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Movies

The independently owned Music Box Theatre

Jim Newberry

The World Outside the Multiplex

Art houses, festivals, repertory series, and don’t forget Brew & View

By J.R. Jones
September 22, 2006

EVERYONE IS ACQUAINTED with the tyranny of the multiplex: no matter which one you visit, it’s screening the same ten Hollywood movies, and eight of them suck. But here in Chicago you can shake off your chains: in a typical week the Reader lists more than 100 movies showing well within reach of public transportation. Even if 80 of them suck, you’re still way ahead of the game.

For first-run Hollywood movies we have plenty of venues, but only two of them are worth noting, one for its huge selection and the other for its huge screen. Most megaplexes use their extra theaters to schedule staggered showings of the same corporate product; by contrast, River East 21 (322 E. Illinois, 312-596-0333) books more titles, integrating a few art-house movies with its Hollywood fare and hanging on to new releases a few weeks after the other commercial theaters have dropped them. Down the street, the Imax theater at Navy Pier (600 E. Grand, 312-595-5629) augments its regular large-format programming with big-budget Hollywood movies (usually animated features or special-effects behemoths), projected in 70-millimeter on its jaw-dropping 80-foot screen.

The meaning of “independent film” has gotten fuzzy, as big studios have launched their own specialty divisions to acquire, market, and distribute offbeat movies like An Inconvenient Truth or Little Miss Sunshine. Like the movies themselves, the theaters that specialize in them—Pipers Alley in Old Town and Landmark’s Century Centre in Lakeview—are owned by big corporations. One exception is Lakeview’s independently owned Music Box (3733 N. Southport, 773-871-6604, musicboxtheatre.com), a 1929 jewel that’s worth visiting for the decor alone. In addition to indies and the best new foreign films, the Music Box also offers weekend matinees and midnight shows of cult movies and Hollywood classics, though it’s worth phoning ahead to ask whether something is showing in the main theater or the glorified shoe box that serves as a second screening room.

The city’s finest cinematic resource, bar none, is the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State, 312-846-2800, siskelfilmcenter.org) in the north Loop. Funded by the School of the Art Institute and blessed with two excellent screening rooms, the Film Center offers just about everything: Hollywood retrospectives, foreign releases, truly independent features, experimental work, plus academic lectures and talks by visiting scholars, archivists, and artists. Facets Cinematheque (1517 W. Fullerton, 773-281-4114, facets.org), in west Lincoln Park, may rank a distant second to the Film Center, but it too offers a fine selection of foreign and independent releases, and its worldclass video-rental facility puts even Netflix to shame. Both venues, like the Music Box, publish schedules in advance, available by mail or e-mail.

Chicago’s big revival houses went out of business in the 1980s, but you can still find classics being screened in 16- and 35-millimeter here. Besides the Music Box, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films (1212 E. 59th, 773-702-8575, docfilms.uchicago.edu) in Hyde Park and Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art (40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, 847-491-4000, blockmuseum.northwestern.edu) show older films almost daily during the school year. The northwest side’s historic Portage Theatre (4050 N. Milwaukee, 773-205-7372), which reopened this year, hosts programs by the Silent Film Society of Chicago (silentfilmchicago.com). But the city’s best-kept secret may be the LaSalle Bank Cinema (4901 W. Irving Park, 312-904-9442), hidden away in the LaSalle Bank building, also on the northwest side. It has only one program a week, on Saturday night, but it generally sticks to features that aren’t available on video, augmented with old-timey cartoons, newsreels, or cliff-hanger serials. With a new sound system and 35-millimeter setup, the LaSalle’s projection rivals that of the Film Center.

Experimental film may be cinema’s smallest niche market, but Chicago has an impressive number of outlets for it. The Film Center’s ongoing “Conversations at the Edge” series often includes appearances by visiting artists. Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark, 773-293-1447, chicagofilmmakers.org) in Andersonville presents weekly programs of new experimental work (as well as frequent gay- and lesbian-themed programs). The University of Chicago Film Studies Center (5811 S. Ellis, 773-702-8596, filmstudiescenter.uchicago.edu) has more academically inclined programs that explore the history of American experimental cinema. Various art spaces also dabble in avant-garde cinema, notably Heaven Gallery (1550 N. Milwaukee, 773-342-4597, heavengallery.com) in Wicker Park.

You may be one of those who believe there are only two kinds of movie venues: those that serve alcohol and those that don’t. Brew & View at the Vic (3145 N. Sheffield, 773-929-6713) was devised to keep the marquee lit at Lakeview’s Vic Theatre when there are no concerts; it gives you a chance to catch up with big-studio releases in 35-millimeter and get drunk enough to believe they’re good. Like many taverns, Delilah’s (2771 N. Lincoln, 773-472-2771, delilahschicago.com) shows videos on TV, but its free programs on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday evenings delve into the far reaches of horror, sci-fi, rock ’n’ roll, and exploitation cinema. If you’re looking for a guilty pleasure, you can’t get much guiltier than this place.

In addition to these regular venues, the city offers numerous world-class film festivals, all covered in the Reader’s listings and sometimes in special pullout guides, such as the ones we publish for the Chicago International Film Festival, running October 5 through 19. Other festivals we’ll be covering this fall include the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival (October 19-29), Reeling 2006: The Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival (November 2-12), the Polish Film Festival in America (November 4-19), and Facets Cinematheque’s Festival of New French Cinema (early December). Last but not least, the following irregular venues often screen movies for free, usually by video projection: Acme Art Works, Chicago Cultural Center, DuSable Museum of African American History, Hotti Biscotti, Morseland, New World Resource Center, and Transitions Bookplace. A bit of a trek, the Northbrook Public Library screens classic films in 35-millimeter, sometimes with lectures and live musical accompaniment.

The Reader has the best movie coverage in town; every other publication will tell you it does, but they’re all lying bastards. Most weeks you can find one or two essay-style reviews in Section 1 and complete listings in Section 2, divided into three parts: alphabetical capsule reviews, a comprehensive directory of locations and showtimes, and sidebars that focus on that week’s notable series or festivals. It’s all posted on the movies page at our Web site, chicagoreader.com. There’s more going on here than any cinema lover can possibly keep up with, but if you blow off everything else you’ll have a pretty good shot at it.

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