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Chicago International Film Fest Week 2: Picks, Pans & Possibilities

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 19, 2016 3:30PM

"The Handmaiden" (photo courtesy of The Chicago International Film Festival).

By Jacob Oller and Joel Wicklund

As the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival enters its second week, we are still sampling the goods. So this mid-fest report is just a chance to pass along some recommendations and warnings from our ongoing movie gluttony, and is not intended as a report card on the week as a whole.

There's plenty of promise on the remaining schedule: the enticing pairing of Irish acting greats Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us, a 25th anniversary showing of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, chances to see all seven short film programs, and much more. There are also repeat screenings of some our 10 pre-fest picks.

As is often the case, the real gems of the fest may be the least heralded, so diving deep into the CIFF schedule could yield the most rewarding results. But if you need a little guidance, we’re happy to oblige.


Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher (Oct. 19 & 20): This breezy documentary portrait of the celebrity mother-daughter duo is catnip for old school showbiz buffs. It traces a long and bumpy personal history, including singer Eddie Fisher's abandonment of his family when he began his romance with Elizabeth Taylor, Carrie's battles with manic depression and drug addiction, and Debbie's painful realization that her aging body cannot keep up with her "show must go on" spirit. This is an authorized documentary (co-directed by actor and family friend Fisher Stevens), but both the movie musical legend and the Star Wars icon expose their vulnerabilities with humor and honesty. (Bonus points for introducing me to the phrase "celebrity lap dance" for paid fan convention appearances.) — Joel Wicklund

Mara’akame’s Dream (Oct. 20): When a teenage Huichol Indian is caught between his Peyote-fueled training as a tribe shaman (a Mara’akame) and his desire to play in a band while meticulously perfecting his faux-hawk, it's no wonder the resulting film has a psychedelic feel. Full of imaginative Lynchian anxiety, this Mexican film from young director Federico Cecchetti highlights the uncomfortable juxtaposition of tradition and modernity in a microscopically-focused indigenous community. Weird imagery, imposing colors and cinematography as hypnotic as the chanting of the Mara’akame swirl around a film that sometimes hiccups and drags, but contains unforgettable moments. — Jacob Oller

Afterimage (Oct. 22 & 23): Andrzej Wajda's last film (he died days before the festival began) presents an argument about visual art in a crushingly realist Stalinist drama. Visual anarchy in form combats the trudging poverty and hardship confronted by those artists who didn't agree to the communist government's increasingly nationalist policies. A wonderfully heartfelt performance by Boguslaw Linda as the systematically bullied avant-garde artist draws the eye with every facial nuance. That the character is without an arm and a leg merely adds to our eccentric affection for him. Where I, Daniel Blake’s descent into abject poverty is shown as noble, Afterimage is a bleak reminder of the legacy we leave behind. — Jacob Oller

The Handmaiden (Oct. 23 & 25): Hilarious and heartwarming aren't the first descriptors that leap to mind when you hear about a sensuous Korean lesbian mystery, but trust in director/writer Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) to provide an excess of delights. The film's deeply plotted and fast-paced story wraps you in a caper so engaging, you hardly realize or appreciate the delicate power struggles between its duplicitous and complexly layered characters. With such skill comes a wit as sharp as the crack of a mistress' whip and gags (no, not that kind) as funny as any studio comedy this year. This majestic experience will change you, or at least leave you never hearing bells the same way again. — Jacob Oller


The Daughter (Oct. 19 & 20): More like a play than a film, this stagnant Argentinian drama lingers on its upper-class family and maid past the point of slow-paced and into the realm of still image. Actors sit around a dinner table like we're watching a prank where a group's been told they're having their picture taken when they're being filmed. Minor spurts of drama escape the tepid production as the family members' historical grudges simmer thanks to sheer proximity, but their unexpectedly pregnant maid is the film's entire reason for existence. Like most mumblecore movies whose only point is their premise, it spends most of its runtime struggling to find a reason to continue. — Jacob Oller

Ministry of Love (Oct. 20): A Croatian screw-up lands a cushy government job in what has all the makings of a wacky road movie. His quest, finding war widows who’ve re-partnered so the government can stop paying their pensions, is strange enough to work. He's policing love, after all. But the dryness required for this sort of comedy never completely sets in, leaving the audience adrift and wondering whether they should laugh or just feel bad. Like one of Adam Sandler's sad-sack dramedies, there's a tone-deaf cruelty that pervades the film, which is never funny enough to live up to its premise or subdued enough to subvert it. — Jacob Oller

Like Crazy (Oct. 21): Paolo Virzì's Human Capital was one of our favorites from CIFF 2014, but though the Italian director reunites with his leading lady (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) from that smart class-warfare melodrama, the results here are less pleasing. Tedeschi and Micaela Ramazzotti star as two psychologically troubled women who break out of a mental institution to confront past demons. The use of mental illnesses as eccentric character traits for a road film/buddy comedy doesn't sit well and Tedeschi—so good in the earlier film—is all showy mannerisms here. Virzì is a skilled enough craftsman to keep this watchable, but the movie doesn't survive an ill-conceived premise. — Joel Wicklund

I, Daniel Blake (Oct. 22 & 25): Nobody hates the internet like old carpenters hate the internet. Like The Intern mixed with Requiem for a Dream, Ken Loach's Cannes winner deifies a misplaced nostalgia for an indefinable "old-fashioned" style of life. A life where people talk to each other and don’t use computers or cell phones. A life where kids ask earnestly, "What's a cassette?" and the lead all but looks into the camera and shrugs at this strange new millennial world. This allows for a few moments of wit beneath the hammy drama, but the aggressively unhelpful bureaucracy demonized in the film is almost too cartoonishly evil to be taken seriously. Populism is one thing, overly reverent smugness is another. — Jacob Oller

Headshot (Oct. 22 & 26): Oh, what The Raid has wrought. That undeniably exciting 2011 Indonesian action free-for-all pushed the limits of intense, extended fight scenes. But now we have the copycats. The Raid 2 was an overlong sequel that suggested that brand of non-stop fury would wear thin. The blood-soaked, often sadistic Headshot confirms it. Iko Uwais, star and fight choreographer from both Raid movies, plays an amnesiac nursed back to health only to be forced to take on his nasty former crime lord and the army of brutal assassins he trained from childhood. Everybody gets beaten to a pulp... including the audience. — Joel Wicklund