Friday, October 28, 2011

My Best of the Fest - The Top Seven

The 47th Chicago International Film Festival ended it fifteen-day run last week, but I'm still catching up on some of my reviews. Several of these will appear in the short run, but for now, here are notes on my favorite films from the fest (top seven in order of preference):

We Need To Talk About Kevin (UK) - director: Lynne Ramsay
A haunting, mesmerizing film about the relationship between a teen-aged boy and his parents. I love the way Ramsay slowly reveals the chilling details of the plot as well as the dreamlike manner of the flashbacks. This is a superbly directed film that might have been excessive in lesser hands. Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the mother who struggles to learn the strange behavior of her son.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey) - director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
A visual treat with stunning cinematography by Gokhan Tiryaki, this is the story of a murder investigation that takes us through the remote landscapes of Turkey. The first half of this 150 minute work takes place entirely at night, often in very long shots with sounds of footsteps, car engines and clipped dialogue in the background, while the second half takes place during the day, as the search is finalized and we head back to town. Along the way, we watch in fascination as the police along with a prosecutor and doctor share their inner thoughts about the immediate work as well as their private lives. The length of this film is perfect - it is never slow moving - and lets us discover for ourselves what this world is all about. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Miss Bala (Mexico) - director: Gerado Naranjo
Director Naranjo tackles the subject of the drug wars in contemporary Mexico, basing this film upon a real-life incident of a young woman who was kidnapped and forced to deal with a vicious gang. This is a highly entertaining thriller that balances moments of brutal honesty (shootouts on local streets) as well as total artificiality (a beauty pageant the young woman enters) with equal aplomb. This is certain to fuel the discussion of the terrible tragedies that have been suffered by too many of Mexico's people.

Into The Abyss (Germany) - director: Werner Herzog
Herzog's outstanding documentary about the effects of a triple homicide on several individuals, ranging from the family of the victims to the police who investigated the crime to the convicted parties as well. Herzog was actually granted the right to interview one of the killers on death row, a mere eight days before his execution and this short sequence is one of the highlights of the film. Yet the most gripping interview may be with the woman whose mother and brother were victims of this senseless crime. Herzog is clearly against the death penalty, yet the film is not a cry to banish this punishment in America, but rather a beautifully balanced work that is dedicated to the victims. Gripping from start to finish.

The Kid With a Bike (Belgium) - director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Just under 90 minutes, this is a remarkably direct look at the life of an 11-year old boy who has been abandoned by his father. The young boy Cyril (Thomas Doret) rebels against adults, even the hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) who takes him in on weekends and helps restore his shattered psyche. The two leads are both gifted performers and the Dardennes' telling of this story is an enlightening look at the fears and pleasure of youth - and adults - as they mature in their understanding of life and each other. Co-Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Le Havre (Finland/France) - director: Ari Kaurismaki
A witty, sometimes droll, sometimes heartwarming fable about a middle-aged shoe shine who helps a young African refugee to freedom. Kaurismaki does not make speeches about the problem of refugees, but instead weaves a marvelous story about the kindness of humanity at large. Every character, even the smallest roles, are perfectly written and fleshed out by the actors. Winner of the Gold Hugo for Best Film at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The Last Rites of Joe May (USA) - director: Joe Maggio
A look at a proud, decent man in his 60s who is seeing his role in life diminish, but who wants to do one more great thing in his life. Dennis Farina portrays the title character and it's the performance of his life. Writer/director Maggio populates this sensitive and kindhearted film with honest characters in real-life moments, with scenes of simple dialogue about the people the characters deal with on an everyday basis. Along with his cinematographer Jay Silver, Maggio presents Chicago as a synthesis of neighborhoods filmed in bleak grays and blues during the chill of winter; there are no glossy skyscraper or lakefront images in this film. In the process, it's arguably the most visually honest film ever made in Chicago.

Other films I was impressed with include: All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, a fascinating documentary about the unique art of a black man from rural Georgia who suffered through the racial strife of the 1960s; The Return of Joe Rich, a funny and intelligent look at the Chicago mob that unites today's wiseguys with those of decades past; Cairo 678, a nicely written piece about sexual harassment in modern Egypt and Wild Bill, a quirky and smart film about a father who has to care for his two teen-age sons after being away for several years in prison.

I'll get back to regular reviews with the next post. I want to take this opportunity to thank Kate McMillan and Brie Dorsey for their help in arranging several interviews with some of the directors of these films. They made my job a lot easier and more enjoyable!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Le Havre - Chicago International Film Festival

Le Havre is a film that celebrates life and does so in a most charming, unusual tale that centers around a simple man who only wants to do the proper thing. Beautifully written and acted with honest performances, this is a film with impressive insight into the everyday feelings all of us encounter from time to time.

Set in the French port town of Le Havre that borders the English Channel, the film opens as Marcel (André Wilms), a middle-aged shoe shine, takes care of a customer at the train station. He notices that his wrist is handcuffed to his briefcase, so he suspects evil doing, but he knows better than to say anything. In a few seconds, the customer will encounter trouble, which allows Marcel a hilarious line which I won't give away here, but the offbeat tone of the film is firmly set in place.

Marcel once lived a Bohemian life in Paris as a writer, but middle age and marriage to an honest, devoted woman has given him focus not on the big picture, but rather on the small things in life, especially when it comes to devotion and friendliness. Not long after we meet Marcel, his paths cross with a teen-age boy named Idrissa from Africa who has landed in Le Havre as an illegal immigrant, along with 20 or so of his fellow countrymen and women. He is able to flee the police at the harbor and once Marcel sees this boy's plight, he knows only that he must help him.

Director Ari Kaurismaki from Finland has stated that the European cinema has not addressed the problem of refugees, many of whom are treated rather inhumanely. He admits he does not have the answer to this problem, but no matter - he has started the ball rolling by making this film.

As Marcel begins to assist the boy, his life is complicated when his wife Arletty has to be rushed to the hospital after suffering some severe pain in her mid-section. After Marcel leaves his wife's side under doctor's orders, Arletty learns of the seriousness of her condition - she has a malignant tumor. She begs the doctor not to tell her husband the whole truth, as she believes he will not be able to deal with this news. Though reluctant at first, the doctor agrees with Arletty and tells Marcel that her tumor is benign.

Marcel, thinking that his wife will recover completely, can now address the problem of the young boy, who wants to be reunited with his mother, a refugee in London. He was also supposed to land in London, but the cargo container he was on landed in Le Havre by mistake. "Computer error, probably," says an employee at the dock, a inhuman, bitterly ironic comment that speaks volumes about the treatment of these individuals in France and other countries. (The newspaper headlines, reporting on the discovery of 20 illegal refugees asks the question of the readers, "Is there a link to Al-Queda?").

I won't give any more plot details away, except to say that the police inspector (Jean-Pierre Daroussin in my favorite performance in the film) assigned to finding this refugee, has some surprises in store for Marcel and the boy. An authority figure, inspector Monet questions his role - and his emotions - in this battle between law and individual freedom.

I loved the way that Marcel deals with his neighbors who are grocers. While often broke, he usually has to pay for a loaf of bread or some vegetables on credit. But once these people discover that Marcel is working to deliver the boy's freedom, they forget past problems and help him in his cause.

It's this recognition of humanity along with some marvelously droll scenes that make Le Havre such an engaging film. Add to this the troubling situation that director Kaurismaki tackles with great subtlety and wit and you have a film that pleases on several levels.

Le Havre was awarded the Gold Hugo as the best film of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival. It will be shown at 5:45 on Wednesday, October 19th as part of the "Best of the Fest" evening.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Into the Abyss - Chicago International Film Festival

Into the Abyss, the new documentary from Werner Herzog is an absorbing study of the people who were directly affected by a triple homicide that occurred in Conroe, Texas in the year 2000. While Herzog is clearly against the death penalty ("I don't have to like you," he tells the death row convict Michael Perry, pictured above, "but I don't believe in killing another man."), yet this is not a simple piece of work arguing for the abolishment of capital punishment. Rather it is a remarkable film that studies this event from many angles; each of the people interviewed is given their due and their remarks - as well as their emotions - combine to give us a sense of the complexities of life and the unforgettable finality of death.

Herzog, who we hear in his charming German accent, appears just off-screen in the filmed interviews. He opens the film with a short prologue, speaking with Rev. Richard Lopez, the prison chaplain. Lopez is filmed in a state cemetery, where those killed on death row will be buried if no family claims the body. The shot of the crosses that mark the graves of these individuals is a striking one- - the crosses only bear a series of numbers, which we are left to figure out.

Lopez at one point tells Herzog how he loves to spend time on the golf course and see the various animals, such as deer and squirrels, run around the landscape. "Tell me a story about a squirrel," Herzog asks and Lopez comes up with a very touching tale about how he saved the life of two squirrels by hitting the brake on his golf cart just seconds before he would have run over the animals. Lopez continues with his thoughts on life and death and actually starts to shed a few tears as he shares his thoughts. It's a unique moment in a film filled with many of them.

Along the way, Herzog interviews the criminals as well the relatives of the victims. The interview with Perry takes place on death row, only eight days before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection in 2010, a decade after the crime. Wide-eyed and surprisingly outgoing (he tells of going on a canoe trip in the Everglades when he was young), Perry maintains his innocence, saying he got mixed up with the wrong guy.

That guy is Jason Burkett (above photo), who felt sorry for Perry at one point and let him live in his trailer. Burkett, who was not given the death penalty, but instead a life sentence, comes across as a more serious person in his interview than Perry, whose aloofness is almost comical. Burkett also admits his guilt, while Perry does not.

Perhaps the most remarkable interview is with Lisa Stoulter-Balloun, whose mother and brother were two of the victims. At first glance, she is calm as she remembers these family members whom she clearly loved deeply. But as she reveals more of her life's experiences (which I will not get into here), she starts to lose her composure. Her story is terribly sad and her interview is remarkably gripping.

Other mesmerizing moments include interviews with the father of Burkett who is himself serving a 40-year sentence and a memorable sequence with a former head of the death row detail at the prison. This man oversaw 125 lethal injections and describes in great detail how his team would strap the killer on the gurney. He took no pleasure in this, as he was simply doing his job. Yet one day something happened that made him change his mind and he relates how he came to leave his position.

All of these interviews are handled with great dignity by Herzog, who asks questions that are always direct and sometimes quite powerful. Those interviewed are at ease with the director, which of course, yields many intimate moments. The film flows beautifully in its kaleidoscopic look at the ways many lives intertwine as a result of this crime.

This is an outstanding film that studies a subject most of us do not - or would rather not - discuss in great detail. There have been films made before about murderers and the victims, but few as elegantly incisive as Into The Abyss.

Into The Abyss will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival at 6:15 PM on October 18.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hugo Awards - Chicago International Film Festival

The Hugo Awards for the best films of the 47th Chicago International Film Festival have been announced. Here is a brief list:

Le Havre

International Feature Film Competition

Gold Hugo to Le Havre (Finland/France) - director Ari Kaurismaki

Silver Hugo to Cairo 678 (Egypt)

Silver Hugo for Best Actress to Olivia Colman in Tyrannosaur (UK)

Silver Hugo for Best Actor to Maged El Kedwany in Cairo 678 

Silver Hugo for Best Screenplay to Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj for The Forgiveness of Blood (US/Albania)

New Directors Competition

Gold Hugo to The Good Son (Finland) - director Zaida Bergroth

Silver Hugo to Volcano (Iceland/Denmark) - director Runar Runarsson

Founder's Award - presented to that one film across all categories that captures the spirit of the Chicago International Film Festival for its unique and innovative approach to the art of the moving image. This year's Founder's Award goes to The Artist (France)

The Artist

Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Evening with Haskell Wexler - Chicago International Film Festival

Haskell Wexler (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

It isn't often one gets to meet a legend, but that's exactly what took place when I joined several dozen other cinema enthusiasts at the Chicago International Film Festival this past Thursday, as we gathered to listen to Haskell Wexler talk about his lengthy career in film. 

For those readers not familiar with his name, Wexler has made a name for himself first and foremost as one of the greatest cinematographers to ever work in Hollywood. A two-time Academy Award winner (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966 and Bound For Glory, 1976), he was named as one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time by the members of the International Cinematographers Guild. Wexler has also made a name for himself as a director, most notably for Medium Cool, shot during the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Finally, he has been a political acitivist for decades, rallying out against government policies he believed were wrong. 

Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922, so this was a fitting return home for this great craftsman. The audience consisted of film lovers such as I who have followed his work for decades as well as many beginning filmmakers from nearby Columbia College; these students in their 20s, know Wexler from his work, but are too young to recall the times in which he embraced his craft. Wexler also acknowledged a few in the crowd from Francis Parker school, which he attended as a teen.

The evening stated with a montage of film clips, from a little seen documentary called The Bus, about the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (he shot most of the film, but was replaced before completion) to Latino, a 1985 film he directed. Several other short film clips were also shown at various moments, interspersed with Wexler's responses to questions from the audience.

One audience member asked Wexler if he preferred working on feature films or documentaries. While he replied that it all depended on the project, he did say that "With a documentary, you are closer to being its creator." This immediately led into his thoughts on the current protests being held in several cities across the country (Occupy Wall Street). "Why do we live in a sense of denial? We don't want to respond to things." Wexler mentioned "the human connection," adding, "We all want the same things and we are human."

The Thomas Crown Affair

Wexler talked about specific technique in his films, from the camera spinning around Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway after the chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair (the camera was on a circular track that ringed the two actors) to photographing Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ("I made Liz Taylor look pretty good for the part.") to his use of the Steadicam in 1976s Bound for Glory, which was the first ever implementation of that technology in a feature film.

He also recalled some wonderful stories about Hollywood. When he won his first Oscar for Virginia Woolf, he thought to himself as he was walking to the stage that this might be the only time he could speak to millions of people. This was in the spring of 1967 as the hippie movement and anti Vietnam war protests were just starting to make their marks. Wexler in his acceptance speech said, "I hope we can use our art for peace and love." Sounds innocent enough, but he mentioned that soon afterwards, several members of the Academy asked him why he used those "revolutionary" words at the ceremony. Apparently, Wexler opined, those two words are dangerous to a lot of people!

He also told the story of how actress Louise Fletcher on the set of Cuckoo's Nest, wanted to know why Haskell had talked about "her fat face." Wexler was puzzled and told Fletcher that he had never said "her fat face" and besides, how could she hear him as he was across the set at the time, speaking quietly to an assistant.

"I read lips," was Fletcher's response; indeed she does as her parents were both deaf (upon winning the Oscar as Best Actress for this film, she thanked her parents in sign language). Wexler told her, "I said 'your flat face.'", a reference to flat lighting, when all of her face is equally lit. This story brought down the house!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

At 89, Haskell Wexler is full of life, humor, wit and plenty of opinions. Toward the end of the evening, one young filmmaking student asked him what advice he would give to someone who is getting started in the business. Wexler first told him that he should have another source of income, but then gave a more direct answer, saying, "You have to have a life. Don't just watch other people's movies and television shows." He also told the students that at the end of the day, this is a business. "You have to shoot what they tell you to shoot." He added one final point; "Good shooters just don't go out and get what they want. I want what I get."

One final insight into Haskell Wexler's life from this wonderful evening. Commenting on his outspoken political beliefs as well as his choice of films on which he has worked, he commented, "I don't really know my motives. Sometimes I blame it on my mother. My mother told me to be a nice guy."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Return of Joe Rich - Chicago International Film Festival

Joe Rich is heading back to Chicago, his home town. His job was outsourced to a foreign country, he's three months behind on his house payments; needless to say, he's not happy. He knows however that his people are there for him in Chicago, so he can find a new lease on life. For Joe, that means looking up his Uncle Dom, who just happens to be an integral part of the Chicago mob.

This is the premise of a wonderfully entertaining film called The Return of Joe Rich, written and directed by Sam Auster. A native of Chicago, Auster has made a film about Italian gangsters that doesn't settle for the usual stereotypes. He also wisely decided that he didn't want this to be another Goodfellas or an episode of The Sopranos, as that would entail a big budget and most likely, lots of murders. It's just not that kind of film.

It is an inventive film about the mob for many reasons. One of the signatures of this movie are filmed interviews with ten former members of the Chicago mob. These "Chicago guys" - all between the ages of 75 and 88, spoke with Auster about their roles as gangsters in decades past. One of the themes that emerges in these interviews is that many of these individuals went into this business out of necessity, as they couldn't find a job. Times were tough back then, so they went where they could find work, even if that work wasn't pleasurable. "When people are in an economic depressed state, they help themselves," one of the guys states.

This is Joe Rich's situation as well. He goes back home to Chicago, "where you feel like you belong," and looks up his Uncle Dom. One other thing about Joe Rich -that's not his real name. His given name is Joseph Neiderman, but as he's starting a new life, he needs a new name. Joe Rich will be his mob name, a name that's cool. Joe is cool, from the way he dresses to the way he talks and even the way he moonwalks (this scene is hilarious!).

He is especially cool as portrayed by Sam Witwer, a native of Glenview, a northern suburb of Chicago. Witwer has a confidence and an impressive physical manner about him that's just right for this part. He's also got great comic timing and a sense of persistence - the guy is gonna get what he wants, whether that's a job with the outfit or the woman he loves. Witwer is front and center most of the film and he holds his own with some very experienced performers.

His Uncle Dom is portrayed by Armand Assante, a engaging actor who just oozes charisma in this role, as he has done so often in the past. He plays Uncle Dom with a graceful swagger - he's in charge, but he doesn't have to prove it to anyone. Unless of course, someone crosses him. Midway through the film, Uncle Dom is put in a situation where he no longer has the upper hand and he explodes with a violent, almost psychotic rage. Assante commands the screen during these scenes.

But for me, Assante's best scene (and one of the critical moments of the film) is when Joe visits him in a kitchen in a neighborhood restaurant in Elmwood Park, west of Chicago (any Chicago native knows about the Italian population of Elmwood Park) and tells Dom that he wants to be a part of "his business." Assante plays dumb, knowing full well what Joe is after, but Joe persists and Dom finally tells him the reality of the situation- this is a violent job and it's probably one you can't handle. We see Dom's first job with the outfit from decades ago and it's handled with a nice mixture of shock and humor all at once. We hear Dom quietly tell Joe what he'll have to do and it's in this brief moment that Assante shines, as he reminisces about the past. 

I can't forget Talia Shire who plays Gloria Neiderman, Joe's mother. She portrays a bit of a dominating monster here (ok, more than a bit) and she's just wonderful. She's also got two or three terrific lines of dialogue I won't repeat here. It's so great to see Shire have so much fun with this role. (One final role worth noting is Chicagoan Tim Kazurinsky as one of Dom's no-so-important assistants. It's a small part, but Kazurinsky nails it.)

Auster directs beautifully, finding a lot of humor and irony in the script. There's a running joke about Gloria's meatballs, which are neatly used as a visual wipe in the editing of several scenes and at the end, Auster repeats this same rolling visual with a bagel. He loves his hometown, especially the scenes with food, whether at Gloria's house or in the old world Italian restaurants. Together with his director of photography Lance Catania, Auster gives us a variety of looks, from the earth tones of the wooded county preserves to the chilly hues of a deserted warehouse. 

Auster's script is also impressive, loaded with the usual obscenities (usual for a mob film, that is) as well as some great insights into why these individuals act the way they do. They may perform some terrible deeds, but at the end of the day, they are driven by an unshakeable sense of honor. This was true for the "Chicago guys" forty and fifty years ago and it's true with the new wiseguys of today.

The Return of Joe Rich  is a unique film that takes some chances. After all the films about Italian gangsters in America over the past forty years, isn't that a beautiful thing?

The Return of Joe Rich will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 13 at 2:30 PM.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Week with Marilyn - Chicago International Film Festival

My Week with Marilyn is a crowd-pleaser if there ever was one. Combining lush production values with a story about two of the 20th century's most famous movie stars, this is an entertaining film that will appeal to a wide audience. I think it's a well made, well-intentioned film to be sure, but one that looks better than it actually plays.

Like last year's Oscar-winning The King's Speech, this film is about a little-known incident involving famous people in Britain. It's based on two books by Colin Clark, who wrote a diary during his time on the production of the 1956 film The Prince and the Showgirl. Laurence Olivier starred and directed that film and fought to have Marilyn Monroe as his co-star. At that juncture, Monroe was at the height of her popularity both for her incredible sexiness as well as her success at the box office.

At that time, Monroe had just married husband number 3, the famed playwright Arthur Miller. He accompanies Marilyn after being cleared of charges that he was a Communist; that allowed him to leave the United States and be there for Marilyn during the filming of her new movie.

However all is not well once production begins. Monroe has her acting coach (Zoe Wanamaker) to help her find her character, as she puts it in the film. This slows things down and Olivier is adamant that Monroe only needs to act, as the "character is on the page." Combine that with her too-often practice of showing up late to the set and Olivier runs out of patience quite soon.

Enter Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), a 23-year old from wealth who persevered in his battle to get hired by Laurence Olivier's production company. Clark wanted to show his parents that he could get by on his own and decided to enter the film world (he is shown in his youth early on in the film attending the cinema as a young boy). His job on the production of Prince and the Showgirl isn't much really - only a third assistant director, which was basically a go-fer on the set, but for him, it's an opportunity to work with movie stars.

As Olivier becomes more frustrated with Monroe's lack of professionalism, she becomes more withdrawn and begins to drink and take pills. Her husband can't take her behavior - "she's devouring me"- he tells Olivier and he leaves England to head back home to America to see his children. This only makes Monroe more insecure as well as lonely, so she finally turns to Clark for comfort. She is 30 at this time and Clark is a younger man in a world filled with older men who want to use Marilyn for their purposes.

The friendship that Monroe and Clark is the foundation of this movie. Clark has been dating a young woman from the wardrobe department, but once Marilyn turns to him, he can think of nothing else but this sizzling movie star. One day, they leave the set and the house she is staying at and go for a journey on their own. They do any number of things, from touring Windsor Castle to seeing the campus at Eton to taking a skinny dip in a stream in the woods. This sequence starts out nicely and it certainly is pretty to look at, but by the end, it's just there as a diversion, almost like a travel commercial.

What carries this film are two marvelous performances, that of Michelle Williams as Monroe and Kenneth Branagh as Olivier. It must be a terribly daunting task for any actress to portray the movie's most famous sex goddess who was also a terribly shy and introverted young woman. Williams of course has the looks to take on this role, but she also has the energy and charm to pull of this assignment as well. It is said in the film that when she was right, "you couldn't take your eyes off her." The same can be said of Williams' performance- she's simply wonderful.

While Williams will naturally receive most of the attention for this film, Kenneth Branagh deserves just as much credit. He absolutely has all of Olivier's speech patterns and nervous tics down, but his performance is much more than mimicry. He wonderfully and very subtly captures the great actor's range of emotions toward Monroe, from anger and frustration with her work habits to wonder and envy for her performance on screen. I didn't even recognize Branagh in this role - he simply disappears into the character of Olivier.

High marks also to cinematographer Ben Smithard for his lovely, deeply saturated cinematography, in which he clearly tried to replicate the look of Technicolor in the 1950s (he has succeeded extremely well); he is especially good with the lighting of Williams' face, as he captures the glow of Monroe's aura.

So while this is a pleasing, watchable film, my complaint is that this was made with a big audience as well as multiple Oscar nominations in mind. The film is just a bit too pretty and round, especially with the direction of Simon Curtis who definitely plays it safe. Much of the film is all about recreating scenes from actual life and while that was also the basis of The King's Speech, for me that film had much more of a sense of humor as well as heart.

Maybe the creators of My Week with Marilyn knew they had a winning formula, so they stayed on the straight and narrow. Yes, I like the film, but I wish it had taken a few more detours along the way.

My Week with Marilyn will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Wednesday, October 12 at 8:00 PM. It opens nationally on Friday, November 4.

The Last Rites of Joe May - Chicago Film Festival

You may have met someone like Joe May at one point in your life. He's a helluva guy, but don't tell him that- he thinks he's just a regular fella. He does the right thing, bottom line, even if his actions may get him in trouble. He's also one of the most memorable characters you'll see this year in film and you'll remember him for a long time, thanks to a dazzling performance by Dennis Farina.

The Last Rites of Joe May was written and directed by Joe Maggio, who also performed those tasks for Bitter Feast (2010) and Paper Covers Rock (2008) among others. For Last Rites, Maggio has created a character that we feel for from the start; in his sixties, Joe May is being released from the hospital after a seven-week battle with pneumonia. But apparently Joe forgot to tell his landlord, who thought he either died or moved away, so the landlord has thrown all of Joe's belongings away and has rented his apartment to a single mother named Jenny (Jamie Allman). She's not exactly doing great financially, as we see her pilfer the small orange juice containers that her patients at a nearby hospital don't consume. She's raising a young daughter named Angelina (Meredith Droeger), who never knew her father.

The individual stories of these three slowly start to intertwine, as Joe agrees to share the apartment with Jenny and Angelina, as he will pay part of the rent each month. Now that Joe has a place to stay again, he can go back to his old friends and try make a few extra bucks. He's been a small time crook, fencing watches and radios on the street, but in his heart, he believes he can truly make a lot of money, if only the right situation comes along.

                            Photo by Jay Silver

Meanwhile, we learn that Jenny has a boyfriend who beats her from time to time. When Joe sees him for the first time, he tells him to leave or he'll call the cops. Trouble is, he's a police detective, so there's little that Jenny or Joe can do to stop him. All Joe can do is try and comfort her, but that's not an easy thing for a rough and tumble guy like him. In one scene she asks him if he would hold her, to which Joe replies, "I don't think that's a good idea."

Joe however does start to look after Angelina, tucking her in bed at night and chatting with her at breakfast. She's thrilled to have a father figure in her life and she asks if Joe will have breakfast with her the next morning and the one after that. It's a simple scene, but a critical one in the film and it's one of several moving moments.

There are several factors as to why this film captures our attention from the first frame. Much of the credit goes to Maggio for his script, which has a honest ring to it and is never forced. Every character, from the three major players to the ones with small roles, talk just like you'd expect them to. This is a street drama at its most basic, taking places in the ethnic restaurants, alleyways and neighborhood bars of Chicago and it sounds just right. One other note about the script: Joe May swears a lot in this movie and he'll swear at anyone. It's not for shock value - it's just the way he's talked for most of his life and it's part of this character's charm as well as a good deal of the film's humor. There is one line that Joe May yells at a cabdriver (I won't give it away) that is one of the funniest lines I've heard in a film in years - you may fall out of your seat when you hear it!

The visuals are another reason why this film is so strong, so realistic. I've lived in Chicago my entire life and I love the look of this film. This is not about the lakefront or tall buildings - only the tops of skyscrapers are visible in a couple shots - but rather the snow-covered streets of Halsted Street in winter time. There's a cool, blue tone to the cinematography which fits the visuals perfectly and gives the film a bit of a bleak look. There are several marvelous shots here; the two I loved the most are the #8 bus on Halsted under a viaduct on a windswept snowy evening, while the other has Angelina and Joe swinging a pole around on their roof in order to scatter his pigeons in flight, as they are released from their coops. This last shot is quite hypnotic as well as being lovely to look at; it's also a tender moment between Joe and Angelina, as their affection for each other grows.

I've read, by the way, that Dennis Farina himself had a major influence in having this movie shot in Chicago. The film was originally scheduled to be shot in New York City, but Farina, a native Chicagoan, asked Maggio about doing it in his (Farina's) hometown. Once Maggio and his team scouted out some of Chicago neighborhoods, the decision was made to film in Chicago and a few minor script changes were made.

So a first-rate script and just-right visuals (as well as an impressive bare-bones original score by Lindsay Marcus) are among the strong points of The Last Rites of Joe May, but above all, it is the performance by Dennis Farina as the title character that ties everything together. I've always liked Farina for the honest emotions he displays in his roles - everything about his work has been just right. He looks perfect for the part with his thick grey hair and time-worn face and he finds a nice balance between quiet frustration and explosive bursts of temper. It is quite proper to use the cliché that he was born to play this part, but it's entirely accurate in this case. Dennis Farina is simply great as Joe May and for my money, it's the performance of his career.

Honestly written and acted, The Last Rites of Joe May is primarily a quiet film about a man who only wants to continue doing things as he's always done them. It is a wonderful piece of work and one that I highly recommend.

The Last Rites of Joe May is a Tribeca Film that was the opening presentation at the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival on October 6. It opens in New York City on November 4 and at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on November 25.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chicago Film Festival - "Wild Bill" - "The Whisperer in Darkness"

Two capsule reviews of films to play at the Chicago International Film Festival: Wild Bill and The Whisperer in Darkness.

Wild Bill - director: Dexter Fletcher (UK) - This little film has a big heart along with some clever writing, sincere performances and plenty of amusing moments. It may be a little uneven at times, but I think it's entertaining and funny enough to find a good-sized audience.

Set in London's West End, the film is about a character named Bill Hayward, who is being released on parole after serving eight years on drug-related charges. He's got two sons at home, 16 year-old Dean (Will Poulter) and 11 year-old Jimmy (Sammy Williams) who are not exactly warm with their welcome. Their mother abandoned them, so they haven't exactly had a wonderful family life.

Bill doesn't think he has to do much when he returns home, but child support has other ideas. Will Bill turn his life around and create a good environment for his two sons? It turns out he not only has to clean his living quarters, but also win over the love of his older son as well as rid his younger son's drug-running occupation.

Wild Bill is the first film directed by British actor Dexter Fletcher (he also co-wrote the screenplay) and he's chosen a quirky tone, constantly shifting back and forth between the myriad of little stories lived by all the film's characters. It is a bit unsettling at first, but give it a chance, as the major plot lines clear up and the film becomes not only much easier to follow, but also becomes quite funny and charming.

And how can you not like a film with the Eddy Grant song "Do You Feel My Love" playing under the closing credits?

Wild Bill will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Tuesday, October 11 at 8:15 PM and on Wednesday, October 12 at 6:10 PM.


 The Whisperer in Darkness - director: Sean Branney (USA) - Neat poster, eh? Well, this is the only thing I like about this film, which is dreadful on just about every level. 

Based on a 1931 short story by H.P. Lovecraft, Whisperer is about extra terrestrials that have landed on a farm in a small town in Vermont (are there any big towns in Vermont)? The news is reported at a prestigious, but mythical Eastern university named Miskatonic. A folklore professor named Albert Wilmarth (Matt Foyer) doubts this matter, so heads to the farm in Vermont to investigate this situation. Believe it or not, strange things happen once he gets there!

The filmmakers wanted to create the feel of the 1930s horror films here, but they have failed miserably. Hey, just because you film it in black and white, that doesn't mean it has much in common with classics such as Frankenstein or Dracula, two films the creators here clearly love. Everything is thrown in our face and director Branney underlines everything. He really has no concern for the audience's intellect, as he explains everything in his direction - just in case you couldn't figure it out from the overwrought script, co-authored by Branney and Andrew Leman.

The acting across the board is second and third-rate, with the worst performance given by Foyer, who has at most two or three facial expressions; most of the time it's one, a stupid scowl of disapproval. Other actors speak verrrry slowly and often use pregnant pauses when delivering a line, such as "his mail has been... interfered with." It's all overdone - all the time.

Then there's the musical score by Troy Sterling Nies, which is a blatant ripoff of the great Bernard Herrmann, who though best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock, also wrote some of the finest scores ever composed for sc-fi or horror films (Fahrenheit 451, The Day the Earth Stood Still, et al). I'm sure Nies thinks he's created an hommage here, but his work is not as complex or as clever as Herrmann's. So we get the brooding strings and ominous French horns and cellos that signal danger at many moments in the film. Make that just about every moment in the film, as this is wall-to-wall music that becomes irritating from almost the first frame.

I'm guessing that the filmmakers wanted to create a camp classic with Whisperer, but this isn't entertaining enough to classify as camp. It is instead pompous, poorly executed and lacking in any wit whatsoever. As I had to review this, I watched the entire film, but believe me, there's nothing worth sticking around for- this is a truly bad film.

The Whisperer in Darkness will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on Tuesday, October 11 at 10:15 PM and on Wednesday, October 12 at 9:45 PM.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Chicago Film Festival - "Take Me Home"

Over the years, there have been hundreds of films from Hollywood and many other corners of the cinematic globe that have been about two souls that never met, but somehow were meant for each other. Film makers around the world know #1) that opposites attract and #2), audiences love to see stories with this theme.

The latest in this category is Take Me Home, written and directed by Sam Jaeger (one of the stars of the television series Parenthood); he also stars in the movie with his wife Amber. This is a charming work, one that features smart dialogue and down to earth people. It does get a bit cute at times, but overall, this is an enjoyable film that is a worthwhile addition to the collection of the will-they-or-won't-they-get together movies.

The film's premise is a simple one. Thom (Sam Jaeger) has been a bit of a bust in his professional life in New York City and in an effort to make some extra money, drives an unlicensed cab he bought at auction. While that helps his situation a bit, he still can't pay the rent and one day he finds that his landlord has thrown all of his possessions out of the apartment out into the hallway. Sensing that he can't go any lower, he gets in his cab that evening and seeks some fares - and perhaps an answer to his prayers.

At the very moment that Thom is being evicted from his place, Claire (Amber Jaeger), a professional business woman who works for a non-profit organization, has an argument with her husband, whom she suspects of cheating on her. That is only the start of the bad news for her, as she soon receives a phone call informing her that her father in California has suffered a heart attack. Stunned and without any real focus in her life, she heads out of her office down to the street and flags a cab - which, of course, is the one Thom is driving. 

Her request to Thom is simple - drive, don't worry about where, just drive. She can't handle all the bad news at the moment and she needs to be alone with her thoughts. Thom wants to get a handle on her situation, but he knows better, so keeps his mouth shut and does exactly what he's told - he drives. In fact, he drives so far that the next morning, they wind up in the middle of Pennsylvania!

Claire needs to get to California to see her father, but Thom doesn't know why, so when she tells him her proposed destination, he balks at this, until she tells him she will pay him a total of $1000 a day, plus room and board. Thom agrees and it's off on their cross-country tour.

Along the way, Thom and Claire learn about each other and the deceptions in their lives. At first, it's man versus woman, but ultimately as the journey goes sour and they run short on money, they turn to basic survival. One of the most clever sequences takes place when they pull up the cab at the airport in Omaha to pick up fares. They charge one passenger $48 for the adventurous journey to his house, but when he complains that it's normally $25, that's what they accept. They work this scheme for a little while longer and pick up some gas and food money, but they need to move on.

Another scene that works quite well takes place after Claire decides to take over the wheel for one evening. I won't give any plot details away here, but the location at which they wind up is one that forces them to look at who they are, what they are doing and ultimately, what each one is running away from. This is a critical scene in the film that is quite well written and nicely directed.

If there were more scenes such as this, I would have given a strong recommendation to Take Me Home. However, as I mentioned earlier, the film does play cute from time to time, which adds little to the overall qualities of this work. The characters are nicely defined and portrayed, but there are too many predictable scenes, as when they meet Thom's parents. How we meet them is a surprise, but as the scene plays out, it  just doesn't have the uniqueness of other moments in the film.

However, there are enough well-written scenes and enough light comic moments to make the film an enjoyable and pleasant experience. Take Me Home works on the surface level - take Claire home to see her father, but it also is a journey home for both Thom and Claire - who are they trying to be at the end of the day? That, in reality, is a more important journey.

P.S. I also want to applaud Sam Jaeger for resisting the urge to go for cheap humor. Over the past few years, I've seen too many Hollywood films (mostly on planes, which is where they deserve) that seem to want to please only the most base of tastes. These films make fun of people, sometimes in a light manner, but too often in a mean way. I just don't think this shows any sophistication on the part of the filmmakers. 

Sam Jaeger has written a screenplay that respects its characters as well as the meaning of family and friendship. Those emotions will never go out of fashion.

Take Me Home will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival at 8:00 PM on Saturday, October 8 and at 2:15 on Friday, October 14.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chicago Film Festival - "Miss Bala"

One of the ways in which I judge a film's success is as I'm watching it for the first time, I think to myself that I want to see this work again and I want to see it soon. By that token alone, Miss Bala is a triumph.

I'll have a full review of this film down the road, but a few words for now. Directed by Gerardo Naranjo, this is a devastating look at the drug wars that have been dominant in Mexico over the past decade. The story involves a young woman named Laura Guerrero (Stephanie Sigman) who lives in Tiujana and dreams of winning the local Miss Baja beauty pageant. She enters the competition, wearing the one nice dress she owns and almost instantly her life is turned upside down, when a terrible bloodbath takes place at a local nightclub at which she is present. A few hitmen from a notorious local drug gang go on a shooting spree and Laura is discovered hiding to stay out of the line of fire. From that moment on, her life is forever intertwined with this gang.

I won't go into too many more details at the present, but suffice it to say that Laura's journey is full of shocking twist and turns. Naranjo (who also co-wrote the script) does a masterful job at keeping his camera in tight, letting the viewer experience Laura's nightmare. The director displays a great talent for giving us many details, so the shocking developments of this story are not played for thrills, but rather are integral to the madness Laura must endure.

Miss Bala (which translates as Miss Bullet) is a beautifully crafted work that gives us a moral center - a young woman who only wants to rise above her plain life - in a world that has gone to hell. Narnajo has stated that one of his primary goals with this film was "to create images that would recreate the smell of violence and turn them into an artistic piece, with a keen spirit." He has succeeded brilliantly.

Miss Bala will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival at 8:00 PM on Saturday, October 8 and at 8:35 PM on Monday, October 10. It will open in New York on Friday, October 14.

A Canana/Fox International Production, Miss Bala has been selected as Mexico's entrant in the Academy Award competition for Best Foreign Language Film.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Covering the Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Chicago International Film Festival opens this Thursday, October 6 and runs through Oct. 20. I've got a media pass and will begin to see my first films of the festival at special media screenings starting on the 5th. 

 There are a number of films I'm looking forward to seeing, most notably A Dangerous Method from David Cronenberg, Into The Abyss from Werner Herzog and The Last Rites of Joe May, shot in Chicago and starring Chicago native Dennis Farina and directed by Joe Maggio.

I'm hearing some great things about several movies at the festival representing many countries around the globe. These include Miss Bala from Mexico, Kid With a Bike (Belgium) and Sleeping Beauty (Australia) to name only three.

There will be a number of filmmakers present during the festival and I'll do my best to interview a director or two. I'm really looking forward to the event with Haskell Wexler, one of the greatest cinematographers to ever work in Hollywood - he won two Academy Awards - and also an influential director, best known for Medium Cool (1968).

I'll get my first post up in a day or two and will update this blog quite often during the next two weeks, as I watch the newest releases from some of the world's finest filmmakers.