MOVIES | Chicago International Film Festival 2010, from sweet to scary

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CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—At this year’s Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), I saw over 20 films from among those chosen by the festival’s artistic director and founder Michael Kutza and his excellent staff. They ranged from prize-winning features to much-talked about documentaries to a slew of movies by native Chicago filmmakers representing their beloved city. It wouldn’t be a film festival, though, without its hiccups; one film I attended actually began as the wrong movie entirely, although it was fixed within minutes after the audience started yelling up toward the projection booth.

CIFF, as usual, attracted famous actors, actresses, and directors and presented awards to some of the best professionals in the business. On opening night, actor Edward Norton and director John Curran appeared to kick off the festival with their latest film, Stone, currently in theaters. Edward Burns showed up to present his latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, and took part in a panel discussion entitled “Triple Threat.” Actor Ron Perlman (Hellboy) was on hand to present the Visionary Award to his friend—and one of the most respected filmmakers working today—Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). A sold-out screening of del Toro’s dark 2001 ghost story The Devil’s Backbone was followed by a conversation with del Toro.

Showing up during the second week of the 14-day festival, wasn’t without its disappointments: I missed some of the bigger titles in the festival, including the opening night film, Stone; Black Swan, the dark ballet drama directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream); the genuinely horrific true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting); and Certified Copy, the latest film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us, Taste of Cherry), starring Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche, who also won Best Actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her performance. What works to one’s advantage showing up in the middle of the festival, is the opportunity to talk with other filmgoers about what’s not to be missed and what should be avoided.

The first film I took in might have been my favorite: Thunder Soul, an uplifting and brilliant music documentary based on a 1970s high school jazz/funk band from Houston called the Kashmere Stage Band. The amazing thing that you quickly forget as you hear the songs being played is that the musicians are high school students! Director Mark Landsman gives the material plenty of room to breathe, but the film doesn’t let up for its entire 85 minutes: he interviews students, now in their mid- to late-50s, who decide to get the band back together after not playing for 35 years to see if they can still bring it.

The inspiration is their former band director Conrad O. Johnson, known in the film as “Prof,” who at 92 years old is in for a surprise, as he can’t believe his former pupils are trying to pull this off. Many of the students thank “Prof” for changing their lives and giving them purpose in high school to make something of themselves; and as one student re-enters the old band for the first time in three decades, he can only say, “This place felt like a cathedral or a temple, walking in here.” Landsman’s doc covers everything from current music to American history and politics, including a great scene with former Alabama governor George Wallace. There’s also an interview with Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) and great archival footage of the group as they travel the world winning at major music competitions against recorded artists. Thunder Soul is an inspirational piece of art that should warm even the coldest heart.

The Mexican horror film We Are What We Are will make a believer out of anyone who says “Horror movies don’t scare me anymore.” Well, rest assured, first time director Jorge Michel Grau’s film has me excited for his next film already—horror or whatever the genre. We Are What We Are is a different spin on the horror genre, with its incredible slow-burn buildup and its taboo subject matter: cannibalism. In its opening moments, a man is dying a slow death with gooey “green” blood coming out of him staring at a window display in front of a clothing store. The man turns out to be the father of a family, whose oldest son Alfredo (an exceptional Francisco Barreriro) is now in charge of finding food for his family; they haven’t the slightest idea when and where their next meal (or human) will come from as they are hunted by the local authorities thanks to the discovery of their father’s corpse.

Grau’s slow pacing is deliberate, establishing mood and uncertainty and rising in intensity until the film hits a fever pitch in its unforgettable finale. Featuring an abundance of ticking clocks, you say cliché; I say terrifying, and echoing Jonny Greenwood’s bone-chilling score from There Will Be Blood, Enrico Chapela’s haunting soundtrack gave me the heebie jeebies. We Are What We Are will have its doubters among horror fans who may think it doesn’t have enough blood or gore, but it’ll be hard to find another horror film to match Grau’s dark humor and intensity.

Romanian films have made an impact at film festivals worldwide for the past decade, with discoveries such as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days both winning prizes at Cannes over the past few years. There were two excellent Romanian films at CIFF, Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas and Florian Serban’s If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, which both explore family turmoil and isolation with subtle care for characters, leaving no easy decisions in either film.

In Tuesday, Paul is married to Adrianna, but he has a mistress Raluca, who is the orthodontist for Paul and Adrianna’s daughter Mara. Paul can’t decide between the two women, but whatever he decides, he could possibly regret the outcome. This sounds like a standard relationship drama, but thanks to Muntean’s carefully crafted direction, some of the scenes play out in long takes without any cuts, creating great dramatic tension. Each actor’s emotions are on full display. Tuesday feels like a relentless stage play, with each character slowly opening more wounds and trying to focus on the present without knowing what their future holds.

In the other film, Young Silviu (newcomer George Pistereanu in a great performance) is close to getting out of a Romanian youth detention center and is looking forward to reuniting with his younger brother, until his mother shows up at the center telling Silviu she’s taking him back to Italy before his release. This brings Silviu to his maddening breaking point. If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle‘s narrative promises rehabilitation, but watching Serban’s impressive camerawork and complicated screenplay, only draws the viewer closer into its confined world where the simplest mistake can leave a life-altering mark.

Despite having receiving a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, Heartbeats, an utterly annoying and pretentious film from 21-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, left no impression on me. Coming off the success of his first feature, I Killed My Mother, Dolan again wrote, directed, and stared in this second feature, about a boy and girl who fall for the same guy. Not the most imaginative story line, and the film never feels believable for one second, as Dolan’s Francis and Marie (a very stylish Monia Chokri) both go head over heels for Nicolas (Niels Schneider—oh, he loves Audrey Hepburn!), who seems to be the most clueless person alive, not seeing right through both of these immature adults. The behavior by Francis and Marie is borderline insane and scary as they vie for his attention and give new mean-ing to romantic comedy. Dolan incorporates some fantastic pop songs (especially the dazzling “Bang Bang” by Egyptian singer Dalida), but the constant freeze frames and slow-motion camera, scream Jean-Luc Godard and Wong Kar Wai. I have no problem Dolan stealing techniques from solid directors, and clearly he has talent, but Heartbeats felt more D.O.A. than alive—and stealing only benefits you if you don’t get caught.

Other films worth a quick mention:

  • A mouthful of a title and Palme D’or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterpiece Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is an extraordinary blend of a narrative, silent and documentary film. Weerasethakul can photograph anything and leave you in ahs or in tears through shear poetic bliss.
  • The goofiness and audacity of the Japanese film Golden Slumber, which takes a wacked-out premise of a lonely man who finds himself mistaken as an assassin and never really delivers on its intriguing story, but has plenty of laughs to keep its story afloat.
  • The Norwegian dramedy A Somewhat Gentle Man, which features a terrific performance from Stellan Skarsgard (Breaking the Waves); after getting released from prison, he must choose between getting revenge on the snitch who put him behind bars or reconnecting with his family. The results are satisfying and surprising, but the unevenness of drama and comedy may leave viewers wanting a bit more of a steadier narrative.
  • In the Australian thriller Blame, a great premise is wasted as a group of high students take a teacher hostage, holding him responsible for the suicide of their friend. When clues and hints are revealed, the students start blaming each other for their friend’s suicide, but in anything resembling real life, the stupidity of the students would get them arrested for just showing up at the front door.