CHICAGO FESTIVAL


Overview compiled by James Morgan

Chicago
The Chicago Festival is a record-breaker. Entering this year on its fifth decade, it is the oldest competitive festival in the United States.  No festival director has stayed in place as long (or as effectively) as Michael Kutza, who created the event, with his own (or rather his parents’) money 41 years ago; and still personally scours the world for films. Catering very much for the home audience – filling a gap left by the decline of art-house distribution - the programme is truly international.  This year the festival showed 101 features and 42 shorts from 34 countries.  Its commitment to independent films and in particular to American black cinema was again signaled by the award of special tributes and honours to the multi-talented African-American director Melvin Van Peebles and actor Terrence Howard.(This year’s third honoree was Susan Sarandon, the star of the opening film).

Robert Keser wrote: “for sixteen days, the festival provided marked relief from pasteurized content and mainstream manipulation, from Hollywood’s fear-based fantasies of power for the powerless. Instead, grownup entertainment of notable vision and style allowed the audience to participate by filling in the spaces of each film and prove that their hearts and brains have not dried out. …With 2005 shaping up as America’s annus horribilis, a year that saw a great native city reduced to a FEMA-ville of trailers parked amongst the wreckage, its inhabitants scattered in every direction, and the national culture heedlessly bent on closing itself off from the world (except for buyers and sellers of its products), letting the vault door slam shut, this film festival acts as an essential foot planted in the door, an annual intervention to keep communication open with other cultures, their ways of seeing and their ways of thinking”

All the critics agreed that the festival vividly reflected what seemed to be the dominant themes of cinema in 2005: parent-child relationships (Christopher Jaymes's In Memory of My Father; Zhang Yang's marathon Sunflower, Alessandro d'Alatri's The Fever) and family dysfunction and break-up.

The undisputed star of the festival guests was the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira, 96, still working energetically and non-stop, with projects for years to come and in Chicago to receive a life-time achievement award. Younger luminaries, apart from the special award-winners, included the actors Claire Danes and Nicholas Cage all and directors Patrice Chéreau), Stanley Kwan, Krzysztof Krauze, Mohammad Ahmadi , Lajos Koltai; Andrew Bujalski, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, Caveh Zahedi, Gore Verbinski, and Cameron Crowe

THE AWARDS
Golden Hugo - Best Film: My Nikifor/Moj Nikifor (Poland, directed by Krzysztof Krauze),

Silver Hugo – Special Jury Prize: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu/ Moartea DomnuluiLazarescu (Romania, directed by Cristi Puiu)

Best Actress:Inka Friedrich and Nadja Uhl in Summer In Berlin/Sommer Vorm Balkon (Germany)

Best Actor: Roman Gancarczyk in My Nikifor/Moj Nikifor (Poland)

Gold Hugo – Lifetime Achievement Award:Manoel de Oliveira.

The Federation Internationale de la Presse Cinematographique (FIPRESCI) Award:La Moustache (France, directed by Emmanuel Carrère).

Gold Hugo for Best Short Film:One Minute Past Midnight (UK, directed by Celia Galan Julve)

Gold Hugo for Best Documentary Feature.The Boys of Baraka (US, directors, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady):

THE PRESS
Some opinions from JOHN RUSSELL TAYLOR (The Times, London), ROBERT KESER (Bright Lights Film Journal, COLIN SOUTER (ecritic), DAVID ROBINSON (Film Intelligence), NEIL YOUNG (Film Lounge), LISA NESSELSON (Variety com).

THE WINNERS …

My Nikifor/Moj Nikifor
(Poland, Director, Krzzysztof Krause).  Not exactly an artist biopic but nevertheless a true story, the heartfelt and handsomely produced My Nikifor (Moj Nikifor) covers only the last few years of Poland’s premier outsider artist, the self-taught and illiterate “Nikifor.” First glimpsed as a dark speck on the snowscape as he totters through the drifts to sell his handdrawn postcards in his native town of Krynica, this male artist is credibly portrayed by the venerable actress Krystyna Feldman, complete with chin stubble and great tufts of ear hair, in an award-magnet stunt performance. However, the story is seen from the viewpoint of a struggling young artist who finds himself becoming the caretaker of this pariah, shunned as eccentric (he always speaks of himself in the third person), arrogant (“Don’t paint saints: you don’t know them”), and probably contagious as his lung problems are suspected of bringing disease to this resort spa.

Eventually, the humble younger man sacrifices his own career and family life to take full charge of Nikifor, giving him injections, even washing his feet, yet the film never clearly articulates his motives. Artistic aspirations? Good Samaritanism? Orders from the party apparatus? In the end, the actor holds our interest more than the story, thanks to the sincere performance by Roman Gancarczyck, rightly honored with the acting award of the Chicago International Film Festival. (And why not Krzysztof Ptak’s expressive cinematography of Krynica’s snow-feathered mountains and Krakow’s summertime splendor of elaborate fountains and baroque architecture?) […. ]. RK

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu/ Moartea DomnuluiLazarescu.  The Romanian Cristi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU is outstanding for the
director’s skill in making the slim anecdote of a boozy old man falling sick and
looking for hospital treatment compelling viewing for two and a half hours. Puiu says
that his intention is to answer the “Six Moral Tales” of Eric Rohmer, a director he
much admires, with “Six Tales of the Bucharest Suburbs. The film is the obverse of
the familiar tv hospital series. Here is a public medical service that is over-stretched,
malfunctioning and with demoralised workers who have lost their human contacts
with the patients. This is the third film by Cristi Puiu, who is 38 - and a self-confessed
hypochondriac. DR

Summer in Berlin/Sommer vorm Balkon (Germany, director, Andreas Dresen)  . Katrin is a brunette 39-year-old single mother Katrin (Inka Friedrich) who's finding it hard to find a job and simultaneously look after her pre-pubescent son Max. Nike (Nadja Uhl) is younger, blonder and more conventionally attractive. She works as a 'home help' for the elderly, her clients including frail, accordion-playing Helene (Christel Peters).

Katrin and Nike have been close for many years, and most evenings can be found enjoying a bottle of wine - or two - watching the world go by from Nike's balcony. But over the course of one hot summer, they find their bonds of friendship wearing thin - most of the frictions caused by the arrival on the scene of truck-driver Ronald (Andreas Schmidt), a rough-and-ready charmer whose torrid romantic history doesn't dissuade the smitten Nike one little bit. Katrin, meanwhile, is having a tougher time - and starts to go off the rails after hitting the bottle a little too hard...

Summer in Berlin […] was written by 74-year-old Wolfgang Kohlhaase, whose long career stretches back more than five decades. But it's so fresh, complex and, above all, true, that you'd put money on it emanating from the pen of a woman roughly similar to Katrin in terms of age. […]
 Andreas Hofer's cinematography isn't going to win many awards, and Pascal Comelade's score is occasionally intrusive - but Dresen intersperses the latter with a selection of typically well-chosen 'found' tracks that provide nicely ironic counterpoint to the emotional ups and downs depicted on screen.  NY

La Moustache (France, directed by Emmanuel Carrère). When a man spontaneously shaves off the title occupant of his upper lip in "The Moustache," an apparent shift in the fabric of the universe results. Adapting his own 1986 novel, Emmanuel Carrere -- whose books "Class Trip" and "The Adversary" became Cannes Competition titles by Claude Miller and Nicole Garcia, respectively -- provides a feast of sustained tension as the man's wife and his closest friends deny that he ever had a moustache. Viewers who like their conclusions tidy may rebel, but those who relish outstanding perfs in the service of an intriguing idea will be entertained.

Awash in unsettling, matter-of-fact contradictions that are deliciously open to interpretation, pic's tone is a bit like "Gaslight" meets Roman Polanski's "The Tenant." […]   Helmer gets incredible mileage out of tale's deceptively simple catalyst. Pic -- told entirely from beleaguered protag's p.o.v. -- can be read as a deft riff on how men and women sometimes perceive the same situation differently; as a subjective glimpse of creeping paranoia; as a full-bore unraveling of one or more personalities; or as an ever-shifting buffet of all three approaches […]  LN.

The Boys of Baraka (USA, director Rachel Grady): A woman selects a group of troubled 12-year old boys from Baltimore to take with her to Kenya where they are forced to stay at an experimental boarding school. The goal of the school is to rehabilitate the kids and help them see the world differently, so that when they return to their harsh neighborhoods in Baltimore they can pave a better future for themselves. The transformation is compelling and, in some cases, sad, as some kids stick with the program while others lay doomed to an empty future. CS

OTHERS TO WATCH ….

Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai le) looks like no other Chinese film seen in the West. Jiang Wen’s rollicking comedy about earthy peasants trying to survive the Japanese Occupation in 1945 presents in a New Wave widescreen black-and-white that makes exquisite chiaroscuro out of available light. Whether shooting a lighthouse beam sweeping over a valley or sunshine breaking in shafts through bathhouse steam, nervy cinematographer Gu Chang-wei (Red Sorghum) recalls the freewheeling camerawork of Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, using a repertoire of extreme close-ups, vertiginous angles and whip pans (and even a miraculously diffused shot from inside a burlap bag). The director — who also plays the cocky everyman Dasan, proving himself to be a terrific farceur — matches the visuals with what-the-hell staging (one scene plays upside down, then sideways) plus aggressive editing in crisp rhythms that cut on every slap or thwack.

The village, situated where China’s Great Wall descends into the sea, contains an assortment of ribald but slaphappy villagers, elders who are either cranky or downright cracked, and the hero’s shamefully pregnant girlfriend. When they receive the surprise task of guarding two hostages, a hardline Japanese soldier swollen with patriotic fervor and his hapless Chinese translator, the villagers enact a scheme to trade them for grain from the Imperial Army. Despite much hilarious bootlicking, the exchange turns inauspicious when a Chinese donkey impulsively mounts and services a Japanese horse.

The Samurai-like commander stages a huge drunken multicultural New Year’s party where a Chinese villager sings, “You and I are an egg. I’m the white, you’re the yolk,” but the celebration turns into a fight and then a massacre. With the village in flames and Chinese beheaded, incinerated, or drowned, the survivors listen to the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, but there’s a further coda where gum-chewing Yanks guard the Chinese nationalist commander and this unflaggingly inventive, all-systems-go film reddens into color. From the time it won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2000, China has banned this film (partly for its rich and enthusiastic cursing, plausibly rendered in the lively English subtitles as “turtle-fucker” and “pig-brain”), so its long belated release in the U.S. must be welcomed and supported.  RK

The Fever (La Febbre) (Italy, director Alessandro D’Alatri. Not to be confused with the Vanessa Redgrave film with the same title currently making the rounds at the Festivals.) I could not help notice the similarities between Mario, the main character in Alessandro D’Alatri’s TheFever and Sam Lowry, the main character in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both have barely attainable dreams, both have to deal with the bureaucracy that has run rampant in their respective societies and both reluctantly follow in their father’s footsteps by getting jobs as door-to-door paper pushers for the system they despise in order to make their dreams come true. The similarities end there. The Fever is a likable and earnest film that comments on the ills of society while telling a universal story about filling a role in order to fulfill a dream. The film’s major flaw happens to be the all-too-perfect female love interest: a sexy club dancer and aspiring experimental filmmaker. CS

Gabrielle (France, director Patrice Chereau)/.  With its leading man boldly declaiming, its fin-de-siècle characters emerging from shadows, its attack on a mansion staircase, and its transformations with erotic undercurrents, Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle comes to suggest a classic horror movie wrested from one of Strindberg’s toxic male-female power confrontations (although the film expands a story by Joseph Conrad).

Both husband and wife are monsters here. He is a self-satisfied social climber, proud of his salon for epigram-spouting artists and confident of wife Gabrielle: “I know her secrets” and “I love her as a collector loves his most-prized possession.” When she punctures his smug self-regard by leaving him for a lover, Gabrielle then exacerbates his anger by almost immediately returning. Why did she come back and what does it mean for their relationship? The threat to his perceived position consumes him (“Everyone will know that I am a fool. If you had died, I would at least get condolences”), but this monster of egotism is greedy to know the identity of her lover (“this man who’s bound up with us now”), why she wanted him, how far they went, and what drove her back. As we might expect, her replies provide no satisfactory answers and less comfort as she affirms their icy bond (“We’re alone, Jean. Don’t you see?”).

In his inchoate rages and despair, Chéreau regular Pascal Greggory makes a highly theatrical contrast with the cinematic minimalism of the fearless Isabelle Huppert, who effortlessly supports huge close-ups at once “intimate and distant, intelligent, cold, burning,” in the director’s words. Gabrielle is no paragon either, as she mistreats and condescends to her unsophisticated and tongue-tied maidservant, as the director underlines their class distance. […]

Aided by Eric Gautier’s sensationally fluid camerawork that alternates between monochrome and cool beiges and blues (as in The Motorcycle Diaries), Chereau applies his laser-focused style to this elegant, chiseled chamber piece, making artful use of whiteout transitions, onscreen text spelled out in giant letters, and a brilliantly focused sound design to support Fabio Vacchi’s hair-raising score, all dissonant broken waltzes and richly threatening strings. All these elements aid us to accept a narrative tod by someone who has completely vanished by the end, like a ghost.  RK

How To Eat Your Watermelon In White Company (and Enjoy It). Joe Angio’s documentary sheds more light on legendary filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles than last year’s Baadassss!, but it’s not quite as entertaining. Still, it’s a must for film buffs and anyone intrigued enough to want to learn more about the creator of SweetSweetback’sBaadassssSong. The movie touches on Van Peebles’ work as a French novelist, bomber pilot and cable car driver. Angio’s straightforward approach works well enough and it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of a true renaissance man. CS

I Am a Sex Addict. There’s a word in Japanese to describe “the hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s body,” though Caveh Zahedi needn’t worry from the account he gives in I Am a Sex Addict, his consistently witty and inventive autobiographical lark. Mischievous, and hardly the most reliable narrator, he presents this playful meta-vaudeville as part documentary, part dramatization with actors, and all narcissistic reflection on his life as a horndog. Narrating from the church vestibule where he is about to be married, Zahedi recounts with appealing wide-eyed insouciance three earlier relationships with women, paralleling his recovery from a dysfunctional obsession with prostitutes thanks to Sex Addicts Anonymous. Using home movie footage of the real women, he bends his narrative like rubber, employing actresses to play his lovers in Paris, Munich, and San Francisco, and then also plumbs the personal problems of these actresses too (whether or not the women involved would have a different take on these events remains unresolved).

Breaking and raising and breaking the fourth wall with dizzying impunity, he builds his film using men’s room graffiti, quotes from Godard’s Vivre sa vie, and an animated episode from The Odyssey, yet the result never feels confusing, as it is laced together by Zahedi’s considerable charm and wit (in cartoon form he played in one sequence of Linklater’s Waking Life). Nor does he hesitate to seat himself in the Lord’s position in “The Last Supper,” to nail himself on the cross, or to enact multiple orgasms with varying degrees of plausibility (claiming to have masturbated in every cathedral in Paris).[….}  RK

In Memory of My Father (writer-director-star, Christopher Jaymes): “a cast of mostly unknowns, save for Jeremy Sisto (May, Six Feet Under), who steals the movie. A family comes together for a toast to the deceased father of four dysfunctional adults, all of whom bring their relationship problems with them and even get high to avoid their problems. Even the impromptu serenade of “Daddy’s Dead,” sung by almost the whole cast, has an edginess to it that remains prevalent throughout the film. A real find, one that deserves wider exposure.  CS

Magic Mirror (O Espelho Magico (Portugal, Manoel de Oliveira)   […]`The pious, wealthy Alfreda can't understand why the Virgin Mary won't appear to her (“Why would she appear to those shepherds at Fatima and not me?”). In her spacious country estate complete with swimming pool, plush red-carpeted staircase, and a lavishly betailed white peacock, she has the leisure to visualize an Old Testament heroine as Cher and take comfort from a Biblical scholar's theory that the mother of Jesus was “a rich lady, just like me!” So a pair of ex-cons, one a counterfeiter and the other a handsome young drug dealer, conspire to manufacture an apparition for her, though of course the narrative spins off in different directions that don't respect storytelling conventions.

Showing more interest in the nature of reality than in sin and related emotional states, Oliveira lets the tension between opposing worldviews and attitudes grow through his typically uninflected, bracingly objective shots of people conversing. All the more surprising then when the camera turns subjective in a late burst of lyricism for a gloriously burnished glide through the canals of Venice and even a wholly mysterious white cobra. The aphorism-rich script gives a fair hearing to every character’s philosophy, from a nurse (“Saints are lazy. No one tells them to sacrifice themselves. They do it because they want to”) to a murderer who disposed of his entire family (“I’m never alone. I always have the hatred that’s inside me”). Ever slippery, Oliveira himself resists being pinned down, but it’s tempting to ascribe the following bon mot to him: “You don’t have to be rich to eat, but you have to be rich to savor.  RK

Mongolian Ping Pong A beautiful-looking film that was shot on video and takes place in the middle of nowhere, China. With a story that borrows a page from The Gods Must Be Crazy, the movie tells the story of a boy and his friends who find a ping pong ball floating in the river and have no idea what to make of it. Eventually, they believe it to be the “national ball of China,” and feel they must make a pilgrimage to return it. The movie’s video presentation looks exquisite, especially on a big screen, but the story is hardly compelling enough to justify it’s 103-minute running time and the intended irony of the story’s conclusion doesn’t quite resonate. CS

Mrs Henderson Presents (UK.director, Stephen Frears) charmed audiences with its cheery obeisance to the idea of crusty English eccentricity, including Dame Judi Dench's strategic use of the F-word, in its story of the founding of the Windmill - and incidentally introduces Pop Idol Will Young, who proves to be a serviceable actor as well as a pop idol. JRT

The Puffy Chair (USA, director Jay Duplass) Another break-up/divorce movie offered at the Festival, this one a painfully funny and realistic disintegration of two twenty-somethings in a long-term relationship who need to decide whether or not they really have a future together. It starts with a road-trip, for which Josh (co-writer/producer Mark Duplass) must drive cross country to pick up an easy chair he bought for his father on eBay. He reluctantly invites his girlfriend Emily (Kathryn Aselton), who constantly corners him into answering her questions as to where their relationship might be headed. Mark and Jay Duplass (who directed) hit very close to home. Their perception of how relationships function clearly comes from experience as there doesn’t seem to be a single phony moment in the film. And it’s very funny, too. CS

NOT SO ADMIRED …

Stoned. Neil Jordan's producer Stephen Woolley's debut film as a director, Stoned, which pulls out all the stops in its attempt to solve the mystery of Rolling Stone Brian Jones's death in his private pool in 1969. Too overwrought to carry total conviction, it proves anyway to be a crowd-pleaser. But then it would, wouldn't it, for Swinging London is now as much part of America's favourite myth about Britain as theatrical knights and dames letting their hair down . JRT

The Unseen (USA, director, Lisa France).  I wish!  …. CS.