Like Ficarra and Requa’s 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, Focus begins promisingly and bops along enjoyably for a while, only to run out of steam…
When: Through Oct. 25 Where: Screenings at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. (unless noted).
Tickets: $14; $11 for Cinema/Chicago members, seniors and students (with ID); $5 for weekday matinees through 5 p.m.; $10 after 10 p.m. Passes available until Oct. 10 for 10 or 20 admissions to regular screenings. Advance tickets for sale at festival table in lobby of AMC River East every day from noon until 8 p.m., and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday though Friday at the festival office at 30 E. Adams, suite 800. Online at Ticketmaster.
Information: (312) 332-FILM or www.chicagofilmfestival.com
UPDATED Capsules: 10/10/12
The 48th Chicago International Film Festival opens the serious cinema season with a line-up of 125 features from around the world, and Chicago. Purists take note: only 18 will be projected on 35mm celluloid. The city's ace spectacle of cinema boasts auteurs Leos Carax, Bahman Ghobadi, Abbas Kiarostami, Carlos Reygadas, Ulrich Seidl and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Stars include Juliette Binoche, Alan Cumming, James Gandolfini, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Lawrence, Ewan McGregor, Robert DeNiro, Clive Owen, Naomi Watts and Elijah Wood. And actor Dustin Hoffman directs "Quartet," a comedy about retired opera singers.
Michael Kutza, Founder and Artistic Director of the long-runniing festival, says, "This year's fest truly puts the 'Chicago' in the Chicago International Film Festival. For the first time ever, the opening night, centerpiece and closing night films are all made by directors born in Chicago." The opening "Stand Up Guys" is by actor Fisher Stevens, known for "Early Edition," a CBS series about a character whose peculiar copy of the Chicago Sun-Times arrived with news about events yet to occur. "Cloud Atlas," the centerpiece film, is by Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy, and their German co-director Tom Tykwer. Robert Zemeckis, whose "The Polar Express" was the closing night film in 2004, brings "Flight," starring Denzel Washington, for the big finish.
Judi Dench and Michael Fassbender star in two dramas, among the fest's 50 shorts picked from about 2100 fiction and non-fiction entries. Documentary shorts include one about an Ecuadoran who "harvests" ice from a 16,000-foot high peak in Ecuador. In another short, Mexican immigrants in Chicago wash skyscraper windows.
American Airlines, the fest's official airline, flies in filmmakers for invaluable after-screening Q/As with audiences. Spotlit in programs saluting their careers are actresses Joan Allen and Viola Davis, director and Chicago native Philip Kaufman and Chicago-based documentary-maker Steve James.
Lesser-known folks merit mention: some 260 volunteers and interns who join the six year-round staffers. This coterie of cineastes always add to the fest's vibe. Films about film, for them and other insider-style fans, include documentaries about a late Egyptian actress revived via VHS clips, Swedish actress Liv Ullmann and auteur Ingmar Bergman, and five obsessives who over-interpret Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
The schedule's index lists nine "coming of age" films, not counting the one titled "Coming of Age." Other subjects overlap: an "absurdist comedy" about testicular surgery and a documentary about a penis museum; killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson are treated in separate titles; and two different films, shot on three continents in four prisons, depict Julius Caesar. Oddly enough, two features quote the same wise lines attributed to Norse god Odin.
Selected capsule reviews below by Bill Stamets and Roger Ebert. Screenings at AMC River East 21 unless noted.
Friday, Oct 12
“Beyond the Hills” (Romania), 8:15 p.m.: Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) fills two-and-a-half hours with an intriguing tale based on a 2005 incident. Two young women who originally met at an orphanage come together at a wintry monastery. The bond of these dear friends is more like a desperate grip. One is a nun, the other has sins to confess from the Orthodox Church's list of 464. Mungiu's cynical, secular take on a St. Basil-style exorcism gone wrong is nailed in a final shot through a cop's windshield splashed with slush. Also, 8:30 p.m. Oct. 15. (Stamets)
"Citadel" (Ireland / UK), 11 p.m.: For his first feature, Ciaran Foy channels his own trauma: at age 18 he was randomly attacked in a housing project. A pack of younger kids thrashed him and threatened to jab him with a hypodermic needle. He suffered agoraphobia until his admissions letter for film school came in the mail. Now he literally demonizes his attackers in this original horror film. Their faces shrouded by hoodies, they stick a pregnant woman and other victims with lethal needles that cause "Unidentified Infection." Also, 10:30 p.m. Oct. 13 and 10:30 p.m. Oct. 15. (Stamets)
“Otelo Burning” (South Africa), 6:15 p.m.: Sara Blecher previously directed a documentary short about Zulu “surfers” atop Soweto trains. In her first drama, set in 1989, the 16-year-old title character experiences freedom surfing on ocean waves amidst political terror in his neighborhood. Coming-of-age here applies to teens exiting adolescence and apartheid. Also, 1 p.m. Oct. 14 and 3 p.m. Oct. 18. (Stamets)
“The Final Member” (Canada), 9:15 p.m.: Co-directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math document the curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum seeking to obtain a human specimen. Two men compete for this honor. One is near death. His penis is shrinking. The other makes plans to amputate his appendage. These men are fools, for the most part. Especially the American who tattoos Old Glory on the head of his manhood, which he has nicknamed Elmo. Yet their obsession with the male organ leads from snickers to a sobering take on mortality. No kidding. Also, 3:15 p.m. Oct. 14. (Stamets)
Saturday, Oct .13
"The Exam" (Hungary), 2 p.m.: On Christmas Eve, 1957, an undercover recruit in the Cultural Espionage Section is tested by his handler and other superiors. This terrain was covered far better by "The Lives of Others," winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Nonetheless, Peter Bergendyn directs a nicely paranoid exercise. This Kafkaesque noir is based on training films used by Hungary's security agency. Also, 8 p.m. Oct. 15 and 3:45 p.m. Oct. 22. (Stamets)
"As Goes Janesville" (USA), 2:30 p.m.: This missed-opportunity documentary observes a Wisconsin city after the exit of a GM plant. Workers must commute to Indiana. Republican Governor Scott Walker makes things worse. Self-styled "Ambassadors of Optimism" try to bring in new business. Over three years, director Brad Lichtenstein shoots all the obvious angles without drawing any useful conclusions. The music by Vernon Reid is overblown. The film does little to make coherent shape of the onscreen statistics or personal stories. (Stamets)
"The Land of Hope" (Japan/ UK), 4:30 p.m. Sion Sono directs this traditional Japanese drama about home and family. After an earthquake damages a nuclear power plant, authorities draw a line 20 kilometers from the radiation epicenter to demarcate unsafe living space. An elderly couple defies an order to relocate. A father orders his son and pregnant wife to leave. A neighbor proposes marriage by a house upended in a tsunami. A senile woman keeps wishing to "go home," not understanding newscasters' references to 2011's Fukushima disaster. A Mahler symphony cues an end-of-the-world mood, like the Wagner in "Melancholia" (2011). Also, Oct. 13, 4:30 p.m. and Oct. 14, 4:30 p.m. (Stamets)
"Flowerbuds" (Czech Republic), 6 p.m.: Zdenek Jirasky directs a downbeat saga set in a small border town. Jarda works for the railroad in a signal tower, where he makes ships-in-bottles out of matchsticks. This chronic gambler in deep debt is going nowhere, by rail or sail. His wife hopes to regain youthful glory in a pageant. An immigrant Vietnamese couple sees a future in selling fireworks for the holidays. Ready to flee the cinema of false hopes? Here is some hard luck realism -- with "an ironizing overtone," as Jirasky puts it. Also, 2:30 p.m. Oct. 14 and 1 p.m. Oct. 16. (Stamets)
"AlaskaLand" (USA), 6:15 p.m.: Chinonye Chukwu, a self-described "anomaly," dramatizes her own bi-cultural issues in this minor indie set and shot in Alaska. A teenaged brother and his younger sister seek new futures after the deaths of their Nigerian immigrant parents in a driving-and-phoning accident. They wind up facing conflicting options: While African kin cook jaloff rice, African-American peers do PCP. Also, 5:30 p.m. Oct. 14 and 4 p.m. Oct. 17. (Stamets)
"Westerland" (Germany), 8:30 p.m.: Winter is the season of choice for diverse fest entries about stormy psyches. Shooting on the North Sea island of Sylt, Tim Staffel conducts an experiment: one character with "his future perfectly mapped out" connects to "someone who has stopped believing in himself or anything or anyone." Cem from the Department of Sanitation meets Jesus, who botches a suicide attempt with a plastic bag. Like particles colliding in a cyclotron, these two personalities fuse into an inscrutable couple. Also, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14 and 12:30 p.m. Oct. 20. (Stamets)
“Empire Builder” (USA), 4 p.m.: Chicago indie filmmaker Kris Swanberg, who once ran a local ice creamery called Nice Cream, conceived this sketch after the birth of her son Jude. He plays the baby of a Chicago mom (Kate Sheil) who gets off at the West Glacier stop of the titular Amtrak train to get to her family's old cabin. Before her husband, played by Swanberg's real husband Joe ("Hannah Takes the Stairs," "Uncle Kent"), joins her, she risks domestic bliss with a Montana hunk. A lithe score by Orange Mighty Trio animates this 70-minute escapist treat. Also, 5 p.m. Tue Oct 16 and 5:30 p.m. Oct. 23. (Stamets)
“Clip” (Serbia), 9:45 p.m.: Dispiriting realism is found in many overseas entries this year. Most icky is Maja Milos' look at a high school girl. Jasna dances while aiming her cellphone's camera at herself. A classmate uses his cellphone to record her submitting to his sexual humiliations. Naked and whimpering, she crawls on all fours with his belt around her neck as a leash. This inquiry into working-class misery is associated with apoptosis, a mechanism of self-inflicted cell death, to imply that it is natural for our anti-heroine to debase herself in video clips sent by email. Also, 7:45 p.m Oct. 14. (Stamets)
“Winter of Discontent” (Egypt), 4 p.m.: Ibrahim El-Batout's plot centers on the upheavals of January 25, 2011. He links a conflicted Cairo television reporter and a cruel State Security officer to an activist computer programmer played by Amr Waked, a juror for this year's festival who played the sheik in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.” Scenes with cast members shot at Tahrir Square recall the Grant Park sequence in Haskell Wexler's “Medium Cool” (1969). Striking statistics cap the end of this exceptional film: 371 demonstrators lost their eyes and the military forced virginity exams on 27 women. Also, 5:45 p.m. Oct. 14 and 3:45 p.m. Oct.16. (Stamets)
“Out in the Dark” (Israel/Palestine/USA), 8 p.m.: Michael Mayer effectively dramatizes political tensions through gay love. A Palestinian psychology grad student and a liberal Israeli lawyer deal with intelligence agents, armed militants and underworld operators to escape lethal homophobia. Also, 6 p.m. Oct. 14 and 6:15 p.m. Oct. 21. Note: The Oct. 21 screening is the Logan Theater, 2646 N. Milwaukee Ave., as part of the outreach of the OUTrageous and Spotlight Middle East programs; tickets are available in advance, as well as at the Logan that day after 6 p.m. (Stamets)
Sunday, Oct. 14
"Benji" (USA), 11a.m.: Music video directors Coodie and Chike salute the late Ben Wilson, a Chicago basketball star shot in 1984. This documentary from ESPN Films scores little insight into the city streets that shaped the hoopster or his killer. "Our whole thing was we wanted to make thugs cry," Coodie told ESPNChicago.com. Then what? Also, 6 p.m. Oct. 17 and 8:30 p.m. Oct. 18. (Stamets)
"Shameless" (Poland), 7 p.m.: Half-siblings form an intimate, if perverse union in this off-putting social-issue drama. The sister's fascist fiancee tries to pimp her out to his political sponsor, while her brother deals with a skinhead soccer coach who attacks minorities. Director Filip Marczewski makes a fatuous parallel between anti-Roma racism and intolerance of the incestuous lovers who share more than pistachio ice cream. Also, 6 p.m. Oct. 15 and 1 p.m. Oct. 17. (Stamets)
“Something in the Air” (France), 3:30 p.m.: Olivier Assayas offers a luminous autobiographical trip back to 1971. An artistic high school senior experiences a Soft Machine light show, Gregory Corso poems, LSD, Molotov cocktails, Situationniste tracts and a few broken hearts. From debates about revolutionary 16mm syntax to a lowly job on the Pinewood Studio set of a sci-fi film with Nazis and dinosaurs, an exemplary French filmmaker recreates something like his past. Also, 8:20 p.m. Oct. 17. (Stamets)
“Sharqiya” (Israel), 4 p.m.: A 2005 incident about a bomb at an Israeli checkpoint inspires this charged story. A Bedouin guard employed by Israelis has a sideline of fixing TV sets. This may let him get on the news and block authorities from demolishing the tin shacks on his ancestral land.The fest's Spotlight Middle East outreach program screens Ami Livne's drama first at the New 400 Sheridan Theater (6746 North Sheridan Rd.) Tickets can be purchased at the theater after 2 p.m. Sunday, or in advance at the fest's main box office. Also, 8:15 p.m. Oct. 17 at AMC, and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 18 at AMC. (Stamets)
“Day of the Crows” (France), 4:45 p.m.: Jean-Christophe Dessaint presents a marvel of inventive animation that feels inspired by Hayao Miyazaki in style and sentiment. An ornery dad has raised his son alone, deep in a forest populated with special deer, crows and other critter pals. Dad instills dire fear of the beyond in his boy, but that is just where the half-wild lad must go to get him medical help. He meets a girl and learns about his mother's life. This is the must-see title for a family of film buffs -- for kids unafraid of subtitles, Also 1 p.m. Oct. 19 and 12:15 p.m. Oct. 20. (Stamets)
“The Central Park Five” (USA), 5 p.m.: In April 1989 a woman jogger was beaten senseless and viciously raped. David McMahon, Ken Burns and Sarah Burns inquire into the coerced false confessions of five innocent teenagers that put them in prison. No detective defends his unprofessional conduct. Fatigue was a factor: the suspects just wanted to go home. So did a holdout juror. The sociological and moral insights are astute. Exonerated in 2002 by DNA evidence and a valid confession, the Five are suing New York City, which is issuing subpoenas for the filmmaker's outtakes. (Stamets)
“La Playa D.C.” (Colombia), 8:30 p.m.: Juan Andres Arango observes Tomas, a black teen making it on the mean streets of Bogota. His mom co-habits with a surly white security guard. His younger brother is in a deep mess with drug dealers. And his older brother is making another attempt to work abroad without papers. Flashbacks to their father's political murder shed little light, though, on Tomas' bootstraps turn as a curbside barber cutting stylish designs. Also, 8:15 p.m. Oct. 15 and 3:30 p.m. Oct. 17. (Stamets)
Monday, Oct. 15
"Marie Kroyer" (Denmark), 5:45 p.m.: Bille August directs a proto-feminist period melodrama about the wife of painter Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909.) "I don't know if I'm me or the woman in the paintings," frets his loyal spouse and much-admired model. Such yearnings mystify her supercilious husband: "Horrid thought, really. Who really wants your find yourself?" His mental illness puts her and their little daughter in increasing danger. Will she find love with a Swedish composer who can value his freedom as an artist as much hers as a woman? Also, 8 p.m. Oct 23 and 6 p.m. Oct 24. (Stamets)
“Off White Lies” (Israel), 8:15 p.m.: When the Israel-Lebanon war broke out, Maya Kenig saw on TV that a northerner displaced from the border found refuge with a stranger in Tel Aviv. Kenig's dad and teenage half-sister needed a place too, for reasons unrelated to the bombs. They did not act on her tip to impersonate refugees. So she made his semi-charming comedy about characters who do, finding a new home in Jerusalem. Also, 11 p.m. Oct. 17 and 10 p.m. Oct. 22. (Stamets)
“The Repentant” (Algeria / France), 8 p.m.: Merzak Allouache revisits a recent troubled period when Algerian authorities granted a conditional amnesty to armed extremists, often called terrorists. In this superior drama, one former "Brother" defects and attempts to fit into society. Villagers want to kill him. A cop in the city wants him to inform. The title character undertakes an ambiguous mission to resolve past trauma. He leads a split-up professional couple to an unmarked grave. Like other of my favorites in this year's fest, this one ends with a stunning last shot: cries of "God is great!" echo across a vast, tragic vista. Also, 6:45 p.m. Oct. 17 and 2:45 p.m. Oct. 18. (Stamets)
“The Cleaner” (Peru), 8:30 p.m.: Adrian Saba directs this unusually touching portrait of a man employed to clean a city. It's corpses, not litter, that he picks up. He cleans streets, sidewalks, stores and homes during a epidemic that is depopulating Lima. Then this loner finds an eight-year-old boy cowering in a closet, and takes him home. Thoughtful camerawork makes for existential understatement. Notice, for example, the weird way the cleaner moves his broom, and the beautiful way he takes leave of his only companion. Also, 5:45 p.m. Oct. 16 and 4 p.m. Oct. 19. (Stamets)
Tuesday, Oct. 16
"The Bella Vista" (Germany/ Uruguay), 4 p.m.: Alicia Cano calls her affirmative film a "magical-realistic documentary." She directs a cast of non-actors to play themselves, or something close. Like many filmmakers in the fest, she credits a news item as her inspiration for this piquant anecdote about a soccer clubhouse repurposed as a transvestite brothel. Whatever good the latter establishment does the local economy and male libidos, a more Catholic calling is in store for the site. Also, 4:30 p.m. Oct 21. (Stamets)
"Consuming Spirits" (USA), 7 p.m.: Chris Sullivan, a School of the Art Institute prof, deftly animates a 15-year stretch of tangled lives in Pawkaghenny County. The Alleghenny County native uses pencil drawings, cut-outs, puppets, and frame-by-frame animation. Besides voicing one character, Sullivan sings and plays seven instruments on the soundtrack. Compulsively eccentric detail makes for a wry bewitching texture: characters named Gentian Violet and Victor Blue work at the local paper, The Daily Suggested. Also, 9:30 p.m. Oct. 19 and 3 p.m. Oct 22. (Stamets)
“Kuma” (Austria), 2:45 p.m.: Umut Dag follows a 19-year-old bride from her village into an immigrant household in Vienna. The Turkish custom of "the second wife" means that her husband will not be the young man she married, but his father. The "first wife," near death with cancer, welcomes her replacement. The newcomer's old ways clash with her Austrian-assimilated kin. With lovely framings of family gatherings and glances, this humanist drama honors the ways a family can embrace and estrange its members. Also, 7 p.m. Oct. 20 and 5:15 p.m. Oct 21. (Stamets)
“The Believers” (USA), 8 p.m.: Documentaries on the history of science are rare. Chicago directors Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, with backing from the Richard H. Driehaus Fund, go back to an infamous 1989 press conference at the University of Utah: scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed their experiments proved Cold Fusion could generate power from water. Instead of delving into the bad physics, the focus is on celebrity and career. Also unanswered: why do people believe faulty experiments are "the key to liberating the human race"? Also, 2 p.m. Oct. 20. (Stamets)
"Meeting Leila" (Iran), 8:30 p.m. "When I smoke, the ideas rush into my head," explains a two-pack-a-day Camel smoker. This "ideas man" makes ads for local businesses. He promises to quit before his wedding. The couple meet cute when her VW breaks down and begins to roll towards his VW. His cigarette habit may wreck their marital prospects. Adel Yaraghi directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Abbas Kiarostami that diverts with absurdist touches, though I did not quite get the rest of it. Also, 8:30 p.m. Oct. 17 and 12 p.m. Oct 20. (Stamets)
Wednesday, Oct. 17
"Rhino Season" (Iraqi Kurdistan/ Turkey), 3:30 p.m.: Bahman Ghobadi writes and directs my favorite film in this festival, so far. A poet imprisoned during the Islamic Revolution is released 27 years later. Everyone thought he died long ago, due to the "fake grave staged by the government" noted in an opening title. Now he seeks his wife, whose father was one of the Shah's colonels. She was sentenced to 10 years and left for Istanbul long ago. Their tragedy is compounded by a third party and the birth of twins. Fate takes on a mythic irony. Also, 2:15 p.m. Oct. 20 and 7:45 p.m. Oct. 21. (Stamets)
"Boys Are Us" (Switzerland), 6:15 p.m.: I did not see Peter Luisi's mean-spirited exercise as "a playfully inventive jigsaw puzzle of a movie." Yet that's how the fest officially lists this tale of a bitter teenaged girl who baits boys on the Internet. It's payback for heartbreak. Three male targets are interchangeable. Like her, they mouth identical dialogue at clubs and at the kitchen table on mornings after. By the time the boys rotate from shot to shot in the same scene, and guns are fired, something psychotic seems in play. Also, 8:30 p.m. Oct. 18 and 3:45 p.m. Oct. 19. (Stamets)
“Gimme the Loot” (USA), 8:10 p.m.: A remarkably natural and unaffected film about friendship between two high-spirited graffiti artists (Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson) in the Bronx, who create a replica of the Met's apple trademark. When rival taggers deface it, they decide on the ultimate one-upmanship: To tag the real Mets' apple. A portrait of how they live off the land with low-level thievery and hustles, and how their friendship always seems just short of the point of romance. Directed by Adam Leon. Also, 6:30 p.m. Oct 18. Recommended. (Ebert)
“The Weekend” (Germany), 8:45 p.m.: As a teen, director Nina Grosse saw radicals in the news as Germany's Bonnie and Clyde. Now she adapts a new novel by Bernhard Schlink, who penned “The Reader” in 1995, about a Red Army Faction terrorist exiting prison after 18 years. Excavating betrayals, both personal and philosophical, with ex-comrades only yields conventional melodrama in this ideological hand-ringer. Also, 5:45 p.m. Oct 18. (Stamets)
Thursday, Oct. 18
"F*ckload of Scotchtape" (USA), 8 p.m.: Columbia College Chicago prof Julian Grant assigns a syllabus of surplus in his "neo-noir musical crime drama." A cocky hunk on a downbeat quest deals with kidnappers and strippers. He monologues, internally and endlessly, when not mouthing songs by Kevin Quain of "Tequila Vampire Matinee" fame in Toronto. St. Louis pulp writer Jed Ayres supplies the story material. Grant tries just about everything. And it all gets to be trying. He calls it "Fight Club" meets "My Fair Lady," as if that could be a good thing. Also, 9:30 p.m. Oct. 20 and 1 p.m. Oct 23. (Stamets)
“Agon” (Albania/ France/ Greece/ Romania), 8:45 p.m.: Director Robert Budina, himself once an Albanian immigrant, shows his countrymen trying to fit into Thessalonki. Greeks look askance at their kind. Albanian-on-Albanian violence extends to adult clitorectomy to keep women under thuggish thumbs. The action thrillers “Taken” and Taken 2” depicted vile Albanian sex traffickers. “Agon” abets this screen stereotype, despite its attempt to humanize global workers. Also, 6:15 p.m. Oct. 19 and 2:45 p.m. Oct. 22. (Stamets)
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