Once more I emerge, blinking mole-like, from the end of another Chicago International Film Festival. Once more, his_regard was my nigh-unflinching companion, ably backstopped on International Julius Caesar in (International) Prison Day by gnosticpi. Don't think I don't notice when the rest of you don't come out for these, because I totally do. I'm just too confuselated by my banged-around sleep schedule to mention it.
Anyhow, this year was another pretty strong year for the Fest, or at least for my experience of it. There weren't any out-of-the-park home runs, no Mother or Time or A Dirty Carnival or The Host, but there weren't any utter disasters either. Hey, Chicago International Film Festival, do you notice what that list of out-of-the-park home run films has in common? That's right, they're all South Korean films. Weird, huh. You remember how many South Korean films you had this year? That's right, one. Compared to eleven French films. Now, France still punches way above its weight cinematically, but an 11-to-1 ratio of French to South Korean films is simply indefensible. It disqualifies any international film fest from any claim to relevance in this century. Hell, Cannes screened a lower ratio of French to South Korean films. I understand that CIFF gets some grants from the French consulate in Chicago, but that just means they maybe need to hit up the South Korean consulate for some sugar, too. Rant over. Mike drop.
Once more, I break things down Robin Laws style in the clear light of reminiscence. The theme, as I had expected going in, was surveillance paranoia.
The Exam (Peter Bergendy, Hungary) A 1950s secret policeman is, unbeknownst to him, scheduled for the titular exam to prove his own loyalty. Superb piece of period psychological suspense, complete with its own fashion coded under-narrative of snappy leather trenchcoats vs. sweaters. The opening credits perfectly set the tone, which never lets up; like all good spy movies, it takes place inside the character as much as outside. It also won the Gold Hugo in the New Director's Competition, which means (as almost never happens) I and the Fest agree on something.
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, USA) This documentary about various wrong-side-of-the-looking-glass interpretations of Kubrick's film The Shining makes the brilliant decision to (almost) never show the various paranerds explaining their theories, which are instead depicted (almost) entirely by footage from The Shining, other Kubrick films, or other films entirely. Man, was this great -- it's a perfect lesson in bisociation, in the very real limitations of postmodern thought, in film criticism, in so much more. The only reason it doesn't go above The Exam is because I suspect I'm the ideal target audience for it, and may be embracing it as a fellow enthusiast rather than purely on its considerable merits.
John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, USA) Has Don Coscarelli ever made an actually bad film? This one, based on the novel (or part of it anyhow) is a superb example of his craft, care, and almost unique ability to combine humanity, horror, and humor -- often in the same shot. Plot summary? Hmmm... how 'bout "William S. Burroughs' Dude Where's My Car?"
The Patsy (King Vidor, USA) This 1928 silent rom-com was a show-piece for the delightful Marion Davies. She wasn't the cutest girl on screen (her mean sister Jane Winton, the functional Baxter of the story, was smoldering hot) but her acting and comic chops absolutely showed us why William Randolph Hearst fell so hard. In general, King Vidor is great, and so is great silent film. The ending is a little arbitrary, but no moreso than any contemporary rom-com.
Black’s Game (Oskar Thor Axelsson, Iceland) Essentially an Icelandic Goodfellas with no real flaws at all as a film. Acting, directing, editing, writing, it all clicks. It only drops down here because (unlike A Dirty Carnival) it doesn't quite make the case for its own indispensability within the gangster genre, and the protagonist (Stebbi "Psycho") doesn't quite bring off his own independence of action.
The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan) A robin_d_laws Best TIFF Film! Saith Robin: "After Fukushima repeats itself at another nuke plant, a farm family on the literal edge of the evacuation zone struggles with the aftermath. Sweetly drawn--and therefore, all the more harrowing." If I have a cavil, it's that the movie never quite transcended itself, finding that core unifying element in all the human drama that makes, well, Goodfellas better than Black's Game, for example. But still, an A- is an A.
Dragon (Peter Chan, Hong Kong) The rest of the movie never quite lives up to a bravura sequence of forensic chi detection in the first act turn (forensics as retroactive surveillance paranoia?), but there's lots more good stuff before this wuxia noir finishes up. (The title of this movie in Chinese is, no kidding, Wu Xia.) Well worth it for fans of either.
Sleep Tight (Jaume Balaguero, Spain) Less ambitious than Dragon, but better accomplished, in the school of "seemingly innocuous person in your life is PURE EVIL" horror film made famous by Single White Female, Step-Father, or Poison Ivy. In this example (as with Poison Ivy or the 1960 Korean film Housemaid) there is both a class and a sexual angle -- the EVIL ONE is a doorman and the victim a cute single girl on the third floor -- but predatory male sexuality is way scarier than predatory female sexuality, which richly tangles the class angle. From the director of [REC], also, which ought to be enough recommendation for anyone.
Caesar Must Die (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy) Real-life inmates in Rome's Rebibbia Prison prepare to perform Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The result is less Looking for Richard than a really strong, stripped-to-the-bone version of Julius Caesar.
Don’t Click (Kim Tae-Keyong, South Korea) After all my bellyaching about Korean film up top, it's kind of a shame that the sole Korean film at the Fest wasn't any better than this one. It's surveillance horror, firmly in the tradition of Ringu, rather than paving any real new ground in the genre, which is why it's down in the middle of Recommended, rather than up top. It's got some interesting stuff going on with the "social lynch mob" fears and with Korean culture generally, but it prefers trippy camera work and "creepy mediumistic ritual" to anything super-ambitious along those lines. Still, even a Korean B-picture is better than most other countries' attempts.
Jeff (Chris James Thompson, USA) Re-titled The Jeffrey Dahmer Files by IFC, which bought this creepy documentary by the time I saw it. Three people damaged by Dahmer -- the detective who interviewed him, the medical examiner who had to deal with the crime scene, and a neighbor lady -- tell their stories interspersed with subtle, oblique re-enactments of Dahmer preparing for his crimes. Well worth seeing for its restraint and its creativity, two features not often encountered together in true crime.
Shadow Dancer (James Marsh, UK/Ireland) No-budget BBC/Irish Film Board effort put all its bank into its actors: Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough, and Gillian Anderson only scratch the surface -- everybody in the movie is utterly real, believable, and broken. There's barely a story: Clive Owen is the handler of an IRA asset he's forcing to inform, who finds out (surprise) his bosses are duplicitous British jerks. But this A-to-B plot is strong, and runs confidently until the even-stronger ending. It's just more like a really good TV episode than a full film. And the title is stupid.
Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, USA) Petty grifters try to score $500 in the Bronx to fund a massively cool tag. A sweet film about petty criminals failing to do any crimes, it winds up being a great sense-of-place movie for the Bronx, to boot. I really liked it, but I can see other people sticking on the occasionally muffled acting and the relatively contrived story.
Fuckload of Scotchtape (Julian Grant, USA) A note-perfect noir crime story based on short fiction by Jedidiah Ayres suffers a good deal from the one-note tone of the songs, by Tom Waits wannabe Kevin Quain. Musicals need to vary their beats just like car chase movies do. But still, the story, acting, and wonderful industrial-Chicagoland setting go a long way especially on a subzero budget.
Yuma (Piotr Mularuk, Poland/Czech Republic) This crime film about rootless Polish youths raiding German stores after the fall of the Wall would be all the way up in Recommended (though its basically passive protagonist would have kept it away from the Best anyhow) if I hadn't stuck around for the director's Q and A, in which I learned that the director had not intended the ending to be redemptive. I don't want to give anything away, although it's not the kind of film that depends heavily on surprises -- but let's just say that eyebeams would approve of the director's intention for the ending, given his very different understanding of the psychology of the Western. I, however, don't feel you get points for invoking a mythology you don't understand correctly. Considered entirely as yet another example of the Nouvelle Vague, it probably could go up into Recommended on its own merits, so feel free to think me an unfair meanie for dropping it down into "Good."
The ABCs of Death (Various Artists, Various Places) 26 directors do 26 horror shorts, one per letter, on the theme of death. You get what you expect out of a melange like this one, which suffers from having Nacho Vigalondo deliver the strongest film of the bunch all the way up in "A." Most of the Japanese efforts are just inane, with the rest settling for EC Comics level storytelling -- that said, one or two of them are very inventive, and both the meta-films work surprisingly well. If it weren't for a few real stinkers in the mix, I'd put it up in Recommended no problem.
La Playa DC (Juan Andres Arago, Colombia) It's a film about three brothers in an impoverished neighborhood in Bogota: the eldest goes to America and returns, the youngest gets mixed up with drugs, and the middle brother is our protagonist. Yes, the film unfolds exactly as you think. That said, the setting and society of the film are excellent "sense of place" deliveries, and the technical aspects better than usual for developing-world microbudget cinema.
StringCaesar (Paul Schoolman, UK) Three prisons worth of inmates plus Sir Derek Jacobi for some reason dramatize the early life of Julius Caesar. The concept steps on itself way too much, and the director seems far more delighted with his own cleverness than he deserves for a man who can't spell "Bithynia." But when it works, it works well, and the energy and impossible society of the prison make a surprisingly good window for the chaotic, murderous, socially constrained world of first-century B.C. Rome.
Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, USA) Weird animated backwoods Gothic set in rural Pennsylvania works well when its weird dialogue and strange social observation fits the subject matter. But it can't find a second tone when it needs it, and the sketchy animation in the remembered past actively contradicts the film's Gothic message that the details of the past confine and define us. Still, I liked the writing voice, which sounded like Garrison Keillor on meth.
Bad Seeds (Safy Nebbou, Belgium/Luxembourg) Two students kidnap their English teacher and one of them (ta da!) turns out to be a psychopath. And then not much happens. And then the fourth act turn kind of has to happen, because even in Belgium you can't just leave people in a shack forever. And then it's over.
King Curling (Ole Endressen, Norway) A broken-down former curling champion must pull himself together to play one last meet for the sake of his coach, who lies dying. I strongly suspect that if you can speak Norwegian, you will get the tonal hints and ironies that surely must be somewhere in this self-parodying sports comedy. The central comic actor, you could tell, was funny to someone, but only the broadest humor in the film translates across languages, and this ain't Harold Lloyd.
Agenbite of Inwit (Ken Nordine, USA) If you like listening to the honey-over-gravel voice of Ken Nordine, this film lets you; he narrates word jazz while his own trippy digital animations play over decent-enough jazz music (and once over an endless Jerry Garcia riff). Sadly, except for a reading of "Miniver Cheevy," the words are pablum at best. Think of it as the aural equivalent of watching Megan Fox do stuff for an hour. One sense is gratified, even sated, while the brain must perforce entertain itself.