2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Part One

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chi film fest midnight afterI just got through the first weekend of the 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m pleased to report that everything is running like a well-oiled, gently-humming machine. Volunteers are everywhere, lines are orderly, and everyone is just excited to see the films (and after talking to several folks in line, I was surprised at the number of people this year seeing two to four films a day). The most excitement I had was when I was small-talking with a cute volunteer and told him that I’ve been going to the film festival since 1999, to which he casually replied, oh yeah, I was four years old then. Oy! Actually, that deserved another  Oy! Here are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw.

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Mad Men

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timeline danny casolaroActually, I’m probably the mad man as I try to fit in as many theater and arts events before all of my waking time (well outside of working and eating) is taken up by the exciting 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival which begins today (read blog posts about it in the next couple of weeks!).  It’s been a busy fall theater season; although I wouldn’t say it’s been an extremely striking or memorable one. Many of the season openers I’ve seen so far have been lackluster, to put it mildly.  The trend continues with two shows I saw over the past couple of weeks, both, surprisingly, with all-male casts: Timeline Theatre’s Danny Casolaro Died For You has an intriguing true-to-life premise but is bogged down by  Dominic Orlando’s perplexing, inconsistent writing; the production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, one of my favorite plays of the ‘naughts, from a new storefront theater called Eclectic Full Contact Theatre is saddled by tepid, unbelievable performances, and by my old age realization that Greenberg’s writing, which I loved back in the play’s Public Theater and Broadway productions, has a discomfiting whiff of condescension.

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Preview of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

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It is the first day of October, and other than wondering truly where the year had gone (it seemed just like yesterday that we were calling the Polar Vortex the worst thing that had happened to Chicago since Mrs. O’Leary’s frisky bovine sashayed around in her barn and knocked a lantern over), I’ve been busily wearing out my thumbs going through this year’s Chicago International Film Festival schedule.  If you’ve followed my blog through the years you know to expect that in the month of October there will be a spike in film-related posts and a semi-hiatus on theater-related ones.  It’s the Film Festival’s 50th anniversary (it is indeed the granddaddy to the more prestigious New York, Toronto, and Telluride festivals), and I’m proud to admit that except for 2011 when I was travelling every week for a client, I haven’t missed any of it since 1999 – I can’t imagine how my life would have been less colorful if I didn’t see the outrageous Hungarian film Johanna in 2005, the Joan of Arc tale reset in a mental hospital and told as a musical, or the bewildering Isabelle Huppert starrer The Piano Teacher in 2001, making a comeback to the Festival this year in the exciting Huppert retrospective, sure to remind all of us again what the best way is to clean up used tissue paper left behind in gloryholes (yeah!).  The 50th anniversary program is terrific (kudos to founder Michael Kutza and his hard-working Programming team); composed of around 150 feature-length films and 65 short films from 50 countries, with some very big, prestigious gets from the festival circuit. Below I talk about some noteworthy films, and some of the ones I’m sure to see and write about this month.

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The China Syndrome

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goodman extreme happinessIn the May 2014 issue of Travel and Leisure magazine, one of my favorite writers Gary Shteyngart writes an astringent yet admiring profile of Beijing and says “This is where it’s at. Beijing, China’s political capital, is where the future will be partly decided and packaged and presented to large swaths of the globe. In last Sunday’s premiere of his critically-acclaimed CNN TV show Parts Unknown, my other favorite writer/raconteur Anthony Bourdain says ironically yet admiringly of Shanghai “What is the future? I don’t know. But to a very great extent, it is surely being determined here. Is there a plan? Probably not. Only appetites.” Many of us who care about the world believe that the 21st century is the “Asian century” with China as its economic linchpin. So a play like Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness, now receiving a world premiere production at the Goodman Theater before it transfers off-Broadway to the Manhattan Theater Club in February 2015, depicting stories of both urbanites and rural workers driving China’s economic growth, is timely, vital, intriguing. Unfortunately, Cowhig’s play, despite telling fresh narratives that we’ve not seen recently on Chicago stages, is marred by meandering plot threads that dead end in the ether and a perplexing tone that for most of the two hours border on a Sarah Silverman-meets-The Hangover in Asia mélange of toilet humor, slapstick, and broad characterizations. Great concept, flawed execution.

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Ain’t Amour

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chicago shakes king learI’m back! It was a hectic summer where I was literally everywhere, from San Diego to Sao Paulo, from New York City to San Francisco.  But I’m staying put in Chicago for the next several weeks since the fall arts and culture season has begun with its usual loud, notable bang (and for the nth year I’ve thought about finally hiring that cute, virile, foot-massaging male assistant to manage my calendar of show openings and cultural events). All of the major houses have opened their first plays for the season and in the past couple of weeks I was able to catch Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new, Sinatra-inspired take on King Lear and Victory Garden Theater’s Chicago premiere of newly-minted MacArthur Genius grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Intriguingly and coincidentally both shows revolve around the themes of age, aging, and the elderly, and both feature some notable performances from Chicago’s veteran theater actors. Unfortunately both also fall short in treating these important, less-portrayed topics with the power, poignancy, and relatability that they deserve.

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The Vanishing

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goodman brigadoonOnce a long, long time ago (well, the 1940s and the 1950s) the word musical theater didn’t really mean a collection of jukebox hits that your parents listened to, or a musical version of either a Disney film or a gritty British movie with music written by pop culture icons. The dirty phrase “Andrew Lloyd Webber” was mercifully unknown.  During that time a musical meant a show with gorgeous, lush scores, transportive stories that can still at times stretch credulity, unabashed emotionalism that can border on the silly and campy.  Though American musical theater at its height was the last unapologetic bastion of feel-good escapism during the time when film and dramatic plays were moving towards heightened naturalism and raw portrayal of emotions, it still produced some of the most unforgettable music existing from the incomparable talents of Rodgers and Hart, then Hammerstein; Leonard Bernstein; Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe.  So when I heard that the Goodman Theater was going to stage a revitalized, possibly re-envisioned take on Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s 1947 classic about a Scottish village that only appears once in a hundred years, I was intrigued but unconvinced. Can I, a 21st century musical theater queen ravenously brought up on a diet of realistic Sondheim, literary Boublil and Schoenberg,  grounded Ahrens and Flaherty, cerebral Guettel, with pop-music drizzles from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper, actually like a show with a story as incredible as this? Plus I wasn’t a fan of Gene Kelly’s stilted film version (the elegant, aristocratic Cyd Charisse is about as believable as an 18th century Scottish peasant maid as Matt Bomer is as my massage therapist…I mean really?). But as I’ve said so many times on this blog over the years, I love going to the theater and becoming inexplicably, memorably astounded. Brigadoon, marking the significant Goodman debut of Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s most talented theater directors, is enthralling, superb, inarguably enjoyable, lingering with you days after you see it, setting a high bar for musical theater in Chicago and regional theaters as a whole.

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