(France 2014)

I missed Samba when it played in Chicago last summer—for literally one week in a single theater—before it disappeared. Fortunately, it’s readily available to rent online. Samba was worth the wait even if it isn’t quite what I expected.

Samba (Omar Sy) is an undocumented alien from Senegal who has been living with his uncle and working illegally in Paris for a decade. He washes dishes at a swanky restaurant; the opening scene that leads us through the posh white crowd at the front of the house through the working class staff in the hectic kitchen to the three African dishwashers pushed far to the back in a tiny room says all we need to know before the story even starts. When authorities discover that Samba’s paperwork has expired, he’s held in a detention center for illegal immigrants, where he meets his case worker, Alice (Charlotte Gainesbourg), a sheepish, inept, and we later learn angry woman with a purse full of sleeping pills and a chip on her shoulder. A spark develops into something a little more as the two work on Samba’s case.

Generally speaking, French films tend be more cerebral than action-packed; Samba is no exception. While certainly not an emotional film, it still has a warmth that saves it from getting dull. Samba is an affable though imperfect guy working toward fulfilling his dream to be a chef—he’s just doing it in a country he illegally inhabits. He tracks down a fellow detainee’s woman (Liya Kebede) to relay a message and ends up in bed with her. He gets into a fight or two. He screws up day jobs—my favorite scenes are the ones in which he works with a Brazilian immigrant named Wilson (Tahar Rahim), in particular a reenactment of an old Coke commercial on a scaffold washing windows. Don’t be misled by the trailer: the relationship with Alice is more clumsy than hot and heavy or sexy. Through it all, Samba resorts to humor to get past the many rough spots he encounters.

Samba is a strange romantic comedy/adventure film with an underlying statement that the immigration process—chaotic, pedantic, inefficient, dehumanizing—is absurd. What struck me was that the story has nothing to do with the States, yet its point applies all the same to the American system. Samba also shows that immigration issues are not confined to any one country. The story itself is pretty ordinary, but Sy and Rahim’s performances elevate it to something interesting. 

(Home via iTunes) B-


(Ethiopia 2014)

The Diplomatic Courier ( explains the double meaning of the Amharic word “difret,” and hence the title. Based on actual events in the life of Aberash Bekele, who according to a Newsweek interview was never informed that her story was being made into a movie (, Difret is the fictionalized account of Hirut (Tizita Hagere), an adolescent in Ethiopia whose kidnapping for a forced marriage in 1996 ended in a landmark legal decision. Walking home from school in a remote village, she is surrounded by a group of men on horses, kidnapped, raped, and held captive in a hut. Her rapist tells her that he abducted her to marry her, a tradition in these parts of the world. When she escapes with his rifle, the men chase her into a forest and she shoots her attacker dead when he ignores her warnings to back off. Enter attorney and female rights activist Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet), who takes the case and argues that Hirut acted in self-defense, ultimately placing her law practice, her livelihood, and her reputation in jeopardy.

Difret, to which Angelina Jolie attached her name as executive producer, is compelling but (probably not surprising) often difficult to watch. The sexism is not just rampant, it’s downright barbaric. Hirut is vilified: she’s treated like shit in police custody, no one will testify for her, and all the village men want her dead. She doesn’t understand how Ashenafi can live happily, not to mention respectably, as a single woman. Ashenafi encounters her own obstacles and resistance from the male authority figures- to a degree even from her mentor, an educated and seemingly progressive retired attorney.

Aside from the main issues it deals with, Difret demonstrates that change, for better or for worse, hurts. Zeresenay Mehari, who directed and wrote the script, maintains objectivity for the most part; he’s respectful to both sides, and he doesn’t hit you over the head with his moral stance. He does a nice job showing the tensions that develop when tradition gets in the way of social progress. Intentionally or not, he also shows the crucial role that the legal process and a ballsy attorney play in bringing about change. Mehari is efficient in giving us just what we need to know to follow along. As a result of his efficiency, however, his characters and the story as a whole lose a sense of dimension; both are superficial in the same way a TV crime drama is. Still, Difret is worth seeing.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-


The Dark Valley [Das finstere Tal]

(Germany/Austria 2014)

A German-language revenge Western set in the Alps during the 1800s? Sounds questionable, but The Dark Valley is a little gem that came out of nowhere—at least, I hadn’t heard about it. The film begins with a mystery: a young couple is hiding in a basement when a group of men swarms down on them, beating the man and dragging the woman away, screaming.

Years later, a German-speaking stranger from the States with daguerreotype camera arrives in a gloomy town on a gloomy day just before winter breaks. The town is filled with gloomy, unwelcoming inhabitants under the rule of Old Brenner (Hans-Michael Rehberg) and his six backass, brawny sons. The stranger, Greider (Sam Riley), convinces the Brenners to let him stay to take photographs of the valley, and they set him up with widow Gaderin (Carmen Gratl) and her daughter, Luzi (Paula Beer), who is engaged to Lukas (Thomas Schubert). Something is amiss, and the Brenners clearly don’t take kindly to strangers. War erupts after two of the Brenner boys die in “accidents.” Who is this Greider, anyway

The Dark Valley combines flavors of Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. Its heavy and brooding tone is palpably serious, even bordering on comical. It works, though—director Andreas Prochaska manages to avoid crossing over into cheese. Visually, the look is crisp, artful, and beautiful. I could have done without hearing either version of “Sinnerman”—one by Clara Luzia and the other by One Two Three Cheers and a Tiger—but I enjoyed this film for what it is.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-


In the Basement [Im keller]

(Austria 2014)

Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement begins from an interesting idea: a documentary about all the strange things people do in their basements. Sign me up! In actuality, however, it’s a rather boring film. The subjects– an amateur opera singer who runs a firing range in his basement, a weird old lady who keeps ugly dolls she treats like real babies in her basement, a hunter of exotic animals who hangs their stuffed heads in his basement, a collector of Nazi memorabilia with a shrine in his basement, a masochistic woman who helps battered women by day but likes to be spanked by night in her basement, to name just a few– are drab and more pathetic than compelling. I found only two interludes intriguing: a dom/slave couple (the slave licks everything in the bathroom and on his mistress clean) and a homely gigolo who boasts of his ejaculatory prowess. My impression leaving the theater: “Really?” Overall, a snooze.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D


(USA 2014)

Poor Gabriel– or “Gabe,” as he wants to be called. On his way home presumably after being discharged from a mental hospital, he takes a detour off his bus to search for an old girlfriend, Alice. In the process, he irks those he encounters and upsets his family, waiting to pick him up from the bus station.

If that sounds like a comedy, it’s not. Gabriel takes us along with Gabe (Rory Caulkin) through a series of episodes that reveal the extent of his illness and how it affects those around him. Nothing about this film is immediate, obvious, or predictable. Details of Gabe’s diagnosis, what led to his current state, and what happened between him and Alice (Emily Meade) are smartly scarce; these ambiguities mirror his hazy, muddled frame of mind. The upstate New York setting during winter with its drab color palette and chilly look effectively underscores the bleakness of Gabe’s situation.

Longer on character than story, Gabriel probably wouldn’t work without Caulkin, whose believeable performance makes us empathize not only with Gabe, but also his mother (Dierdre O’Connell) and older brother, Matt (David Call). For all its merits, though, I found Gabriel the character as tiresome as those around him seemed to find him by the end of the film. The ending, by the way, is appropriate even if it is frustrating.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Ten Thousand Saints

(USA 2014)

Married team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s banal coming-of-age story clearly aimed at Gen X. Going by the references, the story takes place in 1987 and 1988 when New York City still had post-punk cool credibility. Crunchy Jude (Asa Butterfield) and his best friend, Teddy (Avan Jogia), meet urbane Eliza (Hailee Steinfeld), the daughter of the girlfriend of Jude’s dad (Ethan Hawke) who is slumming from Manhattan, at a New Year’s Eve party in Vermont. Events from that night lead Jude to New York, where he moves in with his father and reunites with Eliza, who it turns out is in trouble deep and has been losing sleep: she’s pregnant, and she’s keeping her baby, mmm. An unconventional family unit starts to gel with Teddy’s “straight-edge” brother, Johnny (Emile Hirsch), the singer of a punk band.

Too nostalgic for my taste and not exactly deep, Ten Thousand Saints is neither awful nor anything to write home about. I’m not sure what Ethan Hawke saw in the script– not that he picks the most interesting vehicles, anyway. Adapted from Eleanor Henderson’s novel of the same name. Meh.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

(Sweden 2014)

It’s sad when the previews show the best part of a film. More a series of sketches strung together like clunky Christmas lights, Pigeon makes the not-so-grand point that life is long and dull and full of drudgery, and everyone goes through the same bullshit. The sentiment is promising, and I love the brand of dark, offbeat humor that pervades this film. The overall look works well: drab, empty long shots emphasize the mood.

It had its moments, but Pigeon never got off the ground for me: it was, well, long and dull and full of drudgery, repeating the same jokes ad infinitum. What a disappointment. Maybe I just don’t get Swedish humor—if such a thing exists.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) D-

I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story

(USA 2014)

I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story delivered what it promised: the life story of Carroll Spinney, who became an unlikely icon as Big Bird (not to mention Oscar the grouch). We get tidbits about his artsy mother and crabby father; his fascination with puppetry as a child; his chance meeting with Jim Henson; and nearly quitting Sesame Street during its first season because he didn’t fit in with the cast. We get archival footage and a healthy dose of nostalgia without going overboard. We also get new information; I never knew Spinney was supposed to be a passenger on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986, or that he has an understudy. It all adds up to a winner.

Despite everything right with this documentary, however, I left wanting more from it. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe more gossip? Dirt? A drug problem or behind-the-scenes sex? Something. I know, this is Sesame Street we’re talking about, so I accept my disappointment in the lack of any sleaze as my issue. Considering its subject matter, though, I Am Big Bird could have been more fun.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

Welcome to Me

(USA 2014)

What happens when a middle-aged bipolar lady (Kristen Wiig) on disability wins $89M in the California lottery and buys her own talk show about herself? One would expect hilarity to ensue, but the opposite happens: Alice Klieg makes a bigger, sadder mess out of things. Money really does change everything. Can she repair the damage?

I love Kristen Wiig, but she can go overboard on stupid. That’s what happened here: Welcome to Me is stupid but not all that funny. While the subject matter is darker, the ending is neat and predictable. It tries to make a grand point about mental illness—I suspect—but the effort falls flat. Here’s to the next project.

One big positive: the supporting cast. James Marsden and Wes Bentley as the scheming Ruskin brothers and a surprise appearance by Tim Robbins as Alice’s therapist are nice touches. Joan Cusack as Dawn, the cunty producer annoyed by Alice from the outset, is by far the best character—and probably the best performance here.

According to her bio on IMDB, director Shira Piven is the older sister of actor Jeremy.

(Music Box) C

Dior and I

(USA 2014)

Frédéric Tchang’s peek behind closed doors at the preparation of designer Raf Simons’ debut for Dior. Oh yeah, and he only has eight weeks to create his collection. Will he pull it off?

Though Dior and I (thankfully) lacks the craziness of Project Runway, we still get to see the inner workings, stress, and low key drama surrounding Simons as he strives to maintain the integrity of the brand while adding his own individual point of view to it. Tchang juxtaposes archival footage of Mr. Dior himself, effectively serving as an homage without coming off as cheesy. And that flower mansion is fucking awesome!

(AMC River East) B-