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.