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Monday, August 20, 2018

Let us now praise Alan Rudolph

Posted By on 08.20.18 at 06:00 AM


One reason I was so enthusiastic about Azazel Jacobs's The Lovers, one of my favorite movies of 2017, was that it reminded me of the work of writer-director Alan Rudolph. Employing funny, literate dialogue and graceful camera movements, Jacobs created a heightened sense of reality in which it seemed natural for people to fall in love on a whim. This effect, and the means Jacobs used to achieve it, seemed straight out of the Rudolph playbook, something few filmmakers have bothered to consult since he stopped making movies in the early 2000s. (Rudolph ended his 15-year silence last year with the indie feature Ray Meets Helen; unfortunately no one in Chicago bothered to screen it, but it's now available to watch online.) I've often wondered why that is—Rudolph's distinctive blend of screwball comedy, film noir-style purple dialogue, and musical-like visuals yielded so many memorable movies (among them Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, The Moderns, and Love at Large) that I'm surprised no one tried to rip it off. A few 21st-century films have come close to achieving what Rudolph did in his winning streak of 80s and 90s—The Lovers, Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love—but what makes them successfully Rudolphesque is the way they follow their own intuition. Perhaps Rudolph's work is simply inimitable.

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The play The Harvest and more of the best things to do in Chicago this week

Posted By on 08.20.18 at 06:00 AM

  • The Harvest

There are plenty of shows, films, and concerts happening this week. Here's some of what we recommend:

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Queen Key at Summer Smash and more of the best things to do in Chicago this weekend

Posted By on 08.17.18 at 06:00 AM


There are plenty of shows, films, and concerts happening this weekend. Here's some of what we recommend:

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Getting dizzy at Ravinia when the CSO plays Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score

Posted By on 08.15.18 at 12:03 PM

  • Courtesy of Ravinia Festival

OK, film fans: What does Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock's hypnotic 1958 psychodrama and the current holder of the "Best Film Ever" title in the prestigious British Film Institute's critics' ranking, have in common with the flick it replaced at the top of that list, Citizen Kane?

Composer Bernard Herrmann.

Herrmann wrote the scores for both those films, and for a raft of other classics, including Psycho and Taxi Driver.

How much of a role did his music play in their success?

Herrmann could make even long takes of the 20th-century's iconic movie nice guy, Jimmy Stewart, cruising behind the wheel of a 1950s DeSoto, into menacing nail-biters. Tonight's program at the Ravinia Festival will  pull the curtain back and let you judge for yourself about this least recognized but arguably most important factor in film impact: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will play Herrmann's spell-casting Vertigo score as the film runs, both in the pavilion and on a giant lawn screen.

And Stewart's costar, the archetypal Hitchcock ice blond, Kim Novak (who survived both Hitch and—after her 2014 Oscars appearance—an infamous Trump tweet), is slated to be on hand to introduce the film.

It promises to be the best kind of audiovisual overload.

CSO: Vertigo Wed 8/15, 8 PM (park opens 5 PM), Ravinia, 418 Sheridan Rd., Highland Park, 847-266-5100,, $25-$90, $25 lawn. 

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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The scrappy pre-Code years of William A. Wellman — FilmStruck's director of the week

Posted By on 08.14.18 at 06:00 AM

William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road
  • William Wellman's Wild Boys of the Road
Even though William A. Wellman directed more than 80 films between 1920 and 1958—including the first Oscar-winner, Wings—he's still best known for the iconic 1931 James Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy. Streaming channel FilmStruck features Wellman as their "director of the week" and we've picked five of his 1930s pre-Code films, when he was at his best.

The Public Enemy
Time hasn't been terribly kind to this 1931 gangster drama, which suffers more than it should from the glitches of early sound. But James Cagney's portrayal of a bootlegging runt is truly electrifying (he'd already made three films, but this one made him a star), and Jean Harlow makes the tartiest tart imaginable. The famous grapefruit-in-the-kisser scene (the recipient is Mae Clarke) is only one of the fiercely misogynistic moments that stud the career of director William Wellman. With Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, and Donald Cook. 84 min. —Dave Kehr

Night Nurse
A William Wellman curiosity done for Warners in 1931, this gritty thriller, a favorite of film critic Manny Farber, is of principal interest today for its juicy early performances by Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, and Clark Gable. Hard as nails, with lots of spunk. 72 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Safe in Hell
William Wellman directed this racy precode tale of a saucy prostitute (Dorothy Mackaill in a terrific performance) who unintentionally kills one of her clients and flees to a tropical island that serves as a haven for criminals. Awaiting the arrival of her true love (Donald Cook), she fends off lecherous advances from a motley assortment of international rogues, including the island's nefarious chief of law enforcement. Wellman's splendid direction animates an otherwise static script, deftly blending comedic moments with surprisingly dark undertones. This 1931 drama may lack the punch of Wellman's The Public Enemy, released the same year, but it's still a fine display of his talents. 73 min. —Reece Pendleton

Heroes for Sale
This scrappy, cynical pre-Code drama (1933) comes from the most fruitful period of William A. Wellman's career, when the director was turning out a half-dozen programmers like this on a yearly basis. Richard Barthelmess stars as a soldier who gets snubbed for decoration in World War I after a buddy takes credit for the act of heroism he performed in battle. The protagonist develops a morphine addiction while recovering from his wounds but pulls himself back up, only to descend and ascend the social ladder several more times. Wellman crams an astonishing amount of narrative incident into the short running time, with more developments every ten minutes than most contemporary Hollywood productions cover in their entirety. This is also bracingly egalitarian, attacking the hypocrisy of communists and capitalists alike. 71 min. —Ben Sachs

Wild Boys of the Road
The underrated William A. Wellman made many neglected classics during the Depression, and this 1933 feature is one of the very best—a Warners social drama with Frankie Darro as a boy who leaves his parents to save them the burden of his support and joins up with a gang of similarly disenfranchised kids who wind up riding the rails. Pungent stuff. 68 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Noir City: Chicago travels back in time to the postwar golden age of noir

Posted By on 08.13.18 at 06:00 AM

The Spiritualist
  • The Spiritualist
This year the annual film noir festival Noir City: Chicago (which begins Friday at the Music Box) is going back to basics. All 18 of the selections are American, and all but two were made during the golden era of noir—that is, the dozen or so years following the end of World War II. The programming differs from the past few years, which saw the festival organizers looking for films outside the U.S. and from after the 1950s. These previous Noir City lineups argued that the genre wasn't defined by just a style or a thematic preoccupation with crime, but rather a pessimistic outlook, which can take root in any place or time. By comparison, this year's edition focuses on the specific conditions that allowed noir to thrive in the first place.

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Confest 2018 and more of the best things to do in Chicago this week

Posted By on 08.13.18 at 06:00 AM

Pillowtalk, presented at Confest 2018 - WALTER WLODARCZYK
  • Pillowtalk, presented at Confest 2018

There are plenty of shows, films, and concerts happening this week. Here's some of what we recommend:

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crashing the boys’ club: independent women directors in the 60s and 70s

Posted By on 08.07.18 at 06:00 AM

Barbara Loden's Wanda
  • Barbara Loden's Wanda
The explosion of American independent filmmaking in the 1960s and '70s was largely an all-male affair (surprise), but a few talented women also got their hand in during this vital and changing period. The Chicago Film Society is showing one such effort, Juleen Compton's 1966 rarity The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, which has been recently rediscovered and restored, on Wednesday, August 15. We've selected another five diverse titles below.

The Connection
I saw the Living Theater's legendary production of Jack Gelber's play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it's about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke's imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play's single run-down flat. It's presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

The Velvet Vampire
Given the genre (horror) and the budget (extremely low), it may seem perverse to say that Stephanie Rothman's 1971 film is among the best women's films ever made, but so it is—a highly intelligent, deftly poetic reimagining of the vampire myth, with the theme of fatal sexuality transferred to a female character. The vampire is neither an aggressor nor a seductress, but an abstract figure of polymorphous sensuality: her "victims" choose her, and they range from a would-be rapist to a liberated (and wittily parodied) southern California couple. 80 min. —Dave Kehr

Hester Street
Joan Micklin Silver's ingratiating little movie (1975) begins with some big ideas about immigrant culture, but these are soon and happily shucked in favor of a modestly effective domestic melodrama. In the New York of the 1890s, Jake (Steven Keats), a Jewish immigrant with five years in America, dreads the arrival of his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), from the old country. Jake is a "Yankee" now, resenting Gitl's naivete and superstition. Photographed in a self-consciously quaint black and white, Hester Street is compromised by preciousness and oversimplification, but it makes a pleasant and efficient entertainment. 90 min. —Dave Kehr

Harlan County, USA
Barbara Kopple's 1977 documentary on a Kentucky coal miners' strike is muddled on the issues, but it earned its Oscar as a dramatic, involving story, full of tough and appealing characters. Kopple's fiercely partisan stance upsets the classic balance of cinema verite documentary, but who could fail to take sides in this timeless labor-management confrontation and still claim to have a heart? 103 min. —Dave Kehr

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Monday, August 6, 2018

How inmates at Cook County Jail curated the WorldScene Film Festival

Posted By on 08.06.18 at 06:00 AM

A Tropical Sunday
  • A Tropical Sunday
This Saturday at 7 PM, the International Children's Media Center (at 625 N. Kingsbury) will present a program of international short films titled "If Only." The films were selected by inmates at Cook County Correctional Facility as part of WorldScene, a 14-week arts residency and job training program designed, according to the ICMC, to "support self-determination among marginalized and court-involved youth ages 18-24." "If Only" consists of six films from six countries, which were selected from a pool of more than 150 entries. The program—which involves watching, discussing, and curating the entries—is the brainchild of ICMC executive director Nicole Dreiske, though she received ample support from Elli Montgomery, director of the Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort (SAVE) at the correctional facility. I spoke with Dreiske last week about the program’s design and how it affected the prisoners who took part in it.

I'm the cofounder of Facets and the founder of the Chicago International Children's Film Festival. I already had a profound interest in the short film, not just as an art form, but as a possible agent for social change. That's one of the reasons that I started the International Children's Media Center. We do a program for early childhood called "Screen Smart," which measurably improves learning for at-risk children. It also lays for the foundations for healthy screen habits.

Around 2012, I got very interested—after seeing what was happening in the schools with these short films [I screened]—I got very interested in using them in therapeutic settings. The first of these programs was called Global Girls, and it was done with Girls, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida. At that particular Girls, Inc., there were young women in middle schools who were being solicited into becoming prostitutes and drug mules. To their credit, the people at the agency were very concerned, and they were interested in showing these young ladies that their interest in media could not only lead to potential careers, but also build confidence.

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Nikka Costa at City Winery and more of the best things to do in Chicago this week

Posted By on 08.06.18 at 12:28 AM

  • Matthew Welch
  • Nikki Costa

There are plenty of shows, films, and concerts happening this week. Here's some of what we recommend:

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