Count Us In

(Spain 2015)

After a chance meeting with a former professor, two starving filmmakers (David Pareja and Daniel Pérez Prada) sign on to a mysterious project knowing nothing about it. Imagine their shock and horror when they realize they’re pegged to film an execution for ISIS.

Writer and director Pablo Vara has a wicked, irreverent, witty and actually brave sense of humor that I love. It’s exactly what we need right now.

With: Ignacio Grifol, Juan Aragón

Production: Mavericks Studio

Distribution: Cinequest

17 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago Latin International Film Festival

The Brand New Testament [Le tout nouveau testament]

(Belgium/France/Luxembourg 2015)

Joan Osborne once posed the question, “What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us?” In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament, God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a sloppy, angry middle-aged white guy with a very plain wife (Yolande Moreau). They live in a dark apartment in Brussels, where He works from home (she’s a homemaker with a thing for collecting baseball cards). His job is pretty easy: to heap misery onto the human race, which He watches over on a computer in a room with a card catalog that stretches to the sky. God’s preteen daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne), is not impressed with Him or His arrogant, authoritarian, and sadistic ways. Inspired by her brother “JC” (David Murgia), who tells her how to get out of the apartment through the washing machine, Ea hatches a plan to revise the way things work and hopefully make the world a better place: while Our Father is asleep on the couch, she sends a text message to everyone on Earth that reveals the date and exact time of their death, locks God’s computer, and runs away from home in search of six apostles to tell their stories—the Brand New Testament.

This film could have made a weighty statement, but it doesn’t. Instead, The Brand New Testament, executed with a hefty dose of fantasy and fabulism, is a fluffy affair. While all six apostles lack something—love, passion, an arm—they’re comical despite their sadness. Some of their subplots are better than others, particularly Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a beautiful woman with a secret, and Willy (Romain Gelin), a young boy with cancer who wants to be a girl. Catherine Deneuve plays a neglected and bored housewife, and it’s truly surreal to see her in a role where she gets fucked by a street gigolo (Bilal Aya) and ends up leaving her husband (Johan Leysen) for a gorilla (Kiko Mirales). That’s right, a gorilla. Clever Biblical references, especially to the numbers 12 and 18, are generously sprinkled throughout the script. There’s even a point in here about gender politics. For all its charms, though, The Brand New Testament is a much better concept than a finished product.

112 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) C

Coming Through the Rye

(USA 2015)

Occasionally, I’m a real starstruck starfucker; I’ve met two of my own idols, and each time was a story in itself. I’m a fan of both The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, too (though not so much Franny and Zooey).

So not surprisingly, I found the premise of Coming Through the Rye appealing and totally relatable: set in 1969, Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff), an angsty, unpopular, nerdy high school student at an all-boy boarding school in Pennsylvania, sets out to track down the reclusive J.D. Salinger (Chris Cooper). Like many a midcentury American boy, Jamie says Salinger’s Catcher changed his life; although he’s not as harsh, he identifies with Holden Caulfield because he sees himself isolated and surrounded by phonies. He seeks the author’s blessing on his senior project, a stage adaptation of Catcher (in which Jamie plays Caulfield, of course) to be performed at his school.

Anyone remotely familiar with Salinger knows that Jamie isn’t getting his wish, something at least two teachers let him know. The kid will not take no for an answer. After failing to reach Salinger both by letter and by dropping in on his agent in New York City, a series of unfortunate events at school prompts Jamie to take off and look for Salinger himself. Deedee (Stefania Owen), a local girl who likes him and fortunately for him has a car (a cool Rambler), picks him up and offers to drive. The two embark on a short odyssey through New England.

Equal parts road movie, romance, and coming of age story, there’s quite a bit to like here. Based on actual events from his own high school years, writer and director James Steven Sadwith crafts a straightforward, easygoing story that flows naturally. The many parallels between Jamie and Caulfield—right down to a red hunter’s cap and a disquieting older brother (Zephyr Benson)—are cute; the fact that Jamie is the only Jewish kid at a WASPy boarding school is a nice touch that underscores his status as an outsider. Sadwith does a fine job showing the loss of Jamie’s innocence through a number of small events. Wolff and Owen have a wonderfully guileless chemistry that works really well; a scene with milkweed blowing in the wind is downright beautiful. Jamie’s ultimate discoveries, however, aren’t so cute—this is what keeps Coming Through the Rye from turning into nostalgic drivel.

97 minutes

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

A Man Called Ove [En man som heter Ove]

(Sweden 2015)

A few years ago, I picked up Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove for my book club. Published in 2012, the story was familiar and the main character was one I’d seen many times before. What stood out was Backman’s writing—it was colorful. I must confess, I didn’t finish the book. I liked what I read, though.

Hannes Holm’s film adaptation is similarly colorful. Ove (Rolf Lassgård)—rigid, regimented, orderly, and blustery—is the archetypal curmudgeon. A victim of a recent reduction in force at the train yard that employed him for 40 years, his days now consist of essentially three activities: policing the neighborhood development where he lives to enforce antiquated rules no one pays attention to, correcting transgressors, and visiting the gave of his wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll). He promises to join Sonja and even makes a few attempts at suicide, but he’s constantly interrupted.

The interesting thing about Ove’s suicide attempts is that they trigger his memories, which fills us in on his backstory: his unconventional childhood, getting his job, meeting the woman who would become his wife, and some other stuff that brought him to where he is. He’s had a life filled with heartbreak, and he loved his wife. It’s no wonder then that he bristles when he unwillingly meets his new neighbors, a Persian woman named Parvaneh (Bahar Pars) and her klutz of a husband (Tobias Almborg), after they plow into his mailbox.

Dealing with love and loss, A Man Called Ove easily could have turned into a sentimental mess. The Swedish spin on it—a tongue in cheek earnest practicality, as illustrated by a stray cat and a battle between Saab and Volkswagen, for example—and Lassgård’s winsome performance both succeed at preventing that. Göran Hallberg’s cinematography is crisp and vivid, with the present comprised of natural blues and greens while the flashbacks have a warm, glowing sort of sepia pallette.

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) B-

Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil [Jheronimus Bosch, Touched by the Devil]

(Netherlands 2015)

For an artist with such a unique vision that transcends his time, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is a really boring tribute. I expected the focus to be on the artist and his ideas about hell—unfortunately, director Pieter van Huystee gives only fleeting, superficial treatment to both. Instead, the focus here is on the process of culling an exhibit in Den Bosch, the city where the artist spent his entire life, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death. Oddly, none of his 25 or so existing works are housed there. The film follows a group of art historians as they circle the globe examining pieces to confirm or negate their authenticity and meet with museum executives to broker deals for borrowing works. Along the way, an unknown panel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, is “discovered” in of all places Kansas City.

Museum politics and egos are caught in action, as is the thrill of discovering the unknown St. Anthony. A bit of time is devoted to an interesting discussion on works produced after Bosch’s death. Overall, though, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil is a rather lifeless affair that shines bright when the camera is pointed at the artist’s work, but not really any other time. It fails to hit the notes or address any questions I wanted it to; its intriguing title is curiously misleading.

87 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-


London Road

(UK 2015)

“Everyone is very, very nervous. Um. And very unsure of everything, basically.”

—The Cast

“British,” “murder,” “mystery,” “thriller,” “comedy,” and “musical” are words that might sound dubious when used together to describe the same work. These elements, though, gel nicely in the amusingly quirky London Road, Rufus Norris’s adaptation of Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe’s musical theatre revolving around Steve Wright, the notorious Suffolk Strangler a.k.a. Ipswich Ripper.

The subject matter of London Road certainly isn’t anything to sing about: Wright moved to a modest working class neighborhood in Ipswich for ten weeks and killed five prostitutes during Autumn 2006. The bodies started showing up, casting paranoia over the small town. Wright was arrested just before Christmas, stressing out his neighbors on London Road, where the murders occurred in his house.

London Road could accurately be called an anatomy of a community directly affected by a macabre event, as the story is not really about Wright but rather his spooked neighbors. Based on actual interviews, the story traces their reactions to the murders and the fact that they occurred so close to home. Particularly hitting is the impact of the small street’s invasion by the police and the media on the various residents’ daily lives. Flowers bring them to their ultimate redemption.

London Road features Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Nick Holder, Paul Thornley, Michael Shaeffer, and Tom Hardy, whom I didn’t even recognize in his small role as a cab driver. Norris respects the characters’ dignity, letting them each have their own voice without putting them in a negative, unsophisticated light. The mood is a bit schizo, going from tense to darkly comic before erupting into song and choreographed numbers. The songs, by the way, are droll and clever, incorporating verbal ticks into the rhythm. They’re catchy, too—I’m still singing one of them two days later. I loved one scene in which a newscaster (Shaeffer) struggles in song to explain how forensics identified Wright through DNA in his semen, a word he can’t use during daytime TV—who knew the Brits have prudish broadcasting rules just like we Americans do?

Overall, London Road is an interesting experience unlike any other film I’ve seen lately. I laughed, I was intrigued, and the music pulled me in.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B-

The Bride [La novia]

(Spain 2015)

I love a Latin melodrama, and The Bride definitely delivers. Adapted from Federico García Lorca’s 1933 tragedy Blood Wedding, it has all the elements of a telenovela: hopelessly beautiful characters with secrets and family drama, caught in a torrid love triangle that comes to a catastrophic head at a wedding.

The Bride (Imma Cuesta) has been involved with both the Groom (Asier Etxeandia) and Leonardo Felix (Álex García)—the sole character with a name—since the three were kids. She has a past with hunky Leonardo, who left her to marry her cousin (Leticia Dolera). By circumstances not entirely clear in the film, the Bride ended up with the Groom and is marrying him for less than noble reasons. Woefully, the Bride and Leonardo are still into each other. An ever-present apparition (María Alfonsa Rosso) warns the Bride early on not to marry the Groom if she doesn’t love him. Leonardo and his wife (and their baby) attend the wedding, and shit unravels.

Director Paula Ortiz makes some interesting choices. She’s coy about time and place, casually throwing together cars and clothes from various decades of the first half of the Twentieth Century while nothing appears to be powered by electricity. Leonardo gets around almost entirely on horse. The dusty vacant desert setting evokes an old Western film, though it could just as easily be the Middle East or Mars as Turkey (where The Bride actually was filmed). The time sequence is out of order, jumping back and forth between past and present. The whole thing moves like a dance, which I took to be a kind of nod to García Lorca’s poetry.

Luisa Gavasa is downright amazing as the Groom’s grim, venomous mother—she has the audacity to wear black to the wedding, if that says anything. Cuesta and García make a hot couple, and they have an extended sex scene worthy of a porn, complete with a flash or two of dick. Miguel Ángel Amoedo’s dreamy, sun-bleached cinematography is so gorgeous, it literally elevates the story. Shigeru Umebayashi’s score is equally gorgeous. This is a very sensual film.

The Bride has its problems, though. The scenes of the Bride’s hallucinations are pretty—lots of floating glass, ice-like daggers, and a big white moon—but they’re distractingly cheesy. The opening scene, which is actually the end of the story, comes off as superfluous; in fact, the time-jumping mechanism doesn’t add a thing. Worse, Ortiz seems to sacrifice depth for decoration. I haven’t seen or read Blood Wedding, but I’m familiar with García Lorca’s work. The Bride is dramatic but superficial—the symbolism is there, but it only hints at the weighty themes García Lorca explored. The focus is clearly on the story—not what’s behind it. So much more could have been said here: I see glimmers of statements on gender, class, mental illness, self-will. Ni modo.

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

My King [Mon roi]

(France 2015)

No one makes films about bad relationships better than the French, and Maïwenn’s My King is a fine if not entirely original example. Attorney Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and restaurateur Georgio (Vincent Cassel) are two upper middle class Parisians who probably never should have gotten together despite their chemistry and affection for each other.

After crossing paths in a nightclub, Georgio invites Tony (short for Marie-Antoinette) and her entourage—her brother Solal (Louis Garrel) and his fiancée Babeth (Isild Le Besco)—to his apartment for breakfast after last call. Solal and Babeth fall asleep on a couch, but Tony and Georgio hit it off. He’s dashing, smart, and full of ideas for cool things to do. It’s not long before they’re emotionally and carnally involved—and Georgio, the smooth guy that he is, is assuring Tony that her vagina is magnifique. As hooked as Tony is, something isn’t quite right from the outset: Georgio has a penchant for escape, whether through wine, his friends, or his ex, cover model Agnes (Chrystele Saint-Louis Augustin), who is all too present in his life, sometimes summoning him to her place in the middle of the night for emergencies. Things get complicated when Tony gets pregnant.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

My King is less about the events that occur onscreen than its characters and what makes them tick. Tony’s insecurities don’t mix with Georgio’s restlessness, the latter of which manifests itself in his buying stuff, drug benders, pool parties, and even renting his own apartment down the street from her and the baby. She loves him, but he brings out the worst in her. The story is told through flashbacks as Tony goes through rehabilitation after a skiing accident, ultimately suggesting that maybe she hurt herself on purpose. As Tony gets stronger in rehabilitation, she opens herself to the other patients—most of them younger and more relaxed men who are less sophisticated but nicer than Georgio. It’s not clear where she’s headed, but let’s hope it’s somewhere healthier.

Maïwenn’s directing is competent, but she takes a rather pedestrian approach here. The dramatic tension is a bit uneven, particularly the scenes of Tony in rehabilitation. The screenplay itself is okay but nothing special—I’ve seen this movie before. What really makes My King soar is its players, especially the leads. Bercot and Cassel are expressive, engaging, and raw. They’re totally convincing and sympathetic, and watching them interact is a treat. This would be a forgettable film without them.

124 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Mon Roi

We Monsters [Wir Monster]

(Germany 2015)

With We Monsters, Sebastian Ko examines who’s worse in a tough situation: the transgressive child who caused it, or the parents protecting her. Don’t be quick to call it, because the answer isn’t clear.

Self-absorbed and buffoonish Paul (Mendi Nebbou), an ageing newly-divorced musician, and his sour teenaged daughter, Sarah (Janina Fautz), are en route to summer camp when she asks him to pick up her schoolmate Charlie (Marie Bendig). Curiously, Charlie is already waiting on the road—in the middle of the forest where they’re driving. After a petty bicker in the backseat—over a boy, of course—Paul pulls over for a pit stop. The girls disappear, and Paul soon finds Sarah standing on the edge of a dam. She coolly tells him she pushed Charlie off.

Thus begins the drama as Paul and his ex-wife, Christine (Ulrike C. Tscharre), struggle with handling Sarah’s deed: how do they hide what she did—and how could they? And why is she so indifferent? We Monsters is a morality play oozing psychological dread worthy of a Hitchcock film, especially when Charlie’s volatile alcoholic father (Ronald Kukulies) comes around looking for her. One cover up leads to another, and soon Paul and Christine are in over their parental heads. But is the situation really what it seems?

A few spots are slow, but We Monsters still kept me riveted. The story for the most part is paced well, and the acting is really good. Andreas Köhler’s cinematography is beautifully understated and drab, letting the characters and the drama take center stage. About an hour in, Ko’s tense tone gives way to something decidedly dark, comic, and ironic—and it plays out nicely. Karma’s truly a bitch.

According to Variety, an American remake is in the works ( Let’s hope it’s half as good, but I doubt it will be: We Monsters is not a story I see resonating with a mainstream American audience without some tweaking that changes the story and kills the mood.

95 minutes
Not rated

(Facets) B

The Lobster

(Ireland/UK/Greece 2015)

“Now the fact that you will turn into an animal if you fail to fall in love with someone during your stay here is not something that should upset you or get you down. Just think, as an animal you’ll have a second chance to find a companion. But, even then, you must be careful; you need to choose a companion that is a similar type of animal to you. A wolf and a penguin could never live together, nor could a camel and a hippopotamus. That would be absurd.”

—Hotel Manager

Every now and then, a film so wonderfully unique comes along that you just don’t know what exactly to make of it until you take some time to digest it (I took all summer to write and post this entry). The Lobster is such a film. It’s not going to appeal to everyone—it’s a dark, subtle, absurd, uncomfortable, irreverent, and totally open-ended satire of the desire to be “in a relationship.” None of this is the stuff of a summer movie, but I loved it precisely because of these qualities. So far, The Lobster is easily my favorite film I’ve seen this year—released in Europe last fall, it crossed the Atlantic just this past spring.

In the not-so-distant future in a not-so-distant society, being single is against the law. Regardless of the reason for their singularity (death of a spouse, divorce, being dumped), unattached adults must check into a certain hotel designated for singles and find a suitable match, verified and approved by the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), within 45 days. Everything is regimented with meal times, active learning exercises, forced social events, and a strict prohibition on masturbation (though one form of sex with the housekeeping staff is required). “Guests” can buy additional time by shooting “loners”—rogue outlaw singles who escaped to the woods—on daily hunting excursions that resemble Hunger Games. Those who fail to find someone before their time runs out are transformed into the animal of their choice, selected during their initial processing, and banished to the woods.

The Lobster’s protagonist, mild-mannered David (Colin Farrell), finds himself at the hotel, his brother, Bob—now a dog—in tow, after the end of his marriage. He chooses a lobster as his animal because “lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.” He also likes the sea.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The Lobster is essentially divided into two acts: the first in the hotel and the second in the woods. David connects with fellow guests the Lisping Man (John C. Reilly) and the Limping Man (Ben Wishaw). David notices that the guests there tend seek others like themselves—except for Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia), an emotionless femmebot who seeks out no one but has a seemingly infinite amount of time left thanks to her ruthless archery skills. David decides to go for her, which leads him to the woods. There, he meets the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz), who is near-sighted like he is. They connect, but the militaristic Loner Leader (Léa Seydoux) forbids all romance—punishable by mutilation. “We dance alone,” she tells David as she hands him an iPod. “That’s why we only play electronic music.”

Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, the screenplay feels like a Chuck Palahniuk novel. The story is so bizarre and far fetched that it seems silly on paper, but proves incredibly powerful once in motion—in the same way that Being John Malkovich, another film I love that requires the same suspension of disbelief, didn’t sound like much to me before I saw it. Lanthimos has a taste for sadness and the macabre, and he liberally infuses The Lobster with both. He doesn’t take a dim view of relationships, but he notices the dim things people do to have one. The cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis is fabulously drab, with a cool, monotonous, faded color palette that creates a sense of distance and evokes a sense of resignation. Classical music plays throughout to add a kind of Clockwork Orange weirdness to the whole thing.

Despite the mood here, the story turns out to be oddly beautiful. Farrell gives one of his best performances—he drops all his rakish charm to become a colorless, big-bellied middle-aged schlub I found myself rooting for with each predicament he gets into. The inability of David and the Short Sighted Girl to express their feelings for each other is damn near heartbreaking. The entire cast is outstanding, and not a single character is superfluous. The second act is noticeably slower than the first, and perhaps could have been shorter than it is. Regardless, the momentum continues to build to a brilliantly ironic ending that comes about through David’s nearsightedness.

The Lobster doesn’t resolve in the end, which is my favorite thing about it. The viewer is left to decide what happens—and I’ve already discussed different opinions others have about whether David did, or didn’t. It’s the kind of film that lingers on in your memory and forces you think about it even though you’ll never know for sure.

Side note: the film’s website has a quiz that determines your suitable animal. Mine were an elephant, a horse (which finds pleasure in carrots, music, and oral sex), and a water bear. I chose a horse, of course.

119 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) A-