Category Archives: Chicago Movies

Esthetic Lens: Creative Quarantine

It was an honor to be profiled recently by Esthetic Lens magazine. I got to talk about the postponed RELATIVE shoot and what I’ve been up to during quarantine. You can check it out here.

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Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY

I wrote the following review of Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY for Cine-file Chicago.

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Stephen Cone’s HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY (US)
Available to stream on the Criterion Channel with subscription

Across eight features and numerous shorts, Chicago-based independent filmmaker Stephen Cone has carved out an indelible niche in America’s 21st-century cinematic landscape. The son of a southern Baptist minister who came to filmmaking by way of theater, Cone has made a name for himself by chronicling the eternal conflict between the ways of the flesh and the spirit — always with an impressively humanistic eye and often within an adolescent/LGBTQ context. His heartfelt movies have steadily won over festival audiences and critics since THE WISE KIDS premiered nearly a decade ago but Cone stands to gain deservedly wider recognition than ever before now that the prestigious Criterion Channel is spotlighting three of his best films. HENRY GAMBLE’S BIRTHDAY PARTY, Cone’s seventh feature, is an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. It’s a coming-of-age story in which an individual’s coming of age is telescoped into a single day and location: the titular 17th birthday party of the son of a “megachurch” pastor. The party takes place mainly in and around a backyard swimming pool and is populated by a large cast of teenage characters (i.e., Henry Gamble’s religious and secular friends) as well as their adult parents. Central among the many external and internal conflicts depicted in this charged suburban milieu is Henry’s coming to terms with his sexual identity. Although it has its cinematic forebears (an opening scene in which the closeted-gay Henry masturbates with his hetero best friend Gabe is an explicit homage to Andre Techine’s WILD REEDS), the film ultimately impresses for its cultural specificity: Cone has stated that the starting point for his original screenplay was the act of making a list of people he knew from childhood, a strategy that clearly pays dividends when it comes to such humorously authentic lines of dialogue as “Are you churched?” or “Well, Jesus drank.” Cone also admirably avoids stereotypes — he’s especially good at showing, in a realistic manner, how the tiniest cracks can appear in the belief systems of his evangelical characters — and his script is brought to life by a fine ensemble cast (Nina Ganet as Henry’s repressed older sister Autumn and Elizabeth Laidlaw as their long-suffering mother are especially good) and Jason Chiu’s masterful widescreen cinematography. (2015, 87 min, MGS)


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO Live Commentary!

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For those who missed the Rendezvous in Chicago Live Commentary with me and Clare Cooney, broadcast on Facebook last Sunday night, we recorded the video on Zoom so you still have the chance to watch it. I had a lot of fun doing this – mainly because Clare brought so much insight (and humor) to her observations on what it’s like to act in and be the casting director for an indie film. Please note you are meant to watch the film simultaneously with the commentary video. Here’s how it works:

1. Pull up Rendezvous in Chicago on Tubi here.
2. Pull up the Facebook Live video (in a separate browser or on a separate device) here.
3. Press play on the Live Commentary video first.
4. When I say “Go”in the Live Commentary video (after counting down from five), press play on the Tubi video.
5. Enjoy both videos simultaneously!


COOL APOCALYPSE in Movies in the Parks’ At Home Series / MERCURY IN RETROGRADE on Amazon & Vimeo


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My first feature, 2015’s no-budget Cool Apocalypse, is now available to stream for the first time ever – thanks to the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Parks’ “Onscreen: At Home” series. You can stream it for FREE between now and next Monday, May 3, at the Park District’s website.

Meanwhile, my 2017 feature, Mercury in Retrograde, hot on the heels of its “virtual run” at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is also now available for the first time to rent/buy on Digital via Amazon Prime and Vimeo on Demand. Peep the official Mercury website for all of your options.

Rendezvous in Chicago, my 2018 feature, is, of course, still available to stream for free via TubiTV or Amazon Prime.

This means you could conceivably stream all three of the films in my “Chicago Relationship Trilogy” in the next few days for the low, low cost of $1.99 (the price of streaming Mercury in SD on Amazon). If you see any of these films and have any feedback you would like to share, feel free to reach out to me me at mikeygsmith@gmail.com.

Cheers, Mike

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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE Streaming Premiere!

In collaboration with my good friends at the Gene Siskel Film Center, I have made my 2017 feature film, MERCURY IN RETROGRADE, starring Roxane Mesquida (FAT GIRL) and Najarra Townsend (CONTRACTED), available to stream for the first time ever! You may stream the film anytime between now and 4/23 for the low, low price of $4.99 and part of the proceeds will go towards the Siskel’s box office. Also, I will be partaking in a virtual Q&A via Facebook Live this Friday night (4/17) at 8pm along with producer/actor Shane Simmons and surprise cast members TBA! The Q&A will be moderated by FilmChicago.com critic Lee Shoquist. Any of my students who stream the film are eligible to earn extra credit towards their grades this semester (see the extra credit page of your course website for more info). Check it out: http://www.mercuryinretrogrademovie.com

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Ksenia Ivanova’s JACK AND ANNA

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Although it has yet to premiere in Chicago proper, one of the most impressive Chicago-made shorts of recent years is Jack and Anna, a Columbia College MFA thesis film by the Russian-born writer/director Ksenia Ivanova. Since premiering in 2019, this poignant and impeccably crafted 15-minute period drama has screened at dozens of festivals around the world, including the prestigious Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, and has deservedly picked up multiple awards in the process. If there is any justice in the universe, Ivanova’s movie will receive the Chicago red-carpet premiere it richly deserves when the coronavirus eventually blows over and its festival run resumes. This would only be fitting given that the cast and crew consist entirely of Chicagoans who should be able to see their work on the biggest screen possible.

Jack and Anna takes place in Colorado in 1913 but tells a story of intolerance and same-sex marriage that feels globally relevant today. The theme of (in)justice is introduced in the opening shot of a judge’s harsh eye, which is trained, in a cool-hued courtroom, on defendant Helen Hilsher, a young woman accused of “impersonating a man” for the previous two years. The narrative then flashes back to depict happier times in the relationship between the tomboy-ish Hilsher (living as “Handsome Jack” Hill) and one Anna Slifka, who were married and owned a farm before their secret was discovered and they were legally forced apart. Kate Smith is superb as Helen/Jack — her courtroom scenes could draw tears from a stone — but Brookelyn Hebert is equally affecting in the less showy role of Anna: Her non-verbal reaction shots are a masterclass in understated screen acting. These performances, like the movie’s impressive technical specs, ultimately transcend the “student film” designation.


Chicago Shorts at the Beloit International Film Festival

I wrote the following capsule review of the Beloit International Film Fest’s “WI / IL TWO” shorts program for Time Out Chicago.

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A Missed Connection. Photo courtesy of Third Wheel Entertainment.

Chicago Shorts Shine at This Year’s Beloit International Film Festival

Located in a picturesque small town in Wisconsin just north of the Illinois border, the Beloit International Film Festival is a gem of a regional fest that has long featured an impressive roster of Midwestern filmmaking talent, and this year’s lineup is no exception. Any Chicagoans planning on attending the 2020 edition of BIFF, which kicks off tonight, Friday, February 21, and runs through Sunday, March 1, would do well to check out the “WI / IL TWO”shorts program: It features a contingent of unusually strong Chicago-made short films. Among the works screening in this program (and thus vying for the fest’s highly competitive “Best Illinois Short” award) are Matthew Weinstein’s A Missed Connection, Layne Marie Williams’ Golden Voices and Eve Rydberg’s Home. This program screens at Bagels & More on Friday, February 21 at 7:30pm and again at the same location on Saturday, February 22 at 7:30pm. Filmmakers and cast members from all three short films will be present for a Q&A session following both screenings.

A Missed Connection is an emotionally resonant study of two college friends, Jacob (Tyler Pistorius) and Lauren (Kimberly Michelle Williams), reconnecting in a coffee shop by chance on a wintry night. That writer/director Matthew Weinstein packs a bit too much “character arc” into the brief run time is a welcome problem in an age of films of too little ambition, and one that is compensated for by spectacularly subtle lead performances and gorgeous Rembrandt-esque visuals. Golden Voices is a poetic horror film about a ghost-chasing podcaster (Kalika Rose) who stumbles upon sleepwalking children whispering of “gold” in rural Indiana. Director Layne Marie Williams, aided by cinematographer Grace Pisula (whose Gold Point Studio produced), packs a wealth of haunting atmosphere into a fleet 14 minutes that will likely leave viewers wanting more; this could easily be the pilot for a web series. Home, a pungent dramedy about the reunion between a father/daughter duo, both on the verge of homelessness, serves as a terrific showcase for two of Chicago’s finest theater actors (Francis Guinan and Carolyn Hoerdemann, who also co-wrote); when actors can cause your heart to lurch by interacting with a tomato—you know you’re in the presence of art.

For more information about this year’s Beloit International Film Festival, including ticket info and showtimes,visit the BIFF website here.


ROY’S WORLD at the Glasgow Film Festival

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ROY’S WORLD, the documentary film I produced about the childhood of the great writer Barry Gifford (WILD AT HEART) in Chicago during the mid-20th century, will have its World Premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival at the end of this month. I will be in attendance for a Q&A following both festival screenings (on 2/28 and 2/29) along with the film’s director, Rob Christopher. Any UK friends interested in attending either screening, please check out our film’s page on the #GFF20 website here.

American friends: Penguin/Random House books will be publishing a new collection of Barry’s “Roy” stories (1973-2000) as a tie-in to our documentary this September. It is available to pre-order now here.


Filmmaker Interview: John Otterbacher

The following interview with Moving Parts producer John Otterbacher, appeared at Cine-File Chicago today ahead of the film’s Chicago Premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center tonight.

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Interview with MOVING PARTS producer John Otterbacher

By Michael Glover Smith

MOVING PARTS is an auspicious debut feature for American writer/director Emilie Upczak. This potent social-realist drama, which deals with the smuggling of a young Chinese woman, Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian), to Trinidad and Tobago where she falls into a life of prostitution, admirably refuses to either exploit or exoticize its subject matter. Upczak will be on hand to discuss the film when it receives its local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 3. Producer John Otterbacher will join her for the Q&A at that screening and will also appear for audience discussion on Tuesday, January 7. I recently spoke to Otterbacher at his Chicago studio where most of the post-production on the film was carried out.

Michael Glover Smith: How does a filmmaker from the Midwest end up producing a film about a Chinese woman living in the Caribbean?

John Otterbacher: In my late 30s I went back to film school to get an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Totally fell in love with the program, loved the people there. My partner in crime, day one of being in Vermont, was Emilie (Upczak). We just clicked. It was her thesis project to write this script. But I’d produced films before and I’m hanging out with Emilie and she’s like, “You’ve made movies. Can you help me make this movie?” So she put me on the project early as a producer and kind of tapped me for knowledge. And while we were in school, she applied for and got a grant in Trinidad, which was a large amount of the funding for this. Trinidad’s economy was up, they were trying to encourage filmmaking and art in the area, and she had lived in Trinidad: She ran the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. So, we graduate and within a year of her graduating, she makes the film. I wasn’t even there for the shoot but I helped with crewing up, equipment, story, budget, everything. And she had a plan for post-production; she was trying to take advantage of a tax credit in Puerto Rico. So post-production started there but it wasn’t working out. And I said, “let’s bring it here (to Chicago). I’ve got my team.” Every film I’ve been on, by necessity, I’ve had to take all the way through to delivery. Every film I’ve worked on has come through this space. You do it enough times and you feel confident. And I’ve got a good team of people who help me. With Emilie and I, there’s a trust thing. I think that’s one of the most important things about the director/producer relationship that gets overlooked. People think producers are about money. I’m not a money guy. I’m a “how do we get things done?” problem solver. How can we make the movie better? So that trust between the two of us is key. She came here and she worked with my editor, Jon Gollner, and sound designer, Kris Franzen. And we worked with another one of our VCFA classmates, Rafael Attias: He’s in Rhode Island but he’s from Venezuela. He’s amazing. He did the original score for the film.

MGS: Which is great, by the way.

JO: Thank you. We were very happy with it. He knows what that place sounds like, that part of the world. But he also added sound-design elements. He would bring elements to us and Chris would mix it. Chris is from the Midwest. He doesn’t know what Trinidad sounds like. But, between Emilie and Rafael, they were like, “You need these ‘peepers,’” these little frogs and different things. And they really build the world of the film for me.

MGS: I think the film does a good job of putting a human face on the issue of sex trafficking, which is something everyone has heard about but is something of an abstract concept for most people. Was that always the goal for you guys?

JO: Emilie, for a long time, was like, “This is not a sex trafficking movie.” She said, “This is a movie about a young woman who chooses to follow her brother to another country, for family reasons, and makes a series of bad choices influenced by dubious people.” And a lot of people talk about her being a prostitute. Prostitution isn’t sex trafficking. Well, they overlap, let’s say. I’m not an expert in that area. In Emilie’s opinion, she’s like, “This is a choice for some people. And I’m not saying Zhenzhen made good choices. She was in a difficult spot.” So that was something we constantly discussed because, for me, it was always a human trafficking film. I just thought that was, I don’t want to say “the angle,” because I don’t want to put it in a box, but you are always looking for ways to describe the film to people. We’re talking about a young woman who, initially, was smuggled; she paid someone to be moved.

MGS: And that person then demanded more money as soon as she arrived.

JO: Right, and that’s where smuggling and human trafficking very much overlap. For me it is a human trafficking movie. But, initially, Emilie wanted to tell the story and put a human face on something that most of us overlook. She didn’t want to paint Zhenzhen as this victim. I think that was really important to Emilie. You can see how someone makes a series of choices because of the situation they’re in. It’s not as simple as “These bad people went to this place and grabbed these people and brought them here as slaves.” It’s a series of choices and people taking advantage of people in bad spots combined that leads someone to this point. She definitely wanted Zhenzhen to be a real character and there were some points in the edit where there had been some storylines developed where it was more of a crime thriller. And we got feedback where people were like, “Oh, you should develop that more.” And we were like, “But we didn’t shoot that, really.” And so there was this strange pressure to make a crime thriller or a psychological thriller, which are genres that people understand – as opposed to this movie, which I think challenges people in a different way. And so, at the end of the day, Emilie felt strongly, “This is the story that I want to tell.”

MGS: Valerie Tian is great as Zhenzhen. She has this interesting quality of being very naturalistic while also having kind of a movie-star quality. She knows how to hold the screen. I know she’s a professional actress and I assume a lot of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Can you talk about the casting process and blending different performance styles?

JO: Casting, as you know, is critical. You have to make certain choices by necessity. Valerie was not a choice made out of necessity. Casting on a low-budget film is often: I’ve got to cast these characters and I’m going to have to use locals and people where this is not their full-time job but they’re enthusiastic. If you’re doing something authentic and you have a good relationship with the community, which Emilie did, people want to be involved. And then I need to bring in these people who are pros: Valerie and Kandyse (McClure) were both in that department. And the willingness of people to go to Trinidad – and I’m not sure if it was the allure of something exotic and different, which I’m sure helped – but actors, if they’re into something, get excited and are willing to do things that they wouldn’t do for a big studio film or T.V. show. So there was a great mix. I thought Valerie was great. This is not a knock on Valerie but, the first cut of the movie, I didn’t think that her performance was great. It’s interesting how performances can kind of come out in post-production. That’s where my hands, particularly on the creative side, were most in this film. That was really interesting to me. Because I do think now, I agree with you, her performance is the movie in a lot of ways.

MGS: Her facial expressions are always compelling.

JO: It did come out in the editing. The first pass: you just drop in the best-looking takes or the takes that are like, “We’ve got to get all the lines of dialogue in the film.” You follow the script; the script is your road map to the film. Then you get past the rough cut and you’re like, “Screw the script. The script doesn’t mean anything at this point. This is the footage we have.” We looked for what is the essence of her character. Sometimes the essence of the character is not necessarily in the best takes. You think it is but then it’s not. We certainly didn’t “create” her performance but post-production is a place where you can find the right performance for the film.


RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO on Amazon Prime Video!

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Just in time for the holidays, Rendezvous in Chicago is now streaming for FREE on Amazon for Amazon Prime members! (If you’re not an Amazon Prime member, you can still rent it for as low as $1.99.) Big thanks to our distributor Cow Lamp Films. Please consider watching it with someone you love, leaving a review and sharing in your social networks: https://www.amazon.com/Rendezvous-Chicago-Clare-Cooney/dp/B07Z5JPR1G/


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