(Turkey / USA 2016)

Warm, lively, and thorough, Ceyda Torun’s oddly intriguing documentary Kedi is a sort of love letter to Istanbul (not Constantinople) and its thousands of roaming street cats that have shared space with people since the days of the Ottoman Empire. As one resident puts it early on, “Without the cat, Istanbul would lose a part of its soul.”

Yes, the cats are cute. Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann follow a number of them as they move through their day: one gathers scraps to feed her kittens stashed safely in a retail building, another is pulled into a turf war with an orange tabby drifter, and yet another assumes the responsibility of taking care of vermin that dare to enter a popular seaside gathering spot for humans.

Each cat has a story, and each attracts — and impacts — different people: a shopkeeper, an artisan, a restaurant owner, a bona fide crazy cat lady. These cats are therapeutic, bringing happiness and purpose to residents. They serve as companions and wards. Most of them have a tough life — or nine of them. Torun does a nice job showing that the cats in Istanbul face the exact same threats that people do: overpopulation, urban development, and local politics.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than…well, Cats.

With Sari, Duman, Bengü, Aslan Parçasi, Gamsiz, Psikopat, and Deniz

Production: Termite Films

Distribution: Oscilloscope Laboratories

79 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center at Chicago Athletic Association) B-


(Hungary 2016)

Ferenc Török’s excellent 1945, which he says took over a decade to finish, doesn’t end up where it looks like it’s going. The story takes place on a hot summer Saturday in August 1945 during a transitional time in Hungary — after the Nazis surrendered but before the Soviets left.

Two men in black, one old (Iván Angelus) and the other young (Marcell Nagy), arrive at the train station of a small rural village. They have two large trunks in tote, which they are bringing into town. They walk in silence behind the wagon as the hired driver (Miklós B. Székely) and his son (György Somhegyi) lead the way.

The stationmaster (István Znamenák) alerts the town clerk, István Szentes (Péter Rudolf), who’s in the midst of preparations for his son’s (Bence Tasnádi) wedding. The two visitors are Orthodox Jews who survived the Holocaust. The villagers are thrown into a state of paranoia, fearing the purpose of this unwanted intrusion.

Based on Gábor T. Szántó’s short story “Homecoming,” Török effectively sets up the narrative using the construct of a Western: an ominous sky, strangers in black, and nervous lawmen and townsfolk all ready for a conflict to erupt.

The conflict in 1945, however, started long before this day: it started when the apparently all Catholic residents betrayed their only Jewish neighbor, the owner of the local drug store. István’s wife, Anna (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), turned him in to the Nazis. István took over his store and moved his family into his house. Everyone, from the police to the village priest (Béla Gados), looked the other way.

Török shows the conflicted villagers struggling to rectify their personal gain with the dishonorable way they achieved it. Török’s pacing is perfect, unfolding slowly with an ever-increasing sense of unease and doom. It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble case is tops. Elemér Ragályi’s gorgeous black and white cinematography emulates the look of films from the 1930s and 1940s:

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1945 is one of the more memorable films I caught at this year’s festival.

With Tamás Szabó Kimmel, Dóra Sztarenki, Ági Szirtes, József Szarvas, Sándor Terhes, Tünde Szalontay, Mari Nagy, János Derzsi, Tibor Mertz, Bálint Adorjáni, Vivianne Bánovits, Rita Kerkay, Zsolt Dér, Gergö Mikola, Máté Novkov

Production: Katapult Films

Distribution: Menemsha Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Ferenc Török

91 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser]

(France 2016)

The second film of a holiday double feature date, Footnotes [Sue quell pied danser], is a cute little Marxist musical about the trials and tribulations of the working class in rural France. The story follows millennial Julie (Pauline Etienne), who snags a job at a factory for a high end shoe designer, Jacques Couture. The job has potential to become permanent, which sounds good to her — she was “downsized” from her job at a shoe store before that, and it took awhile to find another one.

Unbeknownst to Julie — or anyone else in the factory for that matter — the company’s ruthlessly corporate CEO, Xavier (Loïc Corbery), plans to move production to China because it’s cheaper. The factory manager, Félicien (François Morel), is trying to dissuade him. The gals on the production line read about it in the paper, though, and plan a strike. In her first week on the job, Julie finds herself pushed to pick sides, which gets in the way of her budding romance with charming and strapping delivery driver Samy (Olivier Chantreau).

More London Road ( than La La Land (, Footnotes is pleasant and entertaining even if it doesn’t quite take off. Cowriters-directors Paul Calori and Kostia Testut keep it light, obviously borrowing from classic Hollywood musicals of the ’40s and ’50s. The songs are about crappy jobs, taking pride in one’s work, making ends meet, organizing into collective bargaining unit, and striving for a better life. The lyrics are fun, but the samba-flavored tunes are otherwise bland and forgettable. So is the choreography, which except for one scene (it involves bright Kinky Boots red shoes) is clumsy and lackluster.

Come to think of it, so are the sets. As would be expected, much of the action takes place in big industrial spaces. Nothing is done to emphasize anything about them; they stay in the background. It’s a huge contrast to a movie like Office (, which went over the top highlighting the size and scope and efficiency of the office building where it took place, and even had at its center a huge clock as if to say “time is money.” Nothing like that here. Frustratingly, the decision Julie makes at the end totally throws off what the story gets at and seems to build toward the entire time.

I wanted to love Footnotes. I didn’t. A little more pizzazz would’ve been a huge improvement.

With Julie Victor, Clémentine Yelnik, Vladimir Granov, Laure Crochet-Sernieclaes, Elodie Escarmelle, Nuch Grenet, Eve Hanus, Valérie Layani, Valérie Masset, Michèle Prélonge, Sophie Tabakov, Yasmine Youcef, Jazmin Londoño Castañeda, Paul Laffont

Production: Loin Derrière L’Oural, France 3 Cinéma, Région Rhône-Alpes, La Banque Postale Image 9

Distribution: Rézo Films (France), Monument Releasing (USA / Canada), Longride (Japan)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

Letters from Baghdad

(USA/UK/France 2016)

“We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.”

—Gertrude Bell

According to the promotional poster for Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s Letters from Baghdad, the so-called “Queen of the Desert” and “female Lawrence of Arabia” Gertrude Bell “was as controversial as the history she made.” Well, that certainly sounds promising!

Born into a wealthy family, Bell immersed herself in the Middle East in the early 20th Century and used her talents as a writer and a schmoozer to intimately acquaint herself with the area, its people, and their culture ( Her contacts with influential expats and various Arab leaders combined with her knowledge of the culture led to an appointment as a British officer during World War I and a direct hand in drawing up the borders of modern Iraq.

Tilda Swinton gives Bell her voice, reading off camera Bell’s actual writings about events that occurred on her many trips and the people she met. In Bell’s own words, Swinton offers history, observations, and even some Victorian Era dish. Bell had at least as much influence as T. E. Lawrence a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia (played here by Eric Loscheider in a staged “talking head” interview made to look like old footage).

Bell’s life and the impact of her deeds a century later make for an interesting story. Painstakingly researched, Krayenbühl and Oelbaum pull from diverse source material—letters, diaries, photos—to show what cities like Baghdad and Damascus were like a hundred years ago. They do a great job humaninzing Bell, getting into personality flaws and personal disappointments. In both respects, Letters to Baghdad works really well.

Not everything works as well as it could, though. Some important items are treated superfically. For example, they mention the tension between the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds even back then, but Krayenbühl and Oelbaum don’t delve into it. They touch on Bell’s reasoning for the borders she devised, but they don’t give much critical assessment to it. I left with the distinct feeling that I didn’t get the whole story. Another problem: the staged interviews give a lot of information, but they’re cheesy.

I found myself glancing at my watch about halfway through Letters from Baghdad. It’s a well made documentary, but it’s not as enthralling as it promises to be.

With Ammar Haj Ahmad, Helen Ryan, Rachael Stirling, Robert Ian Mackenzie, Christopher Villiers, Lucy Robinson, Elizabeth Rider, Michael Higgs, Joanna David, Michelle Eugene, Paul McGann, Pip Torrens

Production: Between the Rivers Productions, Letters From Baghdad, Missing in Action Films

Distribution: Vitagraph Films (USA)

95 minutes
Not rated

(Landmark Century) C


(UK/Hungary 2016)

“Race and religion are irrelevant. If you’re a dickhead, you’re a dickhead.”


I don’t usually bother with “feel good” movies, which tend to be vapid, cheesy affairs. The basic plot summary of Dough caught my attention. Although it teeters dangerously close to full-on “feel good,” to its credit it doesn’t go all the way. Exhale. Still, not great.

Nat Dayan (Jonathan Pryce) has owned and single-handedly operated a Jewish bakery in London. It’s a family business that’s lasted for generations but has definitely seen better days. Nat’s livelihood is threatened by a grocery chain that wants to buy him out. The way things are going, the offer looks like the only way to stay above water.

Enter 20-ish African immgrant Ayyash Habimana (Jerome Holder), a Muslim who recently relocated to the neighborhood. Nat hires him to help bake, not realizing…well, that he gets baked. Like, smoking weed. Ganja. Marijuana. Somehow, Ayyash starts churning out muffins that sell like hotcakes.

Dough is a really cute comedy that works on many levels, at least from a narrative perspective. Director John Goldschmidt steers things in a realistic direction, showing that two disparate generational and cultural ideologies are not really all that far apart. The opening scene—at 4:00 a.m.—illustrates the parallels between Nat and Ayyash’s lives and gets Dough off to a great start. I was hooked. It looked like a winner.

Unfortunately, things go downhill fast. Dough quickly turns into amateur hour, with writing (Jez Freedman and Jonathan Benson) and acting that just doesn’t deliver on the potential here. The story is hamfisted, oversimplified, and predictable. Aside from a few sweet scenes, Dough is kind of a dud.

With Philip Davis, Ian Hart, Pauline Collins, Andrew Ellis, Malachi Kirby, Natasha Gordon, Melanie Freeman, Olivia Dayan

Production: Docler Entertainment, Three Coloured Dog Films, Docler DProd, Dough Film, Viva Films

Distribution: Menemsha Films, Margo Cinema, Rialto Distribution, Vertigo Releasing

94 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) C-

I, Daniel Blake

(UK/France/Belgium 2016)

I Daniel Blake.jpg

Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake has gotten a lot of attention and praise. Good: it wrestles with a topic that’s timely on both sides of the Atlantic—and elsewhere, for that matter. A political and poweful message, Loach has touched many a nerve. Case in point: I, Daniel Blake won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where it finished with a 15-minute standing ovation ( 15 whole minutes?! Wow.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a kind of antihero. He’s gruff, he’s private, he’s not handsome or young. He probably goes to church. A heart attack seems like the thing that would change his life, but what really does is a new neighbor (Hayley Squires) and her two kids (Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan).

I didn’t stand up, but I get it. Bureaucracy versus common sense is always fertile ground for storytelling. I applaud Loach for what he’s saying here, I really do. I, Daniel Blake is a good film: it’s engaging, brave, and relatable. The acting is good all around. So is the premise.

In my opinion, though, it just isn’t a great film. We’re talking shades of meaning here, so if you have five seconds to spare, I’ll tell you why. First, I’ve seen this device many times before—in the last year, even. A cranky old man meets a character that represents youth and hope, and it totally melts the icy facade and changes his life. Well, OK. This sense of hope is usually personified by the very person society looks down on. Next?

Second, I saw where the plot was going way before I got there. Again and again. Predictability is never groundbreaking.

Third, I can’t help but think that this film takes the easy way out. A heart attack in a movie ends only one way. And it’s only a sad ending. Yeah, I, Daniel Blake is emotionally manipulative.

So, my issues center on Paul Laverty’s writing. I wish I had a better way to tell this story. I don’t. For all its pluses and minuses, though, I’d rather watch something more intense. Overall, I, Daniel Blake is disappointingly soft.

With Kate Rutter, Sharon Percy, Kema Sikazwe, Steven Richens, Amanda Payne, Chris Mcglade, Shaun Prendergast, Gavin Webster, Sammy T. Dobson, Mickey Hutton, Colin Coombs, David Murray, Stephen Clegg, Andy Kidd , Dan Li, Jane Birch, Micky McGregor, Neil Stuart Morton

Production: Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions, Wild Bunch, British Film Institute (BFI), BBC Films, Les Films du Fleuve, Canal+, Ciné+

Distribution: Entertainment One Films (UK), Le Pacte (France), Cinéart (Belgium/Netherlands), Cinema (Italy), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Prokino Filmverleih (Germany), Scanbox Entertainment (Denmark), Sundance Selects (USA), Transmission Films (Australia), Vertigo Média Kft. (Hungary), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cine Canibal (Mexico), Imovision (Brazil), Mont Blanc Cinema (Argentina), Longride (Japan)

100 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

El Revenge [La Vingança]

(Argentina/Brazil 2016)

Sweet but not exactly savvy Brazilian stuntman Caco (Felipe Rocha) finds out the hard way that nice guys finish last. He surprises his girlfriend, Julia (Leandra Leal), at the restaurant where she works: all set to propose, he stumbles upon her and her boss in flagrante delicto in the pantry. Her boss, arrogant macho celebrity chef Facundo (Adrián Navarro), isn’t just hot, rich, and famous—he’s also Argentinian, which adds insult to injury.

Caco’s stunted party boy buddy Vadão (Daniel Furlan) does what any brah would under the circumstances: he takes Caco out to get wasted. While they’re out, Vadão surmises that what Caco needs to forget Julia is a roadtrip to Argentina to bag as many Argentinian babes as possible. It’s a weird way to get back at her and Facundo. Caco emphatically declines—that is, until he sees Julia’s Facebook post saying she’s moving to Buenos Aires with Facundo. He changes his mind but doesn’t tell Vadão why. They take off in a yellow Chevy Opala from the ’70s.

Honestly, I’ve seen this road movie many times before. Even so, I enjoyed El Revenge; director and cowriter Fernando Fraiha has a lot of fun with broken hearts, national pride, and fútbol (a.k.a. soccer) rivalries. The script isn’t the most original but the adventures are still entertaining: a customs agent who looks like Bruce Willis confiscates Vadão’s supply of Viagra, a beautiful woman (Aylin Prandi) walks in on Caco while his pants are in the washer in a motel laundry room, the car breaks down after the guys pick up a hitchhiking bride (Ana Pauls), and they share a competitive ride to the airport with a van full of condescending soccer fans. Raindrops can’t keep falling on Caco’s head forever, can they?

With Sebastián Presti, Gastón Ricaud

Production: Querosene Filmes, Globo Filmes, Bionica Films, Zarlek Producciones, Telecine Productions, Downtown Filmes

Distribution: Paris Filmes

90 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago Latin International Film Festival

Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary

(USA/Jamaica 2016)

How low can a punk get? Director James Lathos gives a pretty good idea with Finding Joseph I: The HR from Bad Brains Documentary, a sympathetic if sensationalistic picture of the ups and downs of punk/reggae frontman Paul “H.R.” Hudson, also known by his Jamaican name Joseph I. The film is a companion of sorts to Finding Joseph I: An Oral History of H.R. from Bad Brains by Lathos and Howie Abrams.

Lathos lays out essential information about Hudson’s unconventional and rather nomadic upbringing, his path to the limelight via the ’80s D.C. punk scene, and his spiritual journey. That last part sounds wretchedly dull, but it’s not: Hudson became a Rastafarian, and his music reflected it. The problem is, he also started to unravel around the same time, frequently leaving and rejoining Bad Brains like a dreadlocked Ross Perot.

Sure, there are early live performances that are obligatory in a documentary like Finding Joseph I; fortunately, they’re also pretty damned cool. Many of Hudson’s contemporaries offer insightful, astute, and often entertaining commentary. If he doesn’t avoid nostalgia, Lathos at least doesn’t get sappy. Smart.

All that said, I found the whole thing disconcertingly exploitative. I appreciate that somewhere in here is a point about mental health. Frankly, though, it could have been advanced without making Hudson look like such a hopeless freak. I doubt it was intentional, as this really does come off as a labor of love and not mean-spirited. Nonetheless, Finding Joseph I has an insidious ring to it.

With Earl Hudson, Ras Michael, Guy Oseary, Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Duff McKagan, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Sonny Sandoval, Cro-Mags, Chino Moreno, Deftones, Fishbone, Sublime, The Wailers, Englishman, Chuck Treece, Rakaa Iriscience, Alec MacKaye, Ian MacKaye, Saul Williams, Opie Ortiz

Production: Giraffe Productions, Small Axe Films

Distribution: Small Axe Films

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Jay Mohr

92 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) C+


Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration [Sounds of Exodus: An Ode to the Great Migration]

(USA 2016)

Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.

Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.

Production: 11 Dollar Bill


4 minutes
Not rated

(The Chop Shop/1st Ward) B


Raw [Grave]

(France/Belgium 2016)

“An animal that has tasted human flesh is not safe.”


To borrow a phrase from Morrissey, meat is murder, which is a lesson that goody-two-shoes strict vegan Justine (Garance Marillier) learns the hard way when she goes away to join her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), at veterinary college. Like a lot of young people away from home for the first time, Justine is lost and wants to fit in. She’s she’s got her work cut out for her: she’s nerdy, sheltered, and a total virgin.

Like a lot of other schools, the upperclassmen at this one have a hazing ritual to break in newbies. It’s pretty aggressive. Prompted by her sister, Justine goes along with it without objection—that is, until she’s pushed to eat raw rabbit kidney (never mind the blood splattered all over her and her “fresh meat” first year classmates). Alexia is the one who ultimately cajoles her to eat it; it’s nasty and it makes Justine sick. Not long after, she develops a gross and severely itchy rash brought on from food poisoning.

Soon, Justine finds herself craving meat. Her impulses are irresistible. First, she eats raw chicken. Then her own hair. Eventually, she works up to human flesh—after developing a fetish for car crashes, of course. As she gives in to her carnivorous urges, her lust for her cute and easygoing gay roommate, Adrien (Rabah Naït Oufella), gets stronger—and Alexia appears to be turning into a greater and greater adversary.

Screenwriter/director Julia Ducournau has a lot on her mind here: peer pressure, body image, sexuality, sibling rivalry, the food we eat. She’s gutsy, and for the most part her risks pay off. It’s not the same story, but Raw has something in common with Goat (, another histrionic college drama that gets at kids, tribalism, and cruelty. Raw is very Lord of the Flies. Ducournau paces the story well and picks interesting things—a bikini wax, a horse being sedated—to make us squirm.

I love Ducournau’s sense of humor: it’s dry, icky, and sadistic. The indignation of Justine’s parents over a piece of sausage in her mashed potatoes when they’re eating in a cafeteria as the film begins brilliantly sets up what follows. Marillier seems to have some fun with her role, playing Justine as a creepy, awkward junkie who maybe bites off more than she can chew. Rumpf has fun with her role, too, playing Alexia as a Heathers-like mean girl. They do a nice job working the love and the hate in their relationship. Smartly, they’re both restrained, carefully steering clear of camp.

Visually, Raw reminds me a lot of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, but it still has its own unique look and feel. There are a lot well done scenes here—one under Justine’s sheets, another on a campus plaza with a horde of students moving like zombies, and another at a rave in a morgue all stand out in my mind. Cinematographer Ruben Impens uses lots of bright colors that work nicely with all the dim light to make the school look like a nightmare or a drug trip. There’s a definite sense of this not being real.

Raw is bloody and gory, but nothing here made me want to pass out or call an ambulance  ( I liked it, but I have one beef: I wish it was a little less predictable.

With Laurent Lucas, Joana Preiss, Bouli Lanners, Marion Vernoux, Thomas Mustin, Jean-Louis Sbille

Production: Frakas Productions, Petit Film, Rouge International, Wild Bunch, Canal+, Ciné+, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), La Wallonie, Bruxelles Capitale, Centre du Cinéma et de l’Audiovisuel de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles, Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF), VOO, BE TV, Arte/Cofinova 12, Torino Film Lab

Distribution: Wild Bunch (France), O’Brother Distribution (Belgium), Focus World (international), Canibal Networks (Mexico), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Singapore), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (UK), Monster Pictures (Australia)

99 Minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B-