Previewing the Chicago Critics Film Festival

Audiences lined up and packed the Music Box Theatre’s massive, 800-seat main auditorium to see David Wain’s They Came Together. You wouldn’t believe that this festival was only in its second year. You also wouldn’t believe how much it thrived from its first outing.

I was there for it. It took place in Rosemont, an outskirt suburb of Chicago, in one of the state’s largest multiplexes. Designed as a faux cathedral and enlaced with luxury, reclining seating fit for two human beings, it wasn’t the ideal setting for a festival designed to highlight independent cinema. The opening night film, Sarah Polley’s moving documentary, Stories We Tell, saw the director in attendance for a Q&A filled to 20% capacity. Same goes for James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, a major coup for the festival, that saw an even larger theater with fewer than 30 people in attendance for a post-film Q&A. 

But the films were there. Much like the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival, you gather that the members of the Chicago Film Critics Association carefully curate the schedule, looking for the most intriguing festival titles of the year. In its fourth year, their third at the Music Box Theatre, the festival already feels like an institution, providing Chicago moviegoers with a unique festival setting of vetted and ambitious works. From its meager beginnings, the festival has surpassed any and all expectations, becoming an annual event that draws in the crowds – the few that were in attendance during those early screenings would’ve never anticipated this kind of growth. 

I’ll be covering the festival throughout its run from May 20 to the 26th. For a complete schedule of films and additional ticket information, please see the Chicago Film Critics Festival’s official site here. Below you'll find a selection of capsule reviews for films screened during the festival. 

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

On October 2001, Jason Burkett and Michael Perry murdered Sandra Stotler, her son Adam, and Adam’s friend Jeremy Richardson. There’s little to dispute that fact. And while Werner Herzog goes through a portion of his film to describe the crime with an officer familiar with the case, he doesn’t make much of an effort to rationalize the event. The ugly crime happened. Herzog is far more interested in the subsequent fallout of the event, as Jason Burkett is living out a life sentence while Michael Perry is eight days away from his execution.

Herzog analyzes the social conditions that contributed to the two men committing the murders. Living in the ironically named Conroe, Texas, both men suffered from absent parents and a dilapidating exposure to violence. While one can assess the tragedy from a purely economic perspective –the two murdered Mrs. Stotler for her Red Camaro and proceeded to murder her son and his friend to obtain access into a gated community – Herzog instead probes for contradictions in the situation. Herzog seems particularly interested in assessing the reasoning behind giving one man a death sentence while the other gets life in prison. As the film peels the layers of each man’s life, there’s a sense that there’s weight in one’s misery. Jason Burkett’s father, who is also incarcerated, was brought in to testify. He broke down in tears as he pleads with the jury to not give his son the death sentence. The strength of this testimony undoubtedly saved Burkett from the death penalty, though there’s a lingering moment where Burkett’s father acknowledges the lost cause that he is fighting for. In a truly gut- wrenching moment, the father recounts the story of sharing the holiday with his son in handcuffs. He acknowledges his failure, as he simply wishes to go back to a time where he could have simply provided for his son.

While Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was more concerned with the intricacies of West Memphis Three case, Into the Abyss focuses largely on analyzing the culture behind the death penalty. In the film’s most revealing interview, we are introduced to Captain Fred Allen. As death row’s executioner, Allen had been responsible for killing over a hundred people before retiring early. Allen shares a quote that serves to underline the all-encompassing manner of Herzog’s thesis, wherein one can look at a person’s gravestone under a new perspective. But for those without family and sentenced to death, their gravestones carry a different meaning all together.

Rating: 9/10

Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog, 2009)

The apocalypse happened yesterday – in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is living in its aftermath. Mr. Herzog’s obsession with the genius of madness has played an integral part in many of his films, with even his documentaries brining in a wide array of over-the-top, lunatic individuals (the man discovering cave openings with his nose in Cave of Forgotten Dreams). And with My Son, Mr. Herzog inverts typical notions of police standoff procedurals into something far more radical – you know that’s the case when Detective Hank Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) matter- of- factly notes the madness of the situation and Brad here: He's claiming his name is Farouk, he shouts about God, and he tosses oatmeal at us. It's all a little confusing."

The narrative (an inadequate word to describe My Son’s goings-on) is framed as a true-to-life event.  Brad McCullum hides in his home as he is surrounded by the authorities- led by Detective Havenhurst and Detective Vargas (Michael Pena). The crime? McCullum is accused of killing his mother. These details would arouse a certain reaction depending on who we associate with the whole project – someone like Ron Howard sitting in the director’s chair would make me avoid the film at all costs. But two names are involved here that I presume piques everyone’s interest in My Son– director Werner Herzog and producer David Lynch. Expectations are put into place, wherein conventional cinematic expectations are inverted, mutated, and skewed; something we haven’t seen is going to happen.

And that’s precisely what happens. The motive behind McCullum’s actions are based on his theatrical career, and in a way, inspired by Sophocles. Details and events are tossed every which way in hopes of making sense of it all. McCullum  murdered his mother with a sword. An ostrich steals someone’s glasses. McCullum goes to Peru and whatever brewing sense of madness that is inside him is uncorked. Tales of McCullum’s past are recounted by his girlfriend, Ingrid (Chloë Sevigny) and his theater director, Lee (Udo Kier). What they amount to gives Detective Havenhurst very little to work with – the sense that it’s all a little confusing echoes throughout My Son.

The ambiguity and sense of utter disorientation works just as much in favor of the film as it does against it. There seems to be an honest effort to try and tell some sort of story here, but the weirdness involved almost exceeds my liking. And unlike some Mr. Herzog’s other efforts, there’s not enough from Shannon to anchor the whole film steady. Nicholas Cage in The Bad Lieutenant, Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Bruno S. in Strozek all brought the most intense levels of craziness to their roles– you sense that’s brewing inside Shannon, but it never quite gets there. It’s simply a case of not enough razzle dazzle in its lead performance to push this thing all the way.

Rating: 6/10

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave is situated in southern France. The scientists who discovered the cave stepped into a world that had been untouched for well over 20,000 years. The cave had been occupied by humans of two separate eras, with both groups leaving behind fossilized remains of animals and, most significantly, artwork. Images of bison, lions, and horses litter the walls of Chauvet cave - some suggest illustrations of animals in motion, or as Mr. Herzog puts it, examples of proto-cinema.

Werner Herzog, an eccentric director if there ever was one, offers his take on the significance of the images. His wry narrations are welcome as the audience is transported throughout the interior and exterior of the cave. His own sense of wonder is prevalent throughout the film, as he studies every image with the utmost curiosity. The existential musings that Mr. Herzog notes throughout the film gives the whole scenery added depth. Perhaps it’s his ability to shift from utter solemnity to a somewhat comic tone that makes him such an enjoyable narrator.

But examining his narrations serves to undermine the greater lengths in which this director took in creating Cave of Forgotten Dreams. For one, Mr. Herzog, with a crew of three, was permitted to enter Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave under stringent cinematic limitations –the crew was limited to four-hours of filming per day. They were also confined to stepping on thin metal planks that made shooting from afar particularly difficult, with the general expectation that other members of the crew were in shots – this is guerrilla filmmaking.

Most impressive of all is that the film is actually in 3-D. Mr. Herzog, unlike many contemporary Hollywood filmmakers, uses the style not for commercial reasons, but instead to detail the contours of the imagery on the cave. The 3-D on the outside of the cave immerses you into a lush and vibrant world that suggests that Mr. Herzog wants you to feel the physicality of his journey. The 3-D gives added dimension to the paintings themselves, as flickering lights add in seeing the depth and breadth of the artwork.

There’s a moment in the film where Mr. Herzog notes the imprinted footstep of what could have been a young boy or girl. Next to the child’s footsteps are animal tracks, most likely that of a wolf. As Mr. Herzog notes, he questions if the wolf had walked with the child as a friend, or trailed him as a predator. Or perhaps they lived wholly separate, unaware of each other’s existence. The questions that Mr. Herzog asks are metaphorical, but what it produces, what it elicits, is an emotional reaction. Given the humdrum new releases in theaters these days, I welcome any film that provokes mental or emotional thought, let alone 90 minutes worth of it.

Rating: 8/10

Stroszek (Werner Herzog, 1977)

Boiling down Stroszek to its most fundamental elements leaves a synopsis that could read: “Two men and a woman leave Germany for Wisconsin”. But then when accounting for Herzog’s narrative sensibilities, the synopsis can be revised as “a mentally challenged ex-con, an elderly man, and a prostitute leave Germany for Wisconsin”. For better or worse (in this case, it’s for the better), Herzog’s bizarre sensibilities serve to enhance what could have been a fairly typical narrative layout. But what took me most off guard was the sense of genuine human pathos involved with such bizarre characters.

From the onset of the film, the title character (played by Bruno S.) is sent home from jail. The warden offers a bit of advice – to keep his fly up and to stop drinking. Stroszek then immediately goes to a bar, wherein he meets with what seems to be an old friend named Eva (Eva Mattes). Eva, a prostitute, is violently assaulted by her pimps on numerous occasions. This violent response prompts Stroszek to house Eva in an apartment that is being held by his elder friend named Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). As the violence against Eva expands to include Stroszek and Schietz, the three decide to leave Germany for Wisconsin. Their reasoning and logic behind choosing Wisconsin is faulty (like so much of their logic), but they go with it.

What follows is a bewildering situation that leads Eva, Scheitz, and Stroszek to follow their separate paths. Eva, who initially takes work as a waitress, finds her life with Stroszek to be too confining, and instead opts to return to her sexually deviant behavior. Scheitz conducts research on animal magnetism. Stroszek is perhaps the most aware of the situation around him, yet the language barrier prevents him from ever understanding the real gravity of his social position.

Stroszek comments on the differences in hostility between America and Germany – in Germany, the violence that was against him was overt. Eva’s pimps assaulted him on a purely physical level. In America though, violence is something against the spirit, wherein Stroszek is slowly killed with kindness and passive aggressiveness. As the film reaches its increasingly bizarre conclusion (one that includes a dancing chicken), the hopelessness associated with Stroszek’s life almost becomes unbearable. So much of the film is difficult to watch, both in the awkwardness it provokes and the muddled truth it promotes. This is only further compounded by Bruno S.’s convincing performance and the unsightly terrain that Herzog shoots – this is one of the ugliest film’s I’ve seen, but appropriate given its meaning to the whole of the film.

7/10