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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 »

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 »

Rocking and Reeling: Chicago Filmmakers’ Brenda Webb Looks Back and Forward at an Organization in Motion

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Brenda-Webb

By Brian Hieggelke and Brandie Rae Madrid

Forty-one-year-old media arts organization Chicago Filmmakers is soon pulling up stakes from their rented space in Andersonville and moving to their very own firehouse on Ridge Avenue. Brenda Webb, the organization’s longtime executive director and founder of its centerpiece event, Reeling: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival, explains how the organization is able to focus more on their mission and building ties in the community by having her scale back her role in Reeling. In our conversation, she explains how the new space will allow for a more diverse programming, addressing the needs of its surrounding community. As the Reeling Film Festival approaches next week, Webb tells about the genesis of that endeavor and the changes it has undergone in the last few years, including its return to the Lakeview neighborhood after a brief run in Logan Square.

Were you there at the beginning of Chicago Filmmakers? 
I was friends with one of the founders. She and I were roommates when we were students at Columbia. There were five founding members, although Chicago Filmmakers was really started by Bill Brand and another person. It was founded because they were students at the School of the Art Institute and they wanted to show their work outside the university setting. As artists are wont to do, they become validated by not just showing their work within a college or university, but by having a legitimate place where they can show their work. If you’re a painter, there are any number of galleries you might approach. But for filmmakers [in that era], there was no place to go. They essentially created Chicago Filmmakers as a place to show their work and other work by filmmakers like them, as well as to invite experimental filmmakers. The roots of the organization are in experimental film. I just started coming to screenings because my roommate was one of the founders, and she was there every Saturday night tearing tickets and doing that whole thing. That was my first exposure to experimental film, which for me was a real eye-opener. Read the rest of this entry »

Black Harvest Preview: Staying Personal in “Hogtown”

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let the law handle it

By Brandie Rae Madrid

Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson walk onto a film set, but it’s no joke. It’s “Hogtown,” partaking of both classic and experimental movie traditions. Showing at Black Harvest Film Festival, it’s the second in a trilogy of quiet, mostly black-and-white films about isolation within a larger community by writer-director Daniel Nearing. After moving to Chicago from Canada in 2001, Nearing wrote for television and worked as a documentary filmmaker for hire before deciding that his “real heart is in writing something very personal.” Over a cup of coffee, he talked about his newest film and learning to face the things that scare you the most. Read the rest of this entry »

Black Harvest Preview: Diagnosing “Cass”

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By Jenzo DuQue

“In Indianapolis, two people came up to me and said, ‘You know that scene where Cass  goes out in the hoodie at night to follow the painter? We got chills thinking about Trayvon Martin,'” says Chicago director Hugh Schulze about his feature, “Cass,” having its local premiere at the Black Harvest Film Festival. “We shot this movie a year before Trayvon Martin—to me it speaks to the story that there are these issues that, once played out, reflect back on society in an unintentional way.”  Set in Detroit, “Cass” burns with questions of passion in the life of a middle-class family after an artist takes residence in the abandoned house next door. We talked over coffee about the ups and downs of making his feature-length debut. 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 »

Adrift with the Millennials: Among the “Animals” at South by Southwest

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Animals

Animals

By Brian Hieggelke

Though South by Southwest (SXSW) has been around nearly thirty years as a music festival, it’s only been the last of those decades, with the rise of its interactive component (Twitter famously came of age here), that’s turned it into a spectacle in and of itself. 

The streets of this bursting-at-the-seams city are awash in venture capital being burned in all forms of splendor, from the takeovers of various local bars, gas stations, whatever, to every kind of marketing gimmickry imaginable—design your own Oreos anyone?—to the hordes of digerati roaming 6th Street in search of the hottest private party.

And into this cesspool of capitalism unbound, the press descends, drooling for buzz, sniffing for the new new thing, snacking on trend pieces. When a drunk driver plows into a crowd on the street during this year’s festival, tragically killing two and injuring dozens, David Carr and Manny Fernandez, writing in the New York Times, find the metaphor they’ve been looking for: Has SXSW “lost the original spirit of what it intended to be?” Never mind that an equally valid concern might be the car-centric lack of public transportation options in mid-sized American cities that makes driving and drink an inevitable pairing fifty-two weeks a year. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »