Chicago International Film Festival 2012 | CIFF reviews
We review 60 titles in our definitive guide to week one.
All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 (322 E Illinois St) unless otherwise noted.
For advance tickets, call 312-332-FILM, go to ticketmaster.com/chicagofilmfestival or stop by the festival office (30 E Adams St, suite 800). For passes, go to chicagofilmfestival.com.
* Recommended titles
12:30pm Liv & Ingmar Dir. Dheeraj Akolkar. 2012. 75mins. Norway/U.K./India. Adopting Liv Ullmann’s POV, Akolkar takes a collage-style look at one of the most important actor-director collaborations in cinema. Not available for review.
12:45pm Bad Seeds Dir. Safy Nebbou. 2012. 95mins. Luxembourg/Belgium. Two teens kidnap a schoolteacher—which sounds like a Kevin Williamson premise, but it’s from a novel by the guys who wrote the sources for Diabolique and Vertigo. Not available for review.
1pm Tey Dir. Alain Gomis. 2012. 86mins. Senegal. In this fanciful but naturalistically presented parable, a man, knowing he’ll die that evening, reflects on his life and says farewell to the family and friends who gather around him. The overall effect suggests an ultra-serene, Senegalese All That Jazz, and is moving without quite being profound.—Ben Kenigsberg
1:30pm Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God Dir. Alex Gibney. 2012. 106mins. USA. Gibney’s latest outrage doc recounts one of the earliest attempts to expose a Catholic priest as a pedophile, focusing on the Milwaukee case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who taught at a school for the deaf. The movie makes a damning case against the Vatican, particularly Pope Benedict’s actions before assuming the papacy. That said, nothing here is news.—Ben Kenigsberg
1:45pm War Witch Dir. Kim Nguyen. 2012. 90mins. Canada. Powerful newcomer Rachel Mwanza is the highlight of Canadian director Nguyen’s drama; she plays a 12-year-old forcibly recruited into a group of Congolese rebels. As initiation, she’s forced to kill her parents or die, and the movie has still other appallingly grim sights in store.—Ben Kenigsberg
2pm The Exam Dir. Peter Bergendy. 2011. 89mins. Hungary. Unbeknownst to him, a member of Hungary’s secret police spends December 24 undergoing a covert loyalty exam. Exactly who’s doing the testing, and what’s being tested, shifts over the course of the day and holiday night. Great premise, so-so execution; the movie nullifies suspense with a too-obtrusive score.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 2pm Keep the Lights On Dir. Ira Sachs. 2012. 102mins. USA. Anyone who’s ever stuck out a dysfunctional relationship for way too long should get pangs of recognition from Sachs’s semi-autobiographical drama, in which a Manhattan-based, European-born filmmaker (Thure Lindhardt) tries to make things work with his crack-addicted boyfriend (Zachary Booth). Deftly skipping forward in time, the movie condenses a nearly decade-long affair to its crucial moments—a series of startlingly candid, crumbling-romance snapshots.—A.A. Dowd
* 2:30pm As Goes Janesville Dir. Brad Lichtenstein. 2012. 88mins. USA. Lichtenstein takes a ground-level look at Paul Ryan and Russ Feingold’s hometown, where the pre-Obama closure of a GM plant resulted in mass layoffs. It’s rare to see ongoing political debates rendered so tangible onscreen: The film divides its time among a GOP-friendly community business group trying to lure a new medical center to town; auto-factory workers forced to relocate to Fort Wayne, away from their families; and Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen, who becomes a crucial counterweight in Scott Walker’s union wars. Crossing political divides, the film is essential viewing for anyone trying to understand the other side’s reasoning—but more impressively, it never loses sight of its story’s human dimension.—Ben Kenigsberg
3:10pm Black Pond Dirs. Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe. 2011. 86mins. U.K. A miserable couple (Chris Langham and Amanda Hadingue) are forced to confront the true emptiness of their lives when a strange man (Colin Hurley) follows the husband home. Structurally uneven and occasionally forced in its weirdness, Black Pond achieves a striking, unique tone of acutely observed bourgeois melancholy in its quieter moments.—Tom Huddleston
3:15pm Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood Dir. Daniele Vicari. 2012. 127mins. Italy/Romania. Vicari dramatizes the real-life storming of a school during the 2001 G-8 summit. Not available for review.
4pm Empire Builder Dir. Kris Swanberg. 2012. 70mins. USA. With her husband (Swanberg’s actual spouse, filmmaker Joe) planning to join her in a week, a new Chicago mom (Kate Lyn Sheil) heads off to a mountain cabin. Soon she’s fantasizing about the construction worker (Bill Ross) rehabbing the place, who’s pretty much her white-collar hubby’s opposite. Sheil’s performance and well-choreographed long takes add delicate layers of suggestion, although the film sells itself short by going for the obvious punch line.—Ben Kenigsberg
4pm Winter of Discontent Dir. Ibrahim El-Batout. 2012. 94mins. Egypt. It’s usually fascinating to see recent history filtered through the lens of movie drama, but this somber, mostly colorless film—about the events leading up to last year’s revolution in Egypt—limits our perspective to that of three underwritten characters. Notably, the demonstrations happen off-camera; it’s a decision consistent with the film’s strategy of only giving us the pain behind the protests.—A.A. Dowd
4:15pm Starlet Dir. Sean Baker. 2012. 103mins. USA. After discovering the vase she bought at a garage sale is filled with cash, a vapid-seeming L.A. transplant (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel) guiltily strikes up a friendship with the elderly woman (Besedka Johnson) who sold it to her. Widespread praise has persuaded me to give Baker’s feature a second look, but on first viewing it struck me as largely conventional, apart from the big twist—which isn’t quite as destabilizing as the film’s acolytes suggest.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 4:30pm The Land of Hope Dir. Sion Sono. 2012. 133mins. Japan/U.K. Set in 2013, this powerful—if absurdly overlong—melo-polemic from the director of Love Exposure focuses on the aftermath of a fictitious nuclear disaster that, for all intents and purposes, is exactly the same as Fukushima. Through the story of a husband and his newly pregnant wife, Sono critiques the degree to which Japanese society has turned a blind eye to the radiation in its midst.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 5pm Like Someone in Love Dir. Abbas Kiarostami. 2012. 109mins. France/Japan. A thematic companion piece to Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s first Japan-set feature is a chillier, less accessible piece of work. It centers on a student who moonlights as an escort (Rin Takanashi). Her client for the evening is an elderly sociology professor (Tadashi Okuno) who seems ready to treat her as a genuine paramour. As in Copy, false perceptions are key; even the movie’s gorgeous first half, filled with Tokyo’s nighttime neons, turns out to be a kind of aesthetic misdirection. It’s an elegant, wholly original brainteaser certain to inspire debate.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 5:30pm Full Circle Dir. Zhang Yang. 2012. 105mins. China. Nursing-home residents enroll in a nearby city’s variety-show competition, but when their plans get derailed by the chief nurse, they decide to take matters into their own hands. The script does well to mask the eventual plot twist, and the stars (most of them in their sixties or seventies, some in their nineties) more than compensate for any predictability.—Matt de la Peña
6pm Flowerbuds Dir. Zdenek Jirasky. 2011. 91mins. Czech Republic. In a wintry Czech nowhere town, one unlucky clan copes with gambling addiction, teenage pregnancy and an unhealthy sexual fixation. Suffocatingly dour, Jirasky’s award-winning drama makes you long for the relative mastery of American Beauty, which at least had the good sense to spike its rupture-of-the-family melodrama with humor.—A.A. Dowd
6:15pm Alaskaland Dir. Chinonye Chukwu. 2012. 75mins. USA. Feeling responsible for the car-accident death of his Nigerian-immigrant parents, wayward Alaskan Chukwuma (Alex Ubokudom) toys with going back to school and shaking the druggy crowd that landed him in trouble. It’s hard to think of another movie with this milieu or characters, though both are undercut by somewhat amateurish acting and editing.—Ben Kenigsberg
6:15pm Reality Dir. Matteo Garrone. 2012. 115mins. Italy. Neorealism for the era of reality TV, Garrone’s engaging if somewhat one-note follow-up to Gomorrah concerns a fishmonger (nonpro Aniello Arena, reportedly let out of prison to play the role) who develops the Rupert Pupkin–like delusion that he’s destined for stardom on Italy’s version of Big Brother. Peaking with its opening sequence, the movie has been seen as a belated salvo at the cult of personality built around Berlusconi.—Ben Kenigsberg
6:30pm Dragon Dir. Peter Chan. 2011. 114mins. Hong Kong. In a plot that sounds suspiciously like that of A History of Violence, craftsman Donnie Yen saves a man from gangsters, drawing suspicion that he has a long-buried past of trained killing. Not available for review.
7:30pm A Caretaker’s Tale Dir. Katrine Wiedemann. 2011. 87mins. Denmark. A curmudgeonly building caretaker comes across a mute, immobile naked woman in an apartment. It turns out she’s good in bed. No, this movie was not directed by Jennifer Lynch or Jackie Treehorn. Not available for review.
7:45pm Paradise: Love Dir. Ulrich Seidl. 2012. 120mins. Austria/Germany. The first part of a trilogy, Seidl’s expertly served provocation sends middle-aged, corpulent Austrian women on a vacation to Kenya, where they proceed to treat the black male residents as little more than sex-delivery objects. The women’s casual racism only grows more outrageous as this study in mutual exploitation progresses, pushing the boundaries of hardcore. Seidl knows what he’s up to—but it’s hard to deny he indulges in the same racial stereotyping he means to decry.—Ben Kenigsberg
8pm Out in the Dark Dir. Michael Mayer. 2012. 96mins. Israel/USA. Closeted to his family for fear of exile, a Palestinian man (Nicholas Jacob) secretly ventures by night from Ramallah to Tel Aviv, where he falls for an Israeli lawyer (Michael Aloni) whose father is well-connected in government. Mayer’s social-issue drama has a heavy hand, but the leads are terrific.—Ben Kenigsberg
8:15pm The Delay Dir. Rodrigo Plá. 2012. 84mins. Uruguay/Mexico. A single mother can’t cope with housing her aging father along with her children. Not available for review.
8:30pm Westerland Dir. Tim Staffel. 2012. 90mins. Germany. Writer and theater director Staffel adapts his novel Jesús und Muhammed for his first feature, about a desperate and unusual love that binds two very different men. Set in Germany’s desolate northern islands, the material is familiar, though the intensity and skill of the actors (Wolfram Schorlemmer and Burak Yigit) gives their interplay alternately tough and tender shadings.—Patrick Z. McGavin
8:50pm Of Snails and Men Dir. Tudor Giurgiu. 2012. 93mins. Romania/France. Workers in a Romanian snail cannery hightail it to Budapest, hoping to earn enough money from sperm donations to save their factory. Not available for review; not making this up.
9pm After Lucía Dir. Michael Franco. 2012. 102mins. Mexico/France. As the new kid in town, level-headed, easygoing Alejandra (Tessa Ia) quickly finds her friends. But a drunken, videotaped hookup later, she’s immediately branded as the class slut. Relentless teasing and abuse ensue. Favoring long takes, Franco shoots the film in a dreamy, distanced style that deftly mitigates the potential Larry Clark vibe. The ultimate retreat into moralizing is a letdown, although the movie rallies with a WTF ending.—Ben Kenigsberg
9:45pm Clip Dir. Maja Milos. 2012. 102mins. Serbia. More teens and smartphone sex? The closing credits guarantee that no underage actors participated in this film’s hardcore sequences; you’ll have wondered about that more than once. As 16-year-old Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic) falls into an abusive relationship with a slightly older drug dealer (Vukasin Jasnic), Milos’s feature debut aspires to say something about adolescents and technology; it never ekes out anything coherent.—Ben Kenigsberg
10:30pm Citadel Dir. Ciaran Foy. 2012. 84mins. Ireland/U.K. After a violent attack in their housing project renders his wife comatose, a traumatized Glaswegian (Aneurin Barnard) is forced to protect their baby daughter on his own. But who exactly were the perpetrators? Taking a page from Candyman, Citadel conflates poverty with literal monstrousness. The tasteless allegory overwhelms the movie’s few good jolts.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 11pm Sleep Tight Dir. Jaume Balagueró. 2011. 96mins. Spain. From one of the directors of [REC] comes this darkest of dark comedies, about the skin-crawling misadventures of a disturbed concierge (Luis Tosar) taking out his issues on an unsuspecting tenant. Enjoyment levels will fluctuate depending on one's tolerance for bugs, gleeful sadism and home-invasion scenarios. Tastelessness aside, the film's manipulation of our sympathies—especially during a queasily suspenseful, trapped-in-the-apartment set piece—is almost Hitchcockian.—A.A. Dowd