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Chicago International Film Festival: An Opening Week Sampler

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 8, 2014 4:15PM

"Force Majeure" (Photo courtesy Chicago International Film Festival)

It's appropriate that the landmark 50th anniversary edition of the Chicago International Film Festival opens with Miss Julie, an adaptation of an August Strindberg play directed by an Ingmar Bergman disciple (Liv Ullmann). The hint of Bergman harkens back to the mid-60s—the time when the festival was born and when foreign films and art films really made some inroads on American culture. And, let's be frank, it's also fitting for a festival that has always been a little heavy on the heavy. There are always comedies and genre films in CIFF's generous schedule, but they do often seem dwarfed by tragedies, grim realism, or movies where sex is abundant but rarely fun.

Of course we're simplifying, and Lord knows most American viewers could use a healthy dose of some anti-escapism in their movie diets. Plus, the films we were able to catch in advance of the festival's opening Thursday night are a small and somewhat random sampling of those showing. Still, these six films playing during the festival's first seven days (Oct. 9 - 15), suggest CIFF programmers still have a healthy appetite for the downbeat. More sampling will appear here next week in advance of CIFF's final stretch. But if you're plotting a visit this week, here are some to see, one to skip, and a couple to flip a coin over. All films are playing at AMC's River East 21 Theatres.

Force Majeure: One of the films in the festival's Main Competition, this Swedish feature won the Jury Prize (basically the runner-up) in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Writer-director Ruben Östland's account of a marriage on the rocks in the wake of a minor avalanche at a French Alps ski resort has been described as a satire, but it plays more as discomforting drama with a few sprinkles of dark comedy. Östland has a great eye (the avalanche is vividly captured in a single shot) and makes expressive use of both scenic exteriors and spare interiors. It's a striking film that stumbles with the abrupt simplification of a central character. It serves a satirical dig at patriarchy, but undermines earlier scenes that suggest a more complex exploration of parental dynamics.

Friday, Oct. 10, 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 12, 5:30 p.m. Actor Johannes Kuhnke scheduled to attend both screenings.

"Rudderless" (J.R. Cooke / Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Rudderless: The title is all too appropriate in this engaging but hopelessly conflicted film (also in the Main Competition) that marks the first theatrical feature directed by veteran actor William H. Macy. Billy Crudup plays a successful ad exec who falls from the high life after the violent death of his son. Discovering his son's songwriting talents via demo CDs, he learns the tunes and performs them at an open mic night. The songs catch the ear of an aspiring young musician (Anton Yelchin), who slowly wears the father down until they form a band. With a lethal school shooting and parental mourning as the launch point, Rudderless becomes an uncomfortably lighthearted film, and Macy does much better with the "let's put on a show" frivolity than the heavy stuff. Crudup is a charismatic lead and Yelchin turns out to be a pretty damn good singer as well as an actor, but the musical merriment just rubs the wrong way against the central tragedy.

Saturday, Oct. 11, 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m.
Also opens Friday, Oct. 17 at AMC's 600 North Michigan Theaters (look for a full review next week).

"Still" (Photo courtesy Chicago International Film Festival)
Still: Aiden Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones) stars as a substance-abusing photographer haunted by the hit-and-run death of his son and tormented by a brutal teenage gang in this impressive but ultimately disappointing first feature from British writer-director Simon Blake. For much of its running time, Still is one of the most assured pieces of filmmaking I've seen in quite some time. Blake really knows how to use his widescreen canvas, effectively framing characters through objects in the foreground or making use of the sparseness and decay of buildings to memorable effect. He's judicious with close-ups, which makes them more impactful—a lesson most modern filmmakers desperately need to learn. But in the climactic scenes the film first devolves into a revenge tale in the vein of Prisoners, before grasping for grand tragedy a la Arthur Miller. The harder Blake pushes for suspense and pathos, the more he loses of what was special in the earlier, more subtle scenes. But keep an eye on this filmmaker, as Still promises great things ahead.

Saturday, Oct. 11, 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 12, 5:15 p.m., and Wed., Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. Director Simon Blake and Producer Colette Delaney-Smith are scheduled to attend the Saturday and Sunday screenings.

"Supernova" (Photo courtesy Chicago International Film Festival)
Supernova: Stylish but shallow, this irritating Dutch feature is based on a novel and depends so much on the interior narration of its central character—a cynical, bisexual teenager—that the soundtrack could almost work as an audio book. She might have engendered more empathy in print, but on the screen the teen protagonist just comes across as coldly judgmental toward her admittedly dysfunctional family. She waits for the next car to crash into their poorly positioned home, while dreaming of sexual encounters similar to those in her mother's lust-in-the-dust paperbacks. The cast (including director Tamar van den Dop, who plays the girl's mother) is excellent, and the lyrical camerawork keeps you interested, but it all comes across as empty art film posturing.

Wednesday, Oct. 15, 12:15 p.m.; Monday, Oct. 20, 8:15 p.m.; and Tuesday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m. Director Tamar van den Dop scheduled to attend all screenings.

"The Word" (Photo courtesy Chicago International Film Festival)
The Word: Relentlessly bleak, but beautifully acted, this grim Polish/Danish drama follows an unstable teenage girl as she prods her easily manipulated boyfriend towards committing a murder. Writer-director Anna Kazejak-Dawid shows high school narcissism at its worst: a spoiled mindset fueled by endless texting, Skyping and social media posts, where only the passion of the moment matters. The repercussions of divorce get perhaps too much blame in this extreme scenario, but Kazejak-Dawid does capture a dark psychology among teens that seems to pop up in more and more headlines. Another Main Competition contender.

Friday, Oct. 10, 6 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 11, 12:15 p.m.. Anna Kazejak-Dawid scheduled to appear at both screenings.

"Zurich" (Photo courtesy Chicago International Film Festival)
Zurich: You'd have to be made of stone if you're not fighting the waterworks as you watch this deeply moving German drama about a young woman in the final stages of cystic fibrosis who chooses to end her suffering via assisted suicide. This could be written off as a blatant tearjerker, and certainly with very few tweaks could easily be transformed into a maudlin Hollywood weepie for the young adult crowd. But the sentimentality is tempered with some unexpected turns and layered characterizations. Director Frederik Steiner doesn't display much visual ambition and seems mainly concerned with capturing his actors. But these are very, very good actors; especially Liv Lisa Fries in the lead and Lena Stolze as her mother.

Friday, Oct. 10, 8:15 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 11, 3 p.m. Frederik Steiner and Liv Lisa Fries scheduled to appear at both screenings.

For the complete Chicago International Film Festival schedule, click here.