Saturday, October 14, 2006

42nd Chicago International Film Festival - Part 1

I didn't expect much from this year's fest as it's been a poor year for film so far, but the CIFF really stunned me with how much junk they imported. I usually see the Fest as a chance to go fishing for lesser-known gems that may not make it back, but this year I changed strategies completely and decided to go for a mix of films that are coming back soon in the always-overcrowded fall season along with some lighter fare that looked more fun than important. So far, I'm doing better than last year.

I never would have expected Change of Address to be my favorite film of the first week. On the contrary, I expected this light French romantic comedy to be a pleasant way to balance out my pass, which it certainly was. But it turns out it's that rarest of things, a comedy that's gracefully light on its feet, tightly edited and breezily enjoyable. Yes, it has a bit of the sitcom to it, but I really loved its touches of absurdity. In fact, it made me think about the subtly different flavors of comedy--wacky, zany, absurd: they're all closely related but different. But there's something uniquely philosophical about the absurd (think Ionesco, Beckett) that gives it a special appeal for me. The hero and heroine of Change of Address are able to live in denial about the most obvious truths (i.e., that they're in love), and the story never forces them to change their minds, which is an odd choice. The way they vigorously pursue their desires and blithely, cheerfully overlook their setbacks put me in mind of the old great screwball comedies in which youthful love seems to offer an endless bounty of hope and happiness. This is a very slight movie--a divertissement--but it was a pure joy for me, and I look forward to seeing what else writer/director/actor Emmanuel Mouret can do. But Frédérique Bel, a cat-eyed comedian compared by some to Lisa Kudrow, made this a real treat. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

I decided to check out Just Sex and Nothing Else for a simple reason: I find Sándor Csányi very appealing and enjoyed him in Kontroll, a movie from an earlier fest which was almost the opposite of this film in terms of lighting--dark and gritty where this is light and airy. This comedy of sex and romance from Hungary has several strong features, including a director who knows how to pace this kind of story (a rarity these days, and crucial to a comedy), an attactive cast, and some mildly funny material. Unfortunately, director Krisztina Goda also seems a bit superior to the material at times, clearly in it to establish herself and move on to more pretigious fare (she's working with Joe Eszterhas now). There's a lot of unnecessary cliche and lazy dialogue and after setting up two (possibly three) credible love interests for her lead (played a tad too heavily by Judith Schell), she fails to justify why one lover is more fit than the others. But, no matter, the man fated by formula to be Mr. Right will work out as Mr. Right. Our audience (like voters online) loved the film, and when the director showed up for a q&a at our fest showing, several in the audience clamored to buy the DVD. I couldn't blame them--this is the kind of Hollywood formula film Hollywood often screws up these days. Zoltán Seress is a standout as Mr. runner-up, and Kata Dobó is almost too soulful as the best friend. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

I've been wanting to see more of Claude Chabrol's films. He's been around forever, a French legend often compared to Hitchock, and for someone who loves French film as much as I do, I'm a little embarassed how few of his films I've seen. So I welcomed the chance to see Comedy of Power, a film I've been describing to friends as a sort of French Erin Brockavich, only that's a pretty poor description. Comedy actually concerns a French judge investigating a corporate scandal that is said to be inspired by the real life "Affaire Elf" involving an oil company and dealings with African nations. (An imdb commentator points out that ELF here becomes FMG, one letter's difference.) As she hauls in men involved for questioning and peels back layers of corruption, the tactics against her escalate and her home life begins to suffer. It has a touch of the thriller element to it, but thankfully it doesn't go too far down that well-trod route. Instead, this nimble film mostly sticks to being a portrait of a powerful woman who manages to maintain her confidence in the face of adversity, commandingly acted by Isabelle Huppert. There are subtle touches that reward close attention (the fact that her haircuts get shorter as the months go by, one of the only signs she betrays of being agitated) as well as occasional wordplay (a slick character named Sibaud is called not so beautiful / "si beau"). I was surprised at the number of people named Chabrol listed in the opening credits (music, acting, script), so I was pleased that Thomas Chabrol, as Felix, Huppert's husband's playboy nephew (a bit like Kevin Spacey), proves himself so vital and enjoyable a part of the film. The bond between these two allies is a unique screen relationship and one of many examples of how the filmmakers resisted cliche. Most moviegoers will find it too slight, but it certainly goes down easily and enjoyably. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

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