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A Capacity for Surprise: Chicago International Film Festival at Fifty with Founder Michael Kutza

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Michael Kutza by Emily Oscarson copy

Michael Kutza/Photo: Emily Oscarson

By Ray Pride

Michael Kutza could be the longest-serving head of a film festival—anywhere on earth?—but it isn’t a topic he’d ever dwell on.

One warm September afternoon in an empty boardroom in the festival’s Loop offices, the Wabash Avenue El rackets directly below and street music rises up the eight floors like the soundtrack of the opening scene of “The Conversation.” Kutza says offhandedly, “He knows five songs,” including the Flintstones theme song. “Then someone gives him a couple of bucks and he starts the cycle again. He has one seasonal one for Christmas.” He pauses meaningfully. “At three o’clock, the saxophone player arrives.”

The founder and artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival knows a thing or two about arrivals and departures. For forty-five minutes, we dished about personalities, considered whether film festivals have changed across the decades, and what fifty years in the biz means to him. Read the rest of this entry »

Notable Appearances and Master Classes: A Preview of the Chicago International Film Festival

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“Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”

By Ray Pride

Along with a hundred-plus features and shorts from around the world, the fiftieth edition of the Chicago International Film Festival includes notable appearances and master classes, including Michael Moore presenting his restored version of “Roger & Me,” a film that was nearly lost; producer-turned-online distributor Ted Hope talking about his memoir-manifesto, “Hope For Film,” and Oliver Stone, with a director’s cut of “Natural Born Killers” and “Alexander: Ultimate Edition,” a fourth version of his 2004 epic, reportedly with a warm handful of homoerotic content restored to its 207-minute duration. An Isabelle Huppert tribute will trail four features, including Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” and Claire Denis’ “White Material,” both shown in 35mm. Kathleen Turner will tell her truth, and eighty-one-year-old Hollywood Renaissance bright light Bob Rafelson will show his 1990 exploration epic “Mountains of the Moon” before presenting a master class to Columbia students, a rapscallion of a raconteur when I heard him speak a few years ago.

Notable locals include the world premiere of Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan’s long-in-the-works “Algren” bio, as well as up-and-coming local auteur Stephen Cone’s “This Afternoon,” mingling his favored themes of sex and religion. Read the rest of this entry »

A Trip Through Italy: “In My Brother’s Shoes” With Arts Critic-Turned-Filmmaker Lucia Mauro

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Danny McCarthy at Rome's Campo de' Fiori market/Photo: Dan Finnen

Danny McCarthy at Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori market/Photo: Dan Finnen

By Brandie Madrid

When Lucia Mauro was a writer for Newcity, she often conducted interviews at the Bourgeois Pig Cafe, so I asked her to join me there to talk about her writing-directorial debut, “In My Brother’s Shoes.” She speaks warmly and passionately about the origins of her story and about letting coincidences and random encounters lead her in new directions. Mauro has spent much of her life as an arts writer and critic. Her first foray into film was the screenplay for “Anita,” a story inspired by a statue in Rome of Anita Garibaldi, a Brazilian freedom fighter who fought against foreign occupation in two countries, including Italy. “In My Brother’s Shoes” is based on another experience she had in Rome, this time meeting a man who, after his brother died in the Iraq War, put on his brother’s shoes and backpacked through Europe as his brother always planned to do.

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Reeling 32: A Brave New World of Possibilty

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TOM-A-La-FERME-Xavier-Dolan-@clara-palardy

Xavier Dolan by Clara Palardy.

Oft-expressed concerns about the “mainstreaming” of gay characters and subjects and how that would affect gay film festivals may be misplaced in the tectonic economic shifts of contemporary filmmaking and distribution. By advance word and by the range of subjects, the thirty-second edition of Reeling, like many other recent film festivals, looks like we may be in a brave new world of possibilities. A few I’ve liked: “Lilting,” with Ben Whishaw as a young gay man mourning a lover whose Cambodian mother did not know he was gay is low-key and touching, even more so in the light of Whishaw recently coming out. The intense psychological thriller, “Tom At The Farm” was made just before “Mommy,” the latest over-the-over-the-top melodrama by twenty-five-year-old Xavier Dolan, who shared a Cannes Jury Prize with eighty-three-year-old Jean-Luc Godard. While it lacks the peacock vainglory of the Québécois wunderkind’s fantasticated “Laurence Anyways,” “Tom” toys with the kind of ambiguous psychological turns that many French masters have done so well, including Clouzot and Chabrol. Read the rest of this entry »

Reel Life: On Film Versus Light

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Buck Turgidson Dr. Strangelove

By Ray Pride

John Boorman called one of his published diaries “Money Into Light,” a splendid title for the still-to-be-written story of the machinations that led to the abrupt demise of the century-plus of celluloid filmmaking and exhibition to the digital domain of movies today. Investments were made, money was saved, one art form was replaced by another.

A couple of notable events in Chicago in June highlight how rare and special the once-standard format has become. First up, there’s a new 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb” (1964), which Kubrick himself had supervised in a frame-by-frame re-creation in the 1990s to replace a lost or misplaced negative. That kind of “asset protection” was something the owners of film libraries didn’t think about until the last couple of decades, and traditionally, the negatives of movies got beaten up badly. Even “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II” required restorations in 2008.

A second is the June 23 premiere at the Music Box of a 35mm restoration by the Northwest Chicago Film Society of a long-unseen hillbilly Western swing musical, “Corn’s-A-Poppin’,” written by Robert Altman. And, recently, the Music Box presented Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous black-and-white drama “Ida,” in 35mm. When “Ida” was press-screened a few weeks back, the projectionist looked it up:  this shimmering anachronism was the screening room’s first paid exhibition of film in 389 days: the digital handover had been a done deal for over a year. Read the rest of this entry »

Playing Favorites: Highlights of the Chicago Film Critics Film Festival

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“Obvious Child”

For its second annual Chicago Film Critics Film Festival, the local movie reviewers’ group jets south from its origins in the O’Hare hinterlands for the friendly confines of Wrigleyville’s Music Box Theatre from May 9-15. The schedule includes a big fistful of advance showings of summer art-house and indie attractions.

Mike Myers’ “Supermensch: The Legend Of Shep Gordon” is a genial, ribald hagiography of the longtime manager of musicians and performers, beginning with Alice Cooper and through the decades toward his creation of the celebrity chef.

The second feature by John Michael McDonagh, “Calvary” is another black comic collaboration with the great Brendan Gleeson about a priest faced with moral complications. Documentary “That Guy Dick Miller” will be shown with that guy, Dick Miller, in attendance. One of his most lasting collaborations with producer Roger Corman, “Bucket Of Blood,” is also on the bill.

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Cinematic Jamming: “Brasslands” and Other CIMMfest Highlights

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BRASSLANDS Demiran CerimovicBy Ray Pride

More than seventy films and fifty bands are packed into the first weekend of May in what looks to be the best lineup in CIMMfest’s six-year history. (You’ll find highlights from the performances in the Music section.) I’m excited to see former Chicagoan Joe Angio’s long-in-the-works “Revenge of the Mekons,” and how the doc embraces their longstanding commitment to their values as well as decades of making marvelous music. Documentarian Ron Mann will come down from Toronto to present two of his more musically minded nonfiction films, “Twist” and free-jazz chronicle “Imagine The Sound.” GOBLIN live-scoring Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” at the Metro is one of those out-of-the-ordinary events that make festivals, film and otherwise, a place for those of like minds to assemble. Other live scores include Mary Shelley with Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,” Califone with Pat O’Neill’s experimental “Water and Power” (1990) and Wrekmeister Harmonies “bristling psychedelic squall” atop 1922’s Swedish-Danish horror film, “Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages.”

Among other feature attractions, Mitchell Kezin’s “Jingle Bell Rocks” should pay off its extended gestation with the stories the Canadian documentarian tracked down about his twelve favorite holiday songs, eccentric, even haunted ones that stand tall on their own. SXSW co-founder Louis Black will expound upon John Sayles’ hardly seen birth-of-rock ‘n’ roll allegory, “Honeydripper.” Read the rest of this entry »

To Be Or Not To Be Wes: History Under the Influence at “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF FileBy Ray Pride

If on a winter’s night, a screenwriter…

Wes Anderson’s dense, compacted, throwback-look forward, comic mock-operetta of a mythic Mitteleuropa seemingly patterned after the no-place/not-home movies of filmmakers like Lubitsch, Lang, Ophuls, Mamoulian and Renoir, who had escaped the onrushing events between the wars in Europe, bursts with influence, overflows with decor, makes whimsy in the reflected light of offscreen historical horrors. Bold balderdash and elevated deadpan, its most ready surface influence would appear to be heady expatriate confections like “To Be Or Not To Be,” and other films of that time that do not stint on looming shadows in faux-European studio settings.

Anderson’s everyman-in-no-man’s-land is Gustave H., the concierge of an ocean liner of a wedding-cake deluxe hotel in the fictional duchy of Zubrowka, The Grand Budapest Hotel. He is a man with a job, if not a surname or a notable nationality. Ralph Fiennes invests H. with the brusque panache of both the boulevardier and the comic lights of the stage. Lubitsch’s blithe cosmopolitanism is supplanted by brute snippiness in the person of Fiennes. Speaking faster than he fast-walks, his H. is given to “oh fuck it”s that are the verbal equal of Indiana Jones choosing to take out a pistol and dispatch a scimitar-wielding opponent. (Fiennes is nourished by H.’s bursts of comic filth.) His impatience, his hurry, accelerates the sense that a narrative, an era, is hurtling to a close, as well as setting the tempo for the heist-and-chase design of the movie.

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Reeling in The Year: Rebuilding Chicago’s LGBT Festival in Logan Square

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Interior. Leather Bar.

Interior. Leather Bar.

By Ray Pride

Even without previewing most of the titles, the schedule of the thirty-first edition of Reeling looks like a perky, provocative package, its seven days filled with gay, lesbian and transgender films with edge and humor, including the Midwest premiere of “Black Box,” Chicago filmmaker Stephen Cone’s follow-up to “Wise Kids,” a range of documentaries, including Jeffrey Schwarz’s “I Am Divine,” and “Interior. Leather Bar.,” Travis Mathews and James Franco’s multi-meta imagining of a re-creation of as well as the apocryphal “lost footage” from William Friedkin’s “Cruising.” (The “contemporary” footage being rehearsed by Franco plays largely like a student-film conceit; the sexually explicit, music-driven montages as an extension of what Mathews has already accomplished with editing in his personal, sexually explicit work.)

After taking 2012 off to regroup, this year’s festival, Chicago Filmmakers executive director Brenda Webb told me recently that the eight days of programming, centralized at the Logan Theatre will be “tighter, with higher-profile films in a wider range of slots than before.” Reeling will use two 170-seat screens. “At the Landmark, Century we were in a 260-seat theater and a 100-seat theater, so we were able to program shows against each other that would appeal to very different audiences and we could take risks in the smaller theater because we didn’t need to attract a large audience. The programming is probably more evenly weighted for each screen and, therefore, the audience is going to have to make some very difficult choices. Read the rest of this entry »

CIFF at 49: Highlights of the Chicago Film Festival

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“Blue Is the Warmest Color”

The Chicago International Film Festival is ripe, as always, with the first public showings of movies that will be highlights of the lurching-toward-Oscar adult movie season, including Alexander Payne’s black-and-white generational road movie, “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern, and the latest from the Coen brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a beloved-by-critics Cannes debut about the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, a missing cat and the cost of an abortion. One of the most exciting, as well as unexpected attractions, is the Opening Night film, the sturdy and underrated filmmaker James Gray’s turn-of-the-twentieth century drama, “The Immigrant,” starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” debuts, as well, the subject of fervent praise and an almost-as-fervent backlash after making its North American debut a couple weeks ago in Toronto. The Cannes Palme d’Or winner is also on hand, Abdellatif Kechiche’s 179-minute, NC-17 “Blue Is the Warmest Color: Adele Chapters 1 & 2,” with highly regarded performances by Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos in a romantic drama of teenage lesbian love. Last-minute additions: Jason Reitman’s latest, “Labor Day,” and Ti West’s try at found-footage horror, “The Sacrament.” Read the rest of this entry »