Homemade movies take stage
Siskel spotlights locals
07/18/2012 10:00 PM
The Gene Siskel Film Centerís commitment to its hometown is commendable.
The downtown institution opens its doors consistently to films with Chicago ties, from slick productions with large scopes and budgets to small, intimate affairs that are obviously labors of love.
Their inclusion isnít a thrown bone or a seat at the big kidsí table given out of pity, though. Whether itís a sad sack amateur flop or a sweeping emotional epic, a locally made film deserves a spotlight. Itís a finger on the cityís cinematic pulse.
This week, two such films play the Siskel. Both deal with memories, hidden secrets, and confronting dark pasts. Though they share loose themes, theyíre extremely different productions that reveal the wide berth in quality that often accompanies independent showcases.
Artist-turned-filmmaker Genevieve Davis blends narrative, documentary, and experimental forms to dig into her grandmotherís mysterious life and death in the film, Secret Life, Secret Death. Itís an ambitious combination, but it fails. This is truly unfortunate because the story detailed in the film is fascinating.
Davisí grandmother lived a life lifted straight from a seedy, but sad pulp novel.
Left with a child after a youthful affair, she left her Wisconsin home and moved to Chicago at the height of the Roaring Twenties where she fell into a life of prostitution populated by mob figures. It was a rough road that would eventually lead her back to Wisconsin, where she died tragically in a brothel fire.
Davis employs stills culled from her grandmotherís scrapbook, stock footage and clip art, stilted live-action recreations, jumbled narration, odd musical montages, and more to relate her grandmotherís tale, clumsily editing them together to create an amateur mish-mash.
Itís an embarrassing effort. If Davis had let the facts stand strong and refrained from injecting distractions, she would have had a tight, incisive film that explored conditions endured by women living in Chicagoís underworld in the 1920s. Instead, she created an overlong indulgence that skims when it should prod.
Into the Wake is Secret, Life, Secret Deathís exact opposite. In fact, it stands amongst this writerís favorite films of the year.
Its story is as old as cinema. Ken, a driver for a Chicago trucking firm, is just turning a new, optimistic corner in his life. Heís been promoted to a new executive post in the company. He has a beautiful girlfriend who owns a successful tattoo shop. Theyíre happy, in love, and plan to live a long life together. An unexpected phone call changes everything, though, pulling Ken back into a violent, Hatfield and McCoy-tinged past life that heís been running from for decades.
Director John Mossman handles the familiar material expertly, allowing it to progress with ease. As the dark reality of Kenís situation reveals itself, Into the Wake shifts from character study and romantic portrait to full- throttle backwoods horror/thriller mode deep with palm sweat tension.
The perfect, seamless, mature transition rivals and bests many attempted in big budget, Hollywood thrillers of similar ilk, proving that you donít have to be a big guy to sit with the adults. Highly recommended.