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Chicago International Film Festival 
by J. Robert Parks

Loss, understanding, tragedy, communication, love, separation, life, death. These existential concerns have been on all of our minds the last three weeks; and if anything good has come from the September 11th tragedies, it's been a reminder of what's truly important in life. Coming along at a perfect time, then, is the 37th Chicago International Film Festival, which celebrates the human condition and understanding through a program of almost 90 films from 37 countries. With everything from dramas and comedies to documentaries and fantasies, the CIFF has something for everyone.

Heist  (Opening Night, Thurs., Oct. 4; Chicago Theatre)
One of the fortunate side-effects of September 11 was that it kicked Arnold Schwarzenegger's new movie Collateral Damage out of the festival lineup. Suddenly, senseless mayhem and death were inappropriate box-office fare, though readers of this space know that I've long railed against that type of "entertainment." I'm not sure if David Mamet's new film Heist is exactly appropo right now (the plot revolves around an attempt to bypass airport security and rob a plane), but it's at least 10 times smarter than Arnold's flick could ever have hoped to be. Mamet's dialogue has rarely been as crackling as it is here, and the cast of Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, Ricky Jay, and Danny DeVito are the perfect actors to carry it off.

The first three are a ring of thieves (with Mamet's real-life wife Rebecca Pidgeon along for the ride) who are blackmailed by DeVito into doing one last job. Worse, they're forced to work with DeVito's nephew, who's keeping tabs on them. So, they devise a way to pull off the score while, at the same time, screwing DeVito out of his share. The movie's first hour is simply fabulous, with great actors serving up their lines with gusto. "Rob
from the rich. Why you'd want to rob from the poor escapes me" and "Everybody needs money . . . that's why they call it money" are just two of my favorites, but the razor-sharp aphorisms came so fast I didn't have time
to write them all down.

The movie's second half loses some of its steam, mostly because it focuses too much on plot to the detriment of the dialogue. Furthermore, the big con is both obvious and confusing, a strange combination. We know what's coming, and yet the resolution is too convoluted to be satisfying. Nonetheless, the star power of Hackman, Lindo and DeVito, all in top form, provide a worthy opening night film. 

(all ratings based on a five-star system)

Mulholland Drive  (Sat., Oct. 6)
Another big-name director returning to his roots is David Lynch, who brings his creepy tale of the seedy side of Hollywood to the big screen. Mulholland Drive was originally designed as the pilot for an ABC television series, but it was canceled when the tv execs balked. Watching this bizarre group of characters (an actress on the wrong side of the popularity mountain, a needy director, a star-crossed young woman, a weird old psychic, a decomposing body, a hideous-looking homeless man, and a hilarious hit man), you can imagine both what a provocative series this might have been and why ABC cut it.

You can also guess at exactly which point the television show ends and the movie begins. That would be when two gorgeous actresses (one doing her best impersonation of Sherilynn Fenn) suddenly disrobe and embark on a rather explicit lesbian scene. The film's last half-hour can only be described as a total mind-bleep, with various characters morphing into other characters and Lynch regurgitating his stew of fetishes. Many critics are hailing this as a masterpiece, but it's really just a re-hash of Lost Highway and Twin Peaks. If you enjoy that sort of mess, well here's more vomit for you.

Italian for Beginners  (Sat., Oct. 6 and Tues., Oct. 9) 
Fortunately, Mulholland Drive is the exception rather than the rule at this year's fest. In fact, I can't remember a Chicago festival with so many strong offerings. One of my favorites was this touching Danish film about a group of misfits finding true love in an adult education class. They include a young pastor serving his first congregation, a clumsy bakery worker, an Italian waitress, a middle-aged hotel worker, a hairdresser, and an obnoxious restaurant manager. Shot in Dogme-like fashion (lots of hand-held cameras, washed-out lighting, and matter-of-fact performances), Italian for Beginners is a moving meditation on the search for love in a time of loss. Though the ending is both rushed and unfortunately contrived, the characters are so appealing and their situations so captivating, I didn't much care. 

Waking Life  (Fri., Oct. 5 and Sat., Oct. 6)
If Italian for Beginners embodies the Dogme95 "Vow of Chastity," Richard Linklater's Waking Life glories in all of cinema's technological possibilities, to staggeringly cool effect. The movie was originally shot on digital video with real actors and edited like a normal film. But then, using a device called the Wacom Tablet, all of the footage was animated. The result is a gorgeous and hypnotic tableau, with beautiful swathes of color that alternate between impressionism and surrealism. I have an underlying suspicion that the fantastic animation was used to cover up the fact that little happens in the film. It's just a series of talking heads spouting off about existentialism, post-modernism, and various other isms. But that won't deter the hipsters, grad-school types, and philosophers of all ages who will line up for repeat viewings. The rest of us can just marvel at the scenery--certainly one of the most original films in years.

Waterboys  (Tues., Oct. 9 and Thurs., Oct. 11)
Another enormously enjoyable film, Waterboys hails from Japan. It features a quintet of high-school boys who decide to form a synchronized-swimming team. Yes, the premise is great, and the execution lives up to the promise. The film is both hilarious and wonderfully sweet-natured. The boys' first attempts might be ludicrous, but the film never holds them up for contempt. As they start preparing for the big show, the movie's excitement is palpable. And in an unspeakably funny slow-motion shot of a boy's afro on fire, Waterboys might have the best single moment of the festival.

Fat Girl  (Sun., Oct. 7)
On the other side of the emotional spectrum, Catherine Breillat's new French film is an extraordinarily provocative look at the relationship of two sisters and their burgeoning sexuality. Elena, fifteen years old and beautiful, is forced to take Anais, twelve years old and quite overweight, along with her while the family's on vacation. But having a tag-along doesn't stop Elena from picking up a much older boyfriend. That night, he sneaks into the girls' room and, in what will surely be one of the most talked-about scenes of the festival, proceeds to break down Elena's resistance. All while Anais "sleeps" just a few feet away. If that twenty-minute scene is the centerpiece of Fat Girl, it's the relationship between Elena and Anais that forms the core of the film, a remarkably true-to-life example of sibling love and rivalry. Fat Girl won't be for everyone (it's shocking in both its sexuality and a scene of brutal violence), but it is extremely thought-provoking. 

Be My Star  (Sat.-Mon., Oct. 6-8)
Films about children and teenagers are a staple of foreign cinema (those themes tend to cross cultural boundaries easier than others), and Be My Star, from Austria, is one of the better examples of 2001. Director and writer Valeska Grisebach tells her story of young love with striking economy. Nicole and Christopher are two fourteen year olds taking their first tentative steps in an "adult" relationship. The movie examines their hopes, feelings, and insecurities through subtle camerawork and spare details. The two leads, Nicole Glaser and Christopher Schops, are fantastic, able to communicate volumes through a glance or shrug. The movie is unfortunately brief (clocking in at only 65 minutes), but that's enough to take you into a compelling world. 

Runaway  (Sun., Oct. 7, Mon., Oct. 8, and Sat., Oct. 13)
A documentary about runaway girls in Iran and a center that takes them in and tries to reunite them with their families. Made by the same people who did Divorce Iranian Style, Runaway is compelling stuff. It's not exactly a great documentary (too much of it feels forced or unfocused), but the scenes when the families come to get their daughters are riveting. 

Amelie  (Sun., Oct. 7 and Thurs., Oct. 11)
The new film from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children) is nothing if not creative. Using a droll narrator and a quirky cast of characters, Jeunet explores the nature of love and attraction through his trademark surrealistic lens. The movie gets high points for humor and captivating visual moments, but after a while it's like eating too much cotton candy. But for fans of Jeunet (this writer included), it's well
worth seeing. 

Nine Queens  (Sat., Oct. 6 and Mon., Oct. 8)
Heist isn't the only big-con movie in Chicago this October. Nine Queens, which swept the Argentinian Film Critics awards, features two men trying to sell some forged stamps to a wealthy banker. The con is elaborate and, like all films of the genre, the enjoyment comes from trying to figure out who's really conning whom. 

Of course, not every movie is worth recommending, though of the 20+ movies I've seen, only a few are genuinely disappointing. Quartet for Two (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 10-11 and Sat., Oct. 13), a Japanese film about a couple who's divorcing and their two children, is well shot and acted; but the story is all over the place, leaving the audience wondering what's the point. 

Kissing Jessica Stein (Sat.-Mon., Oct. 6-8), an American independent film, is completely derivative of every romantic comedy made since When Harry Met Sally. Besides the obvious montage sequences in New York set to old Sinatra songs, there's a matchmaking Jewish mother, an irritating ex-boyfriend, and enough over-the-top acting to embarrass Billy Crystal. The movie's only note of originality is that the couple are two women, but that's merely a marketing ploy. 

Other movies have generated tremendous critical buzz, but I unfortunately haven't been able to see them ahead of the festival. What Time is It There? (Tues.-Wed., Oct. 9-10), from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, was the toast of Toronto. And Hou Hsaio-hsien, one of the most acclaimed directors of the '90s, returns with Millennium Mambo (Mon.-Tues., Oct. 8-9).

There are, of course, dozens of other movies being shown this week (three-a-day movie screenings only begin to scratch the surface), so check out the festival's brochure for other movies that might appeal to you. Tickets range from $6 to $10, depending on whether the movie is a matinee or evening show, and whether it's on a weekend or weekday. Passes for six tickets cost $50.

A review of the second week of the festival, including the stand-out movies In the Bedroom and Lagaan, will appear next week.

The Landmark Cinema is located at 2828 N. Clark, and the Music Box Theatre is at 3733 N. Southport. Call 312-332-film for more information, or check out the festival's Web site at

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