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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 »

Preview: Chicago International Film Festival, Week Two

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"Norman"

The second week of the 46th Chicago International Film Festival includes Chicago premieres of movies opening in the coming weeks, including Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” Doug Liman’s Valerie Plame Wilson drama “Fair Game” and the latest Brit variation on “The Full Monty,” “Made in Dagenham.” Chicago titles of possible note include Ruth Leitman’s immigration doc “Tony and Janina’s American Wedding,” David Schwimmer’s pedophile drama, “Trust,” and “Polish Bar,” from the makers of “Straightman.” Cannes 2010’s Palme d’Or winner, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives,” also plays before its theatrical run. (Thai director “Joe” Weerasethakul attended the School of the Art Institute.) And a couple of titles from younger filmmakers: Québécois enfant prodige Xavier Dolan’s Wong Kar-Wai-inflected romantic triangle, “Heartbeats,” has another showing. Plus, Jonathan Segal’s “Norman” darkens the coming-of-age template with two stirring performances, by the startlingly empathetic Dan Byrd as a troubled teen (and an unlikely blend of Emile Hirsch and Mike Myers) who cons his schoolmates and Richard Jenkins as his ailing father. At its best (and most conflicted) moments, “Norman” is John Hughes-meets-Atom Egoyan on the plains of American male self-pity. But in a good way. A tribute to Guillermo del Toro, safe and sound after the “Hobbit” debacle, is slated for Friday night. Awards are given Saturday night at the Pump Room, and what cream rises to the surface is featured on Wednesday’s “Best of the Fest” selection. (Ray Pride)

All films show at River East 21. Full schedule here.

Preview: The 46th Chicago International Film Festival

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Drunkboat

In its forty-sixth edition, a first look at the programming of the Chicago International Film Festival passes on retrospectives and sidebars, and most titles of interest are premieres of movies that should open in Chicago in coming months. (There are fourteen titles in the New Directors Competition, of which I’m one of the four judges; I hope there are discoveries there.) First week attractions of note that will be released soon are Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” a multipart story by screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”); “Stone,” a character study about infidelity and religious belief from John Curran (“We Don’t Live Here Anymore”); and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” which won Juliette Binoche the Best Actress nod at Cannes 2010. Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonme Who Can Remember His Past Lives” by SAIC grad Apichatpong Weerasethakul is also on this week. Cannes offered a slot to the mini-indie teen drama “Myth of the American Sleepover” as well. Bertrand Tavernier turns to costume drama with “Princess of Montpensier” and Quebecois kid-actor-turned-boy-director Xavier Dolan-Tadros turns up with his second feature at the age of 21, “Les Amours Imaginaires,” a sweet title now known as “Heartbeats” in the U.S. Two films likely not to light up a screen again: “Revolución,” with short contributions from ten Mexican directors, including Carlos Reygadas, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, Gerardo Naranjo and Fernando Eimbcke. Rodrigo García’s contribution, a single take in which figures from the Mexican Revolution barrel full dress down a modern L.A. street, comes highly regarded. And, a real rarity, 2007’s unreleased “Drunkboat,”  a Chicago-set drama from gifted theater director Bob Meyer (a Chicago expat living in Paris), starring John Malkovich and John Goodman in a story of a boy growing up among alcoholic men. (Ray Pride)

All programs are at the River East.

America as a Second Language: Talking “Precious”‘ style with Lee Daniels

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precious_based_on_the_novel_push_by_sapphire_009By Ray Pride

Some movies sound deadly, and it’s amazing when that’s all to the good because then the film can take you by glorious surprise.

That’s the case with Lee Daniels’ “Precious, Based Upon the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire.” Set in Harlem in the mid-1980s, it follows Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), an overweight teenager with a Down Syndrome child who’s been repeatedly abused sexually by the boyfriend of her resentful mother (Mo’Nique). At first, as Precious is thwarted in her attempts to educate herself out of agony, the film’s stylistic choices seem as eccentric and naïve as its protagonist, yet “Precious” grows in assurance and its gestures of character growth toward demonstrating how a generational cycle of abuse can be cut moves toward an ending that can only be called earned. Read the rest of this entry »