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Column Fri Jun 21 2013

World War Z, Monsters University, Much Ado About Nothing, The Bling Ring, Augustine & Far Out Isn't Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

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World War Z

I'll admit, when I hear an upcoming film is going to cover a familiar topic — whether it be zombies or vampires or buddy cops or an alien invasion — I typically want the filmmakers to bring something new to the table. Or, at the very least, add a few new twists to the familiar. Strangely enough, when I read that Max Brooks' World War Z was being turned into a film (after years of trying), I knew that this book that I'd read and loved could never be made into a big-budget, mainstream film without some considerable changes. Against current thought, it could have been made into a film in its original form as, perhaps a fake documentary, but we all know how well those have been going over lately.

My point is twofold: anyone upset about the film's structure probably didn't want it made into a movie in the first place; and, the film delivers a zombie film that does, in fact, add a few new wrinkles to the zombie canon. These certainly aren't Mr. Romero's (or Robert Kirkman's) slow-moving, decomposing walking dead that have mostly risen from their graves to eat humans. From what I can tell about the zombies in World War Z, they seem more into biting than eating. Their mission is to spread their virus-like condition to other humans as quickly as possible — and considering the time it takes from a bite to turn you into a zombie is about 12 seconds, that's pretty fast.

These zombies run (a bone of contention for many, but since these aren't really traditional zombies, it makes sense), and they have swarming hive mentality, which results in some of the film's most sensational visuals of zombies piling atop zombies to scale or topple even the largest barriers. Truth be told, I'm not sure this qualifies as a zombie movie; the virus-like element pushes it more into the same category as 28 Days Later, but it has the qualities of a zombie movie and the characters call them zombies, so let's proceed with that in mind.

The film tells its globe-trotting tale of the spread of the zombie plague by following the exploits of a former United Nations worker Gerry Lane (whose expertise on viral diseases isn't exactly clear), played by Brad Pitt, who happens to live in Philadelphia where an outbreak seems to happen right before his eyes and the eyes of his wife (Mireille Enos) and two daughters. But the UN seems intent on getting Gerry and his family to a safe location — an aircraft carrier way out on the ocean — so he can do his job and track down the source of this newborn plague.

To a certain degree, the book's structure is maintained to a lesser degree as Lane goes from South Korea to Israel to Scotland with a few stops in between looking for the ground zero of this mess. And each location offers a new, terrifying discovery, which often leads to the next stop on Lane's world tour. The South Korean stop keeps things smaller in scale (with effectively twitchy, paranoid appearances from the likes of Matthew Fox and James Badge Dale), but the things discussed about the "North Korean solution" are just awful and mostly believable.

But it's the set piece in Israel is magnificently staged and moves like a high-speed rail train through a china shop. Jerusalem is one of the few cities that hasn't been invaded, thanks to an already-built wall around its perimeter. But Lane is there when the wall is scaled, and it's a terrifying moment that is almost hard to picture without actually seeing it (okay, fine, if you've seen the trailers, you probably have seen it). The best part of this sequence is that Lane picks up a sidekick in the form of a young Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz), who becomes something of a bodyguard for him. She's ruthless, fearless and kicks much zombie ass.

As directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Quantum of Solace) and written by God knows who when all is said and done, World War Z fizzles a bit toward the end for two very distinct reasons. First, the final sequence set in a World Health Organization in Scotland, during which Lane attempts to find a way to stop the zombie attacks, is kind of simple and the coincidences run so deep that I simply couldn't wholly accept them. It's still a great, tense piece of filmmaking (featuring the great Peter Capaldi as a WHO doctor), and it's one of the few times we really get to examine exactly what these "zombies" look like and how they behave.

The second, more sweeping problem with the film is with the Lane character. Other than the fact that he loves his family (duh) and he has superhuman powers of deduction, he has virtually no other distinguishing characteristics or personality traits. He's like a generic everyman action hero tossed into this global catastrophe who somehow manages to get along with just above-average intelligence, charm, and the ability to run and never stop running. Even his reaction at the realization that what he's dealing with may be zombies barely registers; maybe he blinks a few extra times. It's not Pitt's performance that I have issues with; it's the character himself who comes across as more of a sketch than a human being. And in a film where the human population is dwindling at an alarming rate, a few flesh-and-blood life forms would have been appreciated.

Still, World War Z has many strong moments in it (I haven't even mentioned the insane zombie attack in an airborne commercial plane). If you're precious about the source material, you might as well stay away. But if you're willing to be flexible and open your mind to something that at least makes an effort to be original within a crowded, familiar genre, this one gets it right more often than it fumbles it. I will take issue with the fact that the PG-13 rating makes it feel like we're watching an "edited for television" version of a much more violent work. Perhaps a future home video release will let loose the blood and guts; here's hoping. The film may not stick every landing, but it's still a worthy effort, with a handful of great scares and sweeping action scenes that convey the vast, desperate nature of this version of the zombie apocalypse.

Monsters University

It's almost impossible to believe it has been 12 years since a weird little Pixar movie called Monsters Inc. came out and delivered its heartfelt messages about friendship, not being afraid of the unknown, and being passionate about your job, which may be a first for an animated films unless you count the Seven Dwarfs. What surprised me most about this prequel was the complexity of the messages at play. Still very much a film about friendship (this time around, we see the beginning of one), Monsters University features much more interesting themes of embracing what you're good at, even if it's not what others might think of as exciting.

This time around we meet Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal) as a teenager who gets accepted into the titular institute of higher education, specifically into its elite Scare Program. As with all great Pixar films, even before we get to the plot, the attention to detail draws your eyes and ears in every direction. Banners and posters around campus, all of activities groups gathered at the center of the school, not to mention the hundreds of new monster varieties we get to take in and examine, sometimes just for a fleeting moment.

Mike understands that the odds are not in his favor to become a certified scarer, but he also knows that he knows more about the art and techniques of scaring than anyone in his class. Not even the school's creepy Dean Hardscrabble (voiced to icy perfection by Helen Mirren) thinks he can make it. In his primary scaring class (taught by Alfred Molina's Professor Knight), he meets James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a legacy and natural scarer who doesn't rely much on book-taught scaring as he does yelling really loud and making a nasty face. This is a style that doesn't sit well with Mike or the instructors, and he ends up doing poorly in the class because he doesn't use a child's documented fears (of thunder, bugs, bears, etc.) as part of his technique. Even the cool scarer fraternity (led by Nathan Fillion's Johnny) rejects him as a pledge when it looks as if Sulley might flunk out.

One of the film's most interesting surprises is how the character of Randall (the villain of Monsters Inc., voiced by Steve Buscemi, who I believe I heard referred to as "Randy" by characters in this film) is handled. I almost wish there had been more showing his transformation from Mike's would-be best friend to something more selfish and dastardly. First-time feature director Dan Scanlon (who helmed the best of the Cars-related Mater shorts, Mater and the Ghostlight) does a really credible job finding new corners of the familiar characters and showing how traits of the some of the new ones rubbed off on Mike and Sulley to help them become better people.

Among the new characters are another fraternity whose members are the nerdiest monsters of the Scare Program, voiced by the likes of Joel Murray (sounding and looking a lot like a Chicagoan sporting a Ditka-like mustache), Sean Hayes, Dave Foley and Charlie Day. This scrappy little group of social misfits are going to break your heart a little bit, and you'll love them for it. They are the campus losers, but with Mike and Sulley in their ranks, they pull things together to become something, well, better than losesrs.

MU's final third is primarily focused on the school Scare Games — not technically part of the schooling, but still and important part in establishing who the university's best scarers are. And it's for these games that Mike and Sulley finally discover the nature of their friendship and working relationship that will carry them into adulthood. Supported by some great voice work by Aubrey Plaza, John Krazinski and Bill Hader, among others, Monsters University doesn't shy away from tough life lessons. As we know from Monsters Inc., Mike does not become a scarer, but the way he gets there may not be what you expect; it's wonderfully moving and surprisingly honest.

The best Pixar works (hell, the best movies in general) are those that combine healthy doses of creativity and emotional depth through character development. While not every character in Monsters University is delved into, the ones who need to be are. I'm not sure if these characters are screaming out for another film, but I have really enjoyed learning about their fascinating, fantastical, very funny lives. And I think you're going to love this sweet and visually spectacular work.

Much Ado About Nothing

I'm a Shakespeare nut, plain and simple. Since the mid-1990s, I'm been a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and have never missed a production in nearly 20 years. I don't just watch, I collect Shakespeare film adaptations, and I love that a lot of the available performances done for British television over the decades are finally coming out on DVD; there's pretty much no version I won't watch. I have no idea of Joss Whedon plans on making more of the Bard's works into films in this effective guerilla style or not, but not since Kenneth Branagh's 1989 Henry V have I felt the potential for Shakespeare opening up to a mass audience than I do with Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing. That's not because it's some sort of masterpiece; it is not. But Whedon's inherent knowledge of which passages and scenes of Shakespeare's masterfully told love story will play for plain-speaking audiences is impressive.

Some think that adapting a work of Shakespeare simply involves taking a black marker and crossing out what doesn't work or is too complicated. It is true that to change the words would be almost sacrilegious, but there is something to adapting that involves a certain amount of knowledge of writing for the masses, which was always Shakespeare's target audience. Whedon's target is intelligent folks who still appreciate the simple pleasures of entertainment that involves humor (sometimes of a low variety) and core emotions ranging from joy to rage. All of this is prominently featured in Much Ado About Nothing, and while the film doesn't scream out that it's a Whedon presentation (aside from its cast of almost entirely actors who have worked with the filmmaker in film or TV), his crowd will likely eat this film up. But more importantly, so will just about anyone else who enjoys watching actors tear into good writing and the chance to exercise their acting muscles in ways they rarely get to.

I'm not a full-fledged Whedon-ite, but I've seen some of his television work and all of his films. Simply shooting at his home, in black and white, using actors who are all friends, the results are mixed but mostly positive. While the main story is about a young couple, Claudio (Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods) and Hero (Jillian Morgese), attempting to get married while others (primarily Sean Maher's Don John) seek to ruin their happiness, the more interesting relationship exists between Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof), two verbal sparring partners who others playfully conspire to have fall in love, which they once were before a falling out.

Over the years, I have grown to really admire Acker's ability to turn on a dime from sweet and caring to outright vicious (her run on the most recent season of "Person of Interest" was magnificent), but she absolutely dominates the emotional landscape of this film, even when the focus isn't on her. Being in love makes her a kind of vulnerable she does not enjoy, but she can't help herself as Benedick turns on the charm. Also on hand for the proceedings is The Avengers' Clark Gregg as the governor of Messina, at whose home these events take place; Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, fresh from a victorious battle; and Nathan Fillion as the police investigator looking into the plot to ruin the reputation of young Hero. He's really only in two or three scenes, but Fillion is by far the funniest and most accessible thing in the film.

Even in its grimmest moments, Whedon manages to keep things light and easy to follow. Even the songs in the film (most taken from Shakespeare's own verses in the play) are catchy new-agey compositions that make you want to crawl into this story, grab a glass of wine, and watch the beautiful people move around you. For a black-and-white work, Much Ado is a remarkably warm and inviting film that dares you not to feel like a guest at the story's many gatherings and festivities. Not every actor can recite Shakespeare as well as the others, but that doesn't seem to matter here. No one embarrasses themselves, and the performances are universally loose and spirited.

As if often the case with any Shakespeare adaptation in any medium, sometimes the actors over-gesture or laugh to much to make the point clear that a line is meant to be funny or poignant, and Whedon allows this sometimes a little too much. But it's certainly not enough to discredit the production. The worst crime the film commits is when its casual approach borders on slightly dull and too laid back, but again, nothing unforgivable. Considering Whedon essentially used Much Ado About Nothing as a palate cleanser between Avengers movies, here's hoping that the need to downscale his work and mind between blockbusters continues and that his love of Shakespeare or other classic writers runs deep enough to try something like this again. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Bling Ring

Writer-director Sofia Coppola is fascinated by all manner and every angle of celebrity. With Lost In Translation, the focus was on the emptiness and isolation that even the biggest stars feel; with Marie Antoinette it was about being thrust into the limelight; the actor in Somewhere was a selfish prick made to care again by being forced to actually spend time with his teen daughter. But The Bling Ring might be Coppola's most in-the-moment examination of star culture, as she immerses us in the lives of the lives of five of the most shallow people you will ever meet who broke into the homes of celebrities. They did this partly to steel high-end clothing and accessories, but of equal importance was to simply say they did it, to step into these celebrities' shoe closets and party rooms. And not surprisingly, they told all their friends and got caught eventually.

The Bling Ring isn't about these teens evading the police and the investigation that leads to their capture. It's about the mindset of someone who would stalk a celebrity online so they can figure out when they won't be home, and then go to their ill-secured Hollywood home just to grab a piece of their lives. At first, what they stole was stuff that wouldn't be noticed missing right away — hidden cash, a small piece of jewelry, singular items that were special without being insanely valuable or irreplaceable. The burglaries are almost comic in their sloppiness; they're smart enough to know to avoid obviously placed security cameras, but dumb enough to blab to their friends. In some cases, they even bring friends with them on their excursions.

The kids all seem to come from fairly well-off homes, most of which are devoid of any real parental presence. Although Rebecca (newcomer Katie Chang) is the ringleader, we learn the most of the thought process and celebrity worship from Nicki (Emma Watson), who actually does have a mother (Leslie Mann) who is just as depth-free as she is. They seem to only go to clubs to see who they can spot and tweet about. In one scene, they actually see Paris Hilton, an actual multiple-time victim of these kids, and Kirsten Dunst being observed and discussed in a club. If you really listen to what these little criminals are talking about, it may make your head numb. For them, it isn't about the money; it's about the fame and the perks and outfits that go with that fame. Their getting caught makes them famous, and they love putting on a show for the cameras. Nicki's remorseful speech she gives about learning her lesson is magnificent bullshit from Watson, who is absolutely killing it this month between this film and her extended cameo in This Is the End.

I fear there are some who might mistake The Bling Ring's shallow characters for being a shallow film, and it's an easy mistake to make. And while it's absolutely true that a movie like Spring Breakers captured a similar empty existence in a much better, more artistically perfect way. Both films do dead-on attempts to mirror the brain power of their subjects and capture their spirit. These LA kids (who also include newcomers Israel Broussard, Claire Julien and Taissa Farmiga, Vera's sister) aren't interested in partying all the time and throwing their bodies to the wolves (well, most of them aren't), and as a result their ideas of fun might seem less dangerous and thrilling.

I tend to like Coppola's work best when she gets in the heads of her subjects, but when there's so little to grab onto, the film feels a little less significant. Based on a very recent true story, which was documented in the Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" by Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring made me feel old and out of touch with today's youth culture, and that's okay because I am and I am. But I don't mind not completely identifying with these characters; they fascinate me the same way animals in the zoo do. I don't want to play with them, but I'll watch them fling poo at each other because it amuses me.

I just returned from a press junket for a big upcoming film loaded with foreign journalists who could easily trade places with some of these kids, so I'm aware that in some peripheral way, I exist in the culture on display here. I look at The Bling Ring as a cautionary tale about smart people leading empty lives. I hope I'm never brought face to face with creatures like this, but if I do, I hope I'm smart enough to avoid trying to identify with them or play their silly game. I'm probably doomed. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Augustine

I think it can be agreed upon that one of modern medicine's worst moments (and there are many) is the diagnosis known as "hysteria," and the fact that it was used as a catch-all for nearly all emotionally and psychologically based conditions suffered by women, particularly during the 19th century. The way certain neurologists looked at things was that if you had a vagina, you ran the risk of being some kind of crazy. The subject was dealt with rather amusingly in the recent release Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and now the French drama Augustine tells a far darker story set in Belle Epoque-era Paris about ground-breaking doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (the always intense Vincent Lindon) and seizure-prone, 19-year-old kitchen maid Augustine (singer/actress Soko, giving an unbelievably physical and emotionally draining performance).

In this based-on-a-true-story tale, Augustine finds herself having to leave the well-to-do household where she is employed after she has an episode that makes her fall to the floor twitching in a way that makes her seem like she's having 10,000 orgasms. With each new attack, a different part of her body becomes paralyzed. Her case is so fascinating to Dr. Charcot that he brings her before groups of colleagues, hypnotizes her into a seizure, and is applauded and given funding to conduct further research. As portrayed by Lindon, the doctor is a cold customer, who barely sees his patients as anything more than pieces of meat. But there is little disguising the fact that the sensual portions of Augustine's seizures are making the doctor view her as something closer to human.

It also becomes clear that Augustine is beginning to have feelings for Charcot because he's the only person in the hellish women's psychiatric hospital who pays any attention to her emotionally immature self. First-time writer-director Alice Winocour is at her best when the sexual tension is boiling over, and as much as this sounds like a bodice-buster, it really isn't. The doctor's feelings for his patient genuinely seem to pain him, even though his relationship with his sweet but concerned wife (Chiara Mastroianni) seems routine at best. Augustine's condition is made harder to diagnose or treat especially since she seems to be going through a flourishing sexual awakening in the doctor's presence. In case you haven't figured it out, there's a whole lot of sex talk in Augustine, and it's all really twisted up in the inappropriate feelings the two characters are having for each other.

The film is engages us and forces us to think about the mean ways throughout history that men found to dominate and control women. This was also a time when a woman being frustrated by the issue of physical pleasure (or lack thereof) was grounds for a doctor's visit, at the very least. It's fascinating to watch as the doctor-patient relationship shifts how Charcot alters the way he treats her during exams and "performances," sometimes resorting to more cruel behavior when there are others watching. Augustine primarily exists in a dark and haunting place, with two central performances that are absolutely mesmerizing transitioning into disturbing. Soko (also known as Stéphanie Sokolinski in many of her previous films) is a discovery for me, and I'm eager to see a great deal of her other work. Watching the film almost feels like an intrusion into something so personal that we feel like we should look away at times, but many of the best films are. And this certainly is one of the best ones I've seen lately. The film opens in Chicago today at the Music Box Theatre.

Far Out Isn't Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

I guess I was reading the wrong children's books when I was a kid, or maybe by the time I was old enough to appreciate the stories and illustrations of the great Tomi Ungerer, his books had been banned from libraries and most other respectable literary establishments. Either way, when one of the biggest fans and cheerleaders of your work is the late, great Maurice Sendak (who is interviewed extensively for this documentary), you know you're doing something right. Directed by Brad Bernstein, Far Out Isn't Enough is the life story of artist, author, activist Ungerer, whose French family managed to survive Nazi-occupied Alsace, where he grew up forced to speak German (he still sports the accent), before moving to America.

Like many artists in the 1950s and early '60s, Ungerer began his artistic career working in advertising before transitioning into a very popular succession of children's books that included titles like Flat Stanley, Crictor, The Three Robbers, Zeralda's Ogre and The Mellops series. Because there was no internet, his fans had no idea that Ungerer was also doing a series of incredibly creative and disturbing anti-Vietnam War posters (trust me, you would recognize the work), as well as a book of hardcore S&M erotica art work. There's no denying that the work is that of a true talent, regardless of the subject, but when it was discovered that the maker of beloved children's books was also doing porn, his books were pulled from libraries and schools immediately and his career was dead.

For many, that's as much of the story as they know, but like so many things, time heals all (or most) wounds, and his resurgence 20-plus years later in children's books continues to this day. The filmmaker makes considerable use of animated version of Ungerer's work to tell his story, and it almost makes you long to see some of these great characters come to life as animated works (some actually were, but I've never seen those films). But the real star of the show is the unfiltered, craggy old man whose every word is pure inappropriate gold. His belief that every child should be traumatized at some point is a classic.

Ungerer is one of those great old curmudgeons that is actually a fascinating and lovable human being with a multipurpose mind that can contemplate so many projects and ideas at once, without being limited to one type of creative outlet. Far Out Isn't Enough captures is subject so perfectly that you'll be inspired to find his work if you've never seen it, and also hopefully reignite passions in others who loved his works as children. The film opens for a weeklong run in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 29 2014

The November Man, Frank, As Above/So Below, Love Is Strange, Life of Crime, Bound By Flesh, To Be Takei & Me and You

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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