Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

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 50 2015: Chicago’s Screen Gems

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Got disruption?

The serene velocity of change of the modern media landscape got scary back at the turn of the century, when the cries of filmmakers like George Lucas and James Cameron for digital distribution reached the ears of economy-seeking, profit-coveting movie studios. But a lot happened in these fifteen years, as new means of communication quickly were supplanted by newer ones or faded. (Fotolog? Friendster?) For the purposes of Film 50, the most important aspect is the democratized access to means of production (DSLR digital cameras, iPhones, consumer-level non-linear editing software) and distribution (YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, digital exhibition). There’s action and movement in every form of Chicago media, even if there’s a cost to some. (Apps like Fandango supplant lucrative movie listings that once fattened newspapers, for instance.) But this year’s survey surprised with its hope toward a sustainable culture and economy in what’s rapidly becoming “The City That Collaborates.”

The lovingly pessimistic words from Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” that seemed too true in recent years—“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”—now seem pasted to the rearview mirror as opposed to the cautious yet sometimes utopian hope for forms of storytelling we shelter under the umbrella of “film.” Morbid symptoms wane in the face of simple midwestern determination, basic Chicago hope. This is a thrilling, fearsome, fearful moment to be alive in the midst of so many forms of media.

While compiling this year’s Film 50, devoted to behind-the-scenes players who work in a visionary strain necessary to but necessarily apart from storytellers, generational layers surfaced. There are older figures with the institutional memory of what came before, bearing both its wealth and weight; players in mid-career devoted to preserving the legacy of film and video, particularly in how it reflects twentieth-century Chicago; and a younger bunch, let’s say under thirty, who are format-agnostic, aren’t burdened by the minutiae of Chicago’s film history and are open to storytelling in just-emerging and not-yet-born multimedia approaches. The story of any given movie’s production will be more interesting than the movie itself, it’s often said, and this survey offers ample fascination. Whether a Wachowski mega-production, an episode of a Dick Wolf series, a $30,000 post-Joe Swanberg intimate drama, the crew of a hundred or twenty-five or seven required to manifest that movie is stocked with one dreamer after another. (We could drown in the tears from the making and unmaking of the cinematic hopes and fears of just a single fully-staffed crew shooting a couple of days of “Chicago Fire” or “Empire” just down your nearest Boulevard.) The figures who follow are the creative thinkers, and more importantly, doers, who can brush away those tears and hold the hands and support and nourish the imaginations of all of Chicago.

Note: Since editor Brian Hieggelke has launched a Newcity-related film production enterprise (see related story), he recused himself from the selection and ranking of the individuals on this list.

The Film 50 was written by Ray Pride

Cover and interior photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux Read the rest of this entry »

News: Nicole Bernardi Reis On Revitalizing IFP/Chicago

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joe-mazza-bave-lux-chicago-new-3572676260-OIFP/Chicago, one of the city’s oldest organizations to support independent filmmakers, has kept a low profile for several years, but is about to launch an ambitious roster of programs, inspired in part by the success of May’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, presently one of the Independent Filmmaker Project’s most prominent enterprises. Other support programs and networking events have grown up around the city since their founding, such as the long-running first-Tuesdays Midwest Film Festival and more recently, the new sip-and-grip comradeship CCCP, the Chicago Creatives Cocktail Party, which IFP co-sponsors.

After three years or so of dormancy, Nicole Bernardi-Reis, an independent producer and president of the board of directors (and 2014 Film 50 subject) sees now as a time for IFP to bloom. “The community changed a lot during that time, as did the resources available to filmmakers,” she says. “Currently, the film and television industry is seeing an influx of productions and revenue due to the Illinois Film Tax Credit. Hollywood is back in Chicago. Business is booming, again. Outside productions have always been an important part of sustaining the film community in the Midwest, but they are just a part.”

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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 »

Our City of Lights: Filmmaker John Rangel’s “The Girls on Liberty Street” is a Love Letter to Hometown Aurora

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John Rangel

John Rangel

By Eric Lutz

“My friends and I would always kind of half-joke about how in our class, more kids went to jail than went to college,” filmmaker John Rangel tells me over coffee on a sunny Friday morning in Logan Square.

We’re talking about Aurora, Illinois, his hometown and the setting of his brilliant new movie, “The Girls on Liberty Street,” which opens at the Chicago International Film Festival October 12.

“When I was in grade school, there were gangs and they would fight—they would fist-fight,” he says. “By the time I got to middle school, people started getting shot.  And then by the time I was graduating high school, it was machine guns and pipe bombs.”

Growing up, Rangel wanted nothing more than to get out of town. Read the rest of this entry »

Film 50: Chicago’s Screen Gems 2013

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10.3.13 Film50What is film?

Or more appropriately in our age of image making by everyone, what is “film”? YouTube claims 144,000 hours of video are posted every single day. (A woman who reaches the age of eighty has lived 701, 280 hours: hardly even five YouTubeDays.) And how many hours in a life are there to produce, consume, examine, remember film? (One definition, esthetically, could be: looks like life, feels like a dream.)

Chicago’s film profile was elevated from the 1980s forward by movies like “Hoop Dreams,” “Risky Business,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Fugitive,” “The Dark Knight” and decades of great documentaries and experimental work by many important figures whose history is still being written. But the link between Chicago and film is more expansive than that, starting with the movie industry: who shoots them, who finances them, who writes them, who finds locations. Then there is the increasingly large number of students in the city, studying some form of film or television or media. The number of students specializing in some kind of media studies or media production at Chicago’s many universities is enormous, from Columbia College, Northwestern, the School of the Art Institute, the University Of Chicago, DePaul, Tribeca Flashpoint, and so on—a shocking number next to the number of films of any shape or size that even the most devoted of us are about to enjoy in any given year. “Film”? It used to be just something you loved seeing on the big screen with the smell of fresh popcorn in the darkness. Even universities are changing the names of their programs in fast-changing times: DePaul, for instance has its “School of Cinema and Interactive Media.” Then there’s “transmedia” and the selling: What stories do we have to tell about the stories we have to tell?

The work goes on. But what is the “work” in a time of “creative destruction” when all models for financial return have gone out the window? In the lists we compiled, we were looking for people who aren’t isolated or cloistered, but who are working, and putting work out into the world. This list is in no way exhaustive nor is it a list of up-and-comers—a groundbreaking image, narrative, economic model could be hatched tonight and launched tomorrow, gone viral quicker than flu itself—but it’s more of a list of those who have found ways to continue their practice, exert their personalities and offer a few examples, both young and long-lived, for the world in ways that are impeccably Chicagoan: rough and ready, come what may. (Ray Pride)

Film 50 was written by Ray Pride and Brian Hieggelke Read the rest of this entry »

Off Camera: The Vision Thing at Chicago Film Fest’s Second Week

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A multitude of movies at the second week of the Chicago International Film Festival’s forty-eighth installment at the River East wave a big, bold middle finger at the cacophony of elder critics who’ve been declaring the death of their cinema for the past couple of months. From Bill and Turner Ross, who made the splendid portrait of their Ohio hometown, “45365,” comes a city symphony of New Orleans, “Tchoupitoulas,” produced by members of the collective behind “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Equally humid but more arid is one of several new films by SAIC graduate Apichatpong Weerasethakul is “Mekong Hotel,” where polite ghosts are hungry for brains. Obstinate Mexican visualist-cum-spiritual seeker Carlos Reygadas took home Cannes’ best director nod for  “Post Tenebras Lux,” another languorous, lush look at landscape and climate. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Chicago’s Festival Of Festivals at Forty-Eight

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“Something in the Air.”

“The Festival of Festivals” was what Toronto called its film festival back in its beginnings thirty-five years ago, but looking at the offerings of the forty-eighth Chicago International Film Festival, that could apply to its attractions over the next couple weeks of October. While Toronto, the world’s largest film festival open to the public, showed over 350 features this year (and where many local reviewers get their first glimpse of festival season), Chicago tops out at about 150, from fifty countries. It’s a cliché, but you can’t help but create your own festival of festivals, however diligent with schedules and free with cash and flexible with time you may be. Read the rest of this entry »

I Wake Up Screening: Another Week of Chicago International Film Fest at Forty-Seven

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Crazy Horse

By Ray Pride

No matter even if you truly wanted to, there’s no way a single viewer could give you an overview of an international film festival with more than a hundred events: you can surmise all you want, based on what festival films have played or have been reviewed at already, or the filmmakers’ reputation. Even festival programmers miss out on sections they’re not part of. I’ll be curious to see statistics after this year’s CIFF to see how many programs the average, but dedicated moviegoer, is able to attend. It’s tough even if you’ve been to a few prior festivals, seen a fistful of advance screeners, availed yourself of advance screenings. But, as luck, fortune or programming may have it, Chicago International has more programs of note in its second week, and a growing number of them have further distribution in the near future. (Disclosure: I was a program consultant for this year’s Docufest section.) Read the rest of this entry »

Season’s Screenings: Chicago International Film Festival at forty-seven

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Goodbye, First Love

By Ray Pride

After summer’s somersaults, autumn through Christmas is when the grownup movies come out to play, and the forty-seventh edition of the Chicago International Film Festival has a lot to celebrate. In this rundown, I’ll keep “great” as a random adjective to a minimum. (Disclosure: I was a program consultant for this year’s Docufest section.)

From the highlights of the program, it seems like it’s going to be a strong season for good, solid movies in coming months. The range of films being shown that have been submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award seem to be uncommonly strong as well. While there may well be other discoveries to be made, most of the films recommended here will show up in commercial or art-house release. Screenings can sell out in advance, which may partly be due to the capacity of the smaller screens at River East. The festival is keeping a running tally of shutouts on their Facebook page. Read the rest of this entry »