Right off the bat in looking over the schedule for the 48th Chicago International Film Festival, I recognize a serious improvement over last year's fairly strong offerings. The mere inclusion of such films as the wonderfully expansive and moving CLOUD ATLAS--co-directed by Chicago's own Lana and Andy Wachowski and RUN LOLA RUN helmer Tom Tykwer--and Chicago native Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, the closing night movie FLIGHT, and we know good things are on the way.
Strangely enough (although fairly typical for CIFF), one of the festival's more questionable choices is STAND UP GUYS, the opening night film. When I say questionable, I don't mean the film is bad; I mean that nobody knew anything--good or bad--about STAND UP GUYS going into the opening night screening, because it was not screened for press. And I can now confirm that the Fisher Stevens-directed movie starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin as a retired criminal gang reunited after nearly 30 years apart features some great acting and a story that isn't about going for the easy laugh. Instead, the film has an undercurrent of melancholy that I wasn't expecting. Fear of death--from natural and unnatural causes--is a big part of this story, so the humor is decidedly dark. I'll have a longer review when the film comes out next year, but STAND UP GUYS is a low-key work that is still worth getting excited about seeing.
But there are a great number of strong options for you to check out during CIFF, some of which I've seen (I'm on the jury this year for the festival's After Dark Competition, so I've seen all of those works). Here's a rundown of some of the festivals highlights:
Probably my favorite of the After Dark entries is director Brandon Cronenberg's (son of David) ANTIVIRAL, a wonderful account of just how far celebrity worship might go in the not-to-distant future. Tense, creepy, and mildly disgusting, this one has it all in my book. Juan Antonio Bayona's THE IMPOSSIBLE stars Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as a couple who are separated in the aftermath of a tsunami in Thailand. From all I've heard, this film is emotionally draining, completely effective, and hopelessly manipulative, but it would have to be, right? I can't wait to see this.
One of the real highlights of this year's bigger-ticket offerings is "Sopranos'" creator David Chase's NOT FADE AWAY, the story of a group of young people starting a band in mid-1960s New Jersey. It's a representation at the scores of garage bands that had talent but never quite made it big time. James Gandolfini stars as one of the kid's parents, Steve Van Zandt serves as music supervisor, which is actually quite significant, and the music (both the classic tunes, covers, and original material) is unbeatable.
Although I haven't seen it, I'm looking forward to QUARTET, directed by Dustin Hoffman, starring the likes of Tom Courtney, Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins, and set in a retirement home for elderly musicians. I was a big fan of the restrained passion and courtly intrigue of A ROYAL AFFAIR, chronicling the marriage of Denmark's King Christian VII to British-born Queen Caroline, and the German doctor (played by the great Mads Mikkelson) who influenced both of their lives and Denmark's affairs.
One of the most buzzed about films since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival is David. O. Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of mentally ill people who somehow help make each other better people. Robert De Niro co-stars. Also part of the After Dark series is the remake of the classic exploitation film MANIAC, this time given a slightly more polished but no less unnerving take by director Franck Khalfoun and star Elijah Wood. Director Billie August returns with his take on the marriage between one of Denmark's most celebrated painters, Kroyer, and his wife in the film MARIE KROYER, which shows how she balanced his manic-depressive swings while taking care of their children and a introducing a lover into her life.
A film I'll be seeing soon and am very much anticipating is Travis Fine's ANY DAY NOW, set in the 1970s about a gay couple (Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt) who take in a mentally handicapped teenager and a legal system that wants to break the makeshift family apart. THE ABCS OF DEATH consists of 26 short films by some of the top horror directors working today from all over the world, each taking a letter of the alphabet and selecting a means of bloody death that begins with that letter. Trust me, it's fun.
Romanian director Cristian Munglu (4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS) brings BEYOND THE HILLS to CIFF, but this time he tackles in both surreal and realistic terms the subject of exorcism gone wrong. I can't even imagine what that film will be like, but I'm dying to find out. And if you think a movie about a penis museum in Iceland isn't your cup of tea, think again. THE FINAL MEMBER is an amusing but no less interesting documentary about a curator's search for the one piece of his museum that is missing. It's wonderful, informative, funny and dramatic. And what would the world be if a new Don Coscarelli film wasn't part of the festival circuit. His new JOHN DIES AT THE END, starring Paul Giamatti, is weird beyond words, a little lacking in production value, but still hopelessly entertaining.
There are, of course, dozens more films to select from, but these are a few worth noting. Check out details of all of the film offerings--as well as special tribute nights dedicated to the likes of Viola Davis, Joan Allen, Steve James, Philip Kaufman, and Joseph Cedar--at the Chicago International Film Festival's web site. All films screen at the AMC River East theaters, so it's easy to spend an entire day and/or night bouncing from one movie to the next. Now on to this week's releases.