Chicago Film Fest

Some thoughts on movies I saw at the recent Chicago International Film Festival:

All the Invisible Things (Heile Welt) – This Austrian film was a real find, a total surprise for me. I hadn’t read any reviews of it. The only reason I went was my interest in Austria and the fact that it was playing at a time when I didn’t have anything else to do. Filmed in Graz (a city I have visited a couple of times, and where I have some cousins), All the Invisible Things is a low-budget, documentary-like drama with overlapping plots and chronologies. It starts off some young nihilist thugs on the run (and at this point in the film, I was thinking it was well-made but almost too depressing to stomach), and then shifts to other stories involving other characters, including some parents of the teens in the first part of the movie. Like Pulp Fiction, The Killing, Exotica, Memento or Amores Perros, it doesn’t reveal how all of the plots connect until the end, but it avoids feeling gimmicky. There’s no resolution at the end, just a deep sense of tragedy. The director, Jakob W. Erwa, was present for the screening, which was, unfortunately, sparsely attended. He’s only 26, I think, and he came across as a modest and creative young man. He talked about starting out with a short film, largely improvised by the young actors, and then developing it into a feature film by wondering about the other stories behind the story. I hope Erwa gets U.S. distribution for this film and continues directing; he shows a ton of promise.

Control – The photography in this Ian Curtis biopic is absolutely beautiful. That’s not surprising, given that the director is an acclaimed rock-music photographer, Anton Corbijn. Many of the shots in this black-and-white movie have a shallow depth of field, creating a three-dimensional feeling. I also liked the way the film is edited, with a spare, poetic sense of storytelling. I’m no expert on Joy Division or the Manchester music scene, so I’ll leave it up to others to say how authentic Control is, but it felt real to me. The acting performances are strong, the music sounds excellent, and the movie doesn’t stoop to using any cheap psychobabble explanations for why Curtis killed himself.

Essanay shorts – Earlier this year, I wrote a feature story for Chicago magazine about the history of the Essanay studio, which operated in Chicago between 1907 and 1917. It’s hard to see the films that Essanay made here during those years – the few surviving films are mostly in archives, not readily available for viewing – so it was exciting to get a chance to watch some at this year’s festival. The program included An Awful Skate, A Case of Seltzer, The Misjudged Mr. Hartley, When Soul Meets Soul, Dreamy Dud Resolves Not to Smoke (an odd little animated film), From the Submerged and His New Job (the only film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago, and the only one you can find on DVD). They’re not great films, but they are of great historical interest, and they made for fascinating viewing.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile) – This Romanian film about an abortion feels almost like a documentary. Directed by Cristian Munigu, it reminded me of the movies by Belgium’s Dardennes brothers – a drama about marginal people that’s so painfully realistic it seems like voyeurism to watch. The film uses a lot of long, unbroken takes, including one remarkable and uncomfortable scene at a crowded dinner table.

Hard-Hearted (Kremen) – I did not plan to see this film. I went to see The Banishment, but the print of that movie had not yet arrived, so the festival showed Hard-Hearted instead, saying, “It’s another film from Russia.” While Hard-Hearted has its moments, I found the film’s central character too annoying to spend even 82 minutes with. At the halfway point, I thought that the movie seemed to be headed toward a violent Taxi Driver-like conclusion. Man, how right I was. Hard-Hearted ends with a climax almost exactly like the one in Taxi Driver, but it’s a pale imitation.

The Man From London (A Londini Férfi) – For me, the most dispiriting part of this year’s film festival was waiting 45 minutes for a CTA el to get me to the theater for the new film by Bela Tarr. Even though I’d left home earlier than usual, I showed up at the theater 15 minutes late, walked into a packed theater and ended up sitting in the front row, craning my neck up at a huge screen. From what I hear, I did not miss much plot exposition, but I still feel like I have to give this film an incomplete grade because of the way I experienced it. Like Tarr’s other films (Werckmeister Harmonies is one of my favorites of the last decade), this one is filled with glacially slow tracking shots and an occasionally opaque plot. It’s also deeply beautiful and mysterious, with a surprising performance by the always great Tilda Swinton – in Hungarian! Based on a Georges Simenon novel, it feels like a film noir as seen by a whale swimming just offshore. Tarr’s films are not easily digested, but I will definitely see this again as soon as I get a chance.

Opium: Diary of a Madwoman (Ópium: Egy Elmebeteg Naplója) – This Hungarian film by János Szász includes some difficult viewing. I wouldn’t readily watch it again, but it was an intense and memorable experience. The provocative sex scenes are troubling and discomforting, but also very sensuous.

Ploy – The few films I’ve seen from Thailand have an odd combination of the mundane and the fantastic. In this movie by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, the setting – a hotel – is downright generic. The drama that unfolds in this place has some ominous undertones, and Ploy gradually takes surreal turns, with disturbing dreams and a whole subplot that may or may not have happened. In the end, I found it to be an effective exploration of that eternal theme, the difficulty of human connections.

Silent Light (Stellet Licht) – I didn’t know much about this film before walking into it, other than the fact that it was made in Mexico. And so, when the characters on the screen starting talking in a language other than Spanish – it sounded to me like German and I could understand bits and pieces, and it turned out to be the north German dialect Plattdeutsch – I was disoriented. Carlos Reygadas’ film is set within the isolated modern-day community of German Mennonites in the Chihuahua area of northern Mexico. The film begins with one of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen in a long time, a starry night sky that becomes the silhouette of trees and then a sunrise, with the camera slowly tracking into a field. It feels like time-lapse photography. The story is filled with a similar sense of stillness and slow motion, feeling at times like a Terrence Malick film. The plot is about as basic as they come: A married man is having an affair. Given the fact that these characters are religiously devout Mennonites, the adultery becomes a deep struggle over faith and morality. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that something unexpected happens. A miracle? A deus ex machina? It’s peculiar but it feels honest because of the poetic and deliberate way it happens. And then the film ends with a shot mirroring that opening sequence. Silent Light is quite simply magnificent.

You, the Living (Du Levande) – Roy Andersson is the director of a wonderfully surreal film from a few years back, Songs From the Second Floor, and now he’s back with You, the Living, which feels like a continuation of the previous film. One of the recurring visual gigs (or existentialist black-humor bits) from the first film was this unending traffic jam on a Swedish street, with the motorists trapped in an eternal hell of congestion. Well, in You, the Living, there’s yet another traffic jam. Or is it the same one from the first movie, still going on? There’s also a bit in the new movie in which a musician annoys his downstairs neighbor by practicing on the tuba. Could that be a reference to the title of the earlier film – a song from the second floor? The vignettes in You, the Living are only vaguely connected. They do not all tie together in the end in a nice, neat package, but that was just fine with me.

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