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City Heat: Midwest (well, basically just Chicago)

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This will be a short one, since the cities of the midwest typically get short-thrift when it comes to movies.  Other than Chicago (one of the most photogenic cities in movies ever- just ask John Hughes), what other material do we have to work with?  Lincoln?  Pierre?  St. Louis?  I almost want to mention National Lampoon’s Vacation when I think of St. Louis, but since less than 4 minutes was spent there, and even then it was East St. Louis, its out.

I guess Detroit deserves a look, but to be honest, I have only been to the city once and really wouldn’t know if the movies set there did a good job of capturing the city.  I can say that my favorite Detroit movie would have to be RoboCop, mainly because it predicted what a depressed city Detroit actually became. What else is there?  The beginning of Beverly Hills Cop?  The end of Out of Sight?  All of 8 Mile?  Nah, RoboCop is my choice.


Other than that, outside of Chicago, there are pretty slim pickings in the midwest. In any case, let’s start by taking a look at, as Bruce Springsteen would say, my hometown.


Lots of great movies to choose from here, obviously.  But a good Chicago movie has to get it right- remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally (I know, more of a New York movie, but it does open in Chicago) when Harry and Sally leave the University of Chicago?  And then they cut to the next scene which is them heading south on Lake Shore Drive along the Gold Coast?  Did the geographical fuck-up of that scene ever bother anyone else?  At least the makers of that one knew the geography of New York a bit better…

The best movies shot in in Chicago also capture what its like to live there, especially in terms of the seasons.  If there ever was a city that lived and died by its seasons, it’s Chicago. The comfort of sweatshirt/sweater weather in autumn,  the appreciation of the winter in December making way to the white hot rage one feels in January through (sometimes) April, the fickle mistress that is Spring, and then coming out that painful birth canal into the blessed relief that is summer.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is probably the most popular Chicago movie these days, and it does capture not only a beautiful Chicago, but also the feeling you have when summer is just about to break (thats a great feeling, by the way). Not sure if seniors in high school would go to the Skydeck at the Sears Tower or the Art Institute- when my friends and I ditched senior year, we went to a Cubs game (as did Ferris et. al) and just hung out at the lake.

We did not do this, but I’m glad Ferris did:

Not only did Ferris Bueller provide a romanticized version of the city, it also cut to some great North Shore suburb scenes as well.  Another Chicago movie that did this was Adventures in Babysitting, beginning in Oak Park before beginning those before-mentioned adventures (in babysitting). Not as strong as Ferris Bueller in terms of great Chicago locations, it does have a great climax set on the outside of Smurfit-Stone building (the one that looks like a vagina).  For that, it gets a mention.


High Fidelity shows a Chicago that isn’t your typical landmark, post-card subject view of the city, but is the Chicago that most people in their 20’s and 30’s know best. The Bucktown/Wicker Park/Six Corners area of hipsters is perfectly captured here, and gives its viewers many “Hey!  I know that El Stop!” moments, along with stops at the Biograph Theater, the Green Mill, and Schubas.

High Fidelity is to the 90’s what About Last Night was to the 80’s.  Again, you have Chicago seen through the lens of your late 20’s, early 30’s types.  Instead of the hipster aesthetic of High Fidelity, you get a Mothers on Rush & Division and lots of softball in Grant Park. I’ve never been to Mothers, mainly because I imagine it to be filled with a bunch of Jim Belushis, which is enough to scare anyone off, methinks.

You know what was a nice Chicago movie? Return to Me.  You know, the one with Duchovny and his wife who worked at Lincoln Park Zoo. I barely remember what the movie was about, but I do remember nice little neighborhood bistros, and great examples of Lake Shore neighborhoods.  Nothing major here; just a nice movie that made Chicago look good.

I loved The Untouchables, especially that great of shot of LaSalle made up to look as it did during the Prohibition era. La Salle looking south is a pretty jaw-dropping view anyway, but The Untouchables made it look iconic.  Speaking of iconic, how about that shootout on the stairs at Union Station?  Anyone who has seen the movie and walks through that cavernous atrium and arrives at those steps remembers that scene.  It is the Chicago gangster movie of choice, beating the recent Public Enemies and Road to Perdition (not enough time spent in Chicago proper for either).

Both Running Scared (the one with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines) and Backdraft give you a nice angle on blue-collar Chicago.  Running Scared has that great chase scene with the taxi on the El track, and Backdraft traveled most of Chicago in its running time, giving you perhaps the broadest view of the city yet.

But my favorite?  Yep, The Blues Brothers. Here is a movie about criminals who also happen to be students of Blues music, therefore making the Chicago setting a necessity, not just a cosmetic choice. It has great locations on the South Side as well as Park Ridge, Wrigley Field, the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, the 95th Street Bridge over the Calumet River, the Picasso in Daley Center, and an unbelievable car chase on Lower Wacker Drive that ends with them crashing into the before-mentioned Daley Center.

Dan Aykroyd has gone on record saying that “Chicago is one of the stars of the movie.  We wrote it as a tribute.” That love for the city shines through in every scene, making it THE best Chicago movie ever made.


Best Chicago Movie: The Blues Brothers


One response »

  1. In the same vain as High Fidelity, I thought Stranger Than Fiction was also a nice little Chicago movie. Also, if you’re looking for a movie that does nothing good for Detroit’s image look at True Romance. While that doesn’t positively represent Detroit, it may accurately represent it. I’m not sure, I’ve never been there


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