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2012 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival Preview

In a city overflowing with niche film festivals, many of which disappear as suddenly and mysteriously as they arrive, the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival has established itself as a mainstay in just four short years. CIMM’s mission is to shine a spotlight on new international films, regardless of genre or length, or whether they are fiction or documentary, as long as they are “about music in a creative, compelling way.” What makes the festival both so unique and substantial however is the creative way it pairs movies with live musical performances. Where else in recent years have Chicagoans been able to see films about or featuring musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Watt + the Minutemen or Jon Langford, then see concerts by those very same artists for a single, low-priced admission? Adding to the fun is the fact that many of the screenings take place in non-traditional cinema-going venues such as the Wicker Park Arts Center, Schuba’s Tavern and The Hideout, where one can sip a tasty beverage while taking in the movies and music. Indeed, it is probably the least stuffy film festival experience the city has to offer. Among the intriguing talent descending on Chicago for the 2012 edition, which runs this weekend from Thursday through Sunday, are writer Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), original rappers The Sugar Hill Gang and Sundance “It” girl Lizzy Caplan. The full CIMM Fest line-up, plus info on venues and tickets, can be found here: http://cimmfest.org/

This year I am able to offer a preview of five of the films that will be playing the festival, all of which are Chicago premieres and which I am listing here in descending order of preference. Extra credit is available to any of my students who attend any CIMM screenings; please refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more details.

Punk’s Not Dead (Vladimir Blazevski, Macedonia, 2011)
Rating: 7.7

A legendary Macedonian punk band from Skopje reunites after 17 years to play an NGO-sponsored show in Debar, the mission of which is to promote “brotherhood and unity” in the Balkans. Problems arise when the Albanian punks in the crowd hate the musicians for being Macedonian, the Macedonian punks back home hate them for agreeing to play for the Albanians and the show’s promoter wants to saddle them with new members (including a gypsy horn player) to increase the band’s “multi-culti” appeal. This expert social satire takes an irresistible premise (the reunification of an aging punk band as an allegory for the former Yugoslavia) and mines it for comic gold. Credit belongs to writer/director Vladimir Blazevski, who is returning to feature filmmaking after a seventeen year absence himself and directs like a ravenous man tearing into what may be his last meal; he coaxes winning performances from an ensemble cast playing marginalized but likable outsider characters, including an unforgettable mascot-frog named Ferdinand (a strong candidate for non-human performance of the year), and finds a singularly rude beauty in the film’s ugly, rundown urban locales.

The Girls in the Band (Judy Chaikin, USA, 2011)
Rating: 7.2

This terrifically educational and entertaining movie does what all the best non-fiction films do: takes a fascinating but little-known subject and illuminates it from a variety of interesting perspectives. In a vivacious, swiftly-paced 86 minutes, director Judy Chaikin tells the epic, previously untold story of the history of professional female jazz instrumentalists, examining both the obstacles these women have faced in a male-dominated musical genre as well as why their contributions have tended to be left out of the official histories. This is jam packed with invaluable archival performance footage as well as interviews with the musicians themselves. Especially memorable to me were the sequences devoted to how female jazzers found themselves in high demand during the Second World War and how the International Sweethearts of Rhythm defied Jim Crow laws when they brought their integrated band to the South. This is proof positive that a “talking heads documentary” can be essential viewing when the heads doing the talking are worth the seeing and hearing.

Control Tower (Takahiro Miki, Japan, 2011)
Rating: 6.0

In a remote area of northern Japan, two lonely high school students meet and connect through a shared love of music. Before you know it, they’ve formed a band and have begun rehearsing for a local talent show, although this is a more delicate and poetic take on what one might expect from this familiar type of story. At its best, this first feature by music video specialist Takahiro Miki has a nice feel for wintry landscapes and the tender emotions of adolescence; at its worst it might remind you of an after school special. Interestingly, Control Tower was produced by Sony Music Japan as an attempt to dramatize an innocuous hit pop song. As far as such things go, it’s far superior to last year’s Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire debacle. Lightweight but sweet, this will probably appeal most to those who already have a vested interest in Japanese music and culture.

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best (Ryan O’Nan, USA, 2011)
Rating: 5.0

A couple of down-on-their luck New York-area indie rockers embark on an ill-conceived cross-country tour in this uneven, moderately amusing satire from writer/director/star Ryan O’Nan. The film’s undisputed highlights are the musical performances of the title duo (O’Nan and co-star Michael Weston) – catchy folk-pop tunes that combine acoustic guitar with a delightful cornucopia of child toy instruments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fictional “Brooklyn Brothers” became a real band after the movie’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere last fall and have since signed a deal with Rhino Records; O’Nan’s real talents appear to lie more with music-making than with filmmaking. The contrast between the sincerity of his original songs and the tired mocking of hipsters that constitutes most of the movie’s humor is jarring.

Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy (Rob Heydon, Scotland, 2011)
Rating: 4.6

This Canadian/Scottish co-production attempts to do for the title drug what Trainspotting did for heroin. Unlike the earlier film, however, Ecstasy, which seems to be taking place in the present even though everything about it reeks of the mid-Nineties, fails to capture the zeitgeist. In adapting an Irvine Welsh novella, director Rob Heydon leaves no drug-movie cliche unturned – from the “innovative” visual style (which relies on an excessive use of time-lapse photography) to the usual stock drug-movie characters: the addicted-but-essentially-good protagonist who needs to grow up and become responsible (Adam Sinclair), the over-the-top, wacky addict-friend who provides the comic relief (Billy Boyd), the violent, psychopathic local drug lord (Carlo Rota), and the love interest who offers the possibility of redemption (Kristin Kreuk). Concerning this last aspect, the conclusion of the film is so obviously pre-ordained from the beginning that it is particularly painful when it arrives with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; in the final scene, our newly clean-and-sober hero is actually wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Love is a Great Adventure.” Fans of Welsh won’t want to miss this screening, as the author will be in attendance, but expectations for the movie should be significantly lowered.

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