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.

Filed in:

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)?

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.

Filed in:

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.


Filed in:

16 June 2007

War and Peace, the (Russian) Movie

A couple of weeks ago, when my friend Ellen was visiting, we went to see the Russian War and Peace. About seven hours in four installments, which we took in on three different days. War and Peace (novel) fans out there really shouldn't miss the opportunity to see this movie. It is pretty perfect, with casting that jibes exactly with your imaginings of what these characters should look/be like.

Of course it doesn't include every Tolstoyan subplot, but for the plotlines it includes, the movie is utterly faithful. Director and star Sergei Bondarchuk really achieved something phenomenal.

Although the last 20 minutes or so of Part 4 is pretty lousy. Still, out of 400-odd minutes, that's not bad.

500 Clown Macbeth

I was nearly 40 before I realized how much I love clowns. Not Bozos--clowns via greasepaint and padded costumes and innocuous balloons--but clowns who are verbally as well as visually absurd. Clowns who try to solve problems with obvious solutions that they just can't see.

This show consists of a trio of earnest and bumbling clowns tasked with putting on a production of Macbeth. Suffice it to say that things don't go as planned. But in spite of an array of distractions and physical catastrophes, the show--by its close--manages to evoke the main themes of Shakespeare's play: ambition, goaded into murder, and finally remorse.

Not bad for a bunch of clowns.

This show is visiting the Steppenwolf stage through the rest of June and most of July. Click here for the Steppenwolf calendar.

Filed in:

15 June 2007

Midnight's Children

Well, it took me about a month to finish this book that I've been meaning to read for more than 20 years. Was it worth it?

I guess. But after all that effort, I wasn't so thrilled. I've seen Rushdie talk a few times and this book doesn't have his charm, though it's plenty ambitious. Maybe too ambitious. It rather wears its ambition on its sleeve, so that you can't forget you're reading An Ambitious Novel.

Finally, after all the buildup, I found it anticlimactic. But there were plenty of good moments, and I certainly increased my knowledge of Indian history (not hard, since I know so little about it).

But I think I liked Fury better.

Filed in:


What a disturbing movie. Really good, but hard to go to sleep afterwards, and woke up thinking about it this morning. I know it's going to become one of those movies I wish I could forget. The documentary is next on our Netflix list...

Filed in:

11 June 2007

Bunny Haven

Victor and I rode our bikes downtown to the Printer's Row book festival on Saturday; it was my first time there and I really got a kick out of being part of a big crowd of people interested in books.

We rode back through Grant Park and visited Millennium Park, too (where you're not allowed to ride); when you leave Millennium Park via the BP bridge you land on this plaza that is just FULL of bunnies! Just sitting around on the lawns, placidly eating grass. We saw a baby bunny, too.

Perfect way to end the day.

Filed in:

Ocean's Thirteen

Saw this last night, in spite of reading a very bad review somewhere. In fact, the movie met our expectations exactly: very sharp, shallow, and enjoyable con artist movie. Good jokes, hard to keep the caper straight, a lot of attractive actors having fun.

Just what you want in a summer movie.

Filed in:

Chicago Botanic Garden

Victor took a few hours off on Friday and we drove a ZipCar up to the Chicago Botanic Garden for the first time. We liked it so much, we joined, but we sure wish it was more convenient to the city. It's a beautiful, tranquil place. Easy to let go of daily worries there.

Filed in:

Carbide and Carbon Adventure

We were showing our friend Ellen around Chicago last weekend and were passing the beautiful Carbide and Carbon building on North Michigan Avenue. (The building is now the Hard Rock Hotel.) We went inside to look at the beautiful elevator lobby, and then Victor suggested we go upstairs.

The inside of the elevator was not as beautiful as the outside, but it was still worth going to the top floor. To our surprise, floor 37 (if I remember the number correctly) was completely gutted and littered with construction debris. You'd have thought they'd have prevented the elevator from stopping there.

Aside from a mess, though, what the top floor had was windows: we stepped over the junk and peered out at Chicago's gorgeous downtown. Even the Thompson Center looked good--I wonder if the original design passed muster because an architect's maquette would have really emphasized this top view--you don't really look at a maquette at ground level.

Anyway, don't know how long it will last (or how long it will be before the Hard Rock management figures out they may have a safety issue), but for now a great, free place for fabulous downtown views.

Filed in: