Thursday, October 11, 2007

43rd Chicago International Film Festival - Part 1

First stop for me on this year's Festival Express was Hallam Foe, and if ever there was a twisted film, this is it: voyeurism, incest that isn't technically incest (stepmom, lookalike mom), blackmail, murder, split personalities--this thriller has enough material for half a dozen stories. It doesn't delve into any of these issues or ideas with enough dedication to really achieve anything significamt, but it's an agile, interesting film, and it succeeds as a naughty entertainment. It seemed to please my audience as a small-plates meal of thrills and titillations that doesn't try to implicate or embarrass us. This Scottish import (from the director of the darker, less entertaining, but more artistically satisfying Young Adam) grabs inspiration by the handful from Hitchcock's Vertigo and Rear Window (hey, steal from the best) and also brought to mind (would you believe?) Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees, since the title character spends some significant time on rooftops and in trees. Earlier this season I rented the much-ballyhooed The Lookout, a dud of a thriller notable for one main reason, the commitment of its young leading man, the impressive Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This film is likewise notable for the tour de force performance of Jamie Bell, who elevates this film far above what it could have accomplished otherwise. The actor, who as a teenager beat out Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe and Geoffrey Rush for a BAFTA award for his first film performance in Billy Elliot, has more than proven himself, and with films such as Undertow, Nicholas Nickleby, and Flags of Our Fathers, he's clearly shown an intriguing taste and intelligence in picking roles so far. Jamie Sives (who I'd seen play Peter Mullan's son in On a Clear Day) also seems like an actor to bet on. I was less taken with Claire Forlani, though admittedly she's successful as an evil stepmother (whose motivations remain too murky and whose reactions seemed unbelievable). Sophia Myles manages well with a part that seems impossible in theory, and in fact, of all the unexplored stories that could have been fleshed out here, the one that seemed most interesting to me is the one her character hints at: a woman who discovers her new young lover is rather damaged goods but decides that indulging his idiosyncracies may go a long way to cure him. Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

As it was to Mr. Lazarescu before it, the fest circuit has been very good to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a Romanian drama about a young woman helping her friend obtain an abortion illegally in the 1980s. I found Lazarescu eventually oustayed its welcome, become unbearably tedious as it entered its third hour, but I had the opposite reaction to 4 Months, which is more like a Dardennes film than Lazarescu. If anything, it was too unbearably unnerving. I'll confess, I considered leaving. Absolute horrors take place (some of them happen, brilliantly, off screen), and I expected worse and worse things to happen. I still feel a bit queasy about the filmmakers' motives (some of the characters' decisions are unlikely in a way that smacks of rub-their-faces-in-it), but I suppose it's impossible to argue against the notion that it can help us appreciate the ramifications of the debate over abortion. Secondhand, I've heard it described by a critic as a film which presents us with standard thriller and horror narrative routes only to take a more intelligent turn at every opportunity--and that's excellently put. What interested me just as much, I guess, was the way the film shows people dealing with one another in this Communist society, the black market everyone traffics in (the film opens in a college dorm in which everyone seems to be dealing in soaps, cigs, you name it). And perhaps the most inspired narrative decision is to have the heroine become obliged to leave a hellish situation temporarily and show up at her boyfriend's mother's birthday party where she has to put on a happy face and ignore some of the older guest's intergenerational put-downs. The Romanian New Wave, as its being called, may be an exaggeration, but this film is undoubtedly one of the more challenging, artful and serious films of the year. (And it could instantly be added to that Onion list of great films too painful to watch twice.) Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

I was not so impressed with Control, a film generating a lot of buzz online at the moment. Because Anton Corbijn's music video work has been featured alongside the likes of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, I couldn't help hoping his feature debut would be better. It looks good, certainly, shot in black and white for starters, something I couldn't help but admire. But the comparisons to kitchen sink realism don't really ring true for me, as the visual style here is all about de-cluttering the frame and lovingly portraying the hero to the point of hagiography. Some shots called to mind Jeanne d'Arc or St. Sebastian. Yet the story (taken from the deceased Ian Curtis's wife's book) reveals him to be, sorry, an asshole. You might argue that the film creates an interesting tension, then, between the diverging visual and narrative approaches to the subject, but I don't see it that way. Curtis-the-character comes off as a man who proposes marriage and childraising only to suddenly turn around and change his mind, which would be one thing (he's human, they're really young), but he's also a coward about expressing what he wants, going silent and pouty just when his wife (played excellently, of course, by Samantha Morton) needs him to be frank. The film tries to pass him off as a rock 'n roll Wordsworth or Keats, too sensitive for this world (or, at least, for conventional monogamy), but it just left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Schmucks can make for good drama, too, of course, but I got the uncomfortable feeling that Corbijn could never bring himself to deal with the ugliest aspects of the story, so how could he be expected to provide some perspective? In terms of musician biopics, the film does show more taste and greater ability to sidestep cliches than recent Oscarbait films like Walk the Line, but I still can't quite recommend it. I'm not even sure die-hard Curtis fans would like it - it might even offend them most of all. Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars.

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