• ‘The Chi’ Trailer: Lena Waithe & Common’s Gritty Personal Look At Chicago’s South Side

    In the teaser trailer released last month, we were introduced to the main characters Brandon, Jerrika, Ronnie, Jada, Emmett, Kevin, Cruz and Coogie. In the extended look, we’re getting more character definition and a greater sense of storylines.

    Produced entirely in its namesake city, The Chi is a timely coming-of-age story centering on a group of residents who become linked by coincidence but bonded by the need for connection and redemption.

    The ensemble cast includes Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), Jacob Latimore (Sleight), Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Queen of Katwe), Alex Hibbert (Moonlight), Yolonda Ross (Treme, The Get Down), Armando Riesco (Bull) and Tiffany Boone (The Following).

    Kevin (Hibbert) is the pre-teen who must step past shattered illusions and embrace the normal rites of childhood, while Brandon (Mitchell) the dreamer makes his own nearly impossible leap of faith to succeed in life and love with girlfriend Jerrika (Boone). Emmett (Latimore) is the carefree teen thrust into complex responsibility with guidance from his mother Jada (Ross), and Ronnie (Mwine) is the drifter whose struggle to love and be loved calls into question his every pursuit.

    Sonja Sohn (The Wire), Jahking Guillory (Kicks), and Steven Williams (The Leftovers) recur. In addition to Waithe, Common and Reid, Aaron Kaplan (Santa Clarita Diet, Divorce) serves as executive producer along with Rick Famuyiwa (Dope), who also directed the premiere episode, and Derek Dudley and Shelby Stone of Freedom Road Productions. The series is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios.

    The Chi premieres January 7 on Showtime. Check out the trailer above.

  • 15 Netflix hidden-gem horror movies for all you fear addicts out there (2017 edition)

    15 Netflix hidden-gem horror movies for all you fear addicts out there (2017 edition)

    1. The Void
    2. Under the Shadow
    3. The Devil's Candy
    4. Starry Eyes
    5. I am the Pretty Things that Lives in the House
    6. Abbatoir
    7. A Dark Song
    8. The Den
    9. Tales of Halloween
    10. The Presence (Die Präesanz)
    11. The Bar
    12. Clown
    13. XX
    14. Dig Two Graves
    15. Raw

  • Lena Waithe's historic Emmy brightens spotlight for 'The Chi'

    Lena Waithe's historic Emmy brightens spotlight for 'The Chi'

    The talk Monday on the Chicago set of the new Showtime series “The Chi” was all about the historic Emmy earned by series creator and Chicago native Lena Waithe, who Sunday became the first African American woman to win for comedy writing for her work on “Master of None.”

    Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, one of the main “Chi” cast members, was on location at a West Side elementary school and in a Tribune interview called her win "massive. I said this to her earlier, the way she's broken through is so important, this is for little girls from the South Side of Chicago.

    "It even took Lena by surprise that she was the first African-American woman to be nominated for comedy writing — and to win. Chicago never ceases to amaze me, that a little girl from Chicago would grow up to be the first African-American First Lady (Michelle Obama), and now Lena is breaking through for television. And it's not a man that's making that history but a woman."

    "This drama (‘The Chi’) is going to defy expectations because people look at her and see a comedy writer," Mwine said.

    Accepting her Emmy for comedy writing on the “Master of None” Netflix series, a show created by Aziz Ansari, Waithe thanked the Television Academy for “embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago.” Her Emmy was for the semi-autobiographical episode “Thanksgiving,” which is based in part on her coming-out story with her own family.

    “I grew up at 79th Street, right off the Dan Ryan,” Waithe told the Tribune last year. For junior high and high school, she moved with her mother to Evanston. After graduating from Columbia College Chicago, she has been based in Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant for director Gina Prince-Bythewood and later with director Ava DuVernay before landing a job as a writer on the Fox series “Bones.”

    The Emmy win raises Waithe’s profile, but “The Chi” is bound to do more. An ensemble drama centering on the lives of African-Americans on the South Side of Chicago, the show has been filming throughout the summer and is expected to premiere in early 2018. Waithe is the creator and an executive producer alongside fellow Chicago native Common, who released a statement Monday basking in her win that read in part: “Lena's win touched me in many ways. I personally have witnessed her hard work and dedication to her craft. She is a unique and special talent. Her historic win will open doors for the communities she represents.”

    Regarding her ambitions for “The Chi,” she said: “My family still lives in Chicago, my mother, my sister, my nephew, my family is there. So even though I am not living there, I feel very close to it and I visit very often … So what I wanted to do was write a show that would follow multiple black men from different walks of life with different goals and different ideas of what it means to be a man, and what it looks like trying to survive the South Side of Chicago.”

  • Chicago Tribune: Writers and cast of Lena Waithe's 'The Chi' aim to show South Side in a different light

    Chicago Tribune:  Writers and cast of Lena Waithe's 'The Chi' aim to show South Side in a different light

    Writers and cast of Lena Waithe's 'The Chi' aim to show South Side in a different light:

    Winning an Emmy this week for comedy writing on the Netflix series “Master of None,” Lena Waithe thanked viewers for embracing “a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago."

    Those South Side roots form the basis of her new Showtime drama series “The Chi,” which has been quietly filming in town this summer. Slated to premiere in early 2018, Waithe is the show’s creator.

    Plenty of films and TV shows shoot locally. The bulk are generated by writers and producers in Los Angeles with no ties to the city. It’s not that a project can’t be done well long distance. But there is often a generic quality at play. Even when intentions are good.

    So it makes a difference when someone like Waithe gets a show greenlit. Prioritizing the city’s personality from the inside — bruised but prideful, with its specifically Midwestern stew of frustrations and homerisms — isn’t something Hollywood generally backs. Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” couldn’t nail it, nor, I suspect, will the forthcoming remake of the exploitation flick “Death Wish, which is set in Chicago and opens in November.

    “The Chi” might be an outlier to all of that, as it looks to capture the nuances and textures and variety of African-American lives in Chicago.

    So far, not much is known about the show itself — what it’s about or what kinds of stories it will tell. Or if any of those storylines will feature LGBTQ characters. Even a visit to the set this week didn’t offer up many clues. Here’s Showtime’s description: “Exploring the humanity beneath the headlines sensationalizing the South Side of Chicago, ‘The Chi’ is a coming-of-age story centering on a group of residents who become linked by coincidence but bonded by the need for connection and redemption.”

    That’s broad enough to mean just about anything. But I’m intrigued, especially after conversations with cast member Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (whose credits include HBO’s “Treme”) and writer Sylvia Jones, a Chicagoan who only recently switched careers after working for years as a local TV news producer at WGN and WLS.

    Waithe is also an actor — she’s had a full plate this past year, co-starring on “Master of None” as well as a role in the Steven Spielberg project “Ready Player One” — but she is strictly behind the scenes on “The Chi.” I was on set the day after she won the Emmy and she was still in LA.

    Because of her schedule, she hasn’t been in Chicago much during filming but Mwine told me that “every time I have questions I can shoot her an email and she is quick to respond. She’s being pulled in so many directions. But what’s so exciting is that people might have a vision of her in one way” — for her comedy — “but this show is going to completely change that.”

    It’s instructive that Mwine was on “Treme,” which — as a former New Orleans resident myself — was the rare Hollywood offering that actually portrayed what it feels and looks like to live in that city. The internal rhythms of the place. Mwine told me he thinks “The Chi” is headed in a similar direction, in part because yet another Chicago native, Common, is an executive producer on the show as well as a co-star.

    I asked Mwine about his thoughts on outsider perceptions of Chicago. “I would say, just to quote ‘The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation,’ this book I’m reading (by WBEZ’s Natalie Moore), that there’s a pathological view of the South Side from the outside and it’s true.

    “So when Lena wins (an Emmy), or when you think of Michelle Obama — they’re considered outliers. But they’re not. These are people who are from this soil. We think of the exception as the ‘other,’ but the exception is part of this world. So for me, the only goal is that the show resonates with the folks not just on the South Side but all of Chicago — as ‘Treme’ did for folks from New Orleans. I’ll be very happy if that happens. But that’s a big challenge to meet.”

    The cast also includes Alex Hibbert, the Florida native who played young Chiron in “Moonlight,” and he told me he’s done his homework: “I did a lot of research and watched a lot of documentaries and they were saying such negativity about Chicago. But it’s nothing like that … there’s so much talent in Chicago and you can see that inside this show.”

    (When filming on the series wraps next week, Hibbert will be back in school, starting eighth grade.)

    Here’s the other thing to consider: The show has a writer on staff who is from Chicago as well — and assertive about imparting her knowledge. Jones, the local TV news vet, quit her job and moved to LA 18 months ago after being accepted to a professional program for television writers at UCLA. She got hired as a production assistant on “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders,” a show executive produced by Adam Glass — whose next project in the hopper was “The Chi.”

    “Having been raised on the South Side of Chicago,” she told me, “I know it from the insider’s perspective. But having been a journalist, I understand Chicago politics, the civics of it. They got surprised when I told them a common crime here is stealing catalytic converters — I’ve covered those stories.

    “But also,” she said, “I talk about the diversity of the South Side — that is the drumbeat that I have held since the day I walked in the writers room, because I’ve been trying to make sure it’s clear that the South Side is not just one big neighborhood. It is a tapestry of many neighborhoods. I tell people, despite what you may see on the news and think the South Side is one big ghetto, you know President Obama lived on the South Side. He and Michelle got married on the South Side. This is a big thing for us, so don’t just paint us with one brush as, ‘This is all it is — guns, gangs, whatever.’

    “So I have made a conscious effort to say, Yes, those things exist. The numbers are the numbers. But there is so much more, and I’m proud to say that’s reflected in the show. Yes, there’s some violence, but this is not a show about violence. At all. This is a slice of life about a number of families who are doing regular things. Of course there’s some comedy and eccentricity.

    “That doesn’t mean that everybody is good or angelic, because that’s not the world. But at the same time, we’re not all criminals or involved in some underworld. Some of us just go to work everyday, we cut our grass on Saturdays and grow tomatoes in our gardens, you know what I mean? Those things resonate.”

  • Roger Ebert on Dig Two Graves

    Roger Ebert on Dig Two Graves

    In a way, it makes sense that “Dig Two Graves” takes place mostly in 1977. Granted, it isn’t specifically tied to that date—people aren’t seen going to “Star Wars” while listening to Pink Floyd’s “Animals” and talking about the previous evening’s episode of "Three’s Company." But it does serve as a reminder of a time when a low-budget item like this could turn up, without loads of pre-release hype, and impress genre film buffs with its combination of smart storytelling and effective low-key performances, as led by a reliable supporting actor making the most of a rare lead role.

    Set in a tiny Midwestern town, the story begins as teenager Jacqueline “Jake” Mather (Samantha Isler) is preparing to take a high dive into the local quarry, the kind of heedlessly stupid act tpeople that age are famous for doing. When she hesitates at the moment of truth, her brother Sean (Ben Schneider) agrees to jump with her but at the last second, she chickens out and watches as Sean jumps into the water and never comes out. With the help of her parents and especially her beloved grandfather (Ted Levine), who is also the town sheriff, she tries to move on but she is, of course, all but paralyzed with grief and guilt, all the more so since Sean’s body was never recovered.

    One day, while walking home, she crosses paths with a trio of creepy gypsy moonshiners who live on the outskirts of town and show her a startling magic trick before making her an incredible proposition by claiming that they have the power to bring Sean back to life. There is a catch, of course—for the magic to work, another life needs to be sacrificed in exchange. They even have an ideal candidate in mind in Willie (Gabriel Cain), a geeky classmate with a barely disguised crush on Jake that she could easily use to lure him out to the quarry and give him one simple push that no one would ever find out about. Jake is appalled with the suggestion, of course, but just the possibility of having Sean returned to her is enough to inspire her to begin thinking about the unthinkable. What she doesn’t realize, however, is that her grandfather has a connection to the gypsies from a long-buried tragedy from 30 years earlier (which we see in a series of flashbacks) and that the fates of both Jake and Willie may be tied up in events that were set into motion long before they were even born.

    “Dig Two Graves” is nominally a horror movie but it is not one filled with gratuitous gore and cheap shocks. In fact, the more overtly horrific moments on display are probably the least effective in the film. It's probably closer in tone something like the Stephen King novella The Body (the inspiration for “Stand By Me”) in the way that it quietly observes Jake as she finds herself coming of age while simultaneously struggling with both her grief and the great moral dilemma that has been presented to her—the horror arising not from some monster but by how easy it is for her to consider an unspeakable act in order to end her own suffering. Hunter Adams, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Jeremy Phillips, keeps the story moving at an unhurried pace that fits the material nicely and manages to move deftly between the two timeframes. In addition, the film, thanks to effective production design, is unusually successful in the way that it convincingly conjures up not one but two period time periods, an effort that is all the more impressive when you consider that it was done on what I can only presume was a relatively small budget.

    The film is also anchored by two strong performances. The first is by Samantha Isler, a young actress who was not previously familiar to me but whose work as Jake is really impressive in how she exquisitely conveys the huge and painful emotions she's wrestling with, while at the same time coming across as a real teenage girl without any of the expected cliches. The other comes from Ted Levine, who has been given the chance at a rare lead role after a career that has found him as an uncommonly effective supporting actor (most famously as Jame Gumb in “The Silence of the Lambs”). He gives a wonderful performance as a man haunted by the mistakes of his past but who is nevertheless determined to do anything in his power to prevent them from touching his beloved granddaughter.

    “Dig Two Graves” is not perfect—the occasional turns to the more occult-heavy material do not quite work and there are a couple of plot points that do not stand up to even modest scrutiny. However, those problems aside, this is an uncommonly smart, well-made and ultimately touching meditation on grief, revenge and the ordinary perils of adolescence that should resonate strongly with adults and thoughtful teenagers alike. There is no way that this film is going to be rocking any box-office charts this weekend, but I have the sneaking suspicion that if you see “Dig Two Graves,” it will stick in your mind long after your memories of chart-toppers have long since faded.