Capone previews the Chicago International Film Festival: ANTICHRIST, THE MESSENGER, AN EDUCATION, RED CLIFF, and more!!!
Published at: Oct. 9, 2009, 9:16 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here.
Today marks the first full day of screenings for the Chicago International Film Festival. There are slightly fewer offerings this year, but in most cases, there are more showings of each film, which is always a good thing. Forgiving the open-night selection MOTHERHOOD, an abysmal self-important treatise on hipster parents starring Uma Thuman (more on the film from me when it opens in a few weeks), the rest of the festival is a promising mixture of accessible art house fare, a solid selection of foreign films that have been gathering acclaim on the festival circuit, and even a couple of films that feature Oscar-hopeful performances. Here's a quick rundown of some of the films playing in the first week of CIFF that you might want to consider checking out.
In what was the most divisive film at the Cannes Film Festival, and may end up being the most divisive of the year, period, Lars Von Trier's ANTICHRIST opens with what is the most beautiful prologue you will see in 2009. It ends with acts of sexual brutality (inflicted by a man and a woman against each other and themselves) that are difficult to describe even on the filterless internet. In between these unforgettable book ends is actually where the controversy occurs. There's a whole lot of psychobabble between a distraught wife (the wonderfully neurotic/psychotic Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her therapist husband (the remarkable Willem Dafoe). I found the on-the-go, free-flowing analysis fascinating; others have found it mind-numbingly inane and insufferable. And I don't think I'd pick a fight with people who feel that way. The cabin-in-the-foggy-woods setting and the bizarre, excessive mutilations in the film's final minutes gave the entire experience a fairy tale quality to it, and I think it's possible that ANTICHRIST actually hypnotized me. If less intriguing and talented actors were at the center of this movie, I don't think I would have liked it as much. But Dafoe and Gainsbourg maneuver through this murky plot like masters. If you have the stomach for the violence, the rest of ANTICHRIST will probably impress you. My first reaction after the film ended was that it was neither as bloody or shocking as I'd been led to believe. It was the emotional trauma of the entire work that stuck with me and not simply the shocking visuals. Give this one a try, if only to celebrate the fact that Von Trier is still making movies that people cannot stop talking about.
An excellent true-crime doc that actually managed to scare me one or two times while filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman search the woods of Staten Island (the borough that time forgot) for clues to the mystery of a handful of mostly special needs children gone missing over the decades near an abandoned mental hospital. The film examines the elements that make up an urban myth about a child-kidnapping creepy old guy, and turn the myth into a reality that got him locked up for decades with absolutely no evidence beyond circumstantial and unreliable witnesses. The entire film is genuinely creepy and disturbing, especially the unsubstantiated belief that former mental patients still roam the woods and live in the underground catacombs beneath the hospital, or that a seemingly limitless number of Satanists live in Staten Island. (Actually, looking at all the track suits in play here, I could believe the latter.) The bottom line on CROPSEY is that it works as both a mystery that can never be solved and a profile of a community shaped by its own collective fears. And the cast of characters is so colorful and ridiculous that you couldn't cast actors to play them any better than they play themselves. This is a great little movie.
I walked into this fantastic little British production knowing next to nothing about who was in it or what it was about. So as each new layer of the story revealed itself, I was more and more impressed as time went one. From an original script by author Nick Hornby (HIGH FIDELITY; ABOUT A BOY), AN EDUCATION is a coming-of-age tale about a high school girl (played with youthful elegance by newcomer Carey Mulligan, who I believe is supposed to be 16 here) and an older suitor, played by Peter Sarsgaard. When Sarsgaard's character enters the schoolgirl's life, he takes her off her path (more specifically, her father's path for her) to Oxford and introduces her to a world of luxury, glamour and, yes, sex. But we realize early on that something is slightly hidden and off about Sarsgaard aside from the fact that he's pursuing an underage girl. He's got a secret concerning his job that she finds both disappointing and thrilling all at once. The film would be worth seeing if only for Mulligan's performance. AN EDUCATION is ground-zero in the world taking her seriously as an actress, and she's set the bar high for her acting career. I also liked Alfred Molina as her father, who starts the film as the typical overprotective dad, but whose weaknesses are quickly exposed and exploited by Sarsgaard as he somehow gets the girl's parents to approve of his intentions of their daughter. I may be making the film sound a bit on the sleazy side, but the truth is, the film operates on a largely sophisticated level. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (ITALIAN FOR BEGINNERS) does a tremendous job with this character study, which not only examines our leads, but also takes the time to get to know and peer into the lives of the supporting cast, which includes Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Sally Hawkins, Lynn Barber and Dominic Cooper. The film is, at times, lighter than air and heavy beyond words. For such a small film, it takes you on one of the biggest life journeys I've seen in ages.
THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN
Whenever you get a chance to see Catherine Deneuve in a new film, you simply go see it and don't ask question. At this year's Chicago Film Festival, she's in two film: HIDDEN DIARY and Andre Technine's THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, a rambling but still intriguing work about stunning young woman Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), who seems against the idea of working steadily and has no trouble lying in small amounts, sometimes for no reason. Deneuve plays her understanding and perhaps overly indulgent mother. Jeanne gets involved with a rebellious young man, who is sent to prison for being involved in a drug trafficking ring. She responds to this heartbreak by inventing a wild fiction about being attacked by white supremacists on the train. After most of the nation including the French president decries what happened to Jeanne, portions of her story begin to get examined in detail and don't hold up. If that were all the story this film had to offer, I think I would have liked it even more. As it stands, more is piled on, some of it quite interesting, but also distracting as all hell. There's a Jewish lawyer (Michel Blanc) who Jeanne interviews with for a secretary job and later is involved in the investigation of her case. Turns out her mother knew and was in love with him many years earlier, which further complicates matter. Then there's the lawyer's grandson, who is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Most of these characters probably deserve their own films, but in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, many of them get the short shrift. Still, I wouldn't pass up any opportunity to spend time with the mysterious and complicated Jeanne for any amount of time, so I'm certainly recommending the film.
So many of the films set in or made about the current wars in the Middle East have such broad and lofty goals, that they scare away audiences. What I appreciated about THE MESSENGER, from writer-director Oren Moverman) is that it has such simple and clear motives. It isn't trying to tell every soldier's story through the two in this movie; it simply wants us to get to know these two men, faults and all, and understand them. Ben Foster plays Will Montgomery, who has just returned stateside after being injured in a heroic effort in Iraq. He has been assigned the unenviable task of notifying the next of kin of dead soldiers. He is partnered with Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who has done this job a while and knows all the rules. The two men simply do not click, to the point where Will handles himself at these homes quite badly. But as he learns the emotional and psychological means to handle his awesome responsibility, he begins to be able to cope with what he went through while on the front lines. THE MESSENGER is a tough film to watch at times, especially during the notification scenes. The film peppers a few familiar faces among the family members, including Steve Buscemi as the father of one dead soldier, and Samantha Morton as a now-single mother who Will latches onto, looks after (which goes against protocol), and eventually grows attached to. There are no easy answers in THE MESSENGER, and, in the end, this might be the most emotionally charged of all the Iraq War dramas; it's certainly the most satisfying. In his feature work, Foster tends to overplay his characters (see him in Pandorum, in theaters now, for proof), but he is beautifully dialed back for most of his time on screen and it shows a real maturing and understanding of the material on his part. It was bizarre seeing Harrelson in such an intense and focused role just days after whooping it up watching him play free and loose with the world around him in ZOMBIELAND. But the two work well together, and end up having the right kind of chemistry to sustain this working relationship and still draw the other out of their respective shells. THE MESSENGER is a gripping work that you won't soon forget, and, along with THE HURT LOCKER and IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, it may end up being a defining film about this war years down the road.
Released in China as two lengthy movies but cut down to one two-and-a-half-hour effort, John Woo's masterful epic RED CLIFF will, in all likelihood, make you crave the longer, two-part film as you savor every splash of blood and every reflection off a blade. Despite his long and impressive history with action films, Woo hasn't made a true period film since the early to mid-'80s. Set in the early third center, the story focuses on Zhou Yu (the incomparable Tony Leung), his wife Ziao Qiao (the stunning Lin Chi-ling), and his mortal enemy Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi), who holds a deep red flame for the wife. Woo unleashes a cast of thousands in this awe-inspiring work that does an incredible job showing us how strategy can outdo number on the battlefield in so many instances, and how finding your enemies' most vulnerable points can take the place of brute force. I was almost as engrossed in the scenes of planning the next move as I was watching the move itself. Woo spares us nothing in terms of the scope of RED CLIFF, but he never forgets that this is a story about people as well. Holding most of the pieces together is Tony Leung, who may be China's finest asset as an actor in such works as LUST, CAUTION, the INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy, HERO, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, HIGH RISK, and Woo's own BULLET IN THE HEAD and HARD BOILED. He's a handsome devil who makes the dangerous seem romantic and the romantic seem dangerous. Woo gives us an unflinching yet highly stylized mixture for his battle sequences; he spares nothing when it comes to how messy and bloody war can be. But he drinks it all in like some sort of savory concoction, and I loved this movie from the first frame. Now let me watch the entire two films before I slice someone's head open like a melon.
I love the idea behind director Kerry Prior's THE REVENANT. It's a buddy comedy along the same ilk as PiINEAPPLE EXPRESS, but one of the buddies is a sort of rotting zombie-vampire creature, who can still joke, walk around, and commit crimes like a normal dude despite being undead. Soldier Bart Gregory (David Anders) dies in combat, but is somehow brought back from the dead with his not-so-likable personality intact. His girlfriend doesn't take long to slip into bed with his scuzball best friend, and before long, Bart and his buddy are taking full advantage of his dead state to commit crimes and occasionally quench Bart's need for blood. Here's the problem: the film isn't as funny or clever as it thinks, and while it doesn't spare the blood and gore, it doesn't really do much to further the zombie or vampire genres. I love the idea far more than I love the overlong, meandering results. Even as the film's action and violence levels get ramped up as the film goes on, I wasn't impressed, and I'm not that hard to impress when it comes to violence. The film simply felt like it was lost and out of control for huge chunks. It starts with a fantastic premise and doesn't capitalize on it, which is a shame because Anders seems to have the acting chops to pull off pretty much whatever is required of him. There's an enthusiasm and passion for this material by the filmmakers that is undeniable, but the results don't quite get where they need to be. I'll accept that I may be in the minority on Ain't It Cool when it comes to THE REVENANT, and somehow I'll live with that. I just didn't have much fun watching the movie, and there's no getting around that.
More to come, folks.
Follow Me On Twitter