Archive for the ‘Literary – Movies’ Category

PostHeaderIcon 10 Films to Catch at the Chicago International Film Festival

The 53rd edition of the Chicago International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday and runs through October 26th. I can recall the early days when the festival was a scrappier version of its current self, screening movies at 4 or 5 different venues and not capturing such high-profile stars as this year’s Patrick Stewart and Vanessa Redgrave.

Tribute must be paid to Michael Kutza and close associates who persevered through the years so that Chicago is now is now seen as on a par with the film festivals of Berlin, Toronto, Cannes and New York. I still remember an early festival film I saw, “Diva”, that screened back in 1981.

The festival this year will feature 150 films from 50 countries in a wide variety of categories. What this blog offers is a personal guide to the      10 films that I think will be among the festival’s most noteworthy. They are arranged not in numerical order but according to the dates they will screen to make your scheduling easier. All films will be screened at the AMC River East theater at 322 East Illinois St.

October 12–Opening Night features Marshall, a docudrama about an early case in the career of  Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. It stars Chadwick Boseman as Marshall and is directed by Reginald Hudlin.

October 13 (Also 10/14 & 18)–A dark horse pick is Chateau, from French directors Modi Barry and Cedric Ido. It’s described as a smart, fast-paced comedy that follows an African immigrant who must stay ahead of the game and out of the way of the law.

October 16–Last Flag Flying stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. And it is directed by a favorite of mine, Richard Linklater. Seems like a no-brainer to be a hit.

October 17–Blow-Up, an enigmatic murder mystery directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, that was a sensation when it was released back in 1966. Starring Vanessa Redgrave (who also directs a feature at the festival, Sea Sorrow). If you have never seen this film or if you were born after 1970, this should be on your must-see list.

October 18–Lady Bird looks like another sure winner. It stars a strong-willed teenage girl (Saoirse Ronan) and an opinionated mother, played by Laurie Metcalf and is directed by Greta Gerwig.

October 19–Hannah which seems like another dark horse choice but stars Charlotte Rampling and that’s good enough for me. The director is Andrea Pallaord.

October 19 & 23–Rogers Park, a drama set in the Chicago neighborhood, revolves around the struggles of an interracial couple to keep their love alive. Directed by Kyle Henry.

October 20 & 21–In the Fade stars Diane Kruger who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. The director is Fatih Akin.

October 22–This is a personal pick. It’s two documentaries from Kartemquin Films, Chicago’s independent film collective, that has been producing quality documentaries revolving around themes of social justice. One not to miss is ’63 Boycott, by Kartemquin founder. Gordon Quinn, about the Chicago Public School Boycott of 1963.

October 22 & 23–Let the Sunshine In starring Juliette Binoche and directed by Claire Denis. That combination says it all and is a worthy way to end the festival for me.

There are many ways to order tickets. Go online at, call 312-332-FILM, in person at the AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois St. and at the Pop-up box office at 400 S. Dearborn St. from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.


PostHeaderIcon Pass the Popcorn: Festival Picks

Before I delve into which films I recommend in the 52nd Chicago Film Festival, tribute must first be paid to the tireless efforts over more than a half-century of Michael Kutza. Back in 1964, before there was Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and a host of other festivals, Kutza had a dream that would not be denied. The festival has since expanded its mission and influence over the years and is now a major venue on the film circuit. All due to the vision of not some committee or a millionaire but one twenty-something guy from southwest Chicago.

This year’s festival feature runs from October 13 to 27 with over 125 feature films from more than 50 countries. I have seen only a small fraction of the films but, judging from my reading of the program listings and a preview video screened at the press conference, I want to recommend    5 feature films that appear critically worthwhile and 5 films with strong Chicago connections.

"A Quiet Passion"

“A Quiet Passion”

My first 5 selections, excluding the Opening and Closing-night films, are:  A Quiet Passion (Oct. 16), directed by master filmmaker, Terence Davies, that paints the life of poet Emily Dickinson in visually lush tones with a powerful performance by Cynthia Nixon, far from her “Sex and the City” days. Next is Things to Come (10/16 & 19), written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love. Another film that might be categorized simply as a chick-flic but one which features an outstanding, humane performance by the great Isabelle Huppert. A classy melodrama about a philosophy professor who, in short order, loses her mother, her husband to divorce and her publisher and who must construct a new life.

I, Daniel Blakc (10/22 & 25) is the latest from noted social documentary director, Ken Loach. It scores points for winning the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Tells the story of a hardworking Newcastle carpenter whose life becomes trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare. Loach puts a human face on the modern welfare crisis. Moonlight (10/26), an American entry from director, Barry Jenkins, tells a heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself and the pain and beauty of falling in love.

"Things to Come"

“Things to Come”

Finally, there is Abacus (10/18), by noted Chicago director, Steve James that is part of local Kartemquin Films 50th Anniversary. Those who know James’ prior work on Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters need no further encouragement to catch his latest about a Chinese immigrant family who must defend themselves and their dignity while the true architects of the 2008 financial crisis walk free.

In addition to Abacus, here are several more documentaries with a Chicago pedigree. American Anarchist (10/15 & 16), by Charlie Siskel, who directed the Academy Award-nominated, Finding Vivian Maier, offers a captivating portrait of William Powell, author of the infamous The Anarchist Cookbook. Another is Futures Past (10/14, 18 & 24), by Jordan Melamed, son of Merc Exchange pioneer, Leo Melamed. It’s a portrait of a father, a son and the struggle for success.

For Chicago foodies, there is Insatiable:The Homaro Cantu Story 10/17 & 24), by Brett Schwartz. Culinary connoisseurs need no further introduction to this pioneering chef. It is a behind-the-scenes look at Cantu’s sad story of culinary creativity mixed with his passion to tackle world hunger and obesity.

Finally, two indie films dealing issues of gender and disability are Miles (10/18 & 19), by Illinois native, Nathan Adloff and The View from Tall (10/20, 21 & 24), directed by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss. Based on a true story, Miles follows a downstate high school boy who joins the girls’ volleyball team and faces harsh reaction from his rural community. In The View from Tall, a Chicagoland high school senior is bullied by her classmates over her affair with a teacher. She turns to therapy and forms a bond with her disabled therapist. Told with what is described as sardonic with by Parrish and Weiss, two local theater veterans.

As a longtime lover of French films, I cannot fail to mention a documentary by the celebrated director, Bertrand Tavernier, which is an ode to the universal power of cinema and French classics in particular. If you are like me, don’t miss My Journey Through French Cinema (10/15).

The festival’s official theater is AMC’s RiverEast21 on East Illinois Street. To purchase tickets, go to              or call 312-332-FILM.




PostHeaderIcon Behind the Museum Doors

rijksp1010743In 2003, Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum, home of Rembrandt’s iconic canvas, “The Night Watch”, along with priceless Vermeer paintings, closed for a total renovation of the 1885 building designed by Pierre Cuypers. Everyone was excited by the audacious new design by two Spanish

Vermeer - The Milkmaid

Vermeer - The Milkmaid

architects, Antonio Cruz & Antonio Ortiz. It gave curators the chance to redo galleries added during earlier times which had compromised the museum’s original layout and its ability to tell the story of Dutch Art in a coherent way.

The filmmaker, Oeke Hoogendijk, decided to film the process.  What he captured was an incredible saga of political and public intrigue that changed the original design, led to a giant leap in construction costs and cost the jobs of several curators and the museum director who had started the project. The result is a four-hour documentary, split in two parts, of the process that tore the museum and Dutch public opinion apart.

A must -see for anyone interested in what The New York Times film critic, A. O. Scott, calls “an exemplary study in the sociology of arts administration.”  If such a rare, behind-the-scenes, look

Night Watch by Rembrandt

Night Watch by Rembrandt

is not your cup of tea, you probably will find it boring but I found it captivating! I wonder what a similarly candid, eye-opening documentary about the design and financial challenges of The Art Institute’s Modern Wing might have revealed. That project had an equally lengthy, 10-year, gestation.

For schedule of screenings, go to The last chance to see both Parts 1 and 2 is next Thursday, July 31 at 6 and 8:15 p.m.

Addendum (7/17): Derek Fincham just posted a fascinating entry on his website entitled  “Art is Therapy” at The Rijksmuseum from a book of the same name by Alain de Botton. I urge you to read it at

PostHeaderIcon Tasty Musical Treats Times Two

At the beginning of this month, I urged you to put the upcoming European Film Festival on your calendar. Today, I’m alerting you to two April music festivals. They should but may not get much mainstream coverage. If you like alternative, creative music programming, these two festivals are definitely worth your attention–and attendance. And don’t overlook Fulcrum Point’s newest offering.

Todd Rudington with Ethel

Todd Rundgren with Ethel

Two words–Collaboration and Convergence–define the themes for two upcoming, highly promising music festivals. The 9th annual Spring Festival presented by Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music will run from Tuesday, April 2 through Saturday, April 13. Its 7-concert schedule, titled “Side by Side“, kicks off with a collaboration between the ebullient string Quartet, Ethel, appearing with rock musician Todd Rundgren.

The next evening features award-winning jazz vocalist, Kurt Elling, teaming with the Chicago Jazz Orchestra to celebrate the songbook of Cole Porter. Then, classical guitarist Jason Vieaux matched with accordion and bandoneon virtuoso, Julien Labro. The closing weekend features the Asphalt Orchestra, a unique, cutting-edge, 12-piece marching band of top musicians on Friday, April 12 and guitar virtuosos,  Sergio and Odair Assar, along with jazz reed giant, Paquito D’Rivera, on Saturday. For the full schedule and additional artist information, go to

Asphalt Orchestra

Asphalt Orchestra

The man responsible for all this musical alchemy is Richard Van Kleeck, director of concert activities at the Bienen School. He is responsible for programming 250 concerts a year on campus which includes 100 student recitals and performances by 20 performing ensembles. The Spring Festival follows on the heels of a John Cage festival last fall. For the festival’s kickoff in 2005, Van Kleeck had 10 Steinway Grand Pianos on stage with a bevy of  distinguished pianists, including Leon Fleisher and Marcus Roberts, performing.

Van Kleeck’s view of collaboration is that 1+1 is greater than 2. He says pairing artists in collaboration is “just like a chemical experiment where something special goes on.” To be part of hearing something special, go to to download a full festival schedule.

CIMMfest 2013 stands for the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival. If you haven’t heard of it until now, neither have many other Chicagoans. Though it’s celebrating its 5th anniversary, it’s still under the radar though not amongst local indie musicians. It’s a festival with a relatively miniscule budget but with large ambitions matched by the lollapalooza determination of its two founders. It literally gets the job done with a lot of help from its friends, a coalition of 50 trade, media and college partners. That high level of convergence could make 2013 CIMMfest’s breakout moment.

CIMMfest rolls out over four days, April 18-21, with an incredible 99 events spread over 15 different venues. Now that SXSW has ended, the action moves to Chicago. I spoke with co-founder, Josh Chicoine, last week. Chicoine, a talented musician whose band once opened for Wilco and The New Pornographers, joined forces with documentary filmmaker and visionary, Ilko Davidov, in 2009.

The fest’s overriding mission is to spotlight music-centric films. This year, Chicoine says they are “dialing it way up” in terms of activity. They will screen 70 films from 25 countries and showcase more than 50 musical acts around town. Eleven music films will be world premieres! There’s no way you can avoid CIMMfest this year.

Funky Meters

Funky Meters

Opening night features music, film and conversation with composer, producer and performer Van Dyke Parks. The next night is a must-see, a monster mash at the Congress Theater with headliners, the Funky Meters from Louisiana, local band, J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound plus the funk, jazz and boogaloo sounds of The Greyboy Allstars. The live show also includes a “Music in Movies” panel discussion. Its scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. or later. Another highlight of the long weekend are 10 films documenting 50 Years of the Rolling Stones.

Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles

On Saturday evening, CIMMfest will present its inaugural lifetime achievement award to filmmaker, actor, director and Chicago native, Melvin Van Peebles, most noted for his 1960s film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” The 80-year old artist will then perform with his band, Laxative. That has the makings of a truly wild event.

I’ve not made it to prior festivals but I plan to get onboard this year. Listen to what one of CIMMfest’s many musical fans, Louis Black, co-founder of the South by Southwest Festival, has to say. “CIMMfest has been really wonderful. It reminds me of what SXSW was when we were starting it. It has the same intensity and intention and it cares about music and movies.”



Tickets are only $10 for the films and an incredible $25 for the live shows. The April 19th show is a special limited sale online so buy your tickets in advance.  Besides individual sales, CIMMfest offers a 4-day Fest Pass for $79, less than the cost of a one-day pass to Lollapalooza. Check out the full schedule lineup at

Footnote: If you are looking for still more music after CIMMfest, I’d recommend you catch the ever-inventive, top-flight new music ensemble, Fulcrum Point, at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance on Tuesday, April 23rd. Music Director  Stephen Burns has once again devised a special program. He will lead a 100-member orchestra in the complete film score to the accompanying screening of Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi classic, “Altered States.” The film was scored by noted composer, John Corigliano, and received a Best Original Score Academy Award nomination that year. Fulcrum Point’s performance is part of the citywide celebration honoring the composer’s 75th birthday.

PostHeaderIcon Euro Film Fest a Chicago Treat

While I normally write about books or concerts after the fact, this week I want to get the word out in advance for the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the month of March. The lineup of 61 new films from 24 member nations of the European Union includes entries from new talents as well as renowned European actors and directors. It’s a cineast’s dream line-up, the film event I anticipate most each year to help dispel Chicago’s long, grey winter gloom.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres

So, don’t make the mistake of waiting for the reviews or you may find yourself shut out on the day of the screening. That has happened to me but not this year. I’ve already begun buying tickets.

The festival has built a large following over the years largely due to the tireless efforts of Barbara Scharres, Siskel’s esteemed director of programming and former executive director who has been at the center for 37 years. What Siskel has become is due in great part to her guiding hand.

Scharre’s contributions to film as a scholar, writer and lecturer are widely acknowledged. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l”Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for advancing French culture through cinema. The Tribune has named her a Chicagoan of the Year three times.

The impetus for the festival came from foreign consulates in town who thought such a festival would promote the concept of the European Union while Scharres liked the goal of promoting a “higher profile” for foreign films in Chicago. The EU at the time (1998) consisted of only a dozen members; membership has since climbed to 27 nations.

Scharres, in a phone interview, was reluctant to play favorites, preferring to speak favorably about all the films to be shown. She was particularly excited by the greater representation of women directors this year. Roughly a dozen, or one-fifth of the entries, are by women. After my persistent coaxing to shed her rose-colored glasses and don a critic’s hat, Scharres named six favorite festival films to which I have added four others to round out a “Don’t Miss” list.

Ten Must-See Films: She began by lavishing praise on a Polish film, “Imagine”–“An amazing, amazing film” that features blind actors. Her pick of a “wonderful documentary” is “Olma & Bela”, by a female German director that is set in the kitchen of the filmmaker’s Jewish grandmother. Scharres calls it a must for foodies! One of  Bulgaria’s two entries is “Faith, Love & Whiskey”. This movie, made by a University of Chicago grad, is about an upwardly mobile female who ditches her New York fiance and flies home for a visit and an old flame. Her French pick is “Becoming Traviata” featuring diva Natalie Dessay, a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for a 2011 production of Verdi’s opera. And, for serious drama fans, she chose two films from Italy that deal with high-profile political issues. “Piazza Fontana” investigates a 1969 bank bombing in Milan in which the police question if the CIA and Italian military were involved. Director Mario Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty” revisits a controversial 2009 euthanasia case that gripped Italy and stars the always captivating Isabelle Huppert.

Dorment Beauty

My own choices to round out the list are “The Door” by Hungarian director of “Mephisto” fame, Istvan Szabo, and starring the great Helen Mirren. Enough said. “Unfinished Song” stars two fine actors, Terence

Unfinished Song

Unfinished Song

Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave who play a husband caring for his gravely ill wife. Has unmistakeable connections with the recent Oscar-winning “Amour”. Finally, one must take a chance on two films by cinematic masters–Ken Loach and Alain Resnais. I have not had the benefit of screening these choices but think they should be among the festival’s best.

Both masters are offering lighter, comic fare, a real change of pace from their more serious screenplays. Loach’s film, “The Angels Share”, closes the festival on March 28. It centers on a young Glasgow delinquent who discovers he has a rare nose for identifying whiskies. And Resnais’ “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” has an intriguing story line and the added bonus of seeing Michel Piccoli. Resnais has said this will be his last film.

To make your own selections for viewing, go to You can purchase advance tickets for what will be many sold-out films. You should consider becoming a member of the Film Center for $50 or purchasing a dual membership for $80 by clicking on the Membership link. That will allow you to buy festival tickets for $6 instead of the $11 admission for non-members.

A number of these films will receive later U.S. distribution but the majority will not.  Part of the festival’s fun is to see them first at Siskel and judging them before the critics check in. Don’t miss this once-a-year pleasure of seeing world filmmakers’ latest contributions to film culture as well as catching exciting new talent. Happy hunting and see you at the movies!

Showtimes: “Imagine”, March 24 and 27; “Olma & Bela”, March 10 and 12; “Faith, Love & Whiskey”, March 2 and 4; “Becoming Traviata”, March 23 and 27; “Piazza Fontana” March 10 and 14; “Dormant Beauty”, March 22 and 24; “The Door”, March 22 and 25; “Unfinished Song”, March 3 and 4; “The Angels Share”, March 23 and 28 and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, March 17 and 21.