Saturday, October 25, 2014

Favorites from the Chicago International Film Festival

The President
Winner of the Gold Hugo as best Film of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival wrapped up its two-week run a few days ago and it was a smashing success! I attended the fest at the beautiful AMC River East theater complex and was amazed at the crowds on the weekend of October 17-19; the organizers were quite right in making the theme of this year's fest "Everybody Loves Movies," as thousands turned out to see the latest in world cinema. Founder and artistic director Michael Kutza and his team have made the Chicago Film Festival undoubtedly one of the finest in the United States.

There are so many films shown during the two weeks, that's it's impossible to see everything. Please keep that in mind as I write about my personal favorites from the fest, as I realize I missed out on some films that were highly praised. But I did try and make an effort to see many different types of films, be they dramas, comedies, shorts and documentaries.


The President (Georgia, France, U.K., Germany) - directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. This film was awarded the Gold Hugo as the Best Film of this year's festival; bravo to the jury for selecting such an original, provocative film! In an unnamed country (perhaps Georgia or a neighboring land), a dictator must flee for his life after the military overthrows his government. The president sees his wife and daughters off to the airport in the nick of time, but stays to fight for his regime along with his five-year old young grandson. At times funny, but mostly chilling, the film focuses on the desperate measures the former ruler must go through just to survive from one day to the next, as soldiers are out to capture him, dead or alive, for a large ransom. 

Director Makhmalabaf masterfully brings an immediacy to the story, beautifully capturing small moments so well, as when the president and his grandson must pass themselves off as street musicians, with the young boy wearing a cardboard box while performing an impromptu dance. I have not seen other films by Makhamalabaf, but based on this single work, it is clear that he is an extremely talented director, one who understands the spatial boundaries of the screen (his compositions are at once beautiful and sadly heartbreaking). He has been called one of the leaders of the Iranian New Wave; this movie along with A Separation (director, Asghar Farhadi), which was awarded an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film in 2012, offer proof that some of today's most remarkable films are being made by directors from Iran.

Stockholm (Spain) - directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen - A look at a chance affair at a bar between a young man and woman that turns into much more than a one-night stand. A very intelligent screenplay by Isabel Peña and Sogoyen that offers three dimensional characters who each practice their own particular dance; he (Javier Periera) will do anything to impress this woman, while she (Aura Garrido) is quite unsure of herself as well as his motives, yet feels drawn to him. This is such an impressive study of a male-female relationship that is only rarely seen in Hollywood; this is not a "meet cute" film that major studios routinely produce. Great work by the two principal performers, especially Garrido.

Human Capital (Italy) - directed by Paolo Virzi (review here). A look at the excesses of the rich in northern Italy, set in the current day economic crisis of the country. The film is told in four chapters, as there are multiple viewpoints of a tragic roadside accident that sets the story in motion. Each chapter also provides insight into the emotions of the various characters, most of whom are not happy with their current lot in life. Beautifully written, directed and acted (the entire cast is first-rate), the film has received numerous awards in Italy; I believe it can also be a critical success in America (and perhaps even relatively popular at the box office).

Fearless (United States) - directed by Ted Kotcheff - A splendid short film (26 minutes) that deals directly with the question of the quality of life. An aging actress sees a young man outside her estate who is ready to kill himself; she challenges him and invites him in for tea, provoking him with questions about why he would do this. During their time together, we discover that she also has problems with her current existence; clearly her glorious past as a movie star is a thing of the past. An engaging performance by Fionnula Flangan; sensitive direction by the 83-year old Kotcheff and an insightful script by his daughter Alexandra. In its brief running time, the film treats serious questions about life and death with greater complexity than many feature films. Highly recommended.

Sand Dollars (Dominican Republic, Mexico) - directed by Israel Cardenas and Amelia Guzman. A dream-like film about the relationship of two women, one a young native of the Dominican Republic and the other a European in her 70s. The older woman (an outstanding performance by Geraldine Chaplin, who is not afraid to display her 70 year-old appearance) feels alive again with the tenderness shown to her by her young lover, while the young woman is attracted to her older companion, if only for the fact that she has money. This is a film of wishes and hopes, and while some of these desires are dashed, the characters have an eternal outlook that things will work out for them. Chaplin was awarded the Silver Hugo as Best Actress in this year's festival.

Human Voice -La Voce Humana - (Italy) - directed by Edoardo Ponti. Another short film (25 minutes), this a magnificently filmed telling of the Jean Cocteau eponymous short story in which an elderly woman (Sophia Loren) talks to her lover on the phone one final time, painfully realizing that she will never see him again. Loren, who was 79 years old when this was filmed (she recently turned 80) is brilliant in this role - you'd have to say that this ranks among the finest works of her career. There is an urgency in her voice and such primal emotions on display- she takes your breath away with this performance! Her son Edoardo tenderly directs this tale, while the brilliant cinematography is by Rodrigo Prieto, who is one of the finest directors of photography working today (recent credits include Argo, Babel and The Wolf of Wall Street). His deeply saturated blues and reds in the apartment scenes add irony to the film's plot and his compositions of the actors set against the Napoli seaside is stunning. I can't imagine the Academy nominating a short film for cinematography, but it would be a worthwhile nomination; I don't know if I'll see a more beautiful and professional job of cinematography this year (note, this was shot on film stock, not digitally). But perhaps the film will be nominated for an Oscar in the Short Film category; I would love that, as it would allow a good-sized audience to see this gorgeous film!

The Look of Silence (Denmark, Indonesia, Norway, Finland, UK) - directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. This is Oppenheimer's companion piece to his 2013 documentary The Act of Killing, which told the story of a select few of the individuals that committed brutal government-approved murders in Indonesia in the 1960s. While that film recreated the deeds of those individuals, The Look of Silence concerns itself with the story of the brother of a young man who was one of the victims. He confronts the murderers and asks them if they feel any remorse. Like the first film on this topic by Oppenheimer, this is a devastating film. One final note: many of the end credits - especially for assistant directors - read "anonymous"; clearly many of Indonesia's citizens are reluctant to talk about this terrible period in their recent history.

Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (United States) - directed by Chuck Workman. An excellent documentary about a true genius of cinema, this film is a great introduction to the work of Welles - theater as well as film - and will be appreciated by devotees of Welles. My full review will appear in December when the film hits theaters, for now, you can read my interview with Workman about this film here.

Birdman (United States) - directed by Alejandro Iñarritu. A highly original movie about an actor who has left his superhero days behind and is now tackling his first Broadway work, adapting, directing and starring in a dramatic play. He asks himself often in the film if he is crazy to do this; his life complicated by several others in his immediate family and in the play. (I'll write a full review in a few days.) Great lead performance by Michael Keaton, who was awarded the Founder's Award from the festival for his work in this film. 

I've Seen the Unicorn (Canada) - directed by Vincent Toi (full review here). A film for the dreamer in all of us set amidst the world of thoroughbred horse racing in the small nation island of Mauritius. We follow the trials of an owner and a jockey who desperately want to win the country's biggest race; we also learn the story of a young boy who will do whatever it takes to become a jockey in a few years. A delightful film - only 60 minutes in length - full of simple pleasures as well as exciting race scenes.

Algren (United States) - directed by Michael Caplan (full review here). A heartfelt tribute to the famous Chicago writer, the champion of the dispossessed. Beautiful photos from the 1940s, '50s and '60 shot by Art Shay illustrate the life and times of Nelson Algren. There are many wonderful stories in this documentary, told by famous writers and directors such as William Friedkin, John Sayles and Philip Kaufman.

Other films I enjoyed included: 

Maestro (France) - directed by Lea Fazer
Joy of Man's Desiring (Canada) - directed by Denis Coté
The 100 year old man who jumped out the window and disappeared (Sweden) - dir. Felix Herngren
The Divide (United States, short film) - directed by Ashley Monti
Tir (Italy) - directed by Alberto Fasulo

I would think the Chicago Film Festival team would have a difficult time topping themselves next year, but I'm quite confident they'll be up to the task. Here's to the 51st Chicago International Film Festival in 2015!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Chuck Workman on Orson Welles - A tribute to a "Magician"

Chuck Workman (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Chuck Workman offers his thoughts about his new documentary on Orson Welles, the greatest American directors, and the first film he ever saw.

Academy Award winning director Chuck Workman was in Chicago the other day to premiere his latest documentary. Titled Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles, the film is a marvelous study of this complicated, extraordinary man, who revolutionized cinema in America and around the world.

Due to an agreement with the film's distributor, I'm not allowed to review the film until its release date of December 12, but I can tell you know that it is a first-rate work, one that will please devoted fans of Welles as well as film lovers who only know of his reputation. I think it's a cinch to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, but even if it doesn't (one never knows about these things), it's a highly entertaining film, one in which Workman succeeded brilliantly in his pursuit to tell the remarkable story of Orson Welles.

Workman is best known as a director of short films, the most famous of which is Precious Images from 1986, which was honored with an Oscar as Best Short Film (Live Action). The director produced a short film for the Academy Awards for twenty or so years; these films were gems and displayed the love of cinema that in my opinion has been missing in recent years' ceremonies. He has also directed several feature documentaries including Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol (1990) and What is Cinema? (2014).

Workman agreed to a brief interview with me shortly before the premiere of Magician.

Tom Hyland:  I know you from all the short films you made for Academy Awards, which I loved. One of those that really stands out for me was the film about famous actors and directors recalling the first film they ever saw. I remember Michael Douglas stating that for him it was Lili and that he saw it eighteen or nineteen times…

Chuck Workman: Oh, that’s one of my favorites. I love that film. That’s the one with Katherine Hepburn at the end?

TH: Yes, and Gerard Depardieu mentioning Burt Lancaster and “the little bird” (Birdman of Alcatraz). So with that in mind, what was the first film you ever saw?

CW: Meet Me in St. Louis. I remember that my parents told me that when they sang “The Trolley Song” - they must have had a record that they played, because I got up on a seat at a very young age and sang it with them.

TH: How old were you at the time?

CW: I don’t know. Maybe four- I guess I was four. I was born in the mid 1940s, but MGM used to rerelease these films, so I can’t remember exactly. Sometimes I see the year of a movie that I remember seeing and I say, “Wait a minute, I wasn’t even born then!”

But apparently they rereleased more than they were making. They would just start all over again. Funny thing was, I did trailers many years later for rereleases for MGM of a lot of movies, so it’s kind of ironic.

TH: Do you have any ideas how many movies you’ve seen? I imagine it must be in the thousands.

CW: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think as many as Martin Scorsese! Lately, I don’t go to that many movies.

TH: Is that because of work or because the movies today aren’t what they used to be?

CW: I think that I get bored pretty quickly. I don’t stay. I’m in the Academy, so they send me a DVD of every movie, but I don’t generally watch them. There are major movies that I don’t get around to seeing. They’re basically entertainment films; I’m more interested in the art of cinema these days. I don’t try and catch up on every pop movie.

I did it for so long. Growing up, I knew all these movies. I’m much more interested – and still am – in foreign films, in art films, not in Hollywood films.

TH: When did the idea for a Welles documentary first germinate for you?

CW: Over twenty years ago when I made “Precious Images.” I opened (that film) with Citizen Kane and used it over and over. When Turner had owned the film at its 50th anniversary in the early ‘90s…

TH: They threatened to colorize it.

CW: They threatened to colorize it. I was there when he talked about it at Paramount and I even filmed the little reception at Paramount for the 50th anniversary with the idea, “maybe I’ll make a documentary about Orson Welles someday”, and then I never did anything, I lost that film – I don’t know where it is. I was given the opportunity when somebody asked me, “well, what are you interested in doing?” I said this (an Orson Welles film).

Over the years, I worked with present RKO on some of their films and I was always pitching it, but just never got a chance to do it. I’m glad that it took this long because I think I know more about film and important things in cinema that Welles was doing.

TH: In this documentary, you’re not treating Welles like a star, you’re treating him as the genius he was.

CW: I believe so. I often say that there are three great American filmmakers; it’s Kubrick, Robert Altman and Orson Welles. I have great respect for John Ford, etc., but I think they’re making genre films. These other guys were looking at film as a certain kind of art form.

TH: What’s the biggest thing that surprised you about Orson Welles while you were doing the research for this film?

CW: What happened on this film was I showed every single film. I tried to anyway, but there were a few that got away that were not finished, but every finished film. How good they were, the depth of artfulness in all the films. The filmmaking, the greatness of filmmaking in the most minor of films.

Another thing that occurred to me was chronologically how Welles would respond to one form or another of filmmaking and kind of learn that on a film and incorporate that into what he was doing. He never did much editing until his third or fourth film and then he suddenly became a really phenomenal editor. I think things like that. It’s like he would say, “Oh, I can do that,” and then he would do it. So I did get an education there.

Also, I didn’t know myself about all his unfinished films. I knew there were a bunch of them, but I didn’t know there were that many.

TH: If we could ever imagine that someone as talented and as innovative as Welles existed today, could that person even succeed in Hollywood today?

CW: Well, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that Welles was an independent filmmaker, like Wes Anderson, like Richard Linklater. So he would have probably done that, but one of the things I think he would have done today, because of the influence of Brando and other actors, he might have taken his acting much more seriously. Even though he kind of rose to the challenge on various occasions.

TH: I think his role in Compulsion, especially in the courtroom scene, is tremendous. I wish you could have played a few more seconds of that in your film.

CW: Yes, that’s a particularly good one. He took his acting seriously. He would be a first class actor/director now, actually more than that. He would have taken the acting more seriously today than he did.

TH: I love Charlton Heston’s quote in the film about how Welles was a great filmmaker, but seemed to always want to alienate the people who had the money. You can’t do that in Hollywood.

CW: You can’t. You have to suffer fools and there are a lot of them, they all want to help you with your movies. So everybody has the same problem and some people are just better at it. I used to always ask well known directors, “what do you do?” Mel Brooks used to say, “Oh, I tell then anything, because they don’t remember anyway.”

Fred Zinneman once told me he’s European so he’s always very polite and they remember that. So now you get notes and written pages and pages of notes and you have some junior executive that’s following all those things for you. But often the hired executive doesn’t worry about it- they understand what you’re doing, so it’s not that bad.

TH: Finally, in this documentary, I thought your storytelling differed over the film. The first half was excellent, but very straightforward, while the latter part of the film was more Wellesian, if you will, as you told his story in a more innovative way.

CW: Well it's a documentary and you have to find a way to keep people in their seats. After all, there's no plot!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Kathleen Turner in Person - Chicago International Film Festival

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

"One thing I want to make clear. It's always my choice of the roles I play." - Kathleen Turner

Stage and screen actress Kathleen Turner appeared at the Chicago International Film Festival on Tuesday night for special session before a packed audience who were there to listen to the actress talk about her career, which has spanned more than three decades. British film writer John Russell Taylor was the host for the event and asked Ms. Turner all sorts of questions about her work over these many years; a Q and A session with the audience followed and clips from some of her most famous roles were also shown. 

Interestingly Turner also appeared at a similar function for the Festival 22 years ago. She recalls saying back then (paraphrasing here) that she wondered about reaching a certain age where Hollywood might not care any more about her. "Well, I've reached it," the 60-year old proudly exclaimed.

Tuner regaled the audience with her charm and strong personality during the evening, as she recalled many of her favorite films in which she has been the leading lady. She certainly does not lack confidence, as evidence by a wonderful story she told about the making of Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, a role for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. The story had to do with a camera setup for a particular scene; Turner thought the camera should be in front of her, while Coppola had it positioned behind her. "I think the camera should be looking at me," she told Coppola. "Oh, you do, do you?" replied the director. The result was that Coppola made a deal - he would have Turner do as many takes as he thought necessary with his setup, while he would also shoot two takes with the camera positioned where Turner thought it was appropriate. As Turner finished telling this story, she beamed when she revealed, "In the film, they used my shot!"

She also revealed that she loves the theater (her notable performances include Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and has never gone more than two and one-half years away from the stage. She said that she loves the spontaneous nature of the stage as "each performance is unique. We're not robots - we can't give the same performance each night."

Continuing with that theme, she commented that she does not have that option with film, as once it's done and once the editor has assembled the footage, her performance is fixed. She knows that she can discuss a scene with a director on a film and ask to do it a certain way, but in the end, the director's decisions are the ones that are final. "I don't choose the performance you see and that bugs me."

"I'm stubborn, very." - Kathleen Turner

She talked about directors she worked with in the past, mentioning two that were a bit, shall we say, distinctive in their own special way. One was John Waters, who directed Turner in the 1994 film Serial Mom, whom Turner said was "the sweetest, most wonderful man, but that he was crazy - and he knows it." She also recalled Ken Russell, who directed Turner in the 1984 film Crimes of Passion. The actress had heard that he would begin drinking scotch at 6 in the morning on the days of shooting, but when she met him for the initial set ups, he was drinking wine. "Well, that's an improvement, I thought," she commented.

Turner certainly seems comfortable in her own skin. "Guess what, "I'm not the object of desire anymore," she noted. "Why should I be so one-dimensional? Longevity is in character acting. That's what I am, a character actor."


The festival press office and the public relations firm of Carol Fox and Associates in Chicago set up a brief one-on-one interview session with Ms. Turner before she sat down in front of the public; I was one of only five individuals who was allowed to ask the actress a question or two. My thanks to these people for allowing me this privilege; special thanks to Nick Harkin.

Here is my brief interview:

TH: Is there a historical character that you would like to play?

KT: That's an interesting question. I have a wonderful one woman show about Molly Ivins, a writer and humorist I loved. I'm taking it to Berkeley Rep now. I don't know if I'll take it to New York or not.

I don't like to say too much as I'm developing some ideas. I don't think I'd be right to play Eleanor Roosevelt, but I certainly admire her tremendously, but I'm not sure that's the role I'd be best at. 

TH: What about Joan of Arc?

KT: No, not Joan of Arc, but Elizabeth. Elizabeth l, of course.

TH: What advice would you give to young women who would like to be an actress?

KT: There is a lot of advice to give, I think. To every young actor, I will say, be brave. Don't be afraid to make choices, don't be afraid to say no to a project that you don't believe in because what it costs your soul afterwards is not worth it. 

But to young women - incidentally, I have a 27 year old daughter and today is her birthday. I'm often asked how to have a marriage, a child, a career, all of the above. Unfortunately, but truly, you or your partner or between the two of you have to make enough to hire a wife! That's the bottom line.

Thank you, Kathleen Turner for your time and thank you for the wonderful performances you've given us!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Human Capital - Chicago International Film Festival

Last year, Italy's official entry for the Best Foreign Film for Hollywood's Academy Awards (each country is only allowed one entry) was La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), which did in fact, win the Oscar at this year's ceremony. At this year's David di Donatello awards in Italy (often referred to as Italy's Academy Awards), the prize for Best Film was given to Human Capital, directed by Paolo Virzi. Having seen both films, I'd say the di Donatello awards got it right; this is a wonderful piece of movie making and story telling.

The film's premise is a clever one; a luckless, unnamed individual rides his bicycle home one night after work, but is struck by an SUV, knocking him unconscious into a ditch. The film then tells us three different perspectives of what might have happened, as each chapter follows the fortunes of one individual, each of whom is linked to the other in various ways. This organization helps us understand the motives of not only these three people, but everyone else in the film. There's a great deal of deceit and self-centered behavior throughout the film, one that is populated largely by wealthy people (wealthy at least in terms of finances), yet there is at least one individual who has a soul and cares about the fortune of others.

As directed by Paolo Virzi, Human Capital unfolds both as a mystery as well as an examination into human behavior and in many ways, a look at the moral virtues of modern-day Italy. At the heart of the film is a story about the relationship of a wealthy capitalist Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) and his wife Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). He is setting up a fund that he is certain will bring his fellow investors a great return, as he is basing this on the economic collapse of foreign countries. He is constantly in meetings and has little time for his wife, who is bored, yet cannot find the strength to do much against his lack of emotion for her; surrounded by wealth, she does not wish to rock the boat.

We also follow the story of Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), a simple man with a small business who needs money as his wife Roberta (Valeria Golino) is expecting twins; he meets Giovanni through a friendly tennis match and asks to be allowed as an investor in Giovanni's fund. Dino has to borrow from the bank to come up with the staggering sum he needs to join this group; he does so without telling Giovanni or his wife.

Meanwhile, Dino's daughter Serena (Matilde Gioli) is attracted to Giovanni's son Massimiliano (Guglielmo Pinelli), whose vehicle was the one that hit the poor soul on his bicycle. Whether or not Massimilliano was actually driving his SUV is a crux of the story; if he did, will Serena still be in love with him?

There are many strengths here and great credit must be given to the screenwriters Francesco Bruno, Francesco Piccoli and Virzi himself (the screenplay is based upon the novel by Stephen Amidon). The authors give us a world of three-dimensional characters, ones whose lives are incomplete, regardless of how much money or earthly possessions they have. In a key sequence, Carla sees an old theater that has fallen apart and she wishes to bring it back to life and create a new acting company. Her husband argues against it, but gives into her, apparently as his way of pleasing her. For Carla, this is her way of having something to do besides shopping and showing up at society functions, merely to please her husband. For Giovanni, this is the least he thinks he can do to show his wife how much he loves her.

The acting is first-rate throughout, as there are at least five noteworthy performances, especially from Tedeschi, Gifuni and Bentivolgio, and in smaller roles, Golino and Gioli. Tedeschi uses her voice remarkably well, her hushed tones representing her lack of emotional strength. As Serena, Gioli displays a natural quality that serves as a nice contrast to all the glamour and posh surroundings on the screen.

It is Serena who is the moral compass of this tale, as she desperately wants to help Massimiliano and as well as another troubled young man she befriends later in the film. There is wealth that is represented by money and belongings, but Virzi seems to be saying that real wealth comes from basic human virtues such as compassion, kindness and honest affection. What does someone profit if they gain money, yet lose the common touch?

Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano) - directed by Paolo Virzi

To be shown at the AMC River East 21 Theater, 322 E. Illinois Street, Chicago

on Thursday, October 16 at 8:30 PM and on Friday, October 17 at 5:30 PM

Monday, October 13, 2014

Oliver Stone - In Person - Chicago International Film Festival

(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Oliver Stone was in Chicago on Sunday to talk about two of his films - Natural Born Killers (1994) and Alexander (2004) - that were bring shown in their director's cut to audiences. 

Stone spoke after the first film and before the second, commenting on questions primarily about Natural Born Killers. He commented on how much he had to trim to please the film board ("155 cuts, 155 f****g cuts!"). He also noted that Warners Brothers, his distributor, was not thrilled with the film, so instead of waiting until the fall for its premiere, they "dumped it" (Stone's words), opening the film on a traditionally slow weekend in August. "We broke box office records for that weekend," Stone noted.

He mentioned how that film was eerily prophetic in its depiction of media coverage of violence in America and that set him off on a typical Oliver Stone rant about the media and how they treat stories in our country. "They (the media) create the bad guy, they simplify everything." 

Natural Born Killers is an extremely violent film and the director had his say about media coverage of murders and other atrocities. "We instill violence (in this country)." 

He also talked about the insistence of the media covering violent stories and the qualities that these broadcasts instill in some people. Commenting on the mass murders in Columbine and other cities over the past decade, Stone said, "I think if I grew up in a suburb with a mall, I'd shoot somebody."

I laughed as did many of the audience; Stone emphasized he was not serious, realizing of course, how anyone who has a twitter account can take someone's words out of context.

Over the past few years, Stone has been working on a lengthy documentary for television called The Untold History of the United States. "I'm very proud of it," he said. He recommended this series to the audience as a way of realizing for ourselves how screwed up our country is and how often our government has lied to us. "We have problems exercising the democratic rights we're supposed to have."

Agree or not with his take on these issues, you've got to admit that Oliver Stone is honest and fearless in his comments. To my way of thinking, there are too many individuals who are ready to criticize others, yet have little to offer. Stone volunteered to serve in Vietnam, so he was a first-hand witness to that sad time in our country's history. He had the courage to make Salvador and JFK and also make a brilliant film Nixon that was both a Shakespearean look at the downfall of a leader as well as an introspective look at the political crises that have defined Washington, D.C. for the past several decades.

I don't always concur with him, but thank goodness for a breath of fresh air such as Oliver Stone.

Friday, October 10, 2014

"I've Seen the Unicorn" - Chicago International Film Festival

Major film festivals such as the Chicago International Film Festival (this year hosting its 50th annual celebration of cinema) are great affairs, if only for the fact that there is always a great array of offerings for film lovers. You can see movies on subjects from sexual awakening to charming treatises on the wisdom of the elderly or maybe you prefer more "important" offerings about social revolution in various countries or political dramas; there's usually something for everyone.

But after viewing many of the "serious" films, sometimes I'm ready for a smaller work, one with wit and insight about a subject I wasn't aware of. This week I've Seen the Unicorn is that film that enchanted me and told me a story about a small island and its love for horse racing, from the young boys that work the stables to the big name owners and jockeys that participate in the most important races.

The nation island is Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. Having gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1968, the nation has, according to one inhabitant we follow in the film, "Beaches and horse racing."

The centerpiece of the film is a famous horse race, held annually, called The Maiden Cup. Every top stable, trainer and jockey do whatever they can to win this race, which brings to the victor great fame as well as some good money. We are introduced to a local owner named Soon Gujadhur, who heads the most successful locally-owned stable on the island. He has some very good horses, but he's never won this race, having witnessed foreign owners capture this crown. He's a sympathetic individual and we the audience, clearly root for him in his quest.

We also follow the plight of jockey Robbie Burke, who left his native Ireland years ago, as he knew he wouldn't be very successful at home, given the great number of riders there. He's done well for himself in Mauritius and as we follow his story, we learn that he is the leading rider on the island in terms of races and purse money won. But he's never won the Maiden Cup and as he will ride one of the horses owned by Gujadhur, we now have a double rooting interest.

Other individuals we are introduced to are a middle-aged bettor who attends the races four days a week, as he lives next to the track. He's a typical bettor, one that manages to cash a few tickets, all the while dreaming of hitting a big payout one day. We also watch a young boy of about nine or ten pursue his aspiration of becoming a jockey. That day may come down the road, but for now, he has to clean out stalls and hot walk horses; it's all part of a big dream.

In the final analysis, I guess it's this aspect of realizing a dream that makes I've Seen the Unicorn  such a wonderful, enchanting, personal film. Director Vincent Toi realizes that all of us dream big from time to time, so naturally we'll be rooting for Soon Gujadhur and Robbie Burke as well as that charismatic bettor and that young boy. We want to see all of them succeed and it's this human level that makes this film so entertaining.

Of course, if this weren't well filmed, if we didn't enter into the world of horse racing, then we wouldn't care. But it's done extremely well in all aspects, especially the scenes of various races, as the images are tight, the sound of horses' hooves hitting the turf are mesmerizing and the shots of the horses giving their all are pure poetry. The big race is beautifully edited, as the cutting take us from the view of the race to images of the owners and the fans screaming for their horse to win. It's a thrilling few minutes in the film and serves as a nice climax.

I love horse racing, so I was highly entertained by this film, which comes to us from Canada. But even if you know little about thoroughbred racing, all long as you're a bit of a dreamer, you're certain to enjoy this film and the inhabitants it chronicles so well.

I've Seen the Unicorn - Directed by Vincent Toi - Canada

To be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on:

Saturday, October 11 at 4:30 PM and Sunday, October 12 at 3:15

at the AMC River East 21 theater, 322 E. Illinois Street

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Algren" - Chicago International Film Festival

"You must love a city's alleys... also its stray cats." - Nelson Algren

How appropriate that the Chicago International Film Festival, which begins its 50th year on October 9, is premiering the documentary Algren, about one this city's most insightful and decorated writers, at this year's fest. Engaging, edgy and filled with wonderfully entertaining stories about the writer, it's a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to the life and times of a truly unique individual.

To most Americans who knew his name, Nelson Algren was the author of the 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm, a frank novel about drugs in the inner city neighborhoods of Chicago. Yet the author had been chronicling the back alleys and dimly lit streets, what he called "the other side of the billboards" for many years before that. Beginning with The Neon Wilderness, a collection of short stories about whores, dope fiends and crooked cops, published in the mid 1930s, Algren became somewhat of a bard of the streets. He identified with these people and celebrated their lives for the next 30 years.

In the documentary, various friends recall Algren's personality and actions during his years in Chicago. Such luminaries as film directors William Friedkin, John Sayles and Philip Kaufman as well as writers such as Bruce Jay Friedman, Denise de Clue and even musician Billy Corgan discuss their thoughts about Algren, his influence and the Chicago neighborhoods that he featured in his prose. Much is made of his lack of skill at poker; Friedkin reminiscing that he really shouldn't have held those poker games in his apartment, as he lost too much money.

Director Michael Caplan, while giving us the usual talking heads that are seemingly part of every documentary/biography these days, has the good sense not to film these interviews in a static fashion, opting instead to place these individuals in front of text from Algren or in most cases, a vivid black and white photograph of the neighborhood's souls and passageways, taken by Art Shay, who also appears at a few moments in the film, discussing Algren's life.

Another important part of this documentary is the dissection of Algren's relationship with the famed French author Simone de Beauvior. Before she wrote her most famous book entitled The Second Sex in 1949, she was best known for being the companion and lover of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. But one day in 1947, she flew to Chicago and was introduced to Algren; soon the two were lovers and had a relationship that lasted for four years. The breakup was sudden and unexpected and it shattered Algren, according to the individuals who talk about it in the film. "I knew that she loved him," says one of the interviewees, "because she laughed at every joke Nelson told, even though she couldn't understand them."

Algren would leave the city in 1970, as he felt he no longer needed Chicago and that Chicago no longer needed him. The film follows his last few years on the East Coast, as the writer finally found some meaning he had been missing in his life for many years, when he joined a writer's colony in Sag Harbor, Long Island in 1980, shortly before his death. Director Caplan clearly notes the sadness of Algren's departure from Chicago; this is one of the best sequences in the film.

The combination of stories and vivid Art Shay photos help move this film along effortlessly and help us get a great understanding of the thought process of Algren. Serious writer, socially conscious and also a bit of a clown with his small group of friends, Nelson Algren was a lover of life who embraced the back avenues of Chicago like no other author before or since.

Although I never met the man, after watching Algren, I feel like I know a great deal about him, so high praise for the work done by director Caplan and his team. Now I think I'll go read one of his books (after the film festival concludes, of course!)

Note: As the various individuals are seen on screen talking about Algren, they are identified as to their name and profession. However, William Friedkin, who appears three or four times, is never named. Friedkin is certainly a famous film director and has a distinctive voice, but there will be many who view this film who will not know that he is talking. Let's hope that the filmmakers catch this oversight and correct it.

Algren - Directed by Michael Caplan - 87 minutes

The film will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on these dates and times:

October 14 - 6:00 PM
October 20 - 12:15 PM
October 21 - 8:00 PM

The theater will be the AMC River East 21 at 322 E. Illinois Street