Here in Chicago we’re right in the middle of the 46th annual Chicago International Film Festival, so for the past week I’ve been gorging on small independent and foreign films (seriously cutting into my usual fall gorging on MLB playoffs and college and pro football).
The nature of a fest like Chicago’s and its emphasis on lesser-known works means that many of these films won’t make it to theaters, some may never get to widely distributed DVD. But the fun of a festival is just plunging into a wide variety of different, sometimes deeper and more thoughtful films. Not all are perfect; some demonstrate the drawbacks of working on low budgets with actors of varied experience. But the beauty of a fest like CIFF is that no matter what, you come away with your love of film invigorated.
Below are a few of the films I’ve seen in the past week at CIFF:
CIFF’s opening-night feature will be playing in theaters across the country in the coming weeks, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it here on redblog, as I have an interview with star Edward Norton and director John Curran coming up later this week. The story of a parole officer (Robert De Niro) and an inmate up for release (Norton), Stone‘s drawn mixed reviews, some from those expecting some sort of hard-boiled prison thriller or Primal Fear 2. It’s not–it’s a mesmerizing story of religion and belief, of sin, justice, and redemption that literally hums with deeper moral themes. Norton and De Niro are fantastic, and with Milla Jovovich and Frances Conroy also turning in brilliant performances, this could end up one of my favorite films of the year.
How much of the always-electrifying Idris Elba is too much? Well, this one-motel-room film from British-Nigerian director Thomas Ikimi does push the limit. Elba plays a former US black-ops assassin whose Senator brother (Oz‘s Eamonn Walker) is running for president. Elba holes up in a tiny, sleazy motel room and proceeds to sink into paranoid delusion and even hallucination–or does he? The actor is intensely riveting as usual, though he’s about the only reason to see the film, which otherwise feels disjointed and unsure of its intentions.
One of my favorite “smaller” films of the Fest so far, this adapted play sails into Mamet territory, with John Goodman and Jim Ortlieb as boat-and-booze salesmen/grifters whose paths glance off those of John Malkovich and Dana Delany as a drying-out drunk and his estranged sister. There are drunks and there are boats, both served up in a very Tom Waits-ian stew of scotch-soaked dreams and failings. However the real stand out is Jacob Zachar as Delany’s younger son. Flexing more than a little of the LaBeouf, Zachar (who appears in ABC Family’s Greek) is a name and face to watch.
The Myth of the American Sleepover
This small film from Michigan is clearly aiming for American Grafitti/Dazed and Confused territory as it follows several teens through a night of, well, sleepovers, parties, and pursuit love and/or sex. Unfortunately its dreamy, lackadaisical pace and the inexperience of its actors slows it down so much the usual teen-night charms and generational insights are stranded.
A Russian film about two workers alone in an Arctic scientific research station. I think. Who are monitoring radioactive output from something. Maybe. One of whom withholds an important family radio message from the other. I guess. Things kind of drift quietly (and beautifully, with lots of long, moody shots of the landscape and sea) for most of the film, until the two men start shooting at each other. I’m not sure why. But it looks really cool.
A well-made indie Flashdance, Go For It! is set in Chicago’s Hispanic community and benefits from solid performances (especially Aimee Garcia as the high-school girl with big dance dreams). On the other hand, this is really a very typical “step up and dance” movie, complete with all the cliches. It winds up a testimony to the ability of indie films to competently carry off big Hollywood formula–though that may not be such a good thing.
The story of Brazilian pop artist Vik Muniz, who goes to the massive landfill of Rio de Janeiro to carry out an art project/social statement. From the trash heap he hires local “pickers” (workers who make a living sifting through the piles of refuse to find materials they can sell in bulk) to become both the subjects of and the assistants on his large-scale portraits made from trash. Sure there’s a lot of metaphors and artsy symbolism in all that, but mostly the film is a look into these people’s varied and yet hope-filled lives–and it also addresses the issue of how do you pluck them literally out of the garbage for a few weeks to work on the art and then tell them they have to go back to picking?
The grown-up members of Texas’ legendary Kashmere High School jazz-swing-show band Thunder Soul reunite after 35 years to play a concert in honor of their teacher and band leader, Conrad O. Johnson. More than just a look-at-them-now reunion story, Thunder Soul is also a fascinating–and exhilarating–historical look at the joyous musical makings of a ’70s jazz show band, complete with spectacular Afros and stunning horn-section arrangements.
What starts out as a socially conscious gesture–taking a tumbling children’s circus troupe from its home in St. Louis to Israel in order to foster goodwill between Israelis and Palestinians–ends up more about simply being a teenager in a show, which of course primarily means trying to make cross-cultural connections with members of the opposite sex. That’s fine–the end result is still delightful, with the sheer all-ages joy of circus performing outweighing any heavy handed geo-political intentions.