The Chicago International Film Festival has started, and with more than 100 movies in the lineup, admit it: you're lost. Don't fret; we've got the flicks you can't miss--and the movies you wouldn't wish on your worst enemies. Plus, check metromix.com for daily reviews, showtimes and fest updates.
****: Go now!
***: Count me in
**: Could be worse
*: But not by much
Bee Season (U.S.)
Catch it: An ambitious miscalculation of spelling andspirituality, "Bee Season" combines a daughter's (Flora Cross) rise to thenational spelling bee with her family's (Richard Gere,Juliette Binoche, Max Minghella) search for a higher truth.The actors blend nicely into a family and the film begsconversation, but its attempts to capture a sense of ambiguousmysticism never jell.
Skip it if: You'll be bothered by people around youspelling out words in the bee. Because they will.
Bottom line: Twinkly and tender, "Bee Season" does a lot ofemotional buzzing without much of a sting.
Bonus: The sense of pride you'll feel if you can spell some ofthe words that these 11-year-olds can. Cotyledon? Come on!
The Squid and the Whale (U.S.)
Skip it: If Wes Anderson stayed up all night watching "The Ice Storm," he might end up making a movie like "The Squid and the Whale," Noah Baumbach's (co-writer of Anderson's "The Life Aquatic") semi-autobiographical drama of family disintegration. Striving for a mixture of ironic humor and naked emotion, Baumbach's short, simplistic story doesn't break much new ground in terms of parental misconduct oradolescent sexual confusion.
Catch it if: You're fascinated by family. The cast of Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline nails the push-and-pull dynamics of dysfunction.
Bottom line: A whale of an overrated, derivative disappointment, with extra points off for typecasting Anna Paquin into her "25th Hour" role of seductive student.
Bonus: William Baldwin, a breezy delight as a laughable, studly tennis pro.
The Weather Man (U.S.)
Skip it: Dave Spritz (Nicolas Cage) is separated from his wife (a terrific Hope Davis), unappreciated by his father (Michael Caine), and finds little pride in his job as a highly-paid Chicago weather man. But his pursuit of professional success and personal satisfaction can't decide if it wants to be a black comedy, a moody drama, or a time-to-get-my-life-in-order, "American Beauty"-style story of self-empowerment.
Catch it if: You want to count how many Chicago locations you can spot. There are tons of downtown and suburban locales you can't miss.
Bottom line: A messy midlife crisis drama as unsure of itself as a weather forecast, with an incredibly heavy-handed voiceover from Cage, who sounds like he just woke up.
Bonus: The eerie experience of hearing Caine say "dildo" and "cameltoe."
Skip it: Based on his book of the same name, Steve Martin's script for "Shopgirl" sounds like every line was written for him, reminiscent of Woody Allen. Unfortunately, a solid cast of Martin, Claire Danes and Jason Schwartzman does little for shallow characters that form unconvincing relationships.
Catch it if: You think Martin is dreamy and that power plus money equals love.
Bottom line: Cutesy but never cute, syrupy but never sweet, sexual but never erotic, "Shopgirl" is the Hallmark holiday of romantic comedy: phony and artificial.
Bonus: Schwartzman in an all-white Armani--and borderline Don Johnson--suit.
North Country (U.S.)
Catch it: "Whale Rider" director Niki Caro delivers another moving tale of female empowerment, based on the real-life landmark sexual harassment suit that rocked a Minnesota mining company in 1989. A conventional studio picture expertly crafted and passionately presented, "North Country" will make you stand up and cheer.
Skip it if: You love Charlize Theron but can't stand the sightof a mullet.
Bottom line: A rugged, powerful crowd-pleaser with the heartof a warrior.
Bonus: That aroma you detect walking out of the theater isn't a dirty mine; it's the smell of a Best Picture nomination heading North.
April Snow (South Korea)
Catch it: With incredible subtlety and patience, "April Snow" explores the deepest, quietest scars of grief and betrayal. As a man and woman cope together in the wake of their spouses' car accident--which also revealed their affair--they discover the unspoken duty behind marriage and the gravity of putting someone else's well-being before your own.
Skip it if: You're looking for cinematic emotions no colder than a light drizzle.
Bottom line: A gentle, elegant meditation on pain and recovery that just might break your heart.
Bonus: An enlightening (albeit brief) exposure to Far Eastern rap.
Be With Me (Singapore)
Catch it: There's a reason they say body language can express more than words ever can. In the sublime "Be With Me", gestures and behaviors are the key to the lonely hearts that strive to connect with their unrequited loves and the world around them.
Skip it if: You're convinced you need lots of dialogue to learn about a character.
Bottom line: A heartfelt tale of sorrow and survival, perspective and perseverance.
Bonus: Discovering that, even all the way in Singapore, there are text-messaging junkies too.
Poet of the Wastes (Iran/Japan)
Skip it: In an unemployment-stricken Iran, thousands of men are thankful to land jobs as street cleaners. To spice things up, one of them (Farzin Mohades) reads a woman's letters he finds in her garbage and proceeds to send her poems and, well, creepily follow her all over town.
Catch it if: You need reassurance that a woman with only her face exposed can be seductive.
Bottom line: Though its intentions are sweet, "Poet of the Wastes" romanticizes stalking and exposes Iranian poetry--or, at least, its English translation--to be clunky and formulaic.
Bonus: Mohades is a dead-ringer for an Iranian Spike Lee (in appearance but certainly not demeanor).
The Unseen (U.S.)
Skip it: A story of racial and familial intolerance, "The Unseen" embraces Southern stereotypes without much of a challenge. The film's moral stance? Prejudice is bad.
Catch it: A dignified Steve Harris (The Practice) and a brave debut performance from celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch are the only substantial reasons to give "The Unseen" a look.
Bottom line: To be fair, this issues-driven drama tries to say and do a lot. Trouble is, it fails to deliver a powerful message of its own.
Bonus: The best line about a Southern-fried couple since "We was like peas and carrots" (from "Forrest Gump"): "Those two's like two ticks on a dog."
Addictions and Subtractions (Colombia/Spain)
Catch it: With only mild dependency on drug dealer and gangster clichés, "Addictions and Subtractions" works within a familiar genre and still packs a few surprises. Best of all, it's refreshing to see a film about hardened criminals who actually cry when mourning the dead and don't try to kill everyone that looks at them funny.
Skip it if: You're a stickler for spelling. The film's subtitles have enough typos to make it feel like an AIM conversation.
Bottom line: Essentially an entertaining, fast-paced cross between "Goodfellas" and "Boyz N the Hood." In Spanish.
Bonus: Star Juan Uribe (no, Sox fans, not that one) looks like a cross between Sean Penn and Adrian Brody.
Skip it: "CCTV" is a disorganized blob of random people in Greece, fiddling with a stolen video camera that changes hands repeatedly but never finds anyone interesting. The film makes no points about youth or society, only the challenge of fixing a broken handheld.
Catch it if: You're a shameless voyeur.
Bottom line: A cross between documentary, reality TV and home videos; it's no better than it sounds.
Bonus: Suddenly all of America's attempts at capturing "real life" on camera don't seem like such a failure.
Free Zone (Israel)
Skip it: After breaking up with her boyfriend, Natalie Portman is driven across the Middle East to nowhere in particular. It's like "Road Trip," just not funny, and not much happens.
Catch it if: You've never seen the beautiful scenery found in the region.
Bottom line: Portman spends the first nine minutes of "Free Zone" crying in a car. Literally. Nine minutes of crying. It never picks up much steam from there.
Bonus: Well, on the bright side, it's not a full hour and a half of weeping, as "Free Zone" initially threatens to be!
Skip it: "Havoc" is a sexy, stereotypical take on rich white kids in California--no, not Orange County--escaping their sheltered lives for a rougher, minority-dominated neighborhood. "Traffic" writer Steven Gaghan channels "Bully"'s Larry Clark in his look at rebellious teens (including "The Princess Diaries"' Anne Hathaway) but merely flirts with boundary busting, instead embracing teenage and ethnic cliches.
Catch it if: You sat through "Diaries" thinking, "Man, when is this girl going to get naked?"
Bottom line: "Kids" meets "Crash" meets, believe it or not, "Malibu's Most Wanted."
Bonus: Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a hysterical turn as his gang's most absurd wannabe.
Stories of Disenchantment (Mexico)
Catch it: In a wild, trippy universe that is almost absurdly unusual, this disjointed tale of young people blurring the lines between fantasy and reality will have your head spinning. It's mostly style for the sake of soaking the screen in LSD and making your eyes pop, but, for what it's worth, it works.
Skip it if: You're a devoted Merchant/Ivory fan; this flick is the exact opposite.
Bottom line: What it might look like if Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Hunter S. Thompson ever dropped acid and high-tailed it to Mexico.
Bonus: Experience crazy, mind-altering, drug-induced sex without breaking any laws.
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (U.S.A.)
Catch it: Melvin Van Peebles, with his big eyes, old-fashioned brown hat, and large, down-turned mustache that makes Tom Selleck look like John Waters, was never the image of Hollywood power. But "How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)" does a splendid job of capturing Chicago-native Van Peebles as a soft-spoken, determined revolutionary who used books, film and music to bridge the racial divide in Tinseltown.
Skip it if: You're looking for a well-balanced insight into Van Peebles' life (better to check out "Baadasssss!") "Watermelon" is more of a congratulatory tribute to the legend.
Bottom line: More of a time capsule honoring Van Peebles than a comprehensive vision of him as a person, "How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)" proudly presents the accomplishments of a thoughtful, ambitious man with words everyone can live by: "A setback is just an opportunity in work clothes."
Bonus: A presentation of Van Peebles' past as a hilarious early 20th-century newsreel and a clip of the filmmaker onstage performing "Achy Breaky Heart."
Learning to Swallow (U.S.A.)
Skip it: An astonishingly chilling and honest downer, "Learning to Swallow" is incredibly difficult to watch. Not because it isn't fascinating, but simply because the story of former Chicago scenester Patsy Desmond, a woman whose bi-polar affliction caused her to drink drain cleaner and become forever unable to eat or drink, is so disturbing.
Catch it if: You have an especially high tolerance for tragedy and medical necessities.
Bottom line: It is stunning to witness Desmond's ordeal, yet difficult to demonstrate the bi-polar disorder with words, and the film takes on a numbing sensation of harrowing torture.
Bonus: When it's over, you'll feel soothing relief on the scale of a Sierra Mist commercial.
Catch it: This story of a young man bouncing back from a big-time blunder is a scattered, glorious mess. Packed with writer/director Cameron Crowe's trademark sensitivity, the film pairs heart-tugging moments with just the right music (My Morning Jacket, Tom Petty). It's an inspiring game of narrative hopscotch, as Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom)--confronting the loss of his job and father--discovers the possible love of his life in a perky stewardess (Kirsten Dunst).
Skip it if: You've got a low tolerance for wide-eyed philosophizing.
Bottom line: A rambling tale of rediscovery, "Elizabethtown" doesn't always work. But when it fails, it plummets boldly.
Bonus: Susan Sarandon tap dancing!
Bang Bang Orangutang (Denmark)
Catch it: A tremendous downward spiral of desperation, this film looks tragedy in the eye, and responds with humor and humility. After Ake (Mikael Persbrandt) accidentally runs over his youngest child, his life crumbles, and he's forced to figure out which is more important: love given or love received.
Skip it if: You can't handle the sight of a grown man in a gorilla suit.
Bottom line: Quirky, strange and surprising, "Bang Bang Orangutang" is a cathartic revelation.
Bonus: Any hope for a sequel? If so, we propose "Clobber Clobber Sea Otter."
I Am A Sex Addict (U.S.A.)
Skip it: Like the prostitutes that anchor the plot, this movie looks dirt-cheap.
Catch it: Caveh Zahedi's candid, honest self-portrayal as a man addicted to receiving oral sex from hookers is no breezy romp in the sack. It's a funny, sincere portrait of instinct overpowering responsibility, and Zahedi as director (he's not much of an actor) captures his long journey towards monogamy with brutal truth and a clever sense of humor.
Bottom line: A bit self-indulgent, but this good-natured, recovering horndog has a story worth telling.
Bonus: Several moments in which art imitates life imitating art, such as when Zahedi reveals the actress playing his girlfriend with a drinking problem really had a drinking problem.
The Puffy Chair (U.S.A.)
Catch it: The story of a guy, his girlfriend and his brother who take a road trip to pick up a chair purchased on Ebay, this film emerges as a genuine portrayal of love and family. There's a cozy familiarity in seeing regular people doing regular things, without succumbing to slapstick comedy or obnoxious shenanigans.
Skip it if: You're so fed up with gas prices that a film about people on a road trip just rubs salt in the wound.
Bottom line: Thanks to top-notch performances, "The Puffy Chair" is an understated gem.
Bonus: A stellar indie rock soundtrack featuring Spoon, Death Cab for Cutie, Of Montreal and more.
Unknown White Male (U.K.)
Catch it: If "Eternal Sunshine" left you searching for another peek at memory, look no further. This video diary tells the story of a 35-year-old who's lost all recollections of his life.
Skip it if: You can't even remember what you had for breakfast and don't see what the fuss is all about.
Bottom line: A thought-provoking documentary that doubles as a medical suspense thriller.
Bonus: A stirring vision of a man in his 30s seeing the world through the eyes of a child (something we could all use from time to time).
FIVE TO FORGET:
Skip it: A film about love and death that never really feels alive, "Constellation" attempts to examine the complexity of interracial--and, well, all--relationships. Unfortunately, most of the time is spent weeping over the death of a woman (Gabrielle Union) who we never get to know.
Catch it if: A score of big, sweeping strings puts a tear in your eye in spite of a snail's-pace plot.
Bottom line: Like an incredibly disappointing shooting star, "Constellation" burns out before it even gets going.
Bonus: Union's overly-explanatory voiceover will be a hit for anyone who loves books on tape.
Kissing on the Mouth (U.S.A.)
Skip it: Like a class project for exhibitionists, "Kissing on the Mouth" is a graphically sexual, bare-bones tale of post-graduates sitting around, talking and screwing. It is brave enough to use nakedness to draw viewers into the film's own questioning of intimacy but merely hovers on the surface of underdeveloped relationships.
Catch it if: Skin-emax movies have too much of a nailed-down plot for you.
Bottom line: Provocative only if you've never been kissed, acceptable only if you've got a thing for pubic hair.
Bonus: A highly recommended way to feel better about your own knowledge of love and sex.
Mutual Appreciation (U.S.A.)
Skip it: Taking minimalism to the point of mundane observation, "Mutual Appreciation" thinks the everyday events of its slacker characters are full of meaning. In reality, the characters are full of inaction and incoherence, with strained jokes treated as clever, ironic humor.
Catch it: The film attempts a strong commitment to music, and, for what it's worth, Alan (Justin Rice) turns out to be a half-decent performer.
Bottom line: Not particularly funny or compelling, the generally irritating "Mutual Appreciation" is just plain dull.
Bonus: Because the film is shot in black-and-white, you won't have to gag as hard on the scene of Alan drunkenly agreeing to wear eye shadow.
Skip it: Yes, Brian Jones was a founding member of the Rolling Stones, and, yes, he did dabble with Mary Jane, but the cleverness to "Stoned" dries up there. Neither a biography of Jones nor an investigation into his murder, this poorly edited film simply paints a broad picture of an eccentric, slovenly addict, not a mad genius and fallen talent too messed up to write music. Presented as little more than a hedonistic burnout, Jones appears to have no more gripping of a history than any other rock and roll cautionary tale.
Catch it: Stellar tunes of old-fashioned modern rock from The White Stripes, The Bees and more.
Bottom line: For much of "Stoned", Jones' underlings agonize over how to control their unfocused, wandering subject; in the end, their problem is the same affliction that plagues director Stephen Woolley: the assumption that anyone cares.
Bonus: If you're trying to convince your friends the Rolling Stones are boring, well, here's your proof.
The Trouble with Dee Dee (U.S.A.)
Skip it: If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a loudmouth, abrasive moron--but with good intentions, of course--"The Trouble with Dee Dee" wants you to know it's tough to be a kind-hearted dimwit. An outspoken single mother with a huge personality, Dee Dee Rutherford (Lisa Ann Walter) disobeys her frustrated father (Kurtwood Smith of "That '70s Show") and does little to help her son (an unrecognizable Mason Gamble of "Rushmore" and "Dennis the Menace"). And even less to inject any life into this painfully boring slog through the unsympathetic muck.
Catch it if: You want to see a grown-up Gamble, now a dead-on look-alike for Chicago's Rock Star: INXS runner-up Marty Casey.
Bottom line: Well-filmed and poorly acted, "The Trouble with Dee Dee" is an annoying story of a woman who deserves to be shunned.
Bonus: Suddenly, everyone in your life is a lot easier to tolerate.
Matt Pais is the metromix intern. firstname.lastname@example.org Originally published October 5, 2005.