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RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO (2018) review

March 9, 2019

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written by: Michael Glover Smith
produced by: Layne Marie Williams
directed by: Michael Glover Smith
rated: not rated
runtime: 69 min. 
U.S. release date: October 18, 2018 (Adirondack Film Festival) & November 29, 2018 (Oakton Pop-Up Film Festival), March 13, 2019 (Beverly Arts Center, Chicago, IL) 

 

As I make my way through the streets and sidewalks of the Windy City, often taking its public transit mired in the smell of rank weed and ripe body odor, I’ll often fix a sly gaze on another nearby human. He could be sitting close by, she could be standing near me or maybe it’s a couple walking on the other side of the street, and what I do is follow them in my mind. I create a story, crafting who they are, where they’re from and where they’re going and sometimes it turns into a stream of consciousness path wherein I’m following them to four, maybe five different locations before I lose them altogether. All of this happens in my mind, where a narrative and dialogue can be inaudible or crystal clear and then it’s as if someone else picks up their story. I thought of this while watching Michael Glover Smith’s latest film “Rendezvous in Chicago”.

Granted it didn’t occur to me the first time I saw Smith’s third feature, which left me wrestling with my overall stance on the film. But watching it again and after interviewing Smith about the film, I arrived at a newfound admiration and respect for what his intentions were in making “Rendezvous”, even if I didn’t completely acknowledge or accept what they were upon each viewing. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt that the characters who inhabit this triptych romantic comedy set in the titular Windy City I call home were the type of people I would typically form an internal engagement with in my imagined storyline.

“Rendezvous in Chicago” may be populated with the kind of natural and real performances Smith’s films are known for, where talented actors bring to life his characteristically observant and astute screenplay, I didn’t anticipate the manner in which I would inevitably come to relate it to my own experiences. While Smith’s two previous features “Cool Apocalypse” and “Mercury in Retrograde” also focused on relationships in and deriving from Chicago, he’s doing something purposefully different here and that’s exciting to witness.

This can be seen in the three short stories Smith guides us through and in how he overtly provides each with an identifiable location. Each story’s setting is different and distinctive, making it clear that the atmosphere and environment the characters inhabit play just an integral role. That’s not necessarily something unique to find in Smith’s films, but it does feel more prevalent in “Rendezvous in Chicago”.

 

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The first story is called “Part 1: The Brothers Karamazov” and, yes, viewers well-versed in Dostoevsky will get a kick out of how the Russian writer’s work is used here. At the same time, those of us who’ve either forgotten or are not so well-versed in Russian literature will do just fine with what Smith offers here.

The setting is an empty wine bar on a Sunday night in a Chicago neighborhood, inhabited solely by Delaney (Clare Cooney), a University of Chicago grad student busy working on her dissertation on the classic Dostoevsky novel. She’s come to this location in search of a distraction free environment, but a living/breathing distraction is about to find her. Enter Paul (Kevin Wehby), a writer who after chatting up the lone bartender (played by a spot-on Dave McNulty, who feels like he either walked out of a David Lynch film or moonlights at the Overlook Hotel) finds a spot at a table on the other side of Delaney. Kevin may have his laptop open with the intent of getting some writing done, but he is soon distracted by a woman who is unaware of his presence. With a goofy, over confident smirk, Paul makes his way over to Delaney’s table and asks if he can sit with her and right away we know what’s about to go down, even if he’s utterly clueless.

What transpires is a delight to behold as a witty Delaney devises a game called Strip Literary Poker, but the highlight of the game and this story is in how we witness two fine actors work off each other using clever dialogue provided by Smith. Both actors have an infectious chemistry together and it’s a blast to watch what they are doing individually with their roles. Wehby offers a incorrigible cocksure facade that can’t mask the fact that he’s in over his head as Paul tries to woo someone who’d rather be left alone. What the expressive Wehby says without words is a one of the highlights of this first story. The other highlight is definitely Cooney. It helps that Smith gives Cooney plenty of room to throw down a handful of cards in this short as we get to know her character. She understandably plays it close to her chest at first, but as she makes each choice, it’s like she’s laying down a new card in the game, ultimately adding welcome nuances that paint a fully-realized character (yet still with some curious mysteries) by the time the story ends.

What we’re watching is a situation we’ve either seen play out before or experience firsthand, yet Smith’s take here is playful, sexy and fun, with a few well-deserved jabs at clueless masculinity…at no point does any of it feel predictable. While it all seems fun and I was disappointed to see it end, “The Brothers Karamazov” will definitely turn your gears long after viewing.

 

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From the wine bar we travel north to Rogers Park, where we take a walk with the two characters of “Cats and Dogs”, the second story of the movie. Right away there is something to appreciate here as we notice a decidedly different look and pace to the atmosphere of the story we’re about to embark on. The color palette and lens employed by cinematographer Alex Halstead immediately brings to mind those relaxing weekend afternoons in Chicago where you just take in your neighborhood and unexpectedly make some brand new observations, reinforcing how special the person next to you is.

That’s what occurs as we follow Rob (Matthew Sherbach) and Andy (Rashaad Hall) as they exit their apartment and take a stroll to the beach along Lake Michigan. It doesn’t take long to figure out what stage in their relationship the couple are in. There’s a certain glow about them, one that conveys a palpable happiness that confirms their recent decision to move in together was a good one. As they pass by apartment complexes and two-flats, it also becomes clear that one of them is more nervous than the other and is about to propose taking this relationship to another level.

But first, the discussion of pets is brought up as they encounter canines and their walkers (and a feline peeking out a window) as they take their stroll. This is where the story earns its title, as we learn how one of them is a dog lover and the other a cat person. They meet Tess (Chelsea David) who stops and chats with the couple as she walks Sophie, her adorable and friendly, Shih Tzu, in a scene which serves to remind how friendly Chicagoans can be, especially when walking their dogs. While the top of pet preference may not seem like a deal-breaker topic, there is obviously more going on here. Both Rob and Andy are illuminated by new aspects of the other person and it serves to remind us that it’s the little things about each other that make up who we love and appreciate.

What this segment of the film does is show us two absolutely content people. It’s rare to find a film that features a gay couple kissing and holding hands, interacting even, where it doesn’t feel like “acting”, but Sherbach and Hall are perfectly cast as Rob and Andy and bring a genuineness to their roles that’s rewarding. For me, what they (and Smith) do here reminds me how everyone we see walking down the street has hopes and desires and personalities that are both different and relatable. Too often we forget that we’re not that different from the person next to us. Most of all, what “Cats and Dogs” offers is an aura of contentment. The kind of contentment that is rarely seen from couples in rom-coms. The kind that should make memories and be treasured and cultivated.

 

 

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The final story is called “The End is the Beginning” and this is where Smith does something unlike anything he’s done in the two previous stories or in his two prior films, which could be why I wrestled with it for a while. It might have just been me, but it took multiple viewings to appreciate this third short. It starts in familiar territory, maybe too familiar for my tastes, but then veers into something altogether different, something that took me out of the film initially, but it didn’t take long to get pulled back in thanks to a tour de force solo performance.

Smith drops us in on a couple who will suddenly break-up, as Julie (Nina Ganet) comes home from work and walks in on her live-in boyfriend, Wyatt (Shane Simmons) fooling around in their bed with another woman (Megan McNulty). He hilariously and unsuccessfully plays the “It’s not what it looks like” card and soon learns a different way to eat the cupcakes Julie brought home for them. In no time, she kicks Wyatt out onto the street, tossing his clothes and his blu-ray player out the window (along with a hilarious jab at “physical media”) and proceeds to call a locksmith and burn the bed sheets on the grill in the backyard. Has she been here before or is she always this systemically thorough?

With Wyatt gone, Julie is left with us. Yes, by us I mean you and me. She begins to calm down with a cup of coffee as she reflects to us a playlist of topics for discussion. The camera gets closer and closer as Julie confides in us and even proceeds to flirt, making a note that we have a lovely gaze and that she feels appreciated. It’s at this point where I began to feel that this girl is kind of crazy and maybe Wyatt is better off, but Ganet is undeniably engaging as she boldly engages with us, essentially preceding with a bravura monologue that includes song AND dance number. Whatever she’s auditioning for, sign her up! Ganet’s performance certainly supersedes the creative material Smith has given her and it’s her bold and courageous work here that makes “The End is the Beginning” so memorable.

 

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There is much to appreciate in this contemplative and authentic look at the different stages of potential, existing and abruptly ended relationships. On a technical level, the editing by Eric Marsh is noteworthy for its fluidity and the distinctive score from composer Jason Coffman is contagious, but overall it’s the impressive cast (kudos to Cooney, who also serves as Casting Director) whom Smith (who also makes a cameo) employs that accentuates the strengths of his screenplay.

“Rendezvous in Chicago” finishes off a relationship trilogy set in or near Chicago and those who’ve seen those previous films, “Cool Apocalypse” and “Mercury in Retrograde” will recognize that some of the characters in those films appear here as well. That in and of itself is an interesting choice and indicates how observant and mindful Smith is when it comes to humanity and characterization. It also shows how invested he is in the characters he’s created. Going out of his way to include some of them in this film is proof that he has given them a life long after we’ve met them, very similar to the way in which I described above how I give a storyline to the people I see on the bus and train.

RATING: ***

 

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“Rendezvous in Chicago” has had quite the screening journey since last fall, filling theaters and picking up rewards. I’ll be hosting a Q&A in May, but it would behoove you to check here for upcoming screenings – including one this upcoming week on March 13th!

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