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Highlights From The Chicago International Film Festival So Far

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 22, 2015 5:40PM

Promotional art for 'They Look Like People' (image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival).

As it heads into the second and final week of its 51st edition, it's clear the Chicago International Film Festival still has many of the same problems that have long plagued it ... but also the exciting discoveries that have made it worth putting up with those problems.

A lackluster opening night gala made us wonder why CIFF even bothers attempting a glamor factor. And while the tribute to Howard Shore (see our interview) featured an engaging discussion with the award-winning composer, an opening video montage with the clips in the wrong aspect ratio and other low-resolution clips used during the presentation suggested poor preparation.

There were other stumbles too, but let's focus on the good—namely a few very fine movies featured at the festival.

They Look Like People - Relegated to CIFF's After Dark fringe cinema sidebar, this oddball DIY indie is actually the kind of personal, surprising film the festival should have in its main competition. Its budgetary limitations and technical imperfections are completely overshadowed by its unique tone. Broadly fitting in the horror genre, it's really about a friendship strained by schizophrenia and emotional insecurity. Though it certainly has its creepy moments, it doesn't fit conventional genre formulas and is all the better for it. There is one more festival showing Friday afternoon. Catch it if you can.

Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows - This winning documentary portrait of Chicago-based soul singer Syl Johnson charts his career frustrations (including not getting the marketing push his former label mate Al Green enjoyed) and rediscovery after his work was sampled by dozens, if not hundreds, of rap artists. Johnson is quite a character and this well-crafted doc is sure to convert many new fans. It shows once more on Saturday at CIFF, with Johnson and the film's director scheduled to appear.

'Embers' (Photo courtesy of filmmakers' press stills).

Embers - Though I wish it were as visually interesting as it is thematically rich, this movie about mass memory loss has a gentle poetic quality that won me over. If you go in expecting a sci-fi feature, based on CIFF's capsule description, you may be disappointed. Futuristic elements are there, but this is really a contemplation of personal and social identity, and how dependent they are on each other. There will be one more CIFF showing Sunday, with director Claire Carré scheduled to attend.

The Club - Its CIFF screenings are over, but with the enterprising Music Box Films handling its U.S. distribution, you should get another chance to see this compelling Chilean drama from the director of No in theaters. The story concerns a group of Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse and exiled to a small seaside home—supposedly to examine their sins. But as the title suggests, this scenic house arrest doesn't encourage much penance...until another priest intent on reform and a disturbed former victim arrive. With unexpected moments of wit but a hard, brittle core, this movie takes an intelligent, cynical view of the Catholic Church's scandal and deceptions.

Among other films seen last week at CIFF, the dramas Obra (from Brazil) and Full Contact (from the Netherlands) both have some unforgettable imagery, but ultimately lose their impact in meandering or repetitive narratives. The French true crime tale L'Astragale is beautifully filmed in black-and-white and superbly acted, but fails to keep up its initial momentum. The Abandoned, a low-budget American chiller, features a nice performance from the underrated Jason Patric, but it's an iffy festival inclusion at best, suffering from an uneven screenplay filled with gaping holes.

CIFF's second week also features showings of some films highlighted in our pre-fest picks: the German psychological thriller Homesick, the war zone black comedy A Perfect Day (with Benicio del Toro and Tim Robbins), Atom Egoyan's clever Holocaust-themed thriller Remember (with Christopher Plummer), and Gillian Armstrong's wonderful documentary on legendary costume designer Orry-Kelly, Women He's Undressed.

CIFF concludes on Thursday, Oct. 29. Full details on the remaining schedule are available here.