Friday, October 21, 2005

41st Chicago International Film Festival - Part 3

My festival experience is over for this year, and I look forward to learning the audience choice awards. The jury awards, of course, have aleady been announced. At this point we're just biting our nails over the audience choice.

Boys of Baraka - A group of seriously at-risk African-American boys are selected from the Baltimore Public School system to spend two years at a boarding school in East Africa, the goal being to give them a chance to turn their lives around, and this documentary follows their journey through surprising twists and turns. Sounds like an Oprah-style, feel-good tale of inspiration, doesn't it? Like you know where this is going? Trust me, you don't. The film reminded me of last year's Born Into Brothels but strikes uncomfortably much closer to home. It raises troubling questions about environment and underfunding of--or at least undercaring for--urban public school students, but those questions aren't explored as much as they could be. The film has some fascinating chapters, though at times I thought the African section was a tad thin. Still, the portraits of many of these boys and their families is unique and powerful--a much richer portrait of poor black men than you'd ever get from Hollywood--and there are some sections (a difficult meeting with parents; a fight between boys) which you can't believe the filmmakers were lucky enough to capture.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

Black Brush - Trainspotting meets Mary Poppins? No, not quite. In this Hungarian slacker comedy, a bunch of guys (actually, 4, like a rock band) are employed to sweep chimneys but make their way into all kinds of mischief, including smoking the poop of a psychedelically diet-enhanced goat. It's inevitably going to be compared to Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, the kings of minimalist comic cool, and in comparison, well, it just doesn't quite measure up. (Actually, I haven't been wowed yet by Kaurismäki, so maybe it measures up there.) It also swipes the idea of a quick comic peek into the consciousness of an animal from Being John Malkovich's chimp. A rambling odyssey that leaves us hanging as if its slacker soul just couldn't muster up the oomph for a payoff--why worry us with potential consequences only to shrug them off?--Black Brush is, however, beautifully photographed in b&w (the filmmaker worked with Béla Tarr), featuring a unique cast and some silly humor along the way (like a funny moment with a nun and a papal web site). Similar in some ways to Kontroll, another hipster Hungarian let down.
Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Caché (Hidden) - The title of Michael Haneke's new film echoes with many possibilities as you watch: hidden camera, hidden past, concealed weapon, hidden meaning. The film inventively plays with composition and editing in order to undermine your expectations. This fascinating and mysterious film may attract mainstream moviegoers expecting a Hitchcockian payoff, but I hope they won't be too frustrated by its artful ambiguity. This is no whodunit. Haneke clearly doesn't want you to have the kind of closure that allows you to walk away and forget. He wants to tuck into your brain and make you ponder. Daniel Auteuil plays Georges, a family man who hosts a literary discussion show on tv (sort of a French Charlie Rose). His family starts receiving anonymous videotapes in the mail of an increasingly disturbing nature. His wife, played by Juliette Binoche, becomes understandably agitated, and the situation begins to threaten their relationship. The story probes into an incident from Georges' past, and the more vehemently he denies his responsibility for what happened, the guiltier he seems. Hidden makes for an excellent companion to A History of Violence, though it suffers slightly from the comparison. Both tell the story of a husband/father who is concealing something violent in his past, and both feature moments of shocking violence (there are two moments in Hidden that are extraordinarily startling). In Violence, the hero has tried to outgrow his machismo, whereas here, fear induces him to become (in his wife's words) "a macho prick," which only escalates the problem. In both films, the violence of the fathers threatens to harm their sons, and to set harmful examples. Both also resonate with recent history. Sometimes specifically and sometimes vaguely, Hidden evokes the dread of events in Algeria, Sep. 11th, the Middle East, the war in Iraq, and the troubles in Paris of October 17, 1961 (curiously, the title and subject of another film at the festival--wish I'd caught it.) [The rest of this review is a bit of a spoiler. Highlight the white on white text if you want to read.] The final scene is esp. rich and keeps the story open-ended. In the crowd, you may notice Majid's son approach, but then leave, Georges' son outside his school. What is his purpose? And notice that the scene plays exactly like one of the tapes--we are probably watching the next tape to be mailed to Georges. It doesn't seem to be Majid's son's doing, though we can't be sure. There are two possibilities I see: Majid's son is plotting to kidnap Georges' son for real, or the two are becoming friends in a way their fathers were unable to do. But you still want to know who's sending the tapes? Here's what I think: God.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

There were a bunch of Festival films I missed that I've heard or read really good things about: The Moustache, Gabrielle, October 17, 1961, Play, Once You're Born You Can No Longer Hide and My Nikifor. Ahab will hunt ye down later, fishies.

Song: "The Bleeding Heart Show" by The New Pornographers

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