The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
W ith a new home (six screens all at one location) and a streamlined schedule, the 33rd annual Chicago International Film Festival has programmed no less than 53 screenings on this, its opening weekend. All showings will be at the new Cineplex Odeon theaters atop 600 N. Michigan, and one way to attend the festival might be to hang out in the lobby and listen to the buzz.
The official festival opening was scheduled for Thursday night, with the world premiere of Sidney Lumet's "Critical Care," a sharp-edged, smart and darkly funny film set in a hospital ward where patients linger - some believe too long - before dying.
After a kickoff party in the new Viacom store, several of the movie's principals were expected at the screening and then at a festival dinner afterward.
Grabbing the Lumet film was a coup for festival founder and artistic director Michael Kutza, who has weathered financial and management storms in recent years and survived an attempted coup by board members. This year he has gathered his usual eclectic selection of films - some likely to be Oscar contenders, some genuine discoveries, some doomed to oblivion after their festival screenings.
Other stars expected for this year's festival:
Director Spike Lee, whose documentary "4 Little Girls" will screen at 6 p.m. Oct 18, and be followed by a Career Achievement Award presentation at a private festival reception at Spago. Earlier in the day, Lee will have a session with kids at the James Jordan Boys and Girls Club.
Roger Corman, the mainstay director at American-International Pictures circa 1960, and later a leading indie producer-director, will be honored Tuesday and Wednesday with a retrospective, a Q & A session and a party at Shelter.
Anouk Aimee, whose "A Man and a Woman" played for nearly two years in Chicago, is expected to arrive today for a private party at Cartier, and to launch a minifestival of 11 French titles.
Awards night this year will be Oct. 20 at the House of Blues, and will feature a career tribute to Liv Ullmann, who directed the festival entry "Private Confessions." Entertainment will be by Goatboy, whose music is featured in the the upcoming movie "I Know What You Did Last Summer."
And the directors or actors in at least 33 of the festival films will be present for Q & A sessions after their screenings.
Previous year's juries complained that it was impossible to absorb the dozens of entries that Kutza lobbed at them. This year, a more rational festival breakdown has prevailed.
Five high-profile premieres will play out of competition as "Exclusive Screenings." They include this year's Cannes winner "Destiny," by Youssef Chahine; Andrew Niccol's "Gattaca," the sci-fi fantasy about a future in which cloning has produced a healthy but humorless race; Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," a chilling exploration of personal and social breakdown in the Connecticut suburbs, starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver; Atom Egoyan's Cannes winner "The Sweet Hereafter," about a small town devastated by a school bus accident, and James Toback's "Two Girls and a Guy," starring Robert Downey Jr. as a pickup artist whose two girlfriends find out about one another.
Then there's the juried International Competition of 21 titles, including new work from 15 countries. Highlights: "Welcome to Saravejo," Michael Winterbottom's searing look at Bosnia, starring Woody Harrelson; Liv Ullmann's "Private Confessions," with a script by Ingmar Bergman; Iain Softley's "The Wings of the Dove," starring Helena Bonham Carter as a woman who can't marry the man she loves without the money of a dying American woman who also loves him; Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law, in Alan Rickman's "The Winter Guest"; "Supermarket Woman," by Japan's Juzo ("Tampopo") Itami; "The House of Yes," with Sundance winner Parker Posey, and "The Prince of Homburg," by Italy's distinguished Marco Bellochio.
New this year is the FIRPRESCI Competition, under the sanction of the International Federation of Cinema Press. Critics from France, Germany, Canada, Argentina and the United States will screen another 12 entries, including Mary Cybulski and John Tintori's "Chicago Cab," based on the hit local play "Hellcab." Another highlight: Richard Kwietniowski's "Love and Death on Long Island," a hit at Cannes, starring John Hurt as an aging and honored British author who gets a crush on an American teen idol, played by Jason Priestley.
Then there are 21 other international films playing out of competition, including "Assassin(s)," a controversial Cannes entry by hot French director Mathieu Kassovitz; "Cosmos," an anthology of six stories by Quebec directors, and "Killer Condom," with a title that summarizes its plot.
Nine new American independent films also will premiere, at a festival that has been known for showcasing new U.S. talent since the days when the first films of Martin Scorsese and Gregory Nava played here. Premieres include Jeff Myers' "The Ride," shot in Chicago, about a scruffy group of car thieves; Bernie Casey's "The Dinner," about three friends gathering for an evening of fraught memories, and Jonathan Kaufer's "Bad Manners," starring David Strathairn and Bonnie Bedelia in a steamier version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."
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