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The 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, reviewed

Another year, another slate of prestige movies from all over the world

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The 52nd edition of the Chicago film festival includes tributes to Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Claude Lelouch (A Man and a Woman), Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago), Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate), and producer James D. Stern (An Education). But what I'm most curious about this year is the festival's spotlight on the musical, a genre dear to the hearts of many but challenged, since the 1970s, by the rise of rock and hip-hop and the heightened realism of the modern cinema. The series collects new musicals from Brazil, Poland, Israel, Finland, and the UK, as well as a restoration of the long-lost Bing Crosby/Paul Whiteman vehicle King of Jazz (1930) and, on opening night, the midwest premiere of Damien Chazelle's La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. (The latter, a romance between an aspiring actress and musician, sounds more like Chazelle's dreamy debut feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, than his celebrated sophomore effort, Whiplash.) The movie musical is an American invention, so we should be proud to see it flower in other cultures. J.R. Jones

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
  • Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

[Recommended] Abacus: Small Enough to Jail Abacus Federal Savings Bank holds the distinction of being the only financial institution prosecuted as a result of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, though as this engrossing documentary by Steve James suggests, it may have been a sacrificial lamb. A family-owned business, Abacus provides home loans to immigrants in New York's Chinatown (James, laying it on a bit thick, stresses the bank's civic-mindedness with clips from It's a Wonderful Life). Yet good intentions weren't enough to protect Abacus after New York prosecutors indicted 19 employees and accused the bank of having purposely sold hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent loans to the Federal National Mortgage Association. James focuses on Thomas Sung, the septuagenarian founder of Abacus, and his grown daughters, several of whom are executives at the bank (and one of whom, ironically, worked in the DA's office when the indictment came down). The family drama adds an emotional dimension to the strictly legal narrative, in which the Sungs' attorneys try to prove that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of loan officers. J.R. Jones James and producer Mark Mitten attend the screening. 88 min. Tue 10/18, 6 PM.

After the Storm
  • After the Storm

After the Storm In this family drama from Japanese writer- director Hirokazu Kore-eda, a rainstorm forces a struggling novelist (Hiroshi Abe) to reconnect with his recently widowed mother (Kirin Kiki), estranged wife (Yoko Maki), and young son at the matriarch's home. The novelist works as a private investigator, surveilling and blackmailing people, and steals from his mother to feed a gambling addiction, yet he adores his son and re-creates with him the childhood pastimes he and his father once shared. Kore-ada has explored the father-son dynamic in his previous work, most notably Still Walking (2008) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), and brings a gentle, humanist approach to the material. The film was shot in and around a low-rent housing compound in Kiyosi, where Kore-eda grew up, and there's a palpable sense of connection to it. There's also a surprising chemistry between the mother and the wife, who are bound by their common love for an impossible man. In Japanese with subtitles. Leah Pickett 117 min. Wed 10/19, 8:15 PM, and Thu 10/20, 5:45 PM.

Apprentice
  • Apprentice

Apprentice In this ruminative drama about capital punishment, an intricate tracking shot follows the protagonist (Fir Rahman), an ambitious young guard in a Singapore prison, from the death chamber to the hangman's office, where the camera pivots to frame him behind a set of iron bars. Boxed in by childhood trauma, bad choices, and loneliness, the rookie gradually befriends the veteran hangman (Wan Hanafi Su), a regal figure unaware that his new protege is the son of someone he executed decades earlier. Benoit Soler's fluid, revolving camera frequently visualizes what the main character can't verbalize, and writer-director Boo Junfeng treats his thorny topic with sensitivity, but the pat ending is a letdown. In English and subtitled Malay. Andrea Gronvall 96 min. Mon 10/17, 8:45 PM, and Tue 10/18, 3:30 PM.

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
  • The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography Errol Morris indulges his long-standing interest in photographic method with this slight but agreeable profile of portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who made a big name for herself with large-format Polaroid photography but chose to retire after the company discontinued the film in 2008. Associated with Grove Press in the 60s, Dorfman took up photography in the mid-70s and shot numerous black-and-white images of literary and musical icons (Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jorge Luis Borges, Anaïs Nin, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jonathan Richman). But the Polaroid portraits she began taking in 1980, captured in fluorescent tones on 20-by-24-inch film, brought out a new sense of color and artifice in her work. "I'm totally not interested in capturing their souls," she tells Morris. "I'm only interested in how they seem." To judge from this chatty, fleetly edited film, Morris feels the same way about her, but her story does illustrate the dilemma of an artist dependent on a corporation for her materials. J.R. Jones 76 min. Sat 10/15, 3:45 PM, and Mon 10/17, 12:15 PM.

Camera Buff
  • Camera Buff

[Recommended] Camera Buff This 1979 satirical feature by Krzysztof Kieslowski describes everything that ensues when a Polish factory clerk (coscreenwriter Jerzy Stuhr) buys an eight-millimeter camera—including his growing obsession with his new toy, his altered relationships with his wife and boss, and the responses of other filmmakers (including Krzysztof Zanussi in a cameo) after he wins third prize in an amateur film competition. Suffused with Kieslowski's dry wit and intelligence, this early feature provides an excellent introduction to his work. In Polish with subtitles. Jonathan Rosenbaum 112 min. Sat 10/15, noon.

Christine
  • Christine

[Recommended] Christine Rebecca Hall gives a heartrending performance as Christine Chubbuck, the young TV journalist who killed herself with a pistol during a 1974 broadcast in Sarasota, Florida. Most of the surface tension in this biopic springs from the hot social issues of the era (women's lib, the trivializing of TV news), and screenwriter Craig Shilowich tries to connect Chubbuck to our modern consciousness by portraying her as a tragic postfeminist hero, frantically busy and chronically lonely. Yet Hall transcends these narrow topical concerns by presenting the charmless, insecure, morbidly depressed reporter as a complex and irreducible personality. Particularly haunting are the puppet shows Chubbuck improvises for children in a local hospital; their wise, gentle stories speak to her own emotional journey, which will end in a performance neither wise nor gentle. Antonio Campos directed; with Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, and J. Smith-Cameron. J.R. Jones Letts takes questions after the Saturday screening. 120 min. Sat 10/15, 5:45 PM, and Sun 10/16, 8:15 PM.

Daughters of the Dust
  • Daughters of the Dust

[Recommended] Daughters of the Dust Julie Dash's first feature (1991) is set in the islands along the south Atlantic coast of the U.S. sometime around 1900. A group of black women, carrying on ancient African traditions and beliefs as part of an extended family preparing to migrate north, confront the issue of what to bring with them and what to leave behind. Lyrically distended in its folkloric meditations, with striking use of slow and slurred motion in certain interludes, this doesn't make much use of drama or narrative, and the musical score and performances occasionally seem at war with the period ambience. But the resources of the beautiful locations are exploited to the utmost, and Dash can be credited with an original, daring, and sincere conception. Jonathan Rosenbaum 114 min. Sun 10/23, 3 PM.

Do Not Resist
  • Do Not Resist

[Recommended] Do Not Resist First-time documentary maker Craig Atkinson exposes the Department of Homeland Security's arming of local police departments with military weaponry, including Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) that can carry out even routine drug raids with overwhelming force. Since 9/11, he asserts, the federal government has given out $34 billion in grants for MRAPs and other assault gear, though the expenditure may have less to do with public safety than with fattening up defense contracts. Atkinson tracks the civil administration of this domestic buildup, from a city council meeting that ends in the acquisition of an armored assault vehicle to a Senate hearing where Rand Paul and Claire McCaskill try to pin down slippery contractors. The director also examines the gung ho police culture that encourages domestic militarization; among the colorful sideshows are a visit to a SWAT training camp in Orlando and a police motivational speaker who rejoices in the great sex cops have after they use force. J.R. Jones Atkinson and producer-editor Laura Hartrick attend the screening. 73 min. Mon 10/24, 6:30 PM.

Elle
  • Elle

Elle Dutch writer-director Paul Verhoeven, making his first French- language film, returns to the themes of sexual perversion and errant womanhood he mined in Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995). An affluent video games executive in Paris (Isabelle Huppert) is brutally raped in the first few minutes of the movie, and her reaction ranges from sad and predictable (she doesn't report the crime) to disturbing and unexpected (she's attracted to the perpetrator). Huppert is spellbinding as the icy, licentious victim; she seems to be daring the viewer to dislike her character, but the woman's mettle and barbed wit produce the opposite effect. Verhoeven masterfully stretches the suspense, and his gallows humor lands most of the time. His attempts at edginess slide into exploitation, though, as he entertains the notion that women might enjoy sexual assault and even deserve it. In French with subtitles. Leah Pickett R, 131 min. Thu 10/20, 8:30 PM.

Graduation
  • Graduation

[Recommended] Graduation A doctor and his wife reel when their teenage daughter is assaulted by a strange man on the eve of her college entrance exam, and after her promising academic career is compromised by a low score, the father conspires to help her cheat on a repeat examination. Writer- director Cristian Mungiu was hailed as a leading light of the Romanian new wave for his 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about a woman seeking an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu years, and Graduation shares with that movie a sense of how personal morality can be misshapen by the institutions of an immoral society. The doctor guards other secrets—a longtime affair with a single mother, a clandestine relationship with government agents spying on one of his patients—and Mungiu notes the various equivocations and rationalizations the protagonist uses to justify himself to himself. In Romanian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 128 min. Sat 10/15, 8:30 PM, and Sun 10/16, 7:45 PM.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer This gory slasher movie was made in Chicago in 1986 but held in limbo until 1989 because of its disturbing content. Very capably acted (by Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, and Tom Towles), written (by Richard Fire and John McNaughton), and directed (by McNaughton), this, like every other slasher movie, has its roots in Psycho. The tensions developed here are more behavioral and psychological than those essayed by Hitchcock, though the insights into the personality of a compulsive killer are at best partial and perfunctory. What mainly registers is the nihilism of the warped ex-con (Rooker) and his dim-witted friend and accomplice (Towles), who joins him in a string of senseless murders, which the film makes chillingly believable. Certainly not for everyone, but if slasher movies are your cup of tea this is a lot better than most, and the use of Chicago locations is especially effective. Jonathan Rosenbaum 90 min. Rooker and McNaughton attend this 30th anniversary screening. Fri 10/14, 9 PM.

Imperfection
  • Imperfection

Imperfections Local musician David Singer directed this crime comedy about a heist on Jeweler's Row in the Loop. Read Leah Pickett's interview with Singer. 104 min. Fri 10/14, 4 PM; Sat 10/22, 8:30 PM; and Sun 10/23, 12:30 PM.

Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story
  • Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story

Insatiable: The Homaro Cantu Story As expansive as the great chef-inventor Homaro Cantu was, he could also be maddeningly secretive, particularly about the seemingly limitless number of fantastical, world-changing projects he was embroiled in at any given time. This documentary by Brett A. Schwartz provides some insight into Cantu's mystifying and appalling suicide in April 2015, but mainly it charts his journey from homeless youth to world-renowned modernist chef with a thousand ideas for making the world better. Cantu's character as tech-obsessed idealist certainly comes across, though not the madcap sense of humor that propelled his busy kitchens. Mike Sula Schwartz attends the screenings. 98 min. Mon 10/17, 8:30 PM, and Mon 10/24, 6:15 PM.

Like Water for Chocolate
  • Like Water for Chocolate

[Recommended] Like Water for Chocolate Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Esquivel, who adapted her own work for the screen, this delightful piece of magical realism (1992) from Mexican director Alfonso Arau contemplates the unrequited love of a single woman for her brother-in-law, which can be expressed only through the sensual meals she prepares for him. (The original novel even contains recipes.) The title, incidentally, derives from a Mexican slang expression that means, approximately, "ready to boil." In Spanish with subtitles. Jonathan Rosenbaum Arau attends the screening. 113 min. Mon 10/17, 5:30 PM.

Lost in Paris
  • Lost in Paris

Lost in Paris The golden age of silent comedy lives on in Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Belgian performers who deliver the sort of balletic movement, wild pratfalls, and surreal sight gags we expect from Chaplin and Keaton. This 2014 feature is Abel and Gordon's fourth as writer-director-stars, and though it doesn't hold a candle to their goofy Rumba (2008), their inventive visual humor still seems like a breath of fresh air compared to the verbal snark of most modern movie comedies. Gordon plays a Canadian rube who arrives in the title city, and Abel is a local vagabond who takes a shine to her. The middle-aged stars may not be quite as limber as they used to be, but they've still got the moves—check out their smoldering dance number in a swank restaurant, to a techno tune whose bass beat causes the other diners to jump in unison. In English and subtitled French. J.R. Jones 84 min. Mon 10/24, 8:30 PM, and Tue 10/25, 6 PM.

A Man and a Woman This kind of syrupy love story (sports car driver Jean-Louis Trintignant falls for divorcee Anouk Aimee) is decidedly not my cup of cassis: it's full of misty romps in the meadows, rain-soaked windshields, assorted puppies and lambs, and a "bittersweet" theme song that drones incessantly on the soundtrack. Still, this 1966 feature was one of the most successful foreign films ever released in the U.S., and Pauline Kael explained why when she noted that it was "a great make-out movie." Claude Lelouch directed. In French with subtitles. Don Druker Lelouch attends the screenings. 103 min. Sat 10/15, 3 PM, and Tue 10/18, 3:15 PM.

Middle Man
  • Middle Man

Middle Man In this comedy by local filmmaker Ned Crowley, a stand-up comedian falls under the spell of a hitchhiker who persuades him to murder a heckler after a show. Read Leah Pickett's interview with Crowley. 104 min. Tue 10/18, 8:30 PM.

Moonlight
  • Moonlight

[Recommended] Moonlight A film written and directed by a black man (Barry Jenkins), adapted from a play by a black man (Tarrell Alvin McCraney of Steppenwolf Theatre), and focused on three stages in the life of a gay black man (Alex Hibbert in childhood, Ashton Sanders in adolescence, and Trevante Rhodes in adulthood) qualifies as exceptional for those reasons alone. Factor in Jenkins's visual poetry—the color blue is almost a character—and the experience becomes transcendent. A haunting piece of high art, this drama moves beyond narrative, loosely connecting key events and leaving broad swaths of the protagonist's journey to the imagination. Cinematographer James Laxton (Youth) renders Miami as a wonderland of magic and danger, and the nuanced performances of the leads—plus André Holland (Cinemax's The Knick) as the hero's complicated love interest and Naomie Harris as his drug- addicted mother—provide the honest emotion needed to ground the operatic material. Leah Pickett Jenkins, McCraney, Holland, and Harris attend the screening. 111 min. Wed 10/26, 7:30 PM.

One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film
  • One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film

One Day Since Yesterday: Peter Bogdanovich and the Lost American Film This 2014 documentary about the eminent American filmmaker lacks the production value of A&E's Biography series, let alone the style and virtuosity of Bogdanovich's signature film, The Last Picture Show. The title may suggest an in-depth profile of the man or a study of his influence on Hollywood, but director Bill Teck focuses more on Bogdanovich's romantic relationship with ingenue Dorothy Stratten, who appeared in his 1981 caper comedy They All Laughed (see review below) and was murdered by her estranged husband prior to the film's release. Movie buffs won't learn anything about the Stratten case that hasn't already been covered in other media (including Bob Fosse's drama Star 80), and the documentary's shoddy production seems unworthy of Bogdanovich, whose filmography demands a closer look. With Jeff Bridges, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson. Leah Pickett Teck and Bogdanovich attend the screening. 120 min. Sun 10/16, 5 PM.

Paterson
  • Paterson

[Recommended] Paterson The eponymous New Jersey town proves to be a hotbed of poetry and art in this comedy from writer-director Jim Jarmusch, thanks to his beautifully loony conceit that all ordinary Americans are closet poets and artists of one kind or another (even if they don't always know it). The bus-driver hero (Adam Driver), also named Paterson, writes poetry, and his Iranian wife (actress and rock musician Golshifteh Farahani) goes in for black-and-white domestic design; they know they're artists and are completely smitten with one another, but their neighbors in a local bar seem less fortunate. Like many of Jarmusch's best films, this keeps surprising us with its minimal, witty inflections, at once epic and small-scale, inspired in this case by the book-length poem "Paterson" by William Carlos Williams. Jonathan Rosenbaum R, 113 min. Sat 10/15, 8:30 PM.

A Quiet Passion
  • A Quiet Passion

A Quiet Passion British writer-director Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) is an old hand at the challenge of communicating characters' interiority, but he stumbles with this biopic about Emily Dickinson. Trying to fathom the poet's psyche, he uses her verses to comment on things (such as unrequited romantic love) that, he imagines, shaped her. This works well enough, but some stretches of dialogue, particularly those between the adult Emily (Cynthia Nixon) and a headstrong bluestocking (Catherine Bailey), are so laced with bon mots that they tighten like a corset. Jennifer Ehle is outstanding as Emily's sister, and Florian Hoffmeister's lustrous cinematography compares with his work on Davies's The Deep Blue Sea. Andrea Gronvall 124 min. Sun 10/16, 5:30 PM.

The Salesman
  • The Salesman

[Recommended] The Salesman This gripping Iranian melodrama by writer-director Asghar Farhadi (the Oscar-winning A Separation) focuses on a couple acting in a Tehran production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. One should probably resist the temptation to read some subtle message into this exotic premise, because Farhadi (unlike Abbas Kiarostami) is neither a modernist nor a postmodernist but something closer to Elia Kazan: topical, sharp with actors, mildly sensationalist (this is about the consequences of a woman being attacked by a stranger while taking a shower), alert to moral nuances, but lacking a full-blown vision of his own. As in A Separation, Farhadi privileges a woman's viewpoint without either sharing or exploring it. Jonathan Rosenbaum 125 min. Sun 10/16, 5:45 PM, and Wed 10/19, 6 PM.

The Swedish Theory of Love
  • The Swedish Theory of Love

The Swedish Theory of Love Nordic countries are often held up as model social states, but this provocative 2015 documentary by Erik Gandini (Videocracy) suggests that, while everything looks pleasant on the surface, Swedish society is crumbling. The "theory" of the title refers to the philosophy of the "Family of the Future" program, introduced by Swedish politicians in 1972, that "all authentic human relationships have to be based on the fundamental independence between people." More than 40 years after this groundbreaking manifesto, almost half of all Swedes live alone—the highest rate in the world—and one in four dies that way. The documentary calls for a balance of personal autonomy and community, and makes a strong if subtle case for why a societal focus on self-involvement breeds racism and intolerance. As one Swedish man puts it, "That the social welfare state is taking care of us is the problem. We should be taking care of each other." Gandini proposes "interdependence" as the answer but doesn't provide specifics; apparently future generations will have to decide. In English and Swedish with subtitles. Leah Pickett Gandini attends the screening. 76 min. Sun 10/16, 4:30 PM, and Mon 10/17, 3:45 PM.

They All Laughed
  • They All Laughed

They All Laughed Peter Bogdanovich conceived of this 1981 film—about a New York detective (Ben Gazzara) hired to follow a millionaire's unhappy wife (Audrey Hepburn)—as a revival of the romance and sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch's comedies. If intentions counted more than accomplishment, this movie would be a masterpiece: all the right elements are present, chosen with a keen critical eye. But Bogdanovich, a cold director drawn to sentimental material, doesn't have the warmth to bring it off, and his wobbly control of tone keeps leading the physical comedy into pain and humiliation, the romance into prurience, and the wit into the realm of the sour and shrill. With John Ritter, Colleen Camp, Blaine Novak, and Dorothy Stratten, luminous in her last screen appearance. Dave Kehr PG, 115 min. Mon 10/17, noon.

The View From Tall
  • The View From Tall

The View From Tall Coming-of-age movies, with their tropes of alienation, rebellion, and burgeoning sexuality, are reliable (if often disposable) fare for the teen market, but this Chicago-set love story breaks new ground with the protagonist's self-knowledge and directness. A gangly brainiac at a suburban high school (Amanda Drinkall) is devastated by the exposure of her affair with a teacher. Her selfish parents, unable to deal with the situation, consign her to a psychotherapist, and her younger, dimmer sibling (Carolyn Braver), already an alcoholic, is torn between supporting her and slut-shaming her. As capable as these actresses are, the film belongs to Michael Patrick Thornton as the resentful heroine's wheelchair-bound shrink. Caitlin Parrish's disarming script is based on her own play, which was first staged when she was 19; its dialogue radiates hope and defiance. Parrish and Erica Weiss codirected. Andrea Gronvall Parrish, Weiss, and producers Mary Kay Cook and Amanda Pflieger attend the Thursday screening. 90 min. Thu 10/20, 8:45 PM; Fri 10/21, 12:30 PM; and Mon 10/24, 2:30 PM.


VENUE

Unless otherwise noted, all films screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois.

ADMISSION

Unless otherwise noted, all tickets are $15 ($11 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members). A ten-admission pass is $130 ($100 for members), and a 20-admission pass is $250 ($195 for members). Weekday matinees through 5 PM are $8; shows after 10 PM are $10. Special packages for opening- and closing-night galas.

ADVANCE SALES

In person: River East 21 (through Thu 10/13, noon-8 PM; Fri 10/14-Thu 10/27, beginning one hour before the first show and ending after the last show has begun). Online: ticketmaster.com/chicagofilmfestival (individual tickets only). By phone: 24 hours in advance at 312-332-3456; weekdays 10 AM-6 PM.

FOR MORE

Call 312-332-3456 or go to chicagofilmfestival.com  v

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