2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Part Two

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chi film fest next to herI’ve been derailed from posting on the films I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival by a major customer proposal I’ve been working on in my day job. But rest assured though that nothing has stopped me from spending my evenings and the past weekend at AMC River East 21. It’s been a smooth, uneventful festival experience for me; I think both the festival and I are growing old gracefully together (and nope, I don’t miss the whacka-doodle logistics when screenings were spread out all over the city in the early ‘naughts). And what a treat it has been to see my idols Kathleen Turner and German director Margarethe von Trotta, and the rest of the 50th film festival jury sitting with us the audience in the movie theaters, hopefully as awestruck or as frustrated as us depending on the film, something I’ve not seen other festival juries do all these years I’ve been attending. Here are my thoughts on several more films I saw during the fest:

Next to Her (Israel) – I didn’t really know what to expect with this film since other than a few highly-complimentary reviews about its Cannes premiere that I read online I hardly had any information about it. And that’s the beauty of the film festival experience for me, you come out of a screening bowled over and panting like an excited shih tzu after unexpectedly discovering a cinematic gem. From reading the festival catalogue I could glean that Next to Her is about the relationship between Chelli, her mentally challenged sister Gabby who she’s been taking care of, and her new boyfriend Zohar. But that doesn’t adequately summarize the power and the complexity of the film.  Director Asaf Korman and writer Liron Ben-Shlush, who also gives a magnificent, unforgettable performance as Chelli, intricately, fastidiously paint the complicated nuances of Chelli’s relationships:  her obsession with being Gabby’s caretaker which alternates between guilty over-protectiveness and chilling infuriation (the scene when she dunks Gabby’s head in the bathtub for a really long time, both of them nude, is both creepy and hard to watch); her longing for Zohar’s love and companionship suffocated by her inability to fully give herself up to the relationship because her sister takes priority in all matters.  Next to Her is a film that unerringly shows co-dependency at its worst but also profound love at its most intense, and makes you question where one ends and the other begins.  It’s a slow-burn throughout, so when the major plot twist occurs near the end of the film, you are shocked by it, but also feel that the story has earned it.  The direction, though unadorned, is pretty exacting – Korman frames and blocks the actors in very tight close-ups or medium-shots that communicate their emotional lives as much as the dialogue does. And the performances are superb: Yaakov Daniel is warm and unguarded as Zohar, Dana Ivgy realistically portrays a mentally-challenged person with meticulously crafted facial expressions, tic, postures, and movement (in one scene you can’t tell her apart from members of the cast that are truly mentally-challenged in real life) but it’s Ben-Shlush, frightening, sympathetic, and ultimately devastating when she realizes the truth of what she has suspected, that blow you out of the theater and deposit you somewhere east of Navy Pier.

The Third One (Argentina) – I’m a hot-blooded gay man. And I like to watch sizzling love scenes between attractive men in movies as much as the next hot-blooded gay man. But I do hope though that that scorching love scene is part of an interesting, engaging storyline. The Third One, Rodrigo Guerrero’s head-scratcher about gay men in today’s Buenos Aires, doesn’t have an interesting, engaging storyline. The film actually has no discernible storyline period. Its 70 minutes, which to be frank is 60 minutes too long, is comprised primarily of three long sections: a flirty, verbally-explicit webcam chat between domestic partners Hernan (major Argentinian actor Carlos Echeverria) and Franco (Nicolas Armengol) and a twink student Fede (Emiliano Dionisi); a dinner between the three of them at Franco and Fernan’s house where the couple talk about their long-standing relationship, and each of them talk about their families; and then finally a long, really long, no-dialogue, gasp-heavy soft-core, three-way sex scene between the actors , most of it shot perplexingly by Guerrero sideways (which gives a totally fake veneer to the proceedings – as far as I know, ahem!, three-ways  result in more active permutations than what this scene shows).  Then they all wake up, dress and shower, and the last scene is Fede in his calculus class day-dreaming.  This is truly the epitome of trashy art-house cinema at its worst – there is no plot development, no interesting characterizations, and no insightful reflections on the lives of gay men in Argentina. All three actors are attractive and watchable, but a film that says nothing wastes their talents and wastes the audiences’ time. And for those hot-blooded gay men who like watching three-way sex scenes, they’re better off buying a one-time subscription to Sean Cody’s website then paying good money to see this film.

Timbuktu (France/Mauritania) – Abderrahmane Sissako, one of the most admired directors in film today, directed this visually-gorgeous film about the true story of the occupation of the Northern Mali city of Timbuktu, considered to be the seat of Islamic learning and scholarship in the ancient world, by African jihadist extremists groups in 2012. It is one of the most acclaimed films in this year’s film festival circuit, drawing raves in Cannes, Toronto, and New York, and I can see why. Sissako crafts a clear-eyed and noble look at the resilience and strength of character of the citizens of Timbuktu during occupation.  And that’s probably my main issue with the film – the events that occurred in real life are incongruous with the film’s loose, undulating, somewhat inconsistent tone. The occupiers never seem to be sufficiently scary (well until they whip a woman caught singing and stone a couple accused of adultery), the denizens of the city never seem to be brimming with ferocious anger (well until a woman refuses to sell fish wearing a burqa and plastic gloves), the city doesn’t feel dangerous, afflicted, violated (well except when some ancient statues are destroyed at the beginning of the film).  I probably expected Sissako’s direction and Sissako’s and Kessen Tall’s screenplay to have more angry velocity, more heart-stopping fury, more this effing occupation of peaceful people is effing unacceptable and violates effing human rights.  It’s a subtle approach to storytelling which has impressed many film critics; I’m in the camp of let’s show the grit and messy anger. Even the performances, from actors playing both the occupiers and the occupied, are even-tempered, bordering on the soft. Again, hard to reconcile with the suffering that the Malians experienced.  Sofian El Fani’s masterful cinematography is something to see though, rendering the rust-colored terrain (desert, water, mountains) of Timbuktu in all its glorious, timeless beauty.

Today’s the last full day of film screenings at the Chicago International Film Festival. All screenings are at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. Try to fit in one more film if you can!

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