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Column Fri Apr 11 2014

Draft Day, Oculus, Rio 2, Cuban Fury, Joe, Dom Hemingway & Cheap Thrills

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Draft Day


If Ivan Reitman's first film since No Strings Attached three years ago and his first truly enjoyable film in about 20 years was just about the general manager of an NFL football team (in this case, the Cleveland Browns for no particular reason) wheeling and dealing in the hours leading up to the draft, I would have thought it an interesting choice. But when you cast Kevin Costner, arguably the king of sports films that actually have heart (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup), as general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., it means something and adds something to the overall significance of what's going in this behind-the-scenes look inside and outside the organization.

Costner doesn't play this role as a slick insider who manipulates to get what he wants, despite what the team's coach (Denis Leary), owner (Frank Langella) or money manager (Jennifer Garner) say. That's exactly what he is, but he doesn't play it that way. Instead, Sonny is a man trying to live in the shadow of his late father, a hero to the organization; deal with a pestering mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (a marginalized Rosanna Arquette); and process the news that his girlfriend Ali (that would also be Garner) just found out she's pregnant.

I don't know enough about football to judge whether the unreal amount of double crossing and deception that is on display in Draft Day is authentic or believable, but I had no trouble buying that the people who run sports teams and the agents who handle athletes are about as conniving as they come, so the end result is most of what we see does feel real. In the span of just a few hours, Sonny goes from being the underdog (his team is desperate at best) to having the upper hand on everyone, and once everything falls into place, you begin to see that the way it goes down is the only way it could have for all of the interested parties to get what they wanted.

Yes, the film wraps up things a little too nice and neat, and there is some fat on the plot that could easily have been trimmed, but what I found gripping was the way hundreds of college players place their hopes and dreams on one day and how getting selected in the first round makes such a drastic differences over getting picked in the third round or even second. There are some nice supporting players on hand here, including Terry Crews in a rare dramatic role as a former player and father to a son (Arian Foster) with a promising future in the NFL. 42's Chadwick Boseman plays another potential draftee who has perhaps unwisely linked his entire future to playing with the Browns. And Josh Pence plays a likely Number 1 draft pick, who Sonny doesn't trust as a solid, likable professional player; Sean Combs plays his agent with a great deal of insider flash and knowledge.

Knowing that the NFL clearly signed off on Draft Day means that some of the truly sleazy deals that probably go on are left out of this story, but this isn't really that kind of film anyway. Sonny is attempting to save his professional and personal lives from tanking at the same time — apparently no one is interested in giving him a day to get his job done before bombarding him with non-draft issues, which makes for a some genuinely obnoxious exchanges. The more interesting confrontations are between Sonny and Leary's Coach Penn, who Sonny sees as more of a babysitter than an actual leader. Both men seem eager to prove his theory wrong. Leary uses his comedy chops to let loose with a few choice zingers at Sonny, and he gives up very little ground in the process, even when his draft analysis is tossed aside for Sonny's gut instincts on a few choices.

When Draft Day stays on coarse, it's an impressive piece of drama from writers Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph, who understand that all Sonny needs to get through the day is to keep his head undistracted from bullshit, which is the exact opposite of what he gets on this fateful day. And Costner does something he hasn't really done in a while: he stay strong as the center, while a world of chaos and far more colorful characters circle around him, each waiting for a moment to swoop and peck away at moments of time. It may not sound like a tough acting job, but Costner knows that being the stable force in a film like this makes moments when he starts to lose his grip more meaningful and dramatic.

Reitman uses a strange editing trick to get from scene to scene (usually when two people are talking in different states) that involves characters appearing to walk in and out of each other's scenes. At first, it seems kind of unique and interesting, but after a while, the gimmick wears thin and seems unnecessary to use throughout the entire movie. It's a minor quibble, but aesthetically, it becomes tiring after about 45 minutes. I think Draft Day might actually have some appeal to people with little working knowledge of the draft process. If you make a film that requires such knowledge, you're essentially excluding a huge number of potential audience members. But this isn't that movie. If you stay alert and pay attention, you'll get what's happening and why.

As I said, movies like Draft Day live or die based on how authentic they feel, and this captures this experience. The film captures the ruthlessness, tension and dream fulfillment that such a day contains, with Kevin Costner at the center of the universe watching the planets spin around him. It's good to see him back on what I consider his home turf. He looks right at home, despite all of the yelling and anxiety bombarding him. It's a different take on the sports drama, and for that alone, I appreciated what Reitman and his team has accomplished.

Oculus

There are horror films that do a great job of regularly scaring the crap out of you, and then there are those that maintain a healthy level of creepiness while also providing a fairly interesting plot, one that doesn't simply take a tried-and-true fright film tactic and rehash it. I'm not sure I completely get what's going in in the Mike (Absentia) Flanagan-directed Oculus, but I truly dig the way it's executed and the way the parallel stories (set 10 years apart) weave in an out of each other until we have no clue what is past and what is present, what is real and what is an illusion placed in the characters' minds by an evil force that seems to live inside an ornate, antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass.

The film opens with Kaylie (Karen Gillan of "Doctor Who" fame and soon to be seen as Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy) purchasing the noted mirror at an auction, with a clear agenda in acquiring the item that seems to involve vengeance; at the same time, her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites from "Home and Away" and the upcoming Maleficent) is finally being released from a mental hospital after 10 years being a ward. He's eager to forget or rationalize the things that happened to his sister and him when they were children living in a new home with their parents (played by Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane).

Dad purchased the spooky mirror after mom suggested they bring a few antiques into their home decorating scheme, and he sets it up in his home office, where he spends most of his days. But before long, he ends up not being able to find reasons to leave the room at all, as he sits at his desk and stares into the mirror, mumbling incoherently into the glass. When he is away from it, he's irritable and sometimes downright angry, and he begins to torment his family both mentally and physically. This is all in the past, mind you, shown to us in flashbacks. What is happening in the future is even more interesting, as Kaylie re-occupied the same house, this time with all of the modern supernatural-detection electronics and monitoring devices, so she can measure the mirrors sphere of influence and the nature of its power.

What's a little strange is that Kaylie has documented a great deal of the mirror's history hurting previous owners, but doesn't really try to figure out what is inside making it do this (I'm sure that is being saved for the inevitable sequel/prequel). And it seems a little cruel of her to drag her emotionally fragile brother into a situation that is almost guaranteed to make him unstable again, but she does it anyway, and he spends a great deal of the film trying to throw out rational explanations for strange behavior and their twisted memories from of childhood events.

One of the most fascinating things about Oculus is the structure of the second half of the film which braids current events with the traumatic things happening to the family 10 years earlier. Often the adult characters will cross paths with their younger selves (played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) because strikingly similar things are happening to both. But the mirror never stops manipulating their minds, making them think they are seeing and doing things that they later discover didn't appear or happen. A sequence involving mistaking a light bulb for a tasty apple is pretty awful and awesome. Thinking she can outsmart the mirror, Kaylie has even set up a system of timers connected to a device that will attempt to destroy the mirror — and as we learn, the mirror has an interesting way of defending itself.

As I alluded to earlier, the only real issue with Oculus is that it's not especially scary, which isn't really a problem unless your only goal in watching the film is to get scared. If you actually want to experience something a little different in this genre, this is a solid attempt to warp your brain a bit and freak you out a little bit more. I'm not saying the film is scare-free, but making you jump in your seats doesn't seem to be its primary agenda. Putting none of my praise aside, I would like to add that I have no desire to see a sequel to Oculus. This is a worthy one-shot film to which a backstory or further mirror terrorizing would add nothing but disappointment. I'd advise the filimmakers to move on and find new and original ways to make our skin craw. You did an admirable job here; don't ruin it.

Rio 2

If you put a fully loaded gun to my head and asked me to remember the plot to the first Rio film, I'm afraid my brains would soon be all over my laptop. That's how special that movie was for me. I guess the best thing I can say about Rio 2 is that five days after seeing it, I still vaguely recall a highlight reel of sequences in my head that might add up to most of a complete film. I think there are some birds in it, and most of the action doesn't take place anywhere near Rio de Janeiro. Hooked yet?

This time around, the rare blue macaw named Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and his companion Jewel (Anne Hathaway) discover that there may be more of their species deep in the Amazon jungle. So they set out looking for this legendary pocket of rare birds and stumble upon Jewel's family (or as I like to call them, the Family Jewel). They drag their three kids (yes, they procreated) and a bunch of the birds and non-birds from the first film and take a little vacation in this isolated paradise filled with macaws. In the natural sanctuary, Blu is challenged by Jewel's father (Andy Garcia) and her old flame, the suave Roberto (singer Bruno Marz), and before long a rift develops between the love birds. Blu wants to return to his human friends in Rio, while she wants to stay with her human-hating family.

I know the first Rio was loaded with newly recorded music, and I guess that's how this franchise is distinguishing itself, but loading its cast with singers, including Mars, will.i.am, Rita Moreno, Sergio Mendes, Janelle MonĂ¡e, Kristin Chenoweth — as well as a few actors who have proven themselves solid singers, such as Hathaway, Jaime Foxx, Jermaine Clement and not Eisenberg — makes for some catchy tunes but not the most interesting characters, created to cram in the singing.

By the end of the film, its true purpose is revealed as the humans (in the form of a logging company) come ripping through the jungle with chainsaws, bulldozers and other heavy machinery, tearing down trees and leaving these exotic creatures with no where to live or worse. The environmental message is front and center of Rio 2, and while there's certainly nothing wrong with that, it does make an entire lengthy sequence in which two factions of birds fight over a single Brazil nut grove seem rather meaningless and time consuming. The entire film is harmless enough, but uninspired animation, a thread-bare plot held together by a "Save the Rainforest" message, and a few toe-tapping Latino pop songs aren't enough to recommend the film, even to people with younger children. Seriously, I bet you could buy the Rio stuffed animals from the store, and your kids could come up with 10 better stories than Rio 2 has.

Cuban Fury

I love the idea of Nick Frost as a romantic lead in a film in which he does all of his own salsa dancing. And Cuban Fury is an easy film to love. It's a genuine crowd pleaser; it's R-rated but I think you could still take your mom to see it as long as your plugged her ears whenever Chris O'Dowd enters the frame — usually crotch first — as Drew, a vulgarian co-worker of Frost's Bruce Garrett. But on a more subtle level, the film is also about reinventing yourself, a theme I suspect is very much on Frost's mind. He and his constant co-workers Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright have completed a major chapter of the filmmaking lives with last year's The World's End. With Cuban Fury, Frost has essentially recast himself a bit, not so you wouldn't recognize him, but just enough that he's playing a more thoughtful and emotionally fragile version of the man he played in The World's End.

The film opens with 13-year-old Bruce about to ace the UK Junior Salsa Championships, with his dance partner/sister Sam (played as an adult by the great Olivia Colman (Hot Fuzz, Tyrannosaur) and their coach, Ron Parfitt (Ian McShane). On the way to the final in his sequined shirt and Cuban heels, Bruce is beat up by bullies, which shatters his confidence and he refuses to dance ever again. But as an adult, he meets his new, attractive American boss Julia (Rashida Jones of I Love You, Man and "Parks & Recreation"), whom he finds out is learning salsa. Eager to impress her, he decides to reacquaint himself with the heels and look up his old instructor to help him get his Latin groove back. The one wrench on the road to Julia is the aforementioned Drew, who swaggers himself into Julia's eyeline and turns up the charm when he notices that Bruce is interested.

Director James Griffiths (whose most recent work includes the television series "Up All Night" and "Episodes") and master cinematographer Dick Pope have created a lush environment for the dancing to occur. A film-ending dance competition is loaded with colorful lights and fit, shiny bodies to dance under them. But at other moments, the film is appropriately moody, even sad, reflecting Bruce's internal turbulence about women and his life in general. It's actually an aesthetic choice that works surprisingly well.

As for the cast, O'Dowd pretty much just robs every scene he steps into. After seeing him play such a nice guy in so many supporting roles over the years (from Bridesmaids to most recently in Thor: The Dark World), it's fun seeing him rock out with his wank out. There's a dancing showdown between Bruce and Drew that is actually more important in terms of this particular story than even the final dance competition, and the two men combine high stepping with a bit of wire fu for some great physical comedy in a film that doesn't get many laughs at the expense of Bruce's dancing abilities (Frost is quite good). Jones has never been a great comedy force, but her strengths lie in her reactions and playing it straight. She's the perfect foil for both O'Dowd and Frost, and certainly has plenty of awkward personality issues of her own to keep us believing that maybe Julia and Bruce aren't quite as mismatched as you might at first think. And then there's McShane, who's simply a maniac and teaches dance like a pirate captain. I'll love him until the day I die.

The film's secret weapon is Kayvan Novak (Four Lions) as Bejan, a Middle Eastern fellow dance student with Bruce, who helps the man uncomfortable in his own skin gain a little bit more confidence with a wardrobe makeover. I guess the character is supposed to be gay, but the guy is so damn funny it barely plays into the story at all. Other great supporting work from Alexandra Roach and the great stage actor Rory Kinnear does wonders to boost what could have been an emotionally bare experience.

In the end, it is Frost's read on Bruce that keeps the film emotionally honest and grounded in a type of heightened reality. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the music and dancing is glorious and well worth getting excited about. I don't know if Cuban Fury is going to trigger a salsa revolution amongst middle-aged couples, but there are worse reasons for it to happen. The film is also a sincere, moving step for Frost as a seriously actor. He's dabbled with it before, but with this work, he dives into the medium-deep end, with the promise of even better work to come. That is something to dance about. The film is opening today in Chicago at the AMC 600 North Michigan Ave. theaters.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Cuban Fury star Nick Frost.


Joe


Moving closer to the type of films he began his career making but with a knowing maturity that only a person making movies for 15 years could have, director David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels, Prince Avalanche) gives us Joe, based on the novel by Larry Brown, which focuses on a smalltown man with anger issues trying to live a peaceful life in rural America. The film exemplifies what Green is capable of as a director of both big-name actors (in this case Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom) and first-time actors, including the remarkable Gary Poulter as Wade, the abusive, alcoholic father of young Gary (Tye Sheridan of Mud and The Tree of Life).

Joe tries to live his life simply and drama-free; unfortunately in the places he frequents, there are men and women who don't share his peace-loving ways, and they sometimes mess with him and unleash a brutality that few want to see twice. Sometimes he goes off on police officers and gets tossed into jail for a spell. A fully bearded Cage brings a quite anger to Joe, who can be quite gentle and kind, but also shows daily signs of emotional numbness in his heart. But when young Gary comes to him looking for work poisoning trees for loggers to eventually cut down, Joe sees something in the kid he thinks is worth trusting and protecting. Eventually, Joe becomes the closest thing Gary will likely ever have to a mentor, teaching him about the importance of work, how to get a hooker to like you, drinking and defending yourself against bullies, including the boy's father.

I've seen Joe twice so far, and Cage's work in it might be the best he's ever done. It certainly feels like the culmination of a career that still has a long way to go. We see elements of humor, seriousness, and classic Cage flip-out moments that you might start laughing at first, until you see where those moments end up. Then you place the best version of Cage in at David Gordon Green movie, packed with characters portrayed by folks who have never acted before, and the result is a living, breathing work of excellence. Watching Cage get so angry at being in a house with a chicken running around loose is fantastic; but the way he deals with going in a house with a dog in it that doesn't like him is nasty business.

The scenes with Cage and Sheridan are a perfect slice of backwoods heaven, as Joe get drunk and opens up about his life while dispensing a few pearls of wisdom to the young man, who grows increasingly defiant with each encounter with his god-awful father. An Austin-based street performer, Poulter passed away just after shooting this film, but I left the film feeling fortunate to have gotten to see him work in any setting. He plays the worst kind of asshole there is, and we still find ways of feeling for the old coot.

The closest thing Joe finds to an actual villain is Ronnie Gene Blevins' portrayal of Willie-Russell, a ornery cuss with scars across his face (put there by Joe) who is seeking revenge in the nastiest way possible. The first time we meet him, he's shooting at Joe with a shotgun, which he later claims was a simple scare tactic. Mission: accomplished. The confrontations between these two men play out like a classic Western, edging ever closer to the inevitable showdown. The whole film plays a bit like a dirty-behind-the-ears version of Shane, complete with a town bar, whorehouse, general store and a few colorful locals.

Joe is a film rough around the edges, but still so perfectly composed and realized that even the most improvised scene feels polished and real. Watching Cage maneuver through this landscape in a film that is more about time and place than plot is like seeing a seasoned actor throw away what he thinks he knows about acting and trying on a new skin and new method for an exercise in authenticity. Maybe that's always been Cage's way of working, but it feels like watching an actor reborn, and it's as exciting and perfect as just about anything I've seen in recent months. The film is opening today in Chicago at the AMC 600 North Michigan Ave. theaters.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Joe director David Gordon Green and actor Tye Sheridan.

Dom Hemingway

Sometimes a good movie can be made great by a strong performance, and other times the performance feels more like an actor releasing bits of nasty energy at us and daring us to keep watching. Welcome to Dom Hemingway, as portrayed by the unlikely Jude Law as a man released from 12 years in prison like he was shot out of a cannon and right into a pile of booze, drugs and women of ill repute. He's barely out five minutes when he's already looking for easy money with his one-time criminal partner Dickie (Richard E. Grant of Withnail and I, and on recent episodes of HBO's "Girls").

Dom was in jail because he didn't squeal on his then-boss Mr. Fontaine (Demian Bichir of A Better Life, Machete Kills and FX's "The Bridge"), who has made quite a bundle while Dom was away, and now Dom has come to collect his cut plus interest. After a series of unfortunate events (mostly because of hard partying followed by driving), Dom's money is stolen by Fontaine's girlfriend, Paolina (Romanian actress Madalina Ghenea), likely never to be seen again. When he returns home, he's broke and desperate. He attempts to reconnect with his now-grown estranged daughter ("Game of Thrones'" Emilia Clake), who is now married and has a child, but she has no use for him nor desire to allow this animal into her life, an attitude that drives Dom even deeper into depression.

When all is said and one, Dom Hemingway is all about attitude and keeping things moving so that you don't notice how little plot there is. I don't need an elaborate story to hold my interest, and certainly with a powerhouse performance like Law gives here, plot can go to hell for all I care. He's exuding an energy and raw power that almost defies description. Even when he dials it back so as not to fuck up a deal he's working on, you can see the lightning bolts in his eyes and the steam coming out of his ears.

Dom begins the film as the worst kind of human being, but it's impossible not to watch every move he makes. But there does come a point where he realizes that if he doesn't change, he'll likely die alone and soon. It's then that we realize that Dom does possess a sincerity, which he aims directly at his daughter and her family. Dom Hemingway is one of those rare films where having the central character be almost a caricature of a small-time gangster isn't a negative, especially since by the film's end, he's become more recognizable as a human being than at any point during the rest of the story. Director Richard Shepard (The Matador, The Hunting Party) does a remarkable job pulling together this work and making it part drug-fueled Alice In Wonderland, part fractured family drama. And the finished film is stronger than the sum of its parts. Don't be afraid to take a hit. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Cheap Thrills

The hardest moments in the new one-upmanship dark comedy Cheap Thrills happen right at the beginning. They don't involve blood or sex or an increasing amount of money changing hands as bets are made and won or lost. No, the first scenes in the film show Craig (the remarkable Pat Healy from Compliance, and most recently in this week's Draft Day and last week's Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has to explain to his wife that he lost his job just as they are on the verge of getting tossed out of their home. Those initial scenes of desperation stay with us for the entire film, and make every insane action that follows make sense in the worst kind of way.

If Cheap Thrills had simply been about of bunch of douchebag frat boys daring each other to do stupid stuff, it wouldn't be half the film that it is in the hands of writer-turned-director E.L. Katz, working from a script by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga. But it's Craig's agonizing about keeping a roof over his family's head that drives him to the local bar, where he runs into old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), and the two commiserate about their lives (neither is swimming in cash). But things begin to get strange and life-altering when they are approached by Colin (David Koechner), an apparently cash-rich man, and his cool, collected wife Violet (Healy's Innkeepers partner Sara Paxton).

Colin begins making small wagers with the two old friends, pitting them against each other in harmless bar games about chugging drinks or getting phone numbers from women in the bar. But when they move the party to Colin and Violet's home, the wagers get more substantial, as do the stakes, and it doesn't take long for things to cross multiple lines that can't be uncrossed, none of which I will reveal here. But it's a remarkable thing to experience tension build the way director Katz makes it happen in Cheap Thrills. All the while, we start to realize who among Colin and Violet is really in charge. He makes all of bets, but she watches this makeshift competition without blinking. And she seems like a woman who gets bored easily, while Colin is a man eager to please his young, pretty wife.

The dares also bring out the worst in the two men, once friends, but whose differences and reasons for not being close anymore come out quickly when money is on the line. Koechner is extraordinary and shows a new-found range here as the ringmaster (again, not always the guy actually in charge, just the face of the operation), while Paxton plays it cool and mysterious just long enough for us to know she's a troublemaker. Cheap Thrills is such a taut, messy experience, it's difficult to imagine you aren't going to come out the other side a little disturbed, not by specific images but by attitudes and human nature as a whole. This is a strong, striking work that I'm guessing and hoping people will re-examine for years to come. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Cheap Thrills lead actor (and Chicago native) Pat Healy and director E.L. Katz will appear in person at the Music Box Theatre today, April 11, after the 7:30pm and 9:45pm showings.

 

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Feature Mon Jun 09 2014

I Grew Up in a Big Ol' Gay Disco: an Interview with Oli Rodriguez

By H. Melt

Oli Rodriguez is an interdisciplinary artist working in film, photography, and performance. H. Melt sat down with him to find out more about his relationship to Chicago, the city's queer history, and how it impacts his artmaking.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jul 25 2014

Hercules, Lucy, A Most Wanted Man, I Origins, And So It Goes, Happy Christmas, Magic in the Moonlight, Under the Electric Sky & Closed Curtain

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Events

Thu Jul 31 2014
Physical Festival @ Links Hall

Thu Jul 31 2014
Chicago French Film Festival

Thu Jul 31 2014
Fiesta Del Sol @ Pilsen Neighborhood

Thu Jul 31 2014
School of Rock Allstars @ Beat Kitchen

Fri Aug 1 2014
Physical Festival @ Links Hall

Fri Aug 1 2014
A Black Harvest Film Festival Opening Night @ Siskel Center

Fri Aug 1 2014
Amber Ginsburg & Katie Hargrave @ Roman Susan Gallery

Fri Aug 1 2014
Chicago French Film Festival

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You're Being Ridiculous @ Mary's Attic

Sat Aug 2 2014
Physical Festival @ Links Hall

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Chicago French Film Festival

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Fiesta Del Sol

Sun Aug 3 2014
Great Midwest Uke Fest @ Chief O'Neill's

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The Stylish Sip & Swap Soiree

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Chicago French Film Festival

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American Graffiti & Car Show @ Portage Theater

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Fiesta Del Sol

Mon Aug 4 2014
Impress These Apes @ ComedySportz

Mon Aug 4 2014
Chicago French Film Festival

Tue Aug 5 2014
Chicago French Film Festival

Wed Aug 6 2014
Monty Python Live @ Music Box


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