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Chicago International Film Fest: What To Catch (And Skip)

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 15, 2015 9:15PM

“Homesick” (Photo: © 2014 mojo:pictures)

Ten films out of more than 130 on the Chicago International Film Festival schedule may be more of an appetizer than a meal, but with the festival opening tonight we wanted to give you an initial taste. Our cinematic servings are ongoing, and we'll have a mid-fest report next week with more discoveries and duds noted.

The adventurous strategy for CIFF is to skip anything getting a commercial release in the near future, but we know some fest regulars prioritize catching the "buzz-worthy" movies ahead of the crowd. So our first watch list includes a few titles looming large on the release calendar and a few flying under the radar.

All films are showing at AMC's River East 21 Theatres. Show times and information on purchasing individual tickets and festival passes are available at the CIFF website.

Highly Recommended

Homesick (Oct. 23, 25 & 26) - This slow-burning psychological horror film from Germany is a close cousin to three Roman Polanski films in which an unsettling residence reflects the main character's anxiety: The Tenant in particular, but also Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion. But don't write this off as mere homage. Writer-director Jakob M. Erwa uses empty spaces to truly ominous effect and lead actress Esther Maria Pietsch declares herself a talent to watch with her convincing embodiment of a crumbling psyche. Jakob M. Erwa scheduled to attend all screenings.

A Perfect Day (Oct. 25 & 27) - Writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa (Mondays in the Sun) makes a confident English language debut with this lively saga of aid workers in the Balkans—a blend of black comedy and drama in the vein of M*A*S*H and Three Kings. Benicio del Toro puts his understated charisma to good use, while Tim Robbins adds some levity as his loose canon coworker. The lead actresses (Olga Kurylenko and Mélanie Thierry) are stuck in comparatively bland roles, but on the whole this is pretty solid stuff, striking the right balance between entertainment and caustic commentary. Expect a limited U.S. theatrical release early in 2016.

Remember (Oct. 27) - This sly thriller from director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica) stars a superb Christopher Plummer as a 90-year-old who, despite suffering from dementia, is sent on the trail of a former Auschwitz S.S. officer by a fellow resident at his nursing home (Martin Landau). Some have taken the movie to task for diminishing its Holocaust backstory to function as a suspense film, but I think the screenplay threads the needle nicely in treating the theme seriously within genre confines. Opens commercially in January. Atom Egoyan scheduled to attend.

Women He's Undressed (Oct. 23 & 28) - You don't need to be interested in fashion to enjoy this free-spirited and fun documentary about legendary costume designer Orry-Kelly. Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, 1994's Little Women) intermingles archival materials and interviews with theatrical sketches of the designer recounting his life. The resulting mix is a sensitive yet enjoyably gossipy portrait of an artist who made some of Hollywood's most glamorous leading ladies look especially stunning, while also trying not to deny his homosexuality at a time when living in the closet was protocol.

Worth a Look

Cronies (Oct. 16, 23 & 24) - Michael Larnell's low-budget indie about a friendship forged in tragedy began as his NYU thesis film. One of his teachers was Spike Lee, who served as Executive Producer on Cronies. But don't expect Lee's heavy-handed techniques in this black-and-white tale set and shot in St. Louis. It has severe structural problems (a faux documentary framing never gels with the rest of the narrative) and some clumsy moments, but it also has a real feel for its characters and surroundings. Warts and all, this has some striking moments. Even with Lee's name attached, it may have too regional a flavor to get significant distribution, so CIFF may be your best chance to see it on the big screen. Michael Larnell scheduled to attend Oct. 23 & 24.

Magallanes (Oct. 18, 19 & 20) - With eight Ariel awards (Mexico's equivalent of the Oscar), Damián Alcázar is one of his country's most-honored actors. Watching his vivid performance in this Peruvian melodrama, it's easy to see why. Alcázar plays a cab driver and former soldier who tries to pull off a heist to right the wrongs inflicted on a young woman during his service. Magallanes is ordinary visually and the screenplay reduces the horrors of war crimes to mere plot points. Still, Alcázar makes the film highly watchable and moving, even when the narrative contrivances don't sit so well. Damián Alcázar scheduled to attend all screenings.

Spotlight (Oct. 29 - Closing Night Feature) - Tom McCarthy's dramatization of The Boston Globe's landmark investigation into widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests seems like a sure Oscar contender based on its subject matter and a prestige ensemble cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schreiber. It's a good movie, but not a great one, and with the shadow of All the President's Men (still the definitive newspaper procedural) and its own weighty topic hanging over it, maybe it needed to be great. Worth seeing though, especially for Tucci and Schreiber, and as a reminder of the resources needed for real, deep-digging journalism. Opens commercially in November.

Take a Pass

In the Shadow of Women (Oct. 24 & 26) - With its black-and-white cinematography and dispassionate narration, Philippe Garrel's latest film harkens back to the French New Wave. Formal nostalgia aside, there's not much to recommend this very familiar take on relationships and infidelity. Clotilde Courau and impressive newcomer Lena Paugam are both excellent as the wife and mistress, respectively, of an amateur documentary filmmaker (Stanislas Merhar), but their emotional investment in this dull, cold fish of a jerk is a mystery. French cinema has a long history of exploring relationship burnout...maybe too long. Ennui is to the French art film what the action-buddy film is to Hollywood: formula fare.

The Treasure (Oct. 16 & 19) - The CIFF schedule describes this Romanian film as a "deadpan comedy," and I suppose it is, but the movie is so focused on the tedium endured by its main characters that it becomes rather tedious itself. A hastily organized hunt for some buried family treasure sets the stage for a desert-dry socioeconomic satire. Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest; Police, Adjective) is one of the key directors of the acclaimed new Romanian cinema, but The Treasure feels like self-conscious minimalism—a sleepy sketch of a movie rather than a whole.

Where to Invade Next (Oct. 23) - There was a time when Michael Moore seemed like an essential provocateur, but his questionable methods and often abrasive personality now overshadow his messages. In his latest, Moore travels to several different nations to point out where the U.S. is badly lacking on social justice, economic reform, education and other pivotal issues. I would side with him on nearly all of these arguments, but not his condescending, simplistic way of presenting them. To be fair, at the end of the movie Moore drops his bogus everyman act and comes across as reflective, surprisingly optimistic, and disarmingly sincere. No release date, but this is sure to pop up somewhere in town after CIFF. Michael Moore scheduled to attend.