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Tag Archives: Stephen Cone

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.

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WCCRH Episode Nine: Stephen Cone and Phyllis Nagy

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The ninth episode of the White City Cinema Radio Hour is now online and I’m calling this one our “Q Hugo” special: the guests are writer/director Stephen Cone, whose acclaimed Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center at the end of the month, and esteemed playwright Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Todd Haynes’ Carol, now playing in wide release. Joining me in chatting with both of these folks is critic Kat Sachs (Cine-File Chicago), who also becomes the show’s first repeat guest. You can stream the show for free on the newly redesigned Transistor website here. Thanks to Andy Miles for recording the interviews and Kat for co-hosting!

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The Second Annual Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival

I am excited to announce that, after the success of last year’s inaugural Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival, I have programmed and will be hosting P.U.F.F. again. The screenings of this year’s four award-winning independent American films, spanning various genres and styles, will all take place at Oakton Community College’s Footlik Theater (room 1344) in Des Plaines, Illinois, from Tuesday, December 1 through Friday, December 4. All four screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers, moderated by various Oakton Humanities professors, including yours truly. The screenings are all FREE and open to the public. 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!

The full schedule:

Actress (Robert Greene, 2014, 86 minutes)
Tuesday, December 1 at 2:00pm

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Winner of Best Documentary at the Nantucket Film Festival, this extraordinary movie hybridizes non-fiction and melodrama elements in its portrait of Brandy Burre, an actress best known for a recurring role on HBO’s acclaimed series The Wire. When the film begins, Burre has retired from acting in order to move to a small town with her restaurateur boyfriend and two young children. Burre is not satisfied, however, with playing the new roles of “mother” and “housewife” full time, and Actress, while never less than emotionally gripping, turns into a complex essay on the nature of what it means to perform.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Robert Greene and actress Brandy Burre conducted by Michael Smith

Black Box (Stephen Cone, 2013, 84 minutes)
Wednesday, December 2 at 12:30pm

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Named one of the best films of 2014 by the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips, this haunting drama is set in the world of college theater and centers on students grappling with issues pertaining to sexual and religious identity. Grad student Holly (Josephine Decker) tackles the ambitious project of directing a theatrical version of a cult young-adult novel titled The Reaper’s Children. The novel, about the sinister goings-on at an orphanage, made a huge impression on Holly during her formative years and the gothic-horror tone of her production has an uncanny way of both bleeding into the lives of its performers as well as informing the overall tone of Cone’s (ostensibly non-horror) film.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Stephen Cone conducted by Lindsey Hewitt.

Transformers: The Premake (Kevin B. Lee, 2014, 26 minutes)
Thursday, December 3 at 2:00pm

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An official selection of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, this dense video essay offers a playful inquiry into the role of social media in the production and dissemination of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster. It utilizes footage that Lee himself shot behind the scenes of the Chicago-made segments of Transformers: Age of Extinction, as well as footage shot and uploaded to YouTube by literally hundreds of other amateur filmmakers. The globe-spanning myriad of data that results adds up to an intellectually vibrant and viscerally pounding half-hour of pure cinema.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Kevin B. Lee conducted by Therese Grisham.

Cool Apocalypse (Directed by Michael Smith, 2015, 73 minutes)
Friday, December 4 at 12:30pm

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Winner of the Best Dramatic Feature award at the 2015 Illinois International Film Festival, this microbudget comedy/drama tells the story of two very different relationships, one of which is about to begin and the other of which has just ended.
Followed by a live Q&A with director Michael Smith conducted by Laurence Knapp.

This film festival is sponsored by a generous grant from the Oakton Community College Educational Foundation.


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