Chicago International Film Festival 2012 | CIFF reviews
Find out what you need to see October 18–25.
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
* Noon Meeting Leila Dir. Adel Yaraghi. 2011. 88mins. Iran. When his bride-to-be insists he give up smoking, an ad man struggles to follow through with her request in a warm and witty story about a man’s choice between love and addiction.—Jessica Johnson
12:15pm Day of the Crows Dir. Jean-Christophe Dessaint. 2012. 94mins. France. When his Tarzan-like father takes an incapacitating spill, a woodland wild child ventures out of his enchanted-forest home and into the forbidden world of civilized man. Basically a Miyazaki-lite spin on The Jungle Book, this animated French fable may prove too bland even for preadolescent viewers.—A.A. Dowd
12:30pm 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
1pm Industry Panel 3: Distribution and Marketing Two crucial steps in getting your movie shown are changing rapidly. Find out how in this discussion.
* 1pm Room 237 Dir. Rodney Ascher. 2012. 102mins. USA. According to Room 237, Stanley Kubrick had an IQ of 200. After seeing Ascher’s explication of some of the more bizarre interpretive theories of The Shining, you’ll suspect the man made use of every intelligence point. Some readings (noting The Shining’s repeated references to genocide) are more persuasive than others (e.g., the notion that Kubrick used his movie to cop to a role in faking the moon landing). No matter; Room 237 is irresistibly entertaining as a work of film-criticism-on-film.—Ben Kenigsberg
1:15pm Shorts 7: Chaos Theory Various dirs. Approx. 95mins. This shorts program looks like a bit of a grab bag; one of the titles stars Michael Fassbender as a safe cracker.
2pm The Believers Dirs. Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross. 2011. 80mins. USA. The “discovery” of cold fusion, as well as its subsequent denouncement by most of the scientific community, is the subject of this glorified Dateline special. The filmmakers feign objectivity, but their refusal to get tough with the theory’s proponents—many of whom are notorious for concealing their supposed findings—betrays a clear bias.—A.A. Dowd
2pm Black’s Game Dir. Óskar Thór Axelsson. 2012. 104mins. Iceland. “Based on shit that actually happened,” reads a title card. Shit, indeed. Set on the eve of Y2K, this frantic, overeager-to-be-badass crime drama aspires to be the Icelandic Goodfellas, down to the sequence in which our coked-up protagonist struggles to stay focused while running through a complicated errand list. Initially you may wonder if the movie is on fast-forward; that’s just how it’s edited.—Ben Kenigsberg
2:15pm Rhino Season Dir. Bahman Ghobadi. 2012. 103mins. Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey. If you know the work of Kurdish author Sadegh Kamangar, who was jailed for 30 years by the Iranian government and whose poetry, read by his daughter, is used in voiceover, Ghobadi’s roman à clef is almost certainly a must-see. For those coming in cold, it’s pretty opaque.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 2:30pm The Last Friday Dir. Yahya Al Abdallah. 2012. 88mins. Jordan. Five years after losing his job, family and life savings in a disastrous poker game, divorced cabbie Yousef (a terrifically taciturn Ali Suliman) reconnects with his teenage son while trying to drum up the funds for an operation he can’t afford. Shot in immaculately framed, frequently wordless long takes, Al Abdallah’s affecting debut has been labeled a comedy by CIFF programmers—a genre classification that will only make sense to the folks who howled with laughter during The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.—A.A. Dowd
3pm Color of Sky Dir. Dr. Biju. 2012. 117mins. India. A thief winds up stranded on an island where a man he’s tried to rob resides. Not available for review.
3:30pm The Jeffrey Dahmer Files Dir. Chris James Thompson. 2012. 75mins. USA. Titled simply Jeff at South by Southwest last spring, this gratuitous info-rehash on the Milwaukee Monster splits its time among a forensic investigator, one of Dahmer’s neighbors and the detective who first interrogated the serial killer. There’s a certain procedural interest in what the latter has to say (when the man you’ve just arrested has a human head in his fridge, do you offer him a cup of coffee?), but the movie mainly traffics in morbid curiosity. Reenactments, designed to show how Dahmer could operate unnoticed, feel particularly exploitative.—Ben Kenigsberg
3:45pm Shorts 5: Spotlight Middle East: Shadows and Light Various dirs. Approx. 126mins. This program, obviously, takes a regional focus; it includes films from Syria, Iran, Jordan and Israel.
* 4:30pm Drought Dir. Everardo González. 2011. 90mins. Mexico. González’s documentary looks at a community of cowboys and farmers in northeast Mexico struggling to survive as they await the rain. The slow pace seems fitting for the subject, and the film provides an insightful look at the destitution and daily relations of the ranchers and their families.—Kristin Scharkey
4:30pm The Last Sentence Dir. Jan Troell. 2012. 120mins. Sweden. A Swedish journalist who famously threatened his country’s neutrality during WWII by writing scathing indictments of Hitler, Torgny Segerstedt is a worthy subject for a biopic. Too bad they botched this one. Perversely marginalizing Segerstedt’s campaign against the Nazis, Troell (Everlasting Moments) favors dreary psychoanalysis instead, portraying the writer as a loveless lover whose deceased sweethearts return to him as vindictive apparitions.—A.A. Dowd
4:45pm The Land of Eb Dir. Andrew Williamson. 2012. 87mins. USA/Marshall Islands. A work of fiction shot vérité-style (indeed, you might mistake parts for documentary), The Land of Eb centers on a cancer-stricken Hawaii resident who’s emigrated from the Marshall Islands—one of the most radioactive places on Earth, thanks to U.S. government nuclear tests. You don’t see this character much in movies, and Williamson’s film earnestly coasts on its novelty.—Ben Kenigsberg
5pm Caesar Must Die Dirs. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. 2012. 76mins. Italy. A theater audience rises to its feet as the cast of Julius Caesar takes its curtain call. We then rewind back to the beginning, as the actors—all felons in an Italian prison—rehearse their parts and turn Shakespeare’s drama into a riff on jailhouse power plays. If the film’s commentary on the corrupting power of contemporary Roman politics deserves neither overwhelming praise nor burial through dismissal, the Taviani brothers’ riff does drive a stake through platitudes about the healing power of art.—David Fear
5:30pm Postcards from the Zoo Dir. Edwin. 2012. 96mins. Indonesia. If one were to mate We Bought a Zoo with Jia Zhangke’s The World, the offspring might look something like this. Early scenes of an abandoned tyke wandering the menagerie set a whimsical tone; the film grows more bittersweet in later passages, as the now-grown orphan, who was raised by trainers within the zoo, struggles to adjust to life in the “wild.”—A.A. Dowd
5:45pm The Drudgery Train Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita. 2012. 113mins. Japan. Yamashita, of 2005’s infectious girl-rock drama Linda Linda Linda, makes what sounds like an unofficial companion piece to that film: a coming-of-age story centered on two men. Not available for review.
* 6:30pm Leviathan Dirs. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. 2012. 87mins. USA. Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) and Paravel (Foreign Parts) rethink cinematic space with this astonishing nonfiction fishing film, shot with waterproof digital cameras on a boat 200 miles off the Massachusetts coast. Closer to Stan Brakhage freak-out than documentary, the movie eschews context and has almost no dialogue. The dexterity of the visuals can’t be overstated—there are moments in Leviathan when you literally can’t tell up from down, as the camera suddenly dives beneath the waves or slides across the vessel’s deck, buried amid the day’s piscine catch.—Ben Kenigsberg
6:30pm Valley of Saints Dir. Musa Syeed. 2012. 82mins. India/USA. “I was born with a paddle in my hands,” says Gulzar, a poor boatman whose plot to escape a politically fractious Kashmir is interrupted by the appearance of a beautiful visiting anthropologist. A documentarian making the transition to features, Syeed has an eye for composition, though for all the hot-button issues, the material feels more earnest than tense or involving.—Patrick Z. McGavin
7pm Kuma Dir. Umut Dag. 2012. 93mins. Austria. Dag’s debut feature explores the social and sexual havoc a beautiful Turkish village girl (Begüm Akkaya) unleashes on a striving émigré family in an Austrian suburb. Akkaya is hypnotic, though the episodic and incident-packed story frequently devolves into the blunt and hysterical.—Patrick Z. McGavin
* 7pm The Sessions Dir. Ben Lewin. 2012. 95mins. USA. It’s with levity and a refreshing lack of pity that Lewin approaches the true story of California-based poet Mark O’Brien (an outstanding John Hawkes), who spent most of his days confined to an iron lung. The Sessions concerns the writer’s attempts, at 38, to lose his virginity. The film becomes a funny and often poignant tale of sexual discovery—a rite of passage exciting and nerve-racking for just about everyone, regardless of how they breathe.—A.A. Dowd
7:15pm Mr. Sophistication Dir. Danny Green. 2012. 97mins. USA. It’s amateur hour at the Apollo, cinematically speaking, in this tedious tale of a has-been Chicago comedian (Harry Lennix) juggling a wife and a new mistress during his comeback tour. Everything falls flat: the acting, the dialogue, even our hero’s anecdotal, painfully unfunny routines. Avoid.—A.A. Dowd
7:45pm The World Is Funny Dir. Shemi Zarhin. 2012. 122mins. Israel. This Israeli comedy hinges on the tragic histories of a trio of adult siblings whose troubles began in childhood when their mother ditched them. World Is Funny attempts to find humor in a string of misfortunes leveled upon its main characters. But the melodrama is laid on so thick, there’s little to laugh about.—Jessica Johnson
8:30pm A Royal Affair Dir. Nikolaj Arcel. 2012. 131mins. Denmark. Physician Mads Mikkelsen provides counsel to Denmark’s mad King Christian VII, strikes up a passionate affair with the regent’s discontented queen and paves the way for progressive reforms in Arcel’s watchable if almost aggressively rote costume drama.—Ben Kenigsberg
* 8:30pm Simon Killer Dir. Antonio Campos. 2012. 105mins. USA. Brady Corbet, who played one of the yuppie prankster sociopaths in Haneke’s Funny Games remake, stars here as a heartsick American couch-surfer who gets involved with a prostitute in Paris. As in Campos’s debut, Afterschool, the troubled-young-man pathology feels pat. Formally, though, the film is often mesmerizing, with the director investing a Last Tango in Paris scenario with the mood and menace of collaborator Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.—A.A. Dowd
8:45pm Fable Dir. Lester Hamlet. 2011. 92mins. Cuba. A Havana man falls for a prostitute. Not available for review.
9:30pm Fuckload of Scotchtape Dir. Julian Grant. 2012. 84mins. USA. Scotchtape definitely presents a fuckload of cringe-inducing moments—from its amateurish acting to its poorly written and delivered voiceovers. (“Fags always have drugs,” the main character says with a barely post-pubescent rasp.) But the worst are the bizarre interludes in which the pretty-boy protagonist looks dead into the camera and lip-synchs to the sappy acoustic soundtrack. The recover-the-stolen-money plot gets lost about 30 minutes in.—Alec Moran
9:30pm 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
9:45pm A Secret World Dir. Gabriel Mariño. 2012. 87mins. Mexico. Teenage María suddenly leaves her mom’s house in Mexico City to go road-tripping, where she encounters strangers of varying degrees of pleasantness and creepiness. We watch María’s impassive face while a couple of men treat her as a sexual vessel, yet the film likewise sees her as little more than a mopey cipher.—Novid Parsi
10:30pm Antiviral Dir. Brandon Cronenberg. 2012. 110mins. Canada/USA. A biotechnician (Caleb Landry Jones) sells pathogens extracted from the rich and famous; in this dystopian present, fans pay top dollar to be infected with their favorite movie stars’ illnesses. It’s a way for them to feel closer to fame. Along those lines, the half-effective, half-hacky Antiviral begs a self-reflexive reading: Making his feature debut, Cronenberg seems to be infecting his own work with the influence of his father David’s greatest hits.—Ben Kenigsberg
11pm In Their Skin Dir. Jeremy Power Regimbal. 2012. 96mins. Canada. Important safety tip: When you’re alone with your wife and kid in a remote woodland home, don’t invite the psycho family who brings you lumber as a welcome gift over for dinner. This gleefully nasty home-invasion thriller fails multiple plausibility tests.—Ben Kenigsberg
11:30pm The ABCs of Death Dir. Various. 2012. 123mins. Each segment in this omnibus horror film corresponds to a letter in the alphabet, and each letter stands for a different way to die; a surprising number of these involve flatulence. About a month after seeing the film, I remember G (for gravity), O (from the directors of Amer), Q (Adam Wingard riffing on his bad luck for getting the letter Q) and X (to explain would spoil the punch line). Four out of 26 is a terrible ratio.—Ben Kenigsberg