The 49th Annual Chicago International Film Festival comes to a close tonight, but not without some special discoveries to be seen. I was lucky enough to catch the latest film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, and was glad I took a chance on Wolfskinder, a worthy nominee in the "New Directors Competition." After hearing Jeff Bayer and Eric D. Snider joke about Dracula 3D at Cannes 2012, I finally got to witness its craptitude with my own eyes. Reviews for the films are below. Working the festival beat, I also partook in some interviews ready in the near future, including chats with David Frankel (director of The Devil Wears Prada and now the Paul Potts biopic One Chance), and the Polsky Brothers for The Motel Life, starring Stephen Dorff and Emile Hirsch. If all goes right tomorrow, I will also have an interview with Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis.
Here are a few capsules of films that stood out during my time at CIFF, for better or for very worse.
Time will tell just how loud the folk tune Inside Llewyn Davis rings throughout the entire Coen Brothers filmography, but as it is revealed to the world, festival by festival, it shows the strength of the Coen's authorship, and the vitality such gives to different time periods, locations, and life experiences. (As Llewyn says about folk music, so could he possibly say about their storytelling - "It's never new, but it never gets old.") This freewheelin' bildungsroman of destiny? coincidence? trails a scraggly singer/songwriter (Oscar Isaac as the title character), daring to spread olden tunes in a period of American artistry that is pre-Dylan. Llewyn's odyssey through chilly terrain is indeed Coen-centric, including supporting characters with otherworldly monologues, who plant curiosity and comedy just as much as the human set-pieces who might have one line, maybe two. Neatly placed throughout are a few notable faces (Justin Timberlake, a particularly prickly Carey Mulligan who relishes the underlined words in a leaked script, a not-so jolly John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund), whom share no more than five scenes with Isaac's aloof journeyman. Certainly in the key of Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis is assuredly enigmatic and mysterious, distinctly funny as it is serious. Its music, shown in full performances with Bruno Delbonnel's gray lighting, provides some year-best duets of visual and sound. FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Argento's Dracula Director: Dario Argento Cast: Thomas Kretschmann, Miriam Giovanelli, Rutger Hauer Release Date: TBD theaters, currently on VOD
Dario Argento's Argento's Dracula works best as a dimwitted parody of other 3D-adaptations that are much more capable in using modern technology to actualize its revered storys (The Hobbit, for example). Argento sludges with a laziness that would give an obsessed over-committer like Peter Jackson a heart attack, using dialogue that was no-doubt improvised for the single take filmed, with external shots of trains, and visualizations of creatures, that abuse the tolerance audiences have been taught for non-believable but labored graphics. Doused in blood that often runs pink under terrible lighting, Argento's Dracula doesn't have its cred boosted by 3D, but sorely cheapened. Whatever has made Dracula interesting since Bram Stoker unknowingly inspired Dracula 2000 is lost here by Argento's distractions, primarily the oft-nude Miriam Giovanelli, fulfilling his largest desire to see women as nakedly vulnerable vamp meat. Uber-dumb story shifts aside, Argento's Dracula is not just sorely lacking in horror but respect for itself. 3D gimmicks include a giant stick poking out at the audience, and flies going into the audience's faces; Rutger Hauer and a murderous praying mantis pops up in the third act. FINAL SCORE: 1/10
German film Wolfskinder makes adept usage of its visual inspiration from filmmakers like Terrence Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, creating a heavy beauty that looks like the no-name Tree of Life kids wandering uncertain woods. This story of survival, created from real-life accounts of post-WWII German children traveling through uncertain lands in hopes of sanctuary, is created with matter-of-fact psychological brutality. To witness the kids of Wolfskinder ("wolf children") move in and out of each other's lives, and disappear, is to strike at a rare truth in this buried chapter of world history, worthy of being told, by a film worthy of telling it. FINAL SCORE: 8/10
The Harvest Director: John McNaughton Cast: Charlie Tahan, Natasha Calis, Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton, Peter Fonda Release Date: TBD
Featuring a performance in which Michael Shannon follows up a cheesy joke with a smile, The Harvest (from Chicago's own director of Wild Things, John McNaughton) is an absolutely bonkers rural drama with a bonafide T-bone at the end of the road. Beginning as painfully plain and concluding as nightmare too bizarre to be easily forgotten, The Harvest has the tonal shifts of a script locked up in a Hollywood mental institution. What starts as a Simon Birch-like meet-cute of a dying young boy ensuing a difficult relationship with his not-sick Manic Pixie Dream Girl (sorry, Nathan Rabin), ends with multiple deaths, among other things. Samantha Morton plays a mother who very slowly unveils her Mommie Dearest core, in the midst of a thoroughly innocent presentation of modern America, where baseball is the primary source of entertainment for 2013 kids, and a grandmother says the line, "Don't go too far, I'm fixing lunch." Featuring Peter Fonda as a character named "Grandfather" who owns the poignant last piece of dialogue: "Far out." FINAL SCORE: 5/10