Category Archives: Chicago Movies

The 28th Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival


Onion City is one of the world’s longest-running and most prestigious festivals dedicated exclusively to screening experimental film and video works. The Experimental Film Coalition founded the event in the 1980s and it was taken over by Chicago Filmmakers in 2001. This year’s edition, which runs from March 8–11, was programmed by Emily Eddy, a digital media artist from Portland who has been curating at the Nightingale Cinema since 2013. Taking into account the brief running times of many of the films and videos being exhibited at the fest—most of which are bundled together in loose, thematically related programs—there’s a surplus of exciting works for local cinephiles to check out. Chicagoans, however, should be especially interested in two wonderful shorts with local connections: Marianna Milhorat’s Sky Room and Kristin Reeves’ CPS Closings & Delays.

Sky Room is a collaboration between filmmaker Marianna Milhorat and sound artist Brian Kirkbride that was commissioned by the Chicago Film Archives. Consisting entirely of pre-existing footage that has been extensively reworked — Milhorat credits herself only with “Picture Edit” in the brief closing credits — and married to a soundtrack of retro-sci-fi sound effects and pounding electronic music, Milhorat and Kirkbride weave a beguiling tapestry that contrasts archival images of organic life (plants rapidly growing via time-lapse cinematography) with images of “futuristic” technology (a woman strapped to a hospital bed being fed juice through a straw by a robot arm). The results are at once humorous, disturbing, dreamlike and poetic.

CPS Closings & Delays takes as its subject the controversial decision by the Chicago Board of Education, under the auspices of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to close 50 public schools in 2013. Kristin Reeves shot all 50 schools with a 16mm camera a year later then distressed the footage of the buildings in post-production using laser animation and bleach. These degraded images, appearing onscreen for only a few seconds a piece, visually articulate the socio-economic tragedy, and are juxtaposed with audio interviews with members of the communities, one of whom wryly notes: “If anything, (Emanuel) should be opening up more schools because that’s what these kids need.” The film’s final minutes contain digitally shot footage of children playing in the same neighborhoods, including an exceedingly poignant moment where some of them help Reeves load filmmaking equipment into her car.

Sky Room screens as part of “Shorts Program 1: Growing” on Friday, March 9. CPS Closings & Delays screens as part of “Shorts Program 6: Listening” on Sunday, March 11. For more information, including the complete Onion City schedule, visit





Because of the screenings of my film Mercury in Retrograde at the Gene Siskel Film Center over the next week (Friday, 2/16, Monday, 2/19 and Wednesday, 2/21), the film has been in the press a lot this past week. Among the highlights:

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper calls the film “absolutely beautiful…a smart, funny, quietly effective and authentic slice of older millennial life…Smith has a deft touch for dialogue, creating six distinct characters who look and sound like people we know…the interaction between the uniformly excellent actors feels natural and unforced.” You can read his great, spoiler-free full review here.

Andrea Gronvall of the Chicago Reader has a nice capsule review in which she calls the film an “observant, nuanced indie” and notes the humor in the book-club and disc-golf scenes (an aspect that has been too unremarked upon in other reviews). You can read her notice here.

It was an honor to be interviewed by Donald Liebenson for the mighty site. I am proud of the fact that I uttered the sentence “F.W. Murnau is my master” in this interview. Peep it here.

Two fun MiR-related radio interviews also premiered online in the past week: you can listen to me and the fabulous Najarra Townsend talk about the film with Gary Zidek on his show “The Arts Section” here. You can also here me talk about the film on the WGN Radio podcast “No Coast Cinema,” an essential listen for cinephiles, with hosts Tom Hush and Conor Cornelius here.

Hope to see you at one of the screenings!

Interview with Josh da Silva of Cow Lamp Films

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Independent Chicago filmmakers, take note: there’s a new distributor in town. Cow Lamp Films is the indie features division of long-running Questar Entertainment. Their goal is to procure locally made films for a national audience via cable television and major streaming platforms. Among their acquisitions so far are James Choi’s acclaimed Empty Spaces and Greg Dixon and McKenzie Chinn’s eagerly anticipated Olympia. I recently spoke to Cow Lamp’s Director of Acquisitions Josh da Silva about how the company was formed and what its ambitious plans are for the future.

MGS: Cow Lamp is a new player on the national distribution scene. How did the company come to be and what is its mission statement?

JD: It’s a “new player” but it’s part of an older player, Questar Entertainment, which has been around for 32 years. We have over 5,000 titles in our collection. We’re on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and we do a lot of stuff with public television and a lot of digital platforms. Cow Lamp, the independent distribution division, started pretty much when I started as full-time employee at Questar as Digital Content Manager. I was finishing up my thesis film at DePaul, which is a feature-length documentary, and I realized there are a lot of people who have films. I didn’t really know how the process worked of being in festivals. I thought you would enter a festival and Netflix would see it and they’d give you a big check and you’d be good. You know, maybe I could pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t work like that. So it came about as a need. I saw there was a place in the market: Midwestern and Chicago films receive almost no representation. Unless you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, it’s really hard to get legitimate distribution. So we decided to start a new division. We were acquiring more independent films by really great local filmmakers: James Choi, Greg Dixon, Mike Reiter, Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Susan Kerns. So we saw we had this great collection of films and we wanted to come up with a title for our distribution company, something that was quirky and also Midwest and Chicago-centric. That’s how we came up with Cow Lamp Films – the cow that kicked over the lamp that burned down Chicago.

MGS: You’re title now is Director of Acquisitions. What are your duties in this position?

JD: So as Director of Acquisitions, I find films, I approach filmmakers and I spend a lot of time just trying to find the best films and create a nice catalogue that we can take to buyers. I also try to educate by talking at universities about how to protect yourself as a filmmaker and how to get an equitable deal.

MGS: What is the relationship between Cow Lamp and the Chicago Comedy Film Festival?

JD: My film, Something Out of Nothing, got into the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and I saw an opportunity to have a bit of synergy. I contacted (festival director) Jessica Hardy and we talked – I had met Jessica before and she’s always a pleasure to work with – and we wanted to emphasize Chicago films. There are a lot of festivals in the Midwest but they don’t necessarily help filmmakers by helping them get buyers. It’s a great business for other people to be in but at the end of the day filmmakers should be able to make some money off of their films, especially if they’re at a festival. So we were invited to their festival, Cow Lamp and Questar, and our President Jon Plowman came, as well as a lot of our other employees, to meet and mingle. We’re currently working on acquiring a title from the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The directors are actually out of the California area but it’s a good film and I think it’ll do well. We actually don’t have too many comedies so hopefully this will help. Then we’ll also be working with the Chicago Independent Film and Television Festival in April, which is run by Jessica’s husband, Brent Kado. So we’ll definitely be working with them and looking for some new acquisitions.

MGS: There are seven films listed on your website. What, if any, common threads are there between them? What are you looking for in terms of the kinds of films you distribute?

JD: Ultimately, that they’re good films, which can be subjective. We’ve just signed a new documentary about music festivals so we have eight films locked. We have turned people away. I use my staff to watch the movies and get their opinions. I don’t always trust my opinion because, as a filmmaker myself, it’s hard for me to watch some things sometimes. We have to have standards because we’re investing a lot into these films as well.

MGS: How are these films going to be made available to watch?

JD: It’s important to think about films as a product, something tangible. Part of getting the maximum amount of revenue, which seems contrary to what people believe, is to be very specific in your release. If I have one title and I put it out everywhere it loses its value. It loses its value financially and also to viewers because it doesn’t seem special, it’s just YouTube fodder. We’re starting right now with television. We’re working on a nice little cable television deal to get our films out there. Buyers want exclusivity. When you’re a young filmmaker and you want to just get it out there, you have to be patient. Don’t just put it on Amazon because that destroys its value. We’ve experienced that with films. People want something exclusive first. You get more money if its exclusive, if its considered a new release, and then you work your way down the food chain. You start with television and then you go to exclusive streaming platforms like Netflix then (digital) “rentals” and “buys.” We are considering doing some theatrical releases as well for some of our films.

MGS: How would you recommend local filmmakers submit their films to you for distribution consideration?

JD: You can submit your film and I will personally take a look at it and make sure other people take a look at it. I also love a good trailer. Trailers are so important. Beyond just signing filmmakers, we give them good deals because we’ve learned from other people who have been signed by large names that it can be very predatory. Our goal is to create a lasting film scene. We believe the next great directors are here in Chicago. It’s basically like building a house with every film (that we acquire). We have very equitable deals: we take the financial risk and your film will hopefully receive some nice revenue. We’re more competitive than a Fox or an A24. We’re going to give you a great deal because we’re willing to take the risk and make the investment.


MERCURY IN RETROGRADE at the Siskel Center


I could not be more excited to announce that my film MERCURY IN RETROGRADE will receive its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center next month. It screens three times: Friday, 2/16, Monday, 2/19 and Wednesday, 2/21. Producer/actor Shane Simmons and I will be present for Q&A sessions following all three screenings, which will be moderated by three of my favorite Chicago film critics: David J. Fowlie (Keeping It Reel), Matt Fagerholm (Indie Outlook) and Ian Simmons (Kicking the Seat). More information including ticket info and showtimes can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

The film’s trailer, cut together by Simmons, also recently premiered as an online exclusive at The Film Stage.

Hope to see you at the Siskel!

42 GRAMS at the Siskel Center

I wrote the following review of Jack C. Newell’s 42 Grams for Time Out Chicago.


The 42 Grams Documentary is a Fitting Tribute to the Departed Michelin-starred Restaurant

The newly-refurbished Gene Siskel Film Center (which was closed during December while new seats and carpeting were installed) has a new documentary series kicking off on Friday, January 5, and running through Thursday, February 1, called Stranger Than Fiction. The series, featuring the local premieres of eight new films, is ambitiously international in scope—among the countries represented are Israel, Japan, Mexico and Qatar—but Chicagoans will be particularly interested in Jack C. Newell’s locally-made 42 Grams. This fascinating documentary tells the behind-the-scenes story of how two-star Michelin chef Jake Bickelhaupt transitioned from running an underground supper club out of his own apartment to founding the highly acclaimed but short-lived Uptown restaurant that provides the film with its title. It’s a perfect match between filmmaker and subject matter as Newell, program director of the Harold Ramis Film School, previously made the improv-comedy Open Tables, which was also set amid Chicago’s fine-dining milieu.

What makes 42 Grams such a compelling watch is the way Bickelhaupt, a culinary genius from a rural, working-class Wisconsin background, comes across as such an electrifying character—at once passionate, intense and occasionally ornery. Newell maintains an admirably objective directorial eye throughout, trusting viewers to decide for themselves what to make of Bickelhaupt’s abrasive manner, which precipitates a revolving door of employees, and to what extent his unconventional style of restaurant management is justified by his pursuit of perfection. In fact, at a fleet 80 minutes, 42 Grams is such a briskly edited and entertaining ride that viewers aren’t likely to start reflecting on its more profound themes until a surprising closing-title crawl hints at what the film’s true subject has been all along: the thorny intersection of professional ambition and personal relationships.

More information about 42 Grams and the entire Stranger Than Fiction lineup can be found on the Siskel Center’s website.

PAUSE OF THE CLOCK at Transistor Chicago


It is my great pleasure to announce I’ll be introducing a FREE screening of my friend Rob Christopher‘s fascinating 2015 meta-film Pause of the Clock at Transistor Chicago this Sunday, December 10. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Rob that I will be moderating. You can hear an archival conversation of Rob and I discussing the film on Episode 14 of my (now-defunct) White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast from 2016 here. You can learn more about the screening, including the venue address and showtime, on Transistor Chicago’s website here. The official synopsis of Pause of the Clock is below:

The year is 1995. Two college roommates, Dylan and Rob, are making a movie called Crueler Than Truth with a group of their friends in Colorado and Chicago. During the shoot Dylan stumbles upon Rob’s diary and secretly begins to read it. His unsettling discoveries about who Rob really is, combined with his own hidden attraction towards him, gradually mesh with the “film within the film” to create a fragmented reality. Filmed in 16mm in 1995-1996, and recently completed after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Pause of the Clock is a living time capsule 20 years in the making.

Also, this seems like a good occasion for a reminder that I am co-producing Rob’s latest film venture, a documentary about the great Chicago-born-and-bred writer Barry Gifford titled Roy’s World: Barry Gifford & Chicago. The film will be released in late 2018. For the latest news on this exciting project, please follow the official Twitter feed of our film here.


Mercury in Retrograde at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival


My second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, screens this Thursday, 11/30 at 2pm at the Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival in Des Plaines. It will be followed by a Q&A with me and cast members Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons, Najarra Townsend and Kevin Wehby. The Q&A will be moderated by Kankakee Valley Daily Journal film critic Pam Powell.

The first two reviews of the film have appeared online to coincide with our screening and I am so grateful that the first critics to write about it have been so intelligent and insightful. At Cine-File Chicago, Kian S. Bergstrom calls it “a nuanced and troubling portrait of six people who, over the course of a long weekend, quietly and privately reveal that they are in the process of exploding inside…Many of the actors deserve special acclaim, especially Jack Newell and Alana Arenas, two local actors who play Jack and Golda, the one couple amongst the three to be married, inhabit their complex roles to a chilling degree…It is a trenchant, beautifully and disturbingly stylized look at misogyny and oppression.” In L.A. Splash magazine, Deba Davy writes: “The movie is beautifully shot, the outdoor scenes clear and sharp, the indoor experiences effortlessly equalizing; none of the characters escapes the eye of the camera. The scenes where the separate couples are alone together are startlingly realistic. Further, there is an overall restraint and respect used: while no important detail is spared, there is never an over-the-top deluge of ‘too much information.’ It’s a fine and forceful presentation.”

Update (11/28): At Daily Grindhouse, Jason Coffman writes: “MERCURY IN RETROGRADE is a deeply thoughtful, carefully observed drama with a roster of exceptional performances. By the time the credits roll, many viewers will probably find themselves unwilling to part with some of the characters to whom they may have grown attached…It’s the kind of film that demands the viewer’s careful attention, and rewards it in spades. A fully-realized slate of grown-up characters is a rarity in films at any level, and that alone would set MERCURY IN RETROGRADE above many of its contemporaries. But it’s the powerful specifics of each character’s story that makes this something truly special, and a film that no serious cinephile should miss.”

Update (12/04): The sheer number of reviews is getting difficult to keep up with. Please check the “External Reviews” section of our IMDb page for a comprehensive overview.

Hope to see you at the screening!

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