Reviews, profiles and news about movies in Chicago

Film 50 2014: Chicago’s Screen Gems

Film 50 8 Comments »

“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: The Man of Steel

3-D, Drama, Recommended, Sci-Fi & Fantasy No Comments »


With its radical shifts in tone from scene to scene, “Man of Steel” is as much a study in schizophrenia as a portrait of a misunderstood thirty-three-year-old superhuman sent down to save the world and the fates of a seventy-five-year-old comic book character. The constant is whirling mayhem and Christopher Nolan-scale gloom. While director Zack Snyder has his own way with brooding and blackness, the stern hand of co-producer Nolan presses down. David S. Goyer’s screenplay takes full advantage of the familiarity-unto-banality of Superman’s origins, flashing forward and back at will to underline his origins. Any true origin story, however, would take a more secretive shape that audiences will never know: the dealings in blandly gleaming conference rooms amid grande lattes and fistfuls of fiscal projections as calculations are made of the potential of 3D upcharges, Russian and Chinese repeat viewers and the revenues from compulsive cycling of product placements. That would be the “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” of origin stories: seemingly dry but of endless fascination in its gestural minutiae. Read the rest of this entry »

The Smell of Chicago Theater: “Killer Joe” Onscreen at Twenty

Drama, Recommended No Comments »

By Ray Pride

My strongest memories of Chicago storefront theater in the 1990s when Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe” was first loosed are rude floorboards and multiplicities of dust. Letts recalls the confines of the space at Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center. “There’s still a theater there called Next Theatre, but down the hall, in the same building was something called the Next Lab, the creation of Dexter Bullard. It was a classroom that had been painted black. There were about forty seats, about as many as can fit into a classroom, ringing two sides of the stage. We built the trailer inside that classroom, with two walls cutaway. So I mean, it was very close. People were as far away as you and I are now, to the action going on, on stage. It was a very intense experience.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Take Shelter

Chicago Artists, Drama, Recommended No Comments »


“It’s still stormin’.” A taut masterpiece of prescient dread, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ control in “Take Shelter” is exemplary, and a huge leap from the already strong work in his observant first feature, “Shotgun Stories.” Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) works as a sand miner and lives along a tornado alley in a rural Ohio town with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and six-year-old daughter Hannah, who is deaf. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Machine Gun Preacher

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“You quit stripping to fucking pack fucking mushrooms?” sputters an incredulous Sam Childers (Gerard Butler, “300”). On his first day out of prison, this Pennsylvania biker, doper and gun-lover gets the news that his wife is no longer employed at the Bunny Hole: she’s a Christian now. The lowlife father of her little daughter is soon dunked at her Pentecostal church, starts a roofing and construction company, and builds his own church. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

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


The racing ostriches. The tiny man dancing on a clear-cut stump in the snow. Endangered flamingoes named McNamara and MacDougal. Plates of shivery black Jell-o offered up as a treat in a Norman Rockwell-styled tableau vivant. Meaninglessly meaningful offerings of basketballs. Brad Dourif spooking Michael Shannon. Werner Herzog does not need special effects. In his David Lynch-produced procedural, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” the Teutonic seeker of “ecstatic truth” bends the fictions of television narrative to his eccentric ends. It could well be “CSI: Tierra del Fuego.” Shooting a script he’d written several years ago (with Herbert Golder, a classical civilization professor he’s worked with before), the 67-year-old director tells a story based on the real-life case of Mark Yarovsky who became obsessed with Euripides’ “Orestes” and killed his mother with a prop saber. Michael Shannon and Grace Zabriskie (“Twin Peaks,” “Inland Empire”) played the fiction son and mom. Read the rest of this entry »

The Girls in the Band: The queens of noise live again in “The Runaways” (Review)

Biopic, Drama, Musical, Recommended, Romance No Comments »

By Ray Pride

“These bitches suck” was Creem magazine’s timeless takedown of The Runaways when the teenage girl band bobbed to the surface of the 1970s.

In Floria Sigismondi’s writing-directing debut, the making-of-the-band, life-on-the-road, taking-of-the-drugs telling of 1970s teen rockers who made it right to the middle (despite mostly sucking, musically) has the right attitude if not a fully fleshed story. It satisfies in bursts, like an erratically track-sequenced album. Based on Cherie Currie’s slim memoir, “Neon Angel,” “The Runaways” is episodic, and Currie’s decline isn’t as interesting as 15-year-old Dakota Fanning’s embodiment of her rapid slip-slide into neurasthenia and diva-dom. (Fanning’s turn-on-a-dime from sullen to sneering as the band assembles the song “Cherry Bomb” is one of her best moments: “Ch. Ch. Ch. CHERRY BOMB!”) Joan Jett’s survival instincts are more indicated than dramatized, and Kristen Stewart, while as watchable as ever, brings more spark than fire. Michael Shannon, playing oddball Svengali Kim Fowley, is bright and funny as a leering loon, but he’s a man we ought to be fearful of as much as mesmerized by. (Shannon’s memorably theatrical styling of lines like “I am the luckiest dogfucker in space!” are more Walkenesque than truly loony.) Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Missing Person

Chicago Artists, Mystery, Recommended No Comments »


Noah Buschel’s “The Missing Person” was well-regarded in its 2008 Sundance premiere, but makes it to theaters only now. (Elements involving the Twin Towers may be part of the reason for the modest, delayed release.) A knottily plotted detective yarn, more film blanc than noir, it features Chicago’s own Michael Shannon as a 1940s-style detective whose unintentional specialty is finding psychological damage all around him. The twenty-first century needs definition, if not detection, and Buschel’s work is a peck of poetic longeurs and narrative crisscross. The pacing is eccentric yet foreboding, suiting the elegant unease of Shannon’s performance. He’s difficult, his character is unlikable, but you can’t tear yourself away from the simmering mood, the glowing performance. From “Bug” to “Revolutionary Road” to “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” Shannon populates a world all his own, but manages to bring the movies he’s in along, revealing something about our own as well. With Amy Ryan, Frank Wood, Linda Emond, Paul Sparks, Margaret Colin, John Ventimiglia, Yul Vazquez, Merritt Wever, Daniel Franzese. 95m. (Ray Pride)

Review: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

Action, Comedy, Drama, Recommended, Stoner No Comments »


With a blank-page disregard for Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cult film also called “Bad Lieutenant” and its similar premise, Werner Herzog’s off-the-rails portrait of a drug-addicted cop in post-Katrina New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage in the feature role, borders on dark comedy with a joyous embrace of bleak absurdity. Cage’s bad, bad lieutenant ingests every ounce of dope he can get his bankrupt hands on while struggling to solve a horrendous multiple homicide, protecting his upscale hooker girlfriend from abusive johns, settling his gambling debts and making the most of his relationship with his alcoholic father. In a perpetual haze of drug-fueled oblivion, moral lines are drawn simply to be snorted up with glee. (“I snorted what I thought was coke but turned out to be heroin” is but one choice line.) Herzog’s balance between cop drama and subversive goof makes for fearless storytelling—the lieutenant’s proclivity for reprehensible behavior, taking advantage of his position of power, sends chills, and Herzog’s jaunts with iguanas and alligators are inspired. This is a hard-luck town that was once nearly all but forgotten. Nicolas Cage delivers one of the best performances of his career, offering exultation and frustration to those aware of the work of which he’s capable. The film’s finale offers a splurge of unexpected uplift that teases the soul. With Val Kilmer, Eva Mendes, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, who somehow steals one scene away from Cage. 121m. (Tom Lynch)

Hometown Hero: One of our own vies for Oscar gold

News and Dish 1 Comment »

By Tom Lynchmichael-shannon

Funny story about Michael Shannon. I was anxious to see William Friedkin’s film adaptation of Tracy Letts’ “Bug,” starring Shannon (who had originated the role on stage) and Ashley Judd, so I got out to the movie theater the first week of its release. His searing, terrifying performance warped my vulnerable brain—Shannon’s entire presence scared the hell out of me, so much so I had trouble sleeping, images of his blood-soaked body, surrounded by flames, his mouth rambling chaotic theory, had me turning over and over again.

The next day, I’m driving to work, happy the sun’s out and shining, drowsy from lack of rest. I’m stopped at the Clybourn and North intersection, first in line, and who do I see walking across the street, directly in front of my car? Shannon of course. Terror all over again. At the time I could’ve sworn he was in the middle of an insane conversation with himself, but I’m sure my mind was playing tricks on me. We make eye contact—one look at me and he picks up his pace, probably stunned by my floor-dwelling jaw.

Shannon, now Oscar-nominated for his scene-stealing supporting role in “Revolutionary Road,” got his start here in Chicago in 1993 with A Red Orchid Theatre, of which he still serves as an ensemble member. He’s also graced the Lookingglass and Steppenwolf stages—his partner is Steppenwolf ensemble member Kate Arrington, the two have a daughter—with roles in the aforementioned “Bug,” plus Letts’ “Killer Joe” and “Man From Nebraska.” On screen, he’s had prominent roles in films like “8 Mile” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” but none as powerful as that of John Givings in “Road,” the troubled mathematician whose commentary on the young Wheelers glows—and bites—with its honesty.

Now living in New York, Shannon’s recovering from a tumultuous last few months and, of course, getting ready for Sunday. “Well, it was pretty crazy for a while, but it kind of settles down when the voting period is over,” he says. “No more campaigning to be done, so you just get a week or two to relax back at home, hang with family. I’m trying to catch up with friends.”

He says the Oscar-campaigning process was rather extensive. “Oh yeah, the whole deal is very, very extensive. They call you up and they say, ‘You know, we think we want you to get nominated for an award,’ and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really exciting, I can’t believe how lucky I am.’ And then they’re like, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to do a couple things, go to some functions and stuff.’ It’s really like running for office.”

But it wasn’t all that bad. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it,” Shannon says. “It’s something you can’t understand unless it happens. I used to hear people complain about things like this, and it would irritate me, I would think they were ungrateful. It’s not that I’m not grateful, I’m extremely grateful, but it’s something you can’t fathom unless you’re doing it. Parts of it I really love, like doing Q&As after screenings, hearing what people think about the movie. It’s a rare experience.”

Shannon says that as a young actor coming up in Chicago, he never imagined he would get to this point. “I just did an interview with the Italian Vogue…and this woman, she was Italian, and had a very thick accent, and she asks, ‘You know, I did a lot of research on you, I read some of your reviews from when you started in Chicago, and all the critics, they said you weren’t very good. So I’m wondering, how did you get better?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t know how to answer that.’ I guess it’s a long journey. I don’t think I ever thought about it—I never thought I was gonna leave Chicago. I never wanted to leave Chicago. I wasn’t one of these people who wanted to move to LA or New York and get famous. I just liked doing plays.”

He says he learned some valuable lessons here as well. “Well, I think it’s pretty hard to escape humility in Chicago. It’s kind of drilled into you, being humble, and always no matter what trying to get better and never settling where you’re at or resting on your laurels. And also that—I don’t know if I learned this in Chicago or what—but the story is the most important thing. Actors, it’s kind of an ironic thing, we’re all seen as arrogant and vain and self-centered people, or that’s one commonly held perception, but it’s really a service industry. You’re serving the writer and the director. I feel like that’s something I’ve learned.”

Shannon says he’s looking forward to more time spent in Chicago during the next theater season, as Arrington’s hitting the stage in two upcoming shows, and he might be “doing some shows” himself. And he has plans—next week, in fact— to make it here to see AROT’s new production of “The Unseen.”

“I’m a creature of habit, I go places I used to go,” he says of when he visits Chicago these days. “I like to go to Old Town, I feel like that’s my neighborhood. I used to live around there. I go to the Old Town Ale House—I got a pretty good chance of seeing who I want to see if I sit there long enough… I just love the whole city. I miss it.”