Chicago International Film Festival 2017: In the Fade / Mutafukaz / The Endless

A story of grief and racial violence, a mash-up of animation styles, and a creepy specimen of cosmic horror

My second “clump” of screenings included one World Cinema entry, In the Fade, and two After Dark offerings, Mutafukaz and The Endless.

Apropos of nothing, I can’t express how good it made me feel to walk up to the Advance Tickets counter at the theater and ask the festival volunteer to sell me a ticket to see Mutafukaz. Mutafukaz!

In the Fade

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Germany/France. Directed by Fatih Akin. 106 minutes.

Here in “Trump’s America,” we’re gradually coming to terms with the realization that the racist, neo-fascist element in our society has spread a lot wider than we wanted to believe. But white supremacist movements are certainly not confined to North America; German writer/director Fatih Akin’s latest effort, In the Fade (German title Aus dem Nichts, or “Out of Nowhere”), takes an unflinching look at the personal cost of racially-motivated domestic terrorism.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the film follows Katja, a German woman whose Turkish husband Nuri and five-year-old son Rocco die in a nail-bomb attack executed by a neo-Nazi couple, as she navigates the waters of grief while seeking justice from the German legal system. Diane Kruger (Inglourious Basterds) won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year for her performance. It’s not hard to see why. While the film delivers many fine performances (especially Denis Moschitto as Katja’s lawyer and Ulrich Tukur as the repentant father of one of the killers), Akin’s screenplay and direction focus squarely on Kruger. She takes the audience through the stages of grief and brings new meaning to phrases like “steely determination.”

In the Fade is a grim and tragic film from start to finish, and in its final moments (some light statistics on racist terrorism in mid-2000s Germany), acknowledges that the only way to get true justice for the Nuris and Roccos of the world is to prevent such acts of terrorism from occurring to begin with. Over here in America, we’re going to have to wrestle with that as well.

Mutafukas

Mutafukaz

France/Japan. Directed by Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume Renard. 90 minutes.

Based on the comics by Guillaume “Run” Renard—who also co-directed and wrote the screenplay—Mutafukaz mashes up anime, West Coast gangsta culture (as seen through a white Parisian’s eyes), Lovecraftian horror, the bande dessinée tradition, and I don’t know what else. Angelino (usually just “Lino”) and the flame-headed Vinz live in squalor in “Dark Meat City” (or maybe “Dead Meat City,” the film’s not entirely clear on that point), a thinly-veiled caricature of mid-’90s L.A. The two—along with their annoying associate Willy, a cowardly talking bat whom no one seems to like much—find themselves at the center of a bizarre alien invasion plot. Which, somehow, also involves a team of luchadores.

It’s overstuffed with ideas but it’s entertaining enough—usually. The action sequences and meta moments aren’t quite as impressive as Renard seems to believe they are. This English-language dub (which may have replaced a subtitled version at the last minute) suffers from bland dialog and awful voice performances. Most of the cast seems to have learned their accents from old Cheech and Chong skits; the main second-string villain sounds like a bad impersonation of a bad impersonation of Sylvester Stallone; even the nominally white characters say “cock-a-roaches.” And the film’s only significant female character—a parody of the stereotypical anime schoolgirl, complete with gratuitous upskirt shots—could have been removed from the plot entirely without much effect, never a good sign.

However, I doubt the target audience will see these as flaws. Mutafukaz could be the next classic animated midnight movie, its posters replacing Akira and Ghost in the Shell in dorm rooms across America.

The Endless

The Endless

United States. Directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. 112 minutes.

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the team behind Resolution and Spring, are back with another excursion into cosmic horror and its effects on those who come into contact with the infinite. The Endless stars Moorhead and Benson themselves as a pair of brothers named (wait for it…) Aaron and Justin, who return to the “UFO death cult” they grew up in and escaped a decade earlier. They find that the truth about the cult is much, much weirder than they’d thought.

I have been critical of Moorhead and Benson in the past—Resolution maddened me and Spring, while much better, suffered from some typical indie-cinema issues—but The Endless delivers the goods. The pair understand that the power of cosmic horror comes not from the monster, but from how the monster distorts the world around it. This can be visual—a “freak atmospheric effect” is blamed for doubling the appearance of the moon in the sky—but it’s often psychological as well: think of the rising paranoia in Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Similarly, the brothers’ return to the cult forces them to confront some unpleasant truths about themselves and each other.

The pair use special effects sparingly and subtly, focusing chiefly on character and atmosphere. I was a bit dubious when I learned they play the lead roles, but they do well. The most memorable performance, however, comes from James Jordan as the perpetually angry Shitty Carl, who has perhaps the clearest grasp on what’s going on, and has suffered for it.

While it’s earned a good deal of festival-circuit buzz, it’s a bit early to tell whether The Endless will end up one of the “can’t-miss” horror films of 2017-18. It does share a reliance on atmosphere with It Comes at Night and (going back a couple years) The Witch, so hopefully it will reach those films’ audiences as well. At any rate, highly recommended.

Chicago International Film Festival 2017: Four Hands / Maus / Sicilian Ghost Story

An intense psychological thriller, a horror movie about the scars of war, and a crime drama-cum-fairy tale

I’m back from the depths to cover some movies from this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. As with last year, I’m attending screenings in weekend-oriented clumps. This first clump consists of two films from the After Dark program, Four Hands and Maus, along with Sicilian Ghost Story from the International Feature Competition program.

Four Hands

Germany. Directed by Oliver Keinle. 87 minutes.

Oliver Keinle’s Four Hands takes a look at grief and mental illness through the lens of a revenge thriller. Frida-Lovisa Hamann puts in a bravura performance as Sophie, a concert pianist whose protective sister Jessica (Friederike Becht) dies in a random accident days after they receive word that their parents’ murderers are to be released from prison. Shortly afterward, Sophie experiences the first in a series of blackouts during which she seems to be preparing to take vengeance. Of course, doesn’t take Captain Obvious to figure out things aren’t quite that simple.

Unfortunately, the plot veers into standard thriller territory in the third act. Even then, Keinle’s inventive photography and intense performances from Hamann and Becht keep the audience focused, while Christoph Letkowski elevates his role—an almost-extraneous love interest for Sophie—to something essential. And I particularly appreciated the final scene, which somewhat subverts the revenge-movie cliché of violence bringing closure.

It’s not a remarkable film by a long chalk, but its entertainment value outstrips the average film of its genre. Worth a look.

Maus

Maus

Spain. Directed by Yayo Herrero. 90 minutes.

It was William Faulkner who said that the past isn’t dead and it isn’t even past, and that theme forms the center of Yayo Herrero’s feature début Maus. Alma Terzic stars as Selma (nicknamed “mouse” by her German boyfriend Alex), a Bosnian Muslim who returns to her former homeland for a funeral, the first time she’s been back since the wars of the early-to-mid-’90s. When a broken axle strands Selma and Alex in a vast forest, a pair of Serbian men come to their aid—but Selma doesn’t trust them, and for good reason.

The Bosnian war looms large in the backstory but the concerns of Maus—ethnic violence, violence against women, and misogyny in general—seem particularly topical to me, living as I do in Trump’s America watching the film in the wake of a series of sexual harassment revelations that rocked Hollywood. Even non-violent scenes—particularly ones in which Selma tries to convince Alex not to accept help from the uncouth strangers, only for Alex to dismiss her concerns out-of-hand—loom larger in my memory than they might have a couple of years ago. And note how Terzic, a blonde with the beauty of a western European supermodel, hardly fits the Western stereotype of a Muslim woman.

Herrero shoots almost every scene in close-up, giving the geography an almost nauseous, disorienting feel, and makes great use of the contrast between light, dark, and shadow. Terzic and August Wittgenstein (as Alex) radiate intensity. The Serbian pair, on the other hand, are so underdeveloped as characters that it’s hard to accept apparent attempts at ambiguity. I don’t know what to make of the ending—and judging from other reviews I’ve read, no one else seems to either. And I’m not even sure monster needs to be in the picture, which is why I haven’t bothered to mention it.

Still, when it works—and it works more often than it doesn’t—Maus delivers a powerful blow to the gut. It’s a film you can’t readily forget.

Sicilian Ghost Story

Sicilian Ghost Story

Italy/France/Switzerland. Directed by Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza. 122 minutes.

Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is the 13-year-old son of a Mafia informant, and when he goes missing, and only Luna (Julia Jedlikowska), the rebellious classmate who crushes on him, cares much. Writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza take this premise—inspired by the 1993 disappearance of Giuseppe Di Matteo—and fashion it into a modern grunge-era fairy tale. The filmmakers wear the influence of Guillermo del Toro on their collective sleeve: the theme of violence directed against children brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. All that’s missing are the monsters…the CGI kind, at least.

The filmmakers give the proceedings a pleasing Gothic atmosphere, making the most of the rural locations: the bucolic village, the eerie forest, the ancient ruins ominously looking over the vast sea. Luna lives in a large house whose facade implies modern construction, but the cellar seems hewed from ancient rocks and sweats moisture like a cave. Luna’s coming-of-age story takes place against the juxtaposition of the ancient and the contemporary.

I understand that Grassadonia and Piazza looked for children without acting experience to play Luna, Giuseppe, and their fellow students; such decisions don’t always work, but Jedlikowska, Fernandez, and Corinne Musallari (as Luna’s bestie Loredana) deliver excellent performances. Fernandez nails the tricky art of being cocky without coming off as an ass; Jedlikowska’s teenage stubbornness keeps the audience engaged while driving the story.

I have a lot more I could say about Sicilian Ghost Story that I can’t really fit in a capsule review, so I’ll just cut this off with an enthusiastic “highly recommended” and the sincere hope that audiences embrace it when it gets a proper American release.

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

A scathing horror-satire and a gritty eastern European crime drama

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.

Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part One

A waking nightmare and a tragic biopic

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.

The Darkness

The Darkness

Mexico, 2016. AKA Las tinieblasDirected by Daniel Castro Zimbrón. 94 minutes.

Set on a world of eternal twilight, in a fog-shrouded forest, where a family of four hides from an unseen beast, The Darkness feels more like a morbid fairy tale than a horror movie. The average literate filmgoer should be able to draw comparisons to at least two or three Guillermo del Toro movies by the end of the first act. Just to drive the point home, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis plays the father. Director/co-writer Daniel Castro Zimbrón offers up enough enigma, atmosphere, and enchantment to slake the thirst of any fan of enigmatic dark fantasy, with a few twists into the genuinely unexpected and a looming, menacing forest that nearly becomes a character in its own right.

Hell, you might even suss out what’s actually happening; I think I may have, but I’m keeping my mouth shut, for the time being.

Just in case.

Christine

Christine

United States, 2016. Directed by Antonio Campos. 120 minutes.

One of two films released this year centered on the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota-based news reporter who shot herself on live television in 1974 (the other being the “documentary” Kate Plays Christine, not playing CIFF as far as I know). Star Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos, and screenwriter Craig Shilowich paint a complex portrait, positioning Chubbuck between the pressures of personal and professional disillusion on the one side and a struggle with mental illness on the other. The cultural turmoil of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s fall from grace serve as the background. (As someone who faces a few of the same issues as the film’s version of Christine, its portrayal of coping with severe depression and loneliness in a world growing increasingly madder rang particularly true to me.)

It’s not all doom and gloom, thanks to endearingly eccentric performances from Hall and her supporting cast, led by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Rectify’s J. Smith-Cameron, and playwright Tracy Letts. But ultimately, the message is a downbeat one: we as humans don’t have to be alone, the film seems to say, but it also offers no easy answers for those who find it difficult to find and reach out to others.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Wrap-Up

A summary of this year’s Fantastic Fest

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

A horror film from Laos, a race riot comedy from Australia, and more

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.)

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Seven

The latest from André Øvredal, a babysitter horror with a twist, and more

Day seven brings us into the home stretch with a rediscovered backyard cheapie, the latest from André Øvredal, and more.

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Six

Documentaries about movie posters and Kubrick, the latest from Benny Chan, and more

Day six’s offerings included documentaries about Stanley Kubrick and movie posters, the latest effort from Benny Chan, and more.

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Five

The latest from Sarah Edina Smith, M. Night Shyamalan, and more

Day five brings us the latest from Sarah Edina Smith, the secret screening of the new M. Night Shyamalan film, and more.

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Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Four

The latest from Werner Herzog, a farewell to Angus Scrimm, and more

Day four brings us a new film from living legend Werner Herzog, the fifth (and final?) installment of the Phantasm saga, and more.

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