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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Quirky `Little Voice' gets the call to be this year's opener

The Chicago International Film Festival has not always been distinguished by its choice of opening-night films. Some never subsequently opened commercially, and at least one sent Junior Leaguers fleeing from the theater. But Mark Herman's "Little Voice," which opens this year's festival tonight, is a splendid choice - a film that may pick up an Oscar nomination or two.

It's one of those quirky little English comedies proving that the Brits really do make a specialty of eccentricity. Jane Horrocks (from TV's "Absolutely Fabulous") stars as a young woman who sits upstairs all day in her room, listening obsessively to pop and jazz classics collected by her late father, who had a record store. She never speaks.

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Meanwhile, her mother (Brenda Blethyn, from "Secrets and Lies") hangs out at the local pub. She's a good-time girl, plied with drinks by a seedy club promoter (Michael Caine) who has fallen on hard times. One night she brings him home, and during their pre-dalliance drinking, he hears the extraordinary voice of the girl upstairs.

Turns out the daughter can sing just like Marilyn Monroe. Exactly. Uncannily. And like Billie Holiday. And Shirley Bassey. And Ethel Merman. She may not speak, but what a voice! The Caine character immediately recognizes his opportunity and books her into a local club - setting the rest of the plot into action.

The first of the film's closing credits assures us that Jane Horrocks did all of her own singing. I'm pleased they put that credit first, because it was exactly what I wanted to know. She sounds so much like the singers she was imitating that I assumed she was lip-syncing to recordings. It's an amazing performance in a very amusing movie.

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