Category Archives: Film

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz discuss ‘The Interrupters’

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on August 11, 2011.

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz live just a few blocks from each other in Oak Park. Both have been acclaimed for their heartfelt, thoughtful portrayals of people coping with problems such as poverty and crime. James portrays his subjects in documentary films including “Hoop Dreams.” Kotlowitz portrays his subjects in books including “There Are No Children Here.”

“We’re kindred spirits,” James says. But until now, these neighbors have never worked together.

Their first collaboration is a stunning and stirring film about “The Interrupters” — former gang members who try to talk current gang members out of committing acts of violent revenge on Chicago’s streets. After months of buzz and ovations at film festivals, the documentary opens Friday, Aug. 12, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

“I hope it gets people thinking about the violence, in a way they hadn’t before,” Kotlowitz says. “And I hope it spurs some conversation about the profound and deep poverty in our cities.”

“The Interrupters” should accomplish those goals, but it doesn’t do it with voice-over narration or any direct message.

“The film has a lot to inform you about, but we also want it to be entertaining and shocking and funny,” James said. “What we’re trying to do is present this complicated reality and have you grapple with it. You give the viewer credit for intelligence — to look at it and draw their own conclusions.”

James and Kotlowitz spent 14 months tagging along with the CeaseFire organization’s violence interrupters, focusing on three charismatic figures who have overcome troubled pasts to do good: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. As the film shows them giving gang members streetwise advice and straight talk, it doesn’t seem like any film crew is present.

In fact, two or three people were hovering nearby: James was running the camera, acting as cinematographer, as well as director, producer and editor. Kotlowitz was observing and taking the lead during interviews, serving as producer. And co-producer Zak Piper was handling the microphone. “The Interrupters” is billed as a “film by” James and Kotlowitz. Normally, that credit goes to the director alone, but James said he wanted to emphasis just how much of a role Kotlowitz played.

“He was in the trenches with us throughout the entire process,” James says.

The film was inspired by a 2008 article Kotlowitz wrote for The New York Times Magazine about CeaseFire’s efforts to stem Chicago’s tide of murders.

“We already had a significant level of trust because of the groundwork that he had laid,” James says.

“The key to this kind of storytelling is building relationships with the people whose stories you’re trying to tell,” Kotlowitz says. “Part of that is being absolutely frank and straightforward with them about what you’re doing. And part of it is being patient.”

The film’s subject matter sounds grim. Kotlowitz says he and James braced themselves for a grueling year.

“But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never had so much fun working on anything before,” he says. “Hanging out with Ameena, Eddie and Cobe, I think we were surprised how much we were inspired by them. The film is, if not uplifting, at least filled with promise and filled with humor, amidst all the grief that you see.”

“The Interrupters” will open at ICE Theaters on Chicago’s South Side after its two-week run at the Siskel. James said he hopes it will be seen by people who rarely venture into violence-stricken neighborhoods, as well as people who live there.

Kotlowitz says, “What could be more affirming or make you feel less alone than to know that other people are grappling with the same issues?”


DVD review: ‘Film Noir Collection Vol. 4’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press.


The 12 black-and-white crime movies in this set from Warner are fairly obscure, other than Nicholas Ray’s stirring 1948 classic, “They Live By Night,” starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as doomed lovers on the run. Also starring Granger, 1950’s “Side Street” is a confusing yet compelling story of a poor man whose act of thievery leads him into a web of bad guys. One overlooked treasure, 1948’s “Act of Violence,” begins as a tense stalking scenario and ends up as a dark meditation World War II’s aftermath, with a hero who turns out to be more of a tragic anti-hero. (The movie feels similar to David Cronenberg’s recent “A History of Violence.”) The entertaining “Mystery Street,” from 1950, features Ricardo Montalban as a Cape Cod cop who cavalierly arrests the wrong guy and spends the rest of the film fixing his error. The 1954 police procedural “Crime Wave” shows a high level of sophistication, though its conclusion is somewhat pat. Starring Robert Mitchum, 1949’s “Where Danger Lives” is a soapy melodrama at first, but it becomes an excellent variation on the theme of an innocent guy caught in a situation that makes him look guilty. In 1949’s “The Big Steal,” a highly enjoyable caper on noir’s lighter side, Mitchum and Jane Greer make a great couple, sarcastically bickering as they fall in love while chasing stolen money through Mexico. “Decoy,” a twisty 1946 tale about a faked execution and assorted double-crossings, is intriguing if a bit too outlandish. There are a couple of clunkers in the bunch — 1950’s “Tension” is little more than mediocre cop show, marred by “Dragnet”-style voiceovers, and the 1955 Edward G. Robinson vehicle “Illegal” loses its verdict with hackneyed melodrama and ludicrous courtroom antics — but most of these noirs make for addictive watching. They also make you wonder what other gems are left in the archives.


DVD review: ‘Last Days’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press.

lastdays-coverLAST DAYS

The drug-addled rock star wandering through this film is named Blake, but he’s obviously supposed to be. Kurt Cobain. (It even says so on the DVD cover, but not in the script — probably for legal reasons.) Director Gus Van Sant has an almost magical ability to make seemingly mundane material — long shots in which nothing eventual happens — into compelling visual poetry. That said, it’s still pretty mundane. The film would be more interesting if it revealed at least a little of the back story behind these characters. Extras include a making-of featurette, a music video, a deleted scene and, best of all, optional English subtitles that will make it possible to comprehend the lines that lead actor Michael Pitt is mumbling.


Film review: ‘Death of Mr. Lazarescu’

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press.


A fictional feature that seems as real as a documentary, this Romanian film follows a poor, ailing man’s night-long odyssey through a maze of ambulances and hospitals leading to the inevitable ending foretold by the title. Along the way, he encounters some health-care workers who are sympathetic and others who are jaded or rude, as well as plenty of red tape. It’s chilling how much the Romanian medical system resembles that of the United States. The unflinching “Mr. Lazarescu” is presented so straightforwardly that it feels dispassionate at first — almost like a videotape from a hospital security camera — and yet, as it documents a cold and inhumane system at work, it becomes a deeply moving expression of human compassion.


DVD review: Myrna Loy & William Powell films

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press.


loypowell-coverThe old “Thin Man” mystery-comedies starring Myrna Loy and William Powell as debonair sleuths are the epitome of breezy old-style Hollywood entertainment. Each one feels like a visit with old friends, so it’s natural to want more. As it happens, Loy and Powell shared screen time in an additional eight films, five of which are collected in a new box set from Turner Classic Movies. “Thin Man” fans may be a little disappointed with their other films, however. The movies are diverting enough, thanks to the irrepressible personalities of these witty, charming stars, but the scripts are uneven and, at times, downright stilted or silly. The silliness actually works in “Double Wedding,” a delightfully daft comedy with Powell as a bohemian eccentric wooing Loy as an uptight businesswoman. “Love Crazy” is also fairly amusing, with Powell pretending to be insane to stop Loy from divorcing him. The amnesia plot in “I Love You Again” is forgettable, however, while the less comedic “Evelyn Prentice” and “Manhattan Melodrama” (the movie John Dillinger was watching before he was shot at the Biograph Theatre) are so melodramatic you can almost hear the plots creaking.


DVD review: Bela Tarr films

This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press.


Six years after it was made, this masterpiece of surrealism by iconoclastic Hungarian director Bela Tarr is finally available on DVD in the U.S., thanks to Chicago’s Facets Video. In this gorgeously filmed black-and-white epic, peculiar and menacing events happen for reasons never fully explained. A “circus” comes to town, but it’s nothing more than a corrugated-metal trailer with the carcass of a whale inside. Rumors abound of a powerful “Prince” who is behind the scenes, his speeches rousing people to violence. A mob gathers and finally erupts into violence, attacking a hospital. Viewers looking for a logical plot may be frustrated, and the slow pace requires patience. At a Chicago International Film Festival screening a few years ago, someone asked Tarr what all of the symbols meant; he bluntly replied, “There are no symbols. There is only what you see on the screen.” That answer may sound facetious, but in a sense, he’s right. Against the backdrop of a place ravaged by Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, this is a film about how seemingly meaningless events can cascade into mass hysteria, paranoia and authoritarianism. Other Tarr films released recently by Facets include “The Outsider” (**½) about a young man’s aimless life, a film that is itself a little aimless, and “The Prefab People” (***), a John Cassavettes-style drama about an argumentative couple.


The Murray Effect

This column by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on August 11, 2005.

Bill Murray is turning out to the best actor since, well, Ivan Mosjoukine.

Ivan who? I’m referring the Russian actor who was the subject of the famous “Kuleshov Effect” experiment.

In the 1920s, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted an experiment that showed the power of film editing.

Ivan Mosjoukine
Ivan Mosjoukine

He juxtaposed the same film of Mosjoukine with various other shots: a bowl of soup, say. or a child’s coffin.

When audiences saw this footage, they said the actor was displaying a wide range of emotions. The soup made him hungry, the coffin made him sad.

But it was the same footage of Mosjoukine each time. He wasn’t reacting at all to the coffin or the soup. The editing placed the shot of Mosjoukine in a context that caused the audience members to read their own emotions in his expression.

And that’s the puzzle of minimalist film acting … and the reason I’m comparing Bill Murray with Ivan Mosjoukine.

In his last few movies — including “Broken Flowers,” a brilliantly low-key Jim Jarmusch film that opened last week — Murray has distilled his acting style down to a few subtle gestures. Barely cracking a smile, Murray the monk cautiously dispenses his once-famous wisecracks now, issuing them like haiku at a few key junctures of each film.

Personally, I like Murray’s recent minimalism, but I’ve heard others ask what’s so great about it. Whenever an actor does this sort of thing — just sitting there on the screen, not obviously doing or saying anything — some viewers will question whether it’s really acting.

The lack of typica1 action forces you to focus on the little things, and that’s when Murray (a Wilmette native, by the way) proves himself such a master. There’s something so soulful about his face, and the little expressions that flicker across it.

I like to think of the older Bill Murray as a character who went through all the shenanigans of the characters he played when he was younger, in movies like “Stripes.” And now he’s arrived at a quieter, more troubled time in his life.

But then I have my doubts.

Maybe I’m falling into the same trap as those Soviet audiences watching Kuleshov’s movie of Mosjoukine looking sadly at the child’s coffin. Maybe there isn’t any there there, as they say.

I saw “Broken Flowers” just after watching the documentary “March of the Penguins” — which turned out to be a surprisingly similar experience. Like Murray and Mosjoukine, these penguins are incredible actors, showing passion, sorrow and determination … or so it seems when we impose our own emotions on the film we see of these birds waddling around Antarctica.

The Kuleshov Effect shows that a good acting performance is about more than the acting itself. The acting has to be artfully placed into a certain context, and when it is, our reaction becomes part of the act.