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Category Archives: Chicago Movies

The 4th Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival!

I am excited to announce that, after the success of the last three Oakton Pop-Up Film Festivals, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. for the fourth consecutive year. The screenings of these acclaimed independent American films (three features and three shorts), spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, November 28 through Friday, December 1. The entire festival is FREE and open to the public and ALL screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers. Any of my students who attend a screening will receive extra credit points towards his or her final grade (see the extra credit page of your course website for more information). Don’t you dare miss it!

Oakton Community College’s 4th Annual Pop-Up Film Festival!
Footlik Theatre, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines
Tuesday, Nov. 28 – Friday, Dec.1 – FREE admission

signature-move-still-5SIGNATURE MOVE (80 min, 2017) – Tuesday, November 28 at 2pm
Followed by a Q&A w/ director Jennifer Reeder moderated by Kristin McCartney
In this hilarious and heartfelt look at modern love, Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) is a 30-something Pakistani Muslim lesbian lawyer in Chicago who begins a new romance with Alma, a confident Mexican-American woman. Zaynab tries to keep both her love life and her interest in lucha-style wrestling a secret from her conservative mother, who knows more than she lets on. World premiered at the SxSW Film Festival.

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PORTO (86 min, 2016) – Wednesday, November 29 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ director Gabe Klinger moderated by Laurence Knapp
Jake (Star Trek’s Anton Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) are two outsiders in Porto, Portugal, who once experienced a connection. A mystery remains about the moments they shared, and in searching through memories, they relive the depths of a night uninhibited by the consequences of time. This award-winning drama was executive produced by Jim Jarmusch (Paterson).

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MERCURY IN RETROGRADE (105 min, 2017) – Thursday, November 30 at 2:00pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ cast members Najarra Townsend, Alana Arenas, Jack C. Newell, Shane Simmons and Kevin Wehby, and director Michael Smith moderated by film critic Pam Powell
Three couples from Chicago vacation together for a weekend at a lakeside cabin in Michigan. Isabelle (Roxane Mesquida) and Richard have been together for five years and are deeply unhappy; Jack and Golda have been happily married for 10 years; and Peggy (Najarra Townsend) and Wyatt just started dating and don’t yet know each other well. Hidden tensions and secrets slowly come to the surface in this comedy/drama that won the Best Narrative Feature award at the Full Bloom Film Festival.

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SHORT FILMS PROGRAM: WOMEN IN DANGER (31 min, 2017) – Friday, December 1 at 12:30pm

Followed by a Q&A w/ directors Sadie Rogers, Clare Cooney, Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards moderated by Michael Smith
These entertaining and provocative short films, all written and directed (or co-directed) by women, show in wildly different ways how their young female protagonists find themselves in harm’s way while attempting to navigate public spaces. The films screening are CHIP V.2 (Sadie Rogers), RUNNER (Clare Cooney) and AN ATRAMENTOUS MIND (Layne Marie Williams and Lonnie Edwards).

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EL MAR LA MAR, PRINCESS CYD and THE REPLACEMENT at CIFF

I wrote the following piece on films by local directors playing at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival for Time Out Chicago. It appeared on their website yesterday.

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The Chicago International Film Festival kicks off this Thursday, October 12, bringing a packed lineup of movies that range from serious documentaries to lighthearted comedies. While there’s plenty of national and international talent on display throughout the festival, there is also a handful of noteworthy films by local directors.

Chief among them is El Mar la Mar, a haunting and poetic documentary by Joshua Bonnetta and recent Chicago transplant/Northwestern University professor J.P. Sniadecki (The Iron Ministry) that examines life along the border of the U.S. and Mexico. The most daring aspect of this provocative non-fiction feature is the way the film’s many interview subjects are only heard and never seen. Their compelling stories are instead told via voice-over narration, forming a kind of off-screen Greek chorus that the filmmakers juxtapose against images of beautiful but harsh desert landscapes (not unlike James Benning’s Deseret) and occasionally a pitch-black screen. As one would expect, the issue of illegal border crossing is prominently featured, which inevitably marks this as a commentary on Trumpism, but there are plenty of surprises as well. My personal favorite sequence involves one man’s harrowing and utterly convincing story of his encounter with a 15-foot tall monster.

Stephen Cone (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), one of Chicago’s best and most prolific directors, returns to CIFF with Princess Cyd, another coming-of-age tale involving the conflict between flesh and spirit. The title character here is a troubled 16-year-old girl (Jessie Pinnick) who travels from South Carolina to Chicago to spend the summer with her famous novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence) and unexpectedly finds romance with a cute barista (Malic White) in the process. Although, from a narrative perspective, this feels more contrived than Cone’s very best work (how is it possible that Cyd doesn’t know the origin of her own first name?), this shortcoming is compensated for by the nuanced and complex lead performances, which are effectively filtered through Cone’s always-refreshing humanism. Credit too must go to Zoe White’s gorgeous, delicate cinematography, which imparts a feeling of “being there-ness” in its ephemeral evocation of late-summer sunlight.

Last but not least, local movie buffs are likely to get a kick out of The Replacement, an ambitious sci-fi/comedy short by the husband-and-wife team of director Sean Miller and producer Naz Khan. Local indie producing and acting mainstay (and Midwest Independent Film Festival executive director) Mike McNamara turns in a delightful performance as Abe Stagsen, a janitor in a futuristic America who becomes outraged when one of his many clones successfully runs for President. This high concept allows the filmmakers to pose philosophical questions similar to other beloved sci-fi movies (Who are we? Where are we going? What does it mean to be human?) but what really elevates this sharp short are the top-notch visual effects, which render familiar Loop locations almost unrecognizable, and a welcome comedic tone that runs counter to the ultra-seriousness one might expect from a film set in a dystopian future.

El Mar la Mar screens on Tuesday, October 24 and Wednesday, October 25. Princess Cyd screens on Tuesday, October 17, Saturday, October 21 and Wednesday, October 25. The Replacement screens as part of the Shorts 1 block on Sunday, October 15, Wednesday, October 18 and Wednesday, October 25. For more info and showtimes, visit the Chicago International Film Festival’s website.


R.I.P. Skip Haynes (1946-2017)

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” is, to my mind, the second greatest “Chicago song” of all time (after only Robert Johnson’s immortal “Sweet Home Chicago”). The question I have been asked most frequently about my first feature, COOL APOCALYPSE, is “How did you manage to get the rights to use that song?” Here, for the first time, is that story in full.

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A few years ago, when I was writing COOL APOCALYPSE, I did something no independent filmmaker should ever do: I wrote a well-known pop song into my script – in such a way that the entire movie would seemingly collapse without it – without first bothering to clear the rights. Hell, I didn’t know who had written or recorded the song, much less who owned the rights, when I was writing my little no-budget film. I had never even heard the song as a kid growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but as soon as I moved to Chicago in 1993, I realized it was a local FM radio staple and immediately fell in love with its infectious melody and rollicking piano. When I bought my first used car a few years later, there were times when I would be driving down Lake Shore and it would come on the radio, which was always a magical experience. I would go nuts in that Volkswagen Rabbit, singing along and banging on the steering wheel. So I wrote a scene into the script where this exact thing happens to the characters played by Chelsea David and Adam Overberg. I intended the scene to be a love letter to both the song and the road that it paid tribute to.
 
When I discovered that Skip Haynes had written the song, I tasked my great producer, Clare McKeown, with trying to track him down. She reported back that she couldn’t find him. I did some internet sleuthing of my own and eventually found that he was the only surviving member of the band Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah and that he was currently living in Laurel Canyon, California, where he ran a dog rescue. He was still writing and recording music – only his new songs were all about dogs. I also found out that, much to my good fortune, Skip had not only written the song but owned the performance rights as well. I sent him an e-mail explaining that I was an independent filmmaker making a no-budget movie and that I had no money but was desperate to use his song. He responded right away by sending me his phone number and asking me to give him a call. When I called him up, he immediately and very generously offered to give me the rights to the song for a meager $40 then proceeded to reminisce about the good old days for another 30 minutes.
 
Skip was hilarious. He told me a story about how his manager had called him when he and his band were on tour in the early ’70s and told him that they had to start playing “Lake Shore Drive” at their shows. The band hadn’t realized that the song was getting radio airplay; so much time had elapsed between when they had recorded it and when it became a hit that they actually had to go to a record store while they were on the road and buy their own album in order to re-learn the song. He also told me that the band used to dose their Quaaludes with LSD and wash them down with a mixture of NyQuil and tequila. He called that a “Green Russian.” It was a very memorable phone conversation.
 
Last year I found out that “Lake Shore Drive” was prominently featured in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2, something that pissed me off to no end. The film was a Hollywood tentpole with no connection to Chicago and it was going to make the song more famous than ever, which would also change how people perceived my own movie; I realized that some people were already watching COOL APOCALYPSE for the first time and saying, “Hey, it’s the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY song!” during the “Lake Shore Drive” scene. Nonetheless, when I heard that Skip Haynes passed away yesterday at the age of 71, I felt glad that he had found this unexpected Hollywood success late in life. I hope that he earned five figures from selling the rights to Marvel and that he was able to put that money to good use at the dog rescue and enjoy his last couple years on earth as much as possible. Rest in peace, Skip. Thanks to Bluetooth technology, I can now play your song every time I drive down Lake Shore Drive in your honor.



MERCURY IN RETROGRADE at Full Bloom / Talking TWIN PEAKS on the “Page 2 Screen” Podcast

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My second feature film, Mercury in Retrograde, had its World Premiere this past Saturday, September 16, at the Full Bloom Film Festival in Statesville, North Carolina, where we were awarded the prize for “Best Narrative Feature.” To commemorate the occasion, Loren Greenblatt created the beautiful hand-painted poster you see above. I should have more news soon about additional screenings this year and next. For the most up-to-date info on the film, please “like” the official MiR Facebook page and follow us on Twitter.

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I also recently discussed Twin Peaks Season 3 with film critic and screenwriter Jeff York on the International Screenwriters Association’s “Page 2 Screen” podcast. I had a lot of fun doing it and you can listen to it in its entirety here.


Filmmaker Interview: Harley McKabe

The following piece appeared at Time Out today:
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Harley McKabe is a Chicago-based writer/director whose proof-of-concept short film The Other Guy will screen at Reggie’s Music Joint this Friday, July 21 as part of a concert featuring punk acts The C-Sides, StereoViolet, Butchered and The New Sex and Drugs, who wrote an original song for the film. McKabe is a transwoman who based this raunchy, Kevin Smith-influenced comedy on her own pre-trans life; the plot concerns Sean (David Weiner), a green-haired punk, who cajoles his wallflower roommate, Harry (Adam J. Rebora), into attending a party referred to as a “shirtless shindig.” At less than four minutes, this funny, no-budget DIY effort marks McKabe as a talent to watch.

MGS: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

HM: I actually have a background in print journalism. I worked as a staffer for a small newspaper in Alaska. But I’d always done film on the side – even if it was just writing scripts. Ever since I was a kid I was always interested in film. Whenever there were school projects and there was an opportunity, I’d go with making a film. The Other Guy script was in consideration by two producers and a director at one point and I was just going to stay on as a writer. But as I learned more about the actual (filmmaking) process, I decided that I wanted to get into directing myself.

MGS: The film is a traditional comedy in a lot of ways because it’s about two characters with contrasting personalities. Were they based on people you know?

HM: That is a very interesting question. A person I used to be rather close with suggested I write this film. It was pre-transition. The character Harry is loosely based on me. As I was beginning to decide to go through with this, I had some questions as to whether I wanted to continue that project – for obvious reasons. I do believe that there are a lot of universal concepts at play in the short. There have been plenty of times where people feel awkward at parties or are placed in uncomfortable situations by their good friends. Sean is also much more loosely based on me. But the idea was basically that there was this guy who thinks fate’s out to get him, that he’s never going to find a girlfriend because every woman he’s attracted to already has a boyfriend. It’s about him realizing the problem is really him; that he just has to get some self-confidence, stop being a wallflower and start going for the women who might actually be interested in him. It’s coming-of-age as if directed by Kevin Smith, that’s kind of what I was going for.

MGS: There’s a lot of good gross-out humor. I loved seeing the vomit because the texture of it seemed so authentic. I see big-budget Hollywood movies where the vomit looks less real. How did you make that?

HM: Thank you for the compliment. It’s actually not the first time I’ve thrown soup on a man. It was a mixture of vegetable soup and lentil soup with a fair amount of crackers. I put that together in a bucket the day of. It was referred to as the puke bucket. Adam later told me that he still smelled like puke two or three days later.

MGS: The band The New Sex and Drugs wrote a song for the film. How did you hook up with them?

HM: I met Adam, the front man for the band, through Craigslist. I posted an ad saying I was a screenwriter looking for someone to swap scripts with. He and I exchanged scripts and I ended up going to one of his concerts, and he and his band were kind enough to write the song “All Hipsters Must Die.” It’s pretty difficult to get music for a short film, let alone have someone offer to write an original. So I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck yeah. Absoluely!”

MGS: Last question: are “shirtless shindigs” a real thing?

HM: Pretty much the only reason I wrote the short was to have Sean say, “No shirt shindigs are the shit!” I’ve never been to a shirtless shindig. I do not know if they exist but it sounds fucking hilarious.

The Other Guy screens at Reggie’s Music Joint Friday, July 21. Doors open at 8pm for this 21+ show. More info can be found on the official Reggie’s website.


Elevated Films Kicks Off Summer Series with PERSON TO PERSON

The following piece was published at Time Out Chicago today.

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Elevated Films, the outdoor independent movie series that supports cinema and local youth arts programs in Chicago, has announced its first summer screening: a sneak preview of Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person. The film, which stars Michael Cera (fresh off of his God-level cameo as Wally Brando in Twin Peaks), was well-received at its Sundance World Premiere and will be distributed later in the year by Magnolia Pictures. The ensemble drama has been described as following a “variety of New York characters as they navigate personal relationships and unexpected problems over the course of a single day.” Person to Person co-stars Bene Coopersmith, Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson and Chicago native Tavi Genvinson.

The screening will take place on the roof deck of Columbia College’s Media Production Center at 1600 South State St. and Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who executive produced, will moderate a post-screening Q&A with director Defa and star Coopersmith. “I’m incredibly proud to be involved with Person to Person, it’s a really funny, warm, uplifting film, and I can’t wait to share it with the Chicago audience on a summer night,” says Swanberg. Tickets for PERSON TO PERSON can be purchased for $10.00, while students may attend for free. Doors open with cocktails at 7:30pm and the screening begins at 8:30pm. For more information, visit the Elevated Films website.


Filmmaker Interview: Andrew Stasiulis and Eric Marsh

The following interview should appear at Time Out Chicago sometime in the next few days.

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One of the highlights of the film-going year so far will occur on Friday, April 21 when local filmmakers Eric Marsh and Andrew Stasiulis quietly debut their feature film Orders at DePaul University. This surreal war film follows the adventures of a nameless soldier (Keith D. Gallagher) as he wanders the less-than-hostile streets of the Chicago suburbs fighting a faceless enemy in a series of scenes shot through with a potent absurdist humor. I recently spoke to Andrew and Eric about their film ahead of its local premiere.

MGS: Where did the idea for this crazy movie come from?

AS: I went to grad school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where I became really into the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. I came across a novel called In the Labyrinth and I had this dream of adapting it. So when I came back from grad school I started writing a pure adaptation of the book. I sort of sat there and, after I’d written the adaptation, I was like, “I’m in love with the ideas in this story but it needs to become something different. It needs to become something American, something contemporary, and my own.” So then I just kind of threw that out and took the basic premise of a soldier wandering around, this sort of odyssey-like structure, and started writing out notes and scenes and fragments. Then when I reconnected with Eric after coming back – we had worked on a couple shorts together – one day I was like, “Hey, do you want to help me do this?” So Eric helped me put it into some kind of script.

EM: You should talk more about the idea.

AS: Yeah (laughing). I was a senior when 9/11 happened. I felt like my class, my generation, that was born in ’84, we were the 18-year-olds who were watching the Towers come down and knowing it was a Pearl Harbor-esque moment. A lot of my friends signed up – for patriotic reasons, for the “poverty draft,” or whatever it was – but a lot of my friends were galvanized by that moment. I didn’t. I’m completely 100% glad I didn’t make that decision but I stayed close with all my friends who did and I watched what they went through and I watched what America was going through and I was becoming enraged by a lot of what I was seeing on the screens, the combat image of the War on Terror. And in making the film I wanted to encapsulate the idea of an image of war, an experience of war, that is so much more internal than external and how subjective it all really is.

MGS: It occurred to me that it could be seen as an allegory for PTSD and the things that soldiers bring home with them.

AS: I think that that reading of the film was one we welcomed. We wanted to create an open text, something people could engage with on multiple levels. When we were starting to shoot it, we just had little bits of footage here and there. We had some on Eric’s Vimeo page, some teaser footage, and my Dad, he’s such a proud papa, he’d be showing it to every one of his patients – he’s a dentist. They’re sitting there and he’ll pull it up on his computer. “You wanna see what my son and his buddy are doing?” I was in the office once and there was a woman that came in. And she’s now the caretaker of her nephew who’s a vet. He was wounded and he lost a leg and he’s suffering from all kinds of combat trauma. She’s a sheriff’s dispatcher so this is a salt-of-the-earth kind of lady. And my Dad pulls this thing up and I’m thinking, “Oh this woman’s going to be like, ‘What the fuck are you assholes doing? This isn’t a joke.’” And she started crying and she pointed and said, “That’s my nephew. That’s him. He’s still in full battle rattle. Even though he’s home, he’s not entirely present. He’s still haunted by this other place.” If that’s the reaction we’re getting from somebody – and no offense to her at all in any way, shape or form but she doesn’t seem like anyone who knows anything about Robbe-Grillet or French mid-century modernism – I feel like we’re getting something across here.

MGS: The opening scene feels like a microcosm of the film as a whole. It seems like a battle scene and then you have this hilarious reveal of the well-manicured lawn and the riding lawnmower comes into view. Why did you want to juxtapose images of soldiers in combat with this kind of idyllic suburban landscape?

AS: We were thinking of collisions and disruptions, collisions of the real with the surreal or the artificial – losing the ability to differentiate between what’s going on and what maybe you’re imagining. Look, I’m a fucking huge student of Baudrillard, man. I’m all about the “death of the real.” I get it. So, for us, it was meant to be a savage coupling between the aesthetics of war and violence and cookie-cutter suburban Middle America, the Leave it to Beaver kind of thing.

EM: This appealed to me as well because I grew up in Glen Ellyn, he grew up in Elmhurst. Obviously, we’re both film history obsessives. We like everything but we like dude shit (laughs): war movies, and all of the Hollywood action movies. So that was common ground for us. War, in reality, is televisual for Americans. We don’t see war, we don’t experience war ever. When was the last time there was war in America? Hundreds of years ago. So bringing a bunch of dudes with assault rifles to Elmhurst, that image of soldiers in the fucking Chicago suburbs? I get this project. And, of course, it’s almost like real life one upped us because the militarization of police has made those images quite common. We started the film in 2012 and now it’s like some sheriff’s department has a Humvee and assault rifles. But it seemed sort of daring when he pitched it to me.

MGS: The filmmaker I thought of the most while watching it was David Lynch. Was he an influence?

EM: That’s something that sort of happened organically because I think once we cast Scott Morton as the Dad in the family, from the minute we saw him in a casting session, this guy’s got this David Lynch/otherworld quality to him. He’s so great. We started getting those vibes and kind of ran with it.

MGS: The family scenes reminded me of Eraserhead. I loved the barbecue scene where the main character isn’t able to man the grill. It’s really funny but it’s also disturbing. It shows anxiety about not being able to fulfill a social role.

AS: I think in a lot of the notes that I brought to Eric, it was just a lot of moments like that. It wasn’t a plot. For me, it’s like “Think of iconic, Middle-American suburban activities and how can we now make this uncomfortable. How can we make this somewhat twisted?” One of my favorite scenes is when everyone’s at this “Welcome Home” thing and everyone starts stuffing their face with watermelon. Growing up, it’s summer in the suburbs and you’re eating dinner, it’s like, “Where’s the watermelon?” Everyone’s eating watermelon so we’re taking it to this almost Leone-esque level of disgust. Eating is like sex: it’s pretty ugly when you think about it. As great as it feels, watching someone else do it can be horrifying, especially with the camera’s ability to make small things large and large things small.

Orders screens for free at DePaul University’s Loop Campus at 14 E. Jackson, Lower Level Rm. 105 at 6:30pm on Friday, April 21. Stasiulis and Marsh will be present to discuss the film. You can sample teaser footage from the film here.


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