Scaled-back Chicago International Film Festival still has plenty to offer

by Mark Caro

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

8 October 2009


CHICAGO — The Chicago International Film Festival is not immune to the spate of “glass half full or empty” thinking going on in the movie world.

Just as the overall box office figures are booming while financiers and some independent distributors struggle, the 45th edition of the city’s predominant film festival is weighing various pluses and minuses.

For instance, the festival kicks off Thursday with a tribute to Uma Thurman and her new film, “Motherhood,” not at the Chicago Theatre, which hosted these opening-night galas for years, or the Harris Theater, which hosted it last year, but rather the decidedly less glitzy AMC River East megaplex.

That, festival founder/artistic director Michael Kutza said, is a good thing because the Chicago Theatre would have cost $50,000 for one screening, the more reasonable Harris had a scheduling conflict and the festival is being mindful of the bottom line.

“We’re eliminating any red in our budget,” he said of the ever-challenged festival. “We’re balancing it out this year.”

Besides, he noted, the star-studded “Public Enemies” and “Oceans Thirteen” red-carpet premieres took place at River East, and what’s good enough for Johnny Depp and George Clooney ...

In fact, this year’s entire festival will be held in six to eight River East auditoriums rather than being split with the 600 N. Michigan theaters (as it was last year) or spread among previously used locations on the North Side (the Music Box, Landmark Century Centre Cinema) or South Side (University of Chicago). One could argue that the generic River East offers little in the way of a festival vibe, but its screens are superior to those at 600 N. Michigan, and there’s something to be said for going from film to film without hopping a cab.

Kutza said surveys have indicated that patrons want the festival housed under one roof, and, again, this move helps the budget because multiple locations won’t have to be staffed. “Going to one place, we can streamline everything,” he said.

Included in this streamlining effort are the films themselves. Last year’s festival offered more than 130 features. This year the number is down to 103 (91 dramas and 12 documentaries), even though the festival will last one additional day. It closes Oct. 22 with “The Young Victoria,” starring Emily Blunt as the British monarch.

“We were hearing that people wanted fewer choices and for us to scale it back to just the most exceptional films that we could show,” programming head Mimi Plauche said.

Those films represent more than 45 countries, so the festival continues to live up to its “international” billing. But a common feeling among those familiar with the international festival circuit is that this year’s slate is relatively low wattage.

Last year’s fest included “Slumdog Millionaire” (with director Danny Boyle), “The Wrestler” (with director Darren Aronofsky), “Happy-Go-Lucky” (with director Mike Leigh), opening-night film “The Brothers Bloom” (with star Rachel Weisz and director Rian Johnson) and closing-night film “Good” (with stars Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs). Aside from the Thurman tribute, this year’s biggest names are the Sundance/ Toronto festival favorites “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” (with a tribute to director Lee Daniels) and “An Education” (with director Lone Scherfig); Willem Dafoe attending a screening of Lars von Trier’s controversial “Antichrist”; Martin Landau attending screenings of “Lovely, Still” (a movie without U.S. distribution) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”; and Ben Foster and director Oren Moverman appearing with “The Messenger.”

Kutza said French actress Isabelle Huppert also had been scheduled to appear along with Claire Denis’ “White Material,” but “then she committed to another project.”

Also, fewer films from the larger specialty distributors are playing, which in part reflects these companies’ reduced slates. Still, Sony Pictures Classics co-chairman Tom Bernard said he would have been happy for the festival to play more than just “An Education”; his company has films such as Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (which won this year’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or), Pedro Almodovar’s “Broken Embraces” and Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” playing other festivals.

“I don’t think they were very aggressive in going after the product,” Bernard said. “Chicago wasn’t banging on our door a lot, and also they have such a long-lead deadline that there are a lot of movies we have (that) probably would have gotten in there if they’d knocked on the door at the last minute.”

Plauche said she talked with Sony Pictures Classics about “several of their titles,” but the logistics just didn’t work out; for instance, “Broken Embraces” is closing the New York Film Festival while the Chicago fest is running.

More to the point, she and Kutza said they hope audiences will discover lesser-known films they might otherwise never have a chance to see. Kutza singled out his favorite of this year’s entries, “Hipsters,” a Russian musical about rebellious comrades who discover rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.

In a sense, festivals are thought to be in a relatively strong position now because, as Bernard said, distributors otherwise have increased difficulty getting the word out on their films, and, as Gene Siskel Film Center programming director Barbara Scharres said, the current box office boom “seems to be affecting not only the multiplexes but also the independent venues and festivals.”

To Kutza it’s a matter of offering an experience you can’t get elsewhere. “To me filmgoing is not DVDs, and it’s not Netflix,” he said. “I still believe in action on the giant screen and having the cinematic experience with the directors there.”

Still ... is “Motherhood” truly a festival film?

“Oh, but it is,” Kutza said. “It’s the story of my life. It’s exactly like putting this festival together. When you see it, just think of me in her shoes.”

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