The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival, reviewed | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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The 2017 Chicago International Film Festival, reviewed

Our critics weigh in on 22 new films making their local premieres.

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The 53rd Chicago International Film Festival runs Thursday, October 12, through Thursday, October 26, offering itself up to the city with the slogan "Because Life Is a Movie." I must admit, I don't get the logic of this—if life is a movie, why not stay home from the fest and save yourself 15 bucks? Moreover, why would anyone want to encourage such a mind-set? People's inability to distinguish life from a movie might explain how we wound up with a Chief Executive who spends every free moment following his own story on TV.

But the marketing is the marketing, and the festival is the festival. This year's schedule includes many good reasons to spend $15 to $20, including tributes to Patrick Stewart and Vanessa Redgrave (the latter presenting her directorial debut, Sea Sorrow, and returning to "swinging London" with a revival of Blow-Up, below). Various series showcase Chicago productions and films about the gay, black, and Latino experiences. There's a series of architecture documentaries, programmed in concert with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and another series collecting film noirs from around the world. Best of all, you can catch new work by Fatih Akin (director of Head On), Philippe Garrel (Regular Lovers), Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata), Martin McDonough (In Bruges), Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), and 22 other bright lights whose work is reviewed below.


Venue: All films listed here screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois.

Admission: Unless otherwise noted, all tickets are $15 ($12 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members). A ten-admission pass is $135 ($105 for members), and a 20-admission pass is $260 ($200 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 10/12, noon-8 PM; Fri 10/13-Thu 10/26, beginning one hour before the first show and ending after the last show has begun). Online: ticketmaster​.com/​chicago​film​festival. By phone: 24 hours in advance at 312-332-3456; weekdays 10 AM-6 PM; Saturday 10AM-3 PM

For more: Call 312-332-3456 or go to chicago​film​festival​.com.


This is the part of my introduction where I usually start sermonizing about how the festival opens a window onto the rest of the world. But it can also provide you with a startling new perspective on your own backyard. Take the German documentary Pre-Crime (below), which exposes the computerized data analysis used by Chicago's police department (and others in the U.S. and UK) to create a "strategic subject list" of citizens likely to commit crimes. The filmmakers get a brief tour of the city's Crime Prevention Information Center, which looks like the surveillance room constructed by Batman to monitor Gotham City in The Dark Knight (also shot in Chicago). Life may be a movie, but I don't remember agreeing to star in it, and I'll bet you don't either. —J.R. Jones

Special events

Actress Vanessa Redgrave accepts the festival's Visionary Award at a screening of her directorial debut, Sea Sorrow, a documentary on the global refugee crisis.
Mon 10/16, 6 PM, $15

Visiting filmmakers weigh in on the commercial prospects for black cinema in the panel discussion The Moonlight Effect, part of the festival's industry-related programming.
Fri 10/20, 4 PM, $5.

The Harold Ramis Film School helped organize the panel discussion Resistance and Satire, pondering the power of comedy in an age of political chaos.
Sat 10/21, 2:30 PM, $5.

Marc Evans, president of Paramount Pictures, talks about his rise in the movie business and his work on such critical and commercial hits as Arrival, Interstellar, and Selma.
Sat 10/21, 4 PM, $5.

Actress Alfre Woodard accepts the festival's Career Achievement award as part of the annual Black Perspectives series.
Sat 10/21, 6 PM, $15.

Actor Patrick Stewart talks about his long career, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to Star Trek: The Next Generation and X-Men, and responds to clips from his films.
Wed 10/25, 6:30 PM, $15.

Actor Michael Shannon appears in person for the closing-night screening of The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro's cold-war fantasy involving a strange creature at a secret government laboratory.
Thu 10/26, 7:30 PM, $35 or $40 with afterparty.

Films

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Barrage
An 11-year-old girl (Themis Pauwels) and her grandmother (Isabelle Huppert) suffer the unexpected return of the girl's mother (Lolita Chammah), a recovering addict who's been absent for a decade and now wants back into their lives. Laura Schroeder cowrote and directed this rambling, disjointed Belgian drama, which is long on incidental detail and art-house conceits but short on narrative drive. Chammah is Huppert's daughter in real life, though they aren't together onscreen enough to generate any chemistry, and Schroeder can't sustain enough tension or emotion to make the story compelling. In French with subtitles. —Marilyn Ferdinand
111 min. Schroeder attends the screenings. Fri 10/13, 8:30 PM; Sat 10/14, 12:45 PM; and Tue 10/17, noon.

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R Blow-Up
Michelangelo Antonioni's sexy art-house hit of 1966, which played a substantial role in putting "swinging London" on the map, follows a day in the life of a young fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who discovers, after blowing up his photos of a couple glimpsed in a park, that he may have inadvertently uncovered a murder. Part erotic thriller (with significant glamorous roles played by Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Verushka, and Jane Birkin), part exotic travelogue (featuring a Yardbirds concert, antiwar demonstrations, street mimes, one exuberant orgy, and a certain amount of pot), this is so ravishing to look at (the colors all seem newly minted) and pleasurable to follow (the enigmas are usually more teasing than worrying) that you're likely to excuse the metaphysical pretensions—which become prevalent only at the very end—and go with the 60s flow, just as the original audiences did. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
111 min. Redgrave attends the screenings. Mon 10/16, 2:30 PM, and Tue 10/17, 5:30 PM.

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Blueprint
An underemployed day-care teacher on the south side struggles to put his life in order after a close friend is killed in a random shooting. This poignant indie drama considers multiple issues facing black communities in contemporary America: unemployment, gang violence, police brutality, broken families. It never overreaches, though, because director Daryl Wein (Lola Versus) and cowriter-star Jerod Haynes ground their social concerns in a precise character study. The complex hero exacerbates his own unhappiness even as he tries to do good by others; he drinks to excess, cheats compulsively on his girlfriend (the mother of his two children), and devotes little effort to finding work. His plight points to a more universal theme: the challenge of becoming a responsible adult. —Ben Sachs
76 min. Wein, Haynes, and other cast members attend the screenings. Fri 10/13, 9 PM; Sat 10/14, 1 PM; and Wed 10/18, 1:30 PM.

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Chasing the Blues
In 1987, a white record collector (Grant Rosenmeyer) and a black record-store owner (Ronald L. Conner) discover that an elderly black woman in Hyde Park (Anna Maria Horsford) owns a rare blues recording. The men's attempts to steal the disk end in disaster, but 20 years later they jump at a second, much riskier opportunity to secure it. Writer-director Scott Smith offers some knowing jibes at the white appropriation of black culture, but the comedy is generally goofy and high-spirited. Rosenmeyer and Conner are great foils, and Horsford, with her sweet tea and southernisms, nearly walks off with the movie. With Jon Lovitz, Steve Guttenberg, and Tim Kazurinsky. —Marilyn Ferdinand
77 min. Smith, Lovitz, and Rosenmeyer attend the screenings. Sat 10/14, 8:45 PM; Wed 10/18, 5:45 PM; and Sat 10/21, 12:30 PM.

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R Faces Places
In this French road movie, whose original title juxtaposes faces and villages, 89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda follows 33-year-old photographer and installation muralist JR across the countryside as he and his team photograph working people, enlarge these shots into monumental black-and-white likenesses, and paste them onto the sides of the buildings where the subjects live and work. From the opening-credit animation onward, this delightful, digressive, breezy collaboration, staged to look more spontaneous than it possibly could be, celebrates and enhances both artists, repeatedly finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and growing more reflective and melancholy only in its Swiss epilogue. For Varda, this is a spinoff of sorts to The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008); for me it was a welcome introduction to the work of JR.  —Jonathan Rosenbaum
89 min. Fri 10/13, 5:30 PM, and Sat 10/14, 2:45 PM.

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R Golden Years
Nos Années Folles, the French title of this exquisitely upholstered and mysteriously provocative period drama, means "Our Crazy Years." But as writer-director André Téchiné has suggested in such masterpieces as Wild Reeds (1994) and Thieves (1996), being "crazy" simply means being human, alive, and horny. The protagonist (Pierre Deladonchamps), a passionately heterosexual soldier, disguises himself as a streetwalker to escape combat in World War I, then continues to wear drag in peacetime, yet his behavior seems no less rational (to him or to us) than that of little boys playing at war, or his adulterous wife (Céline Sallette) playing at marriage. For better and for worse, the mysteries remain unsolved and what prevails is Téchiné's elliptical tragic poetry about unfathomable human behavior. In French with subtitles. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
103 min. Thu 10/19, 8:45 PM, and Sun 10/22, 8 PM.

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Last Flag Flying
Having no desire to revisit the macho-military high jinks of The Last Detail (1973) or read the Darryl Ponicsan novel on which it was based, I had some forebodings about this screen adaptation of Ponicsan's 2005 sequel, even though the movie was cowritten and directed by the smart and resourceful Richard Linklater. Fortunately this belongs mainly to its fine lead actors—Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne—playing buddies from the Vietnam war who reunite for a funeral in 2003 after one of them loses a son in Iraq. The movie asks whether Americans unable to share a country or a conviction can at least agree to share a symbol (whether it's the Stars and Stripes or an unmerited military funeral), and even Linklater and Ponicsan seem divided and uncertain on the question. This has its moments, but it ends, like its characters, in sentimental confusion.
 —Jonathan Rosenbaum
124 min. Mon 10/16, 8:15 PM.

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R Let the Sunshine In
Loosely inspired by Roland Barthes's nonfiction book A Lover's Discourse: Fragments—which dives into the absurd language of solitude and mythology that lovers and would-be lovers recite to themselves and others—this rapturous and faintly comic concerto for Juliette Binoche may well be the most pleasurable and original film Claire Denis has made since Beau Travail (1999). Binoche plays a divorced painter whom Denis pairs sexually, amorously, and/or tentatively with a succession of men played by everyone from Xavier Beauvois to Alex Descas to Gerard Depardieu. The filmmaker's skill in framing her protagonist's various trysts, moods, and dialogues, sometimes even setting them to music, is matchless. Novelist Christine Angot collaborated with Denis on the script. In French with subtitles. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
95 min. Sun 10/22 and Mon 10/23, 5:45 PM.

The Line
Entertaining but muddled, this crime drama takes place along Slovakia's border with Ukraine, across which the protagonist (Tomas Mastalir) smuggles cigarettes and refugees. His criminal enterprise spins out of control after his teenage daughter gets pregnant, his mother cajoles him into hiring the girl's boyfriend, and his criminal associates begin to chafe at his refusal to handle drugs. Director Peter Bebjak tries to cover too much ground, drawing too many ethical lines in the sand for his hero to consider; the film offers neither the punch of a tightly focused narrative nor the epic scale of a Godfather-style saga. In Slovak and Ukrainian with subtitles. —Patrick Friel
112 min. Actor Andy Hyrc attends the Saturday and Sunday screenings. Sat 10/14, 8:30 PM; Sun 10/15, 2:30 PM; and Tue 10/17, 3:15 PM.

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Marshall
Having played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013) and James Brown in Get On Up (2014), Chadwick Boseman turns to Thurgood Marshall, the nation's first black Supreme Court justice. The role is a step up intellectually, yet screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff aren't really interested in Marshall as a jurist, only as a wily and courageous trial attorney for the NAACP in the 1940s, defending a black man in Bridgeport, Connecticut, against charges that he raped a white woman. This real-life case makes for an entertaining courtroom drama that nonetheless reduces Marshall to the level of Perry Mason and consigns to the end credits his greater triumphs arguing Brown vs. Board of Education and other landmark civil rights cases. To compensate, director Reginald Hudlin (Boomerang) accompanies the hero's more eloquent and idealistic pronouncements with little swells of music and shoots him from a low angle so he'll look like a head on Mount Rushmore. With Josh Gad, Kate Hudson, and Sterling K. Brown. —J.R. Jones
PG-13, 118 min. Boseman, Gad, Hudlin, and producer Paula Wagner are scheduled to introduce the 7:30 PM screening (tickets are $100, including an afterparty) and visit the 7:45 and 8 PM screenings (tickets are $40) as part of the opening-night festivities. Thu 10/12, 7:30, 7:45, and 8 PM.

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Mutafukaz
Based on a trendy French comic book, this madcap adventure from Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume "Run" Renard is an international hodgepodge of Japanese animation, French moodiness, and a dystopian setting based on Los Angeles. The hero, a mouthy twentysomething with an alter ego composed of dark matter, and his pal, whose head is a flaming skull, flee a pack of shady characters called the Men in Black. As in video games, the action is lurid, hyperkinetic, and gruesomely violent, with nods to Grand Theft Auto and a comparably infelicitous treatment of the few women characters who show up. But the visual style and narrative are imaginative, and there's enough social commentary to give this silly caper some weight. Dubbed in English. —Leah Pickett
94 min. Renard attends the screenings. Thu 10/19, 10:15 PM, and Fri 10/20, 10:30 PM.

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Never Steady, Never Still
British actress Shirley Henderson uses her soft voice and tiny frame to great effect as a rural housewife wasting away from Parkinson's disease. After her husband (Nicholas Campbell) dies, her inarticulate, sexually uncertain teenage son (Théodore Pellerin) returns home from his job on a remote drilling rig to care for her and sort out his own life. Kathleen Hepburn, who wrote and directed this Canadian drama, captures the daily rhythms of a community so isolated that loneliness can trigger suicide. The actors are excellent (especially Mary Galloway as a pregnant supermarket clerk), but this downer may test your resistance to cabin fever. —Andrea Gronvall
110 min. Hepburn attends the screenings. Wed 10/18, 5:45 PM; Thu 10/19, 8:30 PM; and Fri 10/20, noon.

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R On the Beach at Night Alone
Hong Sang-soo continues in the contemplative mode of Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013), crafting another finely observed drama about a lonely young woman. A South Korean actress (Kim Min-hee), visiting Berlin to forget her messy breakup with a married director, realizes that she's still depressed and returns home, only to alienate old friends with her selfish and self-destructive behavior. Hong's visual style, offering little camera movement or editing within scenes, is deceptively simple, exposing the characters' emotional complexity, and the friction between his serious psychological concerns and his playful narrative, with its dream sequences and clever elisions, generates a certain frisson. In English and subtitled Korean. —Ben Sachs
101 min. Tue 10/24 and Wed 10/25, 5:45 PM.

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R The Other Side of Hope
Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki delivers his timeliest and most heartfelt film, mixing humor, pathos, and anger in a manner reminiscent of Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940). A Syrian refugee, having lost most of his family and friends to sectarian violence, arrives in Helsinki to begin a new life; after the authorities declare that Syria is no longer a crisis zone and order him to return, he finds work and shelter at a run-down restaurant, where he ingratiates himself with the ragtag employees. Kaurismäki offers plenty of his deadpan humor in the restaurant scenes, but the comedy never distracts one from the hero's plight, or from the failure of European nations to provide enough help for the exiled. In English and subtitled Arabic and Finnish. —Ben Sachs
100 min. Fri 10/13, 8:30 PM, and Sat 10/14, 1 PM.

R Pre-Crime
Philip K. Dick's 1956 sci-fi story "Minority Report" predicted a world in which computers use behavioral data to forecast criminal activity; as this German documentary reveals, we're living in that world now. Directors Matthias Heeder and Monika Hielscher open in Chicago, where they visit the Crime Prevention Information Center, a Dark Knight-style surveillance headquarters created by the police department and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and interview Robert McDaniel, a private citizen who says he wound up on the city's algorithm-generated "heat list" simply because his friend was a crime victim. Among the cool new software programs keeping us safe and/or oppressed are PredPol and HunchLab, which map high-crime areas, and Beware, which identifies people with suspicious social media activity. Advocates of the technology call it proactive policing, detractors call it racial profiling, and critics point out that the initial data is already skewed because it represents only reported crimes. Most people don't know anything about the practice, which is the main reason it might be here to stay. In English and subtitled French and German. —J.R. Jones
88 min. Heeder attends the screening. Thu 10/19, 5:45 PM, and Fri 10/20, 3 PM.

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The Rape of Recy Taylor
Some stories are so important that they can overcome a documentary maker's poor cinematic choices. Recy Taylor, a black woman in rural Alabama, was gang-raped by six white teenagers in 1944; unlike many other such victims, she risked her life demanding justice, but despite an abundance of evidence, no one was ever convicted of the crime. Director Nancy Buirski presents emotional testimony from Taylor's brother and sister, and suggests that the nationwide protests over Taylor's treatment helped inspire the civil rights movement. But as if the story weren't moving enough already, she also tells us how to feel with trite visual poetics (fuzzy and superimposed landscape images) and a soundtrack loaded with spirituals. —Fred Camper
90 min. Biurski and producer Claire Chandler attend the screenings. Wed 10/18, 5:45 PM, and Thu 10/19, 3:15 PM.

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Rogers Park
Set in the title neighborhood, this indie drama covers a year in the lives of four middle-aged characters: a failed writer, who earns his living at a public library; his girlfriend, who works for an alderman; his sister, who runs a preschool; and the sister's husband, who sells real estate. Both couples are interracial, though director Kyle Henry and screenwriter Carlos Treviño wisely overlook this concern, focusing instead on the characters' bottled-up professional and interpersonal frustrations. The sympathetic performances, understated direction, and thematic emphasis on lower-middle-class unhappiness all reminded me of British filmmaker Mike Leigh, and like him, Henry and Treviño know how to develop narrative momentum through a steady stream of subtle psychological revelation. —Ben Sachs
88 min. Henry attends the screenings. Thu 10/19, 6:15 PM, and Mon 10/23, 3:30 PM.

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R Sicilian Ghost Story
This Italian drama is based on the harrowing true story of a 13-year-old boy kidnapped by Mafia figures in the 1990s and held captive for two years to prevent his father, another mafioso, from testifying against them in court. Strangely, directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza play down the criminal aspect of the story and focus instead on the curious, almost supernatural connection between the teen and his girlfriend, who appear to each other in dreams and visions during his imprisonment. Careful camera movement, distorting wide-angle lenses, and a hyperfocused sound design all contribute to the mysterious atmosphere, and Julia Jedlikowska gives a heartbreaking performance as the girl, who suffers the bittersweet ache of young love. In Italian with subtitles. —Patrick Friel
120 min. Piazza attends the Sunday and Monday screenings. Sun 10/15, 7:30 PM; Mon 10/16, 5:30 PM; and Thu 10/19, 3 PM.

Spoor
In a mountainous region of Poland, a part-time English teacher finds her two dogs have been killed and saves their remains in hope of cloning them someday. Soon human corpses begin turning up as well, signaling what director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden) calls an "anarchistic, feminist crime story with elements of black comedy." Noirish imagery contributes to the atmosphere, and sweeping camera movements suggest there's more to the story than meets the eye. But the oddball characters and twisty narrative seem almost surrealistically implausible, and the utopian conclusion, apparently a response to right-wing politics in Poland, seemed nutty to me. In Polish with subtitles. —Fred Camper
128 min. Sat 10/14, 3 PM; Sun 10/15, noon; and Fri 10/20, 3;15 PM.

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R The Square
"Do you want to save a human life?" asks a woman distributing flyers outside a museum of modern art in Stockholm; the invariable reply from people on the street is "No." Welcome to the world of Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, who takes some wicked pot shots at the business of art but more broadly ponders the breakdown of the social contract among all people. The Square is an art installation outside the museum, a little zone in which "we all share equal rights and obligations," and that concept informs much of the film's satire—most provocatively, an art lecture continually interrupted by a man with Tourette's syndrome, who barks obscenities at the museum staffers even as they defend his right to stay. Östlund's breakout film, Force Majeure (2014), lampooned the privilege of wealth; this story turns more on cultural privilege, embodied by the museum's handsome but fatuous curator (Claes Bang). With Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West.  —J.R. Jones
R, 142 min. Actor Terry Notary attends the screenings. Fri 10/13, 8:15 PM, and Sat 10/14, 5:15 PM.

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R Thelma
Brian De Palma's Carrie echoes through this Norwegian psychological thriller, which is subtler and more daring than its model. An insecure college freshman in Oslo (Eili Harboe), adjusting to life in the big city without her smothering parents (Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen), falls for another coed and begins suffering terrible seizures. Her doctors rule out epilepsy in favor of a psychogenic illness, but before long the girl begins to develop telekinetic powers. Director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs, Oslo, August 31) links supernatural horror to repressed memories, raging hormones, and fundamentalist zealotry, crafting a sexy and unsettling brainteaser. In Norwegian with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall
116 min. Sat 10/14, 8:30 PM, and Sun 10/15, 12:30 PM.

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Tokyo Vampire Hotel
The latest provocation from Japanese director Sion Sono (Love Exposure) is an awkward theatrical cut of his nine-episode miniseries for Amazon Prime Japan, about ancient, warring clans of Japanese bloodsuckers. Set primarily in Tokyo in the year 2021, the narrative focuses on a trio of young vampires born when the planets aligned in 1999; empowered by Transylvanian blood, these "Draculas" are fated to overthrow the rival Corvins, who locked their kind underground in the 16th century and have ruled the earth ever since. The film is relentlessly violent and disgusting; I lost count early on of how many characters were shot point-blank in the head. Sono also revels in such campy cliches as a sugary-sweet woman who doubles as a merciless assassin. In Japanese with subtitles. —Leah Pickett
142 min. Sat 10/14, 10:30 PM; Mon 10/16, 1:30 PM; and Sat 10/21, 9 PM.

R Touch of Evil
After seeing the work print of his last Hollywood feature, Orson Welles wrote a lengthy memo requesting several changes in editing and sound—work that was carried out in 1998 by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch with me as consultant. Dave Kehr wrote of the film's original 1958 release, "Eternal damnation to the wretch at Universal who printed the opening titles over the most brilliant establishing shot in film history—a shot that establishes not only place and main characters in its continuous movement over several city blocks, but also the film's theme (crossing boundaries), spatial metaphors, and peculiar bolero rhythm." These titles now appear at the film's end—yielding a final running time of 111 minutes—and in the opening shot Henry Mancini's music comes exclusively from speakers in front of the nightclubs and from a car radio. Other changes involve different sound and editing patterns and a few deletions, all of which add up to a narrative that's easier to follow, but there's no new or restored footage. To quote Kehr again, "Welles stars as the sheriff of a corrupt border town who finds his nemesis in visiting Mexican narcotics agent Charlton Heston; the witnesses to this weirdly gargantuan struggle include Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, and Joseph Calleia, who holds the film's moral center with sublime uncertainty." —Jonathan Rosenbaum
111 min. Rosenbaum attends the screening. Sun 10/22, 12:15 PM.

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12 Days
In France, any person involuntarily committed to a mental hospital is entitled to a judicial hearing within 12 days. Raymond Depardon, best known in the U.S. for his documentary The 10th District Court: Judicial Hearings, shot dozens of these sessions by special arrangement with the court, and his film singles out ten of these lost souls as they try to explain themselves to a "liberty and custody" judge. One subject spontaneously punched a stranger on the street, another compulsively interrupts the judge, and yet another claims that he hears "the voice of the electric chair." More often, however, the patients seem lucid and self-knowing; one even agrees to her treatment, admitting, "I'm an open wound." One might say the film is illuminating in its opacity: one comes to it expecting bold insights into mental illness but leaves with a new appreciation of how invisible such illness can be. In French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones
87 min. Sat 10/14, 6:15 PM, and Mon 10/16, 12:30 PM.

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