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Column Fri Mar 06 2009

The Black Balloon and the European Union Film Festival

Hey everyone. Just a brief introduction to this week's column to explain two things about what's happening here. First off, this is the opening weekend of the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, for my money the single best and most reliable film festival the city has to offer. This is a solid collection of the best of European cinema right now, and a great deal of what plays at this event will get released through the year, with many of these offerings either being their nation's selection for 2008 Oscar consideration or being those selected for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Check out the entire schedule at the Siskel Center's website.

More immediately, you'll notice I do not have a review of Watchmen this week, and that's for the plain and simple reason that the studio only had one advance screening of the film in Chicago, and it happened to coincide with a screening I had organized for another film, a screening that included guests I deemed far more important than Watchmen. I am seeing the film over the weekend in IMAX (possibly even twice), so it's not like I'm ignoring it... I'm just not reviewing it.

The Black Balloon

It doesn't happen often, but every once and a great while, I'll get an invite to a screening, write down the title in my calendar, and completely forget to read what the film is actually about. I think in this case, I probably saw that Toni Collette was in the film, and that's all it took for me to know I was going. But in the case of The Black Balloon, I really wish I'd done a little more research or at least read the plot synopsis. This Australian film might be the single most obnoxious film I've seen in years, and that includes one starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and that horrific Rosie O'Donnell made-for-TV movie where she plays a retarded woman who screams all the time.

From first-time feature director Elissa Down (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Black Balloon could not be more annoying if it featured Paulie Shore. Instead we are treated to a family in 1980s Australia (at least I think it's supposed to be the '80s) that have just moved into a new town. Son Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) is trying to focus on starting his new school and being accepted when his pregnant mother (Collette) is forced into bedrest due to some possible medical problems. Since his father (Erik Thomson) is working every day, Thomas is put in charge of his autistic older brother Charlie (Luke Ford), who is stronger, bigger and more hormonally active than Thomas. I knew within about 15 minutes what this movie was going to turn into — one incident after another involving Charlie doing something disgusting, embarrassing or disruptive. Thomas is in the early stages of a relationship with a knockout beauty named Jackie (Gemma Ward), and of course each time that she comes over to his house, Charlie is flinging poo or pulling out his wiener. Seriously, I get that living with an autistic child can be tough going, but the family house looks ready made to be toppled by the 9-foot-tall Charlie, who goes racing around banging things with such regularity that no one in the family even seem to notice.

It's clear the arrangement isn't working, but no one really does anything to make it better. When Thomas rages against his brother after one too many such humiliations and calls him every name in the book while pounding his face with his fists, I was rooting for Thomas. Seriously, who the fuck wants to watch this? To make matters worse, Charlie only acts up at the most inconvenient times. This is what I refer to as convenient mental disability. The character acts relatively normal and serene unless the screenwriter needs them to be something embarrassing. I think these kinds of films set back the very causes about which they pretend to inform us. Collette does her usual good job holding this ramshackle work together. She's just always good, even in the worst garbage. But fans of hers should feel free to skip this shit. The scenes at Thomas' high school don't ring true, and as much as I'd like to believe there are really beautiful women in the world who possess a saint-like patience, I didn't buy for a second that Jackie would have put up with all of the things Charlie does and keep coming back for more. But I'm glad she did keep returning, because looking at Ward was on of the very few things I enjoyed about this movie. The Black Balloon cast a black cloud over my existence that will travel with me for many weeks to come.

Previews for the European Union Film Festival

Shall We Kiss?

When I watch films like this, I'm filled with a comforting and warm feeling that I just never get from 99.9 percent of the American films on love in all its joy and disruptive consequences. The film begins with a man and a woman meeting for the first time somewhere outside Paris. Their meeting is random, but there's clearly a spark between them and a connection that neither wants to ignore. They end up spending the day together, eating and talking (what else is there to do in France?), and at the end of the perfect day, the man leans in for what he says is nothing more than a good-bye kiss. But in this deceptively simple story-inside-story-inside-story structure, a kiss is never just a kiss. The sweetly rebuffed moment leads to the telling of a story about another couple (Virginie Ledoyen and writer-director Emmanuel Mouret) that allowed a kiss to disrupt an otherwise ideal relationship as close friends.

The film is the perfect blend of light humor based in some very keen observations about what brings people to the brink of making the right or wrong move and the forces that either keep them from acting on these impulses or push them into the abyss of love. I absolutely adored this quiet, passionate work, filled with impressive performances that made me love these characters all the more. There isn't an ounce of sap or falseness to any part of this beautifully written film. Shall We Kiss? is scheduled to play at the Music Box Theatre in April, and will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, March 7, at 7:30pm, and Tuesday, March 10 at 6pm.

Fermat's Room

After producing such killer thrillers in the last couple of year like [REC] and Timecrimes, Spain might be my new favorite destination for genre works. The conceit in this work from directors Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo SopeƱ is huge but no less captivating. A coven of four math geniuses is invited to take part in their version of a murder mystery weekend. But instead of solving a killing, they are told they will solve some of the most difficult enigmas known to man. Through some very clever devices the four end up trapped in a room in which the walls are slowly coming in on them courtesy of four oversized hydraulic presses. The longer they take to answer the questions, the more the walls come in. But while they're trying to solve the puzzlers, they are also trying to figure out the identity of their captor. Is it the mysterious man they all believed to be their host, who was called away due to a family emergency? Or is it someone closer to the game? And what is this person's motivation for putting them in harm's way? There isn't a wasted moment in this tasty little suspense morsel, and the energy levels get notched pretty much continuously once these whizzes get into the room. The set up may sound like a Saw movie, but this film isn't interested in torture or blood or guts. It's interested in allowed intelligence rule the day.

There's one great exchange in the film in which a character has come up with a way on paper to position the furniture in the room so that it will stop the room from closing in. Another character says, "OK, let's prove it." And the idea man immediately goes for the blackboard and starts formulating the angles. The other characters see what he's doing and respond, "Sometimes you have to prove something by actually doing it." It's fun watching these four brains have to use their brawn as well as their heads. The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, March 8 at 5:30pm, and Tuesday, March 10 at 6:15pm. This is my favorite of week one of the EU Film Festival.

The Beaches of Agnes

My knowledge of the films of French director Agnes Varda (now 80 years old) going into her lovely, self-made look at her history in film was pretty sketchy. I've seen Cleo 5 to 7, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Vagabond, The Gleaners & I and maybe two or three others. I'm sure while I was watching these films that I had no idea they were all made by the same women who came into her own as one of the key players in the French New Wave movement, which consisted of works that were fast, cheap and slightly out of control. The Beaches of Agnes is something of a moving, breathing scrapbook look through Varda's artistic and personal achievements. She not only moved in social circles with all of the key players in the New Wave movement (Godard was one of her great friends), but eventually she and husband Jacques Demy moved to California for a time as Hollywood attempted (and largely succeeded) to corrupt them artistically.

The documentary isn't about talking heads and film clips. The highlights for me were walking the very narrow alleys around Varda's home, where so much of the film on her early films took place because there was a 100-foot power cord that went into her home, and that was the only way to power the lights. Her immediate neighbors and local storeowners often appeared in her films because they were always around. And when she started having children, guess who ended up in her films? In fact, her son Mathieu Demy has been a top actor in France since the late 1980s. Varga uses the recurring theme of furniture and empty picture frames on a beach (the same beach she used in her first film, La Pointe Courte) as a way to structure her look back in life. It's fun watching her discover an old box of artifacts long thought lost. I'm sure people more familiar with Varda's work will eat this stuff up. She's an avid collector of anything having to do with the works she's made, and very few long-taped boxes are left unopened during the course of this extraordinary film. I used the movie as the means to collect the names of Varda's films that I still haven't seen. Either way, this is a terrific look at a life lived to its fullest. The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, March 8 at 3pm, and Thursday, March 12 at 6pm.


Bulgaria's Oscar contender for 2008 was this seedy, violent bit of black-and-white noir that works more often than it doesn't. Set largely in one night but loaded with flashbacks to show how the all-villain cast got to that fateful evening, the movie begins just before the nation's communist coup of 1944, when a man named Moth is sent to jail for murdering an elderly man in a botched robbery. Refusing to implicate any of his accessories — including his girlfriend Mantis — Moth escapes prison in the 1960s and leads those who would capture, torture or kill him on a chase through the most despicable locations in Bulgaria meeting some of the lowest of the low. His former partner in crime seeks a diamond that was supposedly went missing after the failed robbery, and he will commit any and every bit of nastiness to find it.

Directed by first timer Javor Gardev, the film has a deeply twisted sense of humor that I appreciated during some of the film's more gruesome moments. But the film displays a softer side when we see Moth and Mantis in happier times and when they reunite after years apart. Thankfully, Zift does not skimp on the gratuitous nudity, particularly when a foot chase just happens to pass through a bathhouse filled with naked women of all shapes and sizes. I wasn't particularly impressed with the plot's resolution, but Zift had enough energy and gaul to keep me interested. It screens at the Gene Siskel Film center on Saturday, March 7 at 9:30pm, and Thursday, March 12 at 8:15pm.

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Josh / March 6, 2009 7:35 PM

You should review Watchmen next week

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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