02 December 2007

Capturing the Friedmans

This is just a fascinating movie. It is simple enough when bad things happen to good people; in this case bad things happen to pretty flawed people, but it's clear that just because people are flawed doesn't mean they deserve such things.

Since we saw a production of The Crucible recently, this movie made me think of witch hunts and also the later prohibition against spectral evidence. This movie makes you wonder whether cases (about physical crimes) without a shred of physical evidence should be allowed to go forward.

Unusually for us, immediately after we finished the movie, we started watching it again with the director's commentary on, just to get whatever additional bits of information we could.

Highly recommended.

28 November 2007

Hyperbolic Crocheted Beauty

At the Chicago Cultural Center right now is a remarkable exhibition of work created or curated by the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring. Fiber artists have managed to use crochet needles and yarn (as well as other materials such as discarded plastic) to recreate the forms and colors associated with coral reefs.

It sounds like a corny idea, I know, but this work is startlingly beautiful.

The only drawback of the exhibit is that you can't touch.

Fine Field Exhibits

Been to the Field Museum of Natural History a couple of times in the past few weeks and was able to see two excellent exhibits. One, in a small, new gallery, showcases manuscripts and other texts from the Field's collection, and includes a letter with Darwin's signature, a journal in John James Audubon's hand, and lots of other cool stuff.

The other is part of the vaunted 2007 Chicago Map Festival, and is full of really interesting objects, such as a map of ocean swells made of sticks, used by native Marshall Islanders; the London tube map (remarkable for its eschewal of accurate scale and angle in favor of navigational clarity); early maps of "the 4th part of the world" (North and South America; called fourth after Europe, Africa, and Asia), and narrative offering useful distinctions such as navigational v. network maps.

We plan to return to see the map exhibit again this weekend, as we didn't spend as much time there as we'd have liked; perhaps we'll also get a chance to see the Darwin exhibit.

We have such great museums. Was sad to realize I missed the Richard Misrach show (ended this weekend). No excuse for that.

The Man in the Chair

This is an amateur-ish movie about amateurism, even though the cast includes an array of pros (not least Christopher Plummer, who delivers a terrific performance), and the movie is ostensibly about a group of seasoned (if long-retired) professionals assisting a film-loving high-school delinquent in making his first movie.

But the most important thing about all of the characters in the movie is their love for their work--amateur by definition. The script even includes that old saw, "Love your job and you'll never work a day in your life." (The quotation is attributed to Churchill, which I could not verify; rather, the source seems to be Confucius.)

Regardless, it is a charming movie in the way that amateurs are charming; and annoying in that way also. The script isn't as good as it could be, the experimental effects are a little grating, the generation gap signals not so well chosen; however, the movie has a winning sweetness overall, and is finally quite moving.

Especially recommended for film buffs.

14 November 2007


It's been a little frustrating to see all the great reviews of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, in spite of my pretty vehement reaction against it. Usually it's the other way (I like something and reviews don't). Makes me feel like I've missed the boat, but when I actually read the reviews, I feel like they have; they point out the parts that I agree were excellent(acting, dialogue) and ignore the whole, which--for me--just didn't hold together.

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01 November 2007


I have been holding on to a high school alumni newsletter for weeks because it reports the death of someone I knew. Not a good friend, but a boy I acted with in a play. Not a very nice boy, either--except for our scenes together I doubt we exchanged five words. Amazing that he had this whole other life (wife, kids, friends who remember him as kind and caring)--while persisting in my memory as one of many minor high school tormentors.

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15 October 2007

Argyle Street

We have been up to Argyle Street a couple of times in the past several weeks, and I think we'll be returning more and more often. This area offers a heavy concentration of Vietnamese restaurants, with a couple Thai and Chinese places mixed in.

On our most recent visit, we tried our first banh mi sandwich at Ba Le, on the corner of N Broadway and Argyle. Lemon grass pork. It was like a Vietnamese salad in French bread. Amazing. And so cheap! Three bucks. (And when you buy five you get one free.) This has got to turn into a lunch destination for me. It's a long walk, but the bus ride is not bad.

After devouring the sandwich, we crossed the street to Tank. We sat at a communal round table rather than waiting for a table for two to become available. That was kind of fun and different.

Our first visit to Tank, shortly after we moved to Chicago, did not excite us, but I think we ordered the wrong thing. Victor remembers we ordered a rice noodle bowl. The specialty here is really the pho, which is what we ordered this time. And were utterly delighted. Deeply flavorful.

On this visit I also noticed Thai Grocery for the first time (a few doors south of Ba Le) and we wandered around there for a while, wishing we had such a place in our neighborhood. Will definitely return to do some shopping.

Since we have plenty of decent places to eat in our immediate neighborhood, it is very easy to fall into a rut. It feels good to make the effort to enjoy places that may require a bit of a longer walk or bus ride.

We live in a great food city.

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This is an entertaining documentary about a little-known sport: jump rope. The Double-Dutch feats that I remember marveling at when I was a kid have evolved into an elaborate sport that combines skipping rope, gymnastics, and breakdancing.

The movie follows some of the country's best (high-school and college-age) jump rope teams as they compete for regional, national, and international championships. The sport is seeking Olympic recognition, but (the director, who was present at the screening noted) this is a long way off.

Fun to watch.

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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

This is the best movie I've ever seen that totally sucked. It has a fabulous cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Albert Finney), and very sharp individual scenes, some of which are extremely moving. So it's not that the screenwriter is totally bad.

However, it's a case where the whole is dramatically less than the sum of its parts. I think the Achilles' heel is the plot: how can you make a satisfying story about sympathetic characters, brothers, who decide to rob their parents' shop and in the process get their mother killed? They have to be sympathetic because otherwise you don't want to keep watching; but how can you justify such behavior? Well, the older brother (it turns out) is an embezzling junkie--doesn't that explain everything? And the younger brother is a terminal screwup--he'll pretty much do anything his older brother asks if he gets bullied enough. And there's more: pick a dysfunctional family trope and it's probably inserted somewhere in this story.

You watch attentively all the way through (while perhaps muttering, "What a family!" to yourself) because of the magnetic characterizations, and because you just have to see how it all turns out--in this sense, the movie totally works--but when the end comes, and the screen goes white, you feel robbed. That was it? You're left contemplating the movie's logic, and then it all falls apart--if the guy needed money, why didn't he just sell his expensive car? Why didn't he rob the drug dealer in the first place? What about the other brother? Where does the sister fit in all this?

Etc., etc. Not at all recommended.

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12 October 2007

Katha Pollitt

After yesterday's terrible movie I hopped a bus north to Women & Children First to try and save my evening. Katha Pollitt was reading from her new book, Learning to Drive.

I tried not to let the man who sat next to me after the reading started--tall and sprawling, in a red-white-and-blue top hat and a cape made out of an American flag--ruin my experience. But I thought, That's what I get for coming to something alone, and having an empty chair next to me.

I'd seen Pollitt once before, but only briefly, at an Auden tribute that was part of the New Yorker Festival a couple years ago. So this was a treat. I bought her new book before the reading. As I waited for her to sign it, I said, "You're my hero."

She said, not too pleased, "That's a heavy burden."

I said, "I know, I'm sorry." Shrug.

You always wish for something more intelligent to say, but nothing comes. On my way down Clark Street later, I thought I should have said, "You and Grace Paley." Which is true, and might have led to some conversation.

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The Man from London

This movie reminded me of a paper I wrote in a "Teaching Creative Writing" class in grad school, in which I said that bad writing doesn't hurt anybody. The professor wrote in the margins that this was a very generous attitude, but in fact, bad art does cause harm: it steals time.

And that's how I felt about this movie. I'll never get those two hours back again.

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10 October 2007

Chicago 10

This is the kind of movie you hope to see when you go to a film festival: creative, surprising, inspired and inspiring. This movie tells the story of the Chicago 8 (sometimes called the Chicago 7, but this leaves out Bobby Seale, the Black Panther who was bound and gagged in court, and then severed from the case early on). The defendants were accused of traveling across state lines to incite a riot. The movie title counts 10 to include the two lawyers, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, who were (along with the defendants) convicted of contempt.

The movie uses archival footage, music, and (most surprisingly) animation to tell the story of the 1968 protests in Chicago and the subsequent trial. You can't believe what you're seeing, but everything is based on transcripts, so you know at least the words are true. While I was not enamored of the music, on the whole this is a splendid recreation.

The director, Brett Morgen, was present after the screening and answered some questions. Ever concerned about accuracy, I asked about the basis for the visual portion of the animation. He discussed all the research they did to try to recreate the courtroom.

People asked questions about surprising things. One man asked whether Morgen felt his film was a "balanced" portrayal. Victor yelled out, "What other side is there? They were all acquitted later!" A woman asked whether Morgen really felt that all the humor was appropriate. Another woman asked what movies inspired Morgen in making this movie; when he said none, another woman accused him of dissembling, because he had used footage from Medium Cool.

Strange audience but great movie.

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09 October 2007

La France

Another day, another film festival movie. We didn't get this one, though. Victor was willing to give it more credit than I was ("maybe all the absurdity was a metaphor for the absurdity of the first world war..."). While it was watchable, it just didn't make any sense.

Or else I'm not smart enough to figure it out.

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08 October 2007

On the Wings of Dreams

This was the first movie of this year's Chicago Film Festival that we felt really good about. The Bangladeshi film shows what happens to a poor family when a wad of foreign currency is found in a pair of secondhand pants.

It would be easy if they recognized the currency, but they don't. The movie follows the family in the week or two that it takes to figure out what--if anything--the currency is worth, and along the way offers some beautiful landscapes and scenes of family life.

There's nothing clever in this movie; just straightforward storytelling and solid performances that offer a window into another world.

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We saw this as part of the Chicago Film Festival and were pretty disappointed. First disappointment was that they screened the movie with a big fat timestamp running across the bottom of the screen. Second was that the soundtrack had problems. But mostly it was disappointing because in spite of terrific performances, the movie really suffered from unimaginative writing. The plot was one cliche after another.

Still, it was watchable. You just kept hoping it wouldn't go where you expected. Unfortunately, it did, every time.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

We saw this movie in a special presentation at the Music Box Saturday night, and Jeff Garlin answered questions afterward. That was really fun, and he was really funny.

The movie itself had a lot of good laughs and was probably extra fun for Chicagoans because of all the local shots. But it felt kind of slapped together; somehow it wasn't very cohesive.

Still, glad we saw it.

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Charm School

This movie, which we saw as part of the Chicago Film Festival, was entertaining, but did not knock our socks off. It's a light comedy about a young woman whose politician father has had enough of her scandalous antics--they're threatening his career. So he sends her to an old fashioned charm school.

Nothing happens that you wouldn't expect, but the characters and performances are all very appealing. The ending (where everything must be put right) is a rushed mess, though.

Local Girls

Alice Hoffman is a wonder. Her sentences are so compelling that you just want to keep turning pages, regardless of the subject matter. While I don't think she ever writes "once upon a time," her narratives have a fairy tale quality, and her frequent use of hyperbole seems to rise naturally from this tone, so that you take the exaggerations literally and enter more deeply into her imagined world.

Local Girls, which was misplaced on my bookshelf (among novels instead of short story collections) consists of linked stories about a family that's falling apart--during the time covered by the stories, the parents divorce, the A-student son becomes a drug addict and dies in the street, the mother sickens and dies of cancer, and the daughter falls in love with a dope dealer. From this material, Hoffman manages to create a book that you don't want to put down.

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Book of Dragons

This book by E. Nesbit, the author of The Railway Children, is a selection of fantastic tales, suitable for young children, about a variety of dragons. Very enjoyable. My favorite story is the first, which is about a young king who inadvertently lets a dangerous dragon escape from a book (which he wasn't supposed to be reading, anyway); he then has to figure out how to save his country from the terrible beast.

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A Handbook for Visitors from Outer Space

This book by Kathryn Kramer has been sitting (incorrectly) in my science fiction bookcase possibly for around 20 years--I don't remember when I got it, but it was published in 1987, and I just may have been lugging it along for most the years that have passed since.

A couple weeks ago I realized I was feeling kind of blue at about the same time that I realized I hadn't actually finished reading a book in several weeks (I'd been mostly reading magazines). So I stopped what I was doing and blazed through a few things, including this novel, which--in spite of its title--is not science fiction (though it has its fantastic aspects).

It is an odd book, well written but full of gothic twists--an exiled royal family, relatives in love with each other, wasting diseases, misunderstandings that last years, and envelopes that never reach their target. Readable, entertaining, and sad.

And now shelved (properly) in the general fiction section.

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05 October 2007

Fortress of Solitude

I'm a sucker for coming-of-age novels written by people about my age. Jonathan Lethem is from Brooklyn and I'm from Queens, so my fondness for this book is perhaps axiomatic. The first half of the book is a coming of age story; the second, more of a quest: to find the lost best friend and the lost mother.

I found the first half stronger, but maybe I simply related to it more. Throughout, there is terrific writing.

The superhero subplot felt extraneous; I kept wanting more to come of it.

Still, very much worth reading.

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I'm Not Scared

Though it looks idyllic, something's rotten in the southern Italian landscape. This is apparent from I'm Not Scared's opening scene, in which you're struck by the cruelty of children's games. When one child, Michele, discovers another abused and hidden in a dirt cellar, it's not quite surprising; when the hidden child turns out to be a kidnapping victim it's almost a relief. (You have been thinking that these people are capable of anything--including raising a child in the dark for kicks.)

It is rather unpleasant to watch a movie about mostly unpleasant people, but Michele's naive heroism is magnetic.

Worth seeing for the boy's performance.

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Soiree Dada

You walk into a room and a bunch of performers in whiteface compete for your attention.

"Hello. Would you like to play this game?"

The game might be "Guess what I am thinking," or "Throw an acorn through this piece of torn cardboard."

If you succeed at the game, you get to sit down. Maybe you get to have a cookie. Maybe you get to have a glass of bad wine. When you try to get up, you find that doing so is bad form. "Where are you going? The show is going to start soon."

Really? You assumed the show had started.

Regardless, you stay where you are so as not to further disappoint the disappointed clown. And, indeed, lights dim and an emcee proceeds with a definition of dada. Nonsensical of course, but highly dramatic, sinister, emotional.

An series of sketches follow, some involving audience participation, all highly dramatic, yet incomprehensible. This is dada, I think: you feel that something is important, but you can't be sure exactly what that is.

Recommended. After this, I'd take a look at anything that WNEP Theater decides to tackle.

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03 October 2007

From Barack to a Hard Place

Victor and I went with a friend to see this Second City production which has garnered fabulous reviews over the past few months. We went to the show as part of a Theater Thursday event, which began with a panel on art and politics as well as government funding of the arts, and included a reception with drinks and appetizers, followed by the show. The food was catered by Adobo Grill (right downstairs from Second City), so it was delicious, and for $35, the evening was a pretty terrific deal.

The show was also pretty terrific. Very talented performers (our favorite: Amber Ruffin. Beautiful, gifted, magnetic) and some sharp sketches. Not all of the sketches were political, by any means (at first this was surprising, but then--considering what Second City is, it made more sense); all the sketches were uniformly pretty funny. Very much worth seeing and certainly a huge improvement over the traveling Second City show we saw in Columbus some years ago.

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I got a free ticket to see this movie as part of the Midwest Independent Film Festival last night. Filmmaker Ben Byer was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) a few years ago and decided to document his experience--everything involved in dealing with a degenerative and incurable illness, from physical decline, to research on (and pursuit of) potential treatments, the toll on family and friends, and what it takes to survive from day to day. Byers plays with his son (who grows from 2 to 4 in the course of the film), applies for disability benefits, interviews medical experts, travels the world to investigate (and partake in) purported cures and treatments, commiserates with fellow patients, and ponders his mortality. This was a very moving film that makes you consider what makes life worth living. With all this guy is going through, and as you see his body deteriorate, you wonder that he can still smile (and it's a great smile). Interviewee Oliver Sacks asks Byers what helps him forget his illness. "When I'm working...when I'm with my son," Byers says. Sacks nods, apologetically quotes Freud ("not very popular now"): "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanity."

Or something like that. Byers and his sister appeared at the screening, which was the Midwestern premiere (the film has been shown at festivals) and it was gratifying to see him in the flesh, very much alive, and still grinning.

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02 October 2007

Before Sunset

This movie bored the hell out of Victor, but delighted me enough that I look forward to buying it, along with its prequel. A terrifically romantic movie, but--I'll grant--probably more fun for girls.

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Chicago Theater Rant

Last week's Time Out Chicago article about Chicago theater made me irate. The main thrust of the article is that the city has spent millions of dollars on reviving the downtown theater district while neglecting the small storefronts that keep the Chicago theater scene hot. All the big investment has gone to rehabbing the grand old theaters (like the LaSalle Bank Theater, the Cadillac Palace), and supporting other big ones, like the Goodman and Lookingglass. And the result is big Broadway-style productions that stay forever (e.g., Wicked) and attract tourists.

Indeed, tourists may come to Chicago just to see a show like Wicked.


As if the tourists who come to Chicago to see Jersey Boys or Blue Man Group would (if only the city poured investment dollars in the correct direction) instead buy tickets for a show at TimeLine or The House Theater or the Neo-Futurarium.


The writers of this article (theater critics for Time Out) don't realize how good they have it. While I'm occasionally irritated by the swarms of people milling about in front of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental at dinnertime (in my way!), and the tourist buses lining Randolph Street, on the whole I'm grateful to have a downtown core that's hopping at night. Busy theaters mean busy hotels, busy restaurants, busy bars, busy shops, and busy streets, rather than the spookily empty ones that characterize the night-time downtowns of most American cities.

I don't doubt that the more edgy, homegrown Chicago theater scene could use more help. Small arts organizations always do. But to look at this as a tradeoff--renovate the Oriental or save Stage Left--is a mistake. These endeavors have vastly different audiences, both from a funding perspective and from a theatergoing perspective.

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01 October 2007

Chicago Antique Market

On Saturday, Victor and I had lunch at Ina's and then checked out the monthly (during warmer months) Chicago Antique Market, which is held in a parking lot and the Plumbers Hall building on West Randolph off Ada. This turned out to be a really fun time. Browsing around in antique shops can get depressing as they are often dark, crowded places that smell like old clothes and dust. Wandering among open displays of cool old stuff out in the sunshine was a nice change. Continual live music helps to justify the $8 admission.

The last Antique Fair of the year will be held in October.

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Double Li

You move to a great new city and at first you're floored and thrilled by all the great restaurants there are to try. Only a bus-ride away. Or a train and a bus. Or two buses. Or...

After a while, you get a little jaded and find yourself returning to the same places over and over. It takes conscious action to break the old patterns.

So Friday evening we went back to Chinatown for the first time in ages--honestly can't remember the last time we ate there. But I have been following an lthforum.com thread on Double Li for some time, and--as a Szechuan food fan--it's been in the back of my mind to try. So I met Victor down near his office and we hopped into a Zipcar and checked it out.

This place is located at 228 W Cermak, almost directly opposite lthforum.com's namesake restaurant, (little) Three Happiness. It's a little difficult to find the right door, but once found, you enter a bright, typical-looking Chinese restaurant. The English-language menu is rather limited, but the lthforum.com thread described lots of interesting stuff from the Chinese-language menu. Unfortunately, I did not have the lth thread memorized; the only attractive dish I could remember from it (as I wasn't up for Szechuan tripe) was peapod leaves.

Still, the English-language menu does have a few standouts: we tried the black pepper-garlic beef tenderloin. This was really wonderful, with amazingly tender and beautifully flavored beef with red and green pepper chunks. The stir-fried peapod leaves with garlic were also fabulous. Appetizers were decent but not crazy-wonderful: we had Szechuan wontons (tasty morsels) and scallion pancakes (greasy and good).

Service was friendly if occasionally language-challenged. We felt welcome from the start and when we were done eating the waitress came to ask if we wanted to pack up the rest to take home. Then she saw that there was absolutely nothing left to pack up, and she rewarded us with a smile that told us we were EXTREMELY good children.

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The Magnificents

Directed by 500 Clowns ensemble member Molly Brennan, and written by illusionist (and lead) Dennis Watkins, The Magnificents is a highly entertaining show, suitable for all ages, full of magic tricks and high-energy clowning, tied together by the sweet story of an elderly magician whose wife brings a young man into the family so he can pass on his wisdom.

The House Theater continues to offer some of the most creative storytelling around, as clown-stagehands move props, engage the audience in conversation, and even enter the action (a sort of Greek chorus of clowns); projected video shows us the characters' dreams and memories; and magic tricks continually stoke the audience's sense of wonder.

Appealing performances from all involved contribute to a really outstanding theater experience. This show is something to see.

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17 September 2007

Mullholland Drive

We saw this movie the other night. Victor was so relieved that he didn't have to sit through any more Robert Bresson movies! We had both heard of Mullholland Drive, but neither of us knew anything about it.

Having watched the movie, I'd have to say we still don't. It was so odd and unexpected that we were just glad it was over, at first, but the curious thing was how it stays with you. I thought about it for days. I'm not sure whether I would recommend it, but I can't trash it, either.

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10 September 2007

Thank You for Smoking

We saw this movie last week and enjoyed it (very nice, slimy performance by Aaron Eckhart), but not as much as we enjoyed Christopher Buckley's book when we read it (at least a dozen) years ago. The movie tames and de-complicates the story somewhat (which you have to expect--that's what movies do). Still, it's great fun.

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08 September 2007

Supersize Me

Got this movie from Netflix recently and found it terrific. Very effective, not least because filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is so likable. Unfortunately the effects of this movie and its attendant publicity haven't been very lasting viz. the fast food industry...
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Robert Bresson Brief

Rented a few movies by Robert Bresson recently, with varied results. A Man Escaped was our favorite of the three: very simply told but totally gripping. Lancelot of the Lake was much the least favorite. I frankly thought it was horrible. We are sending it back without finishing it. And Diary of a Country Priest Victor could not bear, but I am keeping it to watch when he's not around--I found it kind of intriguing.

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August: Osage County

After we got back from California, I was anxious not to miss this much-acclaimed Steppenwolf production, which is due to have a limited run in New York this fall. When I called Steppenwolf for tickets, though, I found that they were sold out. I asked whether 20 for 20 remained in operation for sold-out shows. The answer was affirmative.

So Victor and I stood in line outside Steppenwolf along with a few dozen other people at around 10:30 in the morning, waiting for the box office to open. A staffer came by a few times to offer the odd full-price ticket that had just become available, but most of us elected to take our chances and try to get the $20 tix. As it turned out, V and I scored the last two tix available for the matinée show, and felt very lucky.

The play was rightly praised, being full of sharp writing and excellent performances. Much in the tradition of vicious family plays, such as Hellman's Little Foxes, though I heard or saw author Tracy Letts say somewhere that he had not read it. My opinion of him was rather lowered as a result. (Something like a filmmaker saying he'd never seen Citizen Kane.)

Not that my opinion of the narrowness of Tracy Letts' reading matters a damn. It's a good play, and I wish it the best on Broadway in October.

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27 August 2007


This was one of those Netflix movies that we let sit on the shelf for multiple weeks. Hard not to dread a 3-hour fiction film about Richard Nixon. Especially one by Oliver Stone.

In the event, however, we found ourselves admiring and absorbed. Anthony Hopkins' impersonation was remarkable. You had a hard time, though, understanding how an election could be won by someone so obviously nuts; apparently he had a lot of non-nuts people protecting him. Still, even in his nuts-ness, he observed some limits.

A hell of a thing when the current administration makes you feel nostalgic for Nixon.

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25 August 2007

Harry Potter 5

We had moderately low expectations for this movie, which we saw in an Emeryville, CA, multiplex shortly after we both had finished reading the last Harry Potter novel.

In fact, it was better than we expected (a frequent result of low expectations); the story was told clearly, with special effects that were not too excessive. Well enough done, but nothing like as good as Harry Potter 3.

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23 August 2007


This Irish movie has been getting great word of mouth since it came out, but still, we didn't expect to like it so much. It's a movie that takes you by surprise: you're gamely waiting to see what the big deal is about, and you find that very absorption is the movie's gift and its charm. Splendid performances by the two stars, and terrific music.

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22 August 2007

Chicago Dancing Festival @ Millennium Park

I almost didn't go to the Chicago Dancing Festival at Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion tonight. I anticipated having to arrive pretty early to secure a seat (since it was a dance performance, a space on the lawn wouldn't do--it was necessary to see the stage)--which didn't seem so attractive in the hot, humid weather.

But in the end, I went. Showed up with a sandwich around 20 after 5, anticipating a 6:30 performance, but it turned out that the performance would start at 7:30. So I was REALLY early. Ate my sandwich in the Lurie Garden and came back to grab a seat near the center. Sat and read my magazine (great articles in The New Yorker this week, by the way. One about Aaron Copland, one about Ian McKellen, one about a new luxury building in New York that successfully apes the prewar ones).

The show started 10 minutes late, but it was worth waiting for. Muntu Dance Theater opened. I had never seen them perform before and they were pretty stunning. Great percussion, costumes, tribal dances. Quite a spectacle, against a starry background.

The Joffrey followed, with "Light Rain." This was far and away the best performance of the program, with moment after moment that took your breath away. The last time I saw the Joffrey, they performed Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe." They were good, but I don't remember gasping. Music, costumes, and fabulous choreography (not to mention talent, expressiveness, and athleticism) came together perfectly. In general, I think people give standing ovations too easily, but in this case, I was happy to rise. This performance made me a fan for life.

Ballet Florida made the least impressive showing. Nice costumes and competent performances, I suppose, but there was nothing outstanding about them. While the Joffrey piece incorporated some robotic movement, these dancers were as expressionless as robots though their movements were fluid enough. Unexciting. Unexceptional. Unremarkable.

Two soloists from the American Ballet Theater then performed the pas de deux from Don Quixote. I am just not into classical ballet, though I can appreciate virtuosity. The stuff in between tends to bore me, though. And the applause-mongering irritates me. But there were some fine moments.

Then two dancers from Alvin Ailey performed a "Pas de Duke" to Ellington's music. This was beautifully done, but not as spectacular as an Ailey performance we saw last spring. (Perhaps it is hard for two dancers to be as spectacular as a whole company.) Still, terrific style and attitude.

A big surprise for me were five male dancers from the San Francisco Ballet. They were accompanied by a beautiful baroque piece, and I frankly didn't expect much from them. But they were fabulous. Expressiveness, athleticism, grace... Many "wow" moments. This was the only other performance that brought me to my feet. The program says that the SF Ballet is coming to the Harris Theater this fall; I hope we're able to go see them.

The final performance was by Complexions Dance from New York. These were skilled dancers performing complex choreography, but I'm afraid I didn't get it. The program explained that this piece was commenting on the U.S. political situation, but to me it was just incoherent. Until the last 2 minutes, when it suddenly got wonderful. Everything synchronized in a surprising way. So I think this company has potential, but I'll wait a while to see them again. (The program says they're coming to the Auditorium Theater this fall.)

All in all, this was a phenomenal event. Dance is almost never free, and the event was likely effective for its purpose, which is to raise the profile of dance in Chicago. Tonight I felt proud to live in such a great city, and the fireworks that went off afterwards (must have been the show at Navy Pier, though I was surprised to be able to see it from Millennium Park) made for a perfect ending to the evening.

Even more perfect, the thunderstorm held off until moments after I got home.

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09 August 2007

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

Another day, another Errol Morris documentary. We liked this one somewhat better than The Fog of War, but got sleepy toward the end. Also, we thought the mole rat specialist was a jerk.

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05 August 2007

The Fog of War

OK, so after watching this movie (subtitled "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara") over a couple of days, my first thought was, Why was this movie made? While there is plenty of information in this movie I didn't know before, because I'm not all that well-informed about the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War, I didn't sense that the point of the movie was to educate me about these subjects. Was it to highlight former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's continued moral cluelessness? I can't say I'm interested in 11 lessons taught by an 85-year-old moral idiot. The fact that he was supposedly super smart doesn't change the fact that he doesn't seem able to face up to his responsibilities vis. Vietnam.

If the whole thing was supposed to be ironic, I guess I get it, but I found it too long an exercise.

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The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum barely gives you a moment to think, but you didn't pay $10 to think, did you? Action movies are not supposed to be introspective. While the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne struggles to determine his true identity, you're blissfully unaware of your own.

Still, in spite of numerous riveting chase scenes, crashes, fast-cut fights, and closeups of cool technology, the film manages to get across its take on America's moral lapses; i.e., torture: bad. Turning patriotic boys into unreasoning killers: bad. Killing people on your own side just because they get in your way: bad.

Glad we got that straightened out. And now we return to our regularly scheduled adrenalin rush...

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04 August 2007

The Kite Runner

Victor read this one first, not long after we picked it up at a Borders 3 for the price of 2 sale.

A young boy, Amir, doesn't understand why he can't seem to win his father's love, nor why he treats his best friend--harelipped Hassan--who is also his servant, of a different, minority tribe and Islamic sect--sometimes like a brother and sometimes like a peon. Amir feels guilty when he treats Hassan badly, but that doesn't stop him. At a critical moment, young Amir betrays Hassan so completely that he can't forgive himself.

This is a story of guilt and redemption that spans more than two decades. While much of it takes place in Afghanistan, and the plot is influenced by historical events there, the story's emotional power lies with its characters, who--one senses--would have behaved much the same way anywhere.

Highly readable and moving (Victor cried a lot and so did I).

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Thursday Next: First Among Sequels

In the Thursday Next novels, Jasper Fforde has created a universe that is irresistibly attractive to book lovers. It is a world in which literature has such importance that Britain's Special Operations includes a "Literary Detectives" division, to which our heroine (Thursday Next) belongs. Original manuscripts of great books are kept under lock and key because changes to the original (such as eliminating a character or altering her fate--an important plot element of The Eyre Affair--are immediately reflected in every extant edition. And it is possible (via innate talent or specialized devices) to physically enter the world behind the books, which is governed by administrators and bureaucrats sometimes even more annoying than real-world ones, as well as an organization called Jurisfiction, which tries to keep the wheels of literature turning smoothly (characters in their proper places and plot threads neatly tied).

What's amazing about the Thursday Next novels is not that Fforde has come up with conceits like these, but that he continually comes up with more of them, and that he manages to sustain them over several volumes. For example, in First Among Sequels, we are introduced to Britain's "stupidity surplus." The ruling Common Sense party has been acting with such probity and pragmatism that the country is in danger of a huge explosion of stupidity if something isn't done soon. What for another author would be a disposable one-liner becomes a robust plot thread for Fforde. (This is not to say there are no throw-aways in Fforde; there are plenty, which is sometimes disconcerting.)

As with many multi-volume series, the first novel displays the most energy and originality, and the subsequent ones all have some rough or dull spots. But there's typically enough ingenuity and suspense to carry you through; in particular, First Among Sequels offers plenty of outlandish ideas, essential paradoxes, and urgent mysteries to keep your left brain busy while your right brain follows the occasionally lagging story.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

How to discuss this book without giving something away?

Only in the most general terms.

So: chock full of action, suspense--as hard to put down as any previous volume--with a highly satisfactory climax and conclusion. Significant questions are answered. Of course one is never glad that a beloved series is over, but at least there is no sense of having been cheated.

Highly recommended for Harry Potter fans. Non-Harry Potter fans couldn't care less anyhow.

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The word is out, I think, that this is probably Michael Moore's best movie, largely because he's largely absent from it. We didn't plan to see Sicko last week, but the Harry Potter screenings were all sold out, and it was a hot, humid evening, so we were determined to see something.

We expected to see a film that told us what we already knew (i.e., the US health system really sucks--not enough people have insurance), but the actual focus turned out to be on people with health insurance rather than without, and the impact of the individual stories of sick and injured people whose claims had been denied was enormous. In contrast, Moore shows us satisfied customers of the Canadian, British, and French health systems, and in the movie's sole stunt, carts a bunch of 9/11 workers with health issues to Cuba for treatment.

The stunt is the least successful part of the movie (while Moore says, on camera, "just treat us like you would treat anybody else," who's going to "act natural" with a camera running and a celebrity watching?)

Still, very much worth seeing: eye-opening with regard to the venality of insurance companies and the shabby way we treat the sick in this country.

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Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry?

Elizabeth McCracken, author of two fine novels (The Giant's House and Niagara Falls All Over Again), first brought out this collection of short stories in 1993. Like her novels, the stories could easily be called charming and quirky; they typically center on people who--when they love--love for good; the stories also spend a lot of time considering guilelessness.

Apparent guilelessness is in part what gives the stories their charm: stories like "The Goings-On of the World," in which the second sentence reads, "One morning in the last week of May, I got up, got dressed, and killed my wife." You have to read it a few times to make sure you read right. Another, one of my favorites, "Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware," begins, "My parents were not handy people." From that simple beginning sprouts a story of love, grief, abandonment, love, survival, and love again.

Highly recommended.

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27 July 2007

Animals in Translation

I have mixed feelings about this book, which is perhaps appropriate as it is itself a mix--of personal memoir, professional mea culpa, behavioral reference, and (perhaps primarily) anecdote collection. It is written by Temple Grandin, a high-functioning person with autism who became much better known when Oliver Sacks wrote about her in An Anthropologist on Mars.

Grandin has a Ph.D. in Animal Science, and has spent her professional career designing humane(r) slaughter facilities for cattle, pigs, and sheep. Animals in Translation presents the lessons she's learned about animal behavior filtered through her unique perspective as an autistic person; she believes that the way autistic people think and the way animals think are very similar.

The book offers many compelling insights. Grandin talks about how animals don't generalize the way typical humans do--an animal once traumatized by a man in a black hat may forever rear at the sight of a black hat; a cow can be stopped in its tracks by a shiny reflection. They're attentive to details because they don't have a sense of the whole--or at least not as easily as typical humans do.

In spite of some interesting points, the book's idiosyncratic, circular, and often redundant style put a damper on my enjoyment of it. There's little distinction between conclusions drawn from anecdote, scientific research, or personal experience--all are given equal weight. The old saw about essay writing ("Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them") is adhered to rather too literally: a paragraph introduces an idea including its conclusion, comes to a conclusion, and then affirms that conclusion (often with a not very persuasive, "That's my guess" or "I've seen this again and again."). Animals in Translation does have a co-author, but either that co-author was asleep at the wheel or she's simply a poor writer/editor.

Worth reading? Sure. But the reading can start to feel like trudging after a while.

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25 July 2007

My Best Friend

It's movie pass week. This new French movie stars Daniel Auteuil as an antique dealer who's made to realize he has plenty of business contacts but not a single friend. (In the words of one old classmate, since the age of 11 he has been a "smug son of a bitch.")

After a bet with his business partner (she has to meet his best friend in 10 days), he engages an amiable taxi driver (Dany Boon) to teach him how to make friendly connections. The driver's lessons fail, but the antique dealer ends up friends with the taxi driver. Then the dealer betrays the friendship because he still doesn't really understand what friendship is and loses the friend. Then he sincerely repents, secretly makes amends, and eventually he and his friend reconcile. In the process he has become a much better person, and everybody likes him.

Have we heard this story before? Yes. Is it pretty predictable? Yes. Is it still fun to watch? Absolutely. Terrific performances and details that are not entirely expected (the cab driver is an autodidact with complete mastery of the sort of trivia featured on quiz shows) make this movie continuously entertaining, and in spite of the familiar story, it provides some acute observations that make you think about the nature of friendship and its relative scarcity.

Not to mention deeply thankful to have friends.

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23 July 2007


Got a pass to see a screening of this new movie, which turned out to be better than I expected: a light-hearted fairy tale with a little romance, a little adventure, a little magic, and so on. One surprise was how funny it was--you're expecting an earnest little "happily ever after" story, and then Michelle Pfeiffer's witch is watching her breasts deflate (the result of too much hexing), and Ricky Gervais is trying to weasel his way out of paying a fair price for a shipment of lightning, and Robert DeNiro's pirate captain is happiest in drag.
Fun escapist fare, with some lovely evocations of the magical world.

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Pan's Labyrinth

Although some parts of this movie were so violent that I could not watch (particularly scenes of torture), it was quite wonderful. Still not entirely clear on what it is trying to say--you want to find an affirming lesson about the power of imagination or somesuch, but the ending of the movie rather contradicts that. Still, the human (or humane) spirit shines very brightly in this dark tale, and that's what makes the violence bearable in the end.

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21 July 2007

Curiosity: the Anti-Depression Emotion

I have been reading Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation and she spends a lot of time talking about emotions, particularly emotions shared by people and animals. She discusses curiosity as an emotion. I had never thought of curiosity as an emotion, but I guess it is, as she describes it: a sense of excitement and anticipation about the things around you.

Which strikes me as the opposite of depression, and part of why going for a walk or drive, or taking a trip, can help a person shake the blues.

Just as I thought: you can run away from your problems.

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20 July 2007

Houseplant Survey

Our plants don't do as well in this apartment as they used to in our house in Columbus, even though we have a lot more light here. Of course, we have different plants here, ones that are supposed to be suited to higher light levels. They survive, but not very well. In a way, it would be easier if they didn't stay alive (it's easier to discard a dead plant than a struggling one). Two big ones have been especially bothering me lately; it's hard to think of replacing them, because large plants are expensive. Two smaller leafy plants keep growing but just don't seem that healthy--the leaves quickly brown, or the plants get spindly instead of bushy. Maybe they're rootbound? It's been a couple of years since they were transplanted...

In the warm weather, when it's cheaper, I try to have a lot of cut flowers. Jewel always has a special--three bunches for $12, and during the warm season the bunches can be pretty nice. Treasure Island usually has one kind of flower on special at a time--say, $5.99 for a big bunch of sunflowers--but everything else is really expensive.

I have also been buying small flowering plants, which are pretty inexpensive right now. Little $3 mini-rose plants are cheaper than a bouquet and can last longer. Found some small succulents ($4.99 each) at Trader Joe's which seem to be doing well on our east-facing window sills. Splurged on a live orchid about a week ago, and so far it seems to be doing well (I figure if the bloom lasts four weeks I'll have gotten my money's worth).

Victor's mom is coming next week and she's really good with plants, so maybe we'll go plant shopping together. When they're healthy, plants make a home so happy!

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19 July 2007

Talk to Me

Our friend Teresa invited me to go see this movie with her at the last minute, and Victor rushed from work to join us.

It was terrific. Great performances, especially by Don Cheadle and Taraji P. Henson, who I remembered from Hustle and Flow. Great evocation of times past. We loved it.

Later, Victor said, "I thought it was going to be an Almodovar movie." I said, "No, that's Talk to Her."

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13 July 2007

Baryshnikov and Hell's Kitchen Dance

We've seen Baryshnikov only a couple of times before: in 2003, at a benefit performance in Columbus, Ohio, and in 2004 in a staged interview as part of the New Yorker Festival. This time, he was performing with his dance troupe, Hell's Kitchen Dance, in Chicago's Harris Theater, and he and they were phenomenal.

All three dances included Baryshnikov. The first dance was a solo--or sort of a duet with himself--video of a very young Baryshnikov was projected on the back wall and he danced in relation to it. It was so moving, somehow. I found myself weeping without knowing why.

The next dance also included two young female dancers. After an intermission, there was a performance that included the whole troupe. The choreography was splendid--thrilling and imaginative. Lots of arms and hands, heads--not just legs and jumping up and down. (Though there were plenty of leaps and pirouettes.)

What's great about Baryshnikov? Presence and grace. When he's on stage, he's just magnetic. You can't take your eyes off him. And when he moves, he's like liquid. He flows.

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12 July 2007


In the past, Joe Haldeman has been one of my favorite science fiction writers, but this book makes me reconsider. I found the writing pedestrian and the story pretty pointless.

Why do I get so annoyed when books are bad? Because there are so many books to read, and so little time.

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11 July 2007

Three Junes

This is a wonderful novel, told in three novellas from different perspectives: a father, his eldest son, and a woman who turns out to be, coincidentally, an acquaintance of both of them. It is beautifully written, and one of those books about which the question "what's it about?" is irrelevant, because it's about life.

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The Foreign Correspondent

Alan Furst is a favorite writer of mine; for what he does, he can do no wrong. And what he does is write espionage thrillers that take place in Europe on the cusp of World War 2. These stories have heroes who typically never planned to have anything to do with politics, who would have been happy to sit out the war in Tahiti (ideally with a warm blonde), but whom circumstances have forced into engagement against the forces of fascism.

Basically, they're ordinary people who get mixed up with spies, and end up becoming spies themselves, or helping spies, which amounts to the same thing.

The great thing about these heroes is they seem ordinary and peaceful enough that you can really imagine yourself in their shoes; when the daring missions ensue, you've identified with them so much that you can convincingly flatter yourself you'd have done the same.

Furst writes simply and well, and while you could complain that his several novels tell essentially the same story again and again, that's hardly surprising. This is popular fiction at its best, but it remains popular fiction.

This latest novel centers on an Italian Reuters correspondent living in Paris just before Mussolini and Hitler cement their alliance. He works for an emigre newspaper, writing anonymous articles against Mussolini's government, but his relatively placid existence is disturbed when the Italian fascist secret service sets out to terrorize everyone involved with the newspaper.

A great read for the train or when you just feel like an escape.

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You Kill Me

We haven't been excited about too many movies lately. Spiderman 3, which we might have otherwise been eager about, got terrible press, and none of the other sequels seemed too interesting.

So this movie seemed promising: Ben Kingsley who is always wonderful, likable Tea Leoni, and super-likable Luke Wilson. Not to mention terrifically slimy Bill Pullman, amusingly long-suffering Philip Baker Hall, etc. (It really doesn't end there--it's a fabulous cast.)

However. Actually there is no "however," to our great surprise. We went to this movie hopeful, but with dimmed expectations, since it wouldn't be the first time a movie with a great cast turned out rotten. But this movie was almost exactly what we'd hoped for: a reasonably adult and intelligent black comedy, with some juicy performances and good laughs. It has nothing profound to say about love, addiction, crime, or anything else, but it says nothing insultingly stupid about them either.

I feel like I'm saying the best thing about this movie is its inoffensiveness, but that's not what I mean to convey; rather, this movie is exactly what it ought to be, which isn't as common as it should be, and which gives considerable pleasure.

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10 July 2007


We went with friends the other night to see Kumail Nanjiani's one-man show Unpronounceable at the Lakeshore Theater. It was our first time in that theater, although it is only a couple of blocks from our apartment. A pleasant enough venue, except they play music ridiculously loud while you are waiting for the show to start, so you can't carry on a conversation. Very irritating.

The show was good, though. Nanjiani highlights a lot of the startling inconsistencies you notice when you've been brought up as a fundamentalist, and then traces his own journey from fundamentalism to atheism. Quite funny, as well. You certainly don't have to be Muslim to appreciate it. In fact, it's quite possibly better if you're not.

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Victor was iffy about this movie because Val Kilmer stars in it, and he's been in a lot of bad stuff. But I tend to remember the good stuff he's been in--Tombstone, Thunderheart--and don't so much hold the bad stuff against him.

Indeed, Spartan is not a bad movie. It's not a great movie, either, but that's not Kilmer's fault. He tries.

The movie is written and directed by David Mamet, who I like, but I wonder whether the trademark delivery of lines--the repetitions, the emphases, the repressed violence--might work better in a story about repressed violence. This movie incorporates so much actual violence that the stylized dialogue seems to almost mock the seriousness of the events, making the movie harder to believe in.

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09 July 2007


I first saw this movie when it came out, which was 1979, so I was 14 years old. It made a huge impression on me then--the amazing colors, the great music, and Twyla Tharp's choreography. It mostly took place in my city, New York, in Central Park and Washington Square Park, so I guess I felt a special identification for that reason as well.

When you're 14, you think everything's about you.

More than 25 years later, the movie holds up pretty well. You have to suspend a bit of disbelief to see 28-year-old Beverly D'Angelo as a 16 year old (Treat Williams also looks a lot older than he should be), but the color still looks great, the music is still wonderful, and the choreography is still invigorating. Moreover, even though many of the songs became so popular they are cliches now (especially "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In"), in the context of the film they remain profoundly moving.

I was crying at the end even though I knew what was going to happen, even though I'm sick of that song, even though I was internally criticizing the film's logic (the gravestone should have said Bukowski, not Berger, since Berger took Bukowski's place). And just as my 14-year-old self gazed wistfully at the joyful scenes of protest on the Washington Mall, I wished I'd been there then.

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Just terrible. We couldn't watch it straight through; skimmed it using the DVD player. If there is anything redeeming about this movie, which follows a year or two in the lives of a handful of shallow LA professionals, we couldn't find it. The great cast does it no good at all.

Nasty and vapid.

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500 Clown Frankenstein

After enjoying 500 Clown Macbeth so much, we got some friends together to see 500 Clown Frankenstein, also at Steppenwolf, the other night. It was a good show, but not as tight and well-composed as Macbeth. The three clowns telling the Frankenstein story all try to avoid portraying the monster (an understandably thankless job).

Regardless of its shortcomings, the show is highly entertaining; it more deeply engages with the audience than Macbeth, with multiple chases through empty and populated rows of seats, and audience members enjoined to torment the monster as it attempts to escape its fate. As with Macbeth, the clowns succeed in conveying the major themes of Mary Shelley's novel in spite of their narrative incompetence.

One key difference from the other show is that here nobody wants to be something (the monster), while in Macbeth, everybody wants to be something (king). Perhaps it is more inherently compelling to watch characters vie with each other for something they want than watch them try to avoid something they don't want.

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A Summer Affair

I have had a couple of books by Ivan Klima on my shelf for years, and finally got around to reading one. Sort of. After a while, I skimmed it. Here's a synopsis: middle-aged man, bored with family life, insecure about his professional accomplishments, encounters attractive younger woman, becomes obsessed with her, they have an affair, he destroys his family and career to be with her, and she kills herself.

See why I skimmed it? Not only have I read this story before, but I don't think I ever want to read it again...

This book goes on the giveaway pile.

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06 July 2007

Cuter Still

OK, this is cuter. But you can see the puppet bike in person.

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Instant Smiles on Michigan

What's cuter than a couple of furry handpuppets? How about furry handpuppets dancing? How about furry handpuppets swing-dancing? How about furry handpuppets swing-dancing to "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens"?

If you think of something, let me know. In the meantime, check out the Puppet Bike, which generally hangs out opposite the Art Institute, or this YouTube video (there are several others), and add some smiles to your day.

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I'm a big science fiction fan, but picky, and slow to find new authors. Once I find one I like, I hunt down everything I can find. That's why I was stunned, last time I was in the wonderful Women and Children First bookstore, to find this book.

Suzette Haden Elgin is a linguist as well as a novelist, and her books Native Tongue and The Judas Rose reflect that study. In these books Elgin describes a future world where women are oppressed to the extent that they are only valued for the children they can bear and for their surprising linguistic talents--needed to communicate with the technology-rich aliens who have come to trade with the people of Earth. These two books chart the women's realization that creating their own language would essentially create a new reality; ultimately the invention of Laadan enables the women to get a degree of independence from their men.

In the third book, Earth Song, which was published in 1994, but which I only discovered last month, the planet is facing catastrophe because the aliens, who were responsible for Earth's tremendous technological advancement, have abruptly departed. They have left their gadgets behind, but nobody understands how they work, and they are bound to start falling apart. Entire economies that had been based on trade with the aliens are shattered. Nobody understands why the aliens have left.

This novel speculates on the "inevitability" of human violence in some very entertaining ways. It is perhaps not as cohesive as the first two books, but it was lovely to be back in the world of a very thoughtful and interesting writer.

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05 July 2007


Talking with my friend Ellen recently, she brought up this movie, which I thought I had seen, but realized I may have been mixing up with A Man for All Seasons, which has similar themes. So I added it to my Netflix list and nudged it up the queue, and Victor and I watched it last night.

They sure don't make movies like this anymore. Based on the play by Jean Anouilh, it is a lot more verbose than anything contemporary, providing the actors with some really meaty speeches. Which both stars, Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, are very good at performing.

The homoerotic subtext--really subplot, since there was nothing particularly hidden about it--makes parts of the movie seem a bit campy today and it's pretty long, at about two and a half hours; however, Burton's performance is a standout. Any impatience disappears when he's on screen.

Worth seeing? Yes. But I'm not sure it would be worth seeing again.

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High School

I had a miserable time in high school. Not during the high school years--because I was lucky enough to have access to other social spheres where I didn't feel like quite such an outcast--but in high school itself I felt fortunate if I had a single friend at a time. I was a member of no clique; the most fun I had in high school was in class. It is certain of my teachers who I remember with the most fondness.

That tells you something.

So I've not gone to any of the high school reunions, not the 10th, 15th, 20th, or (most recently) 25th; I could never imagine what I would have to say to these people. But this year's reunion was capped by the start of a Yahoo group, which I joined out of curiosity. And soon became rather addicted. The brief bios, musings, and reminiscences of those who had been among the most popular of my year interested me because they seemed actually like pretty nice, thoughtful, intelligent adults. (Not at all as I had remembered them.) I started to wonder what defect in me had made me feel so separate from these folks in high school. I felt excluded, but maybe I had excluded myself.

When I shared this thought with Victor, he issued a swift corrective: high school students are stupid. Don't be so hard on yourself.

And then I ventured to the Photos section of the Yahoo group where someone had posted photos from back then and the sight of a few of those young faces gave me a nearly physical reaction. And I thought how lurking on the Yahoo group, I was an outsider all over again. I had nothing to reminisce about with these people. Their memories were very different from mine. The bittersweetness of nostalgia had become much more bitter than sweet.

So I unsubscribed. The class of '82 can manage without me.

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03 July 2007

Throw Like a Girl

I am not sure I have ever done this before: read a review in the New York Times Book Review and then ordered the book. Certainly I've bought books I've heard good things about, but usually there's more of a delay between the hearing about and the buying.

I find the stories in this book not just good, but inspiring. And soon will be off to find every other book that Jean Thompson ever wrote...

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29 June 2007


A picture from our fall 2006 stay in London (hover your mouse over the Regents' Park thumbnail).

Don't remember whether Victor or I took this picture; the camera changed hands rapidly that day.

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The Aviator

Well, I enjoyed learning about Howard Hughes, about whom I knew almost nothing, but I found this a very strange movie--all shiny surfaces and not terribly pleasant to watch. A lapse for Scorcese, I think. More like a DePalma movie in its fascination with surfaces.

And I didn't know what to think of Cate Blanchett's impersonation of Katherine Hepburn. I can't remember when I've seen anything so odd. And why doesn't anybody in this movie visibly age (the story covers about 20 years)?

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28 June 2007


Istvan Szabo is one of my favorite directors. His most famous movie is probably Mephisto, which won the best foreign film Oscar in 1982. Last night I saw Sunshine, which I have seen before, but so long ago that I no longer remembered the details (a great time to watch a good movie again). After some Internet searching I find that this epic story of four generations of the Sonnenschein family used elements from the lives of several prominent Hungarian Jews, including George Soros and a post-WW1 fencing champion named Attila Petschauer, who died in a Ukrainian labor camp during WW2.

Ralph Fiennes plays three of the major characters: a young lawyer who becomes a prominent judge under the Austro-Hungarian empire (he changes his name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian-sounding Sors to advance in his career), his son the fencing champion (he converts to Catholicism in order to be able to compete with the best fencers), and the fencing champion's son (the film's narrator), who survives seeing his father tortured and killed in a concentration camp. Fiennes does a phenomenal job. Certainly you can't forget that the same guy is playing three characters, but he makes those characters distinct enough that you don't feel like it's a gimmick--rather, you feel there's a strong family resemblance.

Great performances also from Jennifer Ehle, who plays the narrator's grandmother, Valerie, as a younger woman, and Rosemary Harris (Ehle's mother in real life) who plays Valerie as an older woman--a character who seems to have survived all the great events of history unscathed.

At three hours, it's a long movie, but it covers about a hundred years. Regardless of length, it's one of those movies that completely absorbs you, that you live in for days afterward. All movies should be like this.

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27 June 2007

Gibberish 101

In class yesterday we learned about gibberish. You would think there is not much to learn about gibberish--just open your vocal chords and flap your lips--but in fact it is not so simple. Compelling gibberish must be backed by emotion, and ideally you have meaningful phrases in mind as you utter meaningless ones. You might want your gibberish to sound like a particular foreign language; certainly you want to appear in all other respects to be saying meaningful things.

There is something liberating about spouting gibberish but like all things in improv, what seems like complete freedom works better when you throw some structure around it (e.g., specific emotion and mental translation). Otherwise after a while you feel lost: emoting hard, but not getting anywhere.

Today, though, out shopping, I found myself singing (softly) in gibberish, and there was nothing lost about it. Just delightful. I suppose it's like scat singing: the music is itself the structure.

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26 June 2007

The Accidental

This novel by Ali Smith was an interesting read about what happens to a family when a stranger walks in the door and weaves herself into their lives. At first different family members assume Amber, or Alhambra, is connected to someone else in the family, but by the time they figure out their assumption is incorrect, she's embedded.

I enjoyed the characterizations of the two adolescent children, but was not entirely persuaded by the characterizations of the adults. Some of the incidents seemed like the author was trying too hard to make a nice metaphor real. Still, it was a good read.

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Victor was tired of all the super-serious stuff we've been getting on Netflix lately, so I shuffled our list a bit and brought Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to the top.

It turned out to be quite a disappointment. The brouhaha about the tremendous CGI achievements in this movie would be more persuasive if the script was less pedestrian. As it is, the actors may as well have been computer generated also.

Looking cool is not enough.

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20 June 2007

Strange Thing

So I was walking down Clark Street, on the way to my Second City class, when a big wind starts, and I catch with the corner of my eye something dark moving from up-left to down-right. Is it a bird? A big-old bug? I look down to my right, which happens to be an apartment house driveway, and see a single black leather glove.

I look up to my left, where there are some spindly trees. And I wonder. Was this glove stuck in a tree half the winter, and then the big wind finally blows it out just now? How would a glove have gotten up in the tree (definitely too spindly to be climbable)?

A mystery.

Of course, I could be completely mistaken: it was a bird or a bug (or a leaf?) that headed off faster than I could catch, but by coincidence, someone dropped a glove as they were getting out of a cab in that driveway, and so the glove happened to be there when I looked in that direction.

Only, who wears leather gloves on a 80 F June day?

Still: a mystery.

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19 June 2007

Nature in the City

Saturday evening, after Victor had been working all day, we went out for a stroll along the lakefront path so I could show Victor the bird sanctuary I found, just south of the golf course. It's all fenced in, but around the back (on the lake side), there's an elevated platform to make it easy to look inside.

We did not see any rare birds--it made us happy to catch sight of a goldfinch--but we were excited to spot a raccoon (Victor saw two of them). First we've seen in Chicago. Looking out at the lake, we saw a tern dive down and catch a fish. Pretty cool!

But a real highlight of the walk was seeing the purple martin houses, with plenty of purple martin traffic.

After sitting by the lake for a while, the skies darkened and we were caught in a fierce thunderstorm. Arrived home thirty minutes later, soaked. And blissed out.

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18 June 2007

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

While Nick Broomfield's documentary can be upsetting, it is not as profoundly disturbing as the (fictionalized) Monster. The documentary is more concerned with the facts of what happened; not so much the deeper causes. The fiction film fleshes out a moving conjecture that connects Aileen's childhood experience of abuse and abandonment with the violence characterizing her adult life. Whether or not there is sufficient factual basis for this conjecture, it is emotionally persuasive.

Still, the documentary is worth seeing, though it offers a predictably depressing view of our justice system as it pertains to capital punishment. One of the most compelling moments is the news, after Broomfield has just interviewed a clearly bonkers Aileen (she's convinced that "sound pressure" is being applied in her cell to affect her mind, and that the cops had identified her after the first murder, but wanted her to kill more men so they could make money from selling her story) that a psychological screening the day before has declared Aileen competent enough to be executed. Broomfield wonders aloud what possibly could be considered incompetence, if Aileen is competent.

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The Lives of Others

Shortly before the Academy Awards, we saw this German movie, which subsequently won the Oscar for best foreign film.

Deservedly. Can I say deservedly even though I didn't see the other candidates? Perhaps they were also deserving. Still, I think: yes.

This is an extraordinary movie that captures a time and place in which you had to take care with every word and act because someone might be watching.

In fact, someone was always watching.

The movie equally focuses on the watcher and the watched, rendering the watch-er human to us, while the watch-ee becomes human to the watcher. We see the sad results of failures of nerve, but also the possibility of transcending an immoral society via small moral acts. It's a virtue of this movie that it makes you hopeful about human nature without also worrying you about its naivety. On the contrary, The Lives of Others often feels almost grim and does not shrink from bad news.

The surprise is that bad news isn't all there is.

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Bury the Chains

A couple months ago I read Bury the Chains, as I anticipated earlier this year, after seeing Amazing Grace, which centered around William Wilbeforce.

This was a really good nonfiction account of the abolition of the British slave trade, and traces the beginnings of all sorts of tools and techniques used by grassroots social change movements that we take for granted today: petitions, direct mail, newsletters, lectures and demonstrations, boycotts. The book makes you feel the courage and vision of the key players in this achievement and gives hope that such things remain possible.

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House of Sand and Fog, the Movie

This is a movie I wish I could say better things about. I mean, I can say pretty good things about it: great acting, terrific cultural contrasts depicted, good dialogue. Sad, but good: the buildup of a difficult-to-resolve conflict between basically decent people working toward mutually exclusive goals.

But the end just ruined it for me. A teenage boy's idea of tragedy, fed by Macbeth, or Hamlet: ratchet up the conflict (bound up in "fatal flaws"), compound by malevolent happenstance, and then have everyone die.


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