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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