Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Attention Should Be Paid: Adam McKay on the Origins of “The Big Short”

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By Ray Pride

Reviewing Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” one of 2015’s best, I called it a “bristling, bustling farce-cum-polemic,” we got a chance to talk about it a few days later while McKay was showing the film to local friends and relatives in the city where he got his comedy start. Under the handle “GhostPanther,” McKay has been a provocative Twitter user, mixing absurd observation, political umbrage and “just a little NBA,” he adds.

Your approach, the tonal riot that you’re tempting in most of your movies, and especially now in “The Big Short,” is a barrage—it’s like Twitter or the flood of other contemporary social media. But mediated. The film takes on the form avidly of the river of information that a viewer can’t necessarily interpret and can become bewildered by.
Yeah, sure. What I wanted this movie to have was, there’s been all kinds of Wall Street movies that have that kind of perfect suits, marble walls, stationary kind of look, and these guys, the heart of our story is, these guys are not like that: they’re loud, they’re anxious, they don’t make eye contact, bad clothes, bad haircuts. So I really wanted the movie to have that feeling that they had when they went on this horrible roller coaster ride. Which is why I got [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd. So you get that energetic, anxious feeling. We wanted to infuse the movie with the kind of twenty-four-hour pop-culture noise, with the Ludacris videos, the clips from movies and the news, that’s really where the [celebrity “experts”] explaining [complicated financial maneuvers] came from, too. We wanted to use pop icons as part of that constant Kardashian haze that we’re all in. What would happen if they actually told you worthwhile things? You’re right, there is a Twitter flow to it, but also I was very happy when we started screening the movie, people were understanding the progression of the financial schemes. That bewildering wall of information could lose a lot of people. But so far we’ve been getting good reactions. People seem to get the backbone.

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Review: Almost There

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I’ve seen “Almost There,” Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky’s splendid, elusive minor miracle of northwest Indiana nonfiction a few times, and I’m still not sure why it’s so powerful. That it’s specific yet elusive, its dense range of fear and hope? There’s much to consider about outsider art, loneliness, mental illness and brightly colored graphomania in its innerworldly portrait of now-eighty-three-year-old Peter Anton, an elderly artist living in squalor in the wet, fetid basement of his parents’ house, moldering atop his art-stuffed living-dying quarters. As I wrote in January when it debuted at Siskel (its theatrical run begins now): “There’s a delicate and beautiful dance in ‘Almost There,’ a seven-years-in-the-making engagement with an elderly Northwest Indiana outsider artist, Peter Anton (whose work was shown at Chicago’s Intuit Gallery in 2010). The movie transforms before our eyes, as it did for the filmmakers. One of the most luminous, evocative choices made was to incorporate images not only of Anton amid his art inside his moldering dump, but of the surrounding landscape, often industrial, at all hours of day and night (captured by photographer David Schalliol). But primarily, it’s a dance between a willful subject and filmmakers who intend not to stray too close but ultimately can’t help themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

By Any Meanings Necessary: The Bristling Burlesque of Spike Lee’s Confounding “Chiraq”

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By Ray Pride

“Chi-raq” is a bad movie, or more accurately, several bad movies at pitched battle with one another. It is as consummate a curiosity as could be made today with the finance of a beneficent billionaire set to make a name for himself in a new field. (As in Jeff Bezos and the “Amazon Studios” label.) Spike Lee’s state-of-the-union address has ambition to burn, and it burns it to the ground.

“I don’t live in no fuckin’ Chicago” is part of the extended pre-credits scene of red letter-lyrics on a black background, and “Chi-raq” doesn’t. Despite being shot on Englewood locations, the sense of setting is otherworldly and non-site-specific, and could have been located in any American city with violence that bursts from simmer to carnage in a soon-stilled heartbeat. (Lee has cited “Killadelphia” as a nickname for Philadelphia and “BodyMore, Murderland” for Baltimore, for instance.)

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Review: Takin’ Place

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South Side camera-eye Cyrus Dowlatshahi trains his traveled gaze on the Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods in the documentary “Takin’ Place.” Along the streets, on sidewalks, backyards, in homes and in cars, Dowlatshahi listens with a sensitive ear and watches with a highly talented post-vérité gaze. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Cool Apocalypse

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Shot in a forgiving high-contrast black-and-white, Michael Glover Smith’s day-in-the-Chicago-life romance has the flick-of-the-wrist directness of city locations—streets and storefronts, recognizable sorts of apartments and back porches, the El and bookstores, Formica-table cafes—but also hopeful investment in conversational cul-de-sacs, the kind of “tension-filled banter” of classical local improv. Nineteenth-century literature does battle with distracted females; a bookstore clerk who brags on not having a computer plots contemporary writing. I’ve seen worse arguments and overheard even worse, and I’d hardly like to be stuck in a room or around a dinner table with any of the quartet of protagonists, but they’d probably say the same about bickering I’ve been a part of. There’s truth in the underbrush. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 70 Acres in Chicago: Cabrini Green

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“Chicago’s most hotly contested seventy acres of land” is the apt description of the central area of the city covered by Ronit Bezalel’s documentary, “70 Acres In Chicago: Cabrini Green.” Bezalel’s 1999 short, “Voices of Cabrini,” was her introduction to her subject, and the feature encompasses two decades in its heated history. Read the rest of this entry »

Lost In White Space: A Conversation with Chicago Filmmaker Patrick Thomas Underwood, Upon the Occasion of His Debut World Premiere

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By Brian Hieggelke

I met Chicago filmmaker Patrick Thomas Underwood in the spring of 2014, shortly after he’d wrapped production on his first feature, which he’d shot nearby in Michigan. I remember being struck by the middle period of his “education,” when, after graduating from the University of Chicago in cinema and media studies, he’d headed off to Venice, Italy, for eight years of operatic training before returning to the U.S. to pursue film, gaining an MFA from the American Film Institute. That first feature, “The Middle Distance,” is one of only two American films in the New Directors Competition at Chicago International Film Festival and the only Chicago entry. It’s a work showing a patience and maturity beyond its writer-director’s experience and has nothing to do with Italy or opera. Instead, it concerns the universal coming-of-middle-age ritual of dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a parent. Neil, an L.A. consultant-douchebag, returns to New Buffalo, Michigan, to join the younger brother who never left, James, and James’ fiancée Rebecca in finishing up the disposal of their father’s cottage. I checked in with Underwood via email to ask a few questions.

The themes in the film are drawn from life experiences that almost everyone experiences: the death of a parent, sibling relationships and the pain and pleasure of “going home.” How much of this film is drawn from autobiographical elements?
My family had a summer home in Grand Beach, which is just outside of New Buffalo. I grew up spending nearly every summer weekend there. That’s the biggest overtly autobiographical element (aside from some of Neil’s less savory habits, but we can save that discussion for another time). My only sibling is a younger sister, and I’m pleased to say that my father is alive and well.

I suppose the film is more spiritually autobiographical than anything. I’ve always had a powerful sense of nostalgia, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that my experience of it has changed. I don’t yearn for a particular time or person or place. I long for a feeling—one which, over the years, I have slowly lost the ability to feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Film Leaders of the Moment: Forager Film’s Joe Swanberg, Eddie Linker and Peter Gilbert

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Joe Swanberg and Eddie Linker (Peter Gilbert was out of town)/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Joe Swanberg and Eddie Linker (Peter Gilbert was out of town)/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

By Ray Pride

In less than a year-and-a-half, Forager Film, with filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Peter Gilbert and trader Eddie Linker as partners, has produced six feature films, with four of them—Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” and “Digging for Fire,” his wife Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth”—already in distribution. As we scheduled our meeting for a sunny afternoon last week, Swanberg joked about their lack of offices or any other amenity producers sometimes lavish on themselves. Swanberg, Linker and I got coffee, pulled up three stumps under a tree on a Ravenswood side street, with the intermittent hum of low-flying planes overhead and the rumble of Metra trains across the street. Truly, a no-budget business meeting.

What does the company name mean?
Swanberg: I consider us like a hunter-gatherer company in the sense that we don’t have any sort of mission, we’re just on the lookout for good movies. Foraging through the excess of stuff around projects looking for money, and unlike a lot of financiers of independent film, we’re not waiting for projects to come in. We’re actively seeking out the filmmakers we want to work with and pitch them a type of model. So, Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” came about that way. Alex was coming off what I consider the best film to have been made that year, “Listen Up Philip,” which had a tremendous struggle securing distribution and then even in its release had a lot of trouble finding an audience. I was baffled by that, but one thing I knew for sure is that guy ought to get back to work right away rather than sit around in the wake of a bizarre success-slash-failure. I also felt with that film that Elisabeth Moss had not… she’s really good in it, but she hadn’t been fully utilized. So I encouraged Alex in a similar way to how I’d worked with Anna Kendrick. She came in in a supporting role in “Drinking Buddies,” then we developed a project especially for her to be in the lead. I said to Alex, ‘You know, you have this relationship with this amazing actress who came in in the utility role in this film, why don’t you investigate with her a part where she would be able to fully shine. You guys have built that trust, go for it, dig deeper.’ Similar to the way where “Happy Christmas” came together, I talked to her first and then we built that thing. Alex followed that up with Elisabeth, born out of ideas that were swirling in his head, but with Elisabeth as a collaborator the entire time. Read the rest of this entry »

In the Ring: Newcity is ready to make its “Signature Move”

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Photo: Alessandra Giordano

Photo: Alessandra Giordano

By Brian Hieggelke

Now that we’ve finally chosen the movie we’ll produce for our thirtieth anniversary next year—it’s called “Signature Move”—I understand why most indie filmmakers write their own material. The road to great screenplays is paved with loose gravel. And when you find it, rights holders, agents and lawyers can grind that rocky road to quicksand. (Most of the metaphors you’ll read are even worse than this.)

I guess I thought finding the project would be the easy part. Since announcing this project in February 2014, I’ve reviewed more than sixty screenplays or other properties (novels for adaptation, plays, short stories, etc.). I’ve discussed projects over lunches, coffees and beers dozens and dozens of times. I’ve been on the verge of locking down not one, but two high-profile films, neither of which would have quite fulfilled this project’s mandate but would have been, respectively, great launch undertakings (a short film) or a great second film (a work by a legendary Chicago novelist) only to see both fall apart—though all principal terms had been agreed upon—when the rightsholders ultimately did not pull the trigger. I was not expecting inertia to be such an obstacle, one that proves not only frustrating but costly once the legal fees come into play.

I was somewhere in various states of stalemate a year ago during our Film 50 photo shoot, when I met one of the figures on the list, Eugene Sun Park. Park asked me if I was still looking at submissions, and I said I was. He said he might have something, and that was that. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 99 Homes

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Michael Shannon simmers at a lower temperature than many of his film roles in “99 Homes,” Ramin Bahrani’s punchy, persuasive combination of fierce polemic and widescreen genre filmmaking. Shannon plays the appositely named Rick Carver, a reprobate realtor flipping homes in Florida, with Andrew Garfield a single father who slides into his infernal orbit after archetypal modern financial setbacks, facilitating forced evictions of other families. Bahrani, a favorite of the late Roger Ebert and friend of Werner Herzog, makes bold moves here from his neo-neorealist origins in movies like “Man Push Cart” and “Goodbye Solo.” I’m predisposed to movies that mesh topical elements with classical movie form—not all of the “one percent” might own ninety-nine homes, only enough not to count, like John McCain—and Bahrani meets the challenge to oft-fiery result, making blunt political points amid genre-amped melodrama. Read the rest of this entry »