Chicago International Film Festival: Part One

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part One

This is my first year attending the Chicago International Film Festival, hooray! I’m seeing a handful of movies, most of them part of the After Dark program.

My plans are to attend screenings in two “clumps,” the first consisting of this past weekend, covered in this article. I saw two films, the dark Mexican fantasy The Darkness (Spanish title Las tinieblas), and the biopic Christine. The second clump will be from next week Sunday to Wednesday, and will definitely feature Alice Lowe’s Prevenge and the Macedonian crime drama Amok, and hopefully a couple more.

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Under the Shadow

Under the Shadow

United Kingdom/Jordan/Qatar, 2016. Directed by Babak Anvari. Starring Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, Arash Marandi. 84 minutes. ★★★★

Life in Tehran, the capital of Iran, was dangerous in the late ’80s, caught between the repressive regime of the Ayatollah Khomeni and the destruction of the seemingly-endless war with Iraq (as Saddam Hussein prepares to pelt Iranian targets, including Tehran, with Scud missiles). Air-raid sirens are a familiar sound; innocuous luxuries such as a Betamax recorder and Jane Fonda workout video must remain out of sight, lest one gain the attention of the wrong authorities. Against such a backdrop, the horrors of a supernatural monster might seem almost mundane.

That’s the environment in which Under the Shadow, the début feature from writer/director Babak Anvari, plays out. When Iraj (Bobby Naderi), a doctor living comfortably in a Tehran apartment block, is called to the front to tend to the causualties of war, his wife Shideh (Narges Rashidi) must raise their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone. Iraj’s departure coincides with the apparent arrival of a djinn, a malevolent spirit, seeking to do harm to the building’s residents; and it seems particularly interested in Dorsa.

We recognize this archetype, the fiercely defensive mother-figure fighting to protect her young, and Under the Shadow has earned several comparisons to The Babadook, the current “reigning” definitive treatment of the trope. Both films use its monster as a metaphor for larger issues, and neither shies away from the darker aspects of parent-child relationships.

But Under the Shadow’s subtext possesses a few more layers than we might expect from a horror film. Danger besets Shideh and Dorsa from all sides, with one peril feeding into the next. If it’s not the djinn, it’s the threat of the missiles (and the film’s most affecting shot depicts a Scud having broken through the roof of a top-floor apartment), and if it’s not the missiles, it’s the culture. We may breathe a sigh of relief when Shideh grabs Dorsa and flees the haunted block of flats, but our hearts almost immediately sink when we realize Shideh forgot to don her hijab first.

While Anvari subjects his ideas to complex development, his visual style relies a bit too much on the fundamentals, deploying jump-scares and “it was all a dream!” fakeouts several times too often. That doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have visual merits, and his use of peculiar camera angles to emphasize the off-kilter nature of a situation that’s already skewed to begin with stands out. He also indulges in a few creative visual set-pieces, memorably imbuing a simple head-scarf with a sense of palpable menace.

Under the Shadow provides a valuable window into a culture and time period not familiar to most Western audiences, and is quite excellent (even if it didn’t blow my mind as I’d hoped). As a fresh new talent, Babek Anvari has announced himself as someone to watch and I look forward to his future work.

Under the Shadow poster

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 13: "Cyber City Oedo 808 & Danger Mouse"

TV Good Sleep Bad, episode 13: “Cyber City Oedo 808 & Danger Mouse”

London, England*. And in a basement in moneyed Mayfair** lives the greatest guardian of cult television the world has ever known. Yes, Elwood Jones, the secret agent so secret that even his code name has a code name. And with his trusted assistant Daniel Lackey (code-named “The Jigsaw,” because whenever he’s faced with an episode of Buffy, he goes to pieces), he has delivered the thirteenth terrific episode of TV Good Sleep Bad!

* He actually doesn’t live in London.

** And if he did, he certainly wouldn’t live in Mayfair.

Special appearance by "that bloody duck."
Special appearance by “that bloody duck.”

In this episode, we discuss:

Cyber City Oedo 808 episode 1, “Memories of the Past” aka “Virtual Death” (1990): In the twenty-ninth century, three ruthless, hardened criminals are given the chance to reduce their sentences by taking on missions too dangerous for regular police. It’s up to these three antiheroes to save the 50,000 occupants of a massive skyscraper when the structure’s central computer puts the building on lockdown. But who’s controlling the computer?

Danger Mouse season 2 episode 6, “The Four Tasks of Danger Mouse” (1981): Baron Greenback kidnaps Penfold and issues an ultimatum to Danger Mouse: collect the ingredients for a powerful ritual the Baron wants to enact, or the hapless hamster gets it in the neck. But can even the world’s greatest secret agent claim a piece of the legendary Fog Monster of Old London town? And is television ready for a certain showbiz-obsessed vampire duck?

Next month: Bottom and Kindred: The Embraced.

Tell a friend

My Months in Film: March through September, 2016

So I’m back, apparently.

I didn’t expect the Gallery to remain shuttered this long: I made some genuine attempts in April and May to get back into the groove…and couldn’t get anything to stick. Real Life was kicking my ass, something had to give, and it was the film writing. I had burned out. I think my exhaustion even shows in the spring and early-summer podcast episodes. I’d been doing this for over five and a half years—starting all the way back in late August 2010 when I launched Forced Viewing—and during that entire time, I’d never taken more than a couple of weeks off from watching and writing. It even encroached on my vacations.

That being said, I never considered not writing about this year’s Fantastic Fest, though. So I was glad to discovered I still had my mojo, and it was great to get back into the rhythm of things. (Even after I caught a cold that turned into a bronchial infection that needed to be nipped in the bud lest it mutate into pneumonia.)

It looks like I have some time to seriously reconsider the future of this site and my film-writing hobby. I’m still determined that reviews will re-commence, at some point. I’d like it to be soon, but I can’t make any guarantees: things are still hairy busy in Real Life. My content schedule won’t be as punishingly aggressive as it was in the past; I’m thinking three movies every two weeks sounds reasonable. But we’ll see.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.

And to prove I haven’t spent the last six-odd months just twiddling my thumbs…here are the movies I watched during the hiatus.

Continue reading “My Months in Film: March through September, 2016”

Best English-Language Feature

Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

Ah, Fantastic Fest! It’s kind of like a comic-book convention, except with Elijah Wood instead of cosplayers, and there’s always some guy right in front of you in the line to the men’s room singing “we are the flesh” to the tune of “We Want the Funk”. (That would be me.) The Critics’ Code requires an end-of-festival writeup, including a complete list of films ranked by personal preference. In that spirit, I bring you this:

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight

The final day brought us a thriller from Spain, a supernatural horror film from Laos, and a black comedy from Australia.

(This final entry is going to be kind of brief, as I came down with a severe head cold on Thursday and am still recovering from feeling weak, feeble, and having a solid lead ingot instead of a brain.)

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight”