Alive and kicking
Ray Pride previews the Chicago International Film Festival
FEST GUIDE
Critical guide to the 1997 Chicago International Film Festival

The thirty-third Chicago International Film Festival starts Thursday, with all its screenings at Cineplex Odeon's 600 North Michigan cinemas (except for opening night at McClurg Court). Of the eighty-five or so features on display, twenty-one are up for prizes in North America's oldest competitive festival, including Bill Bennett's "Kiss or Kill," Alan Rickman's "The Winter Guest," Juzo Itami's "Supermarket Woman," Mark Waters' "House of Yes" and Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo."

For previews and interviews with the makers of five must-see films at this year's festival, read on.

Kiss or Kill

Coming off the compromises and commercial non-performance of his first American feature, the Sandra Bullock-starring comedy "Two If By Sea," writer-director Bill Bennett, a twenty-year veteran of filmmaking, retreated to his Australian home and wondered what he should do next.

For almost a decade, he had toyed with a script about an impulsive, hair-trigger outlaw couple on the run who may or may not be murderers -- they can't even trust each other enough to tell. Bennett felt he had finally hit upon how to tell the story and it would require a shift in means, shooting fast, cheap and with the charming young duo of Frances O'Connor and Matt Day. The result, "Kiss or Kill," is filled with hand-held shots, jump-cutting and a general sense of unease and enigmatic portent even as we are drawn into Nikki and Al's twisted, often hilarious world.

Trained as a photojournalist, Bennett's sense of what makes a good movie has shifted, influenced by his own experience as well as watching the work of other directors, such as Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves." "Being too pretty can work against the esthetic of a film. You go in as a young filmmaker, you think, `I want to get this beautiful light.' As you progress, it's more interesting to break all that down. I've got this term, `a dirty look.' Like, `Secrets and Lies' has a dirty look. `Kiss or Kill' has a dirty look. There are films that are shiny, like, say, `Portrait of a Lady,' and there are no doubt times when shiny is appropriate, but at this point in my career, I'm interested in a dirty look."


The Headhunter's Sister

Scott Saunders' "The Headhunter's Sister" is the kind of discovery that film festivals once were known for. "We set out to make our movie about an odd community of people living on Manhattan's eminently multicultural Lower East side," the fortyish Saunders says. "We wanted to make a movie that was built on the details of our own lives. We set out to construct a film around the people we knew, the neighborhood we live in and the streets we walk everyday."

Like a comedic latter-day version of "Low Life," Luc Sante's classic portrait of turn-of-the-century Manhattan, Saunders' satisfyingly dense plot is filled with wild digressions, lunging from love to heroin, from corporate head-hunting to lounging in Central Park, from green cards to gay flirtation, from a day at the beach to the routine of a Spanish-language telephone sex operation.

Shooting in two weeks in old tenement buildings during an August heat wave, Saunders and company fill their dense narrative with fresh verbal wit to jolting narrative turns. The result is a wholly convincing non-slacker portrait of how communities evolve and clash and blend, and there's an intense, tactile sense of how these characters have changed each other's lives. There's also something piercing in its lovingly detailed portrait of how, as co-writer-producer-lead actor Bob McGrath puts it, "Our generation has managed to take the idea of youthfulness way beyond any attractiveness." (At first, the film's life-worn characters give the impression of being vagrants with apartments.)

While Saunders is not disclosing the exact figures, "Headhunter's Sister" is low-low budget, a good-looking blowup directly from Betacam video to 35mm. Saunders, a professional video editor, used four different editing systems -- including three he was able to use for free.

The other gift of video for this film is that Saunders and collaborators he has known each other for years -- McGrath, production designer Laurie Olinder, actors Elizabeth Scholfield and Michael Harris -- were able to take their friendships and theatre-trained chops and concoct a charming sense of intimacy in the movie. "The Headhunter's Sister" feels like a breakthrough for features originated on video, but it's also utterly accessible, a sexy, loping comedy that ultimately rejects moodiness and despair and embraces the absurd plausibility of life and the possibility of all manner of change.


Dogtown

George Hickenlooper's "Dogtown" rests in the long, lean shadow of Peter Bogdanovich's classic "Last Picture Show." Since Hickenlooper's substantial splash with his first release, "Hearts of Darkness," the documentary he co-directed about the making of "Apocalypse Now," the 33-year-old writer-director has made several films on low budgets and fast schedules, flying under the Hollywood radar.

In "Dogtown," Trevor St. John plays Philip, a young actor who returns to his Cuba, Missouri, hometown after flopping in Hollywood and becomes a minor celebrity -- as Hickenlooper did in St. Louis after "Hearts of Darkness." Philip's high-school friends have led lives as cockeyed as his, among them a hairdresser played by Mary Stuart Masterson, on whom he always had a crush; "Swingers"' Jon Favreau as Masterson's troubled boyfriend; and Rory Cochran as Favreau's equally messed-up co-worker.

Hickenlooper's work has a ruefulness, an appreciation for sorrow unusual for a contemporary young director. He dares the audience to appreciate the melancholy and disappointment in his characters' lives. "As long as I'm fortunate enough to continue to have my films financed I'm perfectly happy to continue making films at this level," Hickenlooper says. "I'm making the kind of films that I want to make. Of course, it would always be nice to deal with slightly larger budgets. If that happens, great. If not, that's fine, too."

Like Bogdanovich, the subject of his first film, "Picture This," a documentary about the making of "Texasville," Hickenlooper bows to an earlier generation of filmmaking. Where Bogdanovich drew on the studio product of the forties and fifties he grew up watching, Hickenlooper harks back to the late sixties and early seventies American renaissance. "My father would drive me to movies then. I saw `Wild Bunch,' which was pretty brutal for someone six or seven years old. `Last Picture Show.' `2001' was the first movie I saw on first release."

Although still a relatively unknown quantity, Hickenlooper sets his sights high: "It's those films that I aspire to, like John Schlesinger's `Midnight Cowboy,' Robert Altman's `Nashville.' Those films are true American classics. There's no filmmaker coming close to that level of cinema today. There's a lot of bad independent filmmaking [in which] the characters are contrived or the movie has some gimmick or hook that somehow is seen as an esthetic merit. A lot of movies that are ideologically and politically correct which are considered artistic triumphs, in reality are cinematic gimmicks."

What's best about working on a modest level, outside of those constraints? "Orson Welles said something like, the virtue of cinema lies in the strength of its limitations. On `Othello,' he had no money and felt he did his best work. On `Dogtown,' we had the luxury of two weeks of rehearsal. But we had to shoot quickly. When you have a lot of money, the brain tends to atrophy and a lot of larger movies seem to become self-indulgent because there's no strong point of view. When you have limited money? You have to have a strong point of view."


Wings of the Dove

While Helena Bonham Carter came to attention as a face seemingly transported from another century in movies such as "Room with a View," her flashing eyes and quick smile make her modern roles, such as in "Mighty Aphrodite" or "Portraits Chinois," equally convincing and unexpected treats.

In the film adaptation of Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove," the 32-year-old actress is given her largest role yet, and she manages to pull off a particular coup: seeming utterly modern in a plush, moody period piece set early in the century. Making the rounds at the Toronto Film Festival, Bonham Carter's hair is short and spiky, and she's come in for no small amount of grief from writers who don't appreciate the look. (The same journos seem much more impressed by an explicit, emotionally devastating nude scene late in the movie than by the actress in the flesh.)

When asked if she's read James' cross-class dissection of English society, the chain-smoking actress reveals her secret to working in adaptations: "To be absolutely frank, I didn't really read it. I did sort of labor through about two-thirds of it and then I realized that the eyes were going across the page but not much was going on besides. During the week of rehearsal, we were all avoiding the subject of the book and then we realized that none of us read it! I got as much as I could from the book, but it is a very free adaptation. Thank God! We had a great script and that's what we were making, not the book."


Bad Manners

Jonathan Kaufer was a prolific comedy prodigy just out of college, and in 1982, after rewriting "The Main Event" for Barbra Streisand, he was hired to write and direct a comedy, "Soup for One," that made him, at 24, the youngest director hired by a major studio at that time. In the years since, a generation of younger directors have made their splash, and Kaufer's resume is spotted with jobs ranging from acting in Henry Jaglom movies to directing episodes of HBO's "Dream On." In the years between his two features, Kaufer wrote a number of romantic comedies he would have been happy to direct. "But the studios kept folding when I turned in my scripts!" he says, laughing.

His unlikely return as a director, the smart and pungent drama "Bad Manners," is based on David Gilman's play, "Ghost in the Machine," which premiered at Steppenwolf in 1993. While there are contrivances and parallels that still reek of the stage, "Bad Manners," as directed by Kaufer and wittily acted by a quartet of terrific actors -- David Straitharn, Bonnie Bedelia, Saul Rubinek and Caroleen Feeney -- is a marvelous satire of academia, as well as a thoughtful exploration of the layers of deception and self-deception in any social transaction.

Four academics working through private intrigues and sexual tension and monstrous accusations? Did someone say "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Kaufer and Gilman's collaboration is marked by a level of compassion few would give Albee credit for. And with its delicate, suggestive visual style, brisk editing and performances that deepen as the story -- and dramatic heat -- proceeds, "Bad Manners" is the kind of intelligent, nuanced moviemaking that wrings the most out of what could have been deadly material. A terrific surprise.



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Copyright 1997 New City Communications, Inc.