The Chicago International Film Festival is a wealth of great and, if not so great, at least very intriguing, filmmaking from all over the world. I’m not through using my CIFF tickets this year, but here are two terrific films I wanted to tell you about.
Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 119 minutes
I saw Birdman Saturday night, the only night it was shown at the festival. This is sort of a preliminary review of Birdman because I’m still thinking about this very creative piece of filmmaking. Is it the film of the year? Maybe. It’s an hypnotic film, partly because of the amazing cinematography. It’s also the most wildly creative film I’ve seen in a long time. Joyous, high energy, madly manic … and sad.
I loved all the long tracking shots following actors down the backstage corridors of old theaters, mainly the St. James Theatre on 44th Street. Actually, it was probably the backstage theater nature of this film that made me like it so much. The street scenes in the theater district and from the theater roof were fabulous. In one scene, the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, where I stayed last year, makes a cameo.
The performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are gnarly, gritty and masterful. (Norton’s performance made me go back and watch Fight Club again. A great film, but not a fun film. It’s one that gives you a lot to chew on.) There’s been some criticism about Birdman’s plot and about Keaton’s character, the unravelling actor whose success is in the past. But there is substance to the film in Riggan’s angst about his career and his life and how he approaches regenerating both. I don’t agree with David Edelstein that this is an “empty masterpiece” or “a triumph of vacuous virtuosity.” Most critics gave it high praise. But okay, we can say it’s not Hamlet. I do want to see it again soon. The film opens Thursday the 23rd.
Algren, directed by Michael Caplan, 87 minutes
This excellent documentary about icon of the Chicago literary underworld Nelson Algren was directed by Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan. It’s a fine film with interviews with many interesting artists and journalists he inspired. Ernest Hemingway, an Algren admirer, said he was second only to William Faulkner as a literary giant. The film comes alive with a treasure trove of black and white photos by Art Shay, the great Chicago freelance photographer who shot for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and many other national magazines. Shay and Algren met in 1949 and collaborated on many projects over rhe years. Shay took photos of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist writer who became Algren’s lover and spent time with him in his Wabansia Avenue apartment (when she wasn’t in Paris with Jean Paul Sartre). Among other things, we learn that Nelson and Simone “fucked in Stuart Brent’s bookstore.”
The fascinating interviews in Caplan’s film include Studs Terkel, musicians Billy Corgan and Wayne Kramer, filmmakers John Sayles, Wiliam Friedkin and Philip Kauffman, Northwestern professor Bill Savage, journalist Rick Kogan and photographer Shay.
Algren wrote Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Neon Wilderness and the marvelously poetic book of essays, Chicago: City on the Make. Algren never gained the reputation that his writing deserved because he wrote about bums, drunks, junkies and prostitutes–the denizens of the neighborhood he loved centered around Damen and Division streets in the mid-20th century. (I’m glad Algren isn’t around to see what that neighborhood is like now.)
The film features music and music direction by Wayne Kramer of the Detroit rock group MC5 and a closing song to “Chicago” by Billy Corgan. Check out the trailer for the film. It surely will show up at the Gene Siskel Film Center or the Music Box.