Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Film 50 2014: Chicago’s Screen Gems

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“Nobody knows anything” is how screenwriter William Goldman describes how the Hollywood studio system works. “Nobody knows what’s coming next” would be an apt motto for the film industry at large, as well as the many aspects of the booming, burgeoning city of cinema called Chicago. Big-budget movies and television are shooting in Chicago at a rate not seen since the glory days of the 1990s, the same economics that are crunching the film industry are making it possible for so much more small, strange or lovely new work to make its way into the world, and gifted artists are staying in Chicago for all the reasons we’re sure you’re still in Chicago.

There’s a much larger pool of talent in Chicago than a list of fifty can do more than indicate. While last year’s debut list was more about the behind-the-scenes players, this year we’re focusing just on artists. And there are many ways we’re defining the word “artist” in our choices. In pulling together this pool of creative people, we looked for paragons in whom we could all find inspiration—whether it’s zen everyman Bill Murray, or indelibly young filmmakers you haven’t heard of yet—people who do the Chicago name proud, whether on the big screen, on cable or online.  Many of these individuals take part of the larger weave of how films get made—“below-the-line” as the jargon goes—and others are exemplars of the multi-hyphenate talents who seem to be around every corner, protean prodigies who aren’t juggling multiple careers, but living them as full, admirable, even enviable creative lives.

Chicago is a storytelling city, and we’ve let the Film 50 tell a few about who they are and what they do. It’s like a busy, buzzing party where you’re content to listen in on other conversations with a strong drink in your hand, nodding your head in agreement more times than you realize. It’s an indication what a great film town this is when everyone’s ready to talk about how they love to work in Chicago, and how grateful they are to be part of an ever-expanding, ever-more-prolific community at large. Here’s betting that these conversations are only the tip of the ice cream. These people know something. (Ray Pride)

Film 50 was written by Ray Pride, with additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Lagunitas Brewing Company.

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Review: Happy Christmas

Chicago Artists, Comedy, Recommended No Comments »

Happy ChristmasRECOMMENDED

Prolific Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg continues to explore his own backyard in “Happy Christmas,” or more to the point, his own home, a cost-effective location for his first feature released since “Drinking Buddies.” One of those buddies, Anna Kendrick, moves into the newest comedy-drama and continues to drink. And drink. Swanberg plays Jeff, a film director whose wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), is writing a novel, and whose younger sister, Jenny (Kendrick), shows up on their doorstep after a messy and massively deserved breakup. Lena Dunham plays a friend of Jenny’s, and Mark Webber plays a curiously attractive drug dealer whom Kelly plants lips upon. Working in his customary improv style, with cinematographer Ben Richardson (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) repeating the originated-on-film style of “Drinking Buddies,” Swanberg scores sly points beneath the surface emotional ruckus and the elevated conversational wordplay. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: 24 Exposures

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3- 24 ExposuresRECOMMENDED

In the Georgia-shot thriller pastiche, “24 Exposures,” veteran Chicago writer-director Joe Swanberg again questions the role of the artist versus those who are depicted via the story of Billy, a death-fetish photographer (Adam Wingard) whose path crosses that of a suicidal solo cop (Simon Barrett). While Swanberg has invoked the example of 1960s Euro-thrillers, “24 Exposures” hews closer to other cited influences, 1990s “Skinemax” thrillers and the boldly colored and plainly sexual work of Zalman King and the breast-baring films of Russ Meyer. Swanberg’s attraction to bold fields of color, such as in one wall in a room painted a hot, unlikely color, is akin to King’s sweetly marzipan sense of design. And the skin—the skin in “24 Exposures” is ample, both in Billy’s grue-strewn shoots and in sexual encounters with his girlfriend and the model of the day. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: White Reindeer

Christmas, Comedy, Recommended No Comments »


Zach Clark’s nimble, absurdist near-comedy “White Reindeer” is not your father’s Christmas story, but maybe your slightly criminal, usually sad uncle’s tale about real estate, weather men, being a contented consumer, murder, strippers, internet sex, cocaine, contemporary kink, sudden death, adultery, and more strippers, all set around the holliest, jolliest time of the year. (And gifts came earlier in the form of Kickstarter finance for the film, the backers of which include a number of indie film luminaries.)  Suffice it to say, bittersweet excess ensues and Clark’s use of bumpy pacing and off-balance, sometimes flat acting begins to feel inspired. 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 »

Review: Drinking Buddies

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From “mumblecore” to suds: Prolific, thirty-two-year-old Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s new movie, “Drinking Buddies,” his first with actors already recognizable to the larger moviegoing public, could conceivably also have a budget the equal of his entire roster of fifteen-plus earlier features. But even with a fifty-person crew and recognizable stars, also a genial amalgam of the direction that the mostly improvised work has been taking, working with a sense of mood, character and place that has less concern with traditional plotting and structure than the sort of straight-laced romantic comedies that a studio (rather than independent financiers) would customarily bankroll. Set (and shot) partially at Logan Square’s Revolution Brewing, “Drinking Buddies” is more of a lope than a leap, with credible behavioral specificity—looks, glances, pauses, drawing from Swanberg’s usual semi-improvisatory style—while letting what story there is meander. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Tiger Tail In Blue

Chicago Artists, Drama, Recommended, Romance No Comments »


Chicago filmmaker Frank V. Ross’ “Tiger Tail In Blue,” which hasn’t made the festival circuit, is his sixth feature. While it’s a shame the Downers Grove resident hasn’t gotten more attention for his work, the keenly observant “Tiger Tail,” demonstrates well the gently idiosyncratic voice heard in earlier films like “Audrey the Trainwreck” (2010). It’s an earnest depiction of drifting young married life, telling the story of Christopher (Ross) and  Melody (Rebecca Spence), their schedule-juggling lives. He’s writing a first novel and working as a waiter, where he’s distracted by a co-worker, Brandy (Megan Mercier). Read the rest of this entry »

Review: V/H/S

Chicago Artists, Horror, Recommended No Comments »


Why are there two slashes added to the three-letter acronym for “Video Home System”? Maybe they refer to smashcuts in the lo-fi video that’s assembled from no-tech, zero-technique shooters of shitty footage. “V/H/S” is faux found nonfiction anthology fare where horror befalls those who seek and see the likes of “V/H/S.” Or are those typographical slashes there to cue the bloody cuts to flesh that are to come? Recurrent dialogue, whether uttered by unlikely-to-live characters in ‘live’ video or by those later watching them on playback, is: “What the fuck?” and “What the fuck was that?” and “What the fuck was that?” Six segments by six directors, with the one called Radio Silence comprised of four co-directors, are framed by a trip to some old man’s house one night to steal some videotape that someone wants. He looks dead in his easy chair. Smells it, too. In front of him is a stack of old TVs filled with bluish static. One of the trespassers inserts a cassette and places his camcorder atop the deck. This reverse shot lets us watch him watch the found tape. And take in a bad thing or two behind his back. Each piece of video chronicles an outlandish horrific occurrence as recorded in real time by the original participants. There is no unifying evil in “V/H/S” other than vague revenge against voyeurs. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Be Good

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Chicago filmmaker Todd Looby world-premieres his second feature, “Be Good,” an anecdote about the stress and aggravation of young parenthood after mom Mary (Amy Seimetz) returns to an office job while stay-at-home dad Paul (Thomas Madden) types away at screenplays with Latino characters like “El Flaco” threatening each other with guns that look like the basest, unmarketable trash. Baby’s a troublemaker and the family retriever’s a bounder; household rubble and rubbish tumble in their wake. Characteristic Chicago apartments, decks and side streets co-star. Finding a profile of local filmmaker and father Joe Swanberg in an online “DIY Director” publication, “Get the fuck out of here” is Paul’s immediate response to reading that Swanberg was (as in real life) finishing his eighth or so short feature of the year. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Nate & Margaret

Chicago Artists, Comedy, Drama, Recommended No Comments »


“Nate & Margaret” are unlikely bosom buddies in the first feature by Chicago filmmaker Nathan Adloff, a buddy movie that pairs a nineteen-year-old gay film student (Tyler Ross) and a woman in her fifties, a Rogers Park café waitress, who has hopes of becoming a stand-up comedian with material inspired by her parents’ abusive relationship as well as her own indifferent fortune. Natalie West shuffles amiably; Margaret’s confidence grows as a performer the more open she is about the damage. As does Nate’s, as he meets someone his own age who happens to like him, and to be of the same sex as well. Ah! A first boyfriend. It’s a gentle geek fable with a light, platonic “Harold and Maude” vibe; dramatic complications involve any number of cruel words spoken in anger. Read the rest of this entry »