MOVIES | Thrills and chills at the Chicago International Film Festival

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The beautiful 21-screen AMC Theater in downtown Chicago hosted the 45th annual Chicago International Film Festival, and I didn’t mind the blustery rain and windy conditions outside over the four days I was there with fellow Daily Planet writer Erik McClanahan and KFAI’s Peter Schilling, taking in nine films over the opening weekend of the oldest film festival in the U.S.

Working with a budget of close to $2 million, artistic director Michael Kutza and his staff managed to bring 145 films covering 45 countries over the two week period, but CIFF also brought in many famous faces including legendary Hong Kong director John Woo for the U.S. premiere of his epic historical Chinese drama Red Cliff (opening on November 25 at the Uptown Theatre); Oscar winner Martin Landau, who showed up for a 50th anniversary screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest; and actress Uma Thurman, who received a career achievement award and walked the red carpet for her latest film, Motherhood, which also served as Chicago’s opening night film.

Willem Dafoe showed up the day after I left to accept a career achievement award too; I imagine his Q&A was far more difficult than Thurman’s following the screening of perhaps the most talked-about film of the year, Lars “I am the best film director in the world” von Trier’s controversial, love-it-or-hate-it opus Antichrist (opening on November 6 at the Uptown). According to Variety, “Antichrist screened recently at the New York Film Festival where it was reported the film had to be stopped after a man passed out during one of its more intense scenes. Ambulances were called and the man had to be carried out before the screening resumed.” I couldn’t say if anything this serious happened at the Chicago screening but with reviews being split across the board and dramatic screening results like this, the Uptown should have packed houses opening weekend, regardless.

Many of the films that I saw had recently screened at other major festivals such as Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, and Tribeca earlier in 2009. Most of the titles won’t reach the Twin Cities until mid-2010, and perhaps many will show up at the 28th Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival in April. Either way, the films that I saw ranged from outstanding to colossal disappointments, but the one film that still has my brain doing somersaults is director Bong Joon-ho’s exceptional South Korean crime drama Mother. Mother is South Korea’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year; the film won’t be released until next spring, but should not be missed. Kim Hye-Ja, who shines in the title role, is seeking redemption for her slightly mentally challenged son who has been accused of killing a young girl; Kim’s performance is not only transfixing from start to finish, but the story gives her room to also turn her performance into an elusive character study. Mother might be modeled on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but it also feels similar to Joon ho’s underappreciated Memories of Murder, with many unexpected laughs and bizarre character motivations. Joon-ho’s loopy narrative is a haunting chess game.

The House of the Devil, a 1980s horror throwback, builds nervy tension thanks to writer, editor and director Ti West’s establishing a claustrophobic panic early on that never lets up. When young college student Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) agrees to babysit for Mr. & Mrs. Ulman (an excellent and creepy Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) on the night of a full eclipse, Samantha thinks she’ll be making a quick $400 babysitting for a few hours, only to realize that the Ulmans haven’t left their child at home, but their mother. Drawing comparisons to earlier psychological suspense yarns from Argento, Polanski, and Roeg, West and cinematographer Elliot Rockett bring slow-burn anxiety in every scene, complete with an exquisite sound design (those doors and stairs!) and soundtrack (making superb use of The Fixx’s classic “One Thing Leads to Another”), followed by an audacious finale that is sinister and horrific. An interview with director Ti West is forthcoming in the Daily Planet. (There is currently no scheduled dates for The House of the Devil in Minneapolis, but the film is available for download on Amazon on-demand or through cable providers Comcast and Time Warner on Pay Per View now.)

2009 has been a strong year for documentary films (We Live in Public, The Cove, It Might Get Loud, Soul Power), and seeing two documentaries on the last day with fascinating subjects was a treat; too bad one disappointed more than entertained. The first, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, is a probing look into the famed French director who directed such classics as The Wages of Fear and Diabolique as he was making another film, this time with French beauty Romy Schneider, that was plagued with reshoots, rewrites, and recasting. Directors Serge Bromberg and Ruzandra Medrea show footage from Clouzot’s uncompleted film that has been unseen for years showing Clouzot behind the scenes and working with new stylistic choices including some experimental footage that is mind-blogging and a delight to witness, so it’s a shame the film never got completed. It could have been Clouzot’s masterpiece or a major disaster. Nonetheless, HGC’s Inferno is also a must-see for anyone interested in filmmaking or the process of beginning work on a film shoot.

Cropsey is a spooky name—similar to a monster or boogeyman—among urban legends, and Andre Rand is said “cropsey” in this disappointing documentary following Rand, a former school worker who’s accused of kidnapping and murdering a young girl with Down Syndrome on Staten Island. When other young children go missing, Rand appears to be the prime suspect. Directors’ Joshua Zemen and Barbara Brancaccio story has many twists and turns, but they miss the mark by not digging deeper into their research and rely too much on a he said/she said formula with seemingly unreliable sources. Surprisingly, the best archival footage is of Geraldo Rivera reporting from Willowbrook State School (located in Staten Island) in 1972, a school that housed for mentally challenged children and where Rand might have possibly buried the missing children. The footage is shocking and Zemen and Brancaccio could have gone further down this mysterious path, but they seem more interested in their own arcane connection with Rand than bringing the case full circle, getting sidetracked with sloppy journalism and unimportant evidence. Cropsey never reaches its full potential, its eerie subject matter leaving the viewer baffled rather than shaken.