I seriously doubt that any documentary about a defunct local dance club from the ‘80s and ‘90s holds much interest to very many outside the city where it was located. With 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story — its title incorporates the club’s address on Clark Street — director and documentarian Eric Richter starts at the “farewell party” in July 2015 and goes backward, telling the story of Chicago’s iconic nightspot Neo’s 36 year history.
Starting as a new wave bar in the early ‘80s, Neo evolved into an industrial goth club and for a long time created its own scene. That alley was the perfect lead in! Neo attracted some famous guests, obvious ones like Al Jourgensen and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, both on Wax Trax at one point. Neo also attracted some not so obvious ones, like Debbie Harry, Trent Reznor, Prince, and David Bowie. Richter lovingly tells about some of the theme nights (like Nocturna), the music, and of course regulars, from bouncer Kimball Paul (R.I.P) to a Mexican guy who looked like he’d be at home on a Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass record cover.
For all his local focus, Richter does something that puts 2350 Last Call: The Neo Story beyond mere local interest: he gets to the heart of club culture and community, something that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
Jaimz Asmundson’s music video “Plastic Heart” by Ghost Twin was a fitting prelude. It’s irreverent, fun, and over the top with its tongue in cheek goth and satanic sensibilities.
With Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie
Production: Eric Richter Films
Distribution: Eric Richter Films
Screening introduced by CIMMfest cofounder Carmine Cervi and followed by a live Q and A with director Eric Richter and Eric Richter, Suzanne Shelton, Jeff Moyer, Scary Lady Sarah, Brian Dickie
“You’ll never be a girl. You’re not a boy. So you’re probably nothing.”
Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh’s debut feature film They delicately tells the story of J (Rhys Fehrenbacher), a quiet suburban Chicago teen transitioning from male to female. Along with therapy sessions and physician consultations for “puberty blocking” drugs and “bone density” test results, J is processing the social and psychological implications of their change. We know it’s happening, but we see it in action when J puts on a dress and goes outside, or when he explains to others how to make an introduction to a stranger and which pronoun to use (“they,” hence the title).
The process is awkward, particularly when older sister, Lauren (Nicole Coffineau), brings her fiancé, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini), home to meet the family. With mom (Norma Moruzzi) away caring for an aunt who has early onset dimentia, J is left to deal alone. Meeting Araz’s Iranian family in the suburbs seems to be a reckoning for J.
If nothing else, They is visually arresting, artfully shot with georgeous pans and closeups of buildings, walls, plants, and flowers. Ghazvinizadeh plays with reflections on glass and uses a muted color pallet that nicely underscores J’s fluid state of mind. It sets just the right tone: hazy and dreamy.
That said, both the narrative and the character development in They fall short. I’m not sure Lauren and Azaz are necessary, and I certainly don’t have more than a passing sense of who they are or why they’re here. The dinner at Araz’s family is dropped in clumsily, throwing off the trajectory of the story. The focus gradually and inexplicably shifts away from J, which I found strange.
Watching They feels voyeuristic, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it feels like an obstacle — a transparent partition — keeps me from getting too close to the characters. That’s a shame because this is a film that demands an amount of intimacy that simply isn’t accommodated. On top of that, the actors’ naturalistic performances meander quite a bit, which made me zone out at times.
Overall, They could have been a much more powerful statement. Still, it’s a decent effort even with its shortcomings and a few dull parts.
With Diana Torres, Evan Gray, Drew Sheil, Leyla Mofleh, Mohammad Aghebati, Alma Sinai, Arian Naghshineh, Ava Naghshineh, Aerik Jahangiri, Farid Kossari, Kaveh Ehsani, Robert Garofalo, Eric Fehrenbacher, Vicki Sheil
Production: Mass Ornament Films
Screening introduced by Anahita Ghazvinizadeh and followed by a live Q and A with Ghazvinizadeh, Rhys Fehrenbacher, and Rob Garofalo
Guy Ritchie’s remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, a film that looks like it would be Blue Lagoon but is far from it, was universally panned when it came out. I never saw it, and probably never would have bothered but for my recent discovery of Wertmüller’s work. A two-hour flight from Chicago to New York City and back seemed like the perfect time to get both of them out of the way.
I planned to watch Wertmüller’s original first because…well, that makes sense. Unfortunately, I didn’t start it early enough — the original is 25 minutes longer, and by the time I pulled out my iPad I didn’t have enough time for it. So, I had to settle for backward and watch Ritchie’s version first.
He sticks pretty close to the storyline of the original. Initially, I found Swept Away kind of boring but not offensively awful. Only after seeing Wertmüller’s version did it become painfully clear how lame this remake is; it’s utterly impotent by comparison.
Ritchie retains the critical plot elements of class tension and anticapitalist sentiment that color much of Wertmüller’s work, but here they don’t read the same way; they’re off. Trite, even. Ritchie injects dribs and drabs of his loutish brand of humor into his version, and I found that to be a plus. However, he turns Swept Away into a flaccid, neutered romantic dramedy that the original is not. His version is kinder, gentler, and softer. It has no edge to it whatsoever, which is unusual for him. Yawn.
Stiff and hollow, Madonna’s acting is par for the course. Her character, Amber, is suited to her image. She could’ve had fun with the role. Too bad she seriously overdoes the rich bitch bit and comes off as nasty, hateful, and angry. Not fun. Adriano Giannini, the son of Giancarlo Giannini who played the same role in the original, is nice to look at. That’s it, though; his character, Giuseppe, or as Amber calls him “Pee Pee,” is a turnoff — what a wimp!
The most interesting thing about Swept Away is that David Thornton, Cyndi Lauper’s husband, has a fairly substantial part. I wonder if that was awkward?
With Bruce Greenwood, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Beattie, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Yorgo Voyagis, Ricardo Perna, George Yiasoumi, Beatrice Luzzi, Lorenzo Ciompi, Patrizio Rispo, Francis Pardeilhan, Rosa Pianeta, Andrea Ragatzu
Production: CODI SpA, Ska Films
Distribution: Screen Gems (USA), Columbia TriStar Films (UK), Medusa Distribuzione (Italy)
I watched David Lynch’s Lost Highway on my iPad on an Amtrak train from Chicago to Rochester. The one thing I strongly recommend is that it be viewed on the big screen, or at the very least on a flatscreen television. Quite simply, the visuals here are far too beautiful to see in an abridged format. And frankly, the visuals—sets, colors, costumes, actors, props—are the best part of the film.
The second thing I recommend is that it be watched under the influence of something—booze, pot, or better yet, prescription drugs.
This begs a question I’ll just answer: Lost Highway is fucked up—thrillingly so. The whole things starts with a videotape of our unlucky hero, saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), murdering his wife (Patricia Arquette), who in an alternate universe is having an affair with Madison’s younger alterego, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The married couple has no memory of this murder. Neither party seems aware of this wrinkle in time and space, either. The connection lies with two people: demanding gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) and creepy-ass flour-faced Robert Blake in what must be his most frightening role as The Mystery Man, a pallid ghost straight from a silent movie or a video by The Cure.
Lost Highway isn’t my favorite David Lynch film. However, it’s intriguing and vague enough to keep me thinking about it. I’m not sure what to make of this one—but I’m also not sure I care enough to do the work to figure it out. Maybe someday, definitely not today. The star cameos are enough for now.
Interesting fact: Lost Highway features the final film performances of Blake, Jack Nance, and Richard Pryor. Who knew?
With Alice Wakefield, John Roselius, Lou Eppolito, Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Gary Busey, Lucy Butler, Giovanni Ribisi, Marilyn Manson, David Lynch
Production: October Films, CiBy 2000, Asymmetrical Productions, Lost Highway Productions LLC
Distribution: October Films (USA), Polygram Filmed Entertainment (UK), Rialto Film AG (Switzerland), RCV Film Distribution, Cinemussy (Spain), Senator Film (Germany), Atalanta Filmes (Portugal), Edko Films (Hong Kong), NTV-PROFIT (Russia), Artistas Argentinos Asociados (AAA) (Argentina), AmaFilms (Greece), New Star (Greece), Sandrew Film (Sweden), United International Pictures (UIP) (Australia), Warner Brothers (Finland)
Chicago filmmaker Lonnie Edwards made some waves with his 2015 documentary A Ferguson Story, which delved into some of the events following Officer Darren Wilson’s deadly shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The subject of Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration isn’t as heavy or bleak, but it’s every bit as intriguing.
Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration is a smooth, flashy short film that honors the music and dance forms that black Americans brought to other parts of the country, mostly industrialized cities, through the Great Migration from the South during the first half of the 20th Century. In just a few minutes, Edwards demonstrates how both assimilated into urban life and continue to shape modern culture. I couldn’t find credits, but the guy tap dancing in the stairwell stood out; his taps are downright melodious.
“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
“That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
—Man at the Prairie Crossing
I expected Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to be suspenseful, cinematic, and even a bit perverse, peppered with the director’s inimitable wit and dark sense of humor. It certainly is all that. However, I didn’t expect it to be altogether facetious, or as fun as it is. Scene after scene, North by Northwest delivers; not many films give as much bang for your buck as this one.
Cary Grant is Manhattan ad executive Roger O. Thornhill—”The ‘O’ stands for nothing,” he quips at one point. A mild-mannered, stylish middle-aged man in a grey flannel Brooks Brothers suit—think Mad Men—he leads a perfectly predictable straight life serving clients, drinking martinis, and keeping his WASPy mother (Jessie Royce Landis) entertained.
While having cocktails at the Plaza Hotel one afternoon, Thornhill is yanked into a treacherous game of cat-and-mouse when the goons of a smooth and well-spoken spy, baritone Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. It’s nothing but trouble from here.
Relentlessly hunted after being framed for an incident at the United Nations, Thornhill flees Manhattan on a passenger train that looks a lot like Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. He meets cool, mysterious, and sultry stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who’s headed to Chicago. Her innuendo is sexy, but she’s not exactly trustworthy—Thornhill senses it, and so do we.
North by Northwest is ultimate Hitchcock, fueled by mistaken identity and packed with psychological drama manifest mostly in the form of dizzying pursuit: a drunken car chase on a windy road, a moving train, an out-of-nowhere crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, a race down Mount Rushmore. Nothing about the plot is believable; it’s more preposterous than a James Bond film. Although it shares the same Cold War sensibility, North by Northwest is much more intriguing and memorable. It’s also more entertaining.
Ernest Lehman’s script is brilliantly put together, but the story isn’t what makes this soar; it’s Hitchcock’s directing and the acting, particularly that of Grant, Saint, and Mason. Grant is a hoot to watch here; he plays Thornhill like a high-style Thurston Howell without his Lovie. He walks a fine line between convincing and cartoonish, always coming off as the former. It’s quite an astounding feat of balance, actually. Saint is the perfect counterpart to Grant. I could listen to Mason talk endlessly. Martin Landau plays a secondary character, but he’s awesome as über creepy (and probably closeted) Leonard, Vandamm’s right hand man.
Ahead of its time in many ways, North by Northwest is consciously silly yet pushes a few boundaries. Exceedingly mischievous, it just might be Hitchcock’s most charming film. It’s definitely more fun than any other film of his that I’ve seen—not that I’ve come close to seeing all of them. It’s truly a dazzler.
Personal geek-out side note: in a film full of thrilling moments, the most thrilling for me was the scene outside The Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. I live two doors down from the hotel, now known as Public. I’ve stood in the exact spot Grant did as he exited the alley to cross Goethe to get to the hotel—I walk my dog there all the time. It’s amusingly weird to see a place you know so well onscreen, let alone in something from almost 60 years ago. It’s different, but not much. Here’s what it looked like when North by Northwest was filmed:
Ray Kroc’s name is synonymous with McDonald’s, the ubiquitous fast food institution that hasn’t needed an introduction for the entire time I’ve been alive. It seems strange that I’ve never known much about him even after living in Chicago for almost 20 years—at least, not until The Founder. Then again, maybe I still don’t.
Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle aged traveling salesman who hocks milkshake mixers to restaurants, mainly drive-ins and diners, in the 1950s. Based in Chicago, he has a nice enough home in suburban Arlington Heights, a supportive if not ambitious wife, Ethel (Laura Dern), and the means to afford a country club membership. Nonetheless, Kroc is neither wildly successful nor affluent. He isn’t setting the world on fire selling milkshake mixers, and his business ideas never seem to pan out. He doesn’t fit in with the WASPy professionals Ethel gravitates toward. Being the entrepreneur he is, he yearns for more.
While making cold calls in Missouri, Kroc gets a big order for mixers from San Bernardino, California. He drives out there and finds McDonald’s, an idyllic burger joint owned and operated by two brothers, affable Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and crusty Dick (Nick Offerman). Shiny and clean, the place is a welcoming sight. Mac shows Kroc the kitchen: it’s an intricate and super-efficient assembly line that delivers consistenly appetizing product in minutes. Disposable packaging means customers can take their food with them and eat it wherever they want, keeping the line moving while eliminating the need for clean up (not to mention dishes). Employees work together as a team. The customer service is flawlessly friendly. Dick explains that high-quality food and fast service are the hallmarks of McDonald’s. The brothers have hit something with their formula: the place is slammed with a customer base that overwhelmingly consists of middle class families. Kroc wants to franchise McDonald’s, something the brothers tried before but it didn’t work.
The Founder focuses less on Kroc’s personal life and more on the many problems he overcomes in executing his ambitious plan to make McDonald’s and its Golden Arches a symbol of America that seemlessly fits, as he puts it at one point, right in with the Stars and Stripes and crosses on churches. There’s a lot of dry stuff dealing with the nuts and bolts of business here—business models, contract negotiations, marketing, quality control, real estate, financing, trademarks, cutting costs, and of course double crossing. It’s a timely film—I can’t think of a more fitting movie to see on this particular Inauguration Day: one of the promotional posters for The Founder calls Kroc a rule breaker, a risk taker, and a game changer, and for better or worse that’s what he turned out to be. Michael Keaton is perfect for this role, playing Kroc as a ruthlessly driven goofball who has no good ideas of his own but certainly knows how to capitalize on those of others. American history is rich in such characters.
That said, I must admit that I have no idea how much of this story is accurate—not that I was compelled to find out on my own. The Founder doesn’t make me care. Pieces of the story seem to be missing. Robert Siegel’s script isn’t exactly objective—it borders on propaganda, especially when he overemphasizes the simplicity of the McDonald brothers. John Lee Hancock is a capable director, but he’s so ambiguous about his subject that he doesn’t say what he makes of him. I’m not sure he knows. His treatment lacks a certain nuance the material demands that could’ve made The Founder a lot more than it is. It’s not a terrible film, but I had higher expectations.
Also starring B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, Justin Randell Brooke
Produced by FilmNation Entertainment, The Combine, Faliro House Productions S.A.
“Rosenwald school” is a curious name that sounds like the Jewish equivalent of a Catholic Magdalene home, where unmarried pregnant girls of yore were tucked away to do laundry for nuns until they had their babies. It’s not; it was actually a number of schools for black children built in the American South during the early 20th Century. I never heard of these or the man whose name they bear, Julius Rosenwald. Biographer Aviva Kempner tells his story in a decidedly straightforward manner through photos, narration, clips, and interviews with descendants, historians, and Rosenwald school alums like Maya Angelou and Congressman John Lewis. At the end, we even hear from Rosenwald himself.
Born in Springfield, Illinois, where he lived across the street from the Lincoln home, Rosenwald—who considered himself “a member of a despised minority”—first made a name selling men’s clothes with his cousin. A series of fortuitous events resulted in a partnership with Sears Roebuck in Chicago in 1895. He got rich creating the Sears catalog, the Amazon of a hundred years ago, as one interviewee calls it. Motivated by a number of things—his friendship with Booker T. Washington, Chicago Sinai congregation rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“repair the world”), Washington’s Up From Slavery and William Henry Baldwin, Jr.’s An American Citizen, and a disturbing similarity between the persecution of blacks in the States, particularly the South, and that of Jews in Russia—he started a fund to build schools where the government apparently wouldn’t. He also offered money to build YMCAs in various cities.
Rosenwald’s funding scheme was unique: he paid a third of the cost, with the rest of the funding to be provided (or raised) by the community where the school or YMCA would be built. It worked, and more than 5,000 schools were built. Rosenwald didn’t stop there: he also contributed to housing in Chicago, established the Museum of Science and Industry, and set up a fund for artists and intellectuals. Recipients were in diverse disciplines and included Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Dr. Charles Drew, and even Woody Guthrie. Rosenwald is intriguing not just for its named subject but also for the subjects it gets into on the side: American civil rights, art, and Chicago history.
The title refers to the area between North and Chicago Avenues and Halsted and Orleans Streets, where the (in)famous Cabrini-Green housing project once stood. I remember when the last building came down in 2011. 70 Acres in Chicago is both an oral history and an essay on the rise and fall of “the CG” or “the Soul Coast,” which one speaker describes as “one mile from Downtown, yet in a whole ‘nother economic dimension.” Long before Cabrini-Green was built, the area was a depository for the poor– until the late 1990s and early 2000s when developers saw potential for something else. Today, a “mixed income” approach exists, which as this film demonstrates has advantages but presents a different set of problems.
Ronit Bezalel is pretty clear about her views on gentrification, but she’s not heavy-handed about them. The historical perspective is a nice backdrop. The many personal stories of those who lived in Cabrini-Green make this film special; they run the gamut from funny to poignant. One thing I did not expect was the amount of nostalgia that came through. 70 Acres in Chicago suggests that maybe someday race will no longer be an issue in America, but class is another matter altogether.
I love movies set in and about Chicago, especially since the time I moved here. I do not remember this, though: a group of Northwestern University journalism students under the direction of “advocate” Prof. David Protess reenact a 1982 murder at a South Side pool and conclude that it could not have happened the way police and the courts determined it did, persuading Gov. George Ryan to free a convicted killer (Anthony Porter), jail an innocent man (Alstroy Simon), and ultimately abolish the death penalty.
The problem is, the alleged killer was by all accounts probably guilty. Walking us through the facts, interviews with those involved, and the sloppy “investigation” of the students, filmmakers Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber demonstrate a worst-case scenario of political correctness, academic corruption, and second-guessing those charged with solving crimes. It’s an interesting and even controversial film considering the current prevailing attitude toward law enforcement.