Emotionally charged, viscerally exciting and consistently enlightening, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army is a sports documentary like no other.
UPDATED 10/16: Here are brief reviews of all the Chicago Film Festival movies we have seen, in alphabetical order, written by Bill Stamets and Roger Ebert. More will be added as we view them. For a full CIFF schedule, go to www.chicagofilmfestival.com or call (312) 332-FILM.
“The Aerial” (Argentina) -- Esteban Sapir concocts a retro style for his outlandish fable about two children thwarting the evil Mr. TV. First this titan of industry stole the voices of everyone. Now he plots to steal their words too. Instead of intertitles, Sapir places his characters’ silent dialogue on the screen in moving type. Exclamations explode. Fans of "Brand Upon the Brain!" by Winnipeg wizard Guy Maddin will appreciate this effect. Other silent era touches include a black-and-white look and pantomine- style acting. There are nods to both Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and the video arcade game Dance Dance Revolution. If you caught Veit Helmer’s oddball "Tuvulu" at 1999’s fest, you will like this inventive allegory of totalitarianism from Argentina. In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Stamets)
“All About Us” (US) -- Chicago native Michael Swanson is the producer of his writer/director wife Christine’s film about indie wannabes much like themselves. An L.A. couple tries to find a distributor for their first film and a star for their second. The first one happens to be “All About You,” the same bland indie the Swansons screened at the 2001 festival. Boris Kodjoe (“Madea’s Family Reunion”) plays a character like Michael, and Ryan Michelle Bathe (“Boston Legal”) fills the Christine role. Small parts are played by Andre Royo and Ruby Dee. Morgan Freeman makes a 10-second cameo. The filmmakers discover a higher calling as homemakers. Bottomline: it takes more than good people talking about making good films. Good filmmaking helps. The Swansons will share more of their struggles at a panel aptly titled “All About Us: Now your film is made—who’s going to see it?” (Stamets)
“All the Invisible Things” (Austria) -- For his first feature, Jakob Erwa writes, directs and shoots an assured, stylish dissection of splintered family life. Likely inspired by American photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark, Erwa looks at lusty adolescent angst in two male teens and their tag-along gal pal. TIn an outlaw threesome, the boys fondle her as they fumble with their mutual attraction. The love of their mothers means more than these delinquents admit. The boys belong to wild teen pack that wears teeshirts reading “Skateboarding Ruined My Life” and ”Ich Bin Schizophren” (“I Am Schizophrenic”). They taunt a blind man who is later befriended by a prostitute. That impromptu love represents an ideal of bonding long gone from the teens’ households. (Stamets)
“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)
“Before the Devil Knows You're Dead” (2007) (US) -- One of the best films in this year’s festival. Sidney Lumet has made a crime film as good, in its own way, as his “Dog Day Afternoon,” “The Verdict,” and “Serpico.” Uses superb actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers, Albert Finney as their father, Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s wife, Rosemary Harris as Finney’s wife, and Amy Ryan as Hawke’s ex-wife. The brothers both face financial emergencies, and Hoffman concocts a plan to stick up their family’s suburban jewelry store on a Saturday morning, when the staff will be one old lady. His plan: No guns, no muss, no fuss, dad gets reimbursed by insurance, nobody’s a loser, and their problems are over. The plan does not quite work out. Highly recommended. (Ebert)
“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)
“Control” (UK) -- A haunting, sad, beautiful film based on the brief life of Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), lead singer of the Manchester band Joy Division. In elegant black and white, director Anton Corbijn records the singer’s rise to fame and descent into despair. Samantha Morton plays his bride in a teenage marriage; she is loyal and living, but Ian is unable to be married, or a singer, or anything else with much happiness. He begins with great dreams (files on his desk are labeled for Novels, Poems, etc), quotes Wordsworth by heart, skulks around the post-punk clubs, becomes the superstar of a small but adoring world, and suffers agonizing psychological distress. Recommended. (Ebert)
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (France/US) -- Julian Schnabel’s film tells the story of almost unimaginable determination in the face of a devastating loss. Based on the memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), a French magazine editor, it tells of a stroke he suffered at age 43 which deprived him of all body motion except for control of his left eye. Using blinks to communicate (one for yes, two for no), he dictated his book to a dedicated secretary, providing a harrowing account of his own physical imprisonment but mental flights of freedom. With Emmanuelle Seigner as his wife, Marie-Josee Croze as the therapist who established communication with him, and Anne Consigny as the faithful secretary. Screenplay by Ronald Harwood (“The Dresser”). Recommended. (Ebert)
“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)
“Gone Baby Gone" (US) -- A baby is missing in a rough neighborhood of Boston, and the little girl’s distraught, drug-abusing mother (Amy Madigan) grows impatient with the progress of the police search and hires two private eyes (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan). Morgan Freeman, as a police captain, lets them work with his men (Ed Harris and John Ashton). Leads draw them in unexpected directions, involving the recent theft of money from a drug kingpin. The private eyes (lovers as well as partners) have previously specialized in bail-skippers, but have an instinct for nuance when they talk to the principals. The directing debut of Ben Affleck, based on a novel by Dennis Lahane (“Mystic River”). Recommended. (Ebert)
“Grace is Gone” (US) -- John Cusack in a somber, touching performance as a store manager who met his wife, Grace, when they were both in basic training. He lied to conceal bad eyesight; she has been deployed to Iraq. The news comes that she has been killed, and rather than tell their two young daughters, they embark on a cross-country odyssey to a theme park. Not political, but personal; a man dealing with his loss. Recommended. (Ebert)
“Great World of Sound” Salesman are recruited to audition singing hopefuls and offer them a chance at a professionally-produced CD. We meet two of them, Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday), as they listen to a parade of dreamers come through threi cheap motel rooms. Some of the auditioners are real people, not told by director Craig Zobel they’re in a movie until after their auditions. The whole thing is a scam, but what kind of scam the salesmen learn much later. The enterprise is like a low-rent “American Idol,” exploiting its victims, although one of the salesmen starts to buy into the dream himself. Recommended. (Ebert)
“Honeydripper” Deep South comedy by indie legend John Sayles, starring Danny Glover as the owner of a failing juke joint in 1950s small town Alabama. He stakes everything on a one-night stand by Guitar Sam, but Sam fails to show, and everything depends on a newcomer (Gary Clark, Jr.). A reunion of great acting talent with Charles S. Dutton, Dr. Mable John, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen and many more. Some serious social undercurrents go along with the music and humor. Recommended. (Ebert)
"In Search of a Midnight Kiss” Desperate to avoid spending New Year’s Eve along, two people seeks date through Craig’s List and warily meet to test the conversational waters. Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds seem to cover Lo Angeles like a tour group as they continue their date, which takes them from the beach to downtown, all the while engrossed in engaging conversation. It’s an American indie film, but director Alex Holdridge premiered it at the Edinburgh Festival (where it was a hit), and this is its U. S. premiere. Recommended. (Ebert)
"Lars and the Real Girl" (US) -- Ryan Gosling in a most unexpected performance, as a stand-offish and strange young man who avoids all company or social life, and huddles in the dark in a cabin behind his brother's house. One day he orders a life-sized love doll through the internet. Far from keeping this purchase secret, he introduces the doll, who he names Bianca, to his brother (Paul Schneider) and sister in law (Emily Mortimer). He and Bianca begin seeing a therapist (Patricia Clarkson), and indeed he and the doll go everywhere together, he always treating her as a real person. How his friends, family and community accept this is a study in empathy and imagination. Despite the subject matter, not porn in any sense, but human nature. Directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver. (Ebert)
“The Last Mistress” (France) -- A surprise from French director Catherine Breillat: A period costume drama, when she usually makes contemporary films with few or no costumes. Tells the story of a quietly ambitious young man (Fu'ad Ait Aatou) who hopes to marry a rich and beautiful aristocrat (Roxane Mesquida) but cannot force himself to break his ties with his possessive, devouring Spanish mistress (Asia Argento). Michel Lonsdale has a sly supportig role as the olderman who sees all, understands all. Elegant compositions, mannered dialogue, seductive charm. Recommended. (Ebert)
“Lovesickness” (Puerto Rico) -- The only festival entry from Puerto Rico is a comic look at love in the extreme. Luis Guzman plays a garden-variety cheater who runs off with his wife’s cousin and the family TV set. His 10 year-old son experiments in tongue- kissing with a first love. Over-loved by his mom, a man tries to marry a bus driver at gunpoint. A loving couple in a car bicker over chewing gum, so she exits the vehicle, tumbling head-over-heals down the highway. And a 70 year-old woman loves her both ex-husbands con brio. Director and co-writer Carlitos Ruiz Ruiz, a School of the Art Institute grad, alternates between cute and cutting for sitcom yuks. The executive producer of “Lovesickness” is Benicio Del Toro, who stars in the fest’s “Things We Lost in the Fire.” In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Stamets)
"Michael Clayton" (US) -- George Clooney plays a slick, efficient but weary fixer for a big law firm, Sydney Pollack is the head of he firm, Tom Wilkinson is the partner who has just stripped naked during a deposition hearing in Milwaukee, and Tilda Swinton represents the corporate client that is horrified to find such a man leading their defense. A near-perfect example of the legal/business thriller, with the usual undercurrents of guilt and shame. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who wrote all he “Bourne” pictures, but prefers a more classical visual and storytelling style that is relentless here. Recommended. A full review is now online. The movie will go into wide theatrical release Friday, October 12.
“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) N - R
“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)
“Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema” (US) -- My friend Pierre Rissient is one of the most fascinating, best-informed, well-connected people in the world of film, where he probably knows more directors, producers, distributors, actors, writers, critics and festival honchos than any other human being. This documentary by Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for Variety, is a must for any serious film buff, tracing the influential role that Pierre and his then-associate Bertrand Tavernier (now a great French director) played in the late 1950s in establishing a new canon for French auteurists. A cineaste without portfolio, Pierre appears at all major festivals, campaigning for his favorites, and has for years been a power behind the throne at Cannes (where he can walk into any screening without a ticket, and can wear a t-shirt to black tie events). I wrote a profile about Pierre recently. Recommended for those who know their movies. (Ebert)
“Poor Boy's Game” (Canada) -- Director/ co-writer Clement Virgo cites Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” as his model and cast Danny Glover as a dockworker named George. Co-writer Chaz Thorne cites the 1995 slaying of his cousin that racially polarized Halifax, Nova Scotia, where this earnest drama is set. Virgo cast Donald Sutherland’s son Rossif-- partly for his resemblance to Montgomery Clift-- to play Donnie Rose. At age 17, Donnie was convicted of inflicting brain damage on a black teen, George’s son. Nine years later, Donnie is released. The black community wants revenge via a bout between Donnie and a black boxing star. Whites and blacks alike speak of their respective “tribes.” George coaches underdog Donnie, however. Both are seen as race traitors as they transcend their respective clans. Despite the moral sincerity, the story is overly diagrammatic in outlining issues of justice and redemption. (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)
"The River" (India/France/UK) -- Revival screening of Jean Renoir’s beautiful 1951 Technicolor classic, a film Martin Scorsese says he watches three times every year. Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, tells the story of a British family living in India, mostly through the eyes of three adolescent girls, who all develop a crush on a war hero who lost a leg. Great Movie review: "The River." Recommended. (Ebert)
S - Z
“Shorts 1: Homegrown” (US) -- “About Film Festivals” by Jim Jacob kicks off this strong assortment of 7 locally made shorts. In the dullest tones known to the human ear, the blank-faced filmmaker tells the camera who goes to film festivals and why. This deadpan gem is compiled from 11 spots the River Forest auteur originally created for downstate's Big Muddy Film Festival and the Chicago Underground FIlm Festival. In Sean Jourdan’s documentary “Who's Ma Ma! Joe Ma Ma!” a motorcycle mechanic relates how he raised, and possibly failed, two of his sons, then takes his youngest to a kid-scaled demolition derby. Shot in Westchester, Illinois, “Bodega” is Brian Billow’s comic drama on making crime pay at a convenience store. A tinkling duet by girls in adjacent stalls relieves the terror of an elementary school bathroom in Maria Gigante’s “Girls Room.” (Stamets)
“Shotgun Stories.” For me, the great discovery of this year’s festival. A first feature by writer-director Jeff Nichols, it creates implacable tension between two sets of half-brothers in rural Arkansas. Three brothers, who live together, are the product of a marriage by an alcoholic father who deserted them, and a mother who should have. Their parents couldn’t even be bothered to name them, and they are Son, Kid and Boy. After the father sobered up and became successful, he fathered four more children. The tone of the movie is set in laconic early dialog. Son (Michael Shannon) is called to the door by his mother’s visit. He doesn’t invite her in. “What is it?” he asks. “I came to tell you your father is dead.” No reaction. “When’s the funeral?” he asks. “You can find out in the newspaper,” she says, leaving. “You going?” he asks. “No.” The funeral leads to a feud between the two families, in a film that never steps wrong and holds us in a vise of tightening revenge. Co-produced by David Gordon Green, a hard, unforgiving look at unhappy lives; the characters are not vicious or psychotic, are actually fairly nice left to themselves, but powerless in the face of childhood wounds. (Ebert)
“Silent Light” A stark, spare story of emotional torment. The Mexican director Carlos Reygadas centers on a Mennonite community in Mexico, where the deeply religious father is tormented by an affair he is having outside of marriage. He loves is wife, but feels the other woman may be “the woman of my life.” Yet he feels wrong, and seeks counsel from friends and his pastor father. Odd, to see these Scandinavian-looking, German-speaking characters in Mexico. Reygadas proceeds at a slow, ordered pace toward a conclusion that owes something, I believe, to Bergman. Some will find it hypnotic, others will grow restless. Recommended. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film. (Ebert)
“Slipstream” (US) -- An unexpected film directed by Anthony Hopkins, who uses a fragmented narrative and editing style to reflect the jumbled mental state of a screenwriter, played by himself. Slipping in and out of reality, sometimes oblivious of his surroundings, sometimes mixing characters, actors and movie memories, the character descends into a maelstrom of mental confusion. He is surrounded by the story of a film he wrote, whose production is jeopardized by the death of the star (Christian Slater). With John Turturro, Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jeffrey Tambor, Kevin McCarthy. Recommended for adventurous viewers. (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)
“Surveillance” (UK) -- Several films in this year’s festival use surveillance cameras for their points of view. Paul Oremland’s lightweight thriller stars Adam (Tom Harper) as a gay teacher from Surrey who spends a night in London with the gay heir to a mega-media empire. It’s run by a camera-crazed mogul. Think Dr. Mabuse meets Rupert Murdoch. Turns out the heir and a gay royal are on the verge of declaring their love to the world via a video shot on a cell phone. Special-ops teams operate at the behest of the crown, corporations and secret agencies try to block the upload that dare speak its username. Schemes and counter-schemes multiply amidst weighty blather about the ruthless string-pullers “at the very heart of the establishment.” (Stamets)
“Taxi to the Dark Side” (US) -- A devastating documentary laying out in precise detail and eyewitness testimony the Bush administration’s use of illegal detainment, torture and death in its prison camps which exist outside the U. S. Constitution. Beginning with the story of an Afghan taxi driver who is arrested for no reason, imprisoned, tortured and killed, it moves on to the Guantanamo Bay facility, which has produced little or no usable information. Includes interviews with jailers at the Bagram and Abu Ghraib facilities, who say they were following orders and yet were charged with crimes; the film notes that Bush has already signed legislation protecting himself, Rumsfeld, Cheney and others from similar consequences. The subject matter is familiar; the content is new and overwhelming. A portrait of a president who can deny he permits torture because he does not define it as what is clearly torture. Highly recommended. (Ebert)
“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)
“Things We Lost in the Fire” (US) -- Halle Berry plays a woman who has unexpectedly lost her beloved husband. At the door one day, the husband’s best friend since childhood turns up. Played by Benecio del Toro, he was made his life into a mess, just as much as her husband (David Duchovny) was a success. She was jealous and resentful of the friend while her husband was alive, but now she surprises herself by saying he can live in a room in the garage while he gets his act together. Does this lead to love? It isn’t quite that simple. The U.S. directing debut of Swedish filmmaker Susanne Bier (“Open Hearts,” “After the Wedding”). Recommended. (Ebert)
“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)
“Two Embraces” (Mexico) -- Shooting from inside passing cars, director Enrique Begne frames two embraces on Mexico City sidewalks. In this two-part drama, writer Paula Marcovitch fills in the backstory of these two acts. The first pairs a 12-year-old boy infatuated with a cashier at a discount mart; the second pairs a solitary taxi driver and the estranged daughter a passenger who who suffered a stroke in the backseat. Especially strong acting graces this study of bonding. One device that doesn’t work, though, is the use of grainy video scenes inserted to show what characters imagine might happen next or that once happened. Begne and Marcovitch give us enough intimate detail to know these well-drawn characters without these distractions. In Spanish, with English subtitles. (Stamets)
“A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory” (US) -- Danny Williams-- an experimental filmmaker and one-time lover of Andy Warhol-- disappeared in July, 1966. His niece Esther Robinson puts one theory in the title of her beautifully done documentary. After dinner with his mother, Williams drove to a Massachusetts beach and walked into the ocean to drown. Robinson recreates his life and speculates on his apparent suicide. Interviews with his mother and brother, along with Warhol’s aged coterie, suggest Williams was adrift in an art, amphetamine and party scene marked by vicious jealousy. Williams designed the June, 1966 light shows at Old Richard’s in Chicago where the Velvet Underground played in a “happening” called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Although some scenesters in Warhol’s orbit hardly recall Williams holding a camera, Robinson shows excerpts from his exquisite 16mm. black-and-white films. They ought to outlast most others that came out of Warhol’s loft. (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. But 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, and her husband’s. So Harrelson calls the police himself and immediately becomes the prime suspect. Harrelson plays Page as a guarded, essentially shy man, vulnerable because of his profession. Director Paul Schrader 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. Recommended. (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)
“You, the Living” (Sweden) -- We talk about surrealism a lot more than we see the real thing. Roy Andersson, the Swedish director of the decidedly strange “Songs from the Second Floor,” now has made an equally weird and inexplicable film about the sad and discontented in a city of the disappointed, or dead. But in a way it’s a comedy, as inexplicable events happen to unlikely characters, and they soldier on through life’s discouragements. Alarming visual details, as when a domestic bedroom and kitchen seem to be train cars. Or when the drummer in a brass band complains about his shrinking retirement fund, which brings his wife to climax. Or when an old man using a walker shuffles past, dragging his dog with a rope tied to its hind leg. Recommended. (Ebert)
Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based free-lance writer and critic.
Glenn Kenny tries to provide some calm, reason, and perspective to today's major Oscar nominations.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at Kimberly Pierce's 2013 version of "Carrie."
A note of thanks from Chaz Ebert to the wonderful people behind "Life Itself."