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CIFF #2: Opening weekend in several nutshells

By Bill Stamets and Roger Ebert

The 43rd annual Chicago International Film Festival opens the fall season with screen fare for the city’s serious film buffs. Through Oct. 17, the festival offers more than 160 films from 44 countries.

In this weekend’s line-up, adventurous viewers can encounter an uncanny accountant from Germany, a mysteriously missing ex-lover of Andy Warhol, a Romanian abortionist, a Mexico City anorexic and a Harley-Davidson mechanic in Chicago. These are not your off-the-shelf characters from Hollywood.

“There’s a whole world of wonderful films out there that don’t get U.S. distribution,” said Mimi Plauche, the festival’s features programmer. Chicago’s fest features titles that premiered at Cannes, Toronto and other festivals. Many will never come to the city’s year-round venues for international film.

More than films come to town. Filmmakers come, too. “At over half the screenings there is a guest, often the director,” notes Ryan Jewel, the fest’s managing director. “That’s what really makes our festival special.” The question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers can generate more sparks than the film did.

“There’s more to film than formulas,” hypes the fest’s TV ads this year. As for new trends in world cinema, Plauche spots one in this year’s lineup. Omnipresent video cameras figure in the mise-en-scenes of “Look,” “Surveillance” and “Eye in the Sky.” She also points to films about immigrants in Brazil, Spain, Poland and China.

America the Beautiful (United States) -- Chicago director Darryl Roberts borrows from Michael Moore’s documentary shtick to expose the insidious beauty industry. Occasionally seen on-camera wearing an “Oprah” sweatshirt, Roberts talks to plastic surgeons and celebrity magazine editors. We meet a 6-foot-tall, 12 year-old runway model. Kids once taunted her as a “giraffe” and now agents diss her as “obese.” Roberts, once the host of WMAQ-TV’s Sunday morning segment “Hollywood Hype,” credits a dozen co-producers of his sincere, if unsurprising, report. Yet he buys into the ideal he’s deconstructing by concluding that everyone is beautiful, an unuseful truism. Roberts gets affirmation from the lead singer of Red Hot Chili Peppers: Anthony Kiedis tells the filmmaker he is beautiful, just based on his “gentle, soulful handshake.” Stamets)

“Bad Habits” (Mexico) -- All of Mexico is under a deluge. A strange rain falls nonstop. Heaven itself seems to be trying the country’s faith. Allegory drenches this slick but slender feature debut by TV ad director Simon Bross and co-writer Ernesto Anaya. Three women in Mexico City suffer eating disorders and acute cases of symbolism. Beset by visions of banquets, a nun secretly gobbles food from the garbage at night. Her underfunded convent stays afloat fiscally by opening a carry-out window to peddle gourmet eats. An anorexic mother with anemia forces her pudgy daughter to fit into a communion dress. Even the plumbing is disordered: gastric acid eats through the pipes at a flooded Catholic college. Too many bulimic coeds vomited into toilets. (Stamets)

“Becoming John Ford (US) -- Nick Redman directs a detailed bio of director John Ford (1894-1973), who claimed he had no use for critics lauding him as an auteur. “I’m a traffic cop in front of the camera,” he once said. He also said (voiced by Walter Hill on the soundtrack): “Directors, because of the nature of their profession — some might say the cussedness of their natures, too —are among the greatest individualists in the world.” There’s useful background on the succession of Hollywood studios that hired Ford, his cussedness aside. For this upcoming DVD extra, Redman assembles a lineup of informed observers, not mere fawners. Although Ford might appreciate the black-and-white cinematography used for the interviews, I bet he’d cuss at the frilly tracking shots around the screening room where his career is recapped. One audio gimmick that adds nothing: Redman will start a soundbite on the soundtrack when the speaker onscreen is not talking, just looking out on a long pause. Then the words and lips of the speaker are brought into normal sync. Not what Ford would do. (Stamets)

“Blackout” (US) -- Brooklyn native Jerry LaMothe revisits the seven-state power outage of Aug. 14, 2003. He sets his earnest ensemble story on Browser Street, and takes one role for himself, alongside Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Saldana, Michael B. Jordan, Saul Rubinek and the venerable Melvin Van Peebles. Spike Lee, of course, supplies some footsteps, not to mention dolly tracks, for LaMothe to follow. In the course of a long, tense night of no power, people will do the right thing — and some things worse than loot sneaker stores. Predictable scenes match a gangbanger and a kid bound for college, a white building owner and his black superintendent, and a woman with a job and her out-of-work boy friend nursing post-9/11 trauma. LaMothe lets a griot on the block deliver a stirring benediction. (Stamets)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania) -- Set in Romania in 1987, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” by writer-director Cristian Mungiu is shot by the same cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, who shot “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005). Both films are allegories about Romania’s health-care infrastructure. Long, handheld widescreen frames tell this absorbing, astringent story. College student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) helps her roommate (Laura Vasiliu) get an illegal abortion. The steps are spelled out in sad detail: Bring a plastic sheet to keep blood off the hotel bed, don’t flush the placenta down the toilet and drop the fetus down a garbage chute on the top floor of an apartment building only higher than 10 floors. Don’t bury it because dogs will dig it up. Their harsh barks haunt night scenes in a drab era of few street lights. This Palme d’Or winner at Cannes observes Romanian life at a gut level with no alibis for anyone’s bad choices. Highly recommended. In Romanian with English subtitles. (Stamets)

"Freddie Mercury: Lover of Life, Singer of Songs -- The Untold Story" (UK/Germany) -- Rudi Dolezal's documentary reveals life details we didn't know about the superstar lead singer of the British rock group Queen, even visiting the Anglophile boarding school near Bombay where he was educated. His mother talks about her Freddie and why he was not eager to have it known he was a Farsi raised in India. And friends and colleagues talk about his talents as a singer, artist and fashion designer, and his final AIDS-related illness. There's a fair amount of music in the film, but it's in no sense intended as a concert documentary, mostly a study of a man who reinventd himself in ways that might seem unthinkable from his origins. A selection of my own Overlooked Film Festival this year. (Ebert)

“My Friend & His Wife” (South Korea) -- Writer-director Shin Dong-il, who screened “Host & Guest” at last year’s fest, portrays a tragedy binding two men, a woman and a baby. Luminous cinematography graces an insightful screenplay about loyalty, loss and redress. Ye-joon is a white-collar go-getter. His best friend from their army days is Ye-jun, a less driven cook who marries hairdresser Ji-sook. Returning from a stylists’ convention in Paris, she finds her infant is dead. Her husband goes to prison, she goes to America, and their friend’s career is unchanged. Later, Ji-sook opens a hair salon, Ye-jun opens a fried chicken joint, and they repair their family tragedy. “My Friend & His Wife” is a moving study of male bonds forged in camaraderie and undone by marriage. In a flame of melodrama, a new family is born. In Korean with English subtitles. (Stamets)

“Noise” (Australia) -- Matt Saville’s debut drama screened at Sundance and is now making the festival circuit. It’s surprising that this psychological cop drama has not been picked up for release. It opens in a Melbourne subway. A young woman wearing big headphones blasting loud music has not heard gunshots that felled seven other passengers at the other end of her car. Ailments link this survivor to strangers in a fragile social fabric. She has diabetes and loses consciousness at one point. A cop with tinnitus fights with his superior about a medical disability, and gets reassigned to community outreach duty. Pulling night shifts in a trailer parked near another crime-scene, he meets a mentally impaired man with an obsessive streak who records a key clue. The audioscapes and nightscapes grab the ear and eye, respectively. Attuned to impaired perceptions, this is a lyrical, atypical procedural. Saville says his inspiration was the April 28, 1996, spree slaying of 35 people in a Tasmanian diner. (Stamets)

“On the Wings of Dreams” (Bangladesh) -- Golam Rabbany Biplob directs and co-writes a simple story that feels too much like homage to Satyajit Ray, and has too little feeling for that auteur’s lyrical humanism. A village man peddles bottles of ointment to a crowd drawn to his son’s singing. He buys him a pair of secondhand pants. When his wife washes them she finds four pieces of foreign currency. Her husband partners with a lifelong friend to convert the windfall into wealth. Before the true value of the bills is revealed, dreams of a better life only bring ruin. In Bengali with English subtitles. (Stamets)

“The Other Half” (China) -- Director Lian Ying offers a wry drama about 22-year-old Xiaofei (Xiaofei Zeng), who finds work at a law office writing down the travails of clients. Their self-serving testimony, delivered directly into the lens, offers cynical commentary on marriage and money in China. After hours, Xiaofei deals with her unemployed boyfriend, a gambler who goes missing. Then her long-absent father suddenly shows up, hoping to rejoin the family he once abandoned. Worse, a toxic catastrophe at a local chemical plant triggers mass evacuation. Besides editing this fluid drama, Ying’s credits here include co-writer, co-cinematographer and co-art director. Among his hands-on touches: key long shots behold a character in a cityscape, far from the camera. What befalls an individual, who looks so small at this distance, looms large in significance. Thus framed, Xiaofei makes an indelible exit in her unexpected last shot. In Mandarin with English subtitles. (Stamets)

"Rails & Ties" (2007) (US) -- Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter, directs this story about a childless couple (Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon). He's a train engineer, whose train slams into the car of a woman who overdosed on pills and parked on the tracks. Her 11-year-old son (Miles Heizer) is angry because the engineer "didn't even try to stop," tracks him down and confronts him. But it's more complicated. The boy is now a runaway from a heartless foster home, the engineer and his wife grow to love him and more I should not reveal. In the movie's opening scenes, we look into the eyes of the Harden character and see bleak grief, and we look in the eyes of Bacon, who choses to drive a train on a day he should be with her, and see a man who lives his life by the book. They are freed from their paralysis by the boy's lonely need. It's a powerful setup, and Eastwood shows true skill as a first-time director by convincing us these three lives could come together with such emotional consequences. (Ebert)

“Stuck” (Canada/US) -- Lane Technical High School grad and Organic Theater founder Stuart Gordon fills a slot in the fest sidebar labeled “Late Night Screamings” Brandi (Mena Suvari) cleans up an old man’s bedpan “accident” at the nursing home where she works, then heads to a club where she self-medicates. Now it’s her turn for an accident. The unusual way she picks up a man (Stephen Rea) and takes him home in her car is based on a tabloid news story from Texas. Shot in moody New Brunswick, this guilty pleasure features some lively acting and drive-in gore. The jokey bits include a puffy white pooch gnawing on a man’s bloody stump. Reckless driving under the influence is justly punished in an ending true to the moral code common to both horror and highway safety films. (Stamets)

“Tehilim” (France) -- Driving his two sons to school in Jerusalem, a man crashes. He sends Menachem (Michael Moshonov) for help. His younger son David (Yonathan Alster) lies across the back seat. When David returns with cops and paramedics, his father is not there. Director Raphael Nadjari and co-writer Vincent Poymiro craft an emotionally engaging study of abrupt loss. Menachem and David are pulled from their mother by their uncle and grandfather, who react to the disappearance with Jewish liturgy. Male-centered traditions offer the boys more solace than their distraught and isolated mother. Despite its interior focus, “Tehilim” translates the yawning absence of a father into a meditation beyond the title’s rites. In Hebrew, with English subtitles. (Stamets)

“Trade Routes” (Bulgaria/US) -- “Can betraying your country and saving your country be the same thing?” That lofty puzzler is posed by first-time writer-director Jim Loftus in his trite CIA thriller set in Sofia. This former political media adviser to Clinton and Kerry shot TV spots for 2003 and 2005 campaigns in Bulgaria, then decided to channel his experiences into a hokey drama about a gonzo media adviser from America, an ultra-nationalist party’s truth commission, a secret Chinese arms deal, the old guard of Bulgarian State Security and a trio of CIA operatives pulling the strings of the locals. Best line in the overblown dialogue: a leak that the CIA altered the Bulgarian passports of cartoon characters Boris and Natasha from “Rocky & Bullwinkle” as a Cold War ploy. In English and Bulgarian with English subtitles. (Stamets)

"The Walker" (US) -- A fascinating character study with as fine a performance as Woody Harrelson has given, and certainly the most unexpected. He plays a paid escort, or "walker," for rich society women in Washington, D.C. Impeccably dressed, charming, kind, friendly, the son and grandson of great men, he genuinely likes the women of a certain age who appear on his arm at social functions. One day he does one favor too many. Kristin Scott Thomas plays the wife of a senator; she sometimes visits a male prostitute for sex. Harrelson drives her and waits for her, and understands. One day when she arrives at the prostitute's Georgetown apartment, she finds his throat slashed. To report her discovery would destroy her reputation. So he calls the police himself and immediately becomes the prime suspect. Harrelson plays Page as a guarded, essentially shy man, vulnerable because of his profession. The movie surrounds him with ladies of middle and upper ages (Lauren Bacall, Mary Beth Hurt, Lily Tomlin) and portrays his world with a sociologist's precision. (Ebert)

Yella (Germany) -- Nina Hoss stars as the title character in a harrowing tale of female empowerment. As Yella heads to her first day at a new job, her rage-filled ex-husband and former business partner offers her a ride to her commuter train stop, then intentionally drives off a bridge into a river. Writer-director Christian Petzold relocates the dripping-wet Yella on a career path as a free-lance accountant with a new partner. They make a good team, navigating high-stakes power meetings. This smart look into the soul of business draws on ideas from Marc Auge, the French anthropologist of “supermodernity.” Avant-gardist Harun Farocki is a script consultant. In German, with English subtitles. (Stamets)

Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance writer and critic.

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