It’s October, which to film geeks in Chicago signifies the coming of one of the year’s most interesting events: the Chicago International Film Festival. With a tagline that says “Come see the world with us,” the festival consistently offers a great mixture of upcoming Oscar candidates and a massive melange of world cinema over 14 days. Heave features editor Dominick Suzanne-Mayer will be at the festival for nearly every day of those two weeks, bringing you recap reviews of the festival’s best and worst and everything in between. You can also follow him on Twitter at @HEAVEdom for updates throughout the festival.
If you’re interested in tickets, the CIFF is happening at AMC River East 21, and tickets for most screenings are still available. You can get them in person at the theater, or online over this way.
There’s a germ of a good idea at the center of Eric English’s body horror thriller Contracted, one that never really finds its way to the surface. Samantha (Najarra Townsend) is an attractive woman, and at first the impression is that she’s the demure type, reluctantly dragged to a party by her best friend. She ends up overserved and most likely drugged at that party, which culminates in her being raped in a car by a man whose face is fuzzy at best. (That the film doesn’t acknowledge this scene as rape, juxtaposing her moans with her cries of “Please stop,” goes a long way toward explaining the film’s unpleasantly wonky sexual politics.) Samantha ends up exhibiting increasingly grotesque symptoms, and her fears that she ended up with an STD give way to fears of something exponentially more disturbing. The film is good at parsing out information, slowly revealing Samantha’s troubled and promiscuous past, until it ultimately takes a turn for the rote and becomes a revisionist zombie movie with metaphorical underpinnings. By the time the climactic bloodbath kicks off, you’ll only wish that the film hadn’t taken so many tedious turns, because after about 45 minutes you’ll still know exactly where it’s headed.
It’s never a good sign when you leave a documentary hoping that another documentarian will make a film on the same subject matter, only a more compelling one on the next go. Such is the case with Susanna Helke’s film, which brings up a lot of interesting discourses related to both queer youth homelessness in major urban areas and the depressing reality of affluent inter-sectional discrimination in known LGBT communities and then ignores them in favor of a love story that’s moving at points but feels a bit shorthanded.
Of course, James Temple as a subject brings inherent struggle with him. A 20-year-old man who leaves his intolerant parents behind to struggle in San Francisco with his loving boyfriend, James is quickly forced to endure all manner of hardships. His sexuality actively rejected, he seeks solace in San Fran’s famed Castro district, only to find that the City by the Bay may not be the heaven he imagined. Through bouts with hunger, hustling and ultimately a legal case that threatens to have James registered as a sex offender, Helke empathizes but leaves major gaps in the narrative, particularly with respect to his parents; they take a hard left two thirds of the way through the film from being an unseen enemy to a doting family hoping for their son’s deliverance. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in American Vagabond, but the film never keeps its focus in place long enough for any of it to register.
Raze isn’t a particularly appealing movie, but at least it attempts to revive one of exploitation cinema’s campiest and most absurd subgenres: the women-in-prison thriller. Here, Zoe Bell is the central inmate, one of a series of women with varying levels of impeccable muscle tone forced to fight to the death for a shadowy cult leader, played by Doug Jones with the kind of wink that Raze as a whole desperately lacks. The women are tortured by misogynistic prison guards, murdered by one another, and harassed by an inmate who seems to get off on the whole enterprise, played by Rebecca Marshall in a rather embarrassing but occasionally lively turn. This is clearly low-budget stuff, 95% of the film taking place in a nondescript underground bunker, but Raze doesn’t have any of the charm of a ramshackle production. It’s actually a rather ugly enterprise, the film using its loose thesis about female suffering as a path to decency and enlightenment as a catch-all justification for garish violence and rampant sexism from start to finish. This is definitely exploitation cinema, but not in the good or fun ways.
Documentary filmmakers Anneliese Vandenberg and Austin Peck get the kind of all-encompassing coverage in Tough Bond that virtually all documentarians spend whole careers trying to find. The film starts and ends in the small Nomo Village, a territory in Northern Kenya where poverty runs rampant. However, the film’s true interest lies in Kenya’s urban centers, as seen through children of various ages who struggle to eat and enjoy Kenya’s most debilitating addiction, Tough Bond adhesive. (One young boy, Sinbad, explains early on how huffing glue serves as both a potent high and an effective hunger suppressant.) If Tough Bond occasionally feels unfocused as a film, it’s only because the film tries to capture every possible angle of a complex social issue in only 80 minutes. Starting in the villages, Vandenberg and Peck end up talking to everybody from street children to Kenya’s foremost political figures, from the country’s primary manufacturer of Tough Bond to gang leaders in Nairobi, and nobody seems to have any answers. Likewise, Tough Bond offers few easy solutions, and no false optimism, just a slightly-too-brief portrait of lost youth long abandoned by the system ostensibly in place to protect them.
Blue is the Warmest Color
You’ve probably heard a lot about Blue is the Warmest Color before the film has even actually had a chance to be released for consumption by most audiences. The Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes, the spate of infighting between the film’s lead actors (Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous) and its writer-director (Abdellatif Kechiche) and the author of the graphic novel on which it’s based (Julie Maroh), the three-hour running time, the ecstatic raves. Oh, and the graphic lesbian sex scenes. Though the actual quality of the film seems to be the least interesting pre-release talking point, it’s what people are going to be talking about the most once it hits theaters. Blue is the Warmest Color is filmmaking of the highest order, a film overflowing with the rapturous highs of new love and sexual awakening and the depths of loss and bitter survival. It’s a truly wonderful, euphoric movie, the kind where the length becomes totally irrelevant.
In a performance that towers over anything else this writer has seen in a theater this year, Exarchopoulous plays Adele, a high school girl whose by-and-large disinterest in boys makes her the target of gentle (and later, less gentle) teasing by her friends. Her life is forever altered when she shares a passing glance with Seydoux’s Emma, as open about her sexuality and herself as Adele isn’t. The film patiently follows Adele’s attraction as it blossoms from masturbatory fantasy to passionate fling to true, undeniable love, but the true exhilaration comes in Kechiche’s keen eye for the slow markers of time, the little rifts that appear once the honeymoon phase is over. Ultimately, Blue is the Warmest Color is a film not only about the whiplash-inducing velocity of love, but what happens when one or both people in a relationship realize that such fury isn’t sustainable forever. And it may well be one of the most searingly honest portraits of love that this generation of cinema will manage, if not the most.
Coming on Thursday: Elaine Stritch is still alive and kicking, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s latest looks at a different set of family dynamics, and more!