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« Weekend Relaxation with Gregory and Ava | Main | Personalize Your Guest Room DVD Collection »
Thursday
Jul252013

Shot in Chicago: Movies that capture the spirit of the city

Tim here, rejoicing over the fact that our good host Nathaniel is in my very own Chicago this weekend – we have a movie night planned tomorrow! – and to celebrate, I wanted to showcase some of my city’s best and most dubious moments in the cinematic spotlight. Therefore:

Three Chicago-based movies that truly "get" the city
(no documentaries; that would be cheating, no matter how much Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are 100% essential Chicago movies)

Mickey One (1965)
The film that Warren Beatty and director Arthur Penn made right before Bonnie and Clyde is even more besotted with the French New Wave, but stylistic excess doesn’t get in the way of a really special hyper-naturalistic depiction of the city streets as they existed almost half a century ago. I cannot, of course, speak to the veracity of what’s onscreen, but the film’s documentary aspects shine through even under the sordid thriller aspects of the plot and Penn’s fractured filming style. Of all the classic movies filmed in Chicago – and there are a few – none do such a great job of suggesting what the neighborhoods looked like way back when, before building and gentrification made their mark.

 

Barbershop (2002)
The fault of Chicago cinema is the fault of mainstream American cinema more generally: it’s hard as hell for stories about non-whites to get the kind of financial support it takes to make a high-profile production that can break through into pop culture at large. So while Barbershop probably isn’t the most fixedly honest depiction of life on the largely African-American South Side, it is surely one of the most valuable, simply because it made such a relatively big impact. And certainly, the judiciously-navigated course the film charts between refusing to make itself an Issues Movie on the one hand, but also remaining aware that it’s serving a very particular cultural purpose in its low-key, positive depiction of Chicago African-American community leaves it as one of the 21st Century’s most satisfyingly humanistic depictions of inner city American life as it is lived stripped of melodrama and high concepts.

The Dark Knight (2008)
Seriously. The setting might be a fictitious comic book city, but no popcorn movie filmed in downtown Chicago has come even a little bit close to capturing the essence of that area half as well, from the two-story Wacker Drive (where the first part of the truck and motorcycle chase takes place), never so cunningly filmed as here, to the surprisingly realistic depiction of the main thoroughfares, even down to the level of leaving banners for the Lyric Opera of Chicago prominently in frame. Batman Begins took place in a conceptual version of Chicago just like Superman’s Metropolis is a conceptual version of New York, but the city that appears in The Dark Knight is as much like the one that actually exists as the movies have ever shown, with the very specific feeling of the streets and buildings captured with remarkable accuracy.

 

Three movies that absolutely do not

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
No two ways about it, John Hughes’s fantasy about a kid from the affluent north suburbs sneaking into the city with his best friend, his girl, and a slick sports car is absolutely saturated with love for Chicago, but it never plays as anything other than a fantasy. The geography is suspicious, but that’s hardly the bothersome part: it’s the way the film depicts everything in such a dislocated manner, all surface level impressions and no real sense of the rhythm of the city. We can, easily, explain this away because of what the film is: the adventure of a bunch of suburban kids experiencing Chicago as a rush of sensations, rather than people who live in the city being part of its fabric. Still, it’s a bit disappointing that Chicagoland’s most beloved cinematic chronicler couldn’t do something a bit more substantial in his one long-term visit to the city.

My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
This is the relative location of O’Hare airport and the downtown area:

This is how characters in the movie travel from one to the other:

And the wedding itself takes place a full 90 minutes north of the city in rush hour traffic.

Eagle Eye (2008)

Hands-down, the worst depiction of Chicago public transit ever put to film. Shia LaBeouf’s action-packed race from the men hunting him at least starts out in the right direction – take that, My Best Friend’s Wedding – but it takes less than two minutes to travel what we mere mortals can only traverse in fully three-quarters of an hour, and two more to end up in rundown neighborhoods on the far opposite side of the city, right before fleeing over marshlands that don’t resemble anything in Illinois, let alone the immediate environs of a major city.

Chicagoans! What’s your favorite cinematic incarnation of the city? Everyone else! What movies shot in your part of the world do you think do the best job of capturing its essence? Share with us in comments!

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Reader Comments (29)

Absolutely fascinating! It never occurred to me to question the route My Best Friend's Wedding takes to get to the airport, but now that you've pointed it out I can't stop laughing!

Can we turn this into a series? I would love to see more city dwellers talk about what they do and don't like about movie versions of their homes.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Admittedly, I exaggerated for comic effect. But not by all that much.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

High Fidelity did a great job of translating the British setting of the book to Chicago; a lot of the locations used in the movie weren't obvious landmarks, but they seemed like they would be authentic parts of Rob Gordon's life and character.

Return to Me, Bonnie Hunt's directorial effort, is something of a trifle of a movie (though an enjoyable one), but Chicago looks incredible in it; you can tell how much she loves her hometown.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Love this. Today I saw a street that looked just like something from Road to Perdition.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I really want to know what was behind the decision-making process of switching Gotham City to New York in The Dark Knight Rises. It was painfully obvious it was New York which made the earlier Chicago settings suddenly lose a sense of continuity which for the trilogy the sense of space felt so crucial. If it was because they wanted the Wall Street scenes, the Chicago Board of Trades felt like a good substitute. The Nolan Brothers actually lived in Chicago for some time so I always thought the Chicago setting felt really personal and specific to their conception of Batman and Gotham.

I like to throw in the '68 Chicago Convention movie, Medium Cool into the ring. Its guerrilla, pseudo-documentary style is quite astounding.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I always love the Union Station scene in The Untouchables.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTW

Since you shot down My Best Friend's Wedding, I'll go ahead and plug the other Chicago rom-com star vehicle of the 90's: While You Were Sleeping. Warm and welcoming, with lots and lots of family, just like my memories of Chicago.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Sort of tangentially related, but wanted to mention Source Code as a candidate for "movies that do not represent the city". The fanciful depiction of the Metra, complete with a rear-car Dunkin' Donuts—and ending the movie at the Bean? Pretty bad. Anyway, great post, as always with Tim Brayton.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermertz

"Let No Man Write My Epitaph". Shelly on dope. 'nough said. Except that it also has the greatest shot of Michigan Ave, north from the Art Institute circa 1950s.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Two suggestions from a native Angeleno - "The Fugitive" and "The Blues Brothers" seem to do a better than average job of capturing the city sights and spirit.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

@CMG: I know, right? It's SO clearly New York, even more than either of the others are Chicago, and it buys the movie nothing at all.

@mertz: That was my alternate for the "recent action thriller" slot I gave to Eagle Eye. A friend of mine described Source Code not so long ago as "that movie where going to work on the Metra looks like taking a ride on the Orient Express."

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim Brayton

that route in My Best Friedns Wedding is funny even though i dont understand it since i'm not from Chicago but i have something similar with CLOVERFIELD which i h-a-t-e because every single scene seems to contain some total impossibilty involving NYC geography, including people running in 2 minutes from one place to the next that would take at least 30 minutes outside of mass transit on foot.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Im going to say High Fidelity, but I'm biased part of it was shot at my highschool.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

@Anne Marie: Big yes to the idea of turning this into a series! :)

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMysjkin

My Best Friend's Wedding is the one film that actually made me want to go to Chicago.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbacio

Perhaps somewhat tragically, I think of Rookie of the Year every time I see Wrigley Field...

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Another Sandra Bullock movie that takes place in Chicago is The Lake House. That one seems to have a real love for Chicago architecture, and made me want to take a walking tour of the city like they do in the movie.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I second THE FUGITIVE. There's even a scene that revolves around the recorded voice we know so well from the el. That has to count for something.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkevin

I'll third The Fugitive, and kevin, that is a great scene. I love how it starts with the Marshals sitting around brain storming what cities have 'Els, and they rattle off three or four before Joe Pantoliano's character says, "...we do."

Great scene, great movie!

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris B.

For some reason I can only think of Mean Girls and it's scenes in Old Orchard Mall.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDrG

Nathan, welcome! Sorry it's such a dreary day here, but the Eternal Sunshine of the Cinematic Mind will set a cool scene for you.

ITA with Tim. The Dark Knight is the movie I've seen that best captures the nightscape of Chicago's sleek, sexy downtown grid. That legendary chase sequence comes off as a Loop-y French Connection, as if Nolan was on meth channeling Friedkin. I also give a lot of points to The Lakehouse for making architecture, in the abstract and the actual, a living, breathing character in the film, as the art of architecture is a major theme, both as metaphor and metamorphosis. That scene with Keanu and James outside The Green Mill, a favorite landmark just down the street from me, always gets to me.

I just saw The Vow, a perfectly dreadful thing except for Jessica Lange, but it did have one other thing going for it. It had the best end shot of our city I've ever seen in a movie. On a starry winter night, the el slips through a velvety blanket, heading toward downtown, shown as a glowing, magical destination for all those adventurers who need look no further than home for everything they need.

And Nathan, don't forget Sidetrack...good crowd and good drinks! Cheers!

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@DrG Funny, because Mean Girls makes me think of my hometown, Toronto! They shot it around the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the mathlete competition takes place at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall, a very recognizable building.

Speaking of questionable geography and Toronto, the best example is Margo's run in "Take this Waltz". Sarah Polley has gone on record that the movie exists in the Toronto of her mind, not as it actually exists as a city. Which is good because little Michelle Williams couldn't run the 10 miles or so that journey would take you and arrive looking so fresh faced.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

CMG, Tim - wasn't Batman Begins' exteriors largely shot in London? That was always my impression, and I kind of liked that Gotham morphed from London to Chicago to New York over the course of the trilogy. If it was largely Chicago based in Begins then I have to rethink that, I guess.

Anyway, I'm from upstate New York, which doesn't show up on film very often, but I did appreciate how the area was depicted in The Place Beyond the Pines. The mirror scenes where Gosling and DeHaan are cruising along back roads surrounded by green was a total sense memory deja vu moment.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Roark- The train crash at the end of Begins to me felt very Chicago. But Wayne Manor was in England but the action scenes were definitely Chicago.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

While it's a TV show, the first season of CRIME STORY had a pretty good representation of '60s Chicago, geographically and stylistically.

I'm trying to remember if SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR's second half was set in Chicago or not.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMr. K

Patriot Games' main street chase is a comedy to those who know Annapolis, Md. Ford starts in downtown, takes an exit that is far on the other side of town, then ends up on chase that is basically taking him back to where he started (which is really a freeway in California or something). It's the first movie I ever saw where I was taken out of the movie because I was so aware of the geography of the actual place.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjtagliere

I agree on The Fugitive. That one oozes Chicago.

My complaint about so many films shot in Chicago is the over-emphasis on lower Wacker Drive. We are more ham a subterranean city, people!

July 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlexa

The director of "The fugitive", Andrew Davis, always seemed to make a point of shooting his movies in Chicago. Counting just the ones I've seen, all thrillers, there's Steven Segal in "Above the law", Chuck Norris in "Code of silence", Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones in "The package", and Keanu Reeves in "Chain reaction". Davis always seemed to love shooting a lot of street stuff, almost documentary, in all or most of them, especially the ones from the '80s.

July 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjaaguir

"About Last Night" is a great slice of '80s Chicago + hairstyles & fashions.

July 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkari

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