Chicago International Film Festival: Week 1

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The Chicago International Film Festival held every October is the oldest film festival in North America.  It may not be as prestigious as Toronto, Telluride, or New York, so we do not have as many filmmakers and celebrities attending, but it does offer Chicagoans a great opportunity to see many films from other parts of the world that may not receive commercial distribution in the US.  Several years ago, I had the notion of trying to see 20 movies in 2 weeks, which I soon found out was about as much fun as having a herniated disc, especially while you’re sitting through the nth artsy subtitled movie about 90 year old Hungarian barley farmers. You live and learn, so over the years, I have been pretty selective as to what I end up seeing.  And the payoffs are huge- for every dud, there is at least 2 brilliant film experiences like Haneke’s Cache, one of the showcase films of 2005.  This year is no different, out of the 5 movies I have seen in the first week of the festival, there are 2 exceptionally great ones, 1 very good one, and 2 perplexing ones. Here are my thoughts on the 5:

- “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days” was the surprise winner of the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and I think the award was richly deserved.  This is a harrowing, provocative film about a student who tries to help her roommate get an abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania.  But that is just the jump-off point for reflections on the nature of morality within a totalitarian regime (are absolute standards of right and wrong as we know possible in that situation?  or are people driven to be situationally moral?  there’s some philosophical debate here that I am not well-versed to take on). Shot in naturalistic style, with lots of tracking shots and grey atmospheric lighting, it reminded me a lot of Kiezlowski during the Decalogue days.  Excellently acted, written, and directed (by Cristian Mungiu, who has directed only one other film before this), ”Four Months..” is one of my richer film going experiences of the year.

- “You, the Living” is an absurd dark comedy from the highly respected Swedish director Roy Andersson.  There is no plot, but there is a lot of strange laugh-out-loud humor, a musical number or two, an over the top melancholy biker chick, and very sharp observations on the pettiness and self-involvement that people are often capable of.

- “Love Songs” or what I have told my friends as the French pansexual musical (!).  Boy and girl invite other girl, who may or may not be a lesbian, to a threesome relationship.  Girl dies of aneurism.  Other girl is bisexual, not goldstar lesbian, since she hooks up with a straight guy.  Boy sulks and meets other girl’s boyfriend’s gay brother who then proceeds to stalk boy.  After initial resistance, boy and gay brother end up happily ever after (or at least making out on a balcony). Add the dead girl’s meddling older sister, lots of catchy French pop songs, beautiful rain soaked shots of the Place d’Bastille, a really terrific, youthful, wink wink energy, and you have a fun, very French time at the movies.  “Amelie” this definitely is not.

- “La Leon” is probably one of the most stultifying experiences I have had in a darkened movie theatre for a while.  I never really figured what this Argentine film (which won a directing prize at the Berlin film festival) is about, but it sort of involved illegal loggers from Paraguay, soccer, a closeted gay guy who gets dry humped in the woods by his nemesis, and lots of beautiful cinematography of reeds swaying in the wind and seaweed floating on a lake. 

- “Ploy” – Billed as an erotic thriller from Thailand, this is again one of those head-scratchers that people who go to arthouses feel they have to admire.  There must be something in the pad thai sauce in Bangkok for the new wave of Thai directors to be doing movies that make no sense to anyone who’s sober (exhibit A: “Tropical Malady” which was screened at the festival several years ago). A couple from the US go home to Bangkok for a funeral and all kinds of crazy things and dream sequences and “is this real or is this not” situations ensue.  I have a pretty high tolerance for artsy, pretentious films, but this one really taxed my patience (especially after the hotel maid, whose only dramatic use from what I can discern is to have graphic sex with the bartender character, gets a musical number near the end of the movie).

The Chicago International Film Festival runs till Thursday, October 18.  For movies and schedules, check out the website:  http://www.chicagofilmfestival.org/cgi-bin/WebObjects/CIFFSite.woa/wa/pages/Home

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