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Cool Apocalypse (2015)

Windy City Microbrew

Allow me, for a moment, to lament the first-world problems of being a professional film critic in late November. On top of the new releases that keep multiplexes humming every weekend, I am beset by screener links and sign-to-accept UPS packages for films that studios want me to vote for during Awards Season.* For those of us who balance this profession with day jobs and families, the onslaught of content, and the expectation that we think deeply and write consistently about everything we see, is maddening. I often can't keep up, and for the sake of protecting my time, I must be selective.

Sad but true, this kind of editing often leads to following shiny objects: the movies that A) look interesting to me, personally, B) have been highly recommended by peers who were fortunate enough to catch them at festivals or screenings, or C) get the most attractive pitch from a filmmaker/studio. I'm not talking about bribes or tchotchkes, of course, but films that arrive with an impassioned letter and at least a decked-out cardboard case tend to be more effective than a plain disc envelope--or, worse, an ultra-slick copy of Furious 7 that has "For Your Consideration: Best Picture" ballsily printed on the interior sleeve.

I miss a lot of films each year, and I would have missed Cool Apocalypse were it not for Facebook. No, social media isn't all complaints and cat memes; I answered an open call from writer/director Michael Glover Smith to watch and write about his debut feature.** As a teacher and film critic himself, Smith acknowledged reviewers' tendency to overlook indies whose bullhorns don't make a peep in the marketplace. There's so much content coming at us from every angle, every day, that it's difficult to grab our attention.

The pitch intrigued me (guilted me a bit, too, which is a good thing), and I checked out Smith's lovely Chicago-set dramedy about two couples working through their issues on one long summer day. Tess (Chelsea David) is a successful, young fashion vlogger whose street-interview series has propelled her to an overseas internship. Her ex-boyfriend, Claudio (Adam Overberg), is also an ex-co-worker who believes Tess stole his heart and career. Claudio's roommate, Paul (Kevin Wehby), is an amateur novelist who works at a used book store. Julie (Nina Ganet), a feminist blogger who works at the women's health clinic next door, pops into the shop during her break to ask Paul out on a lunch date.

Lunch goes well for the two budding lovebirds. Smith's dialogue perfectly captures the tentative but giddy eagerness of newfound chemistry, and Wehby and Ganet couldn't possibly be more natural in their roles. They're attractive actors, sure (Smith has a real eye for populating his gorgeous city with gorgeous people, while toning both down to seem real--or real enough), but they come across as sincere. Their eyes dance as they hang on each other's every word, as if Smith had blind-cast his film with two people who happened to actually fall in love while making a movie.

Contrast this with a lunch between Tess and Claudio, who've spent the day running last-minute errands. They sit across from each other, heads down, mumbling. She flick-scrolls through her phone. He peruses The Chicago Reader. They engage briefly when Paul calls to ask if he can bring a date to Tess' going-away dinner that evening. Claudio doesn't mind adding a human tension-breaker. Tess balks at having to meet someone new, someone she can't swipe past if the guest is uninteresting.

It would be unfair to describe what happens once the wine and vegetarian beef stew start flowing. Smith and his actors did an uncanny job of transporting me back to my mid-twenties, living on the North Side, and talking nonsense with dear friends deep into the night. I've had those faux-deep back-porch conversations; I've averted my eyes at the inevitable awkward moment between couples; I've taken those swimmy, pre-dawn strolls down the block with love in my heart and hope in my soul. It's hard to tell if Chicago is the film's hero, or if it's Smith and his characters.

Those who've never lived here may balk and say, "It's just a porch", or, "Who hasn't taken a late-night walk in their twenties? What the hell are you even talking about?"

Fair enough. Let's talk about the other reason you should see and support Cool Apocalypse. Smith's plea for critical eyes mentioned that his film was a "micro-budget" production. As a supporter of indie cinema (time permitting), I can atest that this movie does not look cheap. Whether it's all in the camera, and/or hiring talented, team-spirited people to work in front of and behind it, Cool Apocalypse has a crisp, intimate feel that places you in line at the bookstore; seats you at the table across from our young lovers on their lunch dates; and sets a place for you in Paul and Claudio's cramped apartment dining room.

This film feels very personal, and reminds me of another filmmaker named Smith who, twenty years ago, emerged on the scene with a black-and-white day-in-the-life indie (complete with title cards, surly customers, and coffee-making montages). Cool Apocalypse has different priorities than Clerks, but both films share a stolen-snapshot quality that its audience will likely recognize and respond to--if they can find it.

Which brings me full-circle back to film criticism. The Internet makes it hard to stand out among the billion bloggers whose thoughts on film range from insightful commentary to tweets to "Super Reviewer" word barf on Rotten Tomatoes. Building an online audience is about as tough a nut to crack, I imagine, as getting eyeballs on an independent film; everyone's a critic, as they say, and everyone has a portable movie studio in their pocket (as Doc Brown once said). But we soldier on, don't we? Not for some dangling carrot of fame or riches, but because our passions won't let us do anything else.

So here's my screaming-into-the-wind plea:

If you're reading this now, and if you live in or near Chicago, I implore you to visit The Gene Siskel Film Center either Saturday night or Monday night to see Cool Apocalypse and engage and encourage the filmmakers (who will be in attendance). If you're reading this in the future, hopefully you'll be able to rent or own Smith's first feature somehow. Either way, watch this breakout film and help it break through.

*"Awards Season" means different things to different people. For the general public, it's the Jan/Feb one-two punch of Golden Globes and Oscars broadcasts. For critics, it's the last two months of the year, when we vote on the works that studios will build statue campaigns around. You'll soon see ads touting how many critics groups agree that Such and Such Film is the "Best of the Year".

**Not for awards consideration, but because it's opening this weekend at the Siskel Center--more on that later.

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