Another Chicago International Film Festival has come and gone, and once more it was a fest with more in the middle than at the ends. But I think the dinosaur was somewhat thicker at the near end than the far end, so that's good. Once more, his_regard was Roland to my Oliver; bigstokes80 swung a mighty bat as our occasional Turpin. And once more, I break it down robin_d_laws style although I, at least, can legitimately say I saw two "Bests" and will in fact say that I saw three. And we saw a whack, a great whack, of films this year; we missed at least two must-sees because of cross-scheduling problems (Juan of the Dead and Yellow Sea), and all the short programs looked uncharacteristically strong. Plus WXRT, the quondam greatest radio station in the free world, sponsored a whole run of late night horror, which despite some uneven offerings is still a great sign that the fest is beginning to notice that not every movie in the world is a touching drama of childhood and loss.
Wild Bill (Dexter Fletcher, UK) That said, this Western, set in the East End of London, was a damn-near perfect touching drama of childhood and loss. But since it was structurally a Western, it can also be about innocence, violence, redemption, responsibility, and order. Titular Bill returns to find his two sons living alone in council housing, and the local drug lord (for whom he went away) breathing down everyone's neck. Fletcher ratchets up the tension and the domesticity in equal measure, but always in service to the drama; the climax like all great Westerns (and all great drama back to Sophocles) is simultaneously inevitable and stunning. Fletcher does a little half-step there at the end to mess with Aristotle just a bit, but the last shot is an absolutely perfect capper, referencing the last shot of The Long Good Friday in a way that shows utter (and well-rewarded) trust in lead actor Charlie Creed-Miles. If he hadn't worked, neither would the film.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) Robin got to see To's new crime movie, A Loss of Principle, set around the financial crisis. We got to see his romantic comedy, set around the financial crisis. To my very great annoyance, this was a letter-perfect Hollywood style romantic comedy. (That the inevitable Hollywood remake will ruin utterly, because it depends on shtick, coincidence, and yawningly vast symbolic freight that you have to be Johnnie To to have a chance in hell of pulling off.) I was so looking forward to rolling my eyes and saying "Well, you know, Toronto got the crime movie" but instead I have to grin and say "Damn right chicks dig the drunken architect." Not at all the same street cred, but a seamless film nonetheless.
The Whisperer In Darkness (Sean Branney, USA) You may suspect that this movie gets something of a genre-and-adaptation bump from me, and you would be right. But it's a pretty terrific film in its own right, a black and white adaptation of Lovecraft's 1931 classic tale of Fortean horror. Said adaptation is not, actually, shot in the style of a 1931 Universal horror film, but as an affectionate pastiche thereof. (Think of Branney as ... no, Derleth is too mean ... Robert Bloch to James Whale or George Waggner's Lovecraft.) The film extends past the novella and makes some interesting choices in doing so; the Mi-Go on screen work really well until the last big effects shot, which still doesn't wreck the retrospective goodness. Branney (and co-writer Andrew Leman) expand the film in directions Lovecraft's story points at but doesn't travel down; I especially appreciated the re-casting of the story's first third or so from Lovecraft's typical Terrifying Tale Of A Man Reading Things into a radio debate between Albert Wilmarth and a jovial Charles Fort.
Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria) A genuinely harrowing film about an insurance adjuster who keeps a young boy in his basement for, well, you can guess. And Schleinzer makes you guess, and as horror film directors have known for decades, what you guess is more genuinely horrifying than anything he shows you, which is just creepy beyond words. The actors playing the pedophile and his victim are note-perfect, capturing both their interaction and their own private hells with virtually no dialogue or even overt emotional display. Restraint, indeed. Ew.
Haunters (Min-suk Kim, South Korea) This lo-fi supervillain film reminded me of Unbreakable, as if filmed by Hideo Nakata from a Korean novelization of Frighteners. Our villain can control minds; our hero is somehow immune to our villain. That's the setup, and it escalates the stakes both dramatically and cinematically throughout, moving (after an intro set piece) from grotty workplace dramedy to full-scale K-horror-action. One bit, set in an apartment complex, needs to be filed away for anyone who makes mind-control movies to homage from now on.
Nobody Else But You (Gerald Hustache-Mathieu, France) Although the mystery element of this frothy cocoa of a film is tongue-in-cheekily by-the-numbers, the real joy comes from the production design, cinematography, score, and incidental dialogue and throw-away elements. In essence, it's a parody of James Ellroy's obsession with the Black Dahlia case; a French crime novelist determines to investigate the death of a local celebrity in "the coldest town in France" and finds himself investigating a (sometimes literally) shot-by-shot recreation-cum-miniaturization of Marilyn Monroe's career.
A Lonely Place To Die (Julian Gibley, UK) The program book mentioned The Wicker Man, which put me on quite the wrong track for about the first half of this harrowing ordeal thriller. A multinational crew of climbers (Scots, English, American) discover a Croatian girl locked in a hole in the remotest Highlands, and their act of instinctive decency leads to, well, a harrowing ordeal. It begins to spin a bit out of track when it gets down out of the mountains -- the stuff with ropes and falling and such is just primal -- but it doesn't topple over even after a lengthy bit of exposition very late in the film.
Smuggler (Katsuhito Ishii, Japan) This movie gets its bump up pretty much on style points; it's adapted from a manga by a director with visual style in spades, and no strong direction he wants to point the material. Ishii seems to think that if you throw enough awesome elements with their own mythic momentum into a movie -- badass (and batshit crazy) super-assassins, eye-rolling villains straight outta chambara, a cute moll with a heart of ice, a wacky old guy, a tough pro who lives by a code of his own, a scumbag on the make -- they'll carry it over the top and over the finish line. Despite a weirdly inert protagonist, I can't say he was wrong to think so.
King of Devil's Island (Marius Holst, Norway/France) The poor programmers thought they were getting socialism, but they got a Christ-allegory instead. (He's even a fisherman!) Not a great Christ-allegory, but a pretty good prison break film, made better by the original setting (a cripplingly horrid reform school on a godforsaken island off Norway) and Stellan Skarsgard (as the warden, er, headmaster).
Chico & Rita (Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal, and Fernando Trueba; Spain) Knowing virtually nothing about Afro-Cuban jazz, I have no idea if my response to the film is overly generous or overly vacuous. It was pretty, the songs were catchy, the story (woven in and out of Afro-Cuban jazz history from 1949 to 1961 with a coda in the now) robust if not clever. I did think it odd that the story basically ends with Castro taking power, as though the result went without saying. I mean, it does to me, but I didn't know it did to Spanish filmmakers.
Kaidan Horror Classics (Masayuki Ochiai, Shinya Taukamoto, Lee Sang-il, Hirokazu Kore-Eda; Japan) Essentially the Japanese TV network NHK's version of Showtime's Masters of Horror, a brief series of four short films based on four kaidan (supernatural stories) by four acclaimed directors. Had I fully parsed that going in, I would have slightly more accurately pegged this (naturally) uneven fixup. "The Arm" was fetishistically trippy, but amateurish both in concept and execution; "The Days After" is a quietly terrifying story of parents haunted by their (or everyone's?) dead child; "The Nose" was a loud historical piece about a cursed monk, which I liked quite well at the time but think now was a little bit thumpy; "The Whistler" was a case of unreliable narration and perhaps-imagined supernaturalism, which was all well and good, but didn't really chill.
Play (Ruben Östlund, Sweden) A nuanced but clearly anti-immigration film set in the parts of Gothenburg I didn't see at the con, and for good reason. (As gnosticpi quipped afterward, "I hope the Gothenburg Chamber of Commerce didn't pay too much for this one.") As an examination of white liberal responses to race, it was kind of obvious; as a narrative of a hustle, it went on a little bit too long. As a use of documentary techniques in the service of fiction (albeit based, they say, on actual police reports), though, it's pretty top-notch.
Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey) Commence your mockery -- this naturalist drama won some kind of big prize at Cannes, and all the great and the good love it love it love it. I am, admittedly, just a hard sell for naturalism in any narrative art, believing that constructing a narrative should have some point other than camouflage. This film does not adequately make the opposite case to me. The tale of the boring part of a police procedural -- looking for the body of a murder victim after the perp has confessed, and the first half of the autopsy -- is essentially about truth and constructed narrative and memory; there's some thematic looping but bottom line, this movie does not earn its Sergio Leone reference. All that said, it is what it is, and it's quite a good preparation of a dish I wouldn't have ordered if I'd read the menu more carefully.
On the Edge (Leila Kilani, Morocco/Germany) Had the sound, lighting, or cinematography of this film been less awful, I suspect it might have gone up a tick. (Perhaps the digital transfer is to blame.) But the low-level crime film about a self-deluding girl on the make in Tangier almost managed to keep its energy and interest up despite a few flagging patches. I think I might have missed a key reveal at the end, and I can't honestly tell you if it's my fault or Kilani's.
The Destiny of Lesser Animals (Deron Albright, Ghana/USA) The first three acts of this movie are the weird, propulsive noir I thought I was going to see -- a Ghanaian cop fakes the theft of his gun to excuse his actual search for a stolen passport that will get him out of the hellhole that is Ghana, to the paradise that is America. But wait! It's actually a search for himself, or for the true meaning of Ghana, or something. Act Four is a fine conclusion, but to a different film. Nice work with a series of savior narratives in the film -- from Nkrumah to Christ to our protagonist. This final note of hope makes it hard for me to really hate on the switcheroo.
Rabies (Aharon Keshales, Israel) This splatter-chaser film is not nearly as good as its high concept (which I shan't spoil), thanks to cartoonish characters and one too many unmerited coincidences. It almost pulls it off despite that, but I recommend going in convincing yourself that the "wild fox refuge" where a mad torture-killer is running amok amidst attractive strangers is actually a Zone Of Makes You Crazy.
Target (Alexander Zeldovich, Russia) Once more, the Russians manage to take a decent idea and bollix it up with weird. Or maybe they took decent weird and bollixed it up with idea. Hard to say; this is one part Anna Karenina (albeit a version in which Anna suffers no ostracism, which is akin to a version of Jane Eyre in which Jane is an archduchess), one part Stalker (in which The Zone gives you eternal youth and turns you into a Tolstoy protagonist), and one part weird bollocks (goggles that let you perceive good and evil, a giant superhighway across Russia, a swear-to-god twelve-minute shaggy dog joke about a rare element condensed from volcanic gases).
Love Is In The Air (Simon Staho, Denmark) Or, as we put it, "Love in the Time of Poor Impulse Control." Staho hits just the right note of adolescent silliness to do a Shakespearean romantic comedy, but sorting out four star-crossed lovers doesn't work mathematically if only one of them is gay. The entire budget looked like it was about 20 grand, all of which went for fur coats and Jolly Rancher-colored gels to put over the lights. (Which, if the film stock had been better, would have totally killed. Love the Jolly Rancher gels.) The songs weren't good enough to justify the silliness on display (which cripples a musical), and the teens unappealing enough to keep the romance from frothing up properly. But good effort, Denmark.
The Giants (Bouli Lanners, Belgium) Further to our ongoing theme of child endangerment, this Belgian Huck Finn puts two preteen brothers and a Huck (a local lug attached to a scary older-brother drug dealer/enforcer) alone and homeless in the bucolic Belgian countryside. And then it ends with them floating down a river. Note to Europe, and David Milch: Act Four is in dramas for a reason.
Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, Australia) That this movie is a docudrama based on Australia's real-life worst serial killer, John Bunting, does not relieve it of the obligation to present characters that one cares remotely about, and ideally that are not completely inert dramatically. "Weak boy stays weak" is not one of those killer story arcs. I also found its presentation of lower-class South Australian life ca. 1997 condescending and othering, but the director apparently grew up there, so maybe he meant it in a good way or something. The only professional actor in the film is the serial killer, but he's presented as even more of a cipher than the standard B-picture thrill-killer, so the intended realistic horror is muted into a kind of clinical revulsion. I should note, however, that bigstokes80 found the protagonist's journey compelling and the killer nuanced, so perhaps it's just me.
The Silver Cliff (Karim Ainouz, Brazil) Not enough sense-of-place to move this poky blob of a film up into Okay, much less Good, and there was a decent chunk of sense-of-place in it; I always knew where I was in Rio as the movie went along, which is harder than you'd think. But man, oh man, did I not care who was there with me or what they were doing. I get that a woman suddenly deserted by her seemingly loving husband is not going to react rationally. But I don't think it's crazy to hope that she will react interestingly; instead she meets a pleasant enough drifter and his young daughter, and they kick around and sing a song in the airport and then it's morning. Spoiler!
Day Is Done (Thomas Imbach, Switzerland) This, conversely, is all our fault. The writeup said we were getting footage shot from one point, mostly of the back of the Zurich train station; voice tracks entirely made up of messages left on the director's answering machine. Compelling, no? But we live in hope, and our hopes were cruelly dashed early. At least Silver Cliff only spent 82 minutes going nowhere (this thing was 111 minutes and 15 years long), and all of Rio is much prettier than the back of the Zurich train station despite some very nice intermittent sky-cloud-smokestack-sunlight composition. Also, by his own answering machine's testimony, Thomas Imbach is a jerk.