By Michael Corcoran
6:11 PM EST, February 23, 2013
Chicago has been involved in filmmaking since the technology's very beginnings in the early 1900s, when some of the world's first movie studios operated here. From those early days, when neighborhood kids would sneak onto the Selig Polyscope Co. lot at Western Avenue and Irving Park Road — many old Selig Westerns include children curiously peeking out from the bushes during shootouts — Chicago has permeated the movies shot here. The iconic Chicago blockbusters of the 1980s, including "The Blues Brothers," "Risky Business" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" along with more recent hits like "The Dark Knight," are imbued with Chicago's presence. Chicago's distinctive look is an integral part of their narrative landscape. And yet the city, much like the mercurial lake which it sits upon, never seems to appear the same way twice. Other, lesser known productions have harnessed Chicago's chameleon-like qualities and showcased areas not normally seen in the more mainstream Hollywood films shot here. Here's a roundup of a few underappreciated movies filmed in the city.
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1. "A Family Thing" (1996)
This superb drama provides a fascinating window into a Chicago almost two decades gone, with some seedier parts of Uptown (which are less so today) and other off-the-beaten path locales getting screen time. The story begins with rural Arkansas store owner Earl Pilcher Jr. (Robert Duvall) discovering that his biological mother is actually an African-American maid who died in childbirth and that he is of mixed race. Stunned by this news, he gets in his truck and drives to Chicago to find the half-brother he never knew existed.
The brother (James Earl Jones) is understandably ambivalent about Earl's appearance but is chastised by their Aunt T. (Irma P. Hall in a career-making turn) into taking him in and giving him a place to stay.
The vision of Chicago seen through Pilcher's eyes is intimidating yet filled with wonder, much like the city must have seemed to the scores of Southern blacks who migrated here in the 20th century.
2. "Return to Me" (2000)
This film, directed and co-written by Chicago native Bonnie Hunt, used several sites in Old Town (her old stomping grounds during her Second City days) and Lincoln Park, most notably the Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern. These urban yet almost homey locations, shot in the midst of summer, provide a perfect backdrop to this sweet romantic comedy, and Chicago seems like a dear old friend encountered by chance on a beautiful sunny day.
Minnie Driver plays a woman who receives a desperately needed heart transplant, and David Duchovny is the grieving husband of the woman who donated Driver's new heart. A coincidence brings them together, and they begin a romance that is greatly complicated when they find out each other's identities.
3. "Unconditional Love" (2002)
This quirky comedy, starring Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett, goes beyond the standard Lower Wacker Drive chase scene to explore downtown Chicago's vast and often foreboding underground labyrinth of streets, byways, parking areas and subterranean loading docks. There is also an extended scene in the legendary Billy Goat Tavern, which sits in the catacombs beneath the Magnificent Mile.
Bates plays a frumpy Chicago housewife whose singing idol (Jonathan Pryce) is murdered right before a television appearance in Chicago. This inspires her to fly to England to attend his funeral, where she bonds with the singer's longtime gay lover (Everett). The two then return to Chicago to solve the murder, which leads them on an odyssey through the aforementioned bowels of downtown.
4. "Crime Spree" (2003)
This film, an amusing mob farce starring Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel, is set in Paris and Chicago (with a few locations fudged in Canada). It visits some more obscure Windy City environs, such as The Heart 'O' Chicago Motel in the far north Edgewater area, and its opening montage in Paris illustrates just how much French-style Beaux Arts architecture exists here, as shots of certain Parisian vistas make you think you are in Chicago.
In the plot, a band of woefully inept French burglars led by Depardieu is sent to Chicago for what is supposed to be an easy score after blowing a job in Paris. The victim turns out to be an Outfit underboss (Keitel), however, and the ragtag ensemble is thrown into a nightmare of mob reprisals, corrupt feds, and a series of double- and triple-crosses.
5. "Proof" (2005)
This powerful drama is set on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, and the ivy-covered Gothic structures there are used to great effect. A brilliant yet mentally ill mathematician and professor (Anthony Hopkins) dies after a long bout with delusion and dementia, and his daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) is left to deal with her grief and fears that she may have inherited the same mental instabilities. Her anguish is compounded by the arrival of her overbearing and manipulative older sister (Hope Davis) and by an increasingly complicated relationship with a young math student (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is studying her father's notebooks. Although stunning, the campus buildings themselves (particularly the Rockefeller Chapel, where Hopkins funeral is set) seem to loom disapprovingly over Paltrow's character.
6. "Stranger Than Fiction" (2006)
Scriptwriter Zach Helm (a graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University) and director Marc Forster succeeded not only in capturing the spirit of great 1970s Hal Ashby comedies such as "Harold and Maude" but also provided a unique view of downtown Chicago in this film. The story is set in an anonymous "any town," but the filmmakers chose Chicago for its plethora of International Style buildings, which function as a visual shorthand for the bland conformity of the film's protagonist, routine-bound IRS agent Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell, below) in an uncharacteristically subtle and brilliantly understated performance). Chicagoans will immediately recognize this forbidding landscape of glass and steel boxes set in concrete plazas, however, as the Richard J. Daley Center, the CNA Center, Illinois Center and several other iconic modernist structures are used.
Ferrell's character suddenly finds himself hearing the voice of a narrator describing his life, "accurately and with a better vocabulary." When the third-person omniscient voice portends his death, he seeks out an English professor (Dustin Hoffman) to try to discover the narrator's origin and identity. In a parallel story, an author (Emma Thompson) is locked in writer's block over how to kill the protagonist of her latest novel, an IRS agent named Harold Crick. The audience is charmed and horrified as these two narrative threads move toward their inevitable meeting.
7. "The Merry Gentleman" (2008)
In this dark mob-related offering, Michael Keaton (who also made his directing debut) plays a depressed hit man about to commit suicide by leaping off a roof. But first he is spotted by a woman on the sidewalk (Kelly Macdonald, above), whose scream startles him and stops him from jumping. Keaton later searches her out, and the two begin an awkward relationship, with her unaware of his identity and him unaware that she has fled an abusive ex (Bobby Cannavale) and is living under an assumed name. The rarely filmed North Side neighborhoods of Lincoln Square, Ravenswood and North Center provide a fresh look that is still unmistakably Chicago.
Michael Corcoran is a historian, lecturer and certified Chicago tour guide. He and Arnie Bernstein are co-authors of the second edition of “Hollywood on Lake Michigan,” available June 1 from Chicago Review Press.
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