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Chicago Heights / The Last Soul on a Summer Night - Reviews

One of The Best Art Films of 2010

Roger Ebert
February 17, 2011

“This stunning adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio... is an aesthetic and political knockout, transforming Anderson's dated community narrative of rural white America into an avant-garde, nonlinear black-and-white film set in the present-day African-American Chicago Heights. The film's vignettes are unstable and surreal, and it's unclear whether many characters — a pastor, a teacher — are real or imagined in the mind of an aging writer. Chicago Heights is both profoundly affecting in its own right and as a beau ideal of detournement.”

Monica Westin, Flavorpill

[They] took my favorite book of all time, which is almost universally understood to be unadaptable, and made a magnificent film out of it.

One of the central tenets of Anderson's book is the idea of "grotesques": people are grotesques, meaning that they're essentially normal except they have one thing, one idea that they've seized on, that is all out of proportion, that makes them act unreasonably. It's an utterly literary concept, one that doesn't have a corollary in film, but Nearing and cinematographer Sanghoon Lee came up with a filmic translation, shooting much of the film in wide-angle closeups, from canted, often disorienting angles; we can see into their pores, if not into their souls, and the hot Chicago summer is tangible in the sweat that's always glistening on their foreheads. The bulk of the film is shot in high-contrast black and white, although certain scenes burst into color out of sheer necessity.

I'll admit that my admiration for the film stems from the love that Nearing and I share for the book: it "got it right," which is an attitude I try to put behind me when judging adaptations of books that I like, but this goes beyond "like." I love the film because in its excisions and composites, it recreates the way my memory works: elusive moments, tiny details, and impressions are what I tend to retain, while the specific words and larger context often disappear. That method of memory is here, onscreen, reproducing the small details and larger impressions I retained from the book, or from my childhood. Chicago Heights preserves the spirit and dreamlike feel of Anderson's book, recognizes which elements would work on screen, and reimagines other elements to work in the radically different medium of film.

Michael W Phillips, Jr.

The crisp black and white photography (with brief flashes of vivid color) and compositions are absolutely stunning, revealing true beauty within Chicago Heights’ rough, rugged edges.

Phil Morehart, The Chicago Journal

Time Out Chicago - Film of the Week

A hit at last summer’s Black Harvest Film Festival and a labor of love in every sense, Chicago Heights audaciously attempts to film Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 anthology Winesburg, Ohio in Chicago Heights, the predominantly African-American southern exurb where, we’re told, the city meets the country. The film itself is something of a hybrid, at once distinctively literary—employing chapter headings, it preserves Anderson’s episodic structure and narrational voice—and boldly visual, the sort of shoestring-budgeted, mainly black-and-white-photographed, quasi-documentary independent production one associates with filmmakers such as Shirley Clarke (The Cool World), Kent Mackenzie (The Exiles) and Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep). The movie’s unusual rhythm takes some getting used to—perusing the book couldn’t hurt—and the acting is variable. But the film, loosely structured around a boarding house and its inhabitants, successfully conjures a sense of quiet desperation among the town’s residents: a preacher coping with temptation, a stranger dealing with the ravages of age, a man still grieving over a failed marriage, the boarding house’s dying proprietress and her struggling-writer son, who’s tempted by life in the city as well as his writing teacher. The focus on archetypes comes straight from Anderson, and the film’s portraiture suggests a strange hybrid between past and present—apart from passing El trains, there’s little sense of the outside world. Interspersing the occasional color sequence to suggest ecstatic memories of youth, Chicago Heights may be rough around the edges, but it’s moving all the same.

- Ben Kenigsberg

Sherwood Anderson's 1919 short-story collage "Winesburg, Ohio" provides the blueprint for this visually arresting feature, shot on high-def digital black and white, with a few choice bursts of color. The director and coadapter, Daniel Nearing, and the producer-cinematographer, Sanghoon Lee, relocate Anderson's lost and lonely characters to a Chicago Heights boarding house and environs, where layfolk and churchfolk alike struggle with their demons. The gospel score, fine and vital, is by Chicago Heights minister Raymond Dunlap. Giving Anderson's stories a free-handed African-American spin, Nearing acknowledges he was after a hybrid, a personal and poetic response to a book he loved. In the end he may have hewed too closely to the source material in structural terms. But some of the images startle, whether it's a close-up of a forlorn face cast in half-shadow, or a simple, evocative daylight exterior of a Chicago Heights street that has seen better days, but still provides a way out of town for its most restless souls.

Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune

Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's classic 1919 collection of interconnected short stories, is ingeniously transposed to a predominantly African American community in present-day South Chicago in this gorgeously photographed, beautifully scored tour de force.

Marty Rubin, The Gene Siskel Film Center

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