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Tag Archives: Blue is the Warmest Color

49th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Pt. 1

CIFF

The Chicago International Film Festival has returned for a 49th edition that features a typically expansive and eclectic list of movies from around the world — 180 films from 60 different countries to be precise. While this includes some (but not all) of the important films by big name directors that made splashes earlier this year at Berlin (Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain), Cannes (Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color) and Venice (Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs), a lot of the chief pleasures to be found at CIFF come from seeking out titles more off the beaten path. CIFF will never be able to compete with New York, Telluride or Toronto, all of which immediately precede us on the fall festival circuit, but the other side of the coin is that we’re more likely to get gems by lesser-known auteurs that fly under the radar of those festivals. In this regard, I was particularly impressed by the Taiwanese thriller Soul, a Lynchian mind-bender by one Chung Mong-Hong featuring a great role for the legendary martial artist Jimmy Wang-Yu (The One Armed Swordsman) that I will be reviewing next week. In the meantime, I am offering four picks of some of my “best bets” for the festival’s first week below. The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday night with a screening of James Gray’s The Immigrant (the fest’s most impressive opening night in many years) and continues through Thursday, October 24. The complete schedule can be found online here: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Rating: 9.1

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If Tsai Ming-Liang has indeed retired after making Stray Dogs, his 11th feature, as he’s indicated in interviews, he will have gone out on a high note. This beautiful film finds the great Taiwanese director training his patient camera eye on a homeless man (the inevitable Lee Kang-Sheng) who struggles to provide for his two young children in contemporary Taipei. There are extended wordless sequences of Lee’s unnamed character “working” by standing in traffic and holding an advertising placard — and thus functioning as a human billboard — as well as washing his children in a grocery store bathroom; these shots are almost startling in their clear-eyed compassion and remind us that, for all of the experimenting he does with form, Tsai has always grounded his movies in the traditional values of character and story. The best scene occurs about half-way through: a long take of the protagonist smothering a head of lettuce with a pillow (before doing other interesting things to it, including voraciously biting into it and cradling it in his arms and sobbing over it), a sad, funny, crazy moment far more emotionally moving than the shrewdly melodramatic climax of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Then there is the amazing penultimate shot, a close-up of two faces staring at a mural that ticks well past the 10-minute mark, with one of the characters effortlessly shedding a few tears halfway through, which also provides a nice bookend to the famous final shot of Tsai’s breakthrough Vive L’amour (1994). Without taking anything away from its culturally specific qualities, I think this has more to say about the lives of ordinary Americans today than most movies coming out of the United States. Stray Dogs screens Friday, October 11th and Sunday, October 13th.

Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France)
Rating: 7.1

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Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche is considered one of France’s greatest working filmmakers. His 2007 feature The Secret of the Grain was the only French movie to make the Cahiers du Cinema critics’ poll of the ten best films of the 2000s. I could rattle off at least a dozen other French titles from that decade that I prefer; so I went to see Blue is the Warmest Color — the zeitgeist-capturing lesbian love story that won the Palme d’Or in May just as the marriage-equality debate in France was reaching a fever pitch — as a Kechiche skeptic, and I emerged feeling pretty much the exact same way. Blue certainly has its moments. Kechiche seems to have a singular talent for creating indelible moments: his modus operandi as a director is to search for some kind of ineffable emotional truth during the shooting of a scene, which more often than not sees him sticking a handheld camera into the faces of his actors while apparently making them do countless takes and occasionally yelling directions from off-screen. The result is a series of scenes that, taken individually, have a pungent Cassavetes-like emotional rawness, although, unfortunately, Kechiche is incapable of stringing these moments together into anything resembling a satisfying whole. Blue is ultimately worth seeing, especially for the brave and highly emotive performances of Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux (both of whom have stated they will never work for the director again); and the film’s instantly notorious 10-minute sex scene, which is also arguably its best scene — not just for its eroticism but because it’s the only one without an over-reliance on close-ups. Expectations, however, should be adjusted: I’m not saying the emperor has no clothes, just that he’s more shabbily attired than many are giving him credit for. Blue is the Warmest Color is playing as a gala presentation on Saturday, October 12th.

The Girls on Liberty Street (John Rangel, USA)
Rating: 7.2

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This well-crafted Chicago-shot indie follows Brianna (Brianna Zepeda), an 18-year old Hispanic girl who recently graduated from high school, as she attempts to tie up the loose ends of her life in the final days before leaving to serve in the Armed Forces. In a series of quiet, low-key encounters, she bids farewell to those closest to her, including family members, friends and a tempestuous ex-boyfriend. The extreme realism of the dialogue and performances impresses and, at barely an hour long, this certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. But writer/director John Rangel and his cast of non-professional actors are also so intent on de-dramatizing their basic conceit that the end result occasionally feels both opaque and lightweight — one wonders if the muted quality of the drama resulted from the performers not being up to the challenge of mining deeper emotional terrain. Still, Chicagoans interested in locally shot microbudget cinema should check it out: film students, in particular, will learn a lot more by watching this than anything being produced in Hollywood. The Girls on Liberty Street screens Saturday, October 12th, Monday, October 14th and Tuesday, October 15th. John Rangel will be in attendance for all screenings.

Pieces of Me (Nolwenn Lemesle, France)
Rating: 7.0

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For those not wanting to kick out the extra cash for the pricier “gala presentation” of Blue is the Warmest Color (or if you missed the chance due to its inevitably being sold out), this affecting 2012 drama also offers a chance to check out the impressive acting chops of Adele Exarchopolous. In Pieces of Me, the Gallic-Greek thesp plays Erell, a girl living in a dead-end small town who must contend with a terminally ill mother, an absent-minded father, and an older sister who abandoned the family years earlier but unceremoniously returns home 6-months pregnant. There is also plenty of humor, and the provincial milieu — best exemplified by Erell’s coterie of knucklehead male friends — is nicely drawn; this makes palpable Erell’s desire to transcend the boredom of her daily routine, which, one assumes, must be rooted in the biography of first-time writer/director Nolwenn Lemesle. Although there are rookie mistakes on display as well (making Erell an amateur filmmaker and including an overuse of faux-documentary segments), the French tend to excel at naturalistic dramas with strong regional flavors and this is, on the whole, certainly no exception. Pieces of Me screens Thursday, October 17th, Sunday, October 20th and Tuesday, October 22nd.

To be continued . . .

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CIFF ’13: 13 Most Wanted

Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.

Bastards (Denis)

Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.

Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)

The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?

Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)

I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.

Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)

Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.

The Immigrant (Gray, USA)

I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).

Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)

With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)

Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.

A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)

For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)

Manuscripts

Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)

Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.

Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)

Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.

The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)

threedisasters

The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.

Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)

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As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.

The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com


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