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Category Archives: Film Festivals

The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Fest – Week Two

The following should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

What to see during the Chicago Latino Film Fest's second week
The Chicago Latino Film Festival continues through Thursday, May 4. My best bets for the second week are Fernando Lavanderos’ Lost North and Juan Sebastian Mesa’s The Nobodies.The Nobodies is the reason why film fests exist: shot in lo-fi black-and-white digital in one week on a budget of just $2000, this engrossing Colombian drama went on to win the top prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival Critics’ Week, thus ensuring healthy and deserved international distribution. The plotless film follows the lives of five aimless teenage punks in the city of Medellin: they juggle in the streets for money in order to fuel a non-conformist lifestyle revolving around weed, live music, tattoos and graffiti. Writer/director Juan Sebastian Mesa’s first feature may be modest in scope and lacking broader social context but it’s also entirely successful as deft urban portraiture: the naturalistic dialogue and performances (by actors playing loosely fictionalized versions of themselves) are electrifying.

My favorite film at this year’s CLFF is the Chilean road movie Lost North, Fernando Lavanderos’ follow-up to his excellent 2012 feature Things the Way They Are. The plot concerns a young woman named Isabel (Geraldine Neary) abruptly leaving her boyfriend Esteban (Koke Santa Ana), a Santiago-based businessman, and embarking on a spontaneous journey north towards the Chilean-Bolivian border. Isabel sends Esteban short, enigmatic videos from her travels, which impel him to try and find her using only the video evidence as his guide. The film’s clever dual road-trip conceit allows Lavanderos to create a compelling Murnau-like dichotomy between city and country, past and present, and man and woman, but there’s also welcome humor in the characters’ differing attitudes towards “unplugging” and letting go of the modern world: one hilarious scene involves a desperate Esteban calling in sick to work from the road “with hepatitis” in order to justify his absence from the office.

The Nobodies screens on Saturday, April 29 and Monday, May 1. Lost North screens on Sunday, April 30 and Tuesday, May 2. For more information, visit the Chicago Latino Film Fest’s official site.

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The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival – Week One

The following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime soon.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago Latino Film Festival

The 33rd Chicago Latino Film Festival kicked off last night, April 20, and runs through Thursday, May 4. This year’s edition of the long-running fest features a typically impressive and eclectic lineup of Latino-themed movies from Europe, South and North America. My best bets for the festival’s first week are Such is Life in the Tropics and The Empty Box.

One of the most pleasant surprises of CLFF in recent years was the local premiere of Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Amazing Catfish in 2014. The young Mexican director follows up that auspicious debut feature with another visually stunning family drama, this one even more personal in nature: Sainte-Luce not only wrote and directed The Empty Box but also plays the lead role of Jazmin, a diner waitress in Mexico City who must learn to care for her estranged father, a Haitian immigrant named Toussaint (Jimmy Jean-Louis), after he is diagnosed with vascular dementia. The film is apparently closely based on Sainte-Luce’s own experiences and the way in which her character must learn to become “parent” to her father has the painful ring of authenticity. What really elevates this otherwise modest two-hander though are the visual beauty of the extremely dark, naturally lit interiors as well as the extensive flashbacks to Toussaint’s past, which feel like a reckoning born of compassion on the part of the filmmaker.

Sebastian Cordero’s Such is Life in the Tropics is a superb political thriller that intertwines several compelling storylines set in Guayaquil, Ecuador: one involves an unscrupulous lawyer (Andres Crespo) trying to negotiate the eviction of a settlement of squatters on behalf of a wealthy landowner, while another involves the accidental shooting of a German tourist — and its subsequent cover-up – by an even wealthier soccer impresario (Erando Gonzalez). The film’s diverse portrait of class warfare in contemporary Ecuadorian society crystallizes in another subplot – a Romeo and Juliet-like love story between the lawyer’s stepdaughter and the son of one of the squatters. The way writer/director Cordero intercuts between all of these characters is both suspenseful and masterful although the way he resolves the various narrative threads is a little too tidy for my taste. Still, you should see this.

The Empty Box screens on Thursday, April 27 and Saturday, April 29. Such is Life in the Tropics screens on Thursday, April 27 and Monday, May 1. For more info visit the Chicago Latino Film Festival’s official site.


DEATH IN THE TERMINAL at the Doc10 Film Festival

A version of the following piece will appear at the Time Out Chicago website sometime before Friday.

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The must-see doc Death in the Terminal will receive its U.S. premiere in Chicago this weekend

The second annual Doc10 Film Festival will take place at the Davis Theater from Thursday, March 30 through Sunday, April 2. As with last year’s impressive debut lineup, Doc10 will again highlight the best in contemporary nonfiction cinema by presenting the local premieres of 10 important documentaries curated by Anthony Kaufman (who also programmed the documentary slate at the Chicago International Film Festival for the past two years). While I was impressed with each of the four titles I have been able to preview so far (at least one of which, the much buzzed about Rat Film, will certainly return to Chicago screens at some point this year), my favorite of the bunch is the lower-profile Death in the Terminal, an Israeli movie still awaiting five user votes on the IMDb that will be receiving not just its Chicago premiere at Doc10 but its U.S. premiere as well. Although the running time clocks in at a lean 52 minutes, this incredibly complex and disturbing documentary by co-directors Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry does more to explain the culture of violence in the Middle East today than any other single work of art I know of. This is perhaps because it focuses on a single 18-minute incident (a terrorist attack at a bus station in Israel, and its immediate aftermath) in a way that feels like a microcosm of the conflict as a whole.

Death in the Terminal dramatically juxtaposes surveillance video footage from multiple security cameras — plus one eyewitness cell phone video — with interviews with six subjects (including police officers, a falafel vendor, an EMT and a couple of civilian bystanders) in order to piece together what happened in Beersheba in 2015 when an Israeli soldier was senselessly gunned down by a Bedouin terrorist and, equally senselessly, an innocent Eritrean refugee was mistakenly lynched in response. The film plays out like a negative version of Keith Maitland’s Tower, the superb animated doc from last year that focused on the heroism of civilians and police during the 1966 sniper shootings at the University of Texas in Austin; only where Maitland’s humanist movie showed people “doing the right thing” in the face of tragedy, Shemesh and Sudry’s darker and thornier work focuses on people who did the wrong thing, thereby perpetuating an insane cycle of violence and retribution. But Shemesh and Sudry also thankfully have no interest in pointing fingers or casting easy blame: their film explicitly challenges viewer assumptions about how we might react in similar circumstances, a provocation nowhere more apparent than in a haunting final shot where security-cam footage is run backwards. As soon as it’s over you may feel that you need to watch it again.

Death in the Terminal screens on Saturday, April 1 at 9:15pm followed by a Skype Q&A with the filmmakers. More information on DOC10, including the full lineup, can be found on the DOC10 website.


AUSTERLITZ and THE SON OF JOSEPH at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. Here are my “best bets” for the festival’s fourth and final week.

Austerlitz is a provocative and challenging German documentary on the subject of “Holocaust tourism” by the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa (Maidan). The film daringly eschews all of the usual contextualizing devices of non-fiction cinema (interviews, voice-over narration, onscreen texts, etc.) and merely presents viewers with static long-take shots of men and women filing into and out of museums on the grounds where the death camps at Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen once stood. Most of the subjects look as though they could be visiting an amusement park or any other major tourist attraction but Loznitsa’s refusal to provide any sort of commentary on the stark black-and-white images means that viewers are left to draw their own conclusions about why people visit these sites and whether or not it’s disrespectful to do so in a shirt emblazoned with the words “Cool Story, Bro.”

American-born French director Eugene Green (La Sapienza) returns to CEUFF with The Son of Joseph, a masterful comedy/drama about a teenage boy (Victor Ezenfis) searching for the identity of his birth father (Mathieu Amalric), a journey that ends up taking on parallels to the Biblical stories of the birth of Christ and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. The film’s extensive meditation on father/son relationships, which offers an optimistic view of how we may not choose the families we’re born into but that we can choose our own surrogate family members, makes it an unlikely companion piece to Warren Beatty’s criminally underrated Rules Don’t Apply. Green’s employment of Bressonian non-acting, direct-camera address and absurd humor (a digression involving a young man selling sperm on the internet is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years) adds up to a vision as singular as it is satisfying.

Austerlitz screens on Sunday, March 26 and Wednesday, March 29. The Son of Joseph screens on Friday, March 24 and Wednesday, March 29. For more info, including ticket info and showtimes, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


ETHEL & ERNEST and THE ORNITHOLOGIST at CEUFF

A version of the following piece should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bets for the festival’s third week are a beautiful, hand-drawn animated film from England and a surreal, dreamlike allegory from Portugal.

Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (best known for penning the animated holiday favorite The Snowman), Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest is a deceptively simple but deeply moving account of the lives of an ordinary married couple living in London from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. The title characters of Briggs’ book were explicitly based on his own parents and the way the film’s elliptical narrative quietly moves from one relatively uneventful vignette to another over the span of half a century has all the intimacy and emotion of flipping through a cherished family photo album. More than one critic has compared the film to the opening marriage montage of Pixar’s Up if that sequence had been sustained for the running time of an entire feature. The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles should especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.

João Pedro Rodrigues’ previous feature, the superb The Last Time I Saw Macao, received its local premiere at CEUFF in 2013 and this more ambitious follow-up is one of the highlights of the filmgoing year so far. Short on plot but long on spellbinding imagery, The Ornithologist concerns the misadventures of a young man named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is kidnapped by Chinese tourists while on a bird-watching expedition in a dense forest near the Portuguese/Spanish border. After escaping, Fernando attempts to return to civilization but, like Ulysses and St. Anthony of Padua before him, finds himself continually sidelined by encounters with a menagerie of strange characters (including a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus). The homoeroticism and mystical-jungle imagery may put one in the mind of Apichatpong Weerasethakul but the Catholic symbolism and meditation on solitude vs. companionship are distinctly Rodrigues’ own.

Ethel & Ernest screens on Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18. The Ornithologist screens on Saturday, March 18 and Thursday, March 23. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


SLACK BAY at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

I was very taken with Bruno Dumont’s batshit crazy Slack Bay, which screens twice at the Siskel Center’s Chicago European Union Film Fest over the next week. A version of this review should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime before Friday.

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The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bet for the festival’s second week is also my favorite of the 14 titles I’ve previewed so far: Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, an off-the-wall police procedural/slapstick farce that features a healthy dose of social criticism to boot. It’s a worthy follow up to Dumont’s acclaimed 2014 television mini-series Li’l Quinquin, which similarly combined a murder-mystery plot with slapstick comedy (surprising at the time given that Dumont’s previous work was noted for its marked lack of humor). While Quinquin was set in the present day and focused on a pair of incompetent police officers investigating a series of murders in a small town where racism and xenophobia are rampant, Slack Bay is set just before World War I and focuses on bumbling cops investigating a series of killings in a coastal town whose socio-economic gulf represents seemingly eternal French class divisions. As if the positive response to Quinquin has given him confidence, Dumont also successfully turns the wackiness here up to 11; Slack Bay is one of the funniest and craziest films in recent memory.

The plot concerns two families whose paths cross on France’s scenic Channel Coast: the savage, working-class Bruforts, permanent residents of “Slack Bay” who make their living from fishing and ferrying, and their opposite numbers, the Van Peteghems, aristocrats who vacation there only during the summertime. Each family is satirically shown through a grotesque, archetypal and deliberately exaggerated lens (as bloodthirsty cannibals and inbred blue-bloods, respectively) – the very lens, in other words, through which the families might subjectively view each other. Dumont’s conception of the Brufort children as all male and the Van Peteghem children as all female allows him to create a provocative dialectic between “barbarism” and “civilization.” This class divide between the families is only bridged when the sexually ambiguous Billie Van Peteghem (Raph), a girl who disguises herself as a boy, attracts the romantic interest of the brutish “Ma Loute” Brufort (Brandon Lavieville). Plus, there’s a police inspector so corpulent that he literally has trouble standing upright (Didier Despres) and French screen legend Juliette Binoche, as an eccentric Van Peteghem aunt, performing in a more cartoonish register than you’ve ever seen her.

Slack Bay screens on Saturday, March 11 and Thursday, March 16. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.


PERSONAL SHOPPER and THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV at the Chicago European Union Film Festival

My latest Time Out blog post concerns the first week of the 20th annual Chicago European Union Film Fest, the lineup of which is typically excellent. I present the uncut version of that article below.

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What to see during the first week of the Chicago European Union Film Festival

Christmas for Chicago cinephiles comes every March when the Chicago European Union Film Festival, now in its impressive 20th year, descends on the Gene Siskel Film Center. The CEUFF is the film-lover’s film festival, the one that gets many Chicago critics and cinephiles the most excited because it always manages to host the local premieres of dozens of exciting European titles by major directors that other festivals, including the Chicago International Film Festival, have failed to land during the previous year. This year is no different, with the CEUFF premiering a whopping 62 new European films from “all 28 EU nations” (though, confusingly with regards to Brexit, this includes the United Kingdom). Below are my best bets for the festival’s first week.

The Kristen Stewart vehicle Personal Shopper, which reteams the American actress with her Clouds of Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, gained instant notoriety upon its 2016 Cannes premiere when the first press screening was greeted with boos while the first public screening garnered a lengthy standing ovation. Both reactions are understandable: Stewart’s unique, sometimes controversial brand of “underplaying” has rarely been used to better effect than here—as a celebrity assistant living in Paris, haunted by the unexpected death (and perhaps literal ghost) of her beloved twin brother—though the mystery/drama hybrid film that surrounds her is not always as successful as her fine central performance. For better or worse, Assayas’ films often have a quickly written, rough-draft quality, as if he’s so excited to mash up disparate ideas and genres that jarring tonal shifts sometimes result. Still, I much prefer a movie as rich in ideas as this one, where the flaws arise from it being overly ambitious at times to the opposite case scenario.

Even better is The Death of Louis XIV, a masterful French film by the Spanish writer/director Albert Serra (The Story of My Death) that casts the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows) in the titular role. Although the fabled “Sun King” is one of the most beloved figures in all of French culture (right up there with Joan of Arc and Napoleon), Serra perversely chooses to focus only on his agonizing final days as he lies dying of gangrene, with doctors and valets mincing about, after returning home from a hunting trip. The formal control of Serra’s precise compositions and exquisitely candle-lit interiors, which resemble 18th century paintings, is impressive but don’t let the somber veneer distract you from the movie’s most appealing aspect: its bizarre, poker-faced sense of humor. One unforgettable scene in which a quack doctor offers Louis a miracle cure for gangrene (in which bull sperm and frog fat are among the ingredients) plays like an arthouse version of Steve Martin’s old “Medieval Barber” sketches on Saturday Night Live.

Personal Shopper screens on Saturday, March 4 and Wednesday, March 8, and The Death of Louis XIV screens on Sunday, March 5. For showtimes and ticket information, visit the Siskel Center’s website.


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