Family is always important, and it's provided the backbone for many movies at this year's Chicago International Film Festival. Some are great, others not so much. Here are three takes on films about the ones who will always be in your life.
There are so many ways to tell a story about drama in the family: many of the films at this year's Chicago International Film Festival do just that, to varying degrees of success. Some, like Polish Bar, stutter and fall flat, while A Screaming Man and All That I Love manage to show something of substance.
Polish Bar (Ben Berkowitz, 2010)
It may be a 96-minute film, but Polish Bar feels like its days long. The story of a 20-something Jewish kid (Vincent Piazza as Reuben) from an upstanding Chicago-area family who wants to be a DJ is, for the most part, an emotionally stilted and rambling picture.
Watching Polish Bar is kind of like reading the footnotes of a David Foster Wallace novel without bothering with the rest of the book, and then expecting to understand the entire narrative from little clips and phrases that are given far too much focus. Side characters drop in and out of focus without much rhyme or reason, and a large majority of the film is spent following Reuben kvetch about his DJ ambitions as he gets wrapped up in selling drugs despite making a living working at his uncle's jewelry shop.
Reuben's actions don't make a lot of sense, and director and co-writer Berkowitz barely lets the audience get the feel for the character, besides the obvious plot point that Reuben cares more about hip-hop than Hebrew. Berkowitz spends more time questioning his character's motivations, often through the guise of others:
"What, did you read a shit load of Malcolm X when you were little, and you woke up one morning and decided you just didn't want to be white?" One character asks Reuben.
Unfortunately, nothing close to an understandable reason is given. Instead, the film plods along until Reuben's actions catch up with him. The film's last 20 minutes show some strength, thanks to the superb acting by those drafted to play Reuben's family. Unfortunately, the strength of these final fleeting performances feel like a bit of a footnote.
A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2010)
A Screaming Man is a brooding film: it's both subtle and slow. Adam, a former swimming champion, works as a pool attendant with his son in modern Chad. Civil War is creeping in on Adam's quite, content life, but it's not nearly as bad as the turmoil Adam is dealing with at work and at home. The hotel he works for is shedding jobs left and right, and Adam's spot as pool attendant is cut, while his son becomes the sole person working in the pool.
"The pool is my life," Adam protests as he's informed that he will be the hotel's new gatekeeper.
What follows is a difficult tale about the things people do to hold onto the things they know best, the things they cherish, despite -- or because of -- the world crashing around them. It's difficult not just because the pain and anguish in Adam's life is tough to stomach, but because the film's momentum comes to a grinding halt halfway through the film.
Despite its awkward pacing, A Screaming Man is an affecting movie. Perhaps the film's speed is best left the way it is because there may be no other way to get inside Adam's mind during the calm before the storm of war gathering just outside of town. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun lets viewers get a feel for the simple joys of life in a time of national strife, as well as the agony that comes when one's loves come into conflict.
All That I Love (Jacek Borcuch, 2010)
Combining punk rock and repressive Communist regimes makes for an interesting, if not overly simplified, view of the end of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe. Tom Stoppard did it with his 2006 play, Rock 'n' Roll, a lengthy, cerebral account of relationships, rock music and Soviet rule in the former Czechoslovakia.
A tad bit shorter (95 minutes) and in a different part of Eastern Europe (Poland), Jacek Borcuch's All That I Love focuses more on the emotional impact of living under Communist rule than the political and philosophical realities of the time. Borcuch's narrative focus -- a teenager named Janek who sings in a punk band -- works well for the film's flow. Like the politically focused punk music of the early '80s which Janek's band plays, All That I Love cuts to the chase, discusses politics in a fairly ambiguous and simplified manner, and spends more time creating a visceral response. Which, more or less, works well.
Yet, All That I Love is less of an enlightening look at the changing face of government in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, and more of a cute coming of age film. Janek, a charismatic and talented teenager who happens to make raucous music with references to bringing down "the man," is a little less rebellious than his lyrics would imply. With a naval officer father, Janek's a mostly agreeable kid, that is, unless it gets in the way of his music or upsets his family. Or his new girlfriend.
All That I Love juggles a few too many sub-plots that sidetrack the film from time to time. Perhaps that's because, despite free speech ramifications that affect Janek's ability to play music that curiously only appear towards the film's end, there aren't many stakes at hand, and they don't seem that high. Even the political unrest that gets pushed to the corners of the movie don't create much tension, a death sentence for any other film about Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Fortunately, All That I Love isn't just any other movie about that time and place: writer and director Borcuch makes it all work, provoking some emotional performances and producing a visually appealing film that, while perhaps not groundbreaking, is certainly entertaining.