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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 »

Film Leaders of the Moment: Forager Film’s Joe Swanberg, Eddie Linker and Peter Gilbert

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Joe Swanberg and Eddie Linker (Peter Gilbert was out of town)/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Joe Swanberg and Eddie Linker (Peter Gilbert was out of town)/Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

By Ray Pride

In less than a year-and-a-half, Forager Film, with filmmakers Joe Swanberg and Peter Gilbert and trader Eddie Linker as partners, has produced six feature films, with four of them—Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas” and “Digging for Fire,” his wife Kris Swanberg’s “Unexpected” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth”—already in distribution. As we scheduled our meeting for a sunny afternoon last week, Swanberg joked about their lack of offices or any other amenity producers sometimes lavish on themselves. Swanberg, Linker and I got coffee, pulled up three stumps under a tree on a Ravenswood side street, with the intermittent hum of low-flying planes overhead and the rumble of Metra trains across the street. Truly, a no-budget business meeting.

What does the company name mean?
Swanberg: I consider us like a hunter-gatherer company in the sense that we don’t have any sort of mission, we’re just on the lookout for good movies. Foraging through the excess of stuff around projects looking for money, and unlike a lot of financiers of independent film, we’re not waiting for projects to come in. We’re actively seeking out the filmmakers we want to work with and pitch them a type of model. So, Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” came about that way. Alex was coming off what I consider the best film to have been made that year, “Listen Up Philip,” which had a tremendous struggle securing distribution and then even in its release had a lot of trouble finding an audience. I was baffled by that, but one thing I knew for sure is that guy ought to get back to work right away rather than sit around in the wake of a bizarre success-slash-failure. I also felt with that film that Elisabeth Moss had not… she’s really good in it, but she hadn’t been fully utilized. So I encouraged Alex in a similar way to how I’d worked with Anna Kendrick. She came in in a supporting role in “Drinking Buddies,” then we developed a project especially for her to be in the lead. I said to Alex, ‘You know, you have this relationship with this amazing actress who came in in the utility role in this film, why don’t you investigate with her a part where she would be able to fully shine. You guys have built that trust, go for it, dig deeper.’ Similar to the way where “Happy Christmas” came together, I talked to her first and then we built that thing. Alex followed that up with Elisabeth, born out of ideas that were swirling in his head, but with Elisabeth as a collaborator the entire time. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Digging For Fire

Chicago Artists, Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Romance 1 Comment »



With “Digging For Fire,” Joe Swanberg extends his run of intimate backyard moviemaking to an actual backyard at a summer rental, where a gun, a bone and a telescope set intrigue (and extended conversation) into nifty (if slow-burn) motion. Mid-thirties-life-crisis strikes for Tim (Jake Johnson), a teacher still not settled into the truth that he’s been a father for three years. Rosemarie Dewitt plays his witty wife, Jude Swanberg the son, natch. The estimable critic Bérénice Reynaud has aligned the latest Swanberg with Rohmer, and “Digging” extends his streak of pictures that stream with genial dialogue, superficially breezy, yet where emotional currents deepen. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: While We’re Young

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After he tries on a new personality borne of new, younger friends, “You’re an old man with a hat,” middle-aged Josh Srebnick (Ben Stiller) is told by his stay-at-home dad friend, Fletcher (Adam Horovitz). In “While We’re Young,” his eighth feature, Noah Baumbach goes the Woody Allen ensemble route in a two-thirds likable variation of “Crimes & Misdemeanors,” in which two generations of documentarians search for “truth” and “authenticity” in different measure. Josh, frantic and at clueless loose ends as so many Baumbach protagonists are, is married to Cornelia (Naomi Watts), seemingly happy, soaked in wine and regret for not having had children. She’s also the daughter of an esteemed elder documentarian, whose mentoring Josh has rejected in the near-decade of working on an interminable documentary project about the notions of a weedy Noam Chomsky stand-in. Josh and Cornelia meet a younger couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried), callow twentysomethings who open a window to the couple’s passed youth. Baumbach does a rich, comic job with the contrasts between the couples, capturing both middle-aged lightheadedness and callow youth with a simmer of sociological precision. (There are small, savory tastes of several other filmmakers here, notably Mazursky and Swanberg.) Read the rest of this entry »

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

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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 »