2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Final Entry

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chi film fest dust on the tongueThe 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival ended last night with the screening of Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar hopeful, Wild. With the marked improvement in both audience experience and programming over the years since I first started attending in 1999, I think we can happily expect another 50 years of this essential Chicago cultural event. Here are my thoughts on the final set of films I saw this year.

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2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Part Two

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chi film fest next to herI’ve been derailed from posting on the films I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival by a major customer proposal I’ve been working on in my day job. But rest assured though that nothing has stopped me from spending my evenings and the past weekend at AMC River East 21. It’s been a smooth, uneventful festival experience for me; I think both the festival and I are growing old gracefully together (and nope, I don’t miss the whacka-doodle logistics when screenings were spread out all over the city in the early ‘naughts). And what a treat it has been to see my idols Kathleen Turner and German director Margarethe von Trotta, and the rest of the 50th film festival jury sitting with us the audience in the movie theaters, hopefully as awestruck or as frustrated as us depending on the film, something I’ve not seen other festival juries do all these years I’ve been attending. Here are my thoughts on several more films I saw during the fest:

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2014 Chicago International Film Festival, Part One

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chi film fest midnight afterI just got through the first weekend of the 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival and I’m pleased to report that everything is running like a well-oiled, gently-humming machine. Volunteers are everywhere, lines are orderly, and everyone is just excited to see the films (and after talking to several folks in line, I was surprised at the number of people this year seeing two to four films a day). The most excitement I had was when I was small-talking with a cute volunteer and told him that I’ve been going to the film festival since 1999, to which he casually replied, oh yeah, I was four years old then. Oy! Actually, that deserved another  Oy! Here are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw.

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Mad Men

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timeline danny casolaroActually, I’m probably the mad man as I try to fit in as many theater and arts events before all of my waking time (well outside of working and eating) is taken up by the exciting 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival which begins today (read blog posts about it in the next couple of weeks!).  It’s been a busy fall theater season; although I wouldn’t say it’s been an extremely striking or memorable one. Many of the season openers I’ve seen so far have been lackluster, to put it mildly.  The trend continues with two shows I saw over the past couple of weeks, both, surprisingly, with all-male casts: Timeline Theatre’s Danny Casolaro Died For You has an intriguing true-to-life premise but is bogged down by  Dominic Orlando’s perplexing, inconsistent writing; the production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, one of my favorite plays of the ‘naughts, from a new storefront theater called Eclectic Full Contact Theatre is saddled by tepid, unbelievable performances, and by my old age realization that Greenberg’s writing, which I loved back in the play’s Public Theater and Broadway productions, has a discomfiting whiff of condescension.

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Preview of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival

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It is the first day of October, and other than wondering truly where the year had gone (it seemed just like yesterday that we were calling the Polar Vortex the worst thing that had happened to Chicago since Mrs. O’Leary’s frisky bovine sashayed around in her barn and knocked a lantern over), I’ve been busily wearing out my thumbs going through this year’s Chicago International Film Festival schedule.  If you’ve followed my blog through the years you know to expect that in the month of October there will be a spike in film-related posts and a semi-hiatus on theater-related ones.  It’s the Film Festival’s 50th anniversary (it is indeed the granddaddy to the more prestigious New York, Toronto, and Telluride festivals), and I’m proud to admit that except for 2011 when I was travelling every week for a client, I haven’t missed any of it since 1999 – I can’t imagine how my life would have been less colorful if I didn’t see the outrageous Hungarian film Johanna in 2005, the Joan of Arc tale reset in a mental hospital and told as a musical, or the bewildering Isabelle Huppert starrer The Piano Teacher in 2001, making a comeback to the Festival this year in the exciting Huppert retrospective, sure to remind all of us again what the best way is to clean up used tissue paper left behind in gloryholes (yeah!).  The 50th anniversary program is terrific (kudos to founder Michael Kutza and his hard-working Programming team); composed of around 150 feature-length films and 65 short films from 50 countries, with some very big, prestigious gets from the festival circuit. Below I talk about some noteworthy films, and some of the ones I’m sure to see and write about this month.

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The China Syndrome

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goodman extreme happinessIn the May 2014 issue of Travel and Leisure magazine, one of my favorite writers Gary Shteyngart writes an astringent yet admiring profile of Beijing and says “This is where it’s at. Beijing, China’s political capital, is where the future will be partly decided and packaged and presented to large swaths of the globe. In last Sunday’s premiere of his critically-acclaimed CNN TV show Parts Unknown, my other favorite writer/raconteur Anthony Bourdain says ironically yet admiringly of Shanghai “What is the future? I don’t know. But to a very great extent, it is surely being determined here. Is there a plan? Probably not. Only appetites.” Many of us who care about the world believe that the 21st century is the “Asian century” with China as its economic linchpin. So a play like Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness, now receiving a world premiere production at the Goodman Theater before it transfers off-Broadway to the Manhattan Theater Club in February 2015, depicting stories of both urbanites and rural workers driving China’s economic growth, is timely, vital, intriguing. Unfortunately, Cowhig’s play, despite telling fresh narratives that we’ve not seen recently on Chicago stages, is marred by meandering plot threads that dead end in the ether and a perplexing tone that for most of the two hours border on a Sarah Silverman-meets-The Hangover in Asia mélange of toilet humor, slapstick, and broad characterizations. Great concept, flawed execution.

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