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Friday
May012015

Celebrating Independent Bookstore Day: A Sampling of the Chicago Area’s Independent Bookstores


by Andrew DeCanniere


With Independent Bookstore Day this weekend (Saturday May 2nd), I recently had the opportunity to speak with a number of owners of local independent bookstores — some of which have been a part of their community for many years, and others which are significantly newer. While the following does not, by any means, represent an exhaustive list of the fine independent booksellers in our area, they do represent some of my personal favorites — and, in my opinion, some of the very best that the Chicagoland area has to offer.



Jeff Garrett | Partner of Bookends & Beginnings

1712 Sherman Ave., Alley #1
Evanston, Illinois
www.bookendsandbeginnings.com

UR Chicago Magazine: For starters, I always wonder about the history of the bookstore, particularly when it’s something of an institution in the community, as I know Bookman’s Alley — which previously occupied the space — had been in Evanston.

Jeff Garrett: Well, this goes back to October 2013, when Nina and I decided that we wanted to leave Northwestern and do something entirely different and do it together. We thought about various things. I mean, Nina has a cooking degree and thought of starting a restaurant, but that didn’t leave me with much to do because I don’t cook. Then we had the idea of starting a bookstore. Her background is actually in journalism, but she worked at Women & Children First, the feminist bookstore in Andersonville, on-and-off for about 15 years. She has bookselling experience and, as you may know, I was a research librarian for most of my career — for 30 plus years — and so we decided that this would be at the confluence of our interests and made the decision [to open a bookstore]. That very same day, we went to visit Roger Carlson in Bookman’s Alley, because we knew that he was trying to close, and we felt that this is the most desirable space for a bookstore in Evanston.

UR: And it really seems that there’s this sort of resurgence in independent bookstores.

JG: Definitely. There is, and we were aware of that and decided to ride that wave. Also, the economy has been recovering, and bookstores are very dependent on people having a little bit of surplus money. So, we felt that bookstores were coming back and that the time had come to start an independent bookstore in Evanston.

UR: How do you envision the future of the independent bookstore?

JG: Honestly, I think the new book economy is taking shape now, and the new book economy is going to be a parallel development of online shopping — online shopping for either physical books or e-books — and then independent bookstores will continue to recover and multiply. There has to be someplace where readers can have a physical encounter with books and also speak to live human beings to get suggestions and find out of the way things. People come into the store and say ‘What’s that book that has a bird in the title and it has a light green cover?’ and odds are one of us will remember what that is.

It’s very similar to what’s happened in food and shopping and restaurants. Cheaper is not always better. I think that certainly, in a place like Evanston, people have realized that you may pay more for meat or vegetables at a place like Whole Foods, but you’re getting something more for that. If you’re willing to pay a little bit more, you get a whole lot more for it. I think there’s going to be a sort of bipolar book economy. There’s Amazon on the one end and the independent bookstores on the other, and Evanston is just a wonderful laboratory for that because there’s everything. There’s Amazon, there’s Barnes & Noble and then there are bookstores like Amaranth or Howard’s or Market Fresh. Each of them is different.

UR: And I have to say that yours is a wonderful addition. It’s so great to come in and find something new — or just completely unexpected.

JG: We — Nina and I — really like talking with customers who come in, even if they know what they’re looking for. Sometimes, we can tell them something they otherwise wouldn’t know. Actually, 20 minutes before you called, I was talking with one of our regular customers who is a photographer and photography historian. I knew we had just gotten a book in on the Chicago Columbian Exposition. It was not in the photography section, but I knew where it was and he was delighted. There also was this illustrator, and I remember she was asking for books from Poland. We didn't have any books from Poland, but when I was in Germany I found a catalogue of children’s book illustrators. She would never have found this otherwise, and it was from an exhibit of Polish illustrators that took place in New Delhi in 2014. These are things you would probably never find at a Barnes & Noble and you’d probably never find them at Amazon. That’s why human intermediation is a good thing in a certain type of bookstore.

UR: Speaking of making recommendations, would you happen to have any recommendations?

JG: Well, obviously books that I have read and like are ones I am going to recommend to others, if I sense that their tastes go in that direction. One author is Alan Furst. He writes these sort of 1930s spy novels. If someone comes in and says that they have a four-hour plane ride and that they want something to read that isn’t going to upset them but will hold their attention and entertain them in a serious way, I’ll recommend his work. I’ve had a profound affection for Kazuo Ishiguro ever since reading The Remains of the Day, which I think is one of the great quiet novels of the late 20th century. In other words, my likes and dislikes are going to come into play, but I think people appreciate it. Also, customers will sometimes talk with other customers about ‘Have you read this? Is it any good?’ and so there are all kinds of ways we can stimulate new ideas in readers, and that’s a good thing.

UR: Any plans for Independent Bookstore Day yet?

JG: Yeah, on May 2nd we definitely do have plans. First of all, it’s a national event — so we signed up with 399 other bookstores to take part and we’re getting a lot of the special books that have been created for this event. For example, Roxane Gay has put together a collection of essays that will be available only through independent bookstores and it will premiere on May 2nd. We are also going to be taking photographs of people holding a whiteboard with the author and title of their favorite book of the past year. Those photos will be going up on Facebook.

UR: It’s amazing how much the event has grown. I know it initially started in California, and it’s just really taken off.

JG: We’re also doing something else you may not have heard about yet, because we’re just beginning to crank up the publicity. It’s the Evanston Literary Festival, which is going to be from May 11th to May 18th. We’re one of the sponsors, together with Northwestern, Evanston Public Library, Northwestern University Press and the Chicago Book Expo. So, we’re the only sponsoring bookstore in that group. We’re going to have some really wonderful events.

Bookends & Beginnings is owned by Nina Barrett and is operated by Nina and her husband and bookstore partner, Jeff Garrett. The bookstore is located in the heart of Downtown Evanston, just blocks from the Davis CTA Purple Line station. To locate the bookstore, locate the alley on Sherman Avenue, about halfway between Church Street and Clark Street on the west side of the street. Enter the alley and you will come upon Alley Gallery. The entrance to Bookends & Beginnings is directly across from the entrance to Alley Gallery. You can learn more about Bookends & Beginnings by visiting their website at www.bookendsandbeginnings.com. You can also find the store on at www.facebook.com/bookendsbeginnings.



Stephanie Hochschild | Owner of The Book Stall

811 Elm Street
Winnetka, Illinois
www.thebookstall.com

UR Chicago Magazine: First off, I’m kind of curious about the history of the book store. I know that The Book Stall has been a part of the community for many years now.

Stephanie Hochschild: Yeah. The store has been here for over 30 years and Roberta Rubin, the store’s previous owner, really made it what it is today — a thriving independent bookstore that’s known for doing an incredible array of events. We have lots of authors that we bring in with our downtown partners — The Union League Club, The Standard Club, The University Club and The Women’s Athletic Club. At one point our family moved from Winnetka, and when we were moving back, I wanted to make sure we came back here, because I wanted to be close to the bookstore. Little did I know what that would mean for me in the end.

My kids grew up learning to read here. I came up here all the time. Every time I read a book review, I’d come here to buy the book. Then, at a certain point in my life, I was thinking about what to do and a friend of mine mentioned that the bookstore was for sale. I called Roberta and asked if she wanted to have coffee. We started talking and continued talking for all of that summer. In September of that year, I started sort of working here — shadowing people, learning as much as I could about what to do — and then, in July of the following year, there was a transaction and I became the owner. It was unlike anything I’d done before, but I did always follow the publishing industry and I have read avidly my whole life.

UR: What did you do before taking over the store?

SH: Right after college I had a job at Merrill Lynch in finance. Then, I went to law school and worked in law for several years. After that, I stayed at home a little bit with my kids, but I always loved reading and loved the publishing world, so it just seemed like the stars all lined up.

UR: Sounds like perfect timing.

SH: It really was. I consider myself incredibly lucky.

UR: How do you see the role of the independent bookseller or the independent bookstore in the community?

SH: Apart from functioning as a bookstore, of course, I also think that they’re community places as well. There are lots of conversations that are struck up in different sections of the bookstore, or even as you’re waiting to buy your book. People see what book you’re buying and they talk. It’s the kind of thing you can’t duplicate easily in another way. It has to be a bricks-and-mortar operation. So, I think we’re sort of opening up the world to people who want to come in here. I think people come to the bookstore because they like looking at a curated collection of books. I mean, there are so many books out there you can choose from. It’s hard to know what you really want to read. People here are very committed to keeping up-to-date and reading, and who love to talk about books and recommend books. That’s one reason to come in. It’s great to bring your kids in here, because developing a love of reading early is so important in life. Then, it’s a great place to sort of connect with authors and other readers.

UR: Which, as an avid reader myself, I think is great. Do you have any plans for Independent Bookstore Day? I know it’s coming up.

SH: On May 2nd, we have lots of authors coming in. We have lots of kids authors coming in, as well as adult authors. Renee Rosen is coming in and she’s local. We’ll have Rebecca Makkai and Peggy Wolff.

UR: Speaking of kids authors, another one of the things that makes your store rather unique — and something that stood out to me as someone who has been reading from early on — is that you also have a book club for kids, right?

SH: We do have a children’s book club. Grandparents or relatives can sign up and have books sent to kids on a regular basis, however they choose. Then we have lots of programming for the kids. We have authors who come in, we have events that revolve around a book but not necessarily the author. So, there are lots of things going on.

UR: And, last but certainly not least, speaking of books, do you have any recommendations?

SH: I have a couple of favorite books. I loved The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, which is a novel and it’s sort of a Sci-Fi story, but it’s about much bigger things. It’s about religion and faith and relationships and marriage. I think it’s a really incredible book. I also loved a book called Just Mercy. It’s by Bryan Stevenson. He’s a lawyer who defends death-row inmates. It’s an incredible story. He was in Evanston a couple of weeks ago, and he’s brilliant. Everybody should read his book or hear what he has to say. He’s a great writer and tells a really compelling story.

You can find out more about The Book Stall by visiting their website at www.thebookstall.com. You can also find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Book-Stall-at-Chestnut-Court/101331066619268 and Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/thebookstall or @thebookstall.




Teresa Kirschbraun | Owner of City Lit Books

2523 N. Kedzie Blvd.
Chicago, Illinois
www.citylitbooks.com

UR Chicago Magazine: To begin at the beginning, could you share a little bit of the history of the bookstore and how it got its start?

Teresa Kirschbraun: I opened the store in August 2012, so about two-and-a-half years ago. I started from the ground up. I gutted the space and ordered the books and everything. It was the first new independent bookstore to open in Chicago in eight years. I think used bookstores and that sort of thing had opened, but Book Cellar opened in 2004 and then I opened in 2012. There were no other independent bookstores that opened in that time. It was good for me because it made an impact. People noticed and were thrilled that the independent bookstore wasn’t dead.

UR: What did you do previously?

TK: I was in healthcare for a long time. I was a provider and administrator. I have a Master’s in Administration. I was a consultant, doing management consulting for large health systems. I traveled for about 10 years and that got difficult, so I stopped and really assessed what I wanted to do. I thought about how I’d managed small businesses, I told everyone else how to manage a business, and I’ve always loved books. I thought maybe I could try to combine that. So, I made a business plan and actually took a course in how to open an independent bookstore. Everything just seemed to be supportive. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 25 years, and it just seemed like a great time to put a place like this here. When I went to the course on how to open the store, I learned the risk isn’t as great as you might think, so I just went forward.

UR: And I always think that it’s a great addition to a community. It really seems to play an important role in whatever community it’s in.

TK: And it develops a community of its own, which has been really cool. I know that I’m part of it, but sometimes it just happens around you that people just start finding this place and making it their own.

UR: It really seems there’s a resurgence of independents and a renewed appreciation for them — a recognition of their importance.

TK: I agree with you. Hopefully when people are thinking about it, they see that it is possible and maybe it will help some people think about opening a store.

UR: Do you have any favorites you would like to recommend?

TK: Ruby by Cynthia Bond was one of my favorite books of the last year. It’s just a beautiful, haunting novel. Also, in terms of non-fiction, The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. It’s a great look at the development of Wonder Woman and the man who created her. Another book that just came out in paperback is Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis. I love her. She can pack so much into a page.

UR: And I know that Independent Bookstore Day is coming up shortly.

TK: I don’t know if you covered it last year, but it was just so phenomenal. I think that the support every store got was incredible. It was like Christmas here that day. It was just a terrible, rainy day and people came out. Some of them had books that they needed to buy and waited to show their support on that day. It’s fun for us to do, but it’s also a phenomenal showing of support.

You can find out more about City Lit Books by visiting their website at www.citylitbooks.com. To learn more about this year’s Independent Bookstore Day events, go to http://www.citylitbooks.com/event/2015/05/02/day.



Susan Takacs | Owner of The Book Cellar

4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago, Illinois
www.bookcellarinc.com

UR Chicago Magazine: For starters, I’m kind of curious about the history of the place.

Susan Takacs: I opened The Book Cellar in 2004, so it will be 11 years this June. It’s an independent bookstore in Lincoln Square, and we feel that we’re very much part of our local community and the Chicago community as a whole. We host author events in the store — both local and national authors — and we have many book groups that meet at our store. We collaborate with the Chamber of Commerce when they do neighborhood events. We have a weekly storytime that’s very popular. We help with off-site sales in other places — so restaurants, the Harold Washington Library, different hotels. When they have a keynote speaker or a speaker with a book, we help provide the book sales in those circumstances. We also have a cafe and serve light fare — we have sandwiches, salads, soup, beer and wine.

UR: How did you get your start? When and how did you decide to open a bookstore?

ST: Prior to the bookstore I was a women’s healthcare Nurse Practitioner. I was in private practice with a group of physicians at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I live about a mile-and-a-half from the store, and at that time there wasn’t an independent bookstore in the area and I am an avid reader. I really thought that we were missing one, so I went to the Women’s Business Development Center and learned how to create a business plan. I did that and I presented it to the Alderman at the time, and he said that they were actively trying to recruit an independent bookstore. The neighbors had been requesting a bookstore. So, it was very serendipitous in terms of my timing. I decided to try a career change, I took a year to learn all that I could about the book business and found a space. I got an architect and had plans drawn up and permits — and more permits — and we built the store. So, there’s a steep learning curve, because English or writing or publishing — none of that was my history, but I think we’ve come a long way. I think I still learn something new every day, but I think we’ve grown and become a staple in the literary community in Chicago.

UR: And it’s great to see this sort of resurgence of the independent bookstore. Personally, I really do feel that they’re just so integral to a community. Speaking of which, I was wondering what your take on the role of the independent bookstore in the community may be.

ST: I think it’s great that we have such a solid bookstore community in the City of Chicago. I think it speaks highly of the people of Chicago and their love of reading. I believe it’s important. I believe it’s what makes cities and neighborhoods interesting — these little shopping districts. If there are interesting bookstores and other retail shops and restaurants, it’s a great place for when people visit to come and walk around and see the personality of the city. If those little shops go away, and those interesting neighborhoods or shopping districts go away, then when you visit there’s nothing that’s different or interesting to see. It’s all the same. So, I think it adds value to the homes nearby if you have a thriving shopping district. It adds value to a city as a tourist spot. It adds value for the people that live in the city, because it’s often associated with things to do — neighborhood events, author events. We also have a comedy group called ‘The Kates’ that performs at our store twice a month. All these things contribute to the value of a community.

AD: Are there any books you would recommend? What draws you to that work in particular?

SH: I just finished this book that will be coming out. It’s called Great Kitchens of the Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I was drawn to the book because it had a lot of food references and wine references. It’s a great story. It’s a linked story, so it’s written in an interesting fashion. It’s not just a linear story, so I think all those things led to a great and interesting read.

You can learn more about The Book Cellar by visiting their website at www.bookcellarinc.com. For complete details regarding Independent Bookstore Day events at The Book Cellar, please visit www.bookcellarinc.com/event/independent-bookstore-day. You can also find the store on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bookcellarinc and on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/bookcellar  or @BookCellar.



Sarah Hollenbeck | Co-Owner of Women & Children First Bookstore

5233 N. Clark St.
Chicago, Illinois
www.womenandchildrenfirst.com

UR Chicago Magazine: Can you share a little bit about the history of your store? I know it has been something of a fixture in the community for a number of years now.

Sarah Hollenbeck: Sure. The bookstore was started in 1979. The original owners were Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon. They were two graduate students studying literature at UIC and were interested in gender studies. They were very aware of the fact that when they went to general bookstores in Chicago, there were tons of books that were written by men but not a whole lot of contemporary fiction written by women. Most of the books by women were either classics — like Jane Austen — or they were all romance novels and that was pretty much it. In order to fight that disparity, they decided to open a feminist bookstore. At that time, there were actually over 100 feminist bookstores across the country, including two in Chicago. They were committed to promoting contemporary works by women and when the store opened they only had women authors on the shelves. That has changed significantly over the last 35 years. Actually, a lot has changed. Now there are only fewer than a dozen feminist bookstores in the country, and we’re one of them. We do sell books by both men and women, but we are still committed to all of the books that we sell being feminist in some way or promoting gender equality. We believe that feminism is not so much about just fighting for the rights of women now, but challenging the idea of the traditional gender binary. So, that’s kind of the newer mission of the store. In August of last year, the store was purchased from Ann and Linda, both of whom decided to retire, by myself and co-owner Lynn Mooney. We renovated the store in January, so we have a totally reimagined space. It’s much more contemporary, but still has the same heart and the same books.

UR: It’s always just so interesting to me to learn a little bit about the background of the store. Speaking of which, how did the two of you get into it? What did you do beforehand, and how did you come into this?

SH: Lynn and I both worked at the bookstore. I was a bookseller and Lynn was the manager. I’ve worked at bookstores part-time since I was 22, so it’s always been a part-time job. I’ve also worked in publishing. I worked for an independent publisher in Chicago, and then I’m also involved in the creative writing and storytelling community in Chicago. I graduated from Northwestern University with an MFA in Creative Writing, so I’m very connected in the creative writing community here. Lynn also worked in publishing and then had worked at the bookstore, first fox six years as a bookseller and then as the manager.

UR: It seems that there’s really been this resurgence in the popularity of independent bookstores again. Things have kind of come full circle, and people really seem to be recognizing the importance of the independent bookseller in the community and have this renewed appreciation for them.

SH: Definitely. I agree. We’ve really seen a huge renaissance not only in people buying books from independent bookstores, but also in this interest in feminism and what feminism is. People identify themselves as feminists. So, we’ve been hugely lucky. We’re really happy with the tide shifting.

UR: Any thoughts on the resurgence in general and, more specifically, on the role of the independent bookseller in the community?

SH: Well, we’re really lucky. Women & Children First was recruited by the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce to move to this location. We weren’t originally in this location, but they wanted us to move here and serve as a neighborhood anchor. I think we’ve fulfilled that mission. We generate a lot of foot traffic, but also a lot of community support. One example of that is that our recent renovation was funded entirely by an Indiegogo campaign. So, the community made the renovation happen. I think it’s a huge symbol of the way in which people believe in bookstores as being integral to the neighborhood and integral to the local economy. We really do feel an essential part of the area and of the bookstore community.

UR: That is amazing. I had no idea the renovation was funded entirely in that way.

SH: Yeah. We raised $35,000 just from people donating anywhere form $10 to $500 to $1,000.

UR: Well, it’s a worthwhile cause and it’s wonderful to see so many other people feel that way, too.

SH: Yeah. I think they felt it was time to just invest in the space itself. It’s really been a work of love of everyone in the area, not just us.

UR: Any book recommendations?

SH: Sure. I love Eula Biss. Her recent book, On Immunity, was very popular. She is a former professor of mine, and I just really respect the work that she does. I also recently read Citizen by Claudia Rankine. So, that’s been a recommendation of mine. I just started Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming memoir, The Argonauts, and I’m really excited to continue reading that before it publishes in May. We also have recommendations on our website.

Some of my favorite books of the last year were Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I always recommend that one to someone who wants a very engrossing novel. I just read Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, which is an incredible psychological study of a family in California. It traces their relationships from childhood to adulthood. I really enjoyed Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band. All of my recommendations are also on our website, womenandchildrenfirst.com.

UR: Do you have any plans for Independent Bookstore Day?

SH: We do. We’re going to start the day with storytime at 10:30 with Miss Linda, the former owner of the bookstore who still does storytime every Wednesday. Then we’re going to have cookies on-hand. There’ll be refreshments all day. The cookies are made from a recipe in Mindy Segal’s cookbook Cookie Love. We’re going to have Aleksandar Hemon stopping by later in the day to sign his new book The Making of Zombie Wars. We’ll be selling exclusive merchandise all day for Independent Bookstore Day, including a Roxane Gay chapbook and a Hyperbole and a Half broadside, as well as a bunch of other stuff. We’re one of the bookstores that will be handing out pages from the original Stuart Dybek short story, and customers have to visit all 12 participating bookstores in order to collect the complete story. The event is posted on our own website and on our Facebook page, so you can always follow up there.

You can learn more about Women & Children First Bookstore by visiting their website at www.womenandchildrenfirst.com. You can also find the store on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Women-Children-First-Bookstore/8326741337 and on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/wcfbook or @wcfbook.

Tuesday
Mar032015

The Best & Worst Films of 2014


by Justin Tucker


The 10 Best Films of 2014 

Everyone knows the Academy Awards ceremony is a sanctimonious, seemingly never-ending dog and pony show. Generally out of touch with audiences, the Academy will at times make questionable picks for Best Picture and ignore certain films altogether. I mean, does anybody actually believe Slumdog Millionaire is a better movie over The Dark Knight? Is Crash actually going to stand the test of time as a work of art?

I am here to cut through the crap and the pretentiousness to present the actual best pictures of 2014. They are as follows:

10. Visitors

If experimental maestro Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) and composer Philip Glass’ names ever appear together in the same credit sequence, audiences can surely expect to be immersed in a sonic, sensorial experience. The film, shot in stark black and white to be exhibited in the latest digital projection technology, is a nonverbal montage of faces, human and otherwise, flowing in a meditative stream. Like the Qatsi trilogy before it, Reggio and Glass skillfully combine image and sound, redefining cinema as a form of art.

9. Jersey Boys

American Sniper may be getting all the award nominations and box office dollars, but no one should lose sight of the fact that Jersey Boys is the best Clint Eastwood movie of 2014. Based on the Tony Award-winning musical, it tells the story of The Four Seasons from their humble beginnings in 1950s Belleville, New Jersey, to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Eastwood’s direction is deliberately old-fashioned, and the delightful performances by John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of frontman Frankie Valli on Broadway, and Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) as Tommy DeVito make for a mellifluous outing.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy

One of the better entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this fun and hilarious superhero space adventure follows outlaws Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) as they blast their way through the galaxy. Their goal: keep a powerful orb from entering into the clutches of the maniacal Ronan (Lee Pace), hellbent on destroying the planet Xandar. Director James Gunn (Slither) brings the comic book to life on a scale that rivals Star Wars and Star Trek. Killer soundtrack as well.

7. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s first film since the conclusion of The Dark Knight Trilogy is a science fiction saga that takes cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact and Solaris, exploring how the intersection of science and spirituality shape how humankind views their place in the universe. Set in a future where civilization is on the decline amid ecological catastrophe, it stars the terrific Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut who leaves behind his son and daughter--joining a NASA mission to enter a wormhole to search for a new home for humanity. Nolan once again raises the cinematic bar, telling a stirring story based on the latest science featuring state-of-the-art special effects.

6. Whiplash

Miles Teller stars as drummer Andrew Neiman, member of an elite ensemble, who is abused and humiliated by jazz instructor Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) at a prestigious New York music conservatory. Neiman is driven to zealous lengths to prove his worth to the fierce Fletcher, obsessed with perfecting his skills to become a modern Buddy Rich. Simmons gives the most memorable performance of his career, and Teller continues to grow as an actor. Based on his 2013 short subject of the same name, writer/director Damien Chazelle emerges as a bold new storyteller.

5. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It’s no wonder that Alejandro González Iñárritu’s well-executed existential comedy about tortured artists clashing with the egos of other tortured artists won Best Picture. The Academy eats that sort of thing up. Nonetheless it’s a darkly funny tale about aging action hero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who hopes to stage a Broadway comeback in a dramatic role, reversing a stalled career after leaving a popular superhero franchise. He is berated by his Birdman persona, becoming increasingly consumed by his alter-ego as the pressure mounts to make his play a success. Keaton and Edward Norton, playing a maniacal method actor, give two of the best performances of the year. Iñárritu (Amore perros, 21 Grams) continues to wow.

4. We Are The Best!

One of the best things that can ever happen in one’s life is to get into punk rock. Unfortunately I wasn’t old enough to experience punk’s initial wave like the heroines of this 1980s-set Swedish coming-of-age story were able to, but the film is still a nostalgic joy. Written and directed by Lukas Moodysson (Together) and based on the graphic novel Never Goodnight by his wife Coco, it tells the story of three Stockholm teenage outcasts who form a punk rock band at their youth center to raise some hell and channel their adolescent angst, regardless of musical ability. This film is terrific because it teaches that it’s okay to be yourself —the central tenet of punk rock.

3. Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) has been behind some of the most iconic and innovative movies of the past quarter century. His most ambitious film to date is the epic Boyhood, shot over a twelve year span, about the journey from adolescence to adulthood of Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), who becomes a man before our eyes. Also featuring knockout performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced parents, Coltrane’s rite-of-passage is an unprecedented achievement.

2. Life Itself

What better way to pay tribute to the memory Roger Ebert than a documentary from Chicago-based maestro Steven James? The Hoop Dreams director gives an insightful chronicle of the life of the legendary film critic, from humble beginnings and his fight with cancer through his relationships with his wife Chaz and partner Gene Siskel. A heartfelt and reverent homage to one of the great American men of letters.

1. The Lego Movie

It’s not hard to speculate why this masterpiece was snubbed. The Oscars are all about the craft of cinema and not the commercial aspects. The film proved that a 101 minute advertisement for toys, comics and video games can not only be fun and exciting, but also a carefully crafted work of high art. Set in the Lego world, it tells the story of Lego construction worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) as he teams up with the Lego likes of Batman, C-3PO, Han Solo and Gandalf to battle the menacing Lord Business (Will Ferrell). Written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the 21 Jump Street series), this dazzling, subversive work of animation stands head over shoulders against Best Animated Feature nominees Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. And who wouldn’t want to see Star Wars and DC Comics together in the same movie? I am happy to see Warner Bros.’ animation wing spring ferociously back to life. Without a doubt, one of the best movies of the new millennium. If only Sergei Eisenstein were alive to see it.

Honorable Mentions: Big Eyes, Cesar Chavez, Draft Day, Finding Vivian Maier, Gone Girl, The Imitation Game, Locke, Nightcrawler, Selma, X-Men: Days of Future Past




The 3 Worst Films of 2014

Bad movies seem to be everywhere these days. Quality, originality and innovation continue to be lacking, and as a result, Anno Domini 2014 proved to be another showcase of shitty films.

It’s no secret that the major studios aren’t making movies as great as they used to. But if you get off on terrible moviemaking, let me present the most gruesome of 2014.

(Note: I have not seen Saving Christmas with Kirk Cameron yet, because I had no means to see it. I’d much rather spend my time trying to watch good movies.)

3. I, Frankenstein

Bill Nighy’s status as one of the most distinguished actors in the world today has been thrown into question thanks to this POS. Aaron Eckhart stars as Frankenstein’s monster, who is still alive and living among us today. He has also allied with angels, who are protecting Earth from demons such as Nighy’s character. And then the angel and demons fight and stuff. The plot of this Underworld offshoot is as thin and fragile as a single strand of angel hair pasta, and the special effects are even worse. If this movie is any indication, Eckhart was seemingly displeased that Harvey Dent died in The Dark Knight and he felt entitled to play another character with a crazy scar for an entire movie. Selfish asshole.

2. Left Behind


Unfortunately “Duck Dynasty” exists. Why is there so much attention given to these redneck derelicts? What’s even more unfortunate is that “Dynasty” co-star Willie Robertson has decided to enter the movie business as a producer and star in order to poison the cinema. His first credit as executive producer is the fucking horrible Left Behind, the reboot to the fucking horrible 2000 original with Kirk Cameron. Starring the increasingly pathetic Nicolas Cage, the film takes place on his pilot character’s plane during the Rapture, a prophesied Biblical event where believers are instantly taken to Heaven before the Apocalypse. Also pathetic is the acting, most notably Lea Thompson and Cassi Thomson, as well as the special effects. The most unfortunate part of his movie is the film’s intended audience actually believe an event like the Rapture is imminent. Don’t encourage these freaks; avoid this movie all together.

1. Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?

Who cares at this point? As a fan of Ayn Rand, I am very disappointed in how the Atlas Shrugged trilogy played out. Part I was no masterpiece, but it thankfully helped thrust Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) into the spotlight as heroine railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart. That film failed; rejected by the very free market the novel championed. Against conventional wisdom, producer John Aglialoro recast all the characters and released Part II the following year to even less fanfare. Now we’ve got the third and thankfully final Who Is John Galt?, easily one of the worst films of the new millennium. Again completely recast with an even smaller budget than its predecessors, the film continues the story of Taggart and her fellow industrialists as they continue their strike against a tyrannical United States government. The rotten script, co-written by Aglialoro, takes the second half of Rand’s novel and distills it to whatever they could afford to shoot. It addition to being anti-climactic, it completely breaks the flow of the first two films, halting character and story arcs that have been developing over the series. Worse than the acting and chemistry of the leads are the cameos by Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, both of whom I’m sure Rand would have fucking hated. The cast and crew of this turd must atone for their sins.





Bad But GoodGod’s Not Dead

In terms of story, character and technical merits, this Christian drama from director Harold Cronk is bad by any standard of measure. It stars Shane Harper as a Christian freshman college student who must debate the existence of God with his atheist philosophy professor (Kevin “Hercules” Sorbo) after he refuses to deny his existence in class. Also some of his fellow students consider getting saved despite objections from their families. With paper-thin characters, a melodramatic flair and made-for-television aesthetics, this cinematic piece of Christian apologetics is amusing because of its unintentional camp and extreme earnestness. I couldn't help but root for the characters to be saved. Oh! And Willie Robertson has a cameo!

Sunday
Jan252015

ALL THAT REMAINS: Fighting A War They Cannot Win

or Phil Labonte Should Go Eat A Bag Of Dicks

Written by Neil Miller, Jr.

I normally don’t like to get involved in sociopolitical discussions because I’m of the opinion that you can’t change anyone’s mind who’s willing to argue their beliefs to you, no matter how ridiculous they may be.  But when All That Remains’ frontman Phil Labonte claims “I have nothing against gay people. It's just a word… I think the only people that have a legit grievance when it comes to any racial slurs is the black community,” I feel obligated to speak up.  Before I go any further, I should say that I do believe in free speech.  I am a journalist after all.  But even more than that, I believe that we are all equal and should be treated as such…therefore, I have quite a bit of contempt for Labonte after hearing about this and here’s why.

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Friday
Jul112014

Life Itself, Death, Cinema, and Chicago


By John Esther


**"Life Itself" opened in limited release last weekend (July 4th) and is currently playing at Landmark Century Theater here in Chicago — FIND SHOWTIMES.**

As someone who spoke to Roget Ebert at the Sundance Film Festivals, it was a bittersweet experience to see the late film critic at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, not at the Eccles Center or on a Park City bus, or on Main Street, but rather through the medium of film.

Making its world premiere at Sundance's MARC Theater to a sold out crowd, the latest film by noted documentarian Steve James (The Interrupters; Stevie; and Hoop Dreams), Life Itself chronicles a man who became the world’s most famous film critic.

Born and raised in Illinois, Roger grew up, studied and spent nearly all his early life in Urbana until he was accepted as a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago. At the same time, Roger was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times. It was clear from the beginning, Roger was a natural writer. Due to his work load, however, Roger never earned his PhD, which was probably a good thing for his television career later as most Americans do not care to consume film criticism offered by people with PhDs.

Although a prolific writer on various subjects, including life in Illinois (Illini History: One Hundred Years of Campus Life), this “Chicago character” began his film critic career in 1967 writing for the Sun-Times. The fact that Roger would continue to write for the Sun-Times, the same publication until the year of his death, some 46 years later, is astonishing when you consider the advent of social media, the demise of legitimate film criticism in the United States, and the treatment of popular film reviewers by corporate media.

Of course, what made Roger famous was his film reviewing on television. During the mid-1970s Ebert co-hosted a weekly film review show, Sneak Previews, produced by Chicago’s public network, WTTV. When Gene Siskel, a film critic and journalist for the Chicago Tribune, joined three years later the show was picked up by major television and broadcasted weekly on ABC.

What was initially intended to be a show about film reviewing, Siskel & Ebert & and the Movies, soon started taking its focus off of the movies and onto its odd couple film critics. Gene was a philosophical, east coast trained, conservative reviewer, who just happened to be thin and balding while Roger was a neo-liberal populist who happened to have lots of hair and few extra pounds. How they would react to each other mattered to audiences more frequently than the movies they discussed. Thanks to the show, the books, the reviews, etc., by the late 1990s Roger’s popularity grew to the point where he was the third most recognizable Chicagoan — behind Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. Considering our anti-intellectual, fitness-obsessed, youth-centric culture, Roger’s popularity is quite an American anomaly for an overweight, bespectacled, gray-haired guy who reads and writes for a living.

While Life Itself offers an amusing recount of Roger’s formidable years, career and relationship with Gene, its real value comes in Steve’s documentation of his last year on earth. Originally diagnosed with cancer in 2002, for the next decade Roger would go through various surgeries, remissions and cancers. Eventually his face would be drastically altered, eventually leaving a hole in it. Rather than hide or manufacture an untrue image, Roger, and company, invites us to watch his pain, his decay and his courage in the face of death. Whatever you think of his film criticism over the years (or his liberal politics in general), it is hard not to have respect for and sympathize with this man who was generous with his time and talent.

Steve, a fellow Chicagoan, obviously admires and respects his subject, but that does not prevent him from offering criticism on Roger’s life and career. Unlike the protagonists in so many of those Hollywood movies that were the subject of his reviews, Roger was all-too human. Roger was an alcoholic; he could be arrogant; he could publish reviews that would contradict his liberal beliefs. Of course, knowing how much Roger cherished honesty found in the best of documentaries, this kind of criticism from the filmmakers on their subject would have only made Roger happy.

Filled with pathos, nostalgia, reference and joy, whether you knew Roger from near or afar, as a documentary, Life Itself offers an exceptional film-going experience.

For those who sat with Roger at Sundance, Life Itself reminds us that no longer would there be quick chats with the gregarious film critic before a sold-out screening at Sundance, or watching Roger get bombarded by elderly viewers (in terms of Sundance Film Festival goers) for Sundance Film Festival recommendations, nor would there be another incident of a film critic being photographed by strangers as he walked down Main Street, Park City, UT.

Now, Roger’s life is relegated to our memories, his work and at the movies. 

 

Monday
Mar312014

Chicago Nightlife Awards Fashion  



by Laine Pepp

Old Style and Jameson present Chicago’s first annual Chicago Nightlife Awards on Tuesday April 1st, honoring and recognizing those industry professionals that spend their nights making sure we all have a good time. With that being said, we all are looking in our closets (or at least I am) wondering what to wear for the big night.

The Nightlife Awards are a chance for us to push the limits with our fashion, certainly not a night to blend in; a night for tighter pants, shorter skirts, higher heels, and bolder make-up. With the spirit of honoring and recognizing those industry professionals that are behind our favorite drunken nights, I also want to recognize some of the hottest/best dressed and encourage that we channel our fiercest Chicagoans while getting dressed Tuesday night.

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