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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