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March 9th to April 5th at the Siskel Film Center, 164 North State Street Chicago Illinois

Vito Goes Back to the Fest

The Chicago European Union Film Festival is running until April 5 at the Gene Siskel Center located at 164 North State Street. Here are some mini reviews on the films I have seen so far. Some of them have already been shown in the festival, but many will open for longer runs later in the year at the Siskel Center and other places. Some may also be available soon online. The films are rated from * (terrible) to **** (outstanding).

UPDATED: 032418

Death of Stalin ***1/2
Hillarious British satire shows how Stalin’s death affected the USSR and his successors. Steve Buscemi (Blackboard Empire) gives a delightful performance as a young Nikita Khrushchev who does not always fully realize the absurdity of his own actions. The other members of the party attack each other and fight to divvy up the power. Michael Palin of Monty Python, Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development, Andrea Riseborough of Birdman, and Simon Russell Beale of Penny Dreadful contribute to the merriment in strong supporting roles. This is sort of like a smarter version of Hogan’s Heroes because it milks a dictatorial regime for well-deserved laughs. The exquisite soundtrack features well used pieces by the masterful Mozart, as well as more modern pieces by Christopher Willis which seem to channel Sergej Sergejevič Prokofjev and Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich. Stick around for the amusing doctored pics at the end. Based on La Morte de Staline, a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury & Thierry Robin. This film appeared on the top 10 lists of several major critics last year, and it is currently playing at Regal Webster Place and Century 12 Cinearts Evanston, but it may open wider. Made in the UK in English.

Ghost Stories ***1/2
Classy and intelligent horror film from England about Dr. Goodman, a professor who is very skeptical of the existence of the occult. He spends most of his time trying to debunk uncanny reports, so he is kind of like the old DC comics character, Doctor Thirteen or the X-File’s Dana Scully. His mentor now believes in the occult, and he sends his former pupil out on three investigations to prove that Goodman’s skepticism is erroneous. . One case involves a night watchman who sees some bizarre and terrifying visons in a woman’s asylum. Another case involves a man with an expectant wife who is tied to a ghost. In the best of the three, a teenager driving a car hits a mysterious misshapen creature as his parents harass him on the phone. We later learn that the ironically named Goodman has his own dark secrets, and all three stories unexpectedly merge in the shocking climax. Viewers need to pay attention, and the film is full of quick clues that audience members may miss if they blink or go to the bathroom. We can make what we want of the clues as one of the characters tells us, “The brain sees what it wants to see.” Although this is a bit less profound than the other two recent ghost films (A Ghost Story and Personal Shopper), it is far creepier. It was based on a popular play but unlike some other plays turned into movies (such as the 1931 Todd Browning version of Dracula) it never seems overly stagy or artificial. This delightfully old fashioned fright film relies more on surprise, suspense, and ambiguity than gore or fancy camera tricks. It reminded of many old supernatural anthology flicks such as Dead of Night, Dr., Terror’s House of Horrors, Trilogy of Terror, and Night Gallery.

Playing in the Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Center on Friday, March 23 and Thursday, March 29. The film is also scheduled to open wider in the USA on April 20.

Happy End ***
This film features a terrific, high firepower cast. You can’t get much better than Jean-Louis Trintignant (of The Conformist, My Night at Maude’s, and A Man and a Woman), Matthieu Kasovitz (Valerian and the City of Lost Planets and La Haine), and of course, Isabelle Huppert, the reigning queen of French cinema (perhaps all cinema), who previously worked with the director of this film in the brilliant, The Piano Teacher and Amour. This is reminiscent of Claude Chabrol’s work because it finds dark humor in the banal lifestyle of a troubled higher middle class family, and it tries to tear the thin veneer off of civilization. This films begins with a teen girl narrating over her video footage of her to poisoning the mom she hates by placing sedatives in her drink. In the extended family, there are parents who cheat on spouses, a teen who tries to kill herself, and a patriarch who does not care if he lives or dies. The black humor ending cleverly renders the title ironic. For the thousandth time, the Austrian film maker, Michael Haneke calls attention to the limitations of a materialistic lifestyle. This has some great moments, but it is not quite keep my interest as much as some of the director’s other works (such as The White Ribbon and Cache.) Haneke does not quite seem to be firing on all cylinders. But I guarantee you will never forget the shocking conclusion or the darkly hilarious opening. This was the Austrian entry for the 2017 Academy Awards, but it is in English and French with English subtitles.

This film has finished its Chicago run, but it is currently streaming on Hulu.

A Heart of Love (Serce miłośc ) ***
This film tells the tale of a real, slightly unhinged, and highly artistic couple based in Warsaw. Justyna Wasilewska is wonderfully eccentric playing Zuzanna Bartoszek and Jacek Poniedziałek is just as impressive playing Wojciech Bąkowski. She is a promising poet, and he is an established artist and musician. The couple come from different generations and so the film also examines the differences between the people born before and after the fall of communism. Their rivalry and artistic vanity gets in the way of their relationship and they begin drifting apart. One of the song lyrics alludes to their painful breakup. The film contains some real modern art, performances and installations. Many of the shots are very symmetrical and visually arresting, and this is the kind of film that you might see in an art museum. A Heart of Love is bizarre, interesting and occasionally hard to follow, but it is worth the effort. It is primarily recommended for avant-garde enthusiasts. In Polish with English subtitles.

Playing March 24rth and 27 at the Gene Siskel Center.

Hustler’s Diary (Måste gitt) ***1/2
Riotous dramedy is about a common thug in a bad neighborhood who wants to be an actor. He writes about his criminal misadventures in a diary which gets into the hands of a book publisher who wants to make a book out if it. The thug is horrified because the thinks that if it gets in the wrong hands everyone he knows will get arrested. Many laughs are generated when the thug tries to get his delinquent younger brother to act respectable. The film also includes some social commentary and many of the criminals are immigrants from other countries who take up crime to avoid abject poverty (the director himself is a Croatian who emigrated to Sweden and the led actor’s family came from Turkey and ended up in Sweden.) . The shaky handheld camerawork and characterization was obviously influenced by Martin Scorsese’s and Spike Lee’s works. Many of these characters are so brutish and violent that they make the characters in Trailer Park Boys look like high society people. In Swedish with English subtitles.

Playing on March 23 and 27 at the Gene Siskel Center

Jeannette the Childhood of Joan of Arc ****
Bruno Dumont’s irreverent, subversive, moving and unusually shocking historical biopic/musical depicts young Joan before she went to battle (by two capable actresses.) It was based on “The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc,” a dramatic text by a socialist mystical poet, Charles Péguy, “and it sets his words to music the background music is often a jarring mixture of rock, rap, metal and synth pop and hip-hop. The film does an excellent job of combining the everyday with the divine and often has scenes of people praying or singing to God while doing banal things such as plucking chickens. The film makes good use of nonprofessional actors with ordinary voices who get by with their charisma and apparent sincerity (it’s the opposite approach used in the slick, professional Glee show.) This is like a Jesus Christ superstar version of the Joan of Arc story. The film is sure to offend some (in one scene the young Joan does a cartwheel in the middle of a prayer), but no one will ever forget it, If you adored Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, you should also love this. The prestigious film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma chose it as the second best film of last year. With this film and his last two features, Lil Quinquin and Slack Bay, director, Bruno Dumont shows he is one of the best and most consistently entertaining avant-garde film makers on the planet. An early contender for my next top 10 films list.

Opening wider in Chicago later in the year. In French with English sub-titles.
The Last Processo **1/2
A chubby, laid back inspector (he looks kind of like Kevin Smith) begins to investigate the mysterious murder of a count. The mystery is linked to a femme fatale with a gecko tattoo. The inspector finds out that his death is tied to corporate abuse of the land and environmental issues. This film has a fairly routine story, but the cinematography depicting the wine country is gorgeously picturesque. This film takes place in wine country and it is named after a type of wine (Italy sells some of the best low price wine in the world.) Italy has its fair of good cop dramas (such as Matteo). Although this film is sometimes diverting viewers might want to ask themselves why they would go all the trouble pf going out to see a police film, when there are so many better cop drams that they can see on TV for free. In Italian with English subtitles.

Playing on Saturday, March 24 and Tuesday March 27 sat the Gene Siskel Center in the Chicago European Union Film Festival.

Messi and Maude (La Holandesa) ***1/2
Maude, a forty something wife who can’t have children, argues with her husband over the issue while they are on holiday. She runs off and gets picked up by an out of control father and his boy, Messi. When the man tries to rape her, she accidently kills him (or maybe she just knocks him unconscious) when she is defending herself. She leaves with Messi and gradually develops a deep emotional bond with him. The oddly paired couple travel through Chile and are dazzled by the country’s intoxicating beauty, and the child’s presence fills a void in Maude’s life. The female lead, Rivka (Public Works) Lodelzen, gives a winning, inspirational performance in the female lead role, and she has a promising future. Marlene Jonkmann’s directorial debut is a complete winner. This film in the great tradition of Lost in America, Alice in the Cities, and my personal favorite, Two Lane Blacktop, and it is one of the better recent road films I have seen. Like all those films it is about how a physical trip helps people find themselves. In Dutch with English subtitles.

Playing Friday, March 23 and Saturday, March 24 in the Chicago European Union Film Festival.

Submergence ***
Talky, atmospheric, and arty romantic film about two lovers who split up and later they both end up underwater. James McVoy who played the young Professor X, is sympathetic as a secret M16 agent who is captured and imprisoned by Jihadists while the bookish and ravishing Alicia Vikander (of Ex Machina and The Danish Girl) must stay in a diving belle for months to further scientific research. As they fulfill their destinies they each look back on the brief days of romantic bliss they had together at Christmas. Win Wenders’ art film is slow moving but emotionally volatile. The ending is particularly powerful. There are still some signs of genius, but German new wave master, Wim Wenders (he did Wings of Desire and Paris Texas), is not exactly at the top of his game anymore. A German film in English.

Playing March 24 and 27 at the Gene Siskel Center.

Young Karl Marx (Le Jeune Karl Marx) **1/2
Considering the unusual amount of great talent assembled for this film, the results are slightly disappointing. The promising director, Raoul Peko, is best known for I am Not a Negro. August Diehl, who is best known for Inglorious Bastards, is sufficiently charismatic for the lead role, and Vicky Krieps is charming playing Marx's wife. Stefan (Valerian and the City of Lost Planets) Konarske is also likeable playing Marx's confidant and financier, the young Frederick Engels. Olivier Gourmant (he worked with the Dardenne Brothers on Le Promesse, L'Enfant, and Rosetta) gives a fiery performance as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first anarchist. Like The Motorcycle Diaries (which was about the young Che Guevera) this film shows us the evolution that took place in the mind of a revolutionary on the way to fame and greatness. The only problem is that the life of the young Marx is less inherently dramatic than Che's, and heated intellectual discussions (usually shot in medium close-up shots) don’t always make interesting cinema. However the film is intellectually stimulating and the naive confidence of the young philosophers (one insists that in the future all art will be collective) brought back pleasant memories of grad school philosophic debates. Engles and his wife are pro labor leftists, yet Engles who finances Marx got rich from factory labor, so ironically both Marx and Engel used capitalist money to bankroll their campaign against capitalism. At around two hours, the film feels a bit overlong, but the footage of workers and other historical images at the end set to Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone ends the film on a high note. In English, German and French with English subtitles.

Playing March 31rst and April 5 at the Gene Siskel Center.


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