holmes) to use when his ex-girlfriend goes missing.  I was swept away by how natural the dialogue felt and Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn were entirely convincing in their roles, with their sibling relationship being the real central focus of the film.  Katz said IFC will distribute the film, so look for it in theaters (and probably On Demand) in early 2011.  You won’t be disappointed.  9/10

The Minutemen focuses on a group of vigilant volunteers who help defend the US-Mexican border, a memorable cast of characters that includes everyone from soccer moms to ranchers.  It’s a top-notch documentary, and a surprisingly objective one that shines equal light on the minutemen and migrants.  Perhaps that’s because the real enemy is the government of both countries and their failure to enforce the immigration laws we have established.  But that didn’t stop the group of protestors gathered outside the festival’s theater.  8/10

Mexico’s We Are What We Are strikes that same art-horror chord as Let the Right One In. After we see the father (and lead hunter) of a family of cannibals puke up black goo and die in the opening scene, his family must learn to survive without his guidance.  Making matters worse are the cops who are hot on the family’s trail after finding a human finger in the father’s stomach.  It manages to disturb without being overly gory while still carefully exploring the dynamic of a dysfunctional family and the identities of its members.  9/10

My Good Enemy feels like The Lord of the Flies as rewritten to take place in a Danish middle school.  When a male ballet dancer and a tubby bug collector get tired of being pushed around and pissed on, they form a club with the intent of getting even with the bullies at school.  What ensues is a cruel game of escalating stakes and consequences.  Nicely shot and well acted by the preteen cast, this is a frightening look at adolescent politics and social standing.  7/10

In Hereafter, Clint Eastwood crafts a number of great scenes but fails to establish a sense of cohesion as he weaves together three stories of loss and speculation about the afterlife.  These types of intertwined shorelines have worked well in smaller, more intimate pieces like Amores Perros and Magnolia but the characters in Hereafter feel crippled under the weight of screenwriter Peter Morgan’s aspirations.  Matt Damon is as bland as can I ever remember him, but Cecile de France (High Tension, Mesrine: Killer Instinct) delivers the goods.  6/10

True Blood’‘s Ryan Kwanten stars in Australia’s Red Hill, a sort of revisionist western/horror hybrid that should please fans of both genres.  It’s got all the beautiful outback landscapes you’d expect, and many of those same horror-flick frustrations pop up once the lights go out.  Just shoot the guy already!  You’re obviously not going to kill him by hitting him with a car.  7/10

Speaking of horror, Bitter Feast is a story of capture and torture that often feels familiar but still offers a welcomed change in that much of the torture is more psychological than physical.  When a down-and-out chef turns the tables on one of his harshest critics, he forces him to cook perfectly if he hopes of eating again.  The inspiration for the film came after writer/director Joe Maggio read a particularly scathing review of chef Gordon Ramsey’s restaurant by NY Times food critic Frank Bruni.  6/10

All That I Love, Poland’s official submission for the “best foreign language film” Oscar, tells the story of a teenage punk rock singer as set to the backdrop of 1980s political unrest.  It is beautifully shot, with the energy (be it hostile or romantic) jumping right off the screen.  Yet, some of the lead’s familial problems are a bit underdeveloped and I would have liked to see more of the rebellious lifestyle that created such a stir with the concerts deemed “anti-socialist demonstrations” by Poland’s communist cops.  This keeps it from being more than a simple coming-of-age film, but it’s still a very fine one.  7/10

As if we needed it, Norman is further proof that Richard Jenkins can make any movie watchable.  Sold by the fest as a comedy, the film is actually a very serious drama with a few humorous supporting characters (notably Adam Goldberg as a no-bullshit English teacher).  The set up is like the dark cousin of Easy A (which coincidently also features Norman lead Dan Byrd) with a high school outcast lying to his classmates about having cancer while the health of his truly terminally ill father (Jenkins) continues to deteriorate.  The serious tone makes some high-school cliches feel fresh, but too much time is wasted on a subplot involving Norman’s senior project “cancer video” that goes absolutely nowhere. 7/10

A colorful cast of characters surrounding Stellan Skarsgard’s strong central performance made Norway’s A Somewhat Gentle Man the fest’s best bet for laughs.  Skarsgard shines as a gangster fresh out of a 12-year prison sentence who must decide whether to reconcile with his family or get even with the rat responsible for putting him away.  This type of dark humor filled with odd sexual encounters might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.  It does overstay its welcome a bit at 107 minutes though, with some of the recurring jokes um… recurring a bit too much.  8/10

A Screaming Man (France, Belgium, Chad), winner of the Cannes Jury Prize and Best Actor and Screenplay in Chicago, is a heartbreaking and well-made film that left me a bit underwhelmed considering all its accolades.  Its characters are incessantly solemn and downtrodden, and lead actor Youssouf Djaoro’s facial expression remains the same throughout.  The film tells the story of a former swim champion, now an impoverished 55-year-old who loses all hope when his coveted pool attendant job is given to his son.  I’d post the trailer, but it gives away the entire movie.  6/10

A few more awards-type notes:

  • Beautiful Darling, focusing on Andy Warhol muse Candy Darling, won the fest’s top documentary prize.
  • 15-year-old newcomer Liana Liberato won best actress for her turn in director David Schwimmer’s Trust.
One Response to “My Chicago International Film Festival recap”
  1. Danny King says:

    Reading yet another thorough praising of “Cold Weather” makes me jealous. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for its limited release.

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