Earlier this summer, a French film called Eden was released that explored the DJ culture of the times in a fascinating and heartfelt way that was less about spinning records and more about establishing interesting characters whose lives and fates we actually grew to care about. And while it's usually fairly easy for me to shut out all other films while I'm watching a new one, as I was viewing the rather stale We Are Your Friends, my mind kept taking me back to the far more interesting Eden. I guess context matters sometimes.
Where We Are Your Friends fares better is in painting a portrait of "the Valley," or San Fernando Valley, located on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. There's a culture there that seems ripe for exploration and first-time director Max Joseph (who co-wrote with Meaghan Oppenheimer) does a credible job of walking us through this slight obtuse place, as seen through the eyes of would-be DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who has enough raw talent to make it big; whether he's willing to do what he has to do to succeed — including sell out for big money — is another question. The film also does a solid job explaining how much actual composition (via computer) goes into a DJ's track. It's no longer about mixing with two turntables; it's about creating something new out of something old to the point where you don't recognize the elements and only hear the new music.
Peter Skvara's exhibition Approaches, which consists of enamel paintings on mesh, and a collection of debris entitled "Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan, and Derelict" is now on display at the Andrew Rafacz Gallery in River West. The paintings are based on flag semaphores used for communication between ships, and their meanings are repeated in the titles. Some of the paintings depict significations that might be seen together such as "I Am Drifting / Will You Give Me My Position" (2015, enamel on mesh). Other pieces, however, take on different, stranger meaning as assemblages of statements. One painting reads, "You are Running the Risk of Going Aground / I am Going Ahead"--a callous expression to one in need.
The gallery's press release for the Approaches exhibit mentions beauty and the sublime tied up in the idea of a ship on the infinite expanse of the overwhelming sea. Another way for the sublime to appear, however, is through the striving to generate perfection in the precise lines of the semaphores, which nonetheless reveal the human touch made more palpable in the method of painting as opposed to screen printing.
Mark Ulrich and Martin Yurek. Photo by Michael Brosilow
If you're a news junkie who enjoys being immersed in fascinating facts about our political and criminal history, then I have a theater recommendation for you. Assassination Theater: Chicago's Role in the Crime of the Century spells out in rapid-fire data points how we have been misled all these years about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. And that of his brother Robert five years later.
Journalist Hillel Levin, who has explored the activities of the Chicago Outfit before, has created a gripping two-hour-plus documentary-style production that details the assassination and its aftermath, including an autopsy that was covered up by the White House and FBI leadership. Their goal was to confirm the single-bullet, single-crazed-shooter story and to keep the American people from thinking that a conspiracy was involved.
While most horror film sequels are content to pick up the remains of the previous film and give audiences the laziest rehash of what we've seen and jumped at before, I'll give the makers of Sinister 2 points for at least taking us in an entirely new direction with its chronicle of the further demonic adventures of Bhughul, who terrorizes entire families via old home movies. It's a variation on the found footage theme, in which the characters in the film are the ones watching the found footage, and it's literally leading most of them to their death.
Once again working from a script from Sinister director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, Sinister 2 is directed by relative newcomer Ciarán Foy, whose 2012 Citadel is easily one of the creepiest, most anxiety-inducing films of that year (the same year of Sinister, I should add).
Nineteen sculptures by Chicago-born sculptor Charles Ray fill three large galleries on the second floor of the Art Institute's Modern Wing through October 4. Most of the pieces are figurative and tell their own stories, like "Sleeping Woman," a life-size stainless steel carving of a homeless woman sleeping on a bench. But a few are shockingly not figurative and two of the figurative ones have already shocked museum curators.
"Unpainted Sculpture" (1997, fiberglass and paint) is a faithful reconstruction of a crushed 1991 Pontiac Grand Am. Ray searched for the right wrecked car -- not too wrecked -- and then had it taken apart so that each piece could be constructed of fiberglass and then assembled as a car. Several people spent five days reassembling the sculpture in the Modern Wing gallery.
Patrese McClain and Shane Kenyon. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Three couples, three bedrooms and a conference call. That's the scenario. It's two hours of pillow talk (and pillow shouting) among people who are trying to get their needs and desires met, but keep running into complications. Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight, the new sexy comedy at the Windy City Playhouse, is a comic farce with a coarse edge. Noel Coward it isn't.
The two-hour play from the script by Peter Ackerman is funny and vulgar but the vulgarity is all verbal; the actors are in some stage of love-making under the covers, but there's no nudity. Director Peter Brown tightly directs the six actors and their timing is perfect throughout. The funny lines pop and snap.
Briana Finegan and Nora Bingham in "The Applicant." Photo by Ariela Subar.
I've attended a few short-play productions, where works of 10-15 minutes each purport to capture or represent another work of art or event. Most of them are unsuccessful in staging works of substance, plot or character.
That's not the case in First Floor Theater's Third Annual Litfest, Kafkapalooza. Eight different playwrights dramatize or "are inspired by" one of the stories of Franz Kafka, the late great Czech storyteller, who tried to keep his unpublished works from being published after his death. Fortunately, Max Brod, Kafka's literary executor, ignored his wishes. And so we have a play such as "The Applicant" by Amanda Fink, inspired by the story, "Poseidon," as well as "Justice for All" by Karen Kessler, inspired by "The Penal Colony," and "Red Right Hand" by Ike Holter, inspired by Kafka's best-known story, "The Metamorphosis." (The latter two stories were published during Kafka's lifetime. My knowledge of Kafka's publishing history is enhanced by my serendipitous purchase of a used copy of Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories at the Printer's Row Lit Fest in June.)
In this production about two well-off middle aged ladies from Connecticut who travel to India to find some healing for the tragedies that have befallen them, there is a surprising amount of humor. Margaret, played by Elaine Carlson, and Kitty, played by Jeanne Affelder, are unknowingly protected in their travels by the beloved elephant-headed Indian god, Ganesha, played by Michael Harris. The handful of other characters in the play are all played by Phil Higgins.
Phil Higgins at various times is a Dutch stranger, the husband to both of the main characters, the dead sons of both of the main characters, a puppeteer, a young man dying of aids, a Bronx accented flight attendant, a leper, a sassy hotel porter and a stressed out airline employee. He switches between the roles with ease, sometimes playing it comical, sometimes moving. Although it is impressive to see the range of characters Higgins is capable of, his youth sometimes worked against him, making him seem slightly off for the role, as in the first scene where he played a distant wealthy pipe smoking husband. Nevertheless, he provides some much-needed levity throughout the show.
In an era when we're getting James Bond films with actual backstories and continuity, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might feel like a bit of a throwback to action-heavy spy movies that feel low stakes even when the stakes are supposedly quite high. But this is the place where director Guy Ritchie thrives, where the men believe they are in charge but the women hold the reigns because they're smarter. The setting for U.N.C.L.E. is the early 1960s, a particularly frigid period in the Cold War, but a fantastic time for fashion, music and a global enemy you could really hate, all of which factor into this tale of two super-spies forced by their respective agencies to team up to defeat a common enemy attempting to buy a few nuclear weapons and actually use them.
Based on the popular television series of the same name, starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the new The Man from U.N.C.L.E. brings in two almost exaggeratedly manly men — Man of Steel's Henry Cavill as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and The Lone Ranger's Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin of the KGB — who initially clash when Solo sneaks into Russian-controlled East Germany to rescue Gaby (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina), the daughter of an important German nuclear scientist who may hold the key to finding her father, who may or may not be willingly working for this mystery criminal organization buying nukes.
I want it, and I want it NOW. And now, there is an app for that, too. Well, kinda sorta. In a culture that has become all too obsessed with instant gratification, Amazon has prevailed once again in delivering its customers a *seemingly* fantastic product, Prime Now.
Now, we can shop from the convenience of our phones, and by the time we get home from work that day, all of our groceries, appliances, clothing and any other worldly goods you can think of will be sitting on our doorsteps. No errand-running required. And it's free. This sounds like something that is too good to be true. In some ways, it is, and in others, it's not.
Pride Films and Plays' new production of The Boy From Oz is an exuberant, splashy musical based on the songs and story of Peter Allen, the Australian songwriter and entertainer, whose life became intertwined with Judy Garland's and Liza Minnelli's.
Chris Logan plays Allen (he's onstage constantly for the two-and-a-half-hour show) and heads a cast of 18 actors, singers and dancers. David Zak's skillful direction of this sort-of-bioplay is greatly enhanced by well-choreographed dance numbers and great costumes, courtesy of Cameron Turner (choreography) and John Nasca (costume design). A six-member band makes the music come alive.
The goal of any film based on a comic book (or novel or stage play or television series, etc.) is not to be as much like the source material as possible; the mission should always be to be as cinematic as possible, which means combining competent storytelling with the visual medium. So the fact that this new take on Fantastic Four is based on Marvel's Ultimate comics take on the team doesn't mean squat if the final product is poorly paced, generic superhero garbage. Director Josh Trank's previous film, Chronicle, was an ambitious and creative alternate take on both the superhero mythology and the found-footage storytelling device. And with Fantastic Four, Trank (who also co-wrote with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) appears to have retreated (or been forced to retreat) into a style of storytelling that is so ordinary and predictable that one has to wonder why he was hired to take on this iconic group in the first place.
I'll give the film points for not being the same lightweight, jokey take on the team that director Tim Story thought was appropriate 10 years ago, but what we've got instead isn't much better. One of the strangest things about Fantastic Four is that it feels like it's missing a reel. After spending a ridiculous amount of time giving us this new version of the origin story, the team has exactly one massive fight sequence, and then the film is over. It genuinely feels like something got lost in the editing room, not that I'm in any way suggesting that the film is too short, but at only a 100-minute running time (including credits) you have to question the abruptness of the final act.
Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz, Matt Fletcher, Norm Woodel, Nate Whelden and Katy Carolina Collins. Photo by DEF.
Early in Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, Konstantin, the tortured artist playwright, laments the need for new expression in theater: "... to my mind, the modern theater is nothing but tradition and conventionality." I mused about that speech during Sideshow Theatre's Stupid Fucking Bird and decided Konstantin would have liked this production, even though Con, his counterpart, is still raging about the need for new expression in theater.
You might think Aaron Posner's 2013 script, Stupid Fucking Bird, is kind of a modernization of Chekhov's original. The seven characters are kind of related to the Russian originals. The story line sort of follows Chekhov's. A seagull appears in different forms throughout the play. But the language, costumes, attitudes and pop music interludes make it an entirely different show.
I'm not quite sure how Tom Cruise has managed to pull it off with this franchise (the first entry of which marked his first time credited as producer), but it feels like each new Mission: Impossible movie is better than the last — not by leaps and bounds, mind you, but the course correction is just enough that this fifth film, Rogue Nation, finally feels damn near perfect. Nearly every aspect of the film feels stronger as both a pure action exercise and a intricate spy thriller with psychological tension to spare.
A great deal of the credit has to fall to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who previously directed The Way of the Gun, but more importantly has written scripts for Cruise, including fantastic ones for Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow. The film feels both familiar and new, thanks to a handful of returning faces (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and recent Impossible Mission Force addition William Brandt, played by Jeremy Renner), and first-timer Sean Harris as a whispery, truly menacing villain Lane, who heads up a secret counter-IMF agency known as the Syndicate made up of rogue (believed dead) spies from all over the world. Lane is particularly menacing o Cruise's Ethan Hunt because he seems to have the uncanny ability to predict every move and counter-move the IMF agents will make, and he plans accordingly, sometimes getting them to do his bidding without them realizing it.
Feast, the new production by the Albany Park Theater Project and Goodman Theatre, is indeed a feast of color, sounds, cuisines and ethnicities, celebrating Chicago's diverse food culture. It's totally appropriate that it comes to us from Albany Park, one of Chicago's most diverse neighborhoods. Feast tells the stories of how food, its paucity and its plenty, plays a role in family lives and celebrations.
The Albany Park Theater Project, a multiethnic youth theater ensemble, first mounted the show in 2010. This year's revival is based on additional research by company members and is staged in the round for the first time, which helps to create a communal atmosphere.
Directed by APTP artistic director David Feiner, the lively 90-minute production begins in a world marketplace where the 25 performers sing and perform percussive dances. Other scenes move to a farm in the Philippines where we learn about a boy and his cow. (The young actors use their sound effects enthusiastically to narrate the life of the cow and the boy.) Then the acrobatic Meena cavorts with her shopping cart in a supermarket as she spends her LINK card, and the brainy Maia fills out the family application for food stamps (with the help of a big dictionary).
Casey Edwards and Guadalupe Bollas. Photo courtesy ATC.
A political massacre that took place 36 years ago in another state is being dramatized with power and feeling by a cast of 11 Chicago high school students at the American Theater Company. The young actors deliver the story of the 1979 Greensboro, NC, massacre with chilling signifiers of its 21st century relevance.
Greensboro: A Requiem is the current production of the ATC Youth Ensemble, directed by Kelly O'Sullivan, from the documentary script by Emily Mann. Ensemble members visited Greensboro, the third largest city in North Carolina, to do research and interview some of the people involved. They also researched the history of the Ku Klux Klan, investigated police complicity in events, and watched videos of the actual Greensboro massacre, recorded by local news crews at the time.
I've only been in the Hancock Tower once and I never thought it would be to visit an art gallery, but hey, there's a first for everything. Amused, I found myself inside the swarm of tourists and photographers who posed and smiled near a colossal sculpture that hung low from the ceiling in the lobby. In order to enter the space, I had to stop at the security desk where my driver's license was scanned and I was handed a slip with a barcode that granted me access through a futuristic gate. Once the door swung open I entered the elevator, free at last to look at art. I felt underdressed and out of place as I tiptoed quite dramatically to the glass doors of the Richard Gray Gallery.
Founded in the 1960s, the gallery has been a prominent and important creative hub for artists at both locations in Chicago and New York. The gallery is "collector orientated" and focuses on the importance of fine art, authenticity, and quality. Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jan Tichy, and Jaume Plensa, are some examples of artists who are represented by the Richard Gray Gallery.
Installation Image, courtesy of Richard Gray Gallery
The newest exhibition, Body Building, which opened July 6, is located down the hall from the main gallery room, which features works by Susan Rothenberg and David Hockney. Body Building, curated by Gan Uyeda and Raven Munsell, presents works from the 1900s until present day and focus on the relationship between the physical human form and the way that it is viewed through an architectural lens. The works in the exhibition date from 1917 to 2012, and display a variety of mediums and materials, such as wax, ink, wool, crayon, and collage.
Hello, everyone. Due to some time-consuming, film festival-related travel this week, I was unable to get to press screenings of/review the new Adam Sandler video-game action comedy Pixels or the latest film adaptation from author John (The Fault in Our Stars) Green, Paper Towns. I'm sure you're all busted up about not hearing me wax poetic about either, but there are still plenty of juicy titles to select from this weekend. Enjoy.
I won't lie: I cringed when I saw the the new Antoine Fuqua-directed boxing drama Southpaw had its lead character — a white boxer played by Jake Gyllenhaal — with the name of Billy Hope. Seriously? I'm assuming this was a selection made my the film's writer, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter. The decision is so subtle, I'm shocked that Billy didn't have "Great White Me" tattooed on his back. As it turns out, this little boxing movie cliché is one of so many I lost count about halfway through, which doesn't mean the film is terrible; it's just familiar to a fault.
Usually, the Mainstage Theater is where you go for a quintessential Second City experience with the ensemble's "varsity team" of seasoned veterans. Currently, it's home to Panic on Cloud 9, a perfectly serviceable two hours of comedy. However, the best sketch show of 2015 is actually in the E.T.C. Theater, where the ostensible "JV team" is knocking it out of the park in their 39th revue, Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?.
The Museum of Contemporary Art is continuing its bold approach of exploring the confluence of the visual arts with other creative forms. The newly opened exhibit, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Chicago's experimental jazz collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which continues to expand the boundaries of jazz.
The exhibit, which opened July 11 and fills the museum's fourth floor galleries, is made up of several major installations and walls of vivid paintings that reflect the color and life of music. Many archival materials, such as photos, posters, record jackets, banners and brochures, establish a rich historical context.
As I said in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the way my assessment of Marvel's films of late seems to have fallen is that I love the material that is new and cares nothing for where we have been or where we are going in what we're all calling the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the characters are addressing the danger in front of them or talking amongst themselves about issues relevant to the movie at hand (as opposed to several movies down the line), things tend to work. Lucky for us, the studio's latest effort Ant-Man was originally conceived as a stand-alone work by original writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. Perhaps Marvel's attempts to integrate Ant-Man (the movie and the character) into the greater Marvel world were what drove Wright off the project (he and Cornish get a story credit and share writing credit with reworkers Adam McKay and the film's star, Paul Rudd), but the outside-world intrusions are minimal — limited mostly to a few lines of dialogue mentioning the Avengers, SHIELD and Hydra, as well as one beautifully placed mid-film showdown Ant-Man has with a known entity that will forever link him to the bigger world of superheroes (and of course, make sure to stick around until after the credits).
Goodrich and Goodman. Photo courtesy of Ring of Fire Chicago LLC
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, now extended through August at the Mercury Theatre on Southport, deserves to be called a jukebox musical. It's a rousing evening of Johnny Cash's music--some 30 songs by Cash and other songwriters--performed by a talented band of Chicago musicians. It's a musical tribute with almost no storyline to complicate the musical evening.
The Cash persona is most ably performed by Kent M. Lewis, who really sounds like Cash and almost inhabits his personality. He serves as a narrative voice too, particularly when Michael Monroe Goodman portrays the younger Cash. Sometimes the distinction between the two Johnnys isn't clear. But both are outstanding singers and musicians.
With a title like Grand Concourse (named after the Bronx's largest thoroughfare), you might expect Steppenwolf's newest production to be massive in scope and scale. Instead, Heidi Schreck's (Nurse Jackie) brisk, funny play features a small cast in a tiny church soup kitchen, and an intimate look at the relativity of suffering and the versatility of love.
It starts out like a '70s British working class film, but it's set in 2010. The council flat is scruffy and so is its inhabitant, who is on the dole because of a disability. But it soon becomes clear that we're going to dive from social realism into sci-fi and fantasy, because Luke (Curtis Edward Jackson) is a genius and he's built a time machine.
Brilliant Adventures, the grim and grimly funny new Steep Theatre production, was written by Alistair McDowall and directed by Robin Witt. It was first performed in Manchester in 2011 and won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting. It is a deeply classist play that explores the lives of those who live in Middlesbrough, a failed industrial city on the River Tees in northeast England.
The ideas behind a stand-alone Minions movie are solid. Behind every big bad in the world throughout time, there have been little yellow followers who are more than eager to help out, even though most of the time they end up hindering or even accidentally killing their boss, often doing more good than harm. They started out helping out a nasty T-Rex and moved their way through history from cavemen to vampires to Napoleon up to more recent examples, like the ones you might be familiar with in the two Despicable Me films. Most of Minions is set in the 1960s, when the Minions find out about a convention in Orlando for villains of all shapes and sizes, and what better place to find a new boss than Villain-Con?
The main attraction at the con is an appearance by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first female super-villain — although she doesn't really do anything all that terrible during the course of the film, not for lack of trying. She has a himbo husband named Herb (Jon Hamm), who adds very little to the proceedings. Scarlet is at the convention to find a new evil support team, and naturally the Minions step up to compete for her attention and affection. The problem is, once the film settles in on this particular storyline, it becomes clear that there isn't much to support a Minions movie at all, thanks to a paper-thin screenplay from Brian Lynch (who also wrote Hop and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets).
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a Chekhov parody, but Christopher Durang's play set in an old farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, could have been set in a dacha in the Russian countryside. It retains much of the melancholy of Chekhov's dissatisfied characters.
Steve Scott's new Goodman Theatre production is funny and charming and much of its wit rests on the many theatrical references and stage in-jokes (fond references to Chekhov and Greek tragedies, and to theater masters such as Stanislavski and Meisner). In addition, monologues by three of its characters are compelling and humorous set pieces.
The plot centers on three 50-something siblings, all named for Chekhovian characters.
"It's been our cross to bear, that our parents gave us names from Chekhov plays. The other children made such fun of us," says Vanya (Ross Lehman). "Such was the burden of having professor parents.... Father was so angry when you didn't know something. But what 7-year-old knows who wrote The Imaginary Invalid? Father was enraged when I said Neil Simon."
Well that was exhausting. Our old pals are back, still attempting save the world from nuclear annihilation, still going over and over the same set of events and place in recorded history that began more than 30 years ago in James Cameron's The Terminator and continued seven years later (by our calendar) in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. By the way, for those counting and those I can't discourage from seeing the latest installment, Terminator Genisys (the fourth sequel), it certain helps keep things in the new film straight if you've given yourself a refresher viewing of the first two films. In fact, the makers of Genisys seem to have taken the scripts from the first two films and written over parts of them in crayon, then cut and pasted whole sequences into each other to come up with the newest version of folks from the future protecting and/or attempting to kill Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke from "Game of Thrones" stepping in for Linda Hamilton).
What distinguishes contemporary faith from the traditional? It's often the ability to ask questions, to explore how meanings have changed, while still maintaining respect for its beliefs. That's the question explored in Victory Gardens Theater's new play.
The Who and the What is a smart, funny play about a conservative Pakistani-American family and their attempts to come to grips with modern realities while maintaining respect for tradition. Playwright Ayad Akhtar has written believable characters who fight articulately about what they believe in. Director Ron O J Parsons has crafted a thought-provoking and moving play with Akhtar's four characters.
Two sisters--Zarina (Susaan Jamshidi) and Mahwish (Minita Gandhi)--discuss their love lives or lack thereof as Zarina prepares dinner. Zarina is a writer, currently fighting writer's block as she tries to finish her novel about "gender politics." She won't talk about the book, but admits that it's about women and Islam. Her younger sister is engaged but knows she shouldn't marry before her older sister.
I think I have a fairly foolproof way to determine if you'll like sequel to the unexpected 2012 hit Ted, the film that paired Mark Wahlberg and a foul-mouth, pothead teddy bear voiced by "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane (who also directed and co-wrote). Whatever your reaction to Ted was, that will likely be your reaction to Ted 2, which expands the mythology of the character a bit and even finds a way (some might say, appropriately) to equate Ted's struggle to be given the same rights as a person (to marry, adopt, hold a job, and presumably donate organs) to current headlines about marriage equality struggles and other civil rights concerns. Ted and his human pal John (Wahlberg) still manage to have lewd and crude adventures in their quest to get the bear his rights, and they offend pretty much everyone they come into contract with in the process.
The film opens with Ted and girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) getting married and asking John to donate sperm for their baby (after a failed attempt to "steal" a sample from Tom Brady is thwarted by Tom Brady). Shortly after John has gallons of semen dumped on him (all in the name of a single stupid punchline) at the fertility clinic, the feds decide that since he's not human, Ted's marriage isn't real and he can't legally be the father of the baby. He is, in fact, property; something that his old nemesis Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) is planning to take advantage of with the help of the toy company that made Ted (led by John Carroll Lynch). Donny wants to reclaim Ted for Hasbro, so they can see what makes him tick in the hopes of manufacturing more talking, thinking, feeling toys just like him.
Abelson and Fleming as Ishmael and Queequeg. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Lookingglass Theatre's new production of Moby Dick gives a modern infusion of energy and fluidity to Herman Melville's 19th century whaling tale. The sprawling 700-page novel is smartly encapsulated into a two-and-three-quarter hour play without losing any of its sense of awe and terror at the power of the great sea creature sought by the monomaniacal Captain Ahab. David Catlin's adaptation and direction are both superlative and his dialogue retains much of Melville's poetic language.
Lookingglass's black box theater in the old Water Works on Michigan Avenue becomes the interior of a great whale with steel hoops extending from stage rear to the top of the theater. You really feel you're in the belly of the beast. Ropes, rafts and pulleys are manipulated by the excellent cast of seven seamen plus three actors who become characters as well as forces of nature, as the script requires.
Keith Neagle (Nat), Jodi Kingsley (Diane), and Emily Nichelson (Julia). Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Though well-known as a 1963 Alfred Hitchcock film, the story of killer birds attacking people and running amok actually comes from a novelette written by British author Daphne du Maurier in the early 1950s. Du Maurier's work is the inspiration for Conor McPherson's stage adaptation, The Birds, which makes its Chicago premiere this month at the Griffin Theatre Company.
The first question, invariably, that anyone would pose, is how do they depict the birds? If you were hoping for the campy spectacle of taxidermied crows dangling from the rafters by fishing line, terrorizing the actors, you're out of luck here. Instead, director Kevin Kingston opts to portray the titular birds off-stage, with sound and light. It's a choice all but necessitated by the medium, and it fits with this version of the story, as this isn't a madcap struggle against dive-bombing seagulls, but a No Exit-esque cabin fever drama.
A friend of mine said something interesting after watching the latest understated Pixar masterpiece, Inside Out: "This film could actually help people." And I don't think he meant that the emotion-based story might brighten people's day. I didn't give his prediction much thought until many hours later — and after hearing the many children in the audience talk to their parents about who their favorite emotion character was — but when I considered it, I realized that with just one screening, I could imagine kids opening up about and understanding their feelings, giving them a visual representation of what goes on in their heads when they get mad at a situation or person. I envision a 9-year-old noticing that Lewis Black's Anger character or Bill Hader's Fear is getting the best of them, and maybe allowing it to happen or making sure that Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) wins the day.
But the more I thought about it, I realized that the film might also inspire adults — particularly parents — to reconsider they way children's minds operate. As simple as the Pixar team (led by director and co-writer Peter Docter, who also helmed Up and Monsters Inc.) make the processes of the brain appear, there's also a great complexity and occasional darkness at play. Examine the brilliant trip that Joy and Sadness (Phyllis Smith of "The Office") take into 11-year-old Riley's mental room containing Abstract Thought. I can't think of a single moment in any Pixar movie that has approached getting that obtuse. Or take a look at Riley's closely guarded prison of the Subconscious, where are of her deepest fears are housed.
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Summer Series began in unique fashion June 11. The weekend-long run, and the last show of the company's 2015 season, featured three works by a single choreographer, Alejandro Cerrudo.
Cerrudo is Hubbard Street's first resident choreographer, and the show featured his 14th world premiere for the company sandwiched between two audience favorites. This marked the second time Hubbard Street has devoted an entire show to one artist.
The performance began with Extremely Close, choreographed for Hubbard Street in 2007. It begins with white feathers falling from the sky. I couldn't help but associate those feathers with the movement of the dancers, which at times seemed birdlike. Small motions were fast, sharp and angular, almost peckish in nature. These were offset by sweeping movements and extensions that brought to mind the swooping and grace of a larger bird's flight.
There's no getting around the fact that Jurassic Park changed lives — the lives of those involved with the making of the film, and more importantly, the lives of millions who watched it back in 1993 or in all the years since. And it's very clear from watching the third sequel, Jurassic World, that the original film also had a major impact on co-writer Derek Connolly and director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow (both of whom spruced up a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver). In many ways, Jurassic World plays like the ultimate fan film sprung from conversations in which every sentence began, "What would happen if...?"
For example, "What would happen if the dinosaur-driven theme park on Isla Nublar re-opened a dozen year after the first time all hell broke loose (Jurassic World seems to exist in a world where the first and second sequels don't exist or aren't acknowledged)." "What would happen if people got so used to seeing real-life dinosaurs back on the earth they park scientists had to invent more dangerous species to keep attendance numbers up?" "What would happen if the military suddenly took an interest in using dinosaurs as weapons of war and counter-terrorism?" People come up with wacky shit in this game, don't they?
Ladies and gents, a night out on the town may be in order, and if you want to laugh with your friends until your face hurts, you should take them to a play about an all-male review called Roast Beef and be sure to sit in the first two rows. But be forewarned, there will be a few men in thongs throughout the production, so don't take your out-of-town relatives who want to see what you are up to in the big city. That said, there were a few grandmas in the crowd who were really enjoying themselves, so if they are really fun and open-minded relatives who don't mind frequent references to genitalia in your presence, by all means bring them along.
In the interest of keeping you abreast of the latest worthy film festivals around town, the third annual Justice Film Festival is happening this weekend, June 5-7, at Film Row Cinema at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. The festival includes 12 feature films and seven shorts, kicking off tonight at 9:30pm with a premiere screening of Captive, directed by Jerry Jameson and starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Kate Mara ("House of Cards"). The film is set for release in mid-September.
General admission ($25) and VIP tickets ($55) are currently available for sale at justicefilmfest.com. VIP tickets include reserved seating at all screenings and access to the rooftop premiere party on Saturday, June 6, where attendees will have the opportunity to meet and network with filmmakers, distributors, social entrepreneurs and justice advocates from across the country.
If my memory is still what it was, I remember finding the first three or four seasons of HBO's series "Entourage" really fascinating and, yes, entertaining. As someone who observes and analyzes the byproduct of the world on display in the series from a distance, I was intrigued at this peak behind the curtain known as Fame, in which there seem to be two kinds of people: the players and the hangers on. And pretty much everyone in the second group is desperate to get in the first group.
Eugene Lee (Alexander Ames) and Edgar Sanchez (J). Photo by Liz Lauren.
It's fitting that the Goodman Theatre's production of stop. reset., written and directed by Regina Taylor, coincides with the playwright's 20th season as an Artistic Associate with the theater. Taylor, who has presented a significant breadth of work over that span, here gives us a story that probes the meaning of legacy and integrity, and how to hold onto our memories and accomplishments while remaining receptive to the future and everything that it holds.
stop. reset. concerns a near-future doomsday moment for an African American book publishing company run by the aging Alexander Ames (Eugene Lee). Printed books are finished, his employees, and seemingly the whole world tell him; the focus needs to shift to what's next. The keys to understanding what that may entail lie with an enigmatic teenage janitor, J (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a cyberpunk-y rebel who spends most of his energy tuning in to an elaborate Ghost in the Shell-style virtual network. Moving through this perhaps-not-far-off descendant of today's Internet is like moving through water. Identity, history, and status are all fluid.
If you think too hard about what's really going on in director Brad Peyton's San Andreas, you'll likely realize just how fucked up the plot is. Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a L.A. Fire Department rescue-chopper pilot so daring and effective that when we meet him, he's being interviewed by a reporter (Archie Panjabi of "The Good Wife") about his job...while he's actively rescuing a motorist trapped in her car on the side of a cliff. But when "The Big One" hits the West Coast, Ray focuses all of his rescuing skills on only two people: his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Sure, he saves a few other folks in the process, but that's only because they're in his line of sight while he's attempting to rescue his family. That's messed up, and also wildly entertaining.
AstonRep takes on the challenge of the slashing wit and amoral sexual tensions of the French drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in its new production at Raven Theatre. The play, adapted by Christopher Hampton from the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was set in France, just before the 1789 revolution. AstonRep translates it to 1917 pre-revolutionary Russia, where the aristocracy was considered equally decadent and susceptible to revolution.
The script is notable for the scintillating dialogue and cruel sexual tricks devised by its two leading characters, the Marquise de Merteuil (Sara Pavlak McGuire) and Vicomte de Valmont (Robert Tobin), who conspire to seduce and humiliate three people for their own amusement. McGuire is a devious and beautiful trickster, able to switch from kind and helpful to evil and demonic, as the situation requires. Tobin is almost her match as Valmont, but I really wanted his character to exhibit more menace. He is almost too, dare I say, nice.
There can often be a wide gap between what a storyteller's intentions are and their ability to actually tell the story they set out to tell and get their points across in a way that is clear and meaningful. Clearly, there is no one right way to tell a story, and when we look at the works of writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol), we find some of the most interesting, unique, and emotionally pure means of telling stories about humanity's proclivity for destruction, family, personal expression, and... whatever the Mission: Impossible films are meant to teach us (to overcome our fear of heights, perhaps?).
And it's Bird's precise and near-perfect means of storytelling that made watching his latest film, Tomorrowland, so frustrating. I know exactly what he was going for; he just doesn't quite get there. Or more specifically, he gets there through the most unnecessarily convoluted and confusing path imaginable. In the end, he takes what could have been a tremendous work about embracing intelligence, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and turns it, instead, into something that is aggressively, agonizingly average.
Timeline Theatre's Chicago premiere of Inana by Michele Lowe is a ripped-from-the-headlines love story. And it also reminds us that Americans are sometimes the barbarians at the gates. In this case, the gates of an Iraqi museum of cultural artifacts. Kimberly Senior's direction succeeds in making this a lesson in recent history as well as a memorable personal story.
Yasin Shalid (Demetrios Troy) is chief of the Mosul Museum. He and his arranged bride Shali (Atra Asdou) have just arrived in London on their wedding trip in February 2003. The story moves back and forth between their hotel room and Mosul where Yasin organizes the packing and shipping of cultural and historical artifacts to the National Museum in Baghdad, where steel-lined vaults are buried deep in the ground. The past scenes acquaint us with the back stories of both Yasin and Shali and illustrate the worries of everyday Iraqis about the impending invasion by the U.S.
It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if we find out one day that writer-director George Miller contemplated, at some point in the early stages of developing what became Mad Max: Fury Road, setting the film in the world established in Mad Max, The Road Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome but taking Max Rockatansky (originally played iconically by Mel Gibson) out of the film entirely. After watching Fury Road, it's not difficult to imagine a version of the film without him, or a version of the story in which he dies halfway through, leaving the true star of the film, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), at the true and proper center of things.
In truth, former police officer Max was never the most interesting character in any of the Mad Max movies. He was the relatively stable center of these stories, around which various versions of insanity and eccentricity revolved. Even his vehicles of choice were classic cars with very little external flair. With Fury Road, Miller attempts to push Max (perhaps a little too hard) into the realm of the tormented, filling his mind and eyes with flashes of those he loved but couldn't save from death, primarily his wife and child from the first film. These visions haunt and distract him at crucial times during the Fury Road tale, but these moments seem like desperate attempts to give Max (played here by Tom Hardy) depth, which has never been particularly important before and adds very little to the mix.
Most people look at Lillian Hellman's 1939 play, The Little Foxes, as a play about a dysfunctional family battling over sex, money and property. You know, the kind that made Steppenwolf Theatre famous. But this one is being staged at Goodman Theatre and it's a sumptuous setting in every way, not one of those stories about grungy, downtrodden people.
My opinion, however, is that this is really a play about the economy. Hellman sets it in 1900 when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn't happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.
Photo by Jennifer Frankfurter.
Show trailer follows review.
MacSith, a sci-fi Shakespearian tale that blends the plot of Macbeth with the trappings of Star Wars, is a geek's dream come true. E.D.G.E. Theatre is presenting MacSith at Pendulum Theater Space, 1803 W. Byron Ave., Thursdays through Sundays until June 14. Orion Couling and Jared McDaris have adapted this imaginative script, which explores intergalactic warfare and the corruptive influence of power on humanity.
While Shakespeare covered the themes of manliness and honor in this bloody tale, director Couling does not shy away from those concepts either. In fact, Couling has a history of teaching youngsters how to embrace their inner warrior with stage combat (with his theater company Edge of Orion) while also developing their sense of honor by using the power of social theater to promote non-violence. This is a classic geek bait and switch move, which Shakespeare himself would have approved of. Couling explains where he got the idea: "This script came out of a desire to have fun teaching the Bard yet still do really exciting work that was not all just men in tights and women in bodices. So I tried out three different genres including Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica in three different Shakespeare plays including Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night. This one stuck."
There are bare bones improv shows out there that rely solely on the spine of the craft to display the quick wits of the performers, but Antic's Roadshow with Devon Meyers at MCL Chicago is not one of those improv shows. It is more of a mash-up of genres -- improv wrapped in a thin plot structure, with a good back story for its characters, a cheesy stand-up Johnny Carson sort of master of ceremonies and a cast who has trotted through one too many musicals. Put that mess together and it transcends itself, becoming a comedy without limiting barriers. Partly interactive variety, partly improv musical show, it serves as a nice alternative to all of the straightforward improv on the streets of Chicago today.
American Theater Company's brave new world premiere, The Project(s), is a lesson in Chicago history and an explanation of some of its present troubles. Writer/director P.J. Paparelli conceived the play to dramatize the experiences of residents of Chicago's public housing projects, past and present.
His docudrama isn't a dreary recitation of blame and political failure. The problems are not ignored, but the resulting production is a lively and thoroughly engrossing story in words, rhythm and music. The ensemble is made up of outstanding performers with diverse theatrical backgrounds. Each plays many roles as residents, victims, observers and public officials. The result is a fascinating and illuminating drama about the creation and destruction of community.
The stage is set. Three claw-footed bathtubs. The kind your grandmother had. Props. Three scrub buckets, newspapers and a tea set. Costumes. Bridal gowns and veils, usually sopping wet.
If this doesn't sound like a promising start for a night at the theater, The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre will quickly change your mind. The play is a beautifully performed, balletic story of an English serial killer in the 19th century, who swindled from and then drowned his three wives. Actually, it's the entrancing story of the three wives, who perform all the parts in the play from the brides submerged in their tubs to the husband(s), parents, lawyers, judge, reporters and scrubwomen. They re-enact their meetings, weddings and deaths, and their characters spur an investigation that leads to the murder conviction of George Joseph Smith, whose crimes were called the "Brides in the Bath Murders." He wooed the daughters of wealthy families and managed to have the women's inheritances or savings signed over to him and insurance policies signed to his benefit.
She's Beautiful When She's Angry is a new documentary that takes us back to the early days of the women's liberation movement in 1966-71. The film reminds us of how many gains we made back then, how much we've lost recently, and how much is still to be fought for in the future. If you're a woman of a certain age, the film may make you mad at what we put up with then and still endure. If you're a younger woman today, the film can be eye-opening and provocative. If you're a guy of any age, you should see this film!
She's Beautiful opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center and runs through May 14. Some of the Chicago activists who appear in the film will lead discussions at various screenings.
The wrenching thought of a newborn baby dying after nine hours in her mother's arms. Baby booties in the graveyard. The name Hope on a gravestone. It's hard to imagine a mother ever overcoming her grief at the loss of a child. Pegasus Theatre's Ghost Gardens explores how people in a dying community fight to overcome grief, illness, hopelessness, and air poisoned by a local giant corporation.
The world premiere script set in Detroit is written by Steven Simoncic, a playwright in residence with Pegasus and several other Chicago theaters. Ilesa Duncan's direction and a couple of good performances are not able to overcome a script that is rambling and disjointed. Ghost Gardens doesn't persuade us that its residents have created a community -- and the play's clever use of modern technology isn't enough to save the production.
The jazzmen sit on a sofa in a small New York apartment, transfixed by the image on the TV set. It's September 1956 and Elvis Presley is playing his first gig on the Ed Sullivan Show. The trumpet players don't know it at the time, of course, but this is a tipping point in their world -- and in the music business. "Anybody here know how to play guitar?" says a jazzman. "Too bad. This kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton."
Plenty of other factors brought about the rise of guitar-based rock and roll, the demise of jazz in big bands and small, and the relegation of jazz sidemen to dark clubs and low-paying gigs. American Blues Theater's new production of Warren Leight's Tony-award winning play, Side Man, tells the story of a few horn players who thrived in their own way in the 1940s and '50s jazz era. They worked their 20 weeks per year, then met at the unemployment office every Friday to collect their checks. Their motto was "keep your nut small" -- live as frugally as possible -- so you can live on a sideman's salary.
Not that you need reminding, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a sequel to the 2012 Joss Whedon-written and -directed film that gave the moviegoing world a taste of just what Marvel Studios grand design was all about and what the studio was capable of. Age of Ultron is actually the sequel to the four Marvel films that happened between the two Avengers movies (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), and there's nothing wrong with that kind of ambition. But the resulting film is actually a composite of three different types of scenes.
Because of the NFL draft, The Joffrey Ballet had to move its final series of the season to the Cadillac Palace Theatre this spring. The placement of seating offers a more intimate venue than the Auditorium Theatre does; the Cadillac Palace provides an up-close look that dance audiences aren't often afforded in larger venues.
From the perspective of someone steeped in the visual arts, one of the things that I love and appreciate about contemporary works of dance is the attention to lush visual and physical sensibilities by choreographers, costume and set designers. In this way, New Works didn't disappoint. The various palettes of the works and the variety of movement styles held my attention throughout most of the program.
Anton Chekhov's 1900 play Three Sisters is considered one of his masterpieces and The Hypocrites do it justice in their fine new production. The play is heartbreakingly sad and yet occasionally funny, with intimations of changes to come in Russia. One character says, "Violent change is at the door, the people are marching, and a real rain is coming to wash away the laziness, indifference and neglect that we've let define us. The time has come for all of us to either bend our backs in labor or be left behind forever."
Director Geoff Button adapted Chekhov's script to use more modern language without trivializing it or breaking the mood of the story. Both his adaptation and direction are very strong. The eponymous Prosorov sisters lead the excellent 14-person cast in a story that progresses over several years in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. The sisters, all in their 20s, yearn to move back to Moscow, which they left 11 years ago when their father assumed the command of a brigade in the rural area. Now their father is dead and the town is dominated by the presence of the military base and its officers.
Will the sisters ever get back to Moscow? Probably not, because they keep making life decisions that will keep them in the stifling rural atmosphere.
I've been very fortunate in the 17 years I've been a part of Ain't It Cool News (and 10 years of that with GapersBlock as well) to be a part of some pretty great events. But never in my time as a critic or resident of Chicago have I had more pride in playing a small role in pulling together something as I have working on the annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a weeklong event taking place at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, this year from May 1-7.
Pulled together by my hard-working fellow members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the CCFF collects 22 features and three short film programs, comprised primarily of recent film festival favorites and as-yet undistributed works, all receiving their Chicago premieres at the event. There are two important things to understand: one, as far as we can tell, this is the first time a film critics group has ever hosted and produced an event like this; second, each of these films was hand selected by a member of the CFCA because they saw it at a festival in the last year (such as Toronto, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, etc.) and went after it. There was no submitting films for this event, and therefore no politics were involved in the selection process. Either someone loved the film, or it wasn't considered.
Archibald Motley Jr. was not your average African-American male in 1914. The man who became a world-renowned artist and contributor to the Harlem Renaissance was the son of a Pullman porter and the daughter of a former slave. But in 1914, he became a painting student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied there for four years. The rest, as they say, is history.
Motley, known for the paintings that chronicled African-American urban life in the 1920s and '30s, was born in New Orleans and raised in the Englewood community, which was then a predominantly Irish-German-Swedish neighborhood. He socialized in Bronzeville and its vibrant cultural life inspired many of his paintings. He also spent time in Paris in 1929-30 on a Guggenheim Fellowship and in Mexico in the 1950s with his nephew, Willard Motley. (Author of novels including Knock on Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph, Willard Motley was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2014.)
I invited my dear friend Mrs. Beeb to accompany me to the Chicago Magic Lounge so she'd have my back. Who knew what could go down at an underground magic show on a Thursday night in Uptown? I had no real cause for concern, but I did have a slight fear of being sawed in half- based solely on my limited magical experience with 1970s televised magic acts.
As I hoped, the Magic Lounge debunked my stereotypes and provided a relaxing, humorous and pleasantly mystifying foray in to the art of magic. We were escorted via a secret entrance to the elevator through an art deco lobby into Uptown Underground, a subterranean club located at 4707 N. Broadway. The interior of the club has a speakeasy vibe--with a lush and tiny stage and a heavy, antique bar staffed by gals and guys who fit in with the cabaret atmosphere. The crowd was a diverse bunch from the neighborhood and nearby suburbs out for a date night, or a good time with friends. Behind the bar was Jeremy Pitt-Payne ,the magician from Britain. We knew this because he sported a mad hatter/Union Jack get-up.
Family secrets and dreams are explored in Raul Castillo's Between You, Me and the Lampshade in a world premiere being staged by Teatro Vista. Set in a barren area of Rio Grande County in south Texas, the play addresses immigration issues as well as family tensions.
Jesse (beautifully played by Sandra Marquez) is an attractive Mexican-American woman with a teenaged son, Woody (Tommy Rivera-Vega), and a career as a social worker. ("Likes to fix other people's problems. Not so good at taking care of her own," Woody tells a friend.) They live in a trailer outside town. Late one night, a Mexican border crosser named Amparo (Aysssette Munoz in a fine performance) breaks into the trailer. Jesse confronts her with a gun. The young woman doesn't speak English and has suffered a serious snakebite. How Jesse tends to Amparo's wounds and her dilemma plays out for the next 100 minutes.
If the idea of spending 80 minutes looking at nothing but the screen of a teenage girl's computer doesn't terrify you or make you feel creepy, you might actually enjoy bits and pieces of Unfriended (formerly titled Cybernatural), the latest from Blumhouse Productions and, oddly enough, producer Timur Bekmambetov. Not unlike last year's more ambitious and interesting Open Windows, Unfriended carries out the beats of a horror movie shown only from the vantage point of one girl's laptop, with little cheats built in. Keep in mind that a person can Skype with several people at once, or play YouTube videos to give us visual film clips that act as flashbacks, or receive messages via any number of social media outlets that can serve as unspoken dialogue.
Our lead character also investigates the possibility that the ghost of a recently dead friend is terrorizing her and her pals by going onto websites and message boards about such phenomena, all the while getting vaguely threatening messages from someone who may or not be dead. I'll admit, director Levan Gabriadze (Lucky Trouble) and screenwriter Nelson Greaves actually make this exercise rather amusing and clever, although not especially scary. The kids on the Skype call are picked off one by one, supposedly by the ghost of their friend who killed herself after she was cyber-bullied when a humiliating video of her is posted by persons unknown.
A meditation on time and life--and the problem of deciding when, if ever, you're a grownup. That's kind of the story of Jordan Harrison's The Grown-Up at Shattered Globe Theatre. Directed by Krissy Vanderwarker, the cast of six actors moves through 18 scenes of varying lengths. In each, Kai (Kevin Viol) has moved on in his life, aging a bit but still trying to believe in the magic of the future. The 75-minute play is impressionistic, sometimes entertaining, but the scenes don't create a coherent plotline and the story doesn't build our interest in Kai.
We first meet him as a 10-year-old listening to his grandfather (Ben Werling) tell a story about a magic doorknob. The man who built their house was an old sailor who had sailed as a cabin boy on a pirate ship. He survived a shipwreck with the only part of that great ship that survived: the crystal eye of the mermaid figurehead from the ship's prow. This magic doorknob can open the door to anywhere, his grandfather says.
Imagine a secret society that tasks itself with the mission to abolish terrible fan fiction from the internet, a group that embraces the sci-fi and fantasy fiction 'canons' with such rigidity that any variation on their beloved tales must be mocked out of existence, even while their own inside jokes and pitiful puns are riddled with the indecipherable, ludicrous mash-up of their geek culture. Then picture an unlikely Mary Sue sort of heroine who simply must write about the unspoken love between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy because it makes her and her diehard fans happy. By this point, you can clearly see the window for comedy that has been opened. But until you see the show yourself, it is doubtful you could also imagine how the rich layers of theme and subtle ironies fold in so seamlessly with scenes that involve feuding superheroes being taught lessons about grammar. But just because you can't imagine it ahead of time, doesn't mean it didn't happen.
Strange Bedfellows Theatre's new production, Badfic Love, written by Adam Pasen and directed by Aaron Henrickson, makes it happen by pairing an award-winning story with a lively and capable cast.
I have some questions about this one. We all know author Nicholas Sparks is a fan of his characters writing letters, and that's cool. It's a dying art form, and to actually see a person take pen to paper is unexpectedly refreshing and comforting in this age of handheld devices, no punctuation and lack of capitalization. In the latest of his novels adapted for the screen (I believe this is film number 10), The Longest Ride, the character of Ira Levinson (played as an elderly gent by Alan Alda and a strapping younger man circa the 1940s by "Boardwalk Empire's" Jack Huston) writes an endless series of letters to his beloved and eventual wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin formerly of "Game of Thrones").
Todd Rosenthal's set design for The Hotelman Arms hotel in The Upstairs Concierge is handsome, done in Prairie Style with Frank Lloyd Wright-type stained glass window panels, faux oak staircases, moldings, cabinetry and doors. Even the typography of the "Your New Family Home" motto signage is an arts and crafts font.
The multiple doors and staircases are clues that this is not going to be a drama that would have attracted Frank Lloyd Wright, however. They're signs of a farce to come, as we learned from those witty French farces by Georges Feydeau.
Unfortunately, Goodman Theatre's new world premiere of Kristoffer Diaz's The Upstairs Concierge is not a witty French farce. Its celebrity- and baseball-driven plotline doesn't work as a contemporary comic romp. The plot is a mish-mash and the dialogue is flat and rarely funny.
End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer is the first production in the sparkling new Windy City Playhouse in the Irving Park neighborhood. It's a worthy outing for this new Equity theater company. End Days is a play about people who fear the end of the world is coming -- or vehemently reject that idea -- and they all seek solace from a wild variety of counselors.
Is the end of the world approaching? Sylvia Stein (Tina Gluschenko) believes so and since Jesus (yes, Jesus, played by Steven Strafford) follows her around and assists in her preparation, it's no wonder she continues to pass out flyers and engage in public prayer. Sylvia's Goth atheist teenaged daughter Rachel (nicely played by Sari Sanchez) thinks her mother is a madwoman and resists her demands for prayer and repentance. Her father Arthur (the excellent veteran Chicago actor Keith Kupferer) really doesn't give a damn. He has trouble getting out of his pajamas or leaving the house. It turns out he's suffering from PTSD as the only survivor on his company's floor in the World Trade Center on 9/11.
For Radiohead fans, it was exciting to discover the Tympanic Theatre Company was putting together a festival of short plays (titled Today We Escape) based on Radiohead's OK Computer album. While it's not my favorite (In Rainbows wins that honor for me), I do love a number of the songs on it, including Karma Police and No Surprises. The thought of a local company pairing young playwrights and a fresh, young company with source material that I thoroughly enjoy seemed a brilliant idea to me. Seemingly a match made in heaven.
Neagle, Anderson, Houton and Cumming. Photo by Johnny Knight.
The first time I saw a Tom Stoppard play was on my first trip to London in 1981. We saw a production of On the Razzle, adapted from an 1842 Austrian farce that also inspired Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker. (Going "on the razzle" is an English term for drinking and partying.) The play was silly and charming and the linguistic acrobatics were breathtaking. I'm not even sure I loved the play but the dialogue was dazzling.
Stoppard's plots and characters have evolved and deepened over the years, but stunning verbal acrobatics are still a hallmark of his writing. Stoppard's Travesties in a new production at Remy Bumppo Theatre is a brilliantly conceived, acted and produced surrealist comedy -- and the language still makes me gasp.
There's a scene fairly early in Furious 7 where most of the primary players are attending the funeral of a fallen comrade. At one point, Tyrese Gibson's Roman says to Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner something to the effect of "I'm tired of going to funerals." O'Conner's response is "One more." In the context of the film's plot, he's referring to the funeral of the man who put their friend in the ground, but to the viewing world, both sides of that conversation have a more chilling resonance, given Walker's shocking death during the production of Furious 7.
I suppose I could do my job and review the new film Get Hard, starring Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, as a film critic, which I'm paid to do. Or I could deputize myself and become a member of the morality police and judge the content of the film and ignore the rest of it, which seems beside the point, since that doesn't really give you, the potential audience member, a clue whether this might be a film you'd enjoy or not. But let's quickly do the morality thing, just for a second, because it's easier to defuse than you might think.
When I read that the post-rock, Icelandic band Sigur Rós commissioned Melika Bass to direct and produce a music video for their composition, "Varðeldur," I wasn't terribly surprised. Bass' archetypical characters and magical components cohere with the subliminal sound that is the framework of Sigur Rós. The ethereal and red-headed character for "Varðeldur" appears as another one of Bass' character studies. In her current solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in the Kanter McCormick Gallery, Bass presents a reoccurring character, as well as two male characters, who share similar professions but all live different lives.
The Latest Sun is Sinking Fast introduces familiar faces (if you're a Bass fan) and continues and expands on the past and present. The characters connect visually, thematically, professionally, and fictionally, throughout the installation-based exhibition at the HPAC. Archaic and modern, the characters crawl through bushes, bath in public restrooms, listen to sermons on an iPhone and work in their tool shed.
With this latest film The Gunman, expert action cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel himself carving out an interesting niche market — taking slightly older, quite talented actors and turning them into balls-out action stars. He did it first with Liam Neeson in Taken (only the one), who admittedly had done an action turn here and there in Darkman, Batman Begins and The Phantom Menace. But with Taken, the actorly Neeson began a trajectory that has made him a fairly bankable action hero (hello, Run All Night). There was a time in Neeson's career when doing action was the novelty; today, the pure dramas are more rare. But it's his gift as an actor that makes us care so much about him as an action star.
Time and measurement are of the essence in Sideshow Theatre's new production of Anne Carson's Antigonick, described as freely translated from Sophocles' original Antigone. Throughout the 75-minute production, a mute character named Nick (David Lawrence Hamilton) is on stage, by turns taking measurements with a tape, keeping time with a metronome and taping up information sheets that enumerate the dead. Nick is constantly busy.
Carson's translation, or reimagining, is witty and colloquial with clever wordplay and literary allusions. (Kreon announces his nouns and verbs for the day. We're asked, What is a nick of time?) Antigonick moves along briskly, allowing us little time to ponder the questions of morality vs. patriotism that it presents. But those are the ideas that the play will leave you with, ideas that resonate and trouble today as much as they did millennia ago.
With District 9, writer-director Neil Blomkamp presented us with a compelling look at the near future in the wake of a visitation by non-threatening aliens that was so far afield from science fiction works at the time that it felt revolutionary. By setting it in Blomkamp's native South African city of Johannesburg and making the clear parallels between the segregation policies of not so long ago, the film also became genuinely compelling. His 2013 Elysium pushed even deeper into the way humans separate ourselves from each other, this time based on class. The poor stay on the dying planet Earth and the rest get to float above its surface in a clean, safe, man-made space station. A gripping idea for our times, but Blomkamp tends to write his screenplays with a hammer, so any hopes of subtlety were thrown right out the window in favor of a more anarchic message.
This approach seems replicated in his latest film, Chappie, in which Blomkamp returns with his District 9 co-screenwriter Terri Tachell to the city of Johannesburg. And like District 9, he even opens the film with news footage explaining a problem that is taking over the city and how it's being dealt with, so everything is explained to us like a parent reading a child a bedtime story. Crime is becoming a massive issue in the city and the government is turning to a mechanized police force to deal with it. The police droids seem to be getting the job done, but people are still resisting them. In the case of one police droid, it is damaged so severely by human attack that it becomes unsalvageable and is set for the scrap heap.
The term "black humor" could have been invented to describe Samuel Beckett's mid-century play, Endgame. Its humor is grotesque, absurd, sometimes cruel. But humor nevertheless. And the new Hypocrites production takes full advantage of all those aspects of the human comedy. It's 90 minutes with four wounded souls in an apocalyptic setting, the "endgame" of the title.
Fans of Beckett's work may wonder what's in store when they enter the Hypocrites' space. It's decked out like a carnival or a cabaret with playground toys, tiny pendant lights and hanging toys. Candles, party hats and candy sit on the bar in front of each row of seats. The walk-in music is a tape of French pop songs. A set of pink illustrated wooden folding doors enclose the stage and are folded open by a crew member as the play begins.
This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is a provocative play intended for a "young adult" audience that raises philosophical and political questions that are already generating heated discussions among theatergoers of all ages. Steppenwolf's new production, written by Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval, tells the story of a crew of graffiti writers who take a big leap and create a "piece" that grabs the attention of the whole city.
Director Lisa Portes deftly orchestrates the four actors in the events that lead up to their big score: a 50-foot mural on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. (The event actually happened in February 2010.)
Since I saw The Sting for the first time, the con artist movie has basically been ruined for me, because I learned that in any film about these tricksters, you have to assume that everyone is lying. And if you're looking for it hard enough, odds are you'll find the lie early enough that when the con is finally funny revealed, it's anticlimactic. That's not to say there haven't been dozens of really enjoyable films about flim-flam men and women, but often it's the characters — and not the the con itself — who are the most interesting part of these films. And this is certainly the case for Focus, the latest from Will Smith who has been noticeably absent from movies since Another Earth tanked two years ago (unless you count his cameo in last year's Winter's Tale, which I never will).
It's May and December. Lake vs. ocean. Heavy metal or country. It's an unlikely romance between two losers who turn out to be winners in The Orchard Theatre's new play, Norma and the Maniac, produced in association with Redtwist Theatre.
The first full-length work by playwright Ray Nelson, the eight-scene, 80-minute, play is the story of how two lonely people meet by accident (it's not meet cute) and go off on a cross-country adventure that ends well, beyond all odds. The dialog is fast, witty and sometimes insightful -- and the two actors convince us they are enemies, then friends, then lovers.
The commotion (and borderline hysteria) over the recent David Bowie exhibition [PDF] at the Museum of Contemporary Art in January has ceased -- the elaborate costumes and platform boots have bid adieu to Chicago and are traveling across the ocean into another realm of dreaminess and glamor.
The aura, subsequently, has changed. Visually powerful, elegantly arranged, and rich with conversation, the museum has welcomed sculptor Doris Salcedo in a retrospective that spans her 30-year career. The Colombian artist's exhibition opened Feb. 21 and will be on view until May 24.
Salcedo, a public-works artist, has transformed the fourth floor of the MCA into an installation that urges viewers and visitors to slow down, meditate, and remember the lives that she chooses to commemorate. Each death and each disaster draws Salcedo into a creative process involving found objects, every-day materials, and findings from the earth. While her works are created due to specific events, each piece acknowledges universal loss and bereavement. Salcedo urges viewers to never forget; the reminder is crucial.
This is actually not a bad film, but if you're someone who finds themselves offended by stories about minorities told through the filter of a white leading character, you better run in the other direction. The sad truth of the movie industry is that many such stories would never get told without higher-profile white actors at the center of them, and it just so happens that a white man named Jim White (played here by Kevin Costner) was at the heart of this particular true-life story of a group of Latino high school students who become contenders in the California's cross country championship.
There's something about the way Disney does sports films (Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Secretariat, Invincible, Miracle) that almost always seems to work. I'm talking about the ones that aren't made for children, so sorry Mighty Ducks and Air Bud franchises. Granted, the titles aren't especially inspired, but they find these true stories and breathe some life into them with top-notch actors and reliable directors. In the case of McFarland USA, the unusual choice to direct is New Zealand native Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), who has shown a real talent for capturing the way Americans often unfairly pre-judge and treat each other in small communities — a perfect trait for a story like this.
I'll have to admit, I'm a little -- okay more than a little -- immersed in the online archive, Inside/Within. I won't go into specifics about how sleek their website is, or how they sometimes incorporate .gifs into interview segments, but I will go into how important I think studio visits are for eager fan-folk (like myself) and how, similarly, they are beneficial for the artists themselves. In a nutshell, Inside/Within is an online archive that visits, absorbs and features Chicago artists in their creative spaces. Exposing an artist's creative space allows for other artists, or interested peers, to gain insight into what goes on behind the scenes. The website has a pretty large collection of captivating interviews and close-ups of studio practice. For both reader and artist, the process enables creative growth and the ability to share ideas and artistic practice.
So, of course, excitement and dedication forced me outside into the fresh snow and black ice when I heard that VIA Publication and Inside/Within were hosting an event at Threewalls called "I Like Your Work."
Photographs by Cole Simon and Sylvia Hernandez DeStasi.
By mid-February, as winter rages in Chicago, people tend to turn inward for solace. When the days are a blur of ice and snow, we look inside for color and life. We often take more pictures of the food we cook, and rejoice in tiny cups of espresso or cat videos. So it's no wonder that the folks at the Actors Gymnasium have gone a step further, focusing on the microscopically small and elevating it to a full blown contemporary circus production that will warm audiences until the thaw begins.
Circuscope verges on the brilliant by embracing this tiny world. It begins with a large eyeball on a movie screen looking through a microscope lens at the world of amoebas and other improbable organisms. Algae, tardigrades, protozoa, zooplankton, bacteria and viruses all vie for our attention, using everything they have, and what they have are generally alien appendages, like flagellum and cilia. Their oddness is captivating when combined with aerial, tumbling and contortion circus skills, transporting the imagination and the art form to a fresh realm.
A film that manages to mildly poke fun at the British spy genre while still embracing its tropes and succeeding at being a terrific action work all at once, Kingsman: The Secret Service begins as a recruitment story and becomes a full-blown save-the-world adventure, all while its stars look good doing it.
From the Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) comic book series and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class and, yes, Kick-Ass), Kingsman lets you think for a time that it's the story of a Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth), an esteemed member of spy organization the Kingsman, whose accomplishments are so hush-hush that no one even knows the exist. On that rare occasion when a member is killed, each Kingman recruits a young candidate to replace, and the handful of young men and women enter into a series of trials until one is left. Galahad selects Eggsy (relative newcomer Taron Egerton), something of a punk kid but also the son of a former Kingman who was a true friend of Galahad's.
To what end does one seek to be edgy and experimental in comedy today, in this age of abandon? It is a question recently posed, albeit indirectly, by sketch comedy group Hijinks when they attempted to pull off the herculean effort that was HIJINKSfest: 12 hours of original sketch comedy shows, performed by a cast of five, in ceaseless succession with minimal breaks in between.
It might come as a surprise to hear that each show making up the behemoth was a worthy piece of comedy — some transcendent, others raw, with moments interspersed that were at times playful, disgusting, inspiring, shocking, and even touching.
While they may seem unlikely analogues, comedy has many similarities to painting as an artform. Both serve to mirror and heighten reality with the purpose of eliciting a reaction, whether surprise, delight or disgust. In the 20th century, as artists struggled to understand life after the chasm carved out by two World Wars, they began to deconstruct the formalism of the academies, exploring and transgressing into the realms of surrealism. The same is true for comedy, with experimental forms pushing boundaries of taste and tradition.
A bare stage. There's only a curtain, a stool, a pair of high-heeled shoes, and a trunk. But here three actors create a magical environment, an environment of beauty and bleakness about their fading careers as cabaret performers: The Artiste (gracefully played by Jeffrey Binder) and two Boys, her accompanists and dancers, played by Michael Doonan as First Boy and Darren Hill as Second Boy. (The word Boy is used in French, designating a supporting dancer or singer in a music hall routine.)
Tuta Theatre Chicago is staging Jean-Luc Lagarce's Music Hall at the Den Theatre through March 8. Then it goes to New York, where it will be mounted at 59E59, a slightly-off-Broadway house, from March 25 through April 12. Director Zeljko Djukic has created a charming, touching 85-minute show (that actually could have lost about 10 minutes and been even more charming and touching).
The Peking Acrobats displayed their 2000-year old tradition of acrobatics, steeped in ritual, highlighting 12 powerful and precise acts for two nights last weekend at the Harris Theater. The show, showcasing Chinese instruments and laser lightshow technology, was a powerful performance, rich in color, textures, surprises and lively family fun.
The show began with a traditional piece meant to dispel bad luck and display courage, strength and happiness called the Lion Dance. The two colorful lions behaved like dogs as they fetched balls, wagged their tails and scratched their heads, tongues lolling comically. They were accompanied by huge dagu drums manned by drummers keeping a fierce beat that built in intensity as the lions became more adventurous, eventually having a baby lion, and most notably performing acrobatic stunts on the rolla bolla.
I don't know if I've always felt this way, but I'm certain that of late I am most forcefully drawn to science fiction, fantasy and horror that does a thorough and impressive job of world building. I'm not just talking about building CG environments; I mean establishing a logic, rules and other elements that filmmakers use to nest their story — however wacky — and take me someplace that doesn't feel wholly derivative and show me something that maybe I've never seen, or at least never seen does quite like they do it. Whether they are working in worlds built from other source material (Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas) or ones they built from scratch (The Matrix trilogy and now Jupiter Ascending), The Wachowskis — Chicago's own Lana and Andy — are at the top of their game of dropping us into a place and situation and having us learn where we are and what can happen as we go. And it always sucks me in completely and makes me want to live there forever.
With Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis are actually using a modified version of the Matrix template. For reasons we don't always understand, everybody wants to get their hands on a young woman of Russian descent named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose greatest accomplishment to date is making a little money working with her mother as a cleaning lady. Her father died when she was very young, but somehow it is discovered that Jupiter is the living reincarnation of a long-dead alien queen, whose children — Balem (current Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppance Middleton) — are in a bitter squabble over who will run certain corners of the universe.
To Relax and Laugh, written by Barrie Cole and directed by Jen Moniz, is part of Rhinofest, the 26th annual Rhinoceros Theater Festival, Chicago's longest running fringe theater festival. The show runs for the next three Fridays at Prop Thtr.
Cole, the playwright, writer and performer best known for her hilarious and often jolting stream-of-conscious revelations, has produced a two-woman show that stays true to her quirky approach while transcending style altogether. It gets to the heart of a dysfunctional, beautiful friendship between a dubious therapist and her repressed charge.
I love submarine-set movies and I love heist movies, so imagine if I dared to dream of a heist movie set on a submarine. Well now I don't have to any longer, because screenwriter Dennis Kelly (best known as a playwright, although he did write the British series "Utopia") and Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, Touching the Void, How I Live Now) have combined forces to make Black Sea, an ambitious if somewhat underdeveloped tale of rough and rugged men in a sub searching for lost Russian gold on a long-lost Nazi sub — something for everyone.
Between his roles in Dom Hemingway and now Black Sea, Jude Law has put aside his charm and looks and replaced them, in the case of Capt. Robinson, with a Scottish accent and sunken features. Robinson has recently been fired from his longtime job for a marine salvage company, a job that he was so devoted to that his wife left him and took their young son. Obsessed with making enough money to win his wife back (she has now remarried a rich man) or at least provide for his son, he gets wind of a scheme so hair-brained, it must be true.
Every so often, weird stories surface in the news about people harboring a roofing nail, pair of scissors, toy dinosaur or other bizarre object in their dark interior. We read these accounts and recoil at the thought of something so alien making its home inside the human body. Yet millions of us are hosts to an array of medical devices made from metal, plastic and other synthetic materials, from pacemakers and stents to artificial joints and silicone gel implants.
Foreign Bodies, Vesna Jovanovic's exhibit of seven drawings at Packer Schopf Gallery, spotlights our new medical reality and its biological and ethical implications. Striking in size and execution, the works offer drawing purists plenty of virtuoso technique while prodding viewers to consider the degree to which rapid changes in our medical landscape are upending conventional conceptions of the human body.
Four survivors sit huddled around a fire, which provides the only light on the scene. Matt (Daniel Desmarais) is recreating a story from the past: an episode from "The Simpsons." Jenny (Leah Urzendowski) occasionally interrupts or adds a line. It's an eerie view of the near future or of our preliterate past--and of the power of storytelling.
In Theater Wit's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, playwright Anne Washburn foresees a time when power plants are down and the electric grid is dying. Director Jeremy Wechsler stages this dystopian comedy/drama with style and flair -- and suggests that survival might depend on our carrying on the mythology of the 26-year epic television series, "The Simpsons."
The setting is an insular Italian-American community on the Gulf Coast in 1950. Tennessee Williams' play, The Rose Tattoo, is a tragicomic tale of love lost and love gained. Its Sicilian characters are superstitious and passionate in their joy and in their grief. The play is an emotional roller-coaster and suggests to me that our techno-laden lives might be healthier if we let in more human spirit.
Greg Vinkler directs this Shattered Globe production with clear fondness for the quirks of the Sicilian community. The cast is excellent all around with outstanding performances from the leads: Eileen Niccolai as Serafina Delle Rose, the grieving widow; Nic Grelli as Alvaro Mangiacavallo, the earthy visitor who lifts her veil of grief; and Daniela Colucci as Rosa, Serafina's daughter.
The show begins as Roy Orbison filters in through the speakers in the theater, Happy Days plays while Robin Williams still makes us laugh, and the morass of language is snarled and muddled throughout the visual odyssey of Untitled (Just Kidding).
Jesse Malmed was born in Santa Fe, N.M., and has since moved to Chicago where he thrives as a curator and artist. He earned an MFA for Moving Image at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Malmed draws on his affinity for humor, pop culture, wordplay, performance, and visually hypnotic video works, specifically the work seen at the Film Studies Center for the talk and screening of Untitled (Just Kidding).
(Or 'Twas Booty Killed the Beast)
Calling the new Jennifer Lopez sexually charged thriller The Boy Next Door sleazy implies that the film has the balls to be sleazy, which it certainly does not. Instead we get what is essentially a tossed-off subplot from "Desperate Housewives" turned into a C-grade stalker story. As if the filmmakers were afraid of offending anyone with this limp tale, the affair between Lopez's high school teacher Claire Peterson and her neighbor/student Noah (Ryan Guzman) is made "acceptable" by making sure it's clear that Noah took a year off of high school, and that he's actually 19 years old. Wouldn't want you to think anything shady is going on.
Lands End, a new exhibition at University of Chicago's Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts curated by Zachary Cahill and Katherine Harvath, focuses on physical boundaries, the human psyche, and a revitalized concept of landscape. The notion of a "beginning" or a boundary of "separation" is displayed in the videography, auditory, painterly, and interactive work by 13 multidisciplinary artists represented in the exhibition.
We're not here to talk about Chris Kyle or how truthful his book is or his politics or director Clint Eastwood's politics. You could despise each and every one of these elements that went into making American Sniper, the movie, and still find the film compelling as both a character study and a film about war that doesn't get too deep into the reasons why the American military was in Iraq in the first place. (It's my understanding that in his book Kyle draws a direct line from the 9/11 attacks to America being in Iraq, something the movie skirts ever so slightly.) As a pure cinematic experience, American Sniper has more than a handful of impressive sequences on both sides of the war, and that has to be considered.
It was 1970. The '60s were over, and hippies were on the way out. Their image, dress, music, hair, lingo, drugs — once looked at as a threat to the mainstream — had in fact been co-opted by it. The hippie ideal of love had also been perverted and made monstrous by the likes of Charles Manson, a man whose name comes up more than a few times in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest ensemble blur, which he adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel. Paranoia had replaced psychedelia. And when someone from the mainstream attempts to adopt the hippie belief that man should help his fellow man (in the case of real estate mogul Michael Wolfmann, he wants to give away all his property so people can live on it for free), that person is dealt with severely by friends, family and the government. How can the little guy — hippie or not — hope to survive? That's the world of Inherent Vice.
The fact that Doc Sportello (played to dizzying comic perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) is a private detective is something of a curiosity right from the start. He's a consummate stoner, and he's a womanizer with a pretty sad success rate. The one woman who will sleep with him (although she doesn't like being seen with him in public), Penny (Phoenix's Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon), is a member of the straight world, working as a deputy DA. Into Doc's life one lazy, late afternoon comes his ex-old lady who vanished about a year earlier, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a breakthrough performance from Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam). Shasta has come up in the world in the months since she broke Doc's heart: she's sleeping with the aforementioned Mr. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). His knowing wife and her lover are attempting to place in mental hospital for wanting to give the hippies free housing. Wolfmann has vanished and Shasta enlists Doc to find him.
I'm the idiot who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of... list every year, and that's because I'm often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or simply never came out in my fair city.
By my count, I saw 465 films in 2014, either in a theater or via screener. This number does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (sometimes via a restored print; sometimes not). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn't make the list. As I do every year, I've separated out the documentaries because I want an excuse to call out an additional bunch of films (15 this year) that might go unnoticed on my main list. Plus, it's always seemed strange to me to mix docs and features; the same way you don't usually see fiction and nonfiction books listed together.
Happy holidays, everyone. Of course the big news of last week was Sony pulling the Christmas Day release of the Seth Rogen-James Franco film The Interview because of vague threats (likely from the government of North Korea) about attack on movie theaters if it opened. A few days before this happened, however, I was fortunate enough to have seen the film at a festival event in Austin, Texas (that Rogen and his co-director Evan Goldberg attended). Now it looks like the film will actually open as scheduled in a handful of smaller, independent theaters around the country, which is great news. As of this writing, I'm not sure where in Chicago or Chicagoland it's opening, but if you'd like to read my length review of The Interview, please go to Ain't It Cool News to do so.
In the mean time, there are plenty of other films opening this week for your amusement. Have a great holiday, and I'll have my "Best Of 2014" lists for you next week.
This week's column was made a bit easier on me since for reasons I can't quite fathom, studios opted to screen by Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Annie last weekend while I was out town, so I didn't get to preview them for review. I'm sure they're both wonderful, but since I can't know that for sure, it's probably best that you avoid them until I've given them my seal of approval (and to discourage studios from only screening "family" films on the weekends). But here are two other options for your weekend viewing...
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
To say that the third and final installment in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit films is the best of the three is a bit of a "No, duh" assessment, since the film is about 40 percent full-on battle, and it nicely wraps up this story while leaving us just enough of an enticement to lead us into The Lord of the Rings adventures. The idea that The Battle of the Five Armies would serve as some sort of bridge between the two trilogies is not exactly the case, but there are just enough seeds planted to know what is to grow in years to come. Also, the idea that Five Armies is nothing more than epilogue is outrageous, to say the least. There's more actual plot in this film than in An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug combined, and the moments of actual epilogue only make up a couple of minutes of screen time.
Upon walking into the Art Institute's Modern Wing, the beloved exhibition of Josef Koudelka is now removed and a new exhibition sits in its place -- quite literally. Before entering the space, Lucy McKenzie is projecting towards her audience. One mechanically operated sign moves up and down, another swirls in a circle, and a seated mannequin sits pretty between them both. Like out of a small town storefront window, the exhibition begins.
Once inside, the noise of the moving signs takes hold of the viewer as one wanders the space through a series of large canvas paintings which propel from the ceiling. "Manhattan (Phallic map mural for brasserie scene in unrealized Kubrick film)," is a piece, among several others in a series which re-images a Kubrick movie scene. The meticulous realism that McKenzie presents in this collection is contrasted with slight oddities and occasional humor in her exhibition at the AIC. Her realistic pieces are oddly composed, the majority are cropped on the sides to feature an off-centered piece. However, the script beneath the paintings, for example, "Sweden & Finland" or "Geneva," are delicately placed and perform for the viewer as a delicate, yet important, attribute to the entirety of the piece.
It all begins on a glacier, where Raphael and Danielle's first date looking for a treasure goes awry due to some bad weather, causing a series of fantastic adventures to unfold. They battle great puppets like Yetis, a dinosaur and wind itself, meet aliens and cavemen, and test their character along with their survival instincts. All of this takes place on a very grand scale at Redmoon's new winter home in a giant, refurbished warehouse, with a cast of 10 professional spectacle performers and 30 community collaborators.
Chicago Shakespeare's new production of Pericles begins as the prince arrives in Antioch to bid for the hand of King Antiochus' daughter. Pericles must solve Antiochus' riddle, because those who fail to do so are beheaded. The stage décor includes a half dozen heads on poles as proof. Pericles (Ben Carlson) reads the riddle and knows, to his horror, that it describes the incestuous relationship of Antiochus (Sean Fortunato) with his unnamed daughter.
Pericles flees, fearing for his life, and thus begins a series of comic and tragic misadventures. Over the course of this two-act play, Pericles travels an odyssey of sorts, involving storms and shipwrecks, merriment and sorrow, that ends happily 155 minutes later. This play, while not as poetically written as Shakespeare's greatest plays, gets a beautifully designed production by Chicago Shakespeare. David H. Bell's direction takes utmost advantage of the best scenes, such as the celebrations and the famous brothel scene in act two.
Let's at least all agree that if there is one director working today who, in theory, could handle the scope and significance of the story of Moses leading 400,000 Jewish slaves out of Egypt, it's Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down). But Scott is still something of a hit-and-miss filmmaker, and we know that nothing is a sure thing in his usually capable hands. Which brings us to that Moses story, Exodus: Gods and Kings, which casts Moses (played rather dispassionately by Christian Bale) in the dual role as both the favored (albeit adopted) son of the Pharoah Seti (John Turturro) and the outcast brother of the Pharoah's rightful heir, Rhamses (Joel Edgerton).
Unlike last year's biblical epic from Darren Aronofsky, Noah, which embraced some of the mysticism and Godly wonders of its story, Scott has chosen to set his story in the realm of the explainable. For example, we get a detailed account of how nearly all of the deadly plagues might have been freaks of nature; the screenplay brings up some interesting possibilities, but can't quite explain away all of the nasty doings (the death of all Egyptian first borns is the most sinister). Scott also leaves open the possibility that Moses was delusional in his conversations with God (personified in Exodus by an angry young boy). We see the boy, but when Aaron Paul's Joshua observes Moses chatting up God, he doesn't see the boy.
Some spirits are too broken to ever be tamed, some souls too piecemealed to lasso into oneness.
A vagrant by the name of Hector (Joshua Torrez) stumbles onto and insists on taking refuge at the farm of private school teachers Ty (Juan Francisco Villa) and his wife Georgiane (Sari Sanchez). Hector is injured — physically scratched up and scarred from his escape from his urban detention center, emotionally and intellectually scarred from a complete society that intentionally failed him every step of the way of his young life. Upon finding Hector hiding in their horse barn, Georgiane immediately cares for Hector's scrapes with disinfectant and his hunger with apple pie, but as a former "project girl," she's well aware that there isn't much that she or anyone can do for Hector's soul, and she wants him up and on his way, sensing that Hector is dangerous, buck-wild, and brings trouble to the couple and the sleepy hollow life they've finally assimilated into.
This is William Mastrosimone's story of Tamer of Horses, directed by Ron OJ Parsons, currently being staged by Teatro Vista.
Last weekend, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago continued its season with its Winter Series -- Princess Grace Awards: New Works. The premise of the show was inviting three previous Princess Grace Award winners in choreography to produce new works for Hubbard Street. Kyle Abraham, Robyn Mineko Williams and Victor Quijada each worked on a new piece for the Hubbard Street dancers.
The setting is a dingy therapist's office in Dublin. Ian (Coburn Goss), a former priest, is preparing his new office for his first client. Over the course of the 100-minute, five-scene, production, the office is the scene of poignant therapy sessions with John (Brad Armacost), Ian's breakup with his fiancée Neasa (Carolyn Kruse), and his hookup with Laurence (Shane Kenyon), a young man who he meets in the park. Conor McPherson's Shining City is beautifully and subtly written and may remind you of the ghosts of your own haunted past.
Irish Theatre's director Jeff Christian does a credible job directing this script, which is a series of conversations, sometimes quiet, sometimes emotional. Nothing much happens. Everyone is lonely and needy. As the play opens, John comes to Ian for help with the guilt he feels over the death of his wife, Mari, in a taxi accident and her continued haunting presence in his house.
Located in the midst of Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park, Heaven Gallery is exhibiting the work of Shawn Creeden, Marshall Elliott, and Rachael Starbuck. Heaven, a contemporary art gallery which serves as an exquisite, yet affordable, Vintage Shop during the day, features musicians and visual artists throughout the year. The current exhibition, Mend Thine Every Flaw, is in partnership with Artists' Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions (ACRE), a non-profit which offers artists an open platform for discussion, support, and development for their visual practice. The artists featured in the current exhibition at Heaven Gallery are the summer of 2013 artists in residence at ACRE.
The three artists exhibited in the two gallery spaces in Heaven (plus the tiny room on the left, don't miss it!) are focused on video, experimental painting, performance, and sculptural techniques. The works are cohesive in terms of craft and attention; embroidered pieces hang on the walls, a rock is created from pulp, resin and plaster, and a tractor pulls several canvases through mud and muck. Each individual artist in the exhibition features work that invites patience, intimacy and understanding, in conjunction with visual manipulation.
Reese Witherspoon has had a hell of a year. She produced the massively popular and exceedingly well made Gone Girl, she co-starred in The Good Lie, a sadly overlooked docudrama that came out earlier this year, and she has a juicy role in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, Inherent Vice. But more than likely, the 2014 film the Oscar winner be remembered for most is Wild, from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her life-affirming (and -threatening) 1000-plus-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, completely alone with no training or preparation of any kind.
When Horrible Bosses hit theaters three years ago, it came at a time when original (as in non-sequel) R-rated comedies were going strong, following the likes of Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher. Context doesn't make a comedy funny or not, but it was a good year for adults to laugh. I also seem to recall that the key to Horrible Bosses' humor was not in its silly plot, which was just an excuse to open the floodgates on some fairly funny material from leads Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis as Nick, Dale and Kurt, respectively. But the real enjoyment came from some truly foul behavior from Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston as the titular bosses, as well as Jamie Foxx as a "murder consultant," brought into the picture when the boys decide to kill each other's bosses. The film was loaded with all sorts of wrong, and for the most part, it worked.
Jumping ahead three years, our heroes are now inventors, attempting to kickstart their own business with the help of a gadget outlet store chain, run by the father-and-son team of Bert and Rex Hanson (Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine). Not surprisingly, the seemingly reputable Hansons double-cross the fellas, leaving them and their new start-up company on the verge of ruin. Naturally, the only thing they can think of is become would-be criminals again to get their money back. They concoct a plan to kidnap young Rex and demand a ransom that just happens be the same amount as their bank loan. The film finds excuses (some more legit than others) to bring Foxx, Spacey and Aniston back into the mix, with varying results.
Joe Mack and Hillary Marren. Photo by Tom McGrath.
One motel room is like another. It's a line that's threaded throughout Desperate Dolls, a new play by Darren Callahan that had its world premiere under the direction of Michael Driscoll at Strawdog Theatre on Monday. The point is certainly well made, considering the entire plot unfolds on a single set--a motel room, portrayed as several different motel rooms scattered around 1968 Hollywood, a time and place that is said to be composed entirely of motel rooms that all look alike and contain horror stories of their own.
Played confidently by Joe Mack, Sunny Jack's self-proclaimed "triple threat" status as director, producer, and writer has more to do with the size of his budget than the size of his talent. His foray into female-centric films is played up as well-intentioned, but if you respect women, this might not be a good enough excuse. Auditioning them for his B-movies in--you guessed it--a motel room, he signs three ambitious and curvaceous young "dolls" who also become his friends, with benefits not defined in their contracts.
On a barren and worn wharf in Aulis, the Greek fleet waits to depart for battle in Troy. You may remember the story. Agamemnon is king of Mycenae. His brother Menelaus was married to the beautiful Helen, who was kidnapped and whisked off to Troy to marry Paris. Now the Greek fleet, commanded by Agamemnon, is ready to set sail for Troy to right the wrong and bring back Helen.
But there's no wind to power the sailing ships and the goddess Artemis (the gods always get involved in these tales) demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to get those winds blowing.
Court Theatre portrays the story of Iphigenia in Aulis in a low-key, minimalist 90-minute staging, directed by Charles Newell. The translation by Nicholas Rudall is clear and straightforward, sometimes poetic. The language is enhanced by the perfect vocal cadences of all the actors and chorus members.
Eric Owens and Adina Aaron in Porgy & Bess. Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg.
Porgy & Bess, the George Gershwin opera that premiered in 1935, is currently in production at The Lyric Opera of Chicago for a 13-show run that opened Monday night. It is impossible to watch without considering its history; Gershwin drew inspiration for the opera while visiting Charleston, SC, and incorporated elements of southern black musical traditions into the piece. It was the first opera to feature an all-black cast, and it has weathered controversy ever since, with debate over its depiction of African-Americans, and was not generally accepted as legitimate opera until 1976. Nevertheless, it has entered the American cultural lexicon, with songs like "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" becoming American standards.
The Lyric Opera production, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by Ward Stare, is gorgeously epic. As interpreted by bass-baritone Eric Owens, Porgy has a voice and a presence that are undeniable, and soprano Adina Aaron's portrayal of Bess is as heartbreaking as it is believable. With a supporting cast that includes Eric Greene as the menacing Crown, and Jermaine Smith as the charismatic Sportin' Life, the energy and pathos of the opera commands the attention of the audience for the entire three hours that it takes for the story to fully unfold.
Easily the best of the young adult series that have proliferated the marketplace since the Twilight movies singed movie screens, The Hunger Games films have actually managed to get better and more harrowing with each new chapter. To wrap up the series, the final book, Mockingjay, has been adapted into two films (the second part will be released in November 2015), and while this may appear to be an already-tired ploy by studios to milk the most out of a franchise (thanks Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hobbit and the upcoming final chapter of the Divergent films!), there actually does seem to a clear dividing line for Mockingjay that isn't exactly a cliffhanger, but the start of something even more devious than the first part hints at.
Now that the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is free from actually having to take part in yet another Hunger Games (they have essentially been done away with forever), and we can enter a new chapter of this civilization divided into realms and controlled by the clearly vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss is the reluctant hero of and symbol to her people, the underclasses of the nation of Panem, ruled by the newly introduced President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her trust advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last onscreen role — presumably he'll return in Part 2). As the underclass' so-called "Mockingjay," Katniss is asked to be the spokesperson for her people in a series of pirated videos calling for courage and the willingness to fight for freedom from Snow's tyranny.
National Gallery photograph by Robert MacPherson from top of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.
How do we look when we're looking at art? That's one of the intriguing facets of this gorgeous art tour of London's National Gallery. Frederick Wiseman's three-hour documentary, National Gallery, which opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, shows us many scenes of faces looking at faces. Human faces peering, pondering, smiling, puzzling at portraits painted by the masters of Medieval, Renaissance and Romantic art.
During the mesmerizing three hours we spend at the gallery, we see preparations for and openings of major exhibits of the work of Titian, Turner and Leonardo. The 2011 Leonardo exhibit (titled Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan) was a blockbuster; $25 tickets were being scalped for $400. Wiseman shows scenes of museum visitors lined up in hopes of obtaining tickets.
There's nothing quite like watching actors reprise roles that they did 20 years ago, and still manage to capture some of what made those performances so special and memorable. It makes you think about the person you were 20 years ago (assuming you were even born in 1995, when Dumb and Dumber was released), about the bright future you saw for yourself, your dreams, your aspirations, the experiences you had so long ago, and the ones you were so looking forward to having. Actually, none of those thoughts entered my head as I was watching Dumb and Dumber To, the sometimes funny-sometimes excruciating exercise in nostalgia baiting in the 21st century.
From a screenplay by modern-day comedy whiz kids Sean Anders and John Morris (writers of Horrible Bosses 2, We're the Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Sex Drive), the film brings back Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as two of their most successful on-screen characters, Lloyd Chistmas and Harry Dunne, off on another road trip adventure, this time to locate the daughter that Harry just discovered he sired years earlier with Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner, who is treated so cruelly here that you almost can't help but giggle) and whom she gave up for adoption to a wealthy family.
Wicke and De la Guardia. Photo by Justine Albert Photography.
It's Berlin, New Year's Eve 1931. A group of artists and filmmakers celebrate the new year of 1932 in the apartment of Agnes (Amanda de la Guardia). They're leftists and consumed by discussions of politics as well as art.
Tony Kushner's 1985 play, A Bright Room Called Day, begins in the waning months of Weimar Germany, as Hitler's National Socialists are on the rise. The Berlin scenes are sometimes interrupted by 1982 scenes where Zillah (Jaci Kleinfeld), a young American woman, talks about the current US political environment and the transgressions of the Reagan administration.
Spartan Theatre Company makes a valiant effort in staging this 2.5-hour play, but Kushner's sometimes-lyrical dialogue can't overcome his didactic political sermonizing. Director Laura Elleseg does a creditable job of maintaining the dramatic pace and the acting generally is good. But there are usually reasons why a rarely performed play is rarely performed. A Bright Room Called Day is such an example. Even Shakespeare wrote a few turkeys.
Going into Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, don't worry so much about what other films or directors this absolutely epic work might remind you of. Just because Nolan (and his brother, co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan) uses intellect to propel the story forward occasionally does not make him Tarkovsky. Just because things get a little trippy toward the end doesn't make him Kubrick. And just because he approximates sentimentality and emotion doesn't make him Spielberg. Honestly, Interstellar works best when Nolan is being Nolan — a bit cold, harsh, putting the mission of saving humanity in front of personal connections, and, of course, making the remarkable seem commonplace to everyone but his audience.
Before I dive into my review of Interstellar, let's talk about ambitious filmmaking. Let me be clear: I'm a fan. But "ambition" and "quality" are not the same thing. In fact, they're far from the same thing. I see a whole lot of ambitious films in a given year by some of the greatest directors living today. But the truth is, I don't give points for ambition; I give points for whether a filmmaker can translate said ambition to the screen. I consider recent works like Prometheus (I was not a fan), Cloud Atlas (I adored), or on a smaller scale, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (let's go with the writer-director's original two-part version, which I was fairly neutral on). Regardless of scale and money spent, there's no denying that all three films are extremely ambitious as filmmaking exercises. And perhaps not surprisingly, they were all wildly divisive in terms of critical and audience reactions.
No one seems to be listening to the animals of the Anyway Cabaret. But they'll keep performing it anyway.
It's a line that's repeated in the first big number of TUTA Theatre Chicago's production of The Anyway Cabaret (an animal cabaret), which opens the company's 14th season. The animals of the Anyway Cabaret" have a message for the audience between their rapid-fire quick changes and haunting sounds of gunfire. But, the message might just get lost if the audience can't get beyond the silliness.
First-time writer-director Dan Gilroy (who has written films as varied as Freejack to The Fall to The Bourne Legacy) has made a movie that almost dares you to find something redeemable about its lead character. In Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily the best performance of his career) is a man made up by uncut ambition and drive, but he can't find an outlet for his level of dangerous energy. Then one day, he stumbles upon an accident, and within seconds a freelance camera crew is on the scene, capturing the raw blood and mayhem of the moment. Once the scene is under control, the crew packs up, and by that evening, their footage is bought, paid for and aired by a local TV news station in LA. It doesn't take Lou long to think that this "nightcrawling" might be a line of work he could pull off and be good at.
"Four dead fellas, two dead cats ... me hairstyle ruined! Did I miss anything?"
That's the culmination of Martin McDonagh's grisly black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now being crisply staged by Aston Rep at the Raven Theatre.
The trauma begins when pony-tailed Davey (Matthew Harris) finds a dead black cat in the road. The cat, Wee Thomas, is the beloved pet of Padraic (John Wehrman), a soldier with the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in Northern Ireland. (He's known as Mad Padraic because he's so volatile the IRA wouldn't take him. That's why he fights with the more radical INLA.) Davey and Padraic's father, Donny (Scott Olson) consult about how to tell Padraic that his cat is poorly and "just a tadeen off his feed," so that Padraic won't rush home, find Wee Thomas with his brains squeezed out, and avenge his death. Donny instructs Davey to find another black cat to replace Wee Thomas.
The 90-minute production, set on the island of Inishmore in Galway, plays out in nine scenes. The time is 1993, when the Irish peace process was in very early stages. (The Good Friday Agreement, which ended the almost 30 years of civil war known as the Troubles, was not finalized until 1998.)
The Devil, wearing red sneakers, is host to some of the finest artists and geniuses of time immemorial. The notorious Don Juan surprises us by not being happy in Hell. He wishes to spend eternity in Heaven, even though everyone knows it's boring up there. And he expounds in several long speeches about why he wants to change residence.
A word of admonition. George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell is not for everyone. If your preferred entertainment involves crashes, explosions and gunfire, or fast-paced comedy, you'd better head for the multiplex. This 105-minute Shavian exercise is talky, talky, talky--and brilliant. Don Juan in Hell is a rarely performed extract (act 3, scene 2) from Shaw's play Man and Superman, in which its hero, John Tanner, falls asleep and dreams of himself as Don Juan in hell, debating the Devil. Man and Superman is usually presented without this scene because of its length. So it's a rare treat to see it staged by Shaw Chicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.
Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival's Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People is meant to be many things to many people, but if its only achievement is sparking conversation, I think writer-director Justin Simien can say he accomplished his mission. Simien has wisely set his feature film debut on the campus of Winchester University, as college campuses are both hotbeds of ideas and a place where emotions tend to run hotter than in the real world.
The film follows four black students, the most interesting of which is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a bi-racial woman who inadvertently wins the election for head of the traditionally black resident hall. She's also an outspoken voice on campus (via her radio show) on all things racial, and she's secretly dating a white guy. She comes to this story a fully formed character whose past and current ideas are filled in as the film progresses.
That's the tagline of the trailer for Creative Writing, a new film by Chicagoan Seth McClellan. His 70-minute film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
The film is an honest, realistic portrayal of the writing aspirations of a diverse group of middle-class students in a community college writing course. The students participated in the writing as well as acting and use their own names in the film. As the film's preface says: "Though the actors play versions of who they really are and our story is based on what actually happened, this is fiction."
I went into Amazing Grace completely blind as to its purpose and detailed moments of the plot line, which was okay with me. I had no expectations or preconceived notions of its plot line. The mystery that shrouded the events portrayed in the musical intrigued me, the title not alluding to its complex, lyrical storyline. The minimalist program design showcases only a compass and the title of the renowned song, so I thought this was going to be a jubilant, historical journey of the ballad's emergence to become the well-loved hymn.
What I witnessed during the musical's two and a half hour duration, however, was a tale of the triumph of good over evil as it depicted the eradication of slavery, and an in-depth, insider view into the struggles slaves had endured with a fictional, but all-too-real portrayal of societal times that actually occurred in both English and American history, and still does occur around the world today.
Does anyone ever return from the netherworld not seeking murderous revenge against those who condemned them? The legend of the revenge of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was introduced in a penny dreadful novel in mid-19th century London. From page to stage to movie and television, Sweeney Todd has lived a vibrant life ever since, slicing his way into the jugular of our permanent consciousness.
Todd uses his "friend," his razor, to slit the throats of his victims while his compatriot bakes them into tasty pies. The story punches into every universal fear -- quick, violent death, and cannibalism (either being consumed or consuming). There's been little revision from early performances of the Christopher Bond play. The contemporary version adds music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Only the songs and performers change in the many dramatic lives of Sweeney Todd. The terror and our inclination to root for an anti-hero remain the same.
Porchlight Music Theatre's rousing production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street introduces us to the barber formerly known as Benjamin Barker (a stage-commanding David Girolmo). He's on a mission for revenge, having returned to London after spending 15 years in prison on a trumped-up charge, stripped of his wife and baby daughter by the sadistic and powerful Judge Turpin (Edward J. MacLennan).
The roughly two-hour show is full of laugh-out-loud moments, strategic and exceptionally creative dance movements and sharp writing and delivery by Second City actors. The show is directed by Billy Bungeroth of Second City and was worked on by the largest creative team in the history of Hubbard Street Dance.
As the title suggests, the show revolves around stories of falling: falling in and out of love, falling from the sky and falling down in general. It additionally, as perhaps expected, pokes fun at dance and comedy in turn, but showcasing differences between the two groups is not the main point. Rather, the focus is on what the different artists accomplish together.
Hey everyone. I haven't done this in quite a while, but between unexpected travel in the last week and the still-going Chicago International Film Festival eating up my days, I haven't had time to compose full-length reviews of the many, many movies open up this weekend — many of them quite great. So I'm going to try and blaze through the many offerings with just a two or three paragraphs each. We'll see how that goes. Enjoy!
Writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Street Kings, writer of Training Day) has always been a stickler for authenticity (if you ignore his last film, Sabotage), and his latest work — the World War II tank barrage Fury — is no exception. With Brad Pitt leading a five-man crew during the final push into war-torn Germany in 1945, the film concentrates on bloodshed, explosions and ear-splitting volume that might make you want to consider earplugs. The film captures the claustrophobic quarters inside the tank and the pure destructive power it represents as these men barrel into one situation after another, outnumbered, outgunned and poorly armored.
When the Goodman Theatre staged the world premiere of Noah Haidle's play Smokefall last year in its smaller theater, the play received great reviews and audiences responded enthusiastically. The theater has remounted the production with the same cast this year in its larger Albert Theatre. Director Anne Kauffman has managed the move to the larger stage with grace.
Smokefall's main attraction is the charming, funny performance by veteran actor Mike Nussbaum, who will blow out 91 candles in December and romps around like a 70-year-old. Or a 60-year-old, if needed.
Smokefall is a sweet, funny story of love and life, hope and despair in four generations of a midwestern family. The family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the setting and on Kevin Depinet's large modern-dress set, everything is slightly askew. The angled trajectory of the set's second level (which -- spoiler alert -- collapses in the middle of the play) suggests the rickety and fragile nature of family relationships.
I wish I were a dancer, I thought to myself as I sat in the gilded Auditorium Theatre as the curtain fell following an exquisite performance by the Joffrey Ballet of the world-renowned ballet Swan Lake, completely in awe. Sitting elated, The show barely had time to officially wind to a close before audience members cried out exalted "bravos!" that rang throughout the theatre rich with history and artistry.
World-renowned, London-based choreographer Christopher Wheeldon dreamt up a masterful adaptation that proved to be equally stunning as it was technically gorgeous. In the Joffrey Ballet's 60-year reign, Swan Lake had yet to be performed, and this ballet lived up to its longstanding expectations. For 10 ethereal evenings, the reworking of the classic and pivotal ballet will help the Chicago arts institution of the Joffrey Ballet to celebrate its 20th anniversary of being centered in this great city that we are lucky to call home.
If you ever wanted to see the legendary Robert Duvall shit himself like only he can (literally and figuratively), then I've got a movie for you. And I'm not talking about catching a brief glimpse of mild discoloration in his boxers. Oh, no. I'm talking wet, dark, splattering crap exploding out of his ass and onto the white bathroom tile, as well as the feet of his estranged son (Robert Downey Jr.). Come gather 'round, children, and let me tell you about The Judge.
Part family drama, part courtroom procedural, part character study, The Judge is the story of hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns to his smalltown hometown on the occasion of his mother's funeral. Turns out, many years ago, Hank left home mostly to get away from his hard-driving judge father Joseph (Duvall) to prove to him (and the world) that he could be successful. Hank seems to specialize in clients who are undoubtedly guilty, but he still manages to cast his spells over judges and juries to get them off. In one early scene, Hank pees on the shoes of opposing counsel in the men's room, setting up a family history of bodily excretions on other people's shoes.
It's an idyllic late spring day in 1940 at the country home of the wealthy Farrelly family near Washington DC. The Farrellys are awaiting the arrival from Europe of their daughter, husband and children; they have not seen her in 20 years. It's a family reunion, but it turns into a preview of World War II.
Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country. The compelling pre-war conflict is dramatized in The Artistic Home's new production, directed by Cody Estle.
Waiting nervously to welcome them is Fanny Farrelly, the opinionated matriarch, played with withering wit and charm by Kathy Scambiaterra. The longtime housekeeper Anise (Lorraine Freund) tries to keep her calm, as does her son David (John Stokvis). The family has two long-time guests, the Count Teck de Brancovis (Joshua J. Volkers) and Countess Marthe de Brancovis (Tiffany Bedwell), who clearly have overstayed their welcome.
Kyle Hatley, Demetrios Troy and Jamie Vann. Photo by Lara Goetsch.
The names and events are vaguely familiar, if you were consuming political news in the 1980s and '90s. Iran-contra. BCCI ("the world's sleaziest bank," according to a Time magazine cover). Bert Lance. The Church committee. Wackenhut Security. The CIA and Central American drug cartels. The Sandinistas. The Iran hostage crisis.
The governmental scandals those terms represent were linked by a software platform called PROMIS (owned by Inslaw, a not-for-profit software company), which was designed to connect various government agency databases. (Remember, this was in the 1980s. The lack of interagency connectivity was considered one of the flaws that left us vulnerable to the attacks of September 11, 2001.)
Timeline Theatre dredges up those memories in telling the tense and tightly wound story of a freelance journalist named Danny Casolaro, who tried to put the tangled pieces together for a big story. He ended up dead on the floor of a hotel room in Martinsburg, W.Va., in August 1991. The question asked in Danny Casolaro Died for You is: Was it suicide or murder?
Director David Fincher is often both lauded and criticized for being a filmmaker of great technical achievement, sometimes sacrificing an emotional connection to his subject in favor of a great shot. I don't happen to agree with this theory, but I do find it easy to tell sometimes when Fincher is truly passionate about those being portrayed in his film. And thankfully the director of Fight Club, The Social Network and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button not only cares about the characters and themes in his latest work, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but they mean so much to him, he gets downright angry sometimes.
I think to say that Fincher and Flynn's take (the author also wrote the screenplay) on Gone Girl concerns the true face of marriage in the modern era is a bit of an over-simplification, but it's also partly true. What the film ultimately turns into is the realization that a person can never truly be themselves if they want to keep a relationship going — a face must be worn, the lies must be told so often and so convincingly that the teller starts to believe them, and to do anything less than all of these horrible things in the name of keeping a marriage alive is the ultimate betrayal, even if it's for perfectly acceptable reasons.
We've seen Denzel Washington be a badass; we know he can do it, and he remains one of the best at combining action and gunplay with sheer magnetic personality. All three were front and center when he and director Antoine Fuqua first teamed up for Training Day, which gave us a version of Washington who was both villain and character we were still sort of rooting for if only because to lose him from the story meant the film would be something less. So what if Washington presented us with a character who was reserved, hesitant to act, quiet (but not in a menacing way), bordering on boring? Well, it's still Denzel Washington, so he'd just make that character a different kind of badass.
David Bowie was born September 16, 1965. Actually, that's the day that the 18-year-old David Jones legally assumed the name that became famous. This is one piece of minutiae that you can glean from the blockbuster exhibit, David Bowie Is, at the Museum of Contemporary Art through January 4. The exhibit fills the fourth floor of the museum and demonstrates far more than minutiae... and shows Bowie as far more than a musician. He is a cultural prodigy, knowledgeable and expert at art, design, theater, writing and music.
Bowie had been performing as David Jones or Davie Jones since he was 15. (He changed his name partly to distinguish himself from Davy Jones of the Monkees.) Even as a young teen performer, he was concerned about his image and identity. He designed business cards and stage sets for his band, The Kon-Rads. Throughout his career, he took almost obsessive control over every aspect of his performances, hiring noted designers to create the costumes and stage sets that he sketched out on paper. In addition to creating 35 studio and live albums and making 14 worldwide tours, he painted and acted on stage and in films.
Bowie has also been obsessive about saving items from his career, which explains why the David Bowie archive in New York has some 75,000 items stored, organized and managed by a full-time archivist. The current exhibit was developed by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; Chicago is the only US location where it will be exhibited.
How did the MCA manage to secure this exclusive slot in the tour? I asked that question at the press preview the week before the exhibit opened. The answer was simple, according to MCA curator J. Michael Darling. "We called up the V&A and asked if they would bring it to Chicago." And the answer was yes. The exhibit has appeared in Toronto, São Paulo and Berlin and moves next to Paris and Melbourne.
House Theatre warns its patrons in advance that its new production, Season on the Line, is "an epic love letter to the American theater." And it is indeed a love letter. A big sprawling messy exuberant love letter, sealed with a big wet kiss.
The play, written by House ensemble member Shawn Pfautsch, takes us through the tribulations, artistic and economic, of the Bad Settlement Theatre Company, based somewhere in or near a big city with an influential theater critic. In a fit of authenticity, House has even provided Bad Settlement with business cards and a website, badsettlement.org.
This three-hour epic (plus two intermissions) is Shakespearean in its ambitions. The show takes us, act by act, through the company's current season, opening with a rousing success in its diverse reimagining of The Great Gatsby (3-1/2 stars from that critic). In act 2, a less successful Balm in Gilead opens to a 1-star review and an abbreviated run. But Season on the Line revolves around the artistic director's obsession with producing a great new version of Herman Melville's Moby Dick as the season finale.
King Lear, perhaps William Shakespeare's most-revered play, is an existential tragedy. It's a story of power and family lost, mind and health destroyed. But it's also a retirement story and a family tragedy. It's amazing how deeply and warmly current issues are treated in this 400-year-old masterpiece.
Fathers mourn relationships with their children. Siblings fight over the estate before the parent dies. Old men suffer the tears and trauma of aging. And most profoundly, we see the onset of dementia in someone who has been a brilliant and powerful leader.
Chicago's Larry Yando may not be old enough to be called a legend, but his performance as Lear is legendary in this new modern-dress Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production, directed by Barbara Gaines. He is a bored and fickle king in the opening scene, tossing aside faulty remotes as he clicks through Frank Sinatra songs to find one he likes: "I've Got the World on a String." Then he's decisive as he divides his kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands. Finally, he's forced into exile with his Fool (wisely and wittily played by Ross Lehman, another Chicago Shakespeare veteran). As Lear's mind fails, he suffers degradation into a wild man in the wild. At the end, he is left a bereaved father who has lost all.
Unlike many of the other science fiction films we've been getting in recent year featuring younger people as central characters, The Maze Runner (based on the successful novel series by James Dashner) isn't about an established future that everyone accepts, and often into which a "chosen one" is introduced to set the world right. The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent, Ender's Game. Christ, it seems like there's a new one every two or three months. But The Maze Runner dares to drop its characters into a place they know nothing about, with every memory of where they came from erased. That place is The Glade, and surrounding them is a giant, ever-changing maze whose door opens up for a few hours every day, and if you are unlucky enough to get caught inside when they close, well, that's the end of you, thanks to some unpleasant creatures call Grievers.
The Glade is occupied by only boys and young men. Some have been there for years and some are new arrivals, each assigned a job when they arrive, and this makeshift society seems to function, until the arrival of Thomas ("Teen Wolf" star Dylan O'Brien), who seems just a little more curious and ambitious than the rest, and finds it difficult to accept things just because he's told he has to. His primary rival (and chief rule keeper) is Gally (Will Poulter from We're the Millers), whose motivations are solid but his methods are dictatorial. The group is loosely ruled by its most senior member, Alby (Aml Ameen), who seems to have a level head about most things that stray from the norm, but when he gets ill, the group falls into chaos.
It seems strangely fitting that the final major roles from both Philip Seymour Hoffman (in A Most Wanted Man) and James Gandolfini (in this week's release The Drop) are portraits of soul-crushing loneliness. Both actors have played in this sandbox before, but in both roles, the emptiness leads to careless and poor decisions that impact the rest of their lives.
Written by novelist Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island) and based on his short story "Animal Rescue," The Drop marks the second powerful work from Belgium-born director Michaël R. Roskam, who helmed the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominee, Bullhead. The film centers of former thug and current Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy of Locke, Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises) who works with his cousin Marv (Gandolfini) at a bar that is used to funnel cash from various numbers rackets, payoffs and other criminal activities. Like many other bars around the borough, this is a "drop bar," where cash is literally handed to the bartender, who in turn drops it into a safe he doesn't have access to. After the close of business, the cash is picked up — end of story.
I firmly believe that the only genre that more difficult to get right than horror is horror comedy. And we're still living in a post-Shaun of the Dead world, in the same way we were living in a post-Reservoir Dogs world for 10 years after that landmark film. As a result, the zombie comedy has had its fair share of hits and misses since Edgar Wright's 2004 master class is finding the humor in horrific situations, rather than simply cracking jokes, acting silly, and having every character act like exaggerated versions of human beings. With that in mind, allow me to introduce you to Life After Beth, from writer-director Jeff Baena (a credited writer on I Heart Huckabees and boyfriend to Life After Beth star Aubrey Plaza).
The film begins with the untimely death of Beth Slocum (Plaza), whose boyfriend Zach (Dane DeHaan) really really misses her. In the period right after Beth's passing, Zach and her parents (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) actually get closer as their shared love of Beth brings them together. Then suddenly, Mr. Slocum stops returning Zach's calls and the family hides when he comes to their house. After about three minutes of investigating, Zach discovers that the Slocums are hiding a returned-from-the-dead Beth, who they consider a miracle from the heavens, but is actually her being a zombie who can still talk and reason and not eat human flesh (at least not right away).
Asher Lev is an artist, a fresh-faced, cherubic artist whose paintings horrify his deeply religious Hasidic parents and community. "My gift is demonic and divine. It has the power to hurt and the power to heal," he says at the end of this eloquent 90-minute rumination on the challenges of art and faith, family and responsibility.
Timeline Theatre is staging the Chicago premiere of My Name Is Asher Lev, written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the best-selling 1972 novel about the Brooklyn Hasidic community by author and rabbi Chaim Potok. The three-actor play, directed by Kimberly Senior, is staged on a two-level set with three musicians at side stage. Andrew Hansen's original score for clarinet, cello and violin creates a subtly beautiful undercurrent to the dialogue and ends the play with a klezmer flourish.
I never discuss a film's marketing strategy in my reviews, but I will admit as I was walking into the theater yesterday to check out the new Pierce Brosnan espionage-themed action-thriller The November Man, I happened to glance at the poster by the entrance and saw the tagline "A Spy is Never Out of the Game," and I couldn't help but cringe. Sure, Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a former CIA agent secretly pulled out of retirement to assist with a mission he has a personal stake in, so the tagline makes sense. But of course, what the marketing geniuses are doing is playing with audience's familiarity with Brosnan's most famous film character, James Bond (for you kids out there, he was the super-spy just before Daniel Craig), whom the actor hasn't played in 12 years.
It looks and sounds and bleeds like the Sin City we know and love from 10 years ago, the one co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, based on Miller's insanely popular graphic novels. There are a few familiar faces, a few new ones, narration all over the damn place, and deadly black-and-white images, splattered with blood. But strangely enough Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is missing something that I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's the fact that Rodriguez and Miller haven't given us anything new in terms of the visuals; the almost-entirely CG environments feel the same, which is a shame because it limits the film in its pursuit to distinguish itself from its predecessor.
Marv (Mickey Rourke, seemingly even puffier in makeup than before) is back, still looking for a fight, but always willing to help out a friend. The one thing that isn't clearly explained (if it was, I missed it) is the timeline. Some of the film clearly takes place after Sin City. Bruce Willis' cop Hartigan is still dead but seems to be hovering over the shoulder of his charge, the stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba), trying to discourage her from going after the men who killed him, mostly those controlled by Senator Roark (Powers Booth, who has become more of a caricature villain than anything truly worth being scared of. But we also get stories that take place before the first film. Jaime King shows up as both twin sisters, Goldie and Wendy, one of whom we know dies in Sin City. I don't think the past and present storyline intersect, but jumping back and forth can get tiresome and confusing, especially to those who don't realize that Josh Brolin is playing the same character (pre-plastic surgery) he played in the first film. Good luck with that.
Well, it took them three tries, but Sylvester Stallone and his grizzled gang of tough guys and renegades known as The Expendables finally made a film that I can whole-heartedly recommend. I was not an admirer of the first two films; I saw the appeal, and I may have even laughed a couple of times as the countless dumb jokes about age and virility. But there's something a bit more lived in and knowing (bordering on sensible) about The Expendables 3. And I give a great deal of the credit to two people: new director Patrick Hughes, who made a terrific little Australian movie a few years back called Red Hill (he's also slated to do an English-language remake of the The Raid, but we won't hold that against him...yet); and Mel Gibson, who embraces his villainous personal image to play a bad guy who's actually formidable and worthy of taking on this team.
Honorable mention should go to the great Wesley Snipes as Doc (short for Dr. Death), whose opening-sequence rescue from a high-security prison (he's in for tax evasion, he says; where do they get this stuff?) is one of the best openings of any movie this summer. There's a lot of talk about how "crazy" these old guys are, but Snipes sells it better than anyone in this franchise to date. I also give credit to Harrison Ford as CIA operative Drummer; for the first time in ages, Ford actually looks like he's enjoying himself and fully embracing the idea of being an elderly badass.
Consider for a moment the single most impressive ingredient one can add to food or drink, or really anything for that matter. It is readily available, though seemingly scarce, and most often wasted.
We'll play the sphinx no longer and tell you it is the ingredient of time. It suffuses products with nuance and richness otherwise absent from that made in haste, resulting in tender, smoky briskets and deep, complex scotches. Or the reward is more valuable for the time taken to attain it, offering release as warring patience and hunger are reconciled. That first bite of Hot Doug's or Kuma's is made sweeter by the waiting.
In art, time adds value and gives opportunity for reflection. Temporal remove has helped even our initial reactionary responses to practically every major epochal shift in the arts. Taking time to sit with a work and one's thoughts can greatly broaden the experience of the piece. The brain becomes flush with considerations of time and place, of semiotic interpretation versus emotional reaction.
Sometimes it's best to ignore the source of an adaptation and let the new work stand on its own. That works well with this excellent new adaptation of the 1893 Henrik Ibsen play converted to film in modern dress, as A Master Builder by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The two-hour film, currently showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center with an outstanding cast of seven, immerses us in a story of lust, ambition, ego and envy.
The film closely follows Ibsen's original story -- with one important exception. We meet master builder Halvard Solness as an aging and sick man, tended by nurses and resting in a hospital bed in his office. (Ibsen describes him in the original as "a man no longer young, but healthy and vigorous.") This illness reframes the story of the architect with the monstrous ego and ambition and provides a dreamlike and ambiguous ending.
Director Jonathon Demme has created a film that to my mind is more claustrophobic than a single-setting play. Demme uses extreme closeups of his garrulous characters as well as a small number of tight physical spaces.
I wish I felt more passionately — positive or negative — for the latest attempt to get the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back into the cultural spotlight. Clearly inspired by by the recent wave of superhero movies, this version of the turtles stick to the same basic origin story, but gives the reptiles a little more grit and attitude. Their shells are worn and chipped, their usually colorful green forms are muted and worn in. Their voices still reveal their hyper-teenage brains (with the exception of Johnny Knoxville, inexplicably brought in to voice Leonardo), but they are forced to deal with some very dark and serious situations that could result in some nasty business courtesy of their old enemy Shredder.
The biggest (but far from only) problem with the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the the genuine fun has been all but wiped from these characters. I certainly wasn't looking for a retread, but I was hoping to laugh and smile a bit. Instead, the heroes are being beaten to a pulp, put at real risk of death (or those around them are), and just generally being put in the middle of some truly grim situations. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Darkness Falls, Battle Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) doesn't seem to have any real affection for the turtles, and if he does, it doesn't show. I'm not too traumatized about their new, more humanoid look the way some are, but it doesn't really add much to the film either, the way, I don't know, a story or minor character development might.
High Concept Laboratories is an organization which supports Chicago artists through production services, space for creatives and various forms of administrative assistance. HCL has a wonderful open space located inside of Mana Contemporary, an old warehouse in Pilsen which houses artist studios, and hosts events and shows. This past week on Thursday, HCL hosted an event entitled, "Radical Tenderness" which featured performance, sound, poetry and video as a collective event with a small and intimate audience. Artists Amir George, Sofia Moreno, La Spacer and Anna Vitale, were each featured in the event where they brought their voices, their bodies and their overall energy in depicting the theme for the night.
One of the greatest joys as a film critic (at least this film critic; I would never dare speak for all) is surprise and discovery. It actually happens less and less as trailers, extended clips, and all manner of plot details and ruined secrets become easier to come by, especially as a film's release gets closer and studios begin to panic that audiences won't turn up unless they know as much as they possibly can before they actually sit down to watch the damn movie. But every so often, I'll get an invitation to a press screening or just pay to see something — usually a smaller, indie work — and know nothing about it as the theater goes dark and the projectors lights up. These are not always pleasant surprises, mind you. But every so often, you see something so wonderful that you consider, "Why haven't I heard more about this magnificent film?"
I come from a far-off time and place where you might have gotten one advance trailer and/or one television commercial, plus a single poster and some print ads, promoting a film's release, and that was it. So, I made a deliberate decision about Guardians of the Galaxy many months ago. While I was an avid comic book reader from way back, I'd never been introduced to this particular variation of this team of characters prior to seeing the film last week. To say I went into Guardians with no knowledge of there being a gun-toting, foul-mouthed raccoon or a sentient tree creature wouldn't be accurate, but I did declare a self-imposed moratorium on details on the actual plot of the film beyond the fact that these anti-heroes (who would have been rejected from groups like the Avengers) band together as outcasts to try and save the galaxy. Why do you need to know more?
My biggest complaint about the Dwayne Johnson version of Hercules (not to be confused with the January release The Legend of Hercules, starring Kellan Lutz; actually, no one would mistake the two) is that this fairly entertaining, slightly empty-headed piece would have been over-the-top insane were it not trying so hard to be PG-13. An R-rated Hercules would have ruled the empire. As it is, it's still remarkably violent and hilariously good/bad film from, of all people, director Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour trilogy), who at least is smart enough to let things get silly just when they're on the verge of getting too serious.
The film has an interesting take on the mythology of Hercules, in that it wonders what if the legend were actually a bit of a PR stunt to make Hercules more appealing as a for-hire mercenary. For example, what if the many-headed Hydra he defeated as part of his "Trials" was many not exactly the monster it's been made out to be, or if the three-headed dog Cerberus was actually just three separate dogs that just like to hang out together. In Hercules, the hero has a posse that includes the young Iolaus (Reece Ritchie) who is his personal hype machine, rewriting his every adventure into something bordering on mythology. There are even hints that Hercules may not be the son of Zeus and thus not part god.
In a space the size of my bedroom, Oracle Theatre slaughters and carves up cattle, fights for workers' rights, celebrates a wedding, worships at Christmas, and dies in childbirth. And with rolls of paper and paint, they conjure believable scenes of life in Chicago's Packingtown a century ago. (Take that, large downtown theaters that spend tens of thousands of dollars on scenery.)
Oracle's powerful world premiere production of The Jungle, adapted from the 1906 novel by muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair, makes us viscerally experience the poverty, horrible working conditions and labor strife of immigrant workers and their families.
The play begins with four people setting out from Lithuania to a place called Chicago, where they believe they can get work. Jurgis (Travis Delgado) is tall and strong and ready to work hard. His sweetheart Ona (Stephanie Polt) and her cousin Marija (Havalah Grace) are eager to work too. Marija has her Lithuanian-English dictionary so she can learn English. Even Jurgis' sickly father Antanas (Drew McCubbin) is ready to take a job.
It may be an unwritten rule, but I'm pretty sure it's a rule nonetheless. If you're going to make a movie called Sex Tape about a suburban couple who make a three-hour-long sex tape to spice up their marriage, you have to have nudity for it to be both funny and effective. And when I say nudity, I mean committed baring of all parts from both leads, and not some Cameron Diaz ass double. Hire someone who is both funny and willing to commit to the conceit of the film. We know from films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall that Jason Segel (playing Diaz's husband, Jay) is not against going full frontal for laughs. I'm not saying we needed prolonged actual sex acts on screen, but give us some amount of nudity to enhance to laughs, because putting it all out there can be very funny.
Sex Tape actually does have one example of someone going the extra distance, although not in a naked way, and that person is Rob Lowe, who plays Hank, the mild-mannered CEO of a company looking to buy Annie's (Diaz) mommy blog. He has outlined a fairly conservative image he'd like Annie to project, and a leaked sex tape is not part of that image. When she and Jay end up at Hank's house, he has a prolonged conversation with Annie that gets stranger and more deranged with each passing second, and it's hilarious... while the rest of the movie struggles to generate consistent laughs.
Most theater productions romanticize a fictional hero, exemplifying what it means to be a character fighting for something they believe in, finding their destined path or even leading a revolution. Dorothy finding her way home in Wizard of Oz. Harold Hill becoming the town hero in The Music Man. Tracy Turnbald taking a stand against racism in Hairspray. Rarely do we root for the villain. But Kokandy Productions revival of Sondheim's Assassins demonstrates why we should at least listen to them.
Assassins, originally produced in the early '90s, takes audiences inside the maniacal minds of well-known assassins (and several wannabes.) Real-life villains such as John Wilkes Booth (Eric Lindahl), Lee Harvey Oswald (Nathan Gardner) and Charles Guiteau (Greg Foster) use a carnival as the backdrop to tell the story of how they reached their breaking point. For some, it was out of their own despair and self-loathing, wanting to make a mark of their own on history. For others, it was about making a greater statement. But these people, while misguided, have their own stories to tell, making the overall theme of Assassins even more relevant today.
In order for me to take a good hard look at the best and worst in human behavior, I had to see a "lesser" species turn our guns on us in a movie. And no, that's not any kind of crack about gun control; it's just what happens in the movie, and the impact is gut wrenching. Imagine if the man-apes from the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey went from pounding each other on the heads with bones to picking up machine guns and mowing each other down to establish dominance, and you may have some idea of the impact of seeing the spiritually compromised ape Koba (motion-capture acted by the brilliant Toby Kebbell) riding horseback through a run-down, overgrown San Francisco with machine guns blazing in each hand. You'll probably laugh a little before you shudder.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set 10 years after two simultaneous events occurred (as shown in Rise of the Planet of the Apes): some kind of man-made simian flu was released, killing off nearly all human life on Earth (through the bug and the resulting societal violence); and a drug designed to repair brain cells and increase intelligence was set loose into the ape population, resulting in the world's first talking ape, named Caesar (once again played with a combination of deep thought and unfiltered rage by Andy Serkis), who has since become the ape world's natural leader. It's a little unclear how far-reaching this smart-ape phenomenon has spread, but when the few remaining humans in San Francisco first come in contact with Caesar's tribe, they are shocked to hear them speak, let alone reason and organize. For all we know, Caesar's group is the only of its kind; I suspect in the sequel to this film, we'll find out for sure. But I digress...
Not that this should influence your like or dislike of Tammy, the new film starring and co-written (with her director husband, Ben Falcone) by Melissa McCarthy, but this was supposed be McCarthy at her most pure and unfiltered — a raw, R-rated, take-no-prisoners variation of the McCarthy personality (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief), birthed in improv performances in New York and Los Angeles, and put up on the screen like the perfect trophy head mounted on a hunter's wall. This was supposed to be the best that she's got. Oh boy...
There are fine performances in Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's Eat Your Heart Out, directed by Hallie Gordon; more than a few are heartfelt, from a cast giving their gut-load of emotion, and grinding down the observer's derision into an empathy stew for her characters. Going forward, I'll try to keep the food analogies to a minimum, but bear me one more: there is much too much being served at playwright Courtney Baron's banquet.
Andrew Goetten (Colin) and Anne Joy (Evie) Photo by Joe Mazza.
Eat Your Heart Out is a one-act play that has three full acts in full swing production, and works well until about three-quarters in, when it runs out of steam, veering from quietly compelling character study successfully intertwining the life events of six people in the tradition of Robert Altman to taking shelter in Marshall Zwick's "thirtysomething" self-righteous cul de sac. Even the background music selected for the closing scene seems chosen from the post-Crash of '87 sincerity bin at Benetton. But, that first three-quarters of the play is certainly something to chew on.
If you've already decided a) "All Michael Bay films suck and I won't go see any of them ever," b) "All Michael Bay films suck, but I can't stop going to see them," or c) "I love Michael Bay and/or Transformers movies," you can probably step away from your computer for a little while, because I don't think I'm going to change your mind on any of these opinions. I guess I'm aiming my sites at the undecided voters with an open mind who are willing to take every movie on its own merit, and don't see or discuss movies simply to show how witty they are and how many clever ways they can find to shit on a film they're too cool to enjoy.
Now make no mistake, I'm not here to defend or endorse Transformers: Age of Extinction; there's just too much wrong with the movie to encourage all but the diehards to see it. But I'm of a firm belief that anyone who dismisses the film with a single sweeping "it sucks" gesture, made up their minds about the film long before they stepped into the theater.
Most romantic relationships are doomed to fail. It can happen instantly, over a doctored profile picture or a terrible first date. Or it can take years, as time, distance, and other worldly forces wear away the bond holding two people together.
Then we do it all over again.
And do it, and do it, and do it, do it, do it.
It's easy to get discouraged in the face of almost certain failure, but with quick-fire humor and surprising depth, Dating: Adults Embracing Failure shows that even heartbreak can be hilarious.
Tim Musachio and David Vogel. Photo by Tim Knight.
Sam Shepard is known for his in-your-face, verbally and physically violent brawls between brothers or between fathers and sons. His plays like True West, Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child helped Steppenwolf create its reputation for confrontational theater. He also influenced playwrights like Martin McDonagh, whose 1997 play Lonesome West pits brother against brother in a Shepardesque (and very Irish) way.
The Artistic Home takes up the fourth Shepard play in that lineage, The Late Henry Moss, and gives it a rousing 2.5 hour production in its storefront space on Grand Avenue. Despite opening night lighting glitches, the production clearly shows the acting chops of this ensemble.
As the play opens, Henry Moss (Frank Nall), although already dead, dances to "Besame Mucho" with his lover, Conchalla (the sexy and charismatic Yadira Correa). Then he takes on the corpse position, completely covered by a blanket on a cot in a rundown cabin in the New Mexico desert near Bernalillo. His older son, Earl (David Vogel), sits on a chair at his side. Earl has arrived from New York, summoned by neighbor Esteban (Arvin Jalandoon), who thought Henry was "in trouble." Soon his younger brother Ray (Tim Musachio) arrives from California and the fraternal fun begins.
I was talking to a friend recently about Purple Rain, a film I hold very near and dear to my heart while still recognizing (now more so than ever) its deep, deep flaws. During the conversation, I admitted that after a few months of fast forwarding through the story to get to the live performances, I eventually edited together a version of the film that was nothing but the musical moments and subsequently wore out that tape in short order. I hadn't really thought about having done that until watching director Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys, because I realized after one viewing that if I ever watched it again, I would have to be able to skip through the energy-free story to get to the stunning music sections.
I never saw the stage version of Jersey Boys for the simple reason that I'm not a fan of musicals that take the greatest hits of a band and manufacture a story around the songs (I'm looking at you Mamma Mia, Movin' Out, We Will Rock You and I guess Rock of Ages; I'll give American Idiot a slight pass only because it's based on a concept album that essentially was one story set to music). But Jersey Boys always intrigued me because it was the only one of these types of musicals whose plot was the actual story of the group whose music they were using — sort of a biopic on stage. So converting it to the big screen didn't seem like that much of a stretch, and I truly love the music of The Four Seasons and their front man, Frankie Valli.
The real question shouldn't be whether 22 Jump Street is more or less funny than the first film about two undercover cops (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) who infiltrate a high school drug ring; the real question should is it funny at all. Even if 22 Jump Street is slightly less funny than 21 Jump Street, that's still better than most comedies that have been released this year thus far. But all of these questions are arbitrary because the new film is just as funny as the first, maybe for different reasons. There are still plenty of laughs, many of them made at the expense of action movie sequels as an institution and rightfully so.
One of things that made the first movie so funny was the idea that Tatum's Jenko and Hill's Schmidt could ever pass for high school students; and let's face it, their days of passing as college age are pretty far behind them too, so jokes about how old they look still play great. Hill takes especially brutal verbal abuse from his girlfriend's roommate, played Jillian Bell, a former "SNL" writer and regular on "Workaholics," "Eastbound & Down" and supporting player in The Master and Bridesmaids, as well as the funniest thing in this movie. The story's new blood really does make the film a better place in general, especially Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) as football star Zook, who quickly becomes best buds with Jenko. Returning players, such as Ice Cube and Nick Offerman, offer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) the perfect chance to skewer sequels, but it's these new faces that push the story forward.
Painters and paintings: this is a special relationship because there are so few relationships we get ourselves into where we cannot hide one little aspect of ourselves. Paint sits on the canvas looking back at us, as painters, mocking our attempt to run from the ugliness, shame and overall lack we carry with us day in and day out. That mocking sits in the studio for years, staring back at us telling us, in full color, what steps need to be taken and what changes need to be made. This is a conversation being had directly with us in full Dolby surround sound, around the clock, and it is still the hardest work as a painter to hear it, follow it and trust it.
If you are not a painter, this might be difficult to understand, but know that when a painter puts a mark on a page it says something. No matter how controlled or meticulously the painter works to hide their hand, there is always something there screaming back at us that we didn't intend. That's a message directly from a part of us that we do not have deliberate conscious access to. As painters we look to describe our work, in writing, to others, but because we don't have direct access to that information the paintings are telling us we go straight to what we, as painters, think we are offering the world.
You realize almost instantly, and for so many reasons, that the new sci-fi adventure Edge of Tomorrow is different than what has come before it. Not because the story at its core is so different — an alien race called Mimics is slowly taking over Europe in a way that strangely mirrors World War II-era Nazi Germany and it's up to a united global fighting force to stop them — but because of the way that story reveals itself over and over again. But even before we get to the film's masterful gimmick, something else is unusual about the movie: Tom Cruise is cast as a coward. He plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, which sound like a rough and tough rank and name, but he's actually a guy responsible for getting others to join the fight; he's a marketing guy for the new global fighting force.
But when the head of the troops, Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), orders him to join the first wave of a major push against the aliens on the shores of France to film the event for recruitment purposes, Cage balks and politely refuses since he had no combat experience, leading to him being thrown in cuffs and forced onto the front lines or be labeled a deserter and traitor. Under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), Cage is tossed in with a rag-tag group of soldiers and soon placed in a weaponized exo-skeleton (apparently the fighting machine of choice in the future) and dropped into the thick of it, where it's clear the enemy has been waiting for a sneak attack. Not surprisingly, within the first five minutes of being on the ground, Cage is killed.
Seth Bockley's new play, Ask Aunt Susan, is a smart, funny 90-minute tear through today's era of digital connections and a cri de coeur for a slower pace and a little more humanity in our personal relationships. Or is it?
As the play opens, multiple video screens assault us with existential questions: "Are you lonely?" "Are you sad? Afraid? In debt? Obese?"
An anonymous young man (Alex Stage), immersed in his laptop, sits in a diner consuming coffee and creating content and code. His company has been found guilty of defrauding Yelp with fake user reviews (for a price, of course). His girlfriend Betty (Meghan Reardon), an aspiring actor, is interested in learning "to radiate love," not so much in technology.
The young man's boss, the manic Steve (Marc Grapey), as a joke, tells the young man that he wants him to start writing an online advice column as Aunt Susan. Young man answers a few messages in a corny, affectionate, greeting-card style. They're posted on an Ask Aunt Susan community site, and traffic quickly increases. Young man feels the power of his words and becomes Aunt Susan, reveling in his ability to help people overcome their problems and grief. He's famous, but he wonders, "Anonymous fame? Is that even a thing?"
Here's a solution for the problem of homelessness. Gather up the homeless and give them the choice of joining the military, leaving the country, or moving to a center for special training. The latter group is assigned to wealthy people to perform household and personal chores. In Sideshow Theatre Company's Tyrant, Congress does that one year from now with the US Rectification Act, which allows "rectifees" to be "actualized" by the presumably well-intentioned 1 percent (or perhaps 10 percent).
Kathleen Akerley's world premiere play shows us the result 20 years later. Martin (Matt Fletcher) is one of those well-intentioned philanthropists, who has been recognized for having actualized the most rectifees to date. "Actualization" means buying the rectifee and providing food and shelter. Buy? Yes, that does sound like what we thought was outlawed in 1863 and certainly in 1868 with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. But the homeless problem became very serious and Congress found a workaround to the 14th. (The play makes no mention of denial of civil liberties. The future arrives as predicted and somehow we learn to live with it.)
I'm a bit confused as to why this film even exists, but it's not because I don't believe in retelling a classic animated fairy tale as live action works — albeit told from the perspective of its dark and mysterious villain. And I don't even mind that the writers of Maleficent gave the evil queen (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie, with more severe cheeks than she has in real life thanks to some subtle prosthetics) a backstory that explains why Maleficent had it out for Sleeping Beauty, her family and their kingdom. I guess the elements of this movie that kept me scratching my head was why they felt the need to surgically remove nearly all traces of Maleficent's evil nature and have her become something of a stepmother and role model for the pre-sleeping Aurora (Elle Fanning).
I'll admit, I was impressed by the attempted scope of X-Men: Days of Future Past even before I saw the film. What I'd deduced was that screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer (who directed the first two X-Men chapters) were finding a way to incorporate the casts of the original, modern-set X-Men films and '60s-'70s-era original team from X-Men: First Class. What I had not anticipated (and this may be a failing on may part) was that Singer and company would attempt to use Days of Future Past as a way to line up, course correct and incorporate elements from all of the other X-Men films (including the dreaded X-Men: The Last Stand and the even worse X-Men Origins: Wolverine) in an attempt to make this particular cinematic universe feel more cohesive. And for the most part, they pretty much nailed it.
Days of Future Past is a crowded affair with an unbelievable amount of plot — enough to cover three films, it feels like. But if you're fairly well versed in the other X-Men films, you should do alright. The story begins in the future, in a world where mutants are largely extinct after decades of being hunted by giant robots called Sentinels, who not only target mutants, but also hunt those with latent mutant genes that may one day be passed on to create mutants as well as anyone who helps mutants hide, escape or otherwise avoid death. In other words, this version of Earth is fairly grim. But a few survivors have come up with a far-fetched plan to send a message 50 years back in time, to a specific moment when history changed course and resulted in this desolate world.
Charles Ives Take Me Home at Strawdog Theater is a strong show with no lack of laughs or message. This is a three person show consisting of:
• Composer Charles Ives (Jamie Vann) who see the world from a Zen place of inner peace.
• John Starr (David Belden), whose life and surroundings need to be bent to his own ideas and as a father the social structure of dominating his daughter is well in place.
• Laura Starr (Stephanie Chavara), daughter of John and the energetic driving piece to puzzle.
Court Theatre opened its new production of David Henry Hwang's 1988 hit play, M. Butterfly, in Hyde Park last weekend. The powerful and tragic story is always fascinating but Court's production Saturday night did not flow as smoothly as most shows by artistic director Charles Newell. Everything about this play should work to seduce, mislead, confuse and surprise us. Perhaps it's because we now know the story so well, but the Court production doesn't quite hit the mark.
Sean Fortunato, one of Chicago's talented actors, plays a wrenchingly sad and tortured Rene Gallimard, the mid-level French foreign service officer posted to Beijing with his European wife Helga (very well played by Karen Woditsch). The play opens in 1980, as he is imprisoned for treason for passing diplomatic secrets to his Chinese inamorata, the butterfly of the title. Rene tells us his story is based on Puccini's Madame Butterfly, with himself as Pinkerton and his lover as Cio-Cio-San, the Chinese feminine ideal in the opera. The play proceeds in flashbacks to the early 1960s, and in dreams, sometimes back to his childhood and teenaged years.
Drew Schad and Kate LoConti in Shattered Globe Theatre's production of Mill Fire. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Playwright Sally Nemeth's Mill Fire would be perfect for these times and this place - if "these times" were 1996 and "this place" was the Lifetime for Women movie channel. Mill Fire was dated, stereotypical and melodramatic before Nemeth typed her last line.
The time is 1979, the place L.A. (Lower Alabama), and everyone knows everyone. All of the women stay at home, and all of the men work at the mill. We have our stereotypical young couple in Marlene (Kate LoConti, who happens to bare a striking resemblance to Deadwood's Molly Parker. Like Parker, LoConti shows a fine acting range and I hope she can find better parts moving forward in her career) and Champ (Drew Schad). Marlene and Champ are young, horny and in love. On the other end of the spectrum there's Sunny (Rebecca Jordan) and Bo (Ken Bradley). Sunny's a mean lush of a woman (though a tidy homemaker) married to a subtly implied impotent Bo; his impotence is blamed on a Vietnam War injury, but with a wife like Sunny to come home to, who really knows what the cause of Bo's impotence is?
Longshoreman Eddie Carbone's (Ramon Camin) life is of simple décor. As with most working class sons of first generation immigrants, he wakes up early to chase the work. Some days the work at the docks is plentiful, some days, not so much. But Eddie and his friends and neighbors chase and gently push their way to some kind of an American Dream. After all, they're still better off than the word that comes from their ancestral homeland of Italy, which lies in a heap of destitution and desperation, the world's big "F-U" for being on the wrong side of World War II.
Matters not that his wage earning is catch-as-catch-can, Eddie carries on his grateful prose that his father set sail years before and saved him from the Neapolitan wretchedness that wife Beatrice's (Sandra Marquez) cousins, Rodolpho (Tommy Rivera-Vega) and Marco (Eddie Diaz) are running from when they arrive as illegal immigrants, living with the couple and their orphaned niece Catherine while things shake out for the better.
Although I've already written about this at length, but I just wanted to remind those of you who only read this column every Friday. The Chicago Film Critics Association programmers (myself included) have put together a variety of tremendous films that cover every genre and type of filmmaking, all playing at the Music Box Theatre, May 9-15. The festival features 23 Chicago premieres and two shorts programs, totaling 14 shorts between them. And I couldn't be more excited and proud to a part of this year's event once again.
As we did last year, we've got some great guests doing post-screening Q&As, including directors David Wain (They Came Together), Bobcat Goldthwaite (Willow Creek), Jordan Vogt-Roberts (American Ham) and Collin Schiffli (Animals), as well as actors Dick Miller (That Guy Dick Miller and A Bucket of Blood double-bill), Martin Starr & Jocelyn DeBoer (Dead Snow: Red vs. Dead) and David Dastmalchian (Animals).
The Peanut Gallery, a small creative space in Humboldt Park, is featuring the artist Derek Weber until May 18 for his exhibition entitled Melting. Weber's work is all-encompassing -- ranging from drawings, video, installation and sound. The exhibition at the Peanut Gallery focuses on the natural world, sensory elements and psychedelia within the work of Weber's various mediums.
Upon entering the space, there is an overhead projector which shoots a surreal and unearthly image onto a white wall, while on the other side a more familiar scene is being displayed -- swimming at Devil's Lake. Throughout the exhibition, familiar, yet hypnagogic images can be examined by the viewer.
Derek Weber's interest in all mediums is something that creates a sensory successful exhibition. He includes CDs, pins, photographs and interactive black lights while walking through Melting.
The Peanut Gallery is free and open to the public. It is located at 1000 N. California Ave.
I don't care about Peter Parker's parents. I don't care if they're alive or dead; if they're traitors or patriots; if they're spies or scientists; if they work for Oscorp or Donald Trump; if they're human or alien. I didn't care about them in the comic books, and nothing that's been presented about them in two Amazing Spider-Man movies has made me care about them any more. I'm a great admirer of other performances by Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, who play Richard and Mary Parker, but they do nothing for me in these films. And no, simply eliminating all scenes and references to them in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn't come close to solving the problems I had with it, but it would have shortened an overlong movie to a more suitable length and made what doesn't work seem far less painful.
Death-Defying Acts is a 1995 set of one-act plays by three brilliant playwrights: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. That would mean an evening of incisive wit, devastating comedy and a twist or two of angst, right? Unfortunately, the new production at Saint Sebastian Players doesn't quite live up to expectations.
In Mamet's The Interview, The Lawyer (Brooks Applegate) is interviewed by The Attendant (Kathryn Haynes) about his life and crimes. The setting is gray, and yes, Kafkaesque. Did he borrow his neighbor's lawnmower and bury it? The Lawyer tries to argue his way out of it. The Attendant ignores him from time to time and relaxes, reading copies of the comic book, Ghost Rider. Ultimately, he is admitted -- or sentenced. His crimes? "You passed the bar, but failed to live forever." The play is occasionally funny but has little of the toughly poetic Mamet dialogue we expect.
In May's Hotline, Ken (Josh Leeper) is a nervous new counselor in a suicide call center. His colleague Marty (Brian Vabulas) and supervisor Dr. Russell (Joe Ogiony) guide him through his first calls.
(left to right) Dan Waller, Carolyn Klein, Michael Grant and Jamie L. Young in Lay Me Down Softly Photo by Emily Schwartz.
Playwright Billy Roche weaves a rough and intricate character study in Lay Me Down Softly, presented in its gristly, sawdust-laden glory by the Seanachaí Theatre Company through May 25.
Delaney's Traveling Roadshow hits every Irish countryside skid with its troupe of fake bearded ladies, fake rifle ranges, and the high-profit item of fake boxing ring challenges. It's the 1960s — somewhere else in the world, anyway. But for Theo (Jeff Christian) and his dysfunctional troupe of fools, the last 50 years never happened.
Even if Detroit is a hpllowed-out, dilapidated version of its former self, at least for the foreseeable future it can serve as a modern dystopian location for all sorts of films, including Brick Mansions, an American remake of the energetic and enjoyable French actions District B13, which introduced many of us to David Belle, one of the founders of the action style known as parkour. As with the original, this film is working from a script by Luc Besson and Bibi Naceri, and is nearly an identical story of corruption, social injustice and lawlessness on both sides of the financial equation.
In this version of the story, set just a few years into the future, Belle plays Lino, who is determined to clean up the drugs and related bad behaviors in a walled-off section of Detroit called Brick Mansions (referred to the housing projects inside the walls). The criminal leader running the drug trade is Tremaine (RZA), and he's out for revenge against Lino after the self-appointed crime fighter steals a great deal of heroin from him and essentially flushes it. Using his incredible acrobatics, he escapes capture, but that only forces Tremaine to set his sights on Lino's ex-girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis), whom he kidnaps and holds onto, waiting for Lino to come get her.
Loneliness, regrets, friendship, humor, and a little maternal instinct season A Red Orchid Theatre's new play, Mud Blue Sky. Director Shade Murray gets the most out of Marisa Wegrzyn's fine script, which revolves around airport life.
The tiny Red Orchid space on Wells Street is perfect for the claustrophobic story of three very mature flight attendant friends on a layover at a hotel near O'Hare. Beth (Natalie West) and Sam (Mierka Girten) are still flying ("the taxi's coming at 5:30 tomorrow morning"). Angie (Kirsten Fitzgerald) lost her job recently and now lives in a Chicago suburb.
As the play opens, Beth arrives in her room exhausted and suffering from back pain; she can't wait to change clothes and relax. Sam wants to hit a bar and meet their friend Angie. But Beth declines and we find out why when she leaves to meet her young friend Jonathan (Matt Farabee) to buy a joint. Matt, in a rented tuxedo, is not having a good prom night; his date ditched him. Beth is his regular customer, and, it turns out, was his first sale, when they met at the Denver airport. Jonathan was carrying pot in his underwear and Beth saved him from being discovered by the TSA drug dog. That led him to start selling pot at school, and, all of a sudden, he says, "I was cool."
Transcendence is one of those science-fiction works you foolishly allow yourself to get excited about because a whole lot of smart, talented people are involved in its conception and execution. The pedigree includes executive producer Christopher Nolan, first-time director (and Nolan's constant director of photography) Wally Pfister, and actors Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Clifton Collins, Jr., to name a few. Even the concept is intriguing: what if one of the world's most authoritative minds on artificial intelligence is able to have his memories and mind placed online, where he could have access to literally everything to world has to offer?
But wait, you say, a scientist putting his brain on a computer? Didn't I just see that as a subplot in the new Captain America movie (and a few other films dating back to the 1980s)? Yes and yes, but Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is no ordinary scientist; he's someone who believes that such an achievement can lead to giant leaps in research, medicine, security and many other things useful to human kind, far away from the prying eyes and weaponizing hands of the government and military. He would be the first computer with an emotional core, which was kept in check (in theory) by his loving wife Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Water (Bettany), both scientists as well. Dr. Caster calls this state of computer-human mind meld "transcendence," and what could possibly go wrong?
"If you could kindly remember what we've told you to forget, please," is the undercurrent that takes hold of Jaime (Brett Schneider) in The Great God Pan just as he's settling into a new job as an internet wunderkind journalist and the idea of girlfriend Paige's (Kristina Valada-Vlars) "unplanned" pregnancy. The job is what he lives for, while he is still so unsure of committing to the woman he's been with for six years that upon Paige's pregnancy announcement, Jaime negotiates for "one week, just one week" before he will let her know if he's ready and willing to stay and be a permanent fixture in her and the child's life.
The House Theatre opened its new show this week and it pulsates with light, sound, color and movement. Dorian is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, written by Ben Lobpries and Tommy Rapley and directed by Rapley.
The well-known story of Dorian--the man who didn't age while his portrait did--is beautifully staged in "promenade style" by House. The main-floor theater space at Chopin Theatre is opened up by eliminating all but a few rows of seats. The stage becomes an art gallery, and sometimes a performance or a club scene, with members of the audience mingling with the actors.
Basil, the artist who paints the portrait and falls in love with his subject, is played by the talented Chicago actor Patrick Andrews. Dorian is played by Cole Simon, a relative newcomer to Chicago, just as his character is a newcomer to the art and social scene in the play. Dorian begins as a rather shy and naïve person and becomes arrogant and self-centered as praise is heaped on his beauty. Years after the portrait is painted, his friends have aged, but Dorian appears the same, while the portrait, hidden from view, takes on strange characteristics.
If Ivan Reitman's first film since No Strings Attached three years ago and his first truly enjoyable film in about 20 years was just about the general manager of an NFL football team (in this case, the Cleveland Browns for no particular reason) wheeling and dealing in the hours leading up to the draft, I would have thought it an interesting choice. But when you cast Kevin Costner, arguably the king of sports films that actually have heart (Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup), as general manager Sonny Weaver Jr., it means something and adds something to the overall significance of what's going in this behind-the-scenes look inside and outside the organization.
Costner doesn't play this role as a slick insider who manipulates to get what he wants, despite what the team's coach (Denis Leary), owner (Frank Langella) or money manager (Jennifer Garner) say. That's exactly what he is, but he doesn't play it that way. Instead, Sonny is a man trying to live in the shadow of his late father, a hero to the organization; deal with a pestering mother (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (a marginalized Rosanna Arquette); and process the news that his girlfriend Ali (that would also be Garner) just found out she's pregnant.
The latest installment in the Captain America story reminds us that although the super soldier (still played/embodied by Chris Evans) can make short work out of a cosmically enhanced Red Skull and an invading horde of aliens with his Avengers pals, the greatest threat to mankind is itself. In this case, it's a shadow organization that literally has the means to decide who lives and dies on the planet to make it a more peaceful/docile place to live.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is many things, and most of them work. It's a fit and proper sequel to both Captain America and The Avengers; it's a political thriller steeped in healthy fear of technology; it's a fleshed-out, highly watchable expanded episode of the ABC series "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." (if you're still watching it, make sure to see this week's episode before you head to Winter Soldier for an added bit of fun); it introduces some of the most interesting and useful new characters (good and bad guys) that we've seen in a while — that includes you, Hawkeye; and it's just a magnificently plotted and paced action film that uses Captain America's past as a device to haunt and alter his present and future.
There's a sequence in director and co-writer (with Ari Handel) Darren Aronofsky's Noah in which the title character (Russell Crowe) is relaying to one of his children the story of creation, pretty much word for word right as we know it from the Bible — six days, ending in the creation of man and woman. But the visuals that accompany this telling are what makes the sequence so magnificent, and in many ways, best explain Aronofsky's take of his version of Noah, his ark, the great flood, and the restart that humanity and civilization got as a result of said event.
What we see when being told the creationism version of life on Earth is actually the scientific version, including evolution — a creature crawls up out of the water, stands upright and takes on human qualities. It's all shown in an accelerated manner, but there's no doubt that Aronofsky isn't so much placating both sides of the discussion; he's attempting to find a way to see if both versions would exist in the same universe. It's as if he's saying, "Let's assume all of these events happened as written in the Bible. How would that be possible?" In some cases, the answer is simply, "It isn't." But in other cases, he attempts to find ways in which religious mysticism and hard fact work together to create circumstances and beings that might be easier to accept.
There are times while watching Divergent where I felt like I needed a flow chart to keep track of all of the various factions that exist in this tiny corner of the earth that looks a lot like a run-down, grown-over Chicago, where Lake Michigan and the Chicago River have all but dried up, and apparently it's possible to zip line from the top of the Hancock Building to somewhere in the Loop. That part of the film is actually pretty cool. But basically all you need to know (and accept) about this caste system is that this existence is divided into five groups, including ones made up of the intelligentsia, warriors, truth tellers, hippies and the selfless, who are for whatever reason deemed the most worthy to be the leaders of this weirdly utopian society formed after some vague war. At the age of 16, all youngsters much choose what group they want to be a part of, and if they are rejected by their chosen group, they are cast out of society.
August Wilson's King Hedley II is a stroll down the memory lane of America's nightmare; you know, when "The Dream" — Horatio Alger's and Martin Luther King's — began the stroll down the sugar-to-shit American boulevard. For poor and working class blacks, most of whom had spent the '70s making catch-as-catch-can attempts to grasp the book-ended economic and social stability, as if those things were swirling money in one of those game show cash blowing machines. Some grabbed a little, some grabbed a lot, but then the Republican Southern Strategy, white flight/urban blight, Alan Bakke's anti-affirmative victory, and the election of Ronald Reagan roll in on a tsunami wave of hatred of "others" (no matter that the "others" ancestors built this nation-for free). Oh, and then came the crack and the Rockefeller drug laws. Yes, there were those that fought, and continue to fight, the good fight. But most gave up and gave in, turning over body and soul to the political and social ravages customized and perfected just for them.
King (Rob Connor) is scarred for life in every way imaginable. He's done prison time for killing a casual acquaintance who started off by "joking" with King (think Frank Vincent's Bobby Batts "joking around" with Joe Pesci's Tommy in Goodfellas) and a few days later delivers the punchline by slicing King's face open. Of course King responds with a hail of bullets. Black life and death (or, as Don King coined the phrase, "nigga' tragedies") not being worth much, King does seven years of time, and gets out to find the woman who raised him is dead. Neecy, his one true love, is also dead, but the woman who gave birth to him, the party girl who's gone to seed Ruby (Taron Patton), is still around. King moves in and makes do with consolation-prize wife Tonya (Tiffany Addison), a woman cursed with fighting against the ghost of the past in Neecy, and quite possibly a ghost of the future, her King.
A woman arrives alone at a roadside motel somewhere in Iowa. She pays the motel manager for a week with a wad of cash. "Really? No credit card?" he says. She has luggage and immediately orders in a large supply of snacks and wine coolers -- and pays the delivery guy with cash.
She's Clem, played by Elizabeth Birnkrant, and she isn't explaining why there are two child car seats in the back of her Volvo SUV. Step Up Productions' new world premiere of Darlin' by Chicago playwright Joshua Rollins begins with Clem as the mystery woman, who meets the other denizens of the no-name motel and learns that each deals with questions like, "How did I get here? How did this become my life?" Later we learn that Clem is fighting these same questions.
So I guess there's a video game called "Need for Speed" that in at least some versions involves driving across the country, not unlike the plot of the new film version, made by former stuntman and Act of Valor director Scott Waugh. Much as he did with Act of Valor, Waugh has emphasized authenticity. In his military movie, he used real members of the military. And in a film that recalls quite frequently the great muscle car films of the 1960s and '70s, the new film features no computer-enhanced stunt work, instead allowing real cars to race at top speeds, often wrecking spectacularly. And anyone who thinks it doesn't make a difference is fooling themselves. The stunts in Need for Speed look and feel undeniably dangerous.
Granted, a film featuring grown men sitting around revving their engines as loud as they can, as well as a sequence involving a character forced to take an office job suddenly strip naked and walk outside in just his socks clearly isn't emphasizing character development, but anything would have helped make me care about these gear heads. I never quite understood why guys who race cars in movies also have to prove they they can beat another driver up, or why any of the drivers or mechanics insist on constantly measuring each other's penises to see whose has the most horsepower. There's a whole lot of posing in Need for Speed, and it borders on distracting.
Encircling the Logan Center walls and spreading out like a scroll are the six large projections by the cinematographer and photographer, Yang Fudong. The exhibition, both a film and installation, is titled East of the Que Village, and features a rural area where Fudong grew up.
Upon entering the gallery space, I was struck by black and white film projections on each wall. As I stood in the middle, slowly circling my body to face each screen, I noticed people, rural locations, isolation and most importantly, wild dogs. Lots and lots of ravenous and skeletal dogs--fighting over meat, sanity and space.
As I rotated my body to face each of the projections, I continued to glance back at the dogs. I can't remember if it was their loud growls and bellows that attracted me or their savage existence to simply survive, however, my interest was incredibly sparked for further observation. Once I watched the film for a great amount of time, I began to connect the story between the separate screens. The stray dogs and the humans are all tied together into one, creating a pseudo-documentary which is united because of one young crippled dog.
The East of the Que Village exhibition will be up until to Sunday, March 30 at the Logan Center which is located at 915 E. 60th St. Yang Fudong's film is a documentation of his memories and time spent in his hometown. The dogs were pre-ordered, the locations scouted, but the environment and individuals are very real. Check out more Logan Center events/news on their Facebook and Tumblr page.
I can almost guarantee that if I went back for a second viewing of the new Liam Neeson air marshall thriller Non-Stop, I'd spend a lot of its running time saying, "How the hell did the bad guys find out X about Neeson?" And that's for the plain and simple reason that the villains in this film seem to have the uncanny ability to see through luggage, doors and minds and be able to know exactly what every single person on this New York City-to-London plane is going to do next, especially US Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson). And that's just the jumping off point to a whole slew of questionable plausibility issues the film has. But if you can set those aside, and just assume that none of these leaps of faith is really that logical, you might have a blast watching this movie.
We learn or suspect fairly early on that Marks is a troubled man. We hear his side of a phone conversation at the beginning of the film in which he is clearly trying to get out of flying that particular day. He's a near-broken man who orders a stiff drink when he takes his first-class seat; the flight attendant (who clearly knows him) brings him a bottle of water instead. We suspect he's suffered a loss of some sort, coupled with alcoholic tendencies (to what degree, we don't know immediately), and to put him on a long flight charged with protecting the passengers seems like a bad idea. In many ways, he's playing the same character he did in The Grey, minus the wolf punching.
The one overwhelmingly positive thing I can say about the latest disaster film Pompeii is that the volcano eruption sequence is spectacular. Does anything else really matter to you? If so, you're going to likely be hating life and wishing for death by ash and fiery magma by the end of this film, which fancies itself the imperfect hybrid rip-off of Gladiator and Titanic. We have the lowly slave Milo (Kit Harington, Jon Snow in "Games of Thrones") whose parents were slaughtered when he was a child in a battle waged by Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland, clearly believing he's auditioning for Loki's understudy in the next Thor movie). He's spent his life becoming the perfect gladiator, with revenge in his heart.
On the road to a big tournament in Pompeii, Milo first lays eyes on Cassia (Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch), the untouchable daughter of upper-class citizens Severus and Aurelia (Jared Harris and Carrie-Anne Moss), who is returning after a year in Rome with her lady servant Ariadne (Jessica Lucas, from the Evil Dead remake). Cassia left Rome because she was relentlessly pursued by the creepy Corvus, who is in fact on his way to Pompeii to listen to plans from her father on improving the city with the emperor's investment. But Corvus is such a scumbag, he not only threatens to not recommend that the emperor fund these infrastructure upgrades if Cassia won't marry him, but tell the emperor that the family spoke ill of him, thus assuring their execution.
Perhaps the biggest thing the new RoboCop film has going for it is that is largely abandons the plot of the first film and uses certain elements of the 1987 source material to make it its own monster. Hey, if you're going to remake a great movie, you might as well try to make it your own rather than a dim copy. The job at hand is still to make the streets of America safe for both citizens and police officers. In order to do that, the robotics company OmniCorp has devised various types of mechanized law enforcement robots, including ones that have a vaguely humanoid form. The robots are already used in cities all over the world as a police force, and by the U.S military in the ongoing war on terror instead of soldiers. But because Americans don't like the idea that the robots don't have more discerning human characteristics and would shoot an 8-year-old holding a knife because it's programmed to, there's actually a Congressional ban on robots keeping the peace.
So OmniCorp chief Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) and its top scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) come up with a way to put a human face on their robots... literally. When Detroit undercover cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is blown to bits by the bad guys who have figured out he's police, the scientists take over and manage to save his head, esophagus, lungs and one hand (I'm not making this up) — just enough to build a body around him that makes him the perfect, thinking mechanical cop. But OmniCorp soon discovers two things: a partly human robot is slower than a full robot because it hesitates before it shoots, and a robot with a human brain has nightmares and violent flashbacks to his near-death experience. To cope, Dr. Norton must "adjust" Murphy's brain to make him more robot, thus eliminating any emotions he might have, partciularly about his wife Clara (Abbie Cornish) and young son.
Is the story if the real-life, World War II-era Monuments Men one worth telling? Without a doubt. Is this George Clooney-directed and -co-written film about this team the way it should have been told? Probably not. The Monuments Men is something of a tonal cluster-frick that can't decide whether it wants to be "Hogan's Heroes" or something far more serious.
This story about an international group of largely middle-aged art historians, curators and architects who must go into Europe (often behind enemy lines, although Germany is basically retreating at this point) to both locate and save precious works of art that the Nazis stole and are hiding, as well as keep the Allied forces from destroying the wrong buildings and artifacts as they advance and liberate the continent, is a remarkable and important one.
Whenever someone tells me that a trailer or commercial for a film doesn't make it clear to them what the film is about, I take that as a great sign. Yes, folks, sometimes a film is complicated enough that it doesn't easily reduce itself to a two-minute trailer. That doesn't mean the film is good, necessarily, but it's a healthy sign that there are still works out there that are trying to be something more than just cut-and-dry stories, where you can anticipate every turn and remain numb to every feeling. Based on Joyce Maynard's emotionally complex novel, Labor Day is a film with many layers and jumbled motivations, all of which director and screenwriter Jason Reitman (Up In the Air, Juno) has sifted through and made into something that presents a handful of broken character's all seeking to put themselves back together with each other's help.
Before I just into the regular reviews, I must mention a couple of special events happening in Chicago in the next week that you should take full advantage of as film lovers.
The first is a film that the recently liquor-licensed Music Box Theatre is playing at midnight this weekend (in addition to Here Comes the Devil, which I review below) and it's called Fateful Findings, a movie from director Neil Breen that I was secretly shown over a year ago in another city. Rightfully so, the film is being compared to The Room, not so much in terms of its story, but in terms of the clear delusional belief by the filmmaker that he is somehow making art and exposing the greater truth about the things that really control the way the world works. I'm not reviewing here because I don't remember a great deal about it (having seen it at about 3am) other than it's one of the most ridiculous and still hilarious films you will ever see. I will buy a copy as soon as it's available.
The other film event you might want to check out is the latest in the annual installment of the Music Box Theatre's Sundance USA event, in which a highly regarded film from the just-wrapping-up Sundance Film Festival makes its way to Chicago along with the filmmaker. This year, we get the most recent film from Drinking Buddies writer-director (and Chicago resident) Joe Swanberg, Happy Christmas, starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber and Lena Dunham. I haven't seen the film, and all I know about it is that it concerns a young woman moving in with her older brother, his wife, and their two-year-old son after she breaks up with her boyfriend. I'll be in the crowd that night for sure since Swanberg will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening, which starts at 7:30pm. Check out the Music Box's site for details on the screening and to buy advance tickets (it will likely sell out).
And finally, Facets Cinématheque is playing for two consecutive weekends a fairly violent little piece called Raze, starring stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell (Death Proof). It might not be for everyone, but if you think you might enjoy attractive women beating the living crap out of each other for 90 minutes under gladiator-style conditions, you might find it amusing, and Bell is certainly one of the most skilled, badass female action stars in quite a while. I'm guessing that the film is playing Friday and Saturday around 11pm at Facets, but at deadline their website didn't have showtimes. But give their hotline a call on Friday at 773-281-4114, and showtimes will hopefully be updated. In the meantime, check out my exclusive interview with Bell and director Josh C. Waller on Ain't It Cool News.
Now onto this week's releases — but not I, Frankenstein, since it wasn't screened for critics...
I have a fondness for the adventures of Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy's many novels about the CIA analyst-turned-operative. One of my fondest memories is of my grandfather, a WWII Navy veteran, giving me his copy of The Hunt for Red October and telling me what a great read it was (and he was right). And I continued reading Clancy's books (the ones he actually wrote; not the ghost-written ones) for quite some time after that. And certainly the first three films based on his works (October, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger) are easy to like; the fourth, The Sum of All Fears, not so much. The fifth film featuring Ryan (with the fourth actor to play him) is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and it's an attempt at reaching back into Ryan's backstory to the point in his career where he shifted from government desk job to working undercover for the CIA on Wall Street to uncover the financial hiding places of terrorist organizations, to running around Moscow with a gun and carrying out secret missions.
I actually like how this film begins, with Chris Pine (Captain Kirk in the latest Star Trek films) as a young college student abroad in London when the attacks on the World Trade Center happen (clearly any sort of continuity for the Clancy stories has been thrown out the window). Inspired to action, Ryan joins the Marines, and after several heroic missions, he's severely injured in a helicopter crash to the point where there is some doubt if he'll ever be able to walk again. In the physical therapy hospital, he meets pretty young nurse Cathy (Keira Knightley), and when he exits the facility able to walk, they begin to date.
Director Peter Berg has never shied away from films about manly men, especially when those manly men are in the military. I think he shares the same fantastical idea that Michael Bay does that if you hang around enough men in uniform, people might actually start looking at you as a tough guy. Why that is important to them, I'll never understand. And the fact that it's delusional makes it all the more curious. But in works like The Rundown, Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, Berg has shown a real flair for staging impressive action sequences that actually make sense and aren't simply a blur of explosions, screaming and bullet fire. (Yes, I realize Friday Night Lights is a sports movie, but if you think it's any less an action film than one with soldiers, watch it again.)
With his last two films, Hancock and Battleship, Berg hasn't lost his ability to stage solid action, but he lost himself in the silly, fantastical elements of those movies, and the work has suffered as a result. But with his latest, the wildly violent Lone Survivor, Berg returns to familiar stomping grounds and the results are quite impressive, in a brutal, hard-R-rated way. The film is the story of the failed 2005 SEAL Team 10 Operation Red Wings mission to kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, told through the eyes of the mission's lone survivor, Marcus Luttrell (Berg adapted the book Luttrell co-wrote with Patrick Robinson).
Let's assume that if you're reading this you haven't completely given up on the found-footage format or the ongoing Paranormal Activity storyline, which up to this point has found ways to focus on the present or past tormenting of sisters Katie and Kristi Rey, either separately or together. I'm not giving away whether or not any members of the Rey family show up in this adjacent tale or not, but I like that the people producing this series have at least made an attempt to break with a few mainstays and are branching out ever so slightly, with still terrifying results.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones will likely be referred to as the Latino Paranormal Activity (I'm thinking alternate titles like Actividad Paranormal or perhaps Fenómeno Paranormal) since it's set primarily in a small apartment complex that seems occupied entirely by Latino residents. Unlike the other films in the series, The Marked Ones does not make use of security or otherwise fixed cameras as its primary source of footage.
Sometime the less-is-more adage just doesn't do a story justice. I can't image a subtly told version of The Wolf of Wall Street, the latest from director Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who isn't best known for dialed-back stories or performances, but is certainly capable of them. The truth is, like all great directors, Scorsese knows how to temper the tones of his films to the material. This may seem like an obvious ploy, but you'd be surprised how often the two don't mesh as they should. But the director of Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed clearly had a few ideas about how to approach the book by the film's subject, New York strockbroker Jordan Belfort (the screenplay was written by Terence Winter, a showrunner of Scorsese's "Boardwalk Empire" as well as a frequent writer on "The Sopranos"). He goes about as far and as fast as you can go without your head exploding.
A word you're probably already hearing a lot of in connection with this film is "excess," which is indeed appropriate to a point. The film epitomizes a culture where an almost unlimited supply of cash is at hand — most of which is legitimately gotten under the financial laws of the time — and what can be done with it is limited only by imagination. But what is perhaps more terrifying about this story is that the true source of excess isn't money; it's that there is almost no one in the world (government, law enforcement, etc.) telling these clowns "stop" with any credible means of making them do so. I don't mean to imply that simply saying the word would make them cease and desist, but it would have been nice to no someone was trying to put a stop to what they were up to or at least closing the loopholes they were doing swan dives through to take money from trusting clients.
Why are people so intent on comparing David O. Russell's American Hustle with Martin Scorsese's upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street? First off, it's not a contest. There can be two truly great ensemble dark comedies that incorporate the themes of greed and freewheeling disrespect of the law without one laying claim to being better than the other. The two films are actually remarkably dissimilar in both their execution and the filmmakers' view of their characters. While Scorsese clearly has something of an admiration for the levels of chaos reached by his antiheroes, Russell seems more intent on getting below the surface and figuring out just what makes his deeply flawed and easily manipulated characters tick. But one wonders if said ticking is the sound of a finely tuned motor keeping these people moving forward or a time bomb counting down to their inevitable destruction.
Since so much about the FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM is still confidential, writers Russell and Eric Singer have built an entire fiction around a small amount of actual hidden-camera footage of fake sheiks giving various politicians (including a U.S. senator) bribes to help out with getting U.S. citizenship applications expedited for criminal purposes. But long before we get to that, we must meet and appreciate the greatness that is Irving Rosenfeld, (Christian Bale, almost unrecognizable), he of the bad posture and even worse combover, but a guy who knows the angle and how to maneuver people to invest money with him that they'll never see again. He's got his fingers in the art world, real estate, banking, and it's all complete bullshit. But Irving knows when to apply pressure and when to pull back just enough not to appear too eager, and Bale captures his master con artist at work.
It's difficult to deny that this second installment of what has now become The Hobbit trilogy exists as a more complete film than An Unexpected Journey. Having dispensed with introducing dozens of new characters (and saying hello again to a few familiar ones), director Peter Jackson could make The Desolation of Smaug into something that focuses more on solid action and even a bit of character building, both of which are good things. What is not so good is that there is still a great deal of fluff and filler in the mix; and some of what is great about Smaug is unexpected and welcome. It's a mixed bag, but one that unreservedly works far better than what came before, and gives many signs of greater things to come.
Weirdly enough, much like The Two Towers, the second film in The Hobbit series features a tremendous amount of walking. The 13 dwarfs and their recruited hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue their trek toward the Lonely Mountain to reclaim the dwarf kingdom of Erebor and place Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, still stubborn but less so) as the new dwarf king. The only thing standing in their way (that they know about) is a massive dragon named Smaug, who loves the treasure that sits inside the kingdom just as much as Thorin's grandfather did. Since hobbits are believed to be naturally sneak and clever, the mission is to send Bilbo into the treasure room, find the Arkenstone (the giant jewel that designates the holder as king), and get out of there without waking Smaug and getting burned to a cinder. Good luck with that.
If you're like me, then you live day to day thinking to yourself, "There just aren't enough truly grim movies in the world." Well, you're prayers have been answered thanks to Out of the Furnace, a new film from director and co-writer (with Brad Ingelsby) Scott Cooper, the former actor now director who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in Crazy Heart a few years back. Grim isn't necessarily meant to be a bad word under the right circumstances, but this film is so relentlessly gloomy, dark (as in dimly lit) and full-tilt bitter that it's tough not to feel smothered by its misery. A handful of substantially strong performances save the film from sinking entirely into a dour tar pit, but in so many scenes it feels like Cooper simply lost control of his actors, turning several exchanges between actors into several rounds of thespian boxing.
I loved the opening of the film more than just about anything else in the movie, and it features my favorite actor with a Southern twang (who isn't Matthew McConaughey), Woody Harrelson, playing Harlan DeGroat, who has a scene at a drive-in movie that establishes him as the film's resident pitbull. And then we don't see him again for a while, but we don't forget he's coming back, and we're always nervous about how exactly that's going to happen.
I'm going to guess that roughly 75 percent of the people that saw Chan-wook Park's 2003 adaptation of the Japanese manga comic Oldboy and loved it already hate Spike Lee's version based solely on the fact that it exists, sight unseen. If you're in that camp, I'm not talking to you during this review. Continue living in your world of knee-jerk reactions to remakes and let the rest of us judge a film based on its own merits. As for the rest of you who are rightfully curious about what Lee brings to his telling of this truly messed-up revenge story, I'm perfectly willing to respect that you might genuinely dislike the film after having seen it. There's no getting around the fact that Lee's version of Oldboy has issues and flaws, but I think it's one of the his most visually interesting, and it's great seeing him take chances like this so deep into his career.
The most fascinating aspect of Oldboy is what Lee and screenwriter Mark Protosevich chose to leave the same and what has changed, because when something is altered it is deeply altered here. Even the length of time ad executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) spends in solitary confinement in a prison that looks like a motel room. In the first version, the character as held 15 years; in Lee's version, it's 20. It's not a huge difference, but it's Lee's way of saying, "This is not exactly the same; pay attention to the differences." Doucett is not a good man, and there are many suspects on his list of enemies that might want to torment him like this. He finds out by watching a TV in his room that his ex-wife has been killed, he is the prime suspect and his daughter is now lost to him probably forever.
The Ruffians' Burning Bluebeard bills itself as an "avant-garde alternative to the holidays" and that is a fine start to describing it...but what transpires onstage is a transcendent, haunting paen to the spirit of enchantment that permeates the best live performance and the best of the winter holidays.
Set on the stage of the burned Iroquois Theatre, the piece recounts the history of the infamous fire that occurred there on December 30, 1903. The history, which seems well-researched from a quick glance at Wikipedia and Google, was the worst theater fire in history. The fire killed 600 women and children, who were in the house for the matinee performance. It was a terrible tragedy that closed down all of the theaters in Chicago for a period of time, revealed massive corruption in the fire inspection department of the City and helped to reform fire code for theaters. The Iroquois itself stood at the site of today's Oriental Theater downtown in the Loop.
The set of Burning Bluebeard is meant to capture the splendor and decay of that space post-fire. Designed by Dan Broberg, it provides a perfect backdrop for the ensuing action. With a giant arch set off by a plaque with two chubby cupids on it, the bare lath walls are covered in hundreds of looping wires and ropes, apt foreshadowing of the action of the play. A smoky veneer covers the stage and the set smells of freshly burnt wood. A dozen bare bulbs hanging from cords flicker with amber filaments. Five black bodybags are littered about the stage.
It may have taken me two films into this series to realize it, but there a substantial difference between a Young Adult film (meaning one made for YAs) and a film about young adults that is geared more toward an older crowd. You can spot the differences in the character development and the themes of the three novels by Suzanne Collins versus the Twilight books/films (an easy target, I know). In the Twilight material, love (in all its selfishness) matters most of all, even if it mean the deaths of so many good people. In The Hunger Games and even more so in this newest chapter, Catching Fire, the lead heroine Katniss Everdeen (brought to soulful life by Jennifer Lawrence) does something that is almost unspeakable in the world of YA fiction: she pushes aside romantic entanglements from two fronts in the name of the greater good. Even Thor couldn't do that. And this makes Katniss one of the great, pure heroes in film right now.
Appropriate is one of those dysfunctional family dramas, but one filled with witty dialogue and some fine comic and dramatic performances. Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Gary Griffin, Appropriate is a co-world premiere by Victory Gardens Theater with Actors Theater of Louisville and was part of this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Fitzgerald, Graeff and Kupferer. Photo by Michael Courier.
Appropriate is the story of a white Southern family whose members reunite at the family plantation in southeast Arkansas some time after the patriarch's funeral. Toni (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a divorced single mother of a teenaged son, Rhys (Alex Stage), has taken care of her father in his illness and now is trying to manage the disposition of the estate--including its debts. Her brother Bo (Keith Kupferer) arrives from New York with his wife Rachael (Cheryl Graeff) and their children to help knot up the loose ends.
Good intentions and popular source material can be a dangerous and risky combination. It's so clear as you watch the film adaptation of the hit Markus Zusak novel The Book Thief why this material is such a hit with young and old alike, and it took little effort to see how this story would succeed on the page. But as a film in the hands of director Brian Percival (a regular director on the "Downton Abbey" television series), drama is lost to boatloads of overly sentimental writing and certain performers playing things too broadly.
I was actually a fan of the gentlemanly voice of Death (Roger Allam) acting as our narrator; it was just a strange enough idea to work, and he delivers certain bits of startling news that shake up the proceedings in the right ways. The World War II timeframe gives us the story of a young German girl named Liesel (relative newcomer Sophie Nélisse), whose parents are killed and is adopted by provincial couple Hans and Rosa (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson). Hans is not getting a lot of work as a painter, partly because he refuses to join the Nazi party — this is our first clue that he's a good German, I suppose. Our second clue is that the family takes in a young Jewish man, Max (Ben Schnetzer), whose parents apparently knew Hans and Rosa at some point in the past and was told to come find them if he made it to their village.
Reeling, the second-longest-running LGBT film festival in the world and a Chicago cultural institution for more than 30 years is back with another slate of films that showcase not only diversity within the queer community but also diversity in the range of possibilities within film itself. The 31st edition of Reeling began on Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 14.
Reeling's main venue this year is The Logan Theatre (2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.) , with the fest's home base at Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.), which will also host screenings. Satellite screenings will take place at the Block Cinema at the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art (40 Arts Circle Dr., on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston), the DuSable Museum of African American History (740 E. 56th Pl.), Sidetrack (3349 N. Halsted St.), and the Edgewater Branch of the Chicago Public Library (1210 W. Elmdale Ave.).
Why do such a huge percentage of all invading alien races have to be a bug or crustacean species? Other than that little pet peeve of mine, I'm on board with this bit of military-heavy science fiction that covers a paranoid period in Earth's future where child soldiers are being trained and prepped to be the next wave of defense against a possible second massive attack from an alien race known as the Formics, who, shockingly enough, look like bugs. Many years earlier, the Formics attacked and nearly wiped out Earth were it not for the inventive battle tactics of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), considered by all to be a sainted hero of the planet.
Based on the first of many novels in the Enderverse series by Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggin (Hugo's Asa Butterfield), a child from a family of siblings who tried and failed to make it to Battle School (let alone Command School, where the true leaders land). His brother was kicked out for being too violent; his sister (Abigail Breslin) was eliminated because she was too emotional (girls, right?), but she still supports Ender in his quest for greatness and acts as something of a spirit guide as he contemplates battle strategy and how to play well with others. Part of the reason Ender is so successful in his education and training is that he's a contemplative lad who evaluates each situation with a cool head and a killer's heart, a fact that he sometimes finds troubling.
There is fascinating for all the right reasons and then there's The Counselor kind of fascinating. I guess the cliché is a train wreck, except The Counselor isn't like a wreck; it's too controlled and measured for that. As batshit crazy as they are, the words are too precisely chosen and so precisely delivered that there's nothing about the film that's speeding out of control exactly. While the film is never, ever boring, it's so laughably earnest in its "look at me" execution that you'll walk out wondering what the hell the point to it all is, and that's never a good thing with either a Ridley Scott-directed film or the first original screenplay by author Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road).
I was in love with the trailers for The Counselor because they seemed to go out of their way to make it impossible to figure out what the story was, and I'll give them credit for succeeding on that front. In fact, the film's plot is a remarkably straight-forward tale of an attorney who gets involved in a one-time only massive drug deal that goes sideways almost from the get-go. The first scene in the film features the title character — never given a name and played by Michael Fassbender — and his wife (Penelope Cruz) rolling around in bed, so we know right from the beginning where his primary weakness lies.
Before I dive into the week's new releases, I'd like to point you to a couple of truly wonderful events going on in the next week, both at the Music Box Theatre. The first is a weeklong celebration of the work of the great German director Werner Herzog, specifically the first phase of his career, often working with the insane actor Klaus Kinski. For those of you who know Herzog primarily as the maker of some of the most thought-provoking documentaries in the last 10 years, you have quite a lot to discover, and you'll be able to do so via "Werner Herzog: Feats of Madness," showing 35mm prints of films like Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979); Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972); Fitzcarraldo (1982) and the companion documentary about its making, Burden of Dream (1982), directed by Les Blank; Herzog's first feature, Signs of Life (1968); Kaspar Hauser (1974); Stroszek (1977) and Heart of Glass (1974). For the complete schedule, go to the official website.
And this weekend the Music Box holds its annual target="_blank">Music Box of Horrors, which begins at noon on Saturday, Oct. 19 and continues for about 26 hours until around 2pm on Sunday, Oct. 20. Special guests at this year's event include William Lustig, director of the original Maniac, Vigilante and the Maniac Cop trilogy, who will present a new restoration of Maniac Cop 2; and David Schmoeller (Puppetmaster, Tourist Trap) presenting his demented classic Crawlspace, starring the aforementioned Klaus Kinski.
I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few of the more than 130 features being shown over the next two weeks as part of the 49th Chicago International Film Festival. As many top-notch, more recognizable films being shown that you might have actually heard of, the best part of any festival like this is taking a chance on something you may never get to see again. If you haven't checked out my interview with festival programming director Mimi Plauché, she has quite a few of her own recommendations. But allow me to name drop a few titles, some of which I've seen, others I'm offering up based on reputation.
Let's begin with the biggest of the bunch: the Festival Centerpiece, the latest from director Alexander Payne, Nebraska, a glorious and frustrating story about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) traveling from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, because the father thinks he's won a sweepstake. I'll be moderating the Q&A with Dern, so don't miss it. The Closing Night Gala belongs to the latest from the Coen Brothers, the musically inclined Inside Llewyn Davis, starring Oscar Isaac (who will be attending), Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, in a story set in the early-1960s folk scene.
My first thought after seeing Alfonso Cuarón's latest masterwork, Gravity, remains the one that has stuck in my brain for the last three weeks. I've seen the film again more recently on the IMAX screen, and the thought is only amplified. And it's a simple way of describing it: I've never seen anything like it in a movie theater in my life. I suppose there are many ways of interpreting that statement — some even negative. But let's not be silly or cynical. Gravity is one of those benchmark films that stands alone in its greatness, elegance and seamless means of blending the real with the artificial to make it all look genuine in its portrayal of space travel in all its beauty and danger.
So naturally, set in the vast emptiness of space, Cuarón (Children of God, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has chosen to tell the most intimate and personal story you'll see all year (with the possible exception of the Robert Redford-starring All Is Lost, which I've seen; that film — about a man stranded at sea attempting to survive — shares a remarkably similar premise and execution in many ways). But take away all of its how-did-they-do-that visuals, and Gravity still exceeds as a simple story about medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is using the vastness and silence of space to escape her somewhat troubled life back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois (a Chicago suburb). That little detail got a big laugh in both screenings I attended, primarily when her spacewalk partner and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) asks Stone what she might be doing on a typical day at 8pm in Lake Zurich. Both screenings were at 7pm, and this question hit at about the 7:30-7:45pm mark. It's the small things...
What separates Ron Howard's latest film Rush from so many other sports-related docudramas (whether they're based on a true story, as this one is, or not) is that you could remove all of the Formula 1 racing sequences and still have a really strong film, thanks in large part to a smart, interesting screenplay from Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen). Am I saying the races aren't wonderfully re-created and thrilling? Of course not. But the heart and soul of Rush isn't the racing; it's the contentious but respectful relationship between 1970s-era rivals James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth, at his most swaggerific) and the highly disciplined Austrian Niki Luada (Daniel Brühl of Inglourious Basterds).
The film makes the interesting point that these two men could not have lived their lives more differently, but their careers were locked together for many years as they often found themselves fighting for points on Grand Prix racetracks. As much as Howard is known for being a stylistic chameleon, able to adapt his style to fit whatever story he is telling, I tend to get a little giddy when he dips his toes in the R-rated pool. And with healthy doses of nudity (done in large part to illustrate Hunt's reputation as a ladies' man) and a certain amount of unflinching violence (Formula 1 races do have their accidents), Howard has made a solidly mature film that often feels not only like it was set in the 1970s, but shot then as well.
This tale of child kidnapping is a tricky little monster that wonderfully dodges being pigeonholed into a single genre, and instead claws and fights to be something much deeper as a statement about the terrible side of human nature. It's also a mystery, a thriller, drama in its highest form, a police procedural, and a character study about a handful of neighbors in a sleepy, dreary New England community that you may regret ever meeting.
I don't mean that as a criticism of the new film Prisoners; quite the opposite. I mean that we get to know so much about these desperate people — what makes them tick, what makes them fall to pieces — that you almost might feel you know too many intimate details, and that makes things eye-avertingly uncomfortable. And quite frankly, I can't remember the last time I saw a film with a high-profile cast such as this that made me feel like I was watching real human beings display so much raw, ugly emotion. It's a rare and welcome experience, but Prisoners goes into some truly dark corners before it comes out the other side (if it truly does).
In "mathspeak," f(x) + f(y) > f(x+y) or, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. That's the business message behind the fun and doughnuts in Shattered Globe Theatre's new '80s comedy/drama, Other People's Money, a story that reminds us how corporate raiders worked: Buying what they saw as undervalued companies. Selling off the parts to generate more money than the whole company is worth, in the process, of course, laying off employees and sometimes doing permanent damage to the town where the company was located.
Photo by Emily Schwartz.
Other People's Money tells this story with wit and gusto. The subject is an old Rhode Island company, New England Wire & Cable, whose CEO, Andrew Jorgenson or "Jorgie" (Doug McDade), is getting close to retirement. Enter Lawrence Garfinkle, aka "Larry the Liquidator," (Ben Werling plays him with relish, charm, braggadocio and a huge appetite for doughnuts) who has been buying up shares of NEW&C with the goal of owning and "restructuring" the company [as in f(x) + f(y) > f(x+y)].
It would be in your best interest, if you have an inkling to go and see Insidious: Chapter 2 anytime soon, to re-watch Insidious right before you hit the sequel. I'm a big proponent that every sequel — even a horror sequel — should stand on its own as a film and not wholly depend on what has come before, but clearly the makers of Insidious 2 don't agree. Insidious was a wonderful piece of scary, with a group of top-notch lead actors (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as husband and wife Josh and Renai Lambert) and handful of great character actors (including one of the queens of character actors, Lin Shaye) being put through the paces by ghosts being drawn to the couple's oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins, most recently seen as the kid in Iron Man 3).
We learned in Insidious that Josh actually had similar issues when he was Dalton's age but that spiritual advisor Elise (Shaye) erased the terrible memories from the boy at the request of his mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey). Normally when reviewing a sequel, I don't dig too deep into the storyline of the film before, but Insidious 2 actually retells portions of the first film in different ways. For example, the movie opens showing us exactly what I just described, with younger actors playing Josh, Lorraine and Elise (although I'm pretty sure Shaye's voice is still being dubbed in during those scenes) going through the motions of recognizing what is wrong with Josh (he had a ghost getting progressively closer to him every time a photo was taken) and then wiping the fear from him, as well as his ability to send an astral version of himself into "the Further," where ghosts chill out until someone decides where they should move on to.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway is a toe-tapping musical biography about the country blues singer-songwriter who performed in the 1940s and early 1950s, an important time in American musical history. In a way, it's a jukebox musical, with 28 Hank Williams songs played during the two-plus-hour, two-act play. But it has a strong underlying story, a tragic one about a boy growing up in a poor family in Alabama and learning to sing in church, as so many blues musicians did. Williams (Mathew Brumlow) learned to sing and play guitar as a teenager, which is also when he learned to love alcohol. The intertwined loves of music and booze are the heart of the Hank Williams story.
Hank and Tee-Tot. Photo by Johnny Knight.
Presented by American Blues Theater, written by Randall Myler and Mark Harelik and directed by Damon Kiely, Lost Highway is a drama with plenty of superbly played music. Kiely and music director Malcolm Ruhl do a terrific job of showing how Williams' band is built from the core of three teenaged friends to become a successful five-piece show band, the Drifting Cowboys. Williams starts out playing with Jimmy (Michael Mahler) on guitar and vocals and Hoss (Austin Cook) on upright bass and vocals. The band is soon expanded by Leon (Greg Hirte) a talented fiddler. Later John Foley, a veteran Chicago musician, completes the Drifting Cowboys as Shag, on console steel guitar, harmonica and spoons.
For those of you expecting wall-to-wall action from Riddick, you might be mistaking this film for an entry in that other Vin Diesel franchise. If you want eye-popping science-fiction visuals, again, that not exactly what this third installment in the series that began with 2000's Pitch Black and trudged along in 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. I think the elements of Richard Riddick (at least the first film — certainly the latest) that appealed so greatly to Diesel are the themes of isolation and of one skilled killer fighting against a small army of... something. In this first film, it was a scorched, seemingly lifeless planet by day and a lethal darkness at night. But this time around, Riddick is death in the dark, at least for a large part of this movie, and he seems to be enjoying the turnaround.
Kind of sort of picking up sometime after Chronicles (with an appearance by a familiar face from that film), this story eventually sees Riddick back on another sun-burnt, nameless planet, severely injured and fighting for his life against alien creatures that want nothing more than just to eat him up. The first 30 minutes or so of the film feature no dialogue (outside of a bit of narration and the flashback to how he got here in the first place); it's Riddick versus everything this planet has to throw at him. There's a race of alien dingos and a hideous set of creatures that look like a combination of lizard and scorpion. There aren't a ton of different unfamiliar wildlife featured in Riddick, but the creature design is pretty great in the way it blends the familiar with the grotesque.
I don't think I've seen a more perfect example of paint-by-numbers filmmaking than director Courtney (Dungeons & Dragons) Soloman's car-chase/heist film Getaway. Here's what I mean: I'm convinced that Solomon and his team shot one long car chase through some city in Bulgaria using their stunt teams, then they shot hours of footage of just Ethan Hawke's hand shifting gears in the Shelby GT500 Super Snake, then they shot hours of Selena Gomez (playing Hawke's prisoner/sidekick) screaming at Hawke various versions of "I hate you" and "Your driving sucks." Then probably 15 minutes of just Jon Voight's withered, villainous mouth saying variations on "Time is running out," "Tick tock," and "I don't think you're going to make it" as he taunts the former racer (Hawke), performing certain tasks for Voight so he doesn't kill Hawke's wife (Rebecca Budig).
Yes, of course I realize this is how movies are made. You film the individual parts and edit them together. No shit. But with Getaway, you can actually still see the numbers underneath the painted screen that read "Voight-mouth," "Shift," "Screaming Selena," "Bulgarian police car flips," "Hawke downshifts," and the list rinses and repeats in a pattern that is almost freakishly predictable. I bet people who are good at counting cards can predict the next six scenes at any given point in this movie. It's horribly embarrassing how this nonsense is pulled together.
Yes, The World's End — the latest work from co-writers Edgar Wright (who also directs) and Simon Pegg (who also stars) — is a celebration of the debauchery of youth, with beer being the ever-present fuel. The backdrop for this film is a 12-pub crawl through the hometown of five old school friends, who are now grown up more than 20 years later and have adult problems and hang-ups to deal with. The movie is about many things, and one of them is the sad attempt to recapture youthful glory.
There's a moment late in the film where Andy Knightley (Nick Frost, the third constant in the loosely linked trilogy that also includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) says to self-appointed ringleader Gary King (Pegg), "Why is this so important to you?" to which Gary says, "It's all I've got." I can't think of a single moment in any of these three films that felt more like a punch to the gut than that one; it's the cry of a desperate man who literally hasn't had a better moment in life since school and that epic (and failed, I might add) pub crawl. And he's determined this time around that nothing will stop them from reaching the 12th pub, appropriately named the World's End — not even alien robot invaders.
I'm placing this statement at the beginning of this review because, odds are, it'll get read the most here. None of the "bad" films opening this weekend are as bad as some critics are saying. That being said, all of them can be easily ignored this weekend if your other option for film viewing is to see something like Prince Avalanche or The Act of Killing or even In A World.... For those of you declaring the summer of 2013 to be a disappointing one for movies, I hate to sound like a broken record (or skipping CD for you younger folks), but you aren't looking in the right place. Films taking up one screen at a multiplex or playing at our local art houses have been consistently strong all year. And they have certainly saved my summer. It's the reason I maintain my Art-House Round-Up column on Ain't It Cool, and you should feel free to check that out if you need a list of strong closers for the summer of 2013.
So what the hell happened to Kick-Ass 2? It feels weirdly like a research film polling 100 "average" citizens to find out what they liked so much about the first film, and they all got it wrong. Sure the profanity, occasionally excessive violence and overall irreverent attitude made Kick-Ass a great deal of fun in the hands of director Matthew Vaughn. But there were more important messages about family, surviving as an bullied outcast, and a twisted code of justice, all of which are reduced to shadows by writer-director Jeff Wadlow (Vaughn is still listed as a producer).
It's hard to believe it was four years ago when Neill Blomkamp became one of a select few new filmmakers to give many of us hope that the future of science-fiction film was in capable hands. Sure, Blomkamp's District 9 delivered wildly entertaining action and impossibly realistic effects (for very little money), but like all great sci-fi, it acted as social commentary about what happens in a society in which one class attempts to segregate another because the minority is looked at as something less than equal.
In many ways, his latest film, Elysium, covers a bit of the same ground, although the perceived threat is not from an alien race this time but from our own. The year is 2154, and planet Earth is a dried-up, polluted, overcrowded, garbage dump of a world. Not only have the rich built an enormous space station (called Elysium) orbiting Earth, but they have a medical device that not only can detect any ailment you might have, but re-arrange your atoms so that you are cured almost instantly. In other words, barring any catastrophic injury that kills you instantly, you could feasibly live forever, or at least a very long time. Needless to say, the poor saps on Earth don't have this.
Inventing Van Gogh is an intriguing story of Vincent van Gogh's mysterious last painting, one of his many self-portraits. Strange Bedfellows Theatre performs it in a time warp that moves easily back and forth between present day and the latter part of Van Gogh's life in Arles between 1888 and 1890. Aaron Hendrickson directs.
The play moves so easily back and forth in time that Patrick (Patrick Cameron), a contemporary artist hired to paint a forgery of Van Gogh's rumored last work, sometimes shares a scene with Van Gogh himself (Riley Mcilveen). Renne Bouchard (Adam Schulmerich), the art authenticator who hires Patrick, believes they can deceive the auction market and sell the "newly discovered" self-portrait for millions. A strong influence in Patrick's career is his former professor Jonas Miller (Sean Thomas), a Van Gogh scholar who dies while on a hunt for the painting. Miller's daughter, Hallie (Christine Vrem-Ydstie), plays Patrick's friend and also a woman who sits for Van Gogh.
In one delightfully anachronistic scene, Van Gogh brings a stack of his recent paintings to Patrick, a fellow painter. He wants to know what Patrick thinks of his work. Patrick does not hesitate to tell him: "You paint too fast. A painting a day? Really? You're a draftsman."
Whatever you might think of Mark Wahlberg as an actor (I happen to think he's pretty great under certain circumstances, which I'll discuss), he's the type of performer who adapts and absorbs what's around him. If a great filmmaker or co-star is in the mix, he improves as an actor. And Wahlberg is smart enough to more often than not surround himself with some of the best, whether it's going back as far as working with Paul Thomas Anderson on Boogie Nights or the team that worked Three Kings or being directed by Scorsese in The Departed. Hell, I'll even throw in his work in Pain & Gain, giving a very different style of comedy performance by working alongside Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie. And of course really sealing his comedic chops with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys.
But when you place Wahlberg alongside the likes of Denzel Washington in the new 2 Guns, it unleashes something unexpected as Wahlberg becomes the comic-relief sidekick and an especially cool, charming character who holds his own next to the two-time Oscar winner. When we meet Bobby (Washington) and Marcus (Wahlberg), they are plotting a bank heist when they plan to break into a specific safe deposit box where a drug dealers cash is securely held, somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple million bucks. But when the robbery goes down and they open every box in the bank vaults, every single one is stuffed with cash, totally tens of millions. Naturally, they take it.
Eunice Johnson was a fashionista before the word was invented; she was a fashion visionary just as her husband, John H. Johnson, the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, was a publishing visionary. She saw fashion as beauty that should not be confined to the elite and made it her personal mission to bring it to the African-American community. She did this through her direction of the Ebony Fashion Fair, known as "The World's Largest Traveling Fashion Show."
The latest adventure of everyone's favorite X-Man is easily better than his last solo outing (not a tough job, admittedly), X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I also think it's the mutant's best overall outing in terms of story, cinematic value and action. That being said, there is still a great deal about the film that didn't connect with me, and there are a couple of elements in The Wolverine that are downright terrible.
Taking on my personal favorite era of the original Wolverine comic books, The Wolverine tackles Logan's (still Hugh Jackman) time in Japan, where he falls in love with Mariko (newcomer Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), one of the richest men in Japan, who happens to know Logan from their time together in the last days of World War II. Yashida sends one of his associates, the red-haired, future-seeing mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan (voluntarily living in exile) to his deathbed so he can say good bye to his old friend. But it turns out Yashida really wants to syphon off Logan's healing factor so he can live longer. Knowing Logan doesn't enjoy the prospect of living forever, Yashida thinks Logan might go for this plan, but he refuses, and the old man dies, leaving his entire fortune and business to Mariko instead of her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who immediately tries to have his daughter killed so he can take over the business.
The sign outside the theater says, "This is a rock musical. It will be loud." And it starts loud with a four-piece rock band playing preshow music including the classic "Seven Nights to Rock."
Rooms: A Rock Romance is a fairly traditional musical, punctuated by some great rock and punk rock songs performed on stage with a band. It is, at its heart, a love story about two people with different visions of life. Monica (Hillary Marren) wants to be a rock star, to travel and perform all over the world and Ian (Matt Deitchman) is a musician who prefers to stay at home in his own room with his guitar.
I wasn't much of a fan of the first RED film about middle-aged/over-the-hill former CIA operatives (mostly assassins) who are forced out of retirement to take on both the agency and other assorted bad guys. The primary reason I disliked the film is that, with the exception of Morgan Freeman's character and maybe Helen Mirren, none of the retirees were that old. But as the film went on, the truly aggravating parts of the film involved Bruce Willis' harpy, would-be girlfriend Sarah, played by Mary-Louise Parker. Thankfully, the makers of RED 2 have seen fit to dial up the action quite a bit (a good thing), introduce more interesting characters in the form of Anthony Hopkins and South Korean superstar Byung-hum Lee (also good things), and made Sarah the single most annoying character to have populated a film this year.
But even more irritating is that once again in a mindless action film, the fate of the free world is at stake and people are trying to save friends and loved ones rather than concentrate on, I don't know, saving the planet. Maybe I'm cold blooded, and I apologize if you are someone who is close to me, but if it comes down to saving you or saving the world, kiss your ass good-bye. The needs of the many and all that shit...
In the weeks leading up to the release of Pacific Rim, I've been rewatching the films of director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro in order. And just for the hell of it, I've been watching the "making of" extras as well, just because for many of them I never did previously. What I was reminded of through this process is that Del Toro is an obsessive fan of practical effects. This isn't a big secret, but often he went practical because of a combination of budgetary constraints and him liking the weight and texture of the "realness."
I've known since the first trailers of Pacific Rim that the showcased Kaiju (the giant monsters that are being released from a wormhole-like portal deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean) and Jaegers (the human-made army of human-controlled, 250-foot-tall mech warriors that are built to defend the Pacific coastlines of North America and Asia primarily) were not going to be practical and nature, and I was willing to accept that this was Del Toro working on a scale he had never experienced before. My concern was that the emotional context that he so wonderfully maintains in all of his works would be lost at this scale. It wasn't that I had lost faith in his abilities, but scale sometimes triumphs over the most heartfelt of intentions.
Put three generations of women in a house together and you're sure to have an eruption of personalities; eventually, long kept secrets slip out and lies are undone. Beaten, a world premiere drama by Scott Woldman, gives the Artistic Home actors a searing and emotionally charged script, and they all come through with fine performances.
The multigenerational family is made up of the grandmother, Eileen (Kathy Scambiatterra), the mother, Madelynne (Kristin Collins) and daughter Chloe (Kathryn Acosta). Each makes us believe in her own tangled past and present. Eileen sets the mold for herself in the first scene when she carves a potato to serve as a one-hit marijuana pipe since her daughter confiscated her bong. She suffers from cancer and sees no reason to stop smoking pot or cigarettes or drinking beer or vodka. She doesn't hesitate to express her feelings about how Madelynne is handling her life or raising her daughter.
Kathy Scambiattera and Kathryn Acosta; photo courtesy of The Artistic Home.
First thing's first: just because a particular character is the one telling the story in flashback — namely Johnny Depp's version of Tonto — doesn't mean that the story is actually being told from that character's point of view. Most times, it does mean that, but not always. Case in point, the framing device of this overlong, overstuffed, overblown version of The Lone Ranger story is an elderly Tonto (who looks a little too much like Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man) relaying the birth of the Ranger-Tonto partnership during a time when railroads were cutting through pristine lands and opening up America in ways that could never be reversed.
But I find it difficult to believe that the way Depp, screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and director Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Rango) would choose to honor Tonto and portray him more accurately as an equal partner with Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger is to turn the Native American into a clown. Tonto is nothing more than The Lone Ranger's comic relief, and Depp is essentially swapping out black face for red face, making the sum total of his performance a series of bug eyes, exaggerated grimaces, and limp jokes that would be better suited for the Catskills than the open desert of Monument Valley. The Lone Ranger has elements that work better than others, but Depp's choices with Tonto must be chalked up as a rare example of when his instincts about creating unique and memorable characters have failed him.
At first it seems that we might be in for a comic version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, where a father and son try to survive in a post-apocalyptic wilderness.
Sideshow Theatre's one-woman show features Karie Miller as Woman, a "prepper," living in her underground bunker, getting ready for the sure-to-come apocalypse. We, her audience, are there to learn how to be preppers, too. The warnings and the signs are grim but Woman keeps us entertained with many laugh lines and humorous incidents.
This 70-minute world premiere was written by Carrie Barrett and directed by Megan A. Smith, who keeps the general tone of the play light despite the grim undertones.
Karie Miller; photo by Jonathan L. Green.
What is The Burden of Not Having a Tail? That becomes clear early in the play. Woman, who is big on audience participation, asks us all to feel behind us for our "heinie nub" (just at the base of your spine, however, she describes this location differently.) "Our tails used to help us wag our troubles away," she says. But now, we have one less thing to help us survive.
I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I don't subscribe to the "so bad it's good" or the "turn your brain off" schools of film loving. I don't need every film to be The Tree of Life, but I need something or someone to grab onto and give a shit about. The latest from disaster film maestro Roland Emmerich (2012, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), White House Down, is not a great movie, but it fulfills a very basic need in me in that it gives me several characters whose fate I actually cared about because I liked them as people, or at least movie people. Much of the reason I empathized is that the actors inject a pulse into their characters that simply isn't there on the page. But that's allowed, and it worked wonders for me.
White House Down is the second film this year (after Olympus Has Fallen) featuring an attack and takeover of the president's residence. Just before that happens, Capitol Police Officer John Cale (Channing Tatum, exuding a confidence and charm that seems to grow with each film) applies for a job as a US Secret Service agent, and is politely refused by the head of the White House detail, Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Cale has his young daughter (Joey King) with him, and he manages to get them passes for a tour of the White House before they leave. Naturally, while they're on the tour, the White House is attacked by some kind of domestic paramilitary group (seemingly led by Jason Clarke), which moves in quickly and deadly.
What year is it? The opening in 1929 is the only time you'll be sure.
The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn begins with a dignified scene. It's a funeral. The corpse (Joseph Stearns) is at rest in a raised coffin. The mourners are dressed in black. The funeral program informs us that The Rev. Christopher Herbert (Cory Aiello) will give the eulogy and his daughter Margaret (Audrey Flegel) will play selections from Felix Mendelssohn on a piano that someone forgot to have tuned. There also will be "Words From Family Members."
Yes, there will be words. Dueling speeches from two widows, in fact (Kate Nawrocki and Jenifer Henry Starewich). And there, 10 minutes into the play, sanity ends.
Stuart Ritter and Brandon Ruiter; photo by Emily Schwartz
The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn is presented by the Strange Tree Group at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The actors perform on a floor-level space with audience seated on three sides. The position of honor belongs to the time machine. The action rockets back and forth from 1929 to 1908, trying to solve problems brought about by the abrupt 1908 departure of Alice (Nawrocki) from her marriage to Joseph Mendelssohn (Stearns). Alice and Joseph's son, Theo (Stuart Ritter), is a physicist who has built a time machine. It's an amazing visual assemblage of gears, clocks, lights - and a typewriter. No merely projected image, this.
The Pride is set in two eras, 50 years and eons of attitudes apart.The title reflects how societal and political changes have affected gay people and their straight friends over the years. About Face Theatre times this perspective on gay life to coincide with the 44th Annual Chicago Pride Week.
It's written by English writer Alexi Kay Campbell in a series of scenes occurring in the two time frames. Director Bonnie Metzger, who manages this flow admirably, also directed Philip Dawkins' play The Homosexuals for About Face in 2011. That play described the lives of gay Chicagoans in the 21st century.
John Francisco, Patrick Andrews and Jessie Fisher in The Pride; photo by Michael Brosilow.
The time-shifting scenes in The Pride are set in London in 1958 and 2008; the players are two sets of characters who each have the same names in both time periods: Oliver (Patrick Andrews), Philip (John Francisco) and Sylvia (Jessie Fisher).The seeming emphasis on the names heightens our awareness of the societal changes that enable the modern Oliver, for instance, to live his life in a different way than the other Oliver could have.
I'll admit, when I hear an upcoming film is going to cover a familiar topic — whether it be zombies or vampires or buddy cops or an alien invasion — I typically want the filmmakers to bring something new to the table. Or, at the very least, add a few new twists to the familiar. Strangely enough, when I read that Max Brooks' World War Z was being turned into a film (after years of trying), I knew that this book that I'd read and loved could never be made into a big-budget, mainstream film without some considerable changes. Against current thought, it could have been made into a film in its original form as, perhaps a fake documentary, but we all know how well those have been going over lately.
My point is twofold: anyone upset about the film's structure probably didn't want it made into a movie in the first place; and, the film delivers a zombie film that does, in fact, add a few new wrinkles to the zombie canon. These certainly aren't Mr. Romero's (or Robert Kirkman's) slow-moving, decomposing walking dead that have mostly risen from their graves to eat humans. From what I can tell about the zombies in World War Z, they seem more into biting than eating. Their mission is to spread their virus-like condition to other humans as quickly as possible — and considering the time it takes from a bite to turn you into a zombie is about 12 seconds, that's pretty fast.
If you have been or have known a new mother, you remember how hormonal craziness can rage in the days immediately after birth. So no one takes Mari (Hillary Clemens) seriously when she wakes up the morning after an at-home childbirth and says, "That is not our baby!"
Mari keeps the blanket that wrapped the new baby and sniffs it frequently for the 'new baby smell'--she's sure the baby in the cradle smells different.
Hillary Clemens & Cyd Blakewell; photo by Claire Demos.
The title Mine takes on ominous overtones and great intensity under Marti Lyons' direction, which is enhanced by its confined performance space in this tiny storefront venue. Playwright Laura Marks has drawn several realistic and sympathetic characters, consumed with contemporary fears, ratcheted up by the angst of new parenthood.
Chicago Dramatists' world premiere production of Homecoming 1972 by resident dramatist Robert Koon puts us back in the Vietnam era. It reminds us of the dissent and confrontations of that time and how much that mood differs from today's high-tech multiwar era.
Kimberly Senior skillfully directs this play and helps us see each of the characters' qualities. But the overtones are loneliness and sadness. The double-edged homecoming is that of Frank (played by Matt Holzfeind), a Vietnam veteran who returns home with physical and psychic wounds and is unable to deal with daily life. It's also the high school homecoming in the small Minnesota town. The 90-minute play is performed in a series of two-person scenes, fluidly moving from one to the next on the efficiently designed set.
Frank's brother Joe is a highway patrolman who got a farm deferment; he stayed home and married Maria, the young women who both men loved in high school. At this point, a Bruce Springsteen fan would start to think, "Wait a minute--this sounds very familiar." And in fact, the play is a scripted retelling of Springsteen's song "Highway Patrolman" from his haunting, acoustic 1982 Nebraska album. Whether or not you've seen the play, the lyrics tell the story.
The point at which I knew that writer David S. Goyer, director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were doing something very smart and very different with their version of Superman in Man of Steel was early on, when we're having the history (it's not really an origin, in the classic superhero sense) of Kal-El (who will eventually grow up to be Clark Kent when he reaches Earth) revealed to us in flashback. In this version of events, the men and women of Krypton have advanced so far that natural birth is a thing of the past, and every child is genetically engineered for certain functions — leaders, scientists, warriors, etc. Kal-El's father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is a scientist, and he and his wife (Ayelet Zurer) decide that their son will have a choice in his destiny, which will not be fulfilled on Krypton, which is a dying planet. They have a natural birth and send their son across the universe to Earth, with the literal future of Krypton resting with him (I won't explain that further).
Work at Play is an exhibit of graphic design produced in the last 60 years, featuring the work of four important contemporary designers. The exhibit at the Chicago Design Museum, a temporary space on the third floor of Block 37, 108 N. State St., runs through June 30. (It's free, but the museum suggests a $10 donation.)
Here's how the museum describes Work at Play: "Beyond the hours at the office, we create, we make-we play. In an attempt to find our own voice, we may stumble upon a visual language that can speak for and, perhaps, inspire others. This year, we celebrate the blurred line between work and play."
Exhibit of John Massey posters. Photo by Nancy Bishop.
Although I suspect this will change as early as next week, 2013 has been a terrible year for comedies. There are some promising works on the horizon, but between the annoying Identity Thief to the impotent A Haunted House to the two-laugh The Hangover Part III, there's been very little intentional laughing going on in theater this year. And I'm afraid the re-teaming of Wedding Crashers' stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson doesn't help the situation; in fact, I'd say it makes things so much worse. You know what? I don't even care that The Internship is a giant sex act performed on the company Google. If a movie is funny, I don't care who funded it, how many product placements there are, or how perfect a corporation wants to portray itself. I'll recommend it, if it makes me laugh. And aside from a few muted chuckles, The Internship did not make me laugh. It made me restless.
Vaughn and Wilson play Billy and Nick, a pair of high-end-watch salesmen whose company goes under while they're on a big sales call. Their boss (John Goodman) pulls the rug out from under them, with nothing to fall back on but their chemistry and witty banter. Yes, shockingly enough Vaughn is front-loaded with salesman-like banter, while Wilson takes a folksier approach to selling. Scraping around for a new job, Billy discovers that Google has a summer internship program, and the intern team that does the best goes on to receive guaranteed jobs at the company. After enlisting in an internet college so they can claim they are students, the pair are actually accepted to the program and are immediately branded as "old" and "without any usable computer skills," both of which are true. And cue the hilarity.
It's a prospective parent's worst nightmare: Will our baby be perfect? A missing finger or toe and many congenital diseases can be adapted to or treated, but in Smudge, Ka-Tet Theatre asks us to think about how we would deal with an even more dramatic birth--an infant that may not be quite human.
"This thing doesn't need a mother," Colby (Stevie Chadwick Lambert) says midway through this one-act, 90-minute play. "It's got tubes."
Stevie Chadwick Lambert and Scott Allen Luke; photo by Andrew Cioffi.
Smudge by Rachel Axler takes us from the late-in-pregnancy moment when Colby and Nick (Scott Allen Luke) try to decipher the ultrasound of their future progeny. "Is it upside down?" Colby asks, rotating the image. In the next scene, the baby is born and whisked away to the ICU to be cared for. Colby and Nick bring the baby home and choose the name "Cassandra" (a Trojan princess with the gift of prophecy). "Cassie" is placed in a bassinet covered in tubing, with a constantly beeping monitor. Colby refers to the infant as "it" but all we know for sure about the child is that it has one eye and is missing some limbs.
The ugly truth about the latest Will Smith film (he even gets a sole "Story by..." credit) is that it's not that bad, which is to say it's completely possible to sit through its 100 minutes and not want to tear your eyes out. It's certainly a good-looking movie, with some interesting future tech on display, and in a couple of scenes, director and co-writer M. Night Shyamalan even gives us a sense of how things work. I'll admit, when I heard the idea of After Earth, I was intrigued. I like the idea of this big-scale science-fiction film that was really just about two characters trying to survive a couple of brutal days on a planet they know little about — Earth.
As the film begins, we soon discover that the father-son relationship between Cypher Raige (Smith, the elder) and son Kitai (Jaden Smith from The Karate Kid remake) is strained. Dad is basically king of the Rangers, the military-like branch that protects the human population forced to relocated when cataclysmic events pushed earthlings off the planet about 1,000 years ago and apparently gave everyone weird accents that come and go.
You'd figure that six films deep into a franchise, I'd have made up my mind whether I'm fully on board. But I think after having taken in Fast & Furious 6, I'm willing to say I'm a fan of this wildly inconsistent series, whose most recent two chapters did their job selling me on these films. Most of my hesitation coming out of all of these films has been due to the god-awful writing. Look, I know you don't go to Fast & Furious films for the story or character development, but throw us a bone every once and a while, if only to have something of substance to bite down on.
But what pushed me in the fan column with Fast 6 is that it actually has something of a story, characters who much actually change and grow to advance it, and a villain I really enjoyed. It's not the perfect combination, but it's enough to get you through the film between the always-mind-blowing stunt sequences.
Group interpretation, original oratory, extemporaneous commentary. These are some of the graphic titles projected to introduce new scenes throughout Speech & Debate at American Theatre Company (ATC). That may sound like a yawnfest for speech majors but in the hands of four talented performers, they signal funny but searing explorations of teenagers trying to sort out their identities. This is doubly tough in an era where online activities further complicate the growing-up process.
Speech & Debate is written by Stephen Karam, whose play Sons of the Prophet will be presented by ATC in 2014. Karam and director P. J. Paparelli cowrote columbinus, recently presented by ATC and now on national tour.
Speech & Debate brings together three students in an Oregon high school who are misfits of one kind or another. They find they have similar interests in fame and free speech and determine to expose the online life of one of their teachers. Don't think of this play as a show for teens. The characters are not juveniles nor are they portrayed as adorable problem children. They are real people and the play's insights and commentary are relevant to theatergoers of all ages.
Orange Flower Water is a wrenching marital drama where the bed is the heart of the matter, both literally and metaphorically. The bed is the centerpiece of each scene, with quick changes of covering signaling changes of venue. The four characters are two couples who live in the same neighborhood and whose children play soccer together. One of the partners in each couple wants to end their marriages. James Yost, in his first Chicago directorial outing, directs this smartly written play by Craig Wright, author of television scripts written for "Six Feet Under," "Lost," "Brothers & Sisters," and "Dirty Sexy Money."
Keith Neagle and Ina Strauss; photo by Claire Demos.
The 90-minute drama is a co-production between the Barebones Theatre Group, a recent transplant from Charlotte, NC, and the Interrobang Theatre Project, a three-year-old Chicago company. Barebones is merging with Interrobang for the 2013-14 season and Yost will be co-artistic director of the merged company, along with Jeffrey Stanton of Interrobang.
There has literally never been a day of my life when Star Trek in some form did not exist. The original television series beat me to existence by a couple of years; I was 11 years old when the first film came out. And what I always loved about the ideas behind Star Trek was that it was a place on network television where science fiction was taken seriously, even when it got silly or opted for action over philosophy. It was that rare ground where pop culture met deep thinking, and even as a pre-teen, I understood that ideas were at work here, even if I didn't always fully comprehend the deeper meanings.
And the plain, wonderful truth is that nothing can ever take that away from me. So even though the films were hit and miss, and the franchise expanded on television to other heroes and villains and versions of our future. But none of it diluted my love for what moved me the most about being exposed again and again to the series and early movies. I know it inside out, have discussed and debated it to exhaustion, and have changed my mind dozens of times about my favorite characters, episodes, villains and conceits.
Then here comes this young upstart J.J. Abrams and his team of writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, taking what Gene Roddenberry created and mixing it all up by throwing off timelines and such, and daring to show us in two movies where life began for the classic Enterprise crew. In a way, they could stop making Star Trek movies with Star Trek Into Darkness, because the film literally ends where the original series began. I'm sure more are coming, but to simply end here would be bordering on graceful.
Ivywild, the new play by the ever-audacious The Hypocrites, is part carnival, part Chicago history lesson. And it is a delightful 90 minutes of fact mixed with fantasy. The full title of the show is Ivywild, The True Tall Tales of Bathhouse John, written by Jay Torrence and directed by The Hypocrites' artistic director Halena Kays.
Photo courtesy of The Hypocrites. L to r: Ryan Walters (Kenna), Jay Torrence (Coughlin), Kurt Chiang (Little Walt).
When you walk into the lower-level performance space at Chopin Theatre, you know you are in for some fun. The set is a carousel with swings, made of faux antique materials; light bulbs are festooned everywhere. Platform pieces move around and provide performance space. Before the performance begins, two audience members are asked to don white pinafore dresses so they can participate in simulated rides in the amusement park. The audience, seated close to the action as usual in this space, feels like part of the show.
Torrence plays "Bathhouse John" Coughlin, the First Ward Alderman during the 1890s and early 20th century when the 20-square block area around Cermak Rd. and Michigan Ave. was the levee district, populated by saloons, brothels, gambling houses and plenty of corruption to fund it. Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna, the precinct captain and later the second First Ward alderman, is played by Ryan Walters. (Until redistricting in 1923, each Chicago ward had two aldermen.) The two amass great wealth through the levee district businesses, political corruption and general debauchery.
I have genuinely mixed emotions about director and co-writer Baz Luhrmann's take on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby. On the one hand, the lush look and resplendent pageantry on display is breathtaking to the point of being difficult to believe a film of this scale and indulgence can still be made; it's the Lawrence of Arabia of shallow people. On the other hand, so much of the film looks fake, and I'm pretty sure it's not on purpose most of the time. Shot in Sidney but set largely in and around Long Island, the shots of New York City and the coastline mansions where the characters all live look like they are three-dimensional version of period postcard paintings rather than the real thing. At its worse, the film resembles a pop-up-book rendering of the Jazz Age devoid of any flesh-and-blood characters for us to really care about.
When Luhrmann last worked with Leonardo DiCaprio (who plays the titular Jay Gatsby) on their version of Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, the director actually allowed the camera to pause for while to let us live and love and become enraged with the characters. But with Gatsby, Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan have ants in their collective pants, and keep the camera swinging and swooping across epic party sequences, across water and land, car chases on paved and dirt roads, and even within small rooms to convey a sense of mayhem, where no one has the time or inclination to look to closely at what Gatsby is really all about (assuming people even know what he looks like).
A Red Orchid Theatre is presenting In a Garden by Howard Korder, a fast-moving and smartly written play in nine scenes spanning 15 years from 1989 to 2004. The play portrays the frustration of an ambitious American architect (played by Larry Grimm) proposing a design for a fictitious Middle Eastern country, which might be Iraq.
Director Lou Contey keeps the action moving well, with quick scene changes made by a stage assistant, veiled and silent -- the only woman who appears. Broadcast news snippets between scenes set the time line. The tiny Red Orchid space is the office of the minister of culture (played by Rom Borkhardor), a man enamored of American pop culture and American architects. The architect and the minister develop an uneasy friendship over the years -- but the play, which starts out like a satire with many clever lines about truth and beauty, becomes darker as the scenes progress.
The architect is so desperate to see one of his designs built that he suffers through years of ambiguity and misdirection from his client (or patron, as the minister prefers). It's never clear who is making the decisions or if in fact a decision will ever be made to build the gazebo in a peaceful garden of lemon trees so desired by the minister.
In the final scene, everything has changed: the space, the architect's professional goals and the minister's status. The gazebo was finally built, but now is gone. The lemon trees remain--to be enjoyed by the office's new occupant: an American army officer.
The play runs through Sunday, May 19, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15-30 and may be purchased online. For more information, call 312-943-8722.
Photo by Michael Brosilow courtesy of A Red Orchid Theatre.
People are going to poke and prod at the good and bad of Iron Man 3, the first post-Avengers work from Marvel Studios and the first of a new group of films from the comic book company that makes up what they're calling "Phase Two," which presumably ends with Avengers 2. But what ultimately makes this fourth appearance of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) so satisfying is deceptively simple. It's not the more satisfying humor, action, plot, characters or direction (courtesy of co-writer Shane Black); it's that this is the first of this latest round of Marvel movies (aka Phase One) that doesn't feel like it's leading up to something.
Sure, technically it is leading to another Avengers movie, I guess. But it doesn't feel like simply a prologue. Hell, even the post-credits tag is more of a pure comedy piece than a transition to another film that in turn would eventually take us to Joss Whedon's next film. Iron Man 3 is its own, beautifully self-contained story. If anything, the filmmakers have opted to make this a film that arises out of and deals with history, rather than leading us into the future to a movie we won't see for two years. Here, Stark is dealing with the very real emotional and psychological repercussions of nearly dying in a worm hole into another universe and then hurtling down to earth (barely saved by the Hulk, if memory serves). He's also come to realize that he's deathly afraid of his lady love, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), becoming a target because of the world knowing his identity.
If you have a low tolerance for people in movies doing dumb shit, then you're probably going to hate the new Michael Bay film Pain & Gain, a film filled with exactly that. But if you go in realizing that much of the story about three personal trainers who engage in bizarre and violent criminal acts to make money they could never make at their jobs is true and that these gentlemen were, in fact, experts at being idiots, you'll probably enjoy the hell out of this over-the-top example of the American Dream gone utterly sideways.
The setting is 1990s Miami, a place where body builders (or men and women who look like body builders) are a dime a dozen, but that doesn't stop Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) from dreaming big, so much so that he gets busted for running a scam on unsuspecting investors in a side gig outside of his training job. But he's an ambitious man who gets a job at a high-profile gym (run by Rob Corddry's John Mese) and triples memberships in just a couple of months, along with his partner Adrian (Anthony Mackie), whose overuse of steroids has left him impotent with raisins for balls. The two men are tired of training filthy rich clients, and they decide the best course of action is to somehow find a way to not just kidnap one of these people, but force them through torture to sign over their entire fortunes to Daniel. Why didn't I think of that?
The latest Tom Cruise science-fiction epic features a pair of fairly major plot twists, neither of which I'll reveal here, but one I found fairly predictable and the other took me by complete surprise. And I like those percentages, since usually I figure this crap out pretty early on. Oblivion feels like a beautiful quilt, made up of squares from so many different science fiction stories that you feel like you're playing a "Guess That Reference" game as you're watching it. But there's no denying the film is a stunning visual achievement (I highly recommend seeing this in IMAX; it's not in 3-D, thankfully) with a story that is both derivative but still capable of being smart and entertaining.
I particularly liked the setup. Cruise plays Jack, one of only a few humans who still works on the surface of Earth. According to Jack, most humans live on the Jupiter moon Titan, while a few inhabit a space station above the earth, which keeps track of the surface. The future story is that Earth was invaded by alien "Scavs." We managed to drive them out, but the planet was so utterly laid to waste (due in large part to the aliens destroying our moon) that it had to be evacuated. Giant syphons are pulling the earth's water supply off the planet for fuel, and those machines are being guarded by automated drones that are under constant attack from stray aliens that Jack must take out as he makes sure the drones are in good working order.
I've said before that Shakespeare was a man for all ages who wrote plays for all time. Sometimes, they were his own creation; other times, they were stories written by others that the bard simply made relevant to the time in which he lived. Othello is one of those stories. The original tale was written by Cinthio in 1565. I once made the popular but foolish mistake of thinking that this story was Shakespeare's own genius at work. I was promptly corrected by Lar Lubovitch, the choreographer for the upcoming performance of the play by the Joffrey Ballet. Now, Othello has been remade a third time. Chicago Shakespeare Theater's production of the Q Brothers'Othello: The Remix, now extended through June 15, translates the sometimes tricky prose of Shakespeare's play into a language that the modern world understands: rap.
When Steppenwolf's house lights dimmed for the first act of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Head of Passes, I was immediately transported to the South, to the mouth of the Mississippi River, on an afternoon when the air was heavy in the way it can be only before a thunderstorm. This heaviness not only gave the play its setting, but also its tone, suspending the audience in a disbelief broken only once in two hours by the single 15-minute intermission.
Head of Passes begins on the eve of Shelah's (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) birthday, a date this spiritual woman and mother of three has been too busy to remember. Her middle son, Aubrey (Glenn Davis) is in high spirits as he seeks to make his mother's birthday one she'll never forget -- despite the leaks in the living room, representative of the cracks developing within their family -- complete with cake, scotch, laughter and family. However, these are not the reasons that Shelah will remember this night, and the tragic turn of events haunts her long into the future.
The reason it has taken Hollywood so long to put together a Jackie Robinson bio film has nothing to do with racism or anyone questioning Robinson's groundbreaking achievements, both on the field and in history, as major league baseball's first-ever black player. The problem is that Robinson led a pretty dull (at least cinematically) life off the field, at least as far as anyone is willing to say on record, including his widow and his fellow players. So how do you make a film about Robinson interesting? You can't just fill it full of moments on the field, although there are so many to choose from.
Truthfully, you have to take some of the movie version of Robinson's life away from him and give it to the people around him — the white members of the Brooklyn Dodgers ball club who had to get used to a new kind of attention at their games; the fans, who slowly began to realize that Robinson was going to succeed or fail on his own merits and not because of his race; and perhaps most importantly, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (played in the new film 42 by Harrison Ford, who seems more awake and alive in this part than he has in quite some time), who made the decision in 1946 to bring Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on board as much for money and publicity as any kind of statement about equality.
It seems strange yet appropriate that I spent much of my Thursday writing reviews, all of which I happen to love. Roger Ebert, the man who taught me the most about loving film and expressing that passion through writing, died on Thursday. He's the reason I do what I do, the reason I live in Chicago, and he was my friend and supporter for nearly 15 years. I wrote up a lengthy remembrance for Ain't It Cool News yesterday. Feel free to peruse my emotional ramblings there; for those who don't know, I write as Capone for the site, so you have to scroll down a little bit. In the meantime, I'm going to honor Roger by reviewing four movies I really liked this week. Go see something good this weekend, in Roger's honor.
People forget that while the stories about the making of the original 1981 The Evil Dead are quite hilarious, the film itself is quite serious, and I remember being utterly terrified by it when the 14-year-old me watched it home alone in the middle of the day. The silliness that some associate with the Sam Raimi-directed, Bruce Campbell-starring series didn't enter the picture until Evil Dead 2. So in that respect, this Evil Dead relaunch (not so much a remake since the curse may be the same, but the story and characters are completely different) is similar in tone to the source material.
Our first introduction to the twin Eastern European city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma comes in the company of two angry and grieving American travelers. Mr. and Mrs. Geary have arrived in Beszel to identify the body of their daughter Mahalia, a graduate student found bludgeoned to death. Because of the urgency of the ensuing police investigation, the Gearys have been admitted to Beszel without the weeks of cultural orientation most visitors must undergo. They have only a cursory grasp of the unconventional way in which Beszel and Ul Qoma coexist, but if they don't pay attention and adapt quickly they'll commit a breach of diplomacy that could put their lives at risk.
It's sink or swim for the audience, as well, in Lifeline Theatre's terrific production of The City & The City. Adapted from the brilliant 2009 novel by China Miéville, Christopher M. Walsh's brisk, effective script immerses us quickly and shrewdly in the protocols of life in Beszel, where a literal misstep can spell disaster. With the Gearys as our perplexed stand-ins, Walsh and director Dorothy Milne dare us to keep up, and one of the pleasures of this play lies in those "A-ha!" moments when the peculiar nature of these intertwined cities (which I will strive not to spoil) begins to clarify.
Outside of Geneva, Switzerland, is a giant, revolutionary machine called the Large Hadron Collider. This machine is a particle accelerator that mocks the conditions directly following the Big Bang that supposedly created the universe. To operate the machine, physicists fire two beams of sub-atomic particles called hadrons (either protons or lead ions) directly at each other. The beams gain energy as they travel around the massive, circular tunnel and when they collide, newly created particles explode in every direction in a miniature representation of the beginnings of the galaxy. This whole concept is crazy but incredibly powerful. In the same way, Next Theater Company's production of Jonathan Safran Foer'sEverything is Illuminated is a play that forces extreme opposites to collide with spectacular results. The first act left the audience bent in half laughing, and yet in the second, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater.
This play, based on a novel, is a Holocaust tale, but unlike many movies and documentaries that have painted the picture of widespread horror, this story focuses on the tragedy within each individual who lost someone dear to them. It raises questions concerning the boundaries of courage and cowardice in the worst of times, when a man is forced to choose between his family and his neighbor. Although this genocide lies in the past, the wounds of those who remember never really heal.
Hey, everyone. First a quick note about a couple of films that won't be reviewed this week. First off is G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film that I think looks completely badass but unfortunately screened for press in Chicago while I was out of town. The other films I missed due to a scheduling conflict was the Japanese animated work From Up on Poppy Hill, written by the great Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro. It comes from the great Studio Ghibli and opens this week at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, so it's a good bet you should go see it immediately. And just so I'm fair to all the films that I was unable to review this week, Tyler Perry's Temptation was not screened for press at all, but I'm sure it's wonderful. Alright, onto the stuff I did get to see.
Simply reading or hearing the statement "from Stephenie Meyer, worldwide bestselling author and creator of The Twilight Saga" may send many of you running for he hills, but I'll admit I was more than a little curious about The Host, based on Meyer's most recent novel of the same name. I wanted to know if this woman who seems to have tapped into something in the teen psyche could transfer that "gift" to a science fiction story in which alien beings are injected into human hosts and take over their minds in the hope of creating a better society. (I know it sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it's not exactly since the human bodies aren't destroyed in the process.)
(L to R) Kasey Alfonso, Justin Adair & Robin DaSilva in SJCChicago's Smokey Joe's Café.
Photo: Anthony Robert La Penna.
Ever heard an old tune you knew, but later realized you didn't actually know you knew it? That's the effect of music and its ability to transcend generations--to take you back to a time when lyrics had sentimental value--when a song knowingly, or unknowingly, invaded your memory, whether or not you even wanted it to.
This is exactly the feeling you get from Smokey Joe's Café: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller, the musical based on the popular catalog of the famed songwriting duo, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, now playing at the Royal George's Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.
This movie is so crazy it just might work. Whether you enjoy this White House-takeover film from director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Shooter) or don't is going to depend on how much the absurd appeals to you. The premise is certainly intriguing, so much so that two movies about terrorists storming the White House are coming out this year (White House Down is scheduled for a June release). But Olympus Has Fallen is the first out of the gate and features some action sequences that range from completely effective to moments worthy of grand fits of groaning and eye rolling.
The film opens with a solid set up. Gerard Butler plays Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, the man in charge of security for President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his family, which includes the first lady (Ashley Judd), who is killed in a nasty car accident. Banning blames himself for her death since his focus was on saving the president, but that's his job. Skip ahead two years, Banning now works a desk job for the Treasury Department, enjoys time with his wife (Radha Mitchell) and is still tortured by the first lady's death.
Gjenganger--a word I can't pronounce, no matter how hard I try; a word that is an adaptation of another difficult word: Gengangare--most often translated as "ghosts", but more exactly meaning "those who walk again." Gjenganger is a word that is the title of three unique plays by Jon Fosse, each of which is familiar to the other in the way that it seems they are different repetitions, again, walkers of each other, hence the title.
The plays are brought to the Chicago theater scene by Akvavit Theater Company, whose mission is to produce contemporary Nordic plays to encourage a discussion about how the culture is perceived and how it exists on a more global scale. Akvavit Theater's production of Gjenganger, composed respectively of William Bullion's A Summer's Day , Breahan Eve Pautsch's Autumn Dream, and Paul S. Holmquist's Winter, gives Chicago theatergoers a breath of fresh air and an opportunity to experience a type of theater quite different from anything else in the city.
Where can you find a duke cleverly disguised as a priest, a cunning nun out to save her condemned brother by whatever means necessary, a handful of satirical plays-on-words, and enough whorehouses to be disreputable even by the lenient standards of the 1970s? Only in Robert Falls' production of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at the Albert Theater at the Goodman.
After the final curtain and a standing ovation, the man sitting behind me, whose commentary I had been tuned into throughout the entire production, said that he felt as if he'd been assaulted by the theater. The smile on his face told me he meant this in the best way possible. In my own way, I felt the same. The on-stage events were a loud, blaring, spray-painted, bell-bottom-wearing, nothing-barred strike to the audience's sense of morality and righteousness, but we couldn't stop laughing.
If I had stars to give, I'd throw five to this production. From the set to the acting, the lighting design to the interpretation of the script, the play was nothing short of what I would expect from the Goodman.
(left to right) Julian Parker and Kristin E. Ellis is Theater Seven of Chicago's production of BlackTop Sky by Christina Anderson, directed by Cassy Sanders, as part of Steppenwolf's Garage Rep 2013. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Theater Seven's BlackTop Sky has all the charm of "Good Times" and none of the one-liners. The minimal set includes little more than a couple benches and scattered litter to give it an authentic "Chicago Housing Projects" feel. On one of the benches lives Klass, aka "Pigeon," (endearingly performed by Julian Parker) because of the feathers molting from the down jacket that he wears 12 months a year. Our protagonist, 18-year-old Ida (Kristin E. Ellis), opens the play, standing on a bench, by telling us about her witnessing the cops rough up a street vendor and feeling helpless about it. In the process of telling the story she drops her keys and Klass picks them up, and after a few tense interactions between the two over the next few days they eventually become friends, to the dismay of Ida's boyfriend.
It may be PG-13 and the trailers might not inspire you to go see it, but I'll be damned if The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, set in the Vegas magic act scene, isn't remarkably funny in most places. Much of this is thanks to going-for-broke performances by Steve Carell and Jim Carrey, who seems to have rediscovered the physical comedy that put him on the map, while still creating a real character with dark secrets and an even darker ability to come up and go through with nasty, often self-mutilating stunts. Carrey gives the movie an edge it simply wouldn't be capable of with him.
Burt Wonderstone is about a young boy who discovers his love of magic by getting a magic set said to be put out by his favorite television magician, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin). The kid becomes pretty good with the tricks in the box and even manages to find an even dorkier friend to become his partner in illusions. The two grow up to become Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), would-class magicians with a top-billing, sold-out act on the Vegas strip. The only thing more awesome than their act is Burt's ego and the creepy way he seduces women (complete with a souvenir, after-sex photo). Burt manages to chase away on-stage assistants (who all seem to be named Nicole) at an alarming rate, so he grabs one of the show's backstage techs, Jane (Olivia Wilde), to be the new assistant (still calling her Nicole).
(left to right) Harter Clingman and Danni Smith in Bailiwick Chicago's production of See What I Wanna See with words and music by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Lili-Anne Brown and music direction by James Morehead, presented as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Garage Rep 2013. Performance through April 21, 2013. Photo by Michael Brosilow
If I had done any research at all, I wouldn't have gone to See What I Wanna See. I jumped at the opportunity to review it because it's part of Steppenwolf's Garage Rep series, which I am a big fan of, but I am not a big fan of musicals, so if I'd actually read the press release before RSVPing, I wouldn't have gone. That said, I'm glad I went. Theater has come a long way since Oklahoma, thank God.
There's nothing like an impossible task to get Sam Raimi's creative juices flowing. He gave us two great Spider-Man movies (and one not-so-great one) before superhero movies were back in fashion. And now he has made a film about the land of Oz that honors 1939's The Wizard of Oz (which he clearly worships) but doesn't simply drop visual and dialog winks to that family classic, based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. Raimi and writers Mitchell Kapner and Pulitzer Prize-winning playright David Lindsay-Abaire use the known universe of Oz as a starting out point, but then take us back to the beginnings, when a second-rate magician/con-man named Oscar Diggs (James Franco, employing equal parts playfully sleazy and charming) found himself transported to the land of Oz, where he meets familiar characters and less-than-familiar ones, giving Raimi and his team a chance to pay homage and be utterly creative.
Clearly hoping to capitalize on the success of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Disney has actually got a much better film on its hands than that appalling, ugly spectacle — which doesn't automatically mean it will make as much money, but it's not my job to guess the box office. Much like the '39 classic, Oz the Great and Powerful begins with reduced screen ratio and in black & white, as we see Diggs (nicknamed Oz) seduce a young, would-be assistant (more like a plant in the audience) for his circus magic show. In this lovely prologue, we meet a young girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who begs the magician to make her walk again, Oz's right-hand man, Frank (Zach Braff), and Oz's true love, Annie (Michelle Williams), who has just been asked by another man (last name: Gale) to get married. Oz knows he cannot commit, so he sets her free with much pain in his heart. Soon after, a familiar Kansas storm kicks up a tornado, which sends Oz in a hot-air balloon off to the land where brilliant color and a widescreen await him.
Hello, everyone. I'm not a big fan of doing this, but due to combination of a busy week and a lot movies being released this week, I'm going to have to blaze through these reviews, with just two or three paragraphs per film.
Jack the Giant Slayer
Whether you love, hate or are indifferent about the latest fairy tale fleshed out and turned into a feature-length film, Jack the Giant Slayer (based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story), you're all going to come out of it with at least one common thought: "Those giants were pretty fucking cool." There's really no denying it, especially when the leader of the giants, General Fallon, is voiced by the great Bill Nighy and has a second, malformed head on his shoulders that acts as something of a mentally challenged parrot for his proclamations of war against the humans that invade the giants' land in the clouds.
I was genuinely excited to see this film due in large part to the director, Bryan Singer, who has a solid track record with the first two X-Men movies (and the next one as well), The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Apt Pupil. I also like the cast, led by Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, X-Men: First Class), Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane and the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson. Jack is handed a small number of beans by a monk trying to escape capture by the king's men, but when they get wet, a giant beanstalk grows into the clouds taking with it Jack's house and Princess Isabelle (Tomlinson). The king's guard (led by McGregor's Elmont) heads up the stalk to retrieve the princess. One member of the party, Roderick (Tucci), is planning to marry the princess and overthrow the King (McShane), but Isabelle has her eyes on Jack, because the young pretty ones deserve each other.
Every heart in the audience felt that frenzy after the first baritone notes rang out through the piercing silence of the theater. We met William (Lee Gregory), a modern man bathed in a square of nearly blinding white light, characteristic of the lighting design of the opera as a whole -- reminiscent of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, the dramatic, high-contrast style made famous in paintings of old.
This modern man receives a message from his childhood friend, Roderick Usher (Ryan MacPherson), the namesake of the 1839 Edgar Allan Poe story on which the opera is based. Roderick has become ill with a madness imparted by the very house he lives in and the death of his twin sister Madeline (Suzan Hanson), and he begs William to save him from his insanity.
Shavac Prakash (top) & Scott Baity, Jr. (bottom); Photo by Cesario Moza
Collaboractions' new and original production, Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology creates a bridge between entertainment, social justice and public service -- there is sophisticated lighting and choreography, touching musical interludes, comic relief and captivating, hyper-dramatic moments that we expect from theater, but to call this play entertainment is almost blasphemy. Luckily for us, it is still entertaining. Crime Scene has a clear agenda, though -- to call attention to Chicago's serious and escalating crime problem by re-enacting three key homicides that took place in the city over the past few years.
"The inspiration from Crime Scene came from a need to create work connected to important issues in our community", explained director Anthony Moseley. "I believe theater can serve a critical role in addressing the issue of violence by offering Chicagoans a transcendent artistic experience that forces us to confront and question the core elements of senseless violence."
As is the case with most of Jackie Taylor's productions, audiences are taken on a musical ride; in her latest offering, From Doo Wop to Hip Hop, now playing at The Black Ensemble Theater, the music once again takes center stage. Whether you like crooning along with The Coasters or rhyming with Run DMC, this show has something for the old school--the new school--and everyone in between.
Cast of From Doo Wop to Hip Hop; from l to r: Brandon Holmes, Lawrence Williams, Kelvin Roston, Jr. & Corey Wright. Photo: Danny Nicholas
Written and directed by Taylor and associate director Rueben Echoles, From Doo Wop to Hip Hop, part of the Black Ensemble's "Treasures and Tributes" series, is the story of Unison Hills, a family-oriented, multi-ethnic, multi-generational community whose residents all have one thing in common: music.
Brass Chuckles is a playful, monthly comedy show at The Playground Theater that values genuine comedic expression over perfection. This makes sense given it was created by one Chicago's most exploratory artists, Tamale Sepp. Hanging out with Tamale at a tea lounge is just like watching her produce a show. She oozes positivity and acceptance, and she notices everything. Are you standing in the doorway and making everyone cold? She will politely ask you to move. Did you leave your mug at your table when you left? Tamale's got it. It is exactly these superpowers of perception and caring that make Tamale a fantastic producer.
Tamale, who has a background in fire dancing, burlesque, drag, sketch, improv and stand-up, created Brass Chuckles to foster comedy in Chicago that is as interdisciplinary as she is. Brass Chuckles performances range from drag to videos to performance art, with comedic expression as the through-line, and Tamale hosts the whole thing with an upbeat charm. The show aims to bring different artistic communities together to play and to learn from each other. A stand-up who watches fire dancing, for example, can learn a new meaning of silence from a crowd. "When I'm fire dancing, my audience does not talk," says Tamale. "People are hypnotized, so they don't have a lot of response. This does not equate to them not being invested or completely involved in that experience. It's the opposite. And that can be true during tension-filled moments of stand-up."
I went into Lookingglass Theater Company's production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo with high hopes. After all, I've heard great things about the company and Bengal Tiger was a 2011 Tony Award Recipient. I figured they don't just give those awards away to anyone. Robin Williams was also in the play at one point, and he's a pretty darn good actor. However, I came out of the production thoroughly offended and with a sour taste in my mouth.
It wasn't the acting, the lighting, or the set that did it for me -- all of these were incredible. It was the script itself. Maybe I missed something somewhere along the way.
I understand that theater has many purposes, some of which are expressing things that aren't so popular or attempting to reach a kind of conclusion about uncomfortable topics. Still, there is a certain amount of care that should come along with pushing the boundaries, and this play did not show it.
The issues brought up by the play do need to be discussed, but there's a thin line between raising questions and drawing conclusions. The latter is presumptuous, especially in a situation as delicate as the one in the show.
I'm not going to lie: I happen to be a committed fan of Dwayne Johnson as an actor, whether he's doing action work, comedy, or even a somewhat serious drama. Believe me, I know the man has starred in some true stinkers, but if one of his movies tanks, it's not because he isn't trying. More importantly, I'm impressed at the way he's managed to career and role choices. Lately, he seems to have the attitude that he'll do one for his fans that have been loyal to him since his wrestling days as The Rock, and one to help round him out as a performer. The improvements in his acting have been noticeable, and he's even done a couple of films where he's able to combine somewhat serious dramatic work with a bit of action thrown in.
A couple of years ago, Johnson did a really interesting revenge b-movie called Faster (which also starred Billy Bob Thornton and Maggie Grace), and I loved that film for the way Johnson played his character with a quiet rage. There was a lot more acting going on than the marketing would have led you to believe, and now Johnson has another film, Snitch, that features just a couple of action-oriented sequences and a whole lot of impressive inner torment from Johnson as John Matthews, owner of a fairly successful construction materials company in Missouri whose son Jason (from his first marriage to Melina Kanakaredes) has been arrested for dealing drugs after a friend of his mailed him a package loaded with pills.
Signal Ensemble Theater's tenth season kicks off the new year with the production of Jon Steignhagen's Successors -- the quintessential Chicago play complete with Chicago humor, Chicago politics, and the intermittent rumbling of the Brown Line going by in the background.
The dialogue-laden play tells the story of the family behind the DeKoven political dynasty. When Kenton DeKoven, the third generation patriarch of the political machine, decides to step down, three of his obsessively office-hungry children fight tooth and nail for the position, threatening to tear the family apart for good, and exposing deeper emotional issues between its members. Successors offers a good amount of laughs with far-fetched ideas of how to continue the DeKoven political line.
The play's writer, Jon Steinhagen, also stars in the show as Lou Tedesco, the hilariously offensive cousin of the DeKovens. His snappy, quick, and over-the-line bickering with his mother, Mae DeKoven Tedesco (Barbara Roeder Harris) is one of the highlights of the play.
Successors plays through March 2 at Signal Ensemble Theater, 1802 W. Berenice Ave. Tickets are available for $20 ($15 for industry members, students, seniors and large groups).
At first, it's odd to hear tangled Shakespearean language coming from the mouths of senators in suits and traffic police, but with the seasoned cast's appropriate inflections and gestures, the Bard's script comes to life. The audience finds themselves in an ambiguous Rome, stranded somewhere in limbo between the past and the present, hearing the hushed beginnings of a revolution spoken by Marcus Brutus (John Light) and Caius Cassius (Jason Kolotouros). Election time nears, and an aged leader, Julius Caesar (David Darlow), is the popular incumbent. Caesar meets his senate on the marble steps of the curiam, the broad columns rising up on either side of him casting a tone of fascism and dictatorship into the air, and the bold red and gold banners giving a strength to the leader that his own bones no longer possess.
Dialogue permeates the entire first act, laying the ground work for the dramatic death of Caesar and the action-packed aftermath. The ghostly soothsayer utters her famous premonition to "beware the Ides of March," which triggers dreams and unrest on the part of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia. Cassius' cunning is revealed to the audience as he manages to convince the entire senate, with the exception of Brutus, of their duty to free their people from the despot that Caesar may become -- to "strike the serpent in the egg" before it has a chance to bite.
Before we dive into the reviews, I want to alert you to a very special film festival that will be happening at the Music Box Theatre for the next two weeks. The 70mm Film Festival features a collection of nine films being screening multiple times beginning tonight until February 28, including the return of Paul Thomas Anderson's Oscar-nominated The Master, which must be seen in this format for you to fully appreciate its glory (of course, the same could be said for all of these films).
Take a look at this list: Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Lifeforce, Lord Jim, West Side Story, Hamlet (Kenneth Brannagh's version), Playtime and The Master. The Music Box if offering a $70 pass to see all nine movies. A full screening schedule and details on the films and purchasing tickets can be found on the Music Box Theatre's website. I'm attending just about all of these films at some point — starting with Vertigo and 2011 on opening night. Hope to see you there.
Director Steven Soderbergh is a man of many talents who likes nothing more than to defy expectations by treading in many different genre pools, sometimes in the same film. It seems only fitting that what he claims will be his last feature film (his Liberace biography, Behind the Candelabra, airs on HBO later this year) incorporates different styles, tones and storylines that come together rather beautifully, if not perfectly. Side Effects is a relationship drama, psychological thriller, social commentary, mystery, and a sleazy film noir all in one messy and wholly entertaining package.
On April 20, 1999, when I was 9 years old, I arrived at my elementary school in Lakewood, CO early like I always did. I liked to play outside on the blacktop with my friends before class began. It was such a normal morning. By the end of the day, all of the doors to the school would be locked and none of us would be allowed to leave the building until our parents came in to get us.
On April 20, 1999, Colorado changed forever. At 11:19am, 10.3 miles south of my elementary school, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris began the massacre that claimed the lives of 12 students and one teacher, and injured countless others at Columbine High School. Before Columbine, a school shooting had never been heard of in Colorado. Since 1999, there have been many.
The shooting happened 13 years ago, but I woke up this morning feeling as though it was yesterday. Last night, I was a guest at the American Theater Company's performance of Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli's Columbinus, a three-act "theatrical discussion" of the tragedy based on old and new interviews with survivors and their parents, and one of the best productions I have ever seen.
I firmly believe that if you give this zombie rom-com a shot, you'll really like it. I want to be perfectly clear about that up front, because I'm genuinely surprised how many people are inflexible when it comes to zombie films. There is no point in making zombie movie after zombie movie (or TV series) if you aren't going to mix things up within a certain framework established in George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. That groundbreaking film is a perfect jumping off point, but there's room for variety and even improvement.
The makers of Warm Bodies are perfectly aware that the premise (from Isaac Marion's novel) of a zombie and human falling in love is preposterous, but writer-director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50) doesn't let that keep him from taking the story and the romance seriously. He's committed to making us believe in this relationship — one that leads to a potential cure for being undead. Borrowing heavily from the plot of Romeo and Juliet (right down to the names of the lead characters — R played by Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer's Julie), Warm Bodies is told to us from R's point of view, complete with narration by Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) that sets up just how much he remembers from his pre-zombie life (not much), how he communicates with his best zombie friend M (Rob Corddry), and how the world of zombies and humans is divided.
Covering some of the same ground as last year's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and covering it much better comes what is shockingly the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, Quartet. Quartet is written by Ronald Harwood (Being Julia, The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), based on his play. Both films are about finding the pleasures still available in life to those of a certain advanced age, but Quartet doesn't take itself quite so seriously and feels less like pandering than Marigold Hotel. Of course, neither one is in any way hurt by the fact that they both count Maggie Smith among their stars.
"Who will wheel around my oxygen?" and "Will my mother ever die?" were among many important questions in the random, risqué and hilarious Miami Nice: A Golden Girls Musical.
In the Chicago neighborhood of Bucktown, within the small, 80-seat Gorilla Tango Theater, there's a charismatic pianist who begins every performance of Miami Nice by asking the audience for suggestions for specific nouns and verbs, an adult mad-lib of sorts, to be used later in the show for improv. Our suggestions ranged from "dirty sock" to the word "cantankerous." She set the tone for the show, leaving the audience laid back and ready to laugh even before the actors appeared on stage.
Then there were the actors -- men as women, and women as men -- dressed in their finest Golden Girls getup. The whole theater was bent over laughing before five minutes of the show had passed. Who knew that combining some real musical and acting talent with crossdressing, a wholesome 1980s television show, and a dash of melodrama could be so funny?
The characters are familiar to most of us. There's the awkwardly tall and mannish Dorothy Zbornak, whose sole goal in the play is to find a man who she can love and who can love her. Dorothy lives with her outspoken mother Sophia, the promiscuous Blanche Devereaux, and seemingly dull-witted Rose Nylund, whose lack of intellect is the perfect cover for her life as the mastermind of a cocaine ring. Through a high-energy series of lyrically cunning songs and a cheesecake business gone wrong, the four women's picturesque lives devolve into an every-man-for-himself style race to the finish.
Miami Nice has been extended by popular demand through Jan. 26. The musical plays at the Gorilla Tango Theater in Bucktown, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave., this Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $20.
The biggest crime in the new Mark Wahlberg political crime drama Broken City is that it's trying to pack too much story into one two-hour movie. It's rare that I say this about any film, but there's so much going on in this New York City tale of corrupt cops, politicians and city contractors that I almost wish the film had been given a little more room to open up and breathe. Add to that all of the character flaws of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart (possible murderer, substance abuse, jealous husband), and you have what amounts to a film so stuffed with plot points that it's about ready to burst. There are worse things than having too much of a good thing, but that's not exactly the case with Broken City.
A five minute walk took us down an awkwardly long and winding hallway to Studio One, a 67-seat black box theater and Henry Moore's temporary home. We sat down in the last row of chairs, which were reminiscent of those in an old airliner, and settled in to see a play about which I only knew three things: 1. It was about Irish gypsies; 2. It involved art; and 3. It was based on a true story.
The true story took place in 2005, when one of Moore's bronze statues, Reclining Figure, was stolen from the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds by a group of Irish Travelers. It is believed that the sculpture was melted down for scrap and sold for only a fraction of its estimated value. Seidelman's play brings these events and characters to life in a fast-paced, whiskey-filled, understatedly witty and passionate tale of a young man who loves art more than anything else in the world.
When I heard Joel Hodgson was going to be performing his one man show, "Riffing Myself" in Chicago, I jumped at the opportunity to interview the man. For those of you who are either not old enough to know Joel or just missed out on all fun because you were doing something else, he is the man behind MST3K.
What, you may ask, is MST3K? Well, it is a cult comic series that begin in 1988 and featured mad scientists who shot Joel, and later, Mike into space forcing them to watch the worst movies ever made. The reason for this was so that the scientists could unleash the movie onto unwitting audiences and ultimately rule the world. Joel was accompanied by two robots which, as the shows intro explains, he made and together they make comedic comments about and during the movies, otherwise known as riffing. Oh yeah, MST3K stands for "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and fans of the show are called Mysties.
Despite our great love for such contemporary gangster vs. law enforcement efforts such as The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential, even in those great films, the portrayal of the bad guys in particular is exaggerated, even bordering on cartoonish. But I like cartoons, and there are few things I love more than watching Robert De Niro making a David Mamet-written speech about the great American pastime while pacing around a table of his lieutenants just before he brains one of them with a baseball bat. It may be unbelievable, but it's simply great cinema.
I saw 415 new films (including a small number of restored-print screenings) in 2012. So call me crazy, but I actually wait until a given year is completed before I finalize my "Best of..." list. In the final few weeks of every year, I play a little catch up: reviewing films I've already seen to see if they are as good or bad as I remember, as well as view a few smaller works that I may have missed in the shuffle of the previous year. I believe four of the choice in my Top 50 features or Top 20 documentaries made its respective list in this time period.
So why 50? I guess the best answer is, because I said so. When I made my initial list of my favorite films of 2012 (not paying any attention to how many films I selected), I came up with 49 titles; with documentaries, the number was 19. I ranked by groups of films, went back the original list of 415, and found one more in each category to round out both lists. If you think no list should go beyond 20, or even 10, here's what you should do: stop reading at the number you think is self-indulgent on my part.
I'm not going to get into a discussion about whether or not the latest offering from writer-director Quentin Tarantino uses the N-word one too many times (or a hundred too many times). I suspect that the word is used as much in the movie (and in the same historical usage) as it was in the time period and place that is portrayed here: the deep South, two years prior to the Civil War. Maybe I'm wrong, and I'll admit it took me a while to get over the shock of hearing the word so many times. But Django Unchained isn't about a word; it's about the slave culture that gave birth to it.
Pay particular attention to the extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a German-born bounty hunter who enlists the help of a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx, as physically and emotionally committed as I've ever seen him in any role). Waltz played a notorious Jew hunter in Tarantino's last film, Inglourious Basterds, and in that work, he uttered the word Jew with such venom that it almost burned your ears to hear it. But when Schultz and most other characters use the N-word in Django Unchained, it's simply the word of choice back in the day. Intent is the key, and while there are certainly plenty of characters here that flat out hate blacks across the board, for the most part, the word is not used as hate speech. At least that's what I tell myself to sleep better at night.
When you strip away the jokes (and I'm not suggest in any way that you do that; the film is extraordinarily funny), This is 40 is about the results of bad parenting and the daily struggle not to be a bad parent. Both lead characters, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann), supporting players in Apatow's Knocked Up, come from broken homes. Pete's father (played magnificently by Albert Brooks) is a world-class mooch, borrowing tens of thousands of dollars from his son so he can support his relatively new family that includes triplet toddlers. He levels guilt trips on his son that belong in the hall of fame for guilt trips (I firmly believe such a place exists). While Debbie's long-absent dad (John Lithgow) left when she was young and has made infrequent stops into her life every seven or eight years. Amid all of the spousal dismay over money, sex, aging, child rearing, etc., it's the details about these parent/grown child relationships that I found myself most drawn into.
I woke up this morning and opened my computer for my regular routine, which involves checking Facebook, my email, and my always growing list of news sources and social media sites for anything strange or out of the ordinary.
Today, nearly every one of my Facebook friends has posted about the end of the world. Some are kidding, some are serious, and some, like me, joke around about it in that uneasy way that people do when they need to laugh at things that would be terrifying if they were real.
While tomorrow's Mayan-predicted end of the world is real or not is up for speculation, everyone in this world has more immediately pressing fears that are truly and paralyzingly absolute. Earlier this week, 40 individuals bared these fears to an audience of over 700 people in a production called Fear Experiment 3.
So on Dec. 3 I had the pleasure of going to the Harris Theater to see the second of four concerts in the MusicNOW series for the 2012/13 calendar, and ti should be said that this series has been in existence since 1998. This series focuses on... well, I am not exactly sure what this series focuses on because that information was not clearly spelled out on on the CSO's website. I did go to the event, so I was privy to the fact that it focuses on new and local composers in some fashion. Don't ask me how exactly, that was kind of lost on me when one of the pieces was over 15 years old and only one of the four composers was local, kind of; I feel that a more apt title to the series would have been MusicKindOfRECENTLY. Putting all that aside, because who wants to go the symphony and bitch about semantics anyway, onto the music, but not yet exactly.
Some people like returning home, to a place that felt like a safe haven from the dangers of the world around them. For others, home isn't such a great place, and they are not particularly eager to return. For me, stepping back into Middle-Earth with members of the Baggins clan, a greying wizard, some familiar elves, a wiry, fractured creature named Gollum and director Peter Jackson feels like going home. And while there are stretches of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that feel like, well, they're being stretched, I never was bored or exhausted by the untold number of dwarves, orcs, goblins, trolls or hobbits, because seeing them on the screen again (or for the first time) was somehow comforting, satisfying and tonally familiar. Nothing wrong with any of those feelings while watching a movie.
I'm not here to dwell on frame rates and visual quality. I've seen An Unexpected Journey at both 48 and 24 frames per second, and I'd say they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Since much of the film takes place at night or underground, the 3D is problematic at 24fps; things are simply too dark. The 48fps presentation doesn't have these light issues, but it does result in a bizarre-looking video-esque style that, in these darker moments, looks pretty great. But in scenes set in broad daylight, something ain't right. If you're ultra curious and open minded about high frame rate, seek out a theater screening the film that way. Otherwise, stick with what you know. It's not great, but at least it looks like a movie.
The life and times of Jesus Christ the Nazarene was quick and efficient; we're perpetually reminded that his conception and birth date rearranged the forces of nature and physics, and his golden years from age 30 to 33 were spent multitasking as social activist, political muckraker, necromancer and miracle worker. But Jesus was not the founder of Christianity -- that was the Apostle Paul, whose one and only meeting with Jesus could never be confirmed, and who opened up the church doors to the Gentiles, thus ensuring that Christianity would be the exclusive faith of Gentiles in perpetuity.
Let me just stop you before you even ask the question, Why do you bother seeing -- let alone reviewing -- a movie like the new attempt at life-affirming romantic comedy Playing for Keeps? The answer is painfully simple: because part of my job, my obligation, is to steer you and those you care about clear of this kind of drivel. And rest assured, this movie is 900 percent, often nonsensical drivel.
Let me give you an example of how this story about former soccer star George (Gerard Butler), trying to be a better man as well as a better dad, makes no sense. There's a scene deep into the movie where George arrives home late one night to find Patti (Uma Thurman) in his bed, eager to seduce him. Patti is the wife of one of George's new friends, Carl (Dennis Quaid), the father of one of the kids on a school soccer team that George coaches (his son is also on the team). It has already been established that the philandering Carl has a jealous streak when it comes to his wife, going so far as to having her followed sometimes, including the night she goes to George's house. Despite already having bed a few of the other soccer moms who have thrown themselves at him (including ones played by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Judy Greer), George rejects Patti, and she eventually leaves.
In an independent comedy milieu that's over populated with producers and theaters trying to get rich quick by putting up shows with pre-existing characters (think burlesque shows featuring video games, or musical theater based on TV shows), Octavarius distinguishes itself by being creatively rich, stabbingly satirical and self-destructing (it's performed for one night only) in its production of The Hunger Games vs. Twilight. Octavarius are seasoned authors of amalgamating pop culture cultivations while injecting the fundamental element of what makes them the top improv-sketch group in Chicago; perpetual comedic motion. The performance on Nov. 18 answered the blogashapre's question of which young adult fiction series is better, Twilight or The Hunger Games? Spoiler alert: it's both in Octavarius' parody extravaganza.
The hour and a half long show started out with the group's viral video "Unlikely Quotes from Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (Parody)", sung to the tune of a "sh*t ____ says" YouTube archetype, where one-liners, jump cuts and subject-specific references insure white-hot laughs. The audience was vocally more pro-Hunger Games than team Twilight. The crowd itself was congregation of quirky-cute female Instagramers who most likely were all at the fun. concert held three days earlier at the Riviera, which is fitting because Octavarius mission objective is spreading fun.
The art of telling a story orally is a dying one, but those who can do it well (Ira Glass, David Sedaris, the late Spaulding Gray, and the list goes on...but not that far) are some of my personal heroes simply because they keep the tradition alive. I don't know if the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is fashioned in a similar sense, but the film version from director Ang Lee (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) is a celebration of passing an oral history from one person to another. It's also a transformative visual display, the likes of which I haven't seen in many years, combining the realistic and the surreal to the point where looking at the image of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger often resembles a painting featuring colors that appear invented for just the movie. Life of Pi also happens to be one of the finest works done in 3-D that I have ever viewed.
Jen Bosworth's one-woman show, Why Not Me: Love, Cancer and Jack White, runs at Stage 773 through December 8.
Actress and storyteller Jen Bosworth (the woman who was responsible for the live lit series Stories at the Store, among other things), has taken storytelling one step further with her one-woman show, Why Not Me: Love, Cancer and Jack White. Bosworth has a personality big enough to fill a theater, and does so handily at Stage 773, where she takes the audience through the last six years of her life beginning with her exodus from L.A., through her parents' illnesses and deaths, and who she is now for having lived through the experience.
Sharing the stage with Bosworth is musician Brair Rabbit, who underscores key moments with his skilled guitar playing and singing, and provides a satisfying musical texture to the piece.
Bosworth is disarming in her forthrightness, and lets the audience know from the very beginning what they're in for. "My story is the story of how I ended up standing right here in front of you," she begins, "and it involves a lot of death, but we're going to be alright."
There have been some very capable actors who have been a part of the Twilight films over the last five years, and I include lead actors Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Of course, there are also some actors in these films who make make it their life's mission to suck the breath and soul out of every scene they're in (I'm looking squarely into your eyes, Taylor Lautner and Ashley Greene). Having made this five-film journey with these characters and this saga that could have easily been told in a tightly edited three-film stretch, I feel I've been more than fair to these movies. I loathed Twilight, and felt that the next two films got progressively better, only to have the first part of Breaking Dawn simply collapse in a heap on screen that no amount of vigorous, bed-breaking pretend sex could help.
The overall issues I've had with the series have little to do with how author Stephenie Meyer and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg have essentially changed all the rules about what vampires and werewolves are. I love a good overhaul, especially in dealing with supernatural creatures that have been done to death. No, my real problem with The Twilight Saga is that the love triangle that plays out between the chronically indecisive Bella (Stewart), the pussified vampire Edward (Pattinson), and the pouty wolf boy Jacob (Lautner) never felt real.
There's a great deal to absorb in Daniel Craig's third outing as Ian Fleming's master MI6 agent James Bond. It's clear that it's important to the actor to give his take on Bond a little emotional and psychological heft without skimping on the death-defying action (which includes another sequence involving heavy construction equipment, as well as a rooftop chase in Turkey that I'm pretty sure are the exact rooftops featuring in Taken 2 — I half expected Bond to trip over Liam Neeson at one point, which would have been awesome). As a result, we get more of the Bond back story than any other film in the past 50 years has given us. Plus, it doesn't suck and it actually adds some welcome depth to the icy spy with a license to kill.
(left to right) Liz Zweifler, Jennifer Joan Taylor and Ron Wells in The Den Theatre's production of THE QUALITY OF LIFE by Jane Anderson, directed by Lia D. Mortensen. Photo by Joe Mazza.
"We're all in the same canoe, so take the stick out of (your) ass and join us..." declares Jeanette (Liz Zweifler), one-half of the Mongolian yurt-residing couple to her bible thumping, "Jesus is Magic" visiting conservative cousin-in-law Bill (Stephen Spencer) in the flawlessly written and performed gem The Quality of Life.
Bill is politely goaded by wife Dinah (Jennifer Joan Taylor) into leaving their Ohio home to visit her hut-residing cousin Jeanette and Neil (Ron Wells) in California, Jeanette's husband of twenty-nine years. Both couples have had a tragic turn of events -- Jeanette and Bill are mourning the loss of their daughter Cindy, who was brutally murdered by a psychopath; Jeanette and Neil are facing Neil's eminent demise from prostate cancer and the loss of their home and possessions to a wildfire.
(left to right) Preston Tate, Jr. and Richard Cotovsky in Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.'s production of Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts, directed by Matt Miller. Photo by Greg Rothman.
I had the privilege of reviewing the Steppenwolf production of Superior Donuts in 2008. A critical and financial success, the Steppenwolf version moved to Broadway, with most of its Chicago cast, including actor Michael McKean as donut shop proprietor Arthur Przybyszewski recreating their roles in New York. I was anxious to see what four years would do the play; would I have a different perspective? How would a smaller (and more local) production stand beside Letts' guided production? Well, the "lyrics" remain the same, but the "song" is personal this time. The '08 production was larger in scale, and a metaphor for the runaway and get outta my way American Dream -- if you're not corrupted by the gold rush, you're bulldozed over by it.
SOFA is a fair of history. This is evident upon first entering Festival Hall at Navy Pier and was especially noticeable on opening night of the 19-year-old fair. Unlike the weariness masked as over-jubilant fervor of the inaugural EXPO CHICAGO, the spirit of SOFA (Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design) is born out its familiarity for visitors and for collectors.
Regardless of what you might think you know or expect about the first live-action Robert Zemeckis film since 2000's Cast Away, what you actually see will surprise you, because Flight isn't just one type of film. Above all things, the film is a hardcore, rough-around-the-edges drama that begins with a horrific but spectacular plane crash in which pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is able to put his disintegrating plane down in an empty field with minimal loss of life. He is hailed as a hero by the media almost immediately, but as the facts in the accident start to come out, it becomes clear the Whip was not in complete control of his faculties (or was he?) when he boarded the aircraft that fateful morning.
While the trailers for Flight make it look like some kind of cross between a mystery, thriller, courtroom drama about whether or not Whip was drunk while flying the plane, you'll know from the first scene that he absolutely was drunk, with a little cocaine thrown in for good measure. He'd also spent most of the night before partying and having sex with one of the flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez). So, you see: there's no mystery here at all.
Truly great design is invisible. It exists outside of our day-to-day interactions, instead seamlessly blending into everything else we do - the work, the play, the relaxation at home. You don't want a designed object to insert itself in the things you need to do, only help facilitate what happens from morning to night.
Levi Holloway, Michael Salinas, Sandra Delgado and Rom Barkhordar
The lynchpin in the Great American Dream Press Kit is, and has always been, reinvention. "Give me your tired, poor, huddled masses", and I'll make your forget all those tyrannical inhumanities you and yours have suffered under from the ages.
Well, it's a nice hook, and a great selling point of yesteryear; today's (fewer and fewer) immigrants know that maybe you can go home again someday, and to read the fine print on the Statue of Liberty -- America's a great place to be, but the Land of Promise cannot wash away the atrocities of genocide.
Last year, when I reviewed Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, I started out by saying that you would hear a great number of interpretations from critics of what the symbolism in the film meant, what the deeper meaning of the subtext was all about, etc. And I concluded my opening remarks by saying that all of this analysis was both totally wrong and totally right. Although the new movie Cloud Atlas bares little resemblance to Malick's family drama combined with a history of life on earth, it shares the wonderful notion that films are not meant just to be something you experience for the two hours (or damn near three, in this case) you're in a dark theater. The best films are the ones you take home with you in your head and your heart, the ones that reveal themselves to you hours or even days after you see them, the ones you feel absolutely compelled to see again because the one viewing simply isn't enough (for whatever reason).
As co-written and -directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume), based on the dense book by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas has already been picked apart for deeper meaning and hidden agendas. But the truth is, most of the film's messages and themes are worn at surface level and — for better or worse — there isn't much much digging to be done. This didn't bother me at all, since there's enough to keep track of here in terms of plot and sheer volume of characters without then also getting lost in metaphors. But the messages worn on the sleeve of Cloud Atlas are plenty ambitious and worthy to keep things interesting and impressive. And as much as these filmmakers plumb the depths of faith and philosophy and expression and the soul, they never forget to keep the proceedings flowing, moving and, above all, entertaining. This one is the whole enchilada, folks.
Romanticism in performative outlets is not merely a means to highlight ideas of the beautiful. The idea of the "romantic," - in this case, focusing on love and relationships and the complications that arise within - is one that should be handled with care. Like many of the other works performed as part of the Joffrey Ballet's Human Landscapes fall engagement at the Auditorium Theatre, the routines and struggles that most of us encounter throughout our lives elicit gripping storytelling. Each work featured the live accompaniment of the Chicago Philharmonic, escalating the presence and the physicality of the movements.
(L to R) Carmine Grisolia (Doctore Mendez), Jamie Vann (Mazzy), Nikki Klix (Laurel Ann) and Elizabeth Dowling (Sydney Briar). Photo by Tom McGrath.
Eat your radio. And your TV. And your iPod, and any other noisemaker, always on, even when off; delivering words and words and words - "no dead air" is the FCC golden rule. Every nonsensical, meaningless non-event has to have meaning because the talking heads have to have something to talk about. It's a 24-hour news cycle that keeps us current, and according to writer Tony Burgess, the perpetual cycle of words and non-stop chatter and opinion and updates will deliver our apocalypse. Who knew that Talk Radio could be so toxic? (Yeah, I know. Anyone who's ever made the drive from Chicago through downstate Illinois with nothing but the AM dial to keep 'em from veering off and driving into a cornfield).
They may not look pretty or come across as especially sophisticated, but watching the fourth installment (as I have the previous three) of the Paranormal Activity series with an audience, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the folks the make these movies know how to wind up and freak out an audience. Watching Paranormal Activity movies is unlike viewing any other films in a given year.
There's something of a formula (thanks to title cards that read Day 1, Day 3, Day 11, etc.). We learn to look at a series of static shots with a keener eye than we do most other horror films. We're scanning every corner of the frame for movement or a shadowy figure or a swinging light fixture — any sign of a ghostly presence. I love that moment when a new scene starts, and inevitably someone in the audience will whisper "Uh oh." The latest ads for PA4 have night-vision shots of a preview audience jumping, screaming, and otherwise getting antsy while watching the film. I was skeptical that the audience I saw it with would follow suit, but I'll be damned if they didn't. The fear was genuine, the screams well earned, even if the particular story in this new installment is a little threadbare.
Black n Blue Boys/Broken Men, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith (pictured) and directed by Chay Yew, runs September 29 - October 28, 2012 at Goodman Theatre.
Hanna Rosin caused a storm of controversy with her book The End of Men (and the Rise of Women). Chicago writer Michael Miner followed up with his essay, "Death of a Cowboy," both authors surmising and theorizing why men may very well be obsolete, counter-productive to life, their endangerment probably a good thing if life for our planet and the women on it is to be further sustained.
Now comes Dael Orlandersmith, lighted torch in-hand, setting fire to the Goodman stage, acting as Medium in speaking the words of boys and men, from different points on the globe, channeling the fear and loathing (both self and environment) of those boys-to-men, and turning Rosin and Miner's missives into present day historical anthropology -- it's reality, and we're sifting through the rubble, searching for fragments of the human male.
To say Orlandersmith is a force of nature does not do justice to her writing and stage presence; Orlandersmith extends the conversation started with Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, and reminds us that we refuse to be warned, to listen, to take heed, to change the circumstances that makes a boy's life suck, ensuring that he will grow up doomed to repeat the cycle over again, until we shrug up our collective shoulders and nod in agreement that boys are the problem, and their "not being around anymore" may be the only solution.
The ensemble of Red Tape Theatre's production of THE SKRIKER by Caryl Churchill, directed by Eric Hoff. Photo by Austin D. Oie.
The Skriker is an unsuccessful mish-mash of alleged horror, suspense and audience para-interactivity. A run time of 115 minutes (over the stated 90 minutes), Red Tape's interpretation and prop add-ons weigh the production down to nonsensical tedium.
The plot centers around an ancient Celtic troll/spirit/fairy/something, paranormal and evil (it's never quite clear what she begins as that transforms into different people and things). This paranormal thing gloms onto Lily and Josie, two lower-class London teenage moms, and manages to seduce, entrap and turn the girls against one another. The Skriker's speech vacillates between fragmented Celt and '60s East End Cockney.
Matthew Holzfeind (front, center) as Andrew Jackson with the cast of Bailiwick Chicago's production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
"Bloody rockin' good" is Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which captures the lyrical essence of the seventh United States president -- the first "rock star politician/people's president," a populist, a slave owner, an Indian killer to the point of genocide (making good ol' Andy "America's Hitler") and a bigamist -- two times! But you'd get no apologies for Prez Jackson, he did what he had to do, and that was get rid of Indians by any means necessary, keep the South plentiful with slaves, win the Western territories, kill the Spaniards, and rid the country rule by eastern dandies like that George Washington feller. His plate was full, and he intended on making good on all his promises.
Right off the bat in looking over the schedule for the 48th Chicago International Film Festival, I recognize a serious improvement over last year's fairly strong offerings. The mere inclusion of such films as the wonderfully expansive and moving Cloud Atlas -- co-directed by Chicago's own Lana and Andy Wachowski and Run Lola Run helmer Tom Tykwer -- and Chicago native Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, the closing night movie Flight, and we know good things are on the way.
(From Left to Right) Amanda Powell, Meg Warner, Mary Cross, Rebecca Spence, Ashley Neal. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
The "a girl in trouble" plotline should make WRENS a "period piece;" the setting is the eve of the Allies victory in World War II. WRENS is the acronym for Women's Royal Naval Service, whereby young women and girls on the cusp of womanhood from all over the British Commonwealth joined up to take up mundane support tasks normally performed by those enlisted young men needing to go fight at the front lines.
Seven young women share a barrack, by day going off to perform their military duties, by evening returning "home" to make uncomfortable small talk and read correspondence from family and betrothed. Some are more open-minded and worldly than others - wispy Dawn (Rebecca Spence), the patrician rich girl Cynthia (Jodi Kingsley) housewife Jenny (Ashley Neal), spry and spunky Scottish orphan Meg (Amanda Powell), with Gwyneth (Mary Cross), liberal writer Doris (Meg Warner) and worldly and keeps-to-herself Chelsea (Katrina Kuntz) rounding out their crowded temporary domicile.
(left to right) Joel Ewing and Hilary Williams in LiveWire Chicago Theatre's production of The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether, directed by Krista D'Agostino. Photo by Ryan Bourque.
Thirty-nine minutes into The Mistakes Madeline Made, and I began to think that maybe I'd been hoodwinked into some sarcastic staged version of writer Elizabeth Meriwether's hit FOX TV series "New Girl", which as with the beginnings of TMMM, is funny and sharp, but a big ol' ball of popcorn for the 5-Hour Energy generation. And I can fold laundry as I watch it, something I can't do in a theater.
And then, the roof fell in. Madeline peels the dirt off to reveal its true grime underneath its superficial dirt.
The excitement and anticipation level I feel about any new Tim Burton film will rise and fall, but it will never go away completely. While I've endured many years of Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows and Planet of the Apes, his latest work — the stunning black-and-white, stop-motion homage to old-timey horror film Frankenweenie — is a return to form the likes of which I haven't experienced from this or any faded director in quite some time. And if for no other reason, Frankenweenie is a triumph because it celebrates original story telling. Yes, it's a fleshed-out version of Burton's 1984 short of the same name, made a year before his first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And yes, it uses characters and cinematic styles of a bygone era in horror films, but Burton uses these tools in ways that border on the brilliant.
There are times when you watch a film, and you can feel the brain power working in conjunction with the heart and soul of the filmmaker. It's that feeling that washes over you, when the movie is working in every way because its creator cares deeply and has worked over the material so carefully and with such a detailed eye that the film has no choice but to be damn-near perfect.
And then it's time to consider the performances. In a perfect world, great source material stays great no matter who the actors are, but we know we don't live in a perfect world. And what happens in writer-director Rian Johnson's Looper is that the performances serve to magnify the finest qualities of the screenplay and sweeping visual style. Johnson has made a modern classic in the science fiction genre, but he's also made a wonderful work that combines elements of westerns, family dramas and gangster pictures where some of the bad guys are actually the good guys. In most other films, the character of Joe (played as a younger man by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and older by Bruce Willis) is the villain. He's a heartless assassin (known as a Looper) working in the near future who has been assigned the task of killing hooded men transported from the future at an exact time and place and disposing of their bodies clean and easy.
(left to right) LaRoyce Hawkins, Toni Lynice Fountain and Lynn Wactor in The Collective Theatre's production of HooDoo Love by Katori Hall, directed by Co-Founder Nelsan Ellis. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
"HooDoo" you love -- and is it worth taking, and giving up a soul to know what it's like to feel love? So the questions runs like the Mississippi River "up south" to Harlem and Chicago from 1930s Memphis in playwright Katori Hall's thoroughly consuming and mesmerizing dossier, HooDoo Love.
Six Dead Queens is a royal hoot and a definite must-see. The audience gets "The Bachelor" -- in Hell, served sixteenth century style. For those more than familiar with the Showtime series, The Tudors -- well, you know the lineup of the lives, loves and deaths of Henry VIII's hand-picked women -- a rose in one hand and a one-way ticket-to-ride the River Styx in the other. Hank V-8 was the ultimate bad boyfriend cum-husband, a man who dealt with his hurt feelings through execution or banishment, though one wife was "lucky" enough to beat banishment and death when Death chose to banish and execute Henry, instead.
I know a lot of people are going to walk out of the latest from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson and think that they need to see it one or two more times just to get to the film's deeper meanings and the sources of its underlying tension. If I may be so bold, I don't think that's necessary; I think this may be Anderson's most in-your-face, on-the-surface work, and I don't level that as a criticism. I just sincerely doubt any additional digging is required; the scenes as they play out make the themes clearly and precisely evident.
And while we're talking about things that aren't necessary or relevant, can we drop the Scientology discussion? The Master is not a film about Scientology or L. Ron Hubbard. Sure, Anderson borrows some of the dogma and practices of the relatively new religion, but the film isn't some classless exposé. Between this film and There Will Be Blood, it's become clear that Anderson has a fascination (some might call it a healthy disrespect) for religious leaders. He seem less interested in what they're preaching and more in how they're preaching it. He also explores the idea that there is the thinnest of lines between being a spiritual guide and a crazy person.
Though musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Janet Ulrich Brooks) is on a deadline, her body keeps moving the goalposts, closer and closer to a permanent succumb; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) accelerates through her, bringing the promise of a body that physically deteriorates while leaving her mind intact. Katherine has known what fate holds when she makes her way to the hospital for daughter Clara (Jessie Fisher) to the hospital for a "pre-flight" checkup with her nurse Michael (Ian Paul Custer), who despite his attraction to, and the protestations of Clara, gives Katherine the go-ahead to travel to Bonn for what is unspeakably agreed upon will be her final archeological find: the mystery behind Ludwig von Beethoven's (Terry Hamilton) masterful "33 Variations" from wealthy music publisher Anton Diabelli's (Michael Kingston) mediocre composition.
Surprisingly enough, the 3D version of Finding Nemo is remarkably similar to the 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo. But like the previously released converted Pixar movies, this transfer is pristine and adds a stunning element to the under-the-ocean views and the... holy shit, wait until you see Marlin and Dory get swallowed by the whale in 3D!!!
The directing debut from sometime-actor Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal (both of whom wrote this film as well and got a story credit for Tron: Legacy) is called The Words, and it's three fairly simple stories thrown into a blender and made so much more complicated than they need to be. Somewhere in the twisted wreckage is an interesting tale of struggling writer Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who is having trouble making ends meet and is forced to continually borrow money from his father (J.K. Simmons... I can see the resemblance) and can barely afford to support himself and his wife (Zoe Saldana).
But on a trip to Europe (their honeymoon, I believe), Rory stumbles upon a vintage leather briefcase that he buys. Once home, he discovers the manuscript for a short novel about two lovers during wartime Europe who are separated and heartbroken. The story is so moving, Rory types it into his computer and submits it to a publisher he works for (in the mailroom) who falls in love with it. Before long, the book is a massive bestseller and Jansen is famous... until the story's actual writer (an unnamed old man played by Jeremy Irons) approaches Jansen wondering aloud if there is a price to pay for stealing another man's story so boldly.
I'll be up front about this: Any film that centers on my chosen profession of bootlegging warms my heart something fierce. Although the real-life Bondurant gang of Franklin County were about running moonshine throughout southern Virginia (as opposed to my own practice of bringing Canadian whiskey into our fine nation), I admire their industrious spirit and their tenacity. Hell, the Capone name even comes up a couple of times in the movie Lawless, based on the author Matt Bondurant's novel The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized tale of his grandfather and his two brothers and their adventures during the country's darkest hour, known as Prohibition.
The word that kept popping into my head as I watched Lawless was "authentic." Despite some plot elements being fictionalized by either the author or screenwriter Nick Cave, the movie feels like an accurate account of the times, if not always the actual events. This period in Bondurant's family history simply weren't chronicled, so with only a few key moments of record, he built the connective tissue of the conflict between the Bondurant brothers and the crooked Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (a ferocious and twisted Guy Pearce), who was actually from the area and not Chicago, as the movie claims (even we don't build them quite as messed up as this version of Rakes).
I have very clear recollections of being inexplicably drawn to empty-headed carsploitation films. Actually, that's not entirely true. I wasn't "inexplicably" drawn to them; I knew exactly why I loved them. Because they allowed me 90 minutes or so to turn my brain off and concentrate on stupid jokes; barely there stories; and car stunts, wrecks and explosions. Although I didn't know his name at the time, stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham was the perpetrator of many of the films I loved, and Burt Reynolds was very often his partner in crime. The Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies were the most popular, but there was also Hooper and Stroker Ace. Hell, Needham also did Megaforce; how could I not love him?
It's official: Po' White Trash is The New Black. There. I said it.
This is the second lower-caste-white-folks-as-jovial-cultural-fodder production that I've reviewed this summer. Then there is "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" -- the 6-year-old recently "retired" plus-szed beauty queen and spawn of this year's Redneck Games burping champ, and of course all of those "Real Housewives" who are indeed "white trash," but they live above the Mason-Dixon line and they've got credit cards and de-plasticized furniture, so we give 'em a pass and categorize them as "eccentric." But I digress.
The Great American White Trash Musical's story opens with Miss Betty (Danni Smith), job-for-life manager of Armadillo Acres (until the inevitable tornado or hurricane hits the trailer park) deftly singing out the sweet nobility and complexities of trailer park life. Betty introduces to the park's Greek Chorus Linoleum (her mama gave birth to her on the kitchen floor, everyone calls her Lin (Ashley Braxton), and by the way Lin's in the middle of a hysterical pregnancy), and Donna, AKA "Pickles" (Jennifer Wisegarver), who for eight years has convinced the whole town and trailer park to burn their lights in perpetuity because her man is on death row and there's not enough electricity running through the country grid to service the customers and also allow the prison to fire up "Old Smoky."
The latest stop-motion animated film to hit screens is almost too easy to review. It's about a boy who grows up watching horror movies, can see and talk to the dead, and is his school's primary outcast as a result. If you can identify with even one of those things, ParaNorman is going to have you doing a little happy dance as you leave the theater.
Sure, there are messages about being kind to people with special gifts, instead of ostracizing or bullying them, but really Norman Babcock (voiced by Let Me In's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a kid who digs scary movies, and his parents (Jeff Garlin and Leslie Mann) seem OK with that because at least they consider that somewhat more normal behavior than Norman's other interest -- talking to his dead grandmother (Elaine Stritch), who often joins him on the couch to watch said films. No one else can see her or the dozens of other ghosts Norman chats with on a daily basis, often on his way to school. They are certainly nicer to him than his teenage sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) or the school bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse).
Is there even precedent for a franchise losing its title character/main actor and continuing on? Smokey and the Bandit 3, maybe. Still, I have to admit, The Bourne Legacy makes a daring leap of faith and comes out the other side pretty strong thanks to an ambitious script by Tony and Dan Gilroy (Tony directed as well) and a nicely conceived lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who continues to impress me as a thinking man's action star in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and The Avengers.
Set in a timeline that is largely parallel with The Bourne Ultimatum (which we're aware of thanks to key shots of some of that film's supporting players like David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Albert Finney and Paddy Considine), the new film reveals that Jason Bourne was not the only chemically enhanced government agent. But because Bourne went rogue and exposed the role of one particular division (led by Edward Norton, in full-on bad-guy mode) in this project, those in the know decide it's time to shut down the project in a hurry. And they don't simply call in the agents; they kill them all, mostly by poisoning their daily meds. But Renner's Aaron Cross (a slightly more rugged version of Bourne) is targeted for a missile launch at a small cabin in the snowy mountains where he's hiding out. He doesn't die but those trying to kill him think he did.
Flashy, nice to look at, and completely devoid of any soul. But enough about my taste in women; let's talk about the latest adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," whose lead character is described more as a younger Woody Allen than Arnold Schwarzenegger or Colin Farrell. In this version of Total Recall, most of the earth has been reduced to an unbreathable wasteland, with colonies of humans living in the United Kingdom (mostly for rich folk) and Australia (filled with workers, who literally travel through the core of the earth to work in factories in the UK building an army's worth of robot police. What could they possibly be for?
Looking at the idea of failure and drawing from pop culture inspirations, Michael Rea creates enormous wooden sculptures. To borrow from Jeriah Hildwine, he produces a "wooden wonderland for nerds." Remnants of your favorite movie or book are manipulated, altered, and combined in an attractively entertaining way. Last weekend, I caught up with Mike for a studio visit and interview. We spoke about his awesomeness, the progression of his work from painting to sculpture as well as how cinema and humor informs his practice. Mike's work can be seen in Odie Off at threewalls in collaboration with Kelly Kaczynski through this weekend. Additionally, he is curating an exhibition entitled, My idea of fun, at ebersmoore featuring a diverse group of artists such as: Chris Nacka, Zach Meyer, Ethan Gill, John Abbott, Kate Ruggeri, Matthew Hebert, and Kassie Teng Olsen. My idea of fun explores the comical and the subjectivity of the artists.
Danielle Jackson: To start, how would you describe yourself and your work to someone who was oblivious to your awesomeness [laughter]?
I'm guessing there's a running theory in filmmaking that if you throw enough funny people in a movie, something funny is bound to result. And considering the sheer volume of usually talented folks involved in the making of The Watch (both in front of and behind the camera), on paper this movie should be the fucking end-all comedy of the decade. Alas, it is not. From a script by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (along with contributions from Jared Stern), directed by Lonely Island member Akiva Schaffer, and starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and British scene-stealer Richard Ayoade ("The IT Crowd"), The Watch has a few big laughs, a handful of medium-size laughs, and a few chuckles, but honestly, this thing should have been so much better.
Usman Ally, Caroline Neff, Ora Jones, and Carrie Coon; photo by Michael Brosilow
"And you may ask yourself, how did I get here?" wailed David Byrne, while Stephen King penned, "Wherever you went, there you were." Checkov's love/loathing -in-the-time-of-war Three Sisters makes King's philosophical prose the appropriate answer to Byrne's lament.
It's the Prozorov family -- sisters Olga (Ora Jones), Masha (Carrie Coon), Irina (Caroline Neff) and brother Andrey (Dan Waller) -- sharing the large country estate inherited from their late parents. Easy as it is to settle into home at the Prozorov's -- the army's officers make it their headquarters, the Prozorov's late mother's former lover and family/army physician Dr. Cherbutykin (Scott Jaeck), seems determined to live out his last days at the estate swath in the sullen memories of the lover that goes (not so far) away -- the estate is emotional vacuum that sucks the joy from almost every resident and replaces that regret, lament, unrelenting grief and in some spirits, a homicidal urgency.
Why are you reading this? You already know whether or not you're going to see director/co-writer Christopher Nolan's concluding chapter in his three-film Batman story arc; you might even know how many times you're going to see The Dark Knight Rises. I've seen it twice, and I'll admit, the first time left me a little empty and partly unsatisfied with big sections of the story. But the second time brought a lot more together than I'd expected. As hard as it is to believe that a film written by Nolan and his brother Jonathan might be dense and feature a few too many characters for its own good, a repeat viewing did a lot to clear up what I thought were strange choices.
But the Nolans have earned the right to take whatever path they want to in closing out their time with the Dark Knight and his eclectic group of supporters and detractors, just as we've earned the right to question their choices. As an overall comment on The Dark Knight Rises, there are several instances where it seems the filmmakers take the most roundabout way to get from Point A to Point B, when a straight line might have been more advisable. As a result, the film feels like its loaded with a lot of filler, mostly in the form of extraneous characters. As a minor example, is Juno Temple's sidekick character to Anne Hathaway's cat burglar Selina Kyle completely necessary? I'd love to see someone make a case that she is. Even returning supporting players (some of whom were unexpected by me in their cameos) seem to just eat up time and scenery. Is it a nice inside joke that the one-time Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) returns as the mayor of Gotham? Of course. Is it necessary? Of course not.
Harold Pinter's story, originally written and performed in 1963, is simple enough: man nor woman just ain't meant for domestication. Bovine we are not, and the idea of living out day-to-day matrimonial obligation is as appealing as a life sentence of hard labor on a Deep South chain gang.
Pinter's The Lover is short (about 50 minutes), bitter, and to the point: Richard & Sarah (Mick Weber, Ravi Batista) have been married for a decade, that is one certainty. For how long both have been entertaining an extramarital affair is anyone's guess - we're never made privy to how long and what for; but Sarah has taken the high moral ground and informs Richard of her afternoon delights with her virile consort. While Richard toils the corner office, Sarah is getting her hair parted down the middle by her thrice-weekly visitor. Of course, as a good wife would do, she warns Richard not to come home early nor to expect a hot dinner waiting because Sarah will deeply reposed in post-coital bliss, and the last thing she wants to see is Richard inconvenienced. Sarah is a thoughtful, loving wife, and Richard, the dutiful and thoughtful husband always complies, even when he threatens to do otherwise.
Because it's being released in such close proximity to The Avengers, the temptation I'm sure many critics and civilians will face is comparing that film with director Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man. And what I'm hoping you all do is be sophisticated enough to realize that both are very strong movies for almost entirely different reasons. Of course, the other temptation will be to compare Webb's relationship-heavy take on the life of young Peter Parker with Sam Raimi's trilogy. This is unavoidable but would still be doing the new film a great disservice.
The Amazing Spider-Man does something almost unheard of in the superhero arena: it treats its relationships with reverence. And in that sense, this film is like no other superhero movie I've ever seen. These characters care about each other, and as a result, we care about them. I always got the sense the Mary Jane Watson loved Peter Parker but was turned on by the suit; but in Webb's version of things, Gwen Stacy (beautifully played as the most mature, emotionally stable character in the film by Emma Stone) is madly in love with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield, who captures the shy, awkward, intelligent jokester so much more convincingly than Tobey Maguire ever did, and I say that having always been a fan of Maguire's work).
With The Amazing Spider-Man opening Tuesday, July 3, I didn't want you to have to wait until next Friday to read my review of it, so I've already posted it on Ain't It Cool News for your perusal. Lots to talk about this week, and most of it's well worth your time and money to check out. Shall we continue?
John Wayne Gacy Jr. The name conjures images of a horrific clown-faced murderer. His legacy is a dark stain on Chicago's history. Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered 33 young men in the 1970's and was put to death for his crimes in 1994. Rarely does "Gacy" bring up the thought of a father, husband, businessman and politician with a congenial chuckle.
The Gacy Play is a re-imagined look at who John Wayne Gacy was. Director Jonathan L. Green said, "What is brave about this script is that there is no real violence in it, no blood, no murder: The Gacy Play is not directly about and does not try to depict the murders committed by John Wayne Gacy, Jr." It still doesn't discount or discredit the atrocities Gacy was responsible for, but takes a fresh perspective on his personal relationships, his view of himself, and the universal propensity for keeping secrets.
Creating a play that depicts the human side of such a monstrous character is no easy task. In researching her subject, playwright Calamity West said she found myriad reasons to be appalled by the man. However, as she delved into his pathology, she found aspects of his person that could be sympathized with.
Of course, everything about it is ridiculous right down to the title. Yes, it's positively blasphemous to tie the Civil War to vampires needing to keep slavery alive so they will have a constant supply of food. It's downright sacrilegious to turn Harriet Tubman into a soldier in the fight against bloodsuckers. And its positively insane to make Abraham Lincoln a vicious assassin, trained in the art of hunting and killing vampires. And it's because of all of those things that this bit of historical fiction had to be told. People who roll their eyes at the very idea of this story (let alone this movie) have completely lost their sense of fun.
That being said, the elements of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that are most disappointing have nothing to do with its premise and everything to do with its execution. Almost every second of director Timur Bekmambetov's (Wanted, Night Watch) film seems single-mindedly focused on moving forward as fast and blurrily as possible. Yes, in most cases, the plot should move forward (with the exception of a handful of flashbacks), but the director (working from a script by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel) never lets up. He pushes so hard to get to the next scene and the next scene and the next scene that we never get time to settle in with these characters and actually experience a bit of their lives. Character development is a thing for dreamers here. People become friends because we are told they are friends; Lincoln and Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fall in love because we are told they do.
The only thing more frustrating that sitting through an overlong, cliche-driven jukebox musical is watching one that has one truly strong performance surrounded by mediocrity. Tom Cruise has forsaken all of us at one point or another over the years, but when he pulls out something inspired, I am compelled to give him credit, and I do so happily.
Rock of Ages is a collection of familiar '80s hard rock songs and power ballads with a plot that is a small part Footloose and a whole lot of familiar, tired music industry stereotypes that have so little to do with actually loving this music (assuming those who go to see this movie based on a stage musical do). People give speeches about loving music and the transformative power of rock 'n' roll. They wear variations on the rock star uniform and pushing forth a very paint-by-number approach to both the acting and the music performances.
(left to right) Ryan Lanning, Elizabeth Hope Williams, Ryan Hallahan and Tracey Kaplan in Theatre Seven of Chicago's production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Cassy Sanders. Photo by Amanda Clifford.
Only the truly gifted can successfully make a hamburger from a societal sacred cow -- think Parker & Stone taking the most delicate of subjects, once relegated to tearjerker morality plays, and throwing it into the "South Park" blender. Remember Eric Cartman's afternoon adventure as special guest at the NAMBLA convention? The scene in the movie The Other Guys in which comedic actor Steve Coogan's sleazy hedge fund manager gets caught by police officers Farrell and Walberg (very) briefly watching kiddie porn on his laptop? Yep, grizzly topics, and the most talented staff has to perform a creative smash-and-grab -- get in, make the joke, and get out of Dodge, and fast. If you've got to stop and give the audience stage directions, well, the battle and the war hit the lost bin. I'll admit I wanted to see Exit, Pursued by a Bear, to see how long I could remain squirm-free in the seventy-five minute performance time.
Tom Stoppard's Arcadia merges past and present along the most gorgeous linear arc that can be drawn between two opposite points. It is the story of the quietly sensuous collision of past and present, events that comingle with the past, waiting for the future to provide the tools that will solve the problems, and a present searching for answers that link back to the past. That's the mathematical; the more basic elements presented in Arcadia are emotions unrequited, and what seems to be an eternal search to find the formula that satiates human longing.
Director Jessica Hutchinson seamlessly guides the ensemble through precision pacing, successfully juxtaposing the events occurring at a Sidley Park country estate circa 1809 and present day.
Most people who have reviewed this film have only seen it once, and therefore there is every reason to have a healthy skepticism about the wide array of opinions that have already been voiced about Ridley Scott's return to the world of science fiction, Prometheus. I can't imagine truly grasping some of the concepts at work here after only one viewing. The plot itself isn't confusing, but the amount of philosophy and speculative science at work here makes at least two viewings necessary. And I say that as someone who wasn't particularly impressed with a lot of this film on the first go-round.
Before I dive into the boilerplate, let me digress just a moment on one aspect of Prometheus. One of the elements of the movie that I was riveted by was the idea that Noomi Rapace's character, Elizabeth Shaw, is a woman of faith, something I'm fairly certain we haven't seen in any of the Alien movies. There's a moment in the trailer that I've always found gripping — when her whole world seems to be crashing down on her, Shaw suddenly clasps her hands together in desperation and prays. That's her defense mechanism, her last-ditch move to survive the insanity around her.
A new work by Chris Bower and Matt Test, Birthday Boy is currently running as part of The Other Side of the Elephant, along with a selection of other short, original works produced by Curious Theatre Branch at the Prop Theatre, 3502 N. Elston Ave. Bower's and Test's voices shine through in the piece; their absurd, dark humor front and center throughout, slapping the audience in the face -- but in a good way, like getting slapped with a bolt of the very finest velvet.
In the opening scene we see Matt Test as Peter, who has just turned 13 and is wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with this fact. "I'm 13!!!!!" It reads on the front. A stuffed goose named Henry hangs on the wall, which just happens to be the same name as Peter's father, played by Chris Bower. Soon we see a half drunk woman in a leopardskin coat, sunglasses, a string of pearls, and red lipstick smudged across her lips stumble into the room accompanied by an attractive young woman bearing a pile of gifts. The inebriated woman is Peter's mother (Cat Jarboe), and the attractive young woman is his nanny (Kevlyn Hayes.) It turns out that the date on the invitation to Peter's birthday party was wrong, so nobody else is coming.
The dialogue is devastating, funny, and cutting: "It's true his cake is going to be terrible," Peter's mother says, "just like everything, just like life." The gifts are all disappointing: a $30 gift card from Restoration Hardware, "you can buy new knobs that look like old knobs for your dresser," Peter's mother says; a $20 gift card from Jo-Ann Fabrics, "you can get some fake fur or a glue gun," Peter's mother says; and a $30 gift card from Aldi,"they have that soup that you like," Peter's mother says. The only decent gift comes from Peter's nanny -- a framed photo of herself in a sexy pose with Henry (the goose.)
It's a story we all know well. Hell, we just had it told to us in movie form mere weeks ago in a breezier version called Mirror Mirror. But I can honestly say, I've never seen the Snow White story told in which the heroine puts on a suit of armor, takes up arms, and starts hacking and stabbing away at people. I kind of like that idea, if only to radically alter to familiar story and make it fresh and unpredictable. In theory.
Snow White and the Huntsman gets a lot right in its bleak, surprisingly dark tale, beginning and ending with just how gorgeous the film looks — both the scenery and the special effects. The tale opens with Snow White as a child and her happy parents, the king and queen of this land. But after the mother dies, the inconsolable father meets Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who tricks the king into marrying her and then turns around and kills the poor man and steals his youth. Much like the other recent version of the evil Queen, Ravenna is literally a soul-sucking witch who absorbs youth and beauty to stay young herself.
Bruce Nauman's "Cast of the Space Under My Chair" is a pretty good rebus for a lot of postwar art. A cast concrete block bearing the rectilinear impression of nondescript legs and a seat, it disposes of concerns with high-tech functionality, high-fashion prettiness, or high-concept intangibility. Precious without being at all special or unique, it recalls a moment and a space that can be recorded but not retrieved, just an oddly pointless fossil of the industrial-design era. Much the same could be said of the thrust of contemporaneous Pop, Minimalist, and Fluxus artwork, currents which have resurfaced in the last decade.
I hate sequels that require you to have seen the previous chapters in a franchise to understand the third (or even second) installment. Each film, sequel or not, should stand on its own as a piece of film. Now I'm not talking about a series like the Harry Potter films where the movies are an ongoing story that was established before the films were put into production. But in the case of Men In Black III, this is a story that is basically made up as it goes along, so the potential for creating new and interesting plots using a couple of the same characters from movie to move is there.
But the committee that came up with the script (or sections of the script) for MIB3 leans so heavily on previously established relationships and circumstances that it doesn't leave room for much in the way of creativity. This film is so spent for new ideas that it actually relies on the age-old going back in time scenario to move itself forward. What the hell am I talking about?
Anytime there is a production mounted with people and subject matters not regularly seen on stage or screen, it gets the carp running and audiences flowing (see: Tyler Perry, both stage and movie incarnations). Except, the audience looks "different" than the regular attendees, and is "coming out" to see themselves reflected in spaces normally not reserved for their stories.
During the '88 Miss Saigon on Broadway debacle, producer Cameron Macintosh defended his "reverse color blind," stating the two reasons why white performers were the predominant hiring preference over performers of color (particularly Asians): 1) their weren't many "qualified," and 2) most theatrical productions are about families, and of course families are made up of one race, and the overwhelming majority of playwrights, August Wilson the exception, are white (and male). The answer to the conundrum as defined by Macintosh, people of color must write, produce and present their own work, and market to their own communities.
(L to R) Bear Bellinger, Adrian Aguilar and Jenny Guse. Photo by Jeremy Rill.
Rent will forever be defined as playwright Jonathan Larson's magnum opus, to date the ninth longest running stage production in history. Sadly, the night of final dress rehearsals for its off-Broadway debut, Larson succumbed to an aortic dissection, the direct result of a misdiagnosis of Marfan's syndrome. Larson's anthem, "Seasons of Love (How Do You Measure...)" certainly confirms his awareness of time itself-ticking, moving and sifting through the grates of this lifescape we cling to so tenaciously; it makes perfect sense that Larson would scribe the pebbles of his own (shortened) hourglass.
Hey everyone. First a note of apology. Due to my insane travel schedule this week and next, I'm going to be missing a fair amount of press screenings of some of the bigger and/or more important films being released this month. For example, this week I don't have reviews for Battleship or What To Expect When You're Expecting (I know how broken up most of you are about the latter; probably no more so than I am). Next week's big release, Men In Black 3, I actually will get to see for review, but there may still be one or two that escape my grasp. Anyway, there is still plenty to choose from this week. Let us continue...
While I would never call myself a Sacha Baron Cohen apologist (the guy doesn't have to apologize for his style of humor), I will say that I've liked most of what he's done in the TV and film world, which includes everything he did with his Ali G character on both sides of the pond to Borat to his supporting work in Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Cohen isn't always going for the big laughs in his work, but when he does, he tends to try harder than just about any other comic actor today. He doesn't always succeed, but I don't think he'll ever be accused of phoning in a performance.
Front: Matthew Crowle and Stephen Schellhardt. Back: McKinley Carter and Christine Sherrill
[title of show] is a big ol' ball of popcorn! Pure entertainment, leave your worries in the theater lobby and enjoy the joy. Not a profound moment to be had in its 95 minute-run, and there are no political or social takeaways beginning at minte-96, but the cast members voices are strong, the musical numbers are gripping, and though the story is not O'Neil or even Sondheim, it's also not a garden-variety telling of a tale. What Busby Berkley did for Great Depression audiences, [title of show] gives its audience members respite from the daily grind of worry and anxiety. Sit back, relax and head-bop along.
The plot is simple enough: [title of show] is a play within a play; a writer (Matthew Crowie) and his lyricist-friend (Stephen Schellhardt) blithely decide to meet a three-week submission deadline and write the "best musical ever!". Along with their respective actress best friends Susan (McKinley Carter) and Heidi (Christine Sherrill), we're taken on a lyric-laden path of the highs and (sometimes really) lows of a Broadway-bound dream. Warning to those who find discomfort in a cast that crosses "the fourth wall": this fourth wall is smashed to smithereens, before the first song.
126 years ago this month, workers and reform activists in Chicago were reeling from the aftermath of what remains the most influential and memorialized event in American labor history. On the evening of May 4, 1886, a spontaneous protest took shape at Haymarket Square (Randolph and Desplaines, Fulton River District) as labor leaders learned of police and corporate aggression against striking workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company on the previous day. The strikers had every intention of remaining peaceful; few that night had any idea they were marching into history.
The legacy of May 4, 1886, still resonates with labor activists and allies today. Here, handwritten notes and transcripts of condemned strikers' speeches adorn a statue commemorating the Haymarket Affair near the corner of N. Desplaines and W. Couch Place.
Back then, Chicago was acknowledged as the center of the American labor movement. The major issue of the time was the eight-hour workday, which national labor groups had adopted as a cause célèbre two years prior. Horrors! Anarchy might surely reign!
In Shattered Globe Theatre's Her Naked Skin, the year 1913 finds Great Britain's suffragette movement in full force, as women in every class distinction take to the streets, and eventually to its "ladies'" prisons, in protest to demand the right to vote, to serve politically, to make their own life choices, to stand toe-to-toe with the male populace.
The suffragette's fight is far from dainty, as Britannia's iron jawed angels are met with crushing blows from the resistance of Parliament, the fists of intolerance at rallies, the frequent arrests and finally revolving door imprisonment at Holloway, where inmates are met with equal treatment at the hands of hostile matrons, sexually abusive guards, and a physician who smashes through their teeth and lungs to force feed hunger strikers — for humanitarian reasons, of course.
As coincidence would have it, the day before I saw Collaboraction Theatre's presentation of Sixty Miles to Silver Lake, a close friend shared her teenaged son's physician's advice: "If you want to get a teenaged boy to talk to you, throw him in the car and drive around; he'll spill everything that's going on in his head."
Precisely what dad Ky (Sean Bolger) does to son Denny (Ethan Dubin), though their Saturn sedan is more paddy wagon than therapist sofa in Dan LeFranc's two-man drama (2010 winner of the New York Times Outstanding Playwright). Divorce does strange things to families, first splitting them apart and at the same time placing the pieces of what's left in what can take the form of a Salvador Dali nightmare — all over the (confined) place, and throw in some added parts, damaged in a completely unrelated familial implosion.
To talk about my personal history with the Dark Shadows source material seems slightly pointless even to me, but let me see if I can bring it around to the subject at hand, which is director Tim Burton's more comedic approach to the televised story of Barnabas Collins, a New England vampire protecting his family (more like his descendants) while fending off those who would do them harm. I'm pretty sure I've seen every episode, having watched the nightly reruns that aired in the city in which I grew up. It wasn't until years later that I understood that "Dark Shadows" was a soap opera shot live on tape, thus the reels of mistakes that humorously plagued the show.
But the original Barnabas, Johathan Frid (who passed away last month), remains one of my all-time favorite vampires, with his buttoned-down manners and fierce devotion to old-fashioned morals and sensibilities. And the best thing star Johnny Depp does with his revamped portrayal of Barnabas is to capture this reserved side to the elder Collins and put him in direct conflict with the times (in this case, the early 1970s).
Coming to Carlos & Dominguez Fine Arts in west Pilsen is a group show entitled 19th State of Mind. The title of this show refers to the 19th state to enter the union, Indiana, and the state of mind of the people who have grown up in this industrial, depressed area. A large portion of this show features the artists from CISA (Crazy Indiana Style Artists). I got to sit down and talk to Ish, a long time member of CISA, he spoke about the idea that Hammond, although not a "big city" like Chicago, has an inner city quality and, for some, long term effects that are directly related to the waning industry that the area was built on.
The reason a super-group comic book like The Avengers is so much fun is because its members spend as much time clashing into each other as they do the foes they fought every month. Someone asked me recently to compare director and co-writer Joss Whedon's The Avengers with the X-Men movies, and the reality is, you can't — not fairly at least. The members of the X-Men came together under a common struggle (mutant rights), and are all trained by the same methods as each other (for the most part). But The Avengers are like puzzle pieces that were never meant to go together, and with the exception of Captain America (Chris Evans), they don't even really see themselves as heroes, let alone ones fighting a common enemy.
The story of The Avengers gives these solo acts that unifying enemy: an alien army brought to earth by Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) adopted brother Loki (the magnificent Tom Hiddleston, easily my favorite performer in the film). But before Whedon even gets to that point, he gives us micro-stories about where the lead characters sit in the grand scheme of their own lives.
(L to R) Andrew Goetten, Kyle A. Gibson, Lindsey Dorcus, (standing in center of circle) Justine C. Turner , Paul Fagen, Nigel Brown. Photo by Chris Ocken.
John Webster crafted the uber-tragedy The Duchess of Malfi in 1612, based on the true life events of Giovanna d'Aragona, widow of noble-borne Alfonso Piccolomini, who secretly married the lesser-borne Antonio Bologna (of the same name in the play). After a brief and secret courtship, Bologna (Stephen Dunn) and the Duchess (Justine C. Turner) seal their earthly bond, ignoring political and sexual jockeying from brothers Ferdinand (John Taflan) and The Cardinal (Christopher Walsh), who vow to destroy anyone, including The Duchess, that gets in the way of the fate they have planned for their sister's hand and wealth.
front: Ben Burke, Erin Creighton, John Sessler, Sasha Smith. Back (holding phones up): Zach Drane, Natalie June
Oh, what price paid for fame and for-choon! Long before the rumors of the mythical and mysterious "Illuminati" of modern times, where celebrities are rumored to pay homage (see: Blue Ivy Carter, Nikki Minaj's Grammy Award performance) and human sacrifice (see: Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston; On Deck: Lindsay Lohan), the thirst for exclusive club membership must be satiated by any means necessary. Writer Charles B. Griffith gave the musical theater world a taste of things to come with the 1960 movie The Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Roger Corman with an unknown Jack Nicholson portraying the sadistic cruel-to-cruel dentist. Made for less than $30,000, Corman's LSH raked in the money and went on to being performed on Broadway and worldwide stages, as well as a movie remake in '86.
Installation view at ADDS DONNA. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Why make ceramic vases when you can construct realistic model cities instead and methodically destroy them? After all, if you've ever turned clay on a wheel, you know it really just wants to slump back into the lump from whence it came. In Natural Disaster, Allison Ruttan embraces ceramic's uncooperative nature, building intricate structures and craftily deconstructing them so that they look just like tiny versions of the bombsites we see on the news. Or, for a Chicagoan, like Cabrini Green looked a couple years ago. Despite the title of the show, Ruttan urges viewers to keep in mind that these are not accidents of nature but man made acts of destruction.
In November and December of 1864 General William Tecumseh Sherman lead 62,000 Union soldiers through Georgia, from Atlanta to Savannah, on what came to be known as Sherman's March to the Sea. As the soldiers demolished everything in their path, refugees collected and joined the march so it became a swelling unit of black and white southerners and northerners, all with no one place to call home.
The history books will tell of General Sherman's campaign, which severely debilitated the south in the Civil War. However, The March, as adapted by Steppenwolf Ensemble Member Frank Galati from the book by E.L. Doctorow, tells the unrecorded chronicles of the individuals that didn't make history. This isn't a story of war; it's a story of people.
Consistent, but malleable, the characters show a sense of duality that allows them to survive. A high-class confederate woman becomes the assistant to a Union doctor; a mixed-race girl and newly freed slave passes as a white drummer boy; a confederate deserter teams up with a man whose loyalty can be swayed in amount of the time it takes to change his coat.
left to right: Danny Bernardo, Dipika Cherala, Joel Kim Booster, Evan Tyrone Martin, Amira Sabbagh, Christine Bunuan, Jaii Beckley and Joyee Lin. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
As I watched Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret in all its subtle magnificence unfurl, my mind clicked with alternate subversive titles, like Where Do These Westerners Come up With These Crazy-A** Ideas About My People, Anyway?, and It's a White Supremacist Manifest Destiny World, After All! I quickly regained my critical focus, shaking off those alternative titles, deeming both too long to fit a marquee.
Where do the most insidious and more detrimental stereotypes get their staying power? Borders are redrawn, people mix and migrate, but ethnic and cultural stereotypes die hard, for they serve the purpose to define and divide us, and there is eternal afterlife for any given stereotype that is put to song and dance. For a few weeks, the Silk Road players run through a millennium of pop production, delivered in cheery and worthwhile song and dance cabaret in faux nightclub setting that makes an audience member bop and weave to the beat of great performances that makes one almost forget that they've spent the living years grooving to the beat of global-scale racial oppression with the Monroe Doctrine as our sheet music.
As you might imagine, there are difficulties that come along with hypnotizing groups of people at a time, and Jacob C. Hammes certainly faced these difficulties on Friday night as the small room he performed in at New Capital coursed with 50+ fidgety onlookers, awkwardly trying to cram themselves closer together so that they could take part in the action, or at least get a glimpse. About an hour into it, the room had emptied to about a dozen people - about five who seemed to be hypnotized and the rest along for the ride. The hypnotized slouched in their chairs, eyes closed, mumbling about balls of gas and floating inside of diamonds when engaged by Hammes.
There's a new sketch group on the Chicago scene. Created by veteran Chicago writers, actors, producers and a few new faces, Dark Humor Productions is presenting its first sketch comedy show,Why the Long Facebook? at Stage 773.
The show is anchored on the platform of self-involved virtual interaction. The crew pokes fun at the absurdist online realm in which people share their every waking moment with the world, from the emotional to the mundane. Though punctuated with pithy one-liners about status updates, the show branches out beyond satirical Facebook posts to create a well-rounded production with some clever scenes that not only ridicule the ridiculous, but also reflect the humor in humanity.
This fourth (and hopefully final) installment of the American Pie series feels different than the previous, not especially inspired sequels, and that may have something to do with it having been written and directed by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholossberg (the writers of all of the Harold & Kumar movies), who have had nothing to do with this franchise until this film. American Reunion feels like it was made by fans of the series and its characters, and like most fan-driven writing, the movie relies a lot on knowledge of the previous films (especially the first one) and adds very little in terms of funny or inventive new material.
(L to R) Jerry O' Boyle, Craig Spidle and Rebecca Finnegan; Photo by Brandon Dahlquist
It makes perfect sense that three decades after his "love makes a family" play, Torch Song Trilogy, that writer Harvey Fierstein would kindly remind us that a) marriage is forever, and b) a wedding is a black hole sucking in money, spitting out familial anxiety and resentment, and c) love can, will and does conquer all - at least it does in Fierstein's A Catered Affair.
Much as I did with the Harry Potter films, when I first heard they were making Suzanne Collins' hugely successful trilogy of books into a series of movies, I opted to go into each of them without having read the novels. I'm a firm believer that, although having read The Hunger Games might have provided me with insight into characters and situations, a film should stand on its own regardless of the source material. I didn't want to get lost or frustrated tracking what minor characters or subplots got dropped or altered in the transition from book to screen, and I just wanted to enjoy or loathe the movies as stand-alone entities.
What struck me almost immediately about director Gary Ross' (who adapted the book with Collins and Billy Ray) telling of this story is how wonderfully subversive and angry the story is under the surface. This isn't a story about kids killing kids; that's just something that happens in the much larger tale of class war, about the rich thinking they're doing a favor for the poor by taking their children at random and having them executed by other children rather than doing it themselves, about a world on the brink of another rebellion much like the one that set these terrible games in motion nearly 75 years earlier. And although I haven't got a clue how the next two books progress this story, I see young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as someone with the potential to lead the next civil war in the nation of Panem between a government lost in its own opulence and 12 districts of citizens tired of sacrificing for nothing more than the privilege of doing so again and again. Or I could be talking shit. Who cares, The Hunger Games is a really great movie.
I'm not here to evaluate the place of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series in the history of science fiction or tell you about all of the other science fiction books and movies that "borrowed" from its storylines and characters. Nor am I here to speculate how much money it will make or talk about how poorly the marketing for the film may have been early on. I'm going to assume you all know that how much money a film makes is no measure of its quality. Because honestly, none of those things have anything to do with whether John Carter, the film, is any damn good. And all of those people who have written articles about how the film is going to bomb, or worse, people who actively wish John Carter (or any film for that matter) fails financially, those folks are the scum of the the universe I write about.
Erica Cruz Hernandez, Emma Peterson, Jackie Alamillo, Natalie DiCristofano, Meghann Tabor and Natalie Turner-Jones in Chicago Fusion Theatre's Las Hermanas Padilla. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.
A couple of decades ago, social satirist Paul Mooney gave an exhaustive commentary on the state of how race patronage works in show business, specifically Hollywood. In his act, Mooney lowers his voice to become the voice-over for the marketing campaign for the 1990 movie Darkman - "Who is Darkman" Who is Darkman?" in a deep and slow bluster, Mooney mimics the announcer, recounting his enthusiastic anticipation of wanting to see this "Darkman." Of course Mooney comically implodes upon the revelation that "Darkman," well, ain't "dark," but Liam Neeson.
The United States is in the midst of a national crisis. People are being detained without due process, the media is being censored and a new regime is rising and most of the country is unaware it's even happening.
Carlton Burg, a bureaucrat from the State Department is in possession of the top secret Enemies List consisting of millions of American's names - citizens that have participated in some way in any number of groups the new government has deemed oppositional. The publication of this list could awaken the public and start the revolution. Unfortunately, Carl is detained in a small police station in Lodus, Missouri and with the Feds on their way, he must rely on his fellow detainee, an eccentric, foul-mouthed redneck woman named Tanya to carry on his mission.
Written by Jason Wells, and developed at the Steppenwolf Theater as one of the three-play First Look Repertory of New Work, The North Plan takes a sinister hypothetical scenario of the not-so-distant future and infuses it with comedy - both dark and light. Directed by Kimberly Senior, the show accomplished multi-layered scenes of mischief, tension and impact.
Watching the US premiere of Infra by Wayne McGregor was more like walking into a living, breathing art installation at the MCA and less of what we traditionally perceive as "ballet" -- a term that stereotypically evokes images of pink tutus and satin pointe shoes.
(left to right) Antoine Pierre Whitefield, Brigitte Ditmars, Kristin Collins, Stacie Barra, Michael Boone & Scott Allen Luke. Photo Courtesy of the Raven Theatre
"It's a love story," "No, it's a mystery," "No, it's a comedy," "...a comedy-drama,", "It's a drama about a love story"....
Those first few lines of dialogue from writer's Jon Steinhagen's "Dating Walter Dante" are equally poignant and ironic, for the Raven Theater's presentation could have been a superlative suspense drama rather than a mostly good stage play.
Steinhagen writes a story in need of flushing out in one direction; my vote is the dramatic, if only for the fact that the story of Walter Dante plays out as a lurid, blood-soak-sexed-up "get ya' villains and victims right here folks!" in perpetual rotation with every newscast and Nancy Grace minstrel show.
Just in time to crap-up your Valentine's Day week, we have the latest shallow example of grown adults acting like special-needs children, This Means War, a romantic comedy set in the spy world that has as much to do with romance as a heart-shaped Peep and as much to do with the spy world as an episode of "Chuck." Actually, the "Chuck" comparison is appropriate since the movie is directed by the now-defunct show's executive producer McG (helmer of We Are Marshall, both Charlie's Angels films and Terminator Salvation).
Steppenwolf's 2011-2012 season has been addressing the ways in which war has affected the lives of many in various ways through the theme of Dispatches from the Homefront. The production Time Stands Still, written by Donald Margulies, is one of the stage plays included under this theme.
Not a damned thing when sifted through the all-American strainer that splatters immutable stains over victim and perpetrator equally, encasing both with historical and modern-times tribalism, a perfect mound of vanilla ice cream, covered in chocolate and sprinkled with the poison of centuries of minor slights and gargantuan horrors, a concoction that perpetually screams out, "Take a bite of opportunity from me, and I'll take a chunk of humanity from you." David Mamet's Race sublimely rolls out onto the Goodman stage like a wave of every black-white encounter washed ashore at Plymouth Rock.
A billionaire walks into a law firm sparsely populated by two partners and their recently hired associate. The billionaire is in deep and well-publicized trouble, a scandal of epic proportions that crosses the boundaries public gentility and the boundaries of a place for everyone, and everyone in their places. He has crossed into the racial twilight zone. His crime: he's been accused of raping a black woman who accompanied him to his hotel suite. What's immediately established: the accuser had accompanied the billionaire on numerous occasions to a hotel suite, and with the exception of their last meeting, the billionaire financially compensated his now-accuser.
The latest and greatest work from director Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces, The A-Team ) both is and isn't exactly what you think it is. Sure, it's a movie with a group of oil company grunts returning home from Alaska for the winter, and when their plane crashes in the wilderness they spend much of the film fending off a steady barrage of wolf attacks. But The Grey is so much more than that. It's really the story of men who need a life-or-death struggle such as this to remember that life is worth living, even if death is a certainty, either by the fangs of a wolf or the extreme and ruthless cold.
Hubbard Street 2 dancer Alicia Delgadillo in Clébio Oliveira's The Fantastic Escape of the Little Buffalo. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Johnny McMillan and Emilie Leriche are stars. This proclamation is not said lightly, but after much consideration watching the two perform in Alejandro Cerrudo's Never was and Clébio Oliveira's The Fantastic Escape of the Little Buffalo, two works shown during Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's danc(e)volve: New Works Festival, co-presented by the MCA Stage.
Cerrudo, Hubbard Street's resident choreographer, created a sharp, sleek, and physically-demanding seven minute work that requires the strength and visually-arresting physicality of only the most talented of dancers. McMillan and Leriche both faced the challenge head-on, performing a deep and rich duet that leaves audiences in awe.
Never was is a fascination or near-obsession with the body and the ways in which we can challenge and manipulate it. Both dancers were compelling with movements that appeared angry with power at certain times. The loud, forceful breaths of Leriche during moments of silence in the music were a type of address and recognition of the strength and purpose of dance as a whole and the performance in particular.
For those of you who have heard the stories of how much of Red Tails executive producer George Lucas may or may not have directed/re-shot personally, try to put such thoughts out of your head as you attempt to watch this story of the first-ever squadron of African-American pilots to fly in combat. It's better if you hate this film on its own merits rather than because Lucas may have pushed aside credited director Anthony Hemingway and put his hands all over this worthy story, turning it into a horribly written, trite adventure film that cares more about aerial battles than it does about telling the glorious but often heartbreaking account of the segregated Tuskegee airmen of World War II.
The Addams Family is in Chicago for a short run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. The musical is based on the characters first brought to life by the cartoonist Charles Addams in 1933, and subsequently adapted for television in the 1960's TV show and brought to the silver screen in two films in the early 90's, and is now in it's second year on Broadway.
The music itself leaves something to be desired; I can't say that I'd want to listen to a cast recording of songs like "Trapped," "Full Disclosure," or "What If," but the piece is inventive and whimsical, and features some astounding acrobatics, particularly in Act II. Douglas Sills brings a Spanish accent to Gomez, the charming patriarch of the family, and Sara Gettelfinger's interpretation of Morticia put me in the mind of Bebe Neuwirth.
The story centers on Wednesday Addams (Cortney Wolfson) and her love interest, Lucas Beineke (Brian Justin Crum). Lucas comes from a "normal" family from Ohio, and Wednesday is anxious about how her family will react to their engagement. This works as a plot device to keep the action moving forward, but I found the love story to be the least interesting aspect of the piece, and the characters of Wednesday and Lucas to be less than compelling.
George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber; La Cage Aux Folles. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Jean Poiret's La Cage Aux Folles, the Tony award-winning Broadway musical centering on the story of a gay couple--Georges, manager of a Saint-Tropez nightclub that features drag performances and Albin/Zaza, the club's main attraction--has always been a popular, fan favorite; however, the show's current revival, directed by Terry Johnson and starring George Hamilton and Christopher Sieber, respectively, isn't really that much to sing or dance about.
For many, Young Adult is going to be an exercise in defying expectations. You'd be surprised how many people like or dislike a film based on their preconceived ideas of what it is they're walking into, based on such things as trailers, word of mouth, reviews, etc. If a movie isn't "what they expected," they somehow think that's the basis for judging its worth. And often they punish a film in their minds because it didn't live up to some internal standard that has little to do with its actual entertainment value. Here's an idea: walk into a movie with zero expectations; walk in open minded, able to let the film wash over you and, dare I say, surprise you in the process. It's a great thing, trust me.
At this point, another review of The Muppets seems superfluous, but hell, the movie is so damn good, it can't really hurt. I'll admit, I held my breath when I saw the "Smalltown, USA" sign, marking the community where Gary (Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Stoller) and his pal Walter (the film's new Muppet character) grew up together as huge fans of the Muppet TV show. That little detail seemed a little too quaint, but it took about five minutes and one catchy tune to win me over. Segel and Stoller are such devoted fans that they know what about the Muppets is sacred ground and what they can play and tinker with a little bit.
This past weekend, fans of the Black Ensemble Theater enjoyed the opening of the new Black Ensemble Theater Cultural Center, 4450 N. Clark St., with the kickoff of the 2011-2012 season entitled "Legendary Season of Rhythm and Blues."
The Jackie Wilson Story, an audience favorite that was revamped for the new season, premiered at the new, sleek and modern 299-seat venue, to a host of both old and new fans. Written, directed and produced by theater founder and director Jackie Taylor, the story serves as the ultimate tribute to the late soul singer.
How does one even begin to discuss any of the Twilight films without sounding like an outsider looking in? Up until the latest installment, the first of the two-part conclusion of Breaking Dawn, I'd seen these films getting slightly better with each new film. Part of the reason for this was that the choice of directors was improving with each new movie, and I thought that would be the case when I heard Bill Condon (Gods & Monsters; Dreamgirls) was on board for the climax of this story of young love, supernatural creatures, and shirtless men. But Breaking Dawn, perhaps in an effort to drag this story out to roughly four hours across two films, feels like its moving in slow motion.
To be blunt, I was not thrilled with The Spirit Play. But it was not for lack of effort or acting on the part of the cast. Really, the premise is intriguing, too. The characters include a spirit medium, a dead wife, a lovelorn widower. All make for intriguing Halloween fare. However, the script and direction left me wanting more. The play explores the late 1870s, where "séances, spirit mediums, and supernatural occurrences took Victorian-era America by storm" but never really goes into the reasons why this happened.
In short, death was all around these Victorians and to watch The Spirit Play, that's not explored as much as it could be. A main and 2 minor characters have lost a wife and daughter, but the circumstances surrounding those deaths are left mysterious, leaving the audience little to empathize with. The emphasis is on the supernatural forces, mostly seen through the eyes of Spirit Medium Jane (Kate Nawrocki) that affect our characters, while we're left wondering why they like to focus on paranormal hanky-panky so much. Perhaps because most people of that era could expect to lose at least one child? I never sensed the real essence of that time -- the fact that everyone is always living on the edge of death. Although the acting is great, the directing and script lack a certain pull for me. In truth, I didn't feel a lot for these people, which made it really hard for me to feel scared for them when the time came.
The best film you will likely see at this years Chicago Film Festival is the final one, the closing night presentation: The Artist, a beautiful black-and-white, largely silent (as in dialogue-free) offering from France starring one of that nation's biggest stars, Jean Dujardin (the lead in the wildly successful OSS 117 franchise, which, like The Artist, are directed by Michel Hazanavicius). What's especially fun about this movie is that it's actually about the last hurrah of silent films in America (the film features a handful of American actors) and concerns a world-famous actor who meets a pretty extra on one of his film sets, and as his star descends, hers begins to rise. This is a movie about loving movies -- it celebrates the art form in ways I've never seen, and it's easily one of the best things you'll see all year.
"The hot cow's back!" my friend whispered to me about 30 minutes into Octavarius: Trial of the O'Leary Cow.
It's odd for a man dressed in a cow suit to be called "hot," but the costume worked for improv performer Nick Mikula. A member of comedy troupe Octavarius, Mikula played the title role in the show, staged on October 9--the 140th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.
Summer and Smoke is a somewhat lesser known play by the great Tennessee Williams. Although it may not have the clout of, say, Streetcar Named Desire, I learned last Friday that it is a phenomenally deep and layered piece which leaves the audience stunned by talent of the two leads, Josh Odor and Eve Rydberg, who star as John and Alma.
The play is emotionally wrought, passionate and deeply expressed through Rydberg and Odor's connection. Both actors have become immersed in their roles: Alma, a woman who never concedes to her passions, and John, a man, who can do anything but. True to form, the greatest loves are the most difficult to get off the ground, and Alma and John spend on hot summer navigating their relationship through highs and lows. It's truly a heartbreaking and deeply emotional bond, which is built effectively through detailed direction and deliberate spatial organization of the set.
The Den, which performs the play through October every Friday night at 8pm, has in the past offered Chicago the gem Bus Stop, which opened to wonderful reviews and left an impressive mark for a freshman performance. In this sophomore attempt, it's clear that this theatre house is going to be a force to reckon with.
(left to right) Cliff Chamberlain, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Brendan Marshall-Rashid, Stephanie Childers and Karen Aldridge in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, directed by ensemble member Amy Morton. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
The hotly debated R and G words are taken by the horns in this candid and confrontational two-act play by Bruce Norris.
Set in 1959 in the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park, first introduced to us in A Raisin in the Sun, the first act picks up where Raisin left off, introducing us to the white family who is moving out of their house -- the house that The Youngers in Raisin are so looking forward to moving into.
Jimmy Carrane. Photo credit: Zoe McKenzie Photography.
Sitting in the audience of Jimmy Carrane's show, Improv Nerd, put me in the mind of a talk show taping, minus having to drag my ass to New York or L.A. and stand in line for hours making small talk with a bunch of tourists. Carrane, known for his work on WBEZ's Eight Forty-Eight, is a Chicago improv veteran. His credits include: The Annoyance Theater, where he is a founding member; the improv troup Armando at the IO; and several one man shows. He is a certified improv nerd, and in this interview-style show he brings a different Chicago improv icon onto the stage of the recently renovated Stage 773 Black Box theater each week.
Sunday's guest was Second City alum Susan Messing, who's show, Messing With a Friend, runs every Thursday night at 10:30pm at the Annoyance Theater. Carrane warmed up the audience of about 30 people with a brief monologue about why he is still friends with a man he calls "Shitty Dave," followed by an interview with Messing, with topics of conversation ranging from the show Co-Ed Prison Sluts, which Messing started in 1988, to her unsuccessful audition for SNL, to parenthood.
L to R: Courtney Crouse, Evan Tyrone Martin, and Harmony France in Violet.
The look of the Mercury Theater last night set the mood for the mid 1960's in the south: a framed photo of LBJ rested on the table next to the press packets; the set included two televisions simultaneously rolling archival footage of the march on Selma and other iconic moments in the civil rights movement; and ambient bus station sounds filled the theater, including an old timey ring tone which I initially mistook for my cell phone.
I generally keep from reading other reviews of plays and musicals that I've been assigned to cover, not because I think I'm so unbelievably proficient in the art of writing reviews, but because it's easy for me to second guess my own opinion and I don't want to open myself to influence that might change the language and opinions I express in my own review. The last time I saw a Bailiwick production I was so blown away by it that I wanted to pay for my own ticket and see it again, so I was confused by my not-so-hot reaction to Violet, and felt I had to do some research. After all, this musical has won awards.
I've now seen Drive, the latest movie from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, twice, and both times I loved it equally for different reasons. The first time was back in July, and I got into the film's retro, Michael Mann-ish qualities -- colors and light that popped off the screen, the almost pornographic way that Refn lets the camera glide over the curves of the vintage cars that populate the movie, and the sleazy electronic score and songs (usually with a female singer) that is draped across every scene. I fell in love with the vibe of the film before the plot even kicked in.
Last Friday several galleries around the city kicked off their fall programming with opening exhibitions featuring work by their crème de la crème. A/C writers Natalie Edwards and Kelly Reaves each spent the night frantically hopping from show to show, trying to absorb as much of it as they could, with their powers combined. Here are their impressions:
Kelly: This is an engaging, quality group video show in a cool, new(ish) space. The first piece that confronts you upon your entering the gallery is chopped up footage of Whitney Houston from The Bodyguard. She is on two "battling" monitors, which you can stand between, walk between, or awkwardly squeeze around. I believe one Whitney is only singing "I" and the other is only singing "you". I thoroughly enjoyed it and it looked like other people were enjoying it, too. I would have liked to stand between the monitors but, at least on the opening night, the amusement proved too popular for my tight schedule.
This burlesque spoof on the Star Trek classic, "Wrath of Khan," is a fun trip down nerd lane. If you're a fan of the series, you'd love the jabs that this production takes at Spock, Kirk and Khan himself. Plus, you'll dig the sexy dances that the ladies in this show have perfected. While the production lacks some finesse, it's so lighthearted and kitschy that you won't mind.
Corazón de Manzana is a dark, serious and vast play that incorporates many facets of human emotion. The play follows three families in Canada, America and Mexico as they struggle with a post-NAFTA North America.
I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, as this is a must-see, but the crux of this play is the discovery in America by Women's Studies professor Denise (Yadira Correa) that there have been a series of murders of women in Juarez, Mexico. While Denise tries to wrap her head around this atrocity, 17-year-old Sara (Katie Herbert) in Canada, tries to balance becoming a young woman with managing her aggressive mother (Ilyssa Fradin). Oh, yeah, she's also received a heart transplant. In Mexico, 7-year-old Mazi (Cruz Gonzalez) begins a terrifying journey into a magical land that she may never return from.
These three very different stories are connected with a thread that becomes stronger as the play progresses. The acting is wonderful (especially that of Cruz Gonzalez, who actually convinces us she is indeed 7, although the actress is in fact a young woman), and the quick scenery changes allow for a clean, seamless experience.
This play is a must see, because it addresses an extremely important problem that is often overlooked when we discuss the benefits of globalization. If truly art can inform as well as entertain, this play accomplishes that.
Corazón de Manzana runs through Sept. 25 in the DCA Theatre's Storefront Theater, 78 E. Washington St. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and students, available online or at the box office.
I know a lot of people like to begin their assessments of certain films by saying "If you don't love this movie, you have no soul," or "...there's something damaged inside of you," or "...I can't be friends with you anymore." You get the drift. And although the new film from director Jesse Peretz, Our Idiot Brother, is far from the best film or even the best comedy of the year so far, it's so inherently likable that to not allow yourself to be charmed is actually a criminal act. The film also provides us with one of the best examples of how once tight-knit families become dysfunctional and then rally in times of crisis.
Pranks and comic relief have always been a part of the arts... well, maybe not always but at least for a while. Let's just say no one alive today can say there was a time, in their lives, when it wasn't. This brings me to Meg Duguid's performance last night in Wicker Park as Part of the Out of Site performance series done in conjunction with Walkabout Theater Company and Defibrillator. It is hard to really know what to say about any public performance, and this is no exception, so I will begin by just telling you what I experienced.
Hey everyone. A busy week and some much-needed prep time for this weekend's big Flashback Weekend Horror Convention out in Rosemont, which I emcee, haven't given me much time to get my column together this weekend, so I've had to do something I haven't done in years -- a roundup of films coming out this week. Two or three (maybe more) paragraphs on each film, and hopefully that'll do the trick. Lots of good stuff this week, so pay attention...
30 Minutes or Less
This is a funny fucking movie and one that flies in the face of polite society in all the right ways by giving us four main characters who are largely difficult to like, which of course made me like them even more. Jesse Eisenberg is stoner-slacker pizza delivery guy Nick, who is best friends with Dwayne (Aziz Ansari), a school teacher who really hates kids. On the other side of town, low-life thugs played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson devise a plan to hire a hitman to kill McBride's overbearing father (Fred Ward) and inherit a tidy sum of money so he can build his dream business -- a tanning salon/brothel. To make this happen, they kidnap Nick, strap a very real bomb to his chest, and force him to rob a bank to get the money.
The page in my notebook where I took notes for Cameron Esposito's "Side Mullet Nation" is covered in jottings that I hoped would help me remember her funniest jokes. The notes started out fairly detailed, such as with "Life was his perpetual keg stand and nobody had to hold his feet," a clever aphorism that Esposito used to describe an ebullient ex-boyfriend, but they quickly devolved into nonsensical scribblings, such as "drest" and "polish-carrying a lot of meat," as I struggled to keep up with the breakneck pace at which Esposito brought on the laughs.
This fun, irreverent ode to the Star Wars trilogy offers both comedy and sexual liberation. If you like burlesque and nerd boobs, this is the show for you. Seriously, though, the show is well-acted, hysterical and delightfully choreographed (one scene features a fan dance wherein the "fans" are replaced by two card board sides of the Millennium Falcon). I'd suggest buying a $20 ticket if you like tassels and sci-fi. (Who doesn't?)
Julie Ganey's one-woman show, Love Thy Neighbor... Till it Hurts, is comprised of four interconnected stories of her neighborhood of Rogers Park. Inspired by an episode of This American Life in which Ira Glass visited the neighborhood and didn't have very promising things to say about it, Ganey took matters into her own hands in this very personal, wry, funny, and insightful look at what it means to be part of an often misunderstood community. Ganey's storytelling skills are mesmerizing, and her candor is disarming. Her performance is strengthened by a solo percussionist who underscores key moments, and by the clever use of minimal props. LTN runs during the Fillet of Solo festival this Sunday, July 31st at 3pm and Friday, August 5 at 7pm.
I Got Sick Then I Got Better chronicles the onset and remission of Jenny Allen's battle with cancer, with unexpected twists and turns along the way that give the audience a peek into the inner workings of Allen's mind. Her story is funny, difficult, extremely frank, and at times quite funny. She has performed this piece in theaters, hospitals, universities, and at cancer conferences, and will be performing it at Fillet of Solo tonight at 7pm.
Both pieces are part of the 15th annual Fillet of Solo festival, a showcase for one-person performance and storytelling. Festival runs through August 7, tickets are $10 for one show, $30 for the entire festival. For more information call 773.761.4477 or visit Fillet of Solo.
I've never opened a review like this, but for some reason I feel compelled to do so for director Jon Favreau's latest action opus. Somewhere around the halfway mark of Cowboys & Aliens, the gun-slinging female lead Ella (Olivia Wilde, maximizing her exotic beauty by minimizing the glam qualities of her hair, makeup, and costume) is literally lassoed off her horse by a flying alien. Riding next to her is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig), aka The Man with No Past (at least temporarily), who immediately sets out to rescue her by chasing down the low-flying alien craft and leaping from his horse onto the top of said ship. After much struggle and attempts by the craft to shake its unwanted passenger, the ship crashes in the desert and Ella and Jake go tumbling across the sand, bruised and battered, but still alive.
Jersey Shore The Musical is currently playing at Studio Be. Although the musical features a great cast and some enticing musical numbers, as someone who's never seen the reality TV show, I'd suggest only buying a ticket if you're a "Jersey Shore" fan. Most of the numbers play upon a lot of events that actually occurred on the Shore, and you may be a bit lost on the jokes if you've never partaken in the MTV hit.
The Sharks dance the night away in West Side Story. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
When I was a kid (in the age before DVRs, Netflix, and bipeds), I watched West Side Story once a year on broadcast TV. It was a family event; all of us huddled together on the couch, waiting for the next commercial break to use the bathroom, even though we all knew what came next and how it ended. In my high school production I played the role of Snowboy's girlfriend (I don't remember what my character's name was -- I had no lines and appeared in three scenes), and by the time I graduated I felt like WSS wasn't just a musical based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but part of my own story; over the course of the 54 years since WSS premiered at the Winter Garden Theater in New York, I think many of us have come to feel the same way.
What I find most remarkable about the current Broadway In Chicago production of WSS is both obvious and groundbreaking -- for the first time that I'm aware of, the Sharks speak Spanish! I'd never found the absence of Spanish, save for a few throwaway words here and there like "querida," and "te adoro," to be odd, but hearing Spanish in full sentences onstage is like hearing the script for the first time. The choice to use Spanish without the aid of supertitles, used primarily in opera, makes perfect sense -- even if your grasp of Spanish is limited (as it is for me), it's safe to assume that most patrons know the story well enough to follow along. And honestly, in a city like Chicago, with significant Puerto Rican and Polish communities, no supertitles are necessary to translate a word like "Polaco."
Ryan Lanning as Ripley, with puppet-sized Newt. Photo credit: Timmy Samuel.
Friday night I was introduced to something that I can't believe I never knew about before: Alien Queen. When I got the press release, I was intrigued. I love Queen like almost nobody else does: I have a Facebook profile picture of me genuflecting at the feet of the Freddie Mercury statue in Montreaux, my secret personal anthem is "Don't Stop Me Now" and I've performed "We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions" at live band karaoke, to rave reviews. I enjoy the Alien films as much as the next person (at least the first two in the series, before the franchise started heading into Alien vs. Mothra territory), but I wasn't sure how these two seemingly disparate things would fare mashed together in a midnight show.
As it turns out, they go together hilariously well. Over the course of an hour or so, the first two films in the Alien series are condensed, parodied onstage by an energetic cast starring Ryan Lanning as Ripley, and accompanied by a bonafide four-piece rock band that keeps the show moving forward. The Queen catalog comes into play at key moments: when the baby alien (represented by a sock puppet) springs from the stomach of Kane, it begins singing "Mama, just killed a man..." from "Bohemian Rhapsody"; when the cast of the first film fights the Alien, it's set to the song "Keep Yourself Alive"; and when Ripley goes into hypersleep at the end of the first film, it's to the strains of "All Dead All Dead/Nevermore."
As a lover of film, I've really enjoyed watching the parade of great British actors come in and out of Harry's work as various professors or bad guys or parents of Harry's classmates. It seems like nearly everyone of them makes an appearance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, whether their characters are dead or alive, but I didn't really care because I love seeing them. Although I will admit it's bizarre spotting a fleeting glimpse of Emma Thompson's Prof. Sybil Trelawney in one sequence in this film and realize she never utters a word. And she's not the only prominent actor whose appearance here is reduced to a single line or no lines at all.
There's no real need to recap the plot of Deathly Hallows, Part 2. If you saw the last film, it's more of the same. Harry, Hermione and Ron are still chasing down the remaining Horcruxes. Lord Voldemort (the fantastic Ralph Fiennes) launches an assault on Hogwarts that results in some phenomenal destruction. And secrets involving Harry, the late Prof. Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, seen a great deal in flashback here), Prof. Snape (possibly my favorite Potter-verse character, played by Alan Rickman), and many others are revealed. The amount of pure information unleashed on the audience in this two-hour-plus film is exhausting, and while I'm sure it will please the fans of the books, as a means of moving the story forward, it feels like maybe the filmmakers are pushing too hard. The film's most emotionally devastating moments are slower, quiet events, in particular, the absolutely perfect epilogue set many years after the end of the great war between Potter and Voldemort.
(left to right) Audrey Francis and Vince Teninty in Pine Box Theater's world premiere of A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes by Joshua Rollins, directed by Matt Miller. Photo by Heather Stumpf.
You watch "Law & Order", right? Come on, admit it. You love it.
Well, see, this is kind of like that. Seeing a A Girl With Sun in Her Eyes is kind of like watching "Law & Order", except more powerful because everything's happening right there in front of you. The violence is much more palpable. You can smell it.
There's no denying that this has been a good summer for original R-rated comedies. (I use the caveat "original" to eliminate The Hangover, Part II from the discussion.) Bridesmaids set the bar early, Bad Teacher is unexpectedly strong thanks to a throwing-caution-to-the-wind performance by Cameron Diaz, and the upcoming 30 Minutes or Less, well, let's just say it fits right in with my thesis. And this week, we have the another strong entry, Horrible Bosses, about three slightly dopey friends who decide that each of their bosses needs to die, so they decide to get one of the other guys to do it.
Before we go any further, I have to mention that I had no idea that in addition to being a fantastic storyteller, Essay Fiesta's Keith Ecker was so ripped! In case you missed it, last week's Chicago Story Collective show: Summer Lovin', starring the lovely Alyson Lyon, the demure Dana Norris, the sultry Jen Bosworth, and the previously mentioned (but it's worth repeating) abs-tastic Keith Ecker got people to sit up and pay attention as they told real-life stories about blowjobs gone terribly wrong, spontaneous three-ways, virginity, and IML. (Guess which one Keith told?)
But the fun didn't stop there, in addition to storytelling, the audience was treated to performances by the burlesque troupe Vaudezilla, which included a breathtaking interpretation of Prince's "Sexy Motherfucker", and a dance routine set to The Stranglers "Peaches" that got so stuck in my head that when I got home I had to listen to it over and over, like some kind of overgrown toddler hankering for repetition.
I've long believed that Cars has long been held as the weakest of the Pixar offerings because it has the broadest appeal and seems more squarely aimed at younger viewers than any of the other works. Beyond that, it's also the one that seems the most "red state," featuring an abundance of racing and core messages about homespun values as seen from the vantage point of Smalltown USA. Those of us who adore what Pixar does in terms of innovation and not always casting the most obvious voice talent for its movies seemed to flat out reject the presence of Larry the Cable Guy's tow truck character Mater, perhaps the broadest stroke in the Pixar character army.
One of the major points of discussion in feminist literature often comes down to this: Is this story about a woman freeing herself from the patriarchal order a feminist commentary or a commentary on any person who has been marginalized? Can those who are not part of a certain minority relate to that minority? I don't think the play The Homosexuals attempts to answer that question. Haphazardly, though, I found myself relating immensely to the lead character, Evan (Patrick Andrews).
Evan is a 20-something gay man. I am an almost 30-year-old straight woman. When I watched him dump his much older boyfriend, Peter (Scott Bradley) in order to "find himself," he could have been my spiritual twin. We learn as this play takes us back over a 10 year period that Evan has been struggling for years with issues of identity, sexuality and freedom. Specifically, Evan struggles to live in a real capacity in a predominately straight culture. His closest ties are to a group of gay men he has known since his first days in Chicago. These ties become more tangled as Evan's sexual relationships with various men in the group develop. Like me, when Evan begins such a relationship, he often feels torn between who he wants to be and who whomever he is with at the time wants him to be.
Blood Dolphin may be a fledgling improv duo, but they are already off to a strong start. During their recent run at Studio BE Blood Dolphin debuted their form, which is a mixture of musical improv and quirky yet grounded scene work. With Carrie Shemanski rocking the banjo and Erin Thorn on tambourine, they take a suggestion of a name and and object from the audience and open with a whimsical musical number. (The night I attended the suggestion was Paulie Prism, which prompted a charming number about a man who rode through the streets of Boystown saying "hi" to everyone that he passed.) What follows is a slew of short but invested scenes that are offbeat, but played with the utmost sincerity. The ladies of Blood Dolphin aren't afraid to wander into strange territory (Such as with the scene that involved using a pooping baby as a graffiti tool.) but they never let things wax too unbelievable.
Opening acts that performed at the show I attended included stand-up comedian Alexandra Tsarpalas and sketch comedy duo Aggie and Irene. Tsarpalas entertained the crowd with "Golden Girls" jokes and tiny porcelain hands, and Aggie and Irene sang, told jokes, and sprayed each other with shaving cream as their friendship comically fell apart onstage.
On the seventh floor of the former Carson Pirie Scott building, the graduating students from the School of the Art Institute's Departments of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIADO), and Fashion, presented works befitting the classic Louis Sullivan-designed building. Aesthetically speaking, their designs and concepts - ranging from mobile food cart projects to illuminated public art works to multi-functional furniture - are a far cry from Sullivan's steel-framed Chicago landmark. But the goals of the students' designs, often touching upon ideas of recycling, conservation of resources, and streamlined communication, were grounded in multi-generational sustainability.
"It was a chance to do something really beautiful, really challenging, and a challenge for myself," said Alysse Filipek (BFA 2013), the Grand Prize winner of the Designers of Tomorrow competition. Filipek's work addresses both her personal history in Southern California and her reaction to the harsh, Seasonal Affective Disorder-creating winters of Chicago.
Other works on view include LOADED: SAIC in Milan, originally presented during the 2011 Milan International Furniture Fair; Industry Partners: Living in a Smart City; a five-year GFRY Design Studio retrospective; and Where is Where, the graduate thesis exhibition.
(left to right) Adam Poss and Amy J. Carle in Animals Out of Paper by Rajiv Joseph, directed by Jaclynn Jutting, part of Steppenwolf's NEXT UP 2011 Repertory. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Steppenwolf's Next Up program -- featuring three productions showcasing Chicago's next generation of artists -- is going strong right now, with just a handful of shows left before it wraps up on June 19. I strongly encourage you to hurry up and get your tickets to see at least one of the shows this week.
Sadly, I haven't been able to see Venus, but the other two plays: Animals out of Paper and Where We're Born had me on the edge of my seat all day yesterday.
It took me awhile to realize what the J.J. Abrams written and directed work Super 8 actually was, and once I settled into that notion, the world got a whole lot better. More Stand By Me than Close Encounters or E.T., Super 8 is one of the truest, purest examples in recent memory of a movie that reminded me of friends gone by, the fun that being a kid used to be, and the way movies energized our spirit of adventure to make our own sci-fi short films that borrowed from Star Wars, as well as episodes of "Star Trek" and "Buck Rodgers." If you ever walked out of a Steven Spielberg (a producer on this movie) film wanting to find out more about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life — or wanting to just kick ass after walking out of an Indiana Jones movie — you will absolutely respond to Super 8.
I did not see this one coming, and I'm not sure why. To varying degrees, I like all of director Matthew Vaughn's work (Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass), but the X-Men franchise just kept getting more and more scattered after Bryan Singer's second film to the point where it seemed impossible to get this right with an almost-entirely new team in front of and behind the cameras. But as the cast came together, I became more and more hopeful. Mixed in with a few lesser-known young actors are a handful of genuinely fine performers who elevate this material to such a degree that the final product ranks among the best that Marvel Studios has put together in its existence. And by setting the film mostly in the 1960s (during the Kennedy years), it opens up the possibility for future X-Men films that could be set pretty much in any decade that seems appropriate.
I was talking to (IM'ing, actually) Ain't It Cool's Harry Knowles shortly after we both saw press screenings of The Hangover Part II in our respective cities, and I told him I liked the current film about 50 percent less than the first, but upon reflection I realized that's not entirely true. Fifty percent, to me, is a failing grade, and this sequel doesn't outright fail. It still has its outrageous and funny moments, but I was surprised how much of the performances by the film's three leads (Bradley Cooper as Phil, Ed Helms as Stu, and the extra-giggly Zach Galifianakis as Alan) is reduced to pure reaction to other people and events who are typically far funnier than they are in this movie. The most common lines of dialogue include "Oh my god!" "Holy shit!" and the ever-reliable "Fuck!" That's not exactly ground-breaking comedy, folks.
I own a thesaurus too, my fellow critics; and I know how to use it. But I'm going to leave it on the shelf for my review of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment for the simple reason that if I actually make the effort to walk the 30-or-so feet from my office to the bookshelf where my thesaurus sits, I will officially have expended more energy on that task than most people involved in the making of On Stranger Tides did making this movie. I can't remember the last time so many hundreds of people worked so hard on a movie for such mediocre results. It's as if the goal was to be stupendously average. While I am not using my thesaurus for this review, I am selecting my words carefully. On Stranger Tides is average beyond compare. It is not horrible, gut-wrenching, painful, god-awful or a plague upon humanity. It is simply a textbook example of putting in the maximum effort for the absolute minimum in entertainment.
I'm going to repeat a statement I made about a year ago regarding 3D, converted or otherwise. The greatest, universal issue I (and millions of others) have with 3D is that it makes the world (and the movie) a darker place, literally. It kills a hefty percentage of the light reaching your eyes. So, if you are going to set 75 percent of your film in relative darkness (I'm talking to you, Priest), 3D is virtually useless. With On Stranger Tides, which was shot in 3D, the sequences set during daylight hours or just well lit look stupendous. But much of the film takes place in reduced lighting situations, and the result is, well, shite. I'm not here to debate the merits of 3D, just to say that if you studios are going to continue giving us 3D movies, at least give us something to look at. End sidebar.
FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) pauses dinner between Randy (Andrew Goetten), Melanie (Heather Townsend), Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) and William (Dan Smith) to share surveillance equipment in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential at The Building Stage, May 4-June 4. Photo Timmy Samuel
This is a very difficult review to write because Roadkill Confidential is such a dense and complicated play, filled with unlikable characters doing unlikable things. The catch is the lush, multimedia Dog and Pony-esque style to it, which adds an eerie, schizophrenic vibe. This style, supported by an impressively adaptable and visually compelling set featuring stacks of televisions and a pile of wooden chairs, gives this play presence and makes it, well, palatable.
The Joffrey Ballet dancers are a sight to behold. In their element - long limbs, quick movements - they make the work of their guest choreographers appear effortless and enigmatic. Company member Fabrice Calmels is particularly captivating in his distinctive height and strength though as a whole, the company's performances as part of Rising Stars are a bright spot of the 2011 season.
The performances throughout the evening highlighted the strength and athleticism of the dancers. Set to the music of "Night Grooves" by composer Matthew Pierce and inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall, Night, a company premiere, was a showcase for quick, elongated movements. The female lead was noticeably shorter than her fellow company members which added to the dynamics of the choreography as she had to make up for and further emphasize the elongation of the piece. Julia Adam's choreography, despite the rapid pacing appears fluid on the stage. At times, the dancers' movements are playful, further corresponding with the thematic elements and musical accompaniment.
L to R: David Lawrence Hamilton, Mary Helena, and Barth Bennett in the Lincoln Square Theatre production of A Lesson Before Dying.
Lincoln Square Theatre has taken on Romulus Linney's play A Lesson Before Dying (written, incidentally, by actress Laura Linney's late father), a play of no small consequence based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines in which a young black man named Jefferson is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit in Bayonne, Louisiana, in 1948. I wasn't sure what to expect -- I'd never heard of Lincoln Square Theatre, and when I located the address, was confused for a moment when I saw a banner for the play hanging outside the Berry Memorial United Methodist Church. The theater itself is housed in the basement of the church; "this is either going to be good," I thought, "or really, really bad."
The seven person cast is supported by a creative artistic staff that includes Director Kristina Schramm, Costume Designer Erica Hohn, and Dialect Coach Rachel "Goose" Haile, who also worked on Passing Strange, currently in production at Bailiwick Chicago. The spare but roomy stage is used to maxiumum effect, subtly separated into three main areas that represent the jailhouse where Jefferson is being held, the dilapidated room that school teacher Grant Wiggins teaches in, and a restaurant where Wiggins meets with his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste, played by Elana Elyce.
David Lawrence Hamilton plays Grant Wiggins, a central role which ties the piece together; I don't think there was a scene he didn't appear in. Playing the challenging role of Jefferson, the unjustly accused youth, is Barth Bennett, who brings to the role a quiet anger interjected with dramatic bursts of defiance that shakes the audience out of any complacency they might have brought with them to the theater.
L to R: Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar,
and Tyler Ravelson in The Original Grease at the American Theater Co.
In 1970, Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey wrote a play about teenagers based on their own high school experience at Taft High School in Chicago. It ran at the Kingston Mines Theatre Company for what was supposed to be one weekend in January of 1971, turned into eight months, got enough notice to get produced on Broadway, and became the 1978 film Grease, starring a 24 year-old John Travolta and 30 year-old Olivia Newton-John as Hollywood's best-known teenage couple. When Grease moved to the silver screen, it became a different story; all of the Chicago references were removed, along with any cursing, and even entire songs, rendering what was once a celebration of working-class adolescence into cartoonish nostalgia.
In the intervening years, the play has been produced innumerable times, but this is the first time that the original script and score have been performed, which is reason enough to go see it. It took me a while to get the film cast out of my expectations (I couldn't help it, I've watched that movie so many times I can recite entire scenes from it. [And in an unnecessary side note - as a child I didn't understand what the lyrics "can't go to bed 'till I'm legally wed" meant, and was very concerned that Sandy wasn't getting enough sleep]). Once the play began, however, it was easy for those silver-screen ghosts to make way for the live action unfolding in the small but expertly used space at the American Theater Company.
The women of Improvised Jane Austen: Kate Parker, Mel Evans, Colleen Breen, Kyna Lenhof,
Sarah Beckman Mobley, Natalie Tinaglia, Rachel Grandi, Kristen Parise, Annie Rijks, and Steph Jones.
As part of the 14th annual Chicago Improv Festival, Chicago's very own Improvised Jane Austen did their thing last Saturday at The Playground (3209 N. Halsted). All I knew of the troupe was their name, and the fact that they'd be appearing alongside the NYC troupe Hell Buffalo. As an adopted Chicagoan, (I've lived here almost 20 years, which I'm pretty sure gives me Official Native Status), improv comedy is as natural a form of entertainment to me as hot dogs are a form of protein and snow is a form of weather. Still, improv has always been a kind of nursery rhyme gamble: when it's good it's very, very good; and when it's bad, it's horrid. I figured that the chances that IJA would pay off were decent since they'd made it into the CIF lineup; I'm glad I took that gamble.
The ten woman company manages to deftly and hilariously improvise any suggestion from the audience into a 30-45 minute spoof of a Jane Austen novel (the night I saw them the audience suggestion was "beer.") There are so many things that are great about them, here are just a few:
L to R: Manny Tamayo, Anthony Tournis, Paul Metreyon, Esteban Andres Cruz, and Scott Pasko in Easy Six.
The Factory Theater's latest production, Easy Six, is an original piece written by ensemble members Ernie Deak and Scot OKen spoofing Rat-Pack era films like Ocean's 11, with the all the raucousness, ad-libbing, and pun-infused script that we've come to expect from the Factory. Manny Tomayo, as Mickey Bocks (a spoof character of Frank Sinatra) introduces the audience early on to a gag that repeats throughout the piece where he hands someone his dentist's business card because they'll need it when he's done punching their lights out. I was thrilled beyond measure to discover that included in the press pack that I received at the beginning of the show was an honest-to-goodness business card for Dr. Billy Batz DDS that reads:
"Licensed, Bonded, Insured. Fun at parties.
He'll fix your teeth, when Mickey knocks them out!
Office hours: M-F 8:45am-3:15pm
Saturday: I'd rather not, but, Noon-4pm
Sunday - Are you kidding me?
Certified member of the Ultimate
Dentistry Confirmation Association
Eat apples... they're good for you!"
Not only is the Factory Ensemble willing to go to these lengths to commit to a joke, but they're also not afraid to make fun of themselves. After a particularly egregious pun, one cast member yelled out: "who wrote this shit?", which I learned later is an inside joke between Factory Ensemble members referring to a night in which a drunken audience member shouted that phrase from his seat shortly before being escorted from the theater.
The franchise that was born with The Fast and the Furious was never one that I've waited with baited breath for new installments of since it began 10 years ago. But I will admit that, although I know nothing about cars, this variety of car porn has always made my heart race, especially when those muscle cars are standing still and feature sexy ladies draped over them (and all five of the films in this series have managed to include such scenes as reliably as they have included car chases/races). These movies were never about character, story, strong performances, or even humor (yes, even the dumb jokes are underwritten). All of that being said, there is something about these big, dopey, clunky, loud films that is seriously appealing, and Fast Five, a film that finally gets the formula more or less down, is the best of the bunch.
The way you break down this or any of the FFF (Fast/Furious Films) is simple: there's either something going on or there is not. And usually when there is not, the movie slams on the brakes. Banter is attempted and almost always fails to be witty. So, really all there is for us to do is listen to the exposition and/or stare at either biceps or boobs, both struggling to break free of their unnaturally tight clothes. With Fast Five, there's one more thing to do: enjoy the parade of characters returning from one or more of the previous four films. The core characters--Vin Diesel as master thief and driver Dominic Toretto, his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and the former police officer Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker)--are all back again. The film opens with O'Conner and Mia leading a small team to help Dominic escape from a prison transport vehicle. It's a pretty splashy action sequence, and director Justin Lin (who has helmed this series since the third installment, Tokyo Drift) wisely ramps up each new chase with just a little more speed, destruction, noise, and general excitement.
(left to right) Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in The Hypocrites production of Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney. Photo by Ryan Bourque.
About Face Theater and The Hypocrites began their "Woyzeck Project" this month, a city-wide festival celebrating the classic proletariat tale, Woyzeck-- an avant-garde working-class tragedy, left unfinished by Georg Büchner upon his death in 1837.
The festival is anchored by About Face's production of Pony and The Hypocrites' world premier adaptation of Woyzeck. I caught both of them in a double feature of sorts last Sunday at Chopin Theater.
Colm O'Reilly, as Bernard, in There Is a Happiness That Morning Is at the DCA Theater.
Theater Oobleck's latest production, There Is a Happiness That Morning Is, is unexpectedly captivating in its intimacy, and powerful in its language. Playwright Mickle Maher tackles the entire script in rhymed verse, which left to a lesser writer would be a disaster, but through Maher's skillful hand is clever and deft. The 90 minute play unfolds in a single room, where Bernard (Colm O'Reilly) and Ellen (Diana Slickman) lecture to the audience as English professors speaking to a college classroom. Bernard and Ellen are longtime lovers, and have risked their careers by having sex on the main lawn of the college campus, only to be discovered by the dean of the school, who has demanded that they publicly apologize or lose their jobs.
Maher uses as his inspiration two poems by William Blake: Infant Joy, from Songs of Innocence, and The Sick Rose from Songs of Experience. The poems are so central to the piece that they are included on the front and back pages of the playbill, and are transcribed onto the blackboard by the actors. Bernard's take on the previous evening's events are expressed through analysis of Infant Joy, and Ellen's through The Sick Rose.
In many ways, Scream 4 (or Scre4m, which I refuse to call it) feels like an act of wild desperation, which is not necessarily the same thing as being a terrible movie, but it's certainly not a great movie either. And while it's mildly fun to see the primaries from the original three films return to play victim and sleuth, the movie spends so much time winking at its audience and tossing what feels like dozens of new characters at us that I found myself exhausted by the end and really not giving a shit who the killer was or even who was dead or alive when the final body count was tallied.
Second City's new show, South Side of Heaven, directed by Billy Bungeroth, is a goofy yet unapologetically irreverent pastiche of comic bits with themes ranging from local sports and politics to death and bigotry, all in keeping with Second City's Chicago-centric proclivities. The show is surprisingly dark, and pulls no punches--always returning to the old Buddhist mantra that life is full of misery and pain (so why not make fun of it?). There is plenty here to offend, but the offensive material is executed so damn strangely, we're left furrowing our brows in confusion rather than anger. And I mean that in a good way. It certainly catches you off your feet.
Allison Torem with ensemble member Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of The Hot L Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, directed by ensemble member Tina Landau. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Uncertain times like these seem to prompt us to revisit classic stories of loss and desperation, which, unfortunately, seem uncannily appropriate again. And the point of this, I think, is not to wallow in our misery but to acknowledge that history does indeed repeat itself and to remind us that there are more important things than money and power-- things like simple human interaction and compassion.
Steppenwolf's adaptation of Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore does this beautifully. Although the afros and booty shorts immediately remind us that the play is set in 1973, the spirit of the conversations and the wistful optimism reflected in them mimic the spirit of the downtrodden American people today.
I'll admit, I was stunned at my reaction to David Gordon Green's latest comedy (following Pineapple Express) Your Highness, because every fiber of my being told me going in that I was going to really like this movie. And then in scene after scene, I found myself searching high and low (questing, if you will) for laughs. In my humble opinion, Green hasn't made anything but great movies, beginning with 2000's George Washington and continuing on through All the Pretty Girls (which co-stars Your Highness actors Danny McBride and Zooey Deschanel), Undertow, Snow Angels (perhaps my personal favorite), and a half-dozen episodes of the fantastic HBO series "Eastbound and Down."
Simply put, director Duncan (Moon) Jones' latest dip into the science-fiction pool succeeds because it doesn't rely on a single trick or reveal to give it strength. Instead, it relies on great acting, a carefully plotting story and some adventurous directing to propel it through one of the most ambitious stories since Inception, although the two films share almost nothing in common besides a marketing campaign.
I think the less you know about Source Code, the better, but I'm going to tell you as much as I can without giving away too much. Pilot Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up on a train, which isn't so bad except that the last thing he remembers is crashing his plane in Afghanistan. In the eight minutes that follow, he discovers that he's on a commuter train heading into Chicago, and that he's inside the body of a man named Sean Fentriss. Across from him is Christina (Michelle Monaghan), clearly someone he knows from sharing this same train ride every morning, but they aren't exactly friends. The train is fairly full, and by the end of the eight minutes, a bomb goes off and everyone on the train dies.
Hey everyone. I've been doing a ton of traveling both for work and fun in March--four trips this month--and, as a result, I have been missing screenings in Chicago and haven't been able to see some big releases. Actually, I've been lucky so far, in that I've caught most of the major releases, but this week I miss a film I've truly been looking forward to seeing, writer-director Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, opening today. I won't even attempt an educated guess as to what the film is about or whether it's any good, but since I've enjoyed a great deal his remake of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, I'm guessing Sucker Punch will appeal to me on at least a visual level, plus their appears to be a bevy of beautiful women starring in this film, and there's nothing wrong with that. Time will tell when I get back from my travels. Enjoy the few reviews I can send you way...
Writer-director (and sometimes actor, but never in his own films) Thomas McCarthy has made two wonderful films (The Station Agent and The Visitor) about loners reconnecting with the world around them by making friends with strangers. But the first thing you notice about the lead character in McCarthy's third film, Win Win, is that Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) is that he is by no definition of the word a loner. Mike is a lawyer whose business is struggling, but his family and friend base is strong. His wife, Jackie (Amy Ryan), is a rock; his co-worker (Jeffrey Tambor) is a good man; and his buddy and fellow high school wrestling coach Terry (Bobby Cannavale) is perhaps his greatest (and funniest) asset. The team that Mike takes time to coach after work is terrible but an essential part of who he is and was.
Steve Schapiro: "Jodie on Couch" (1975); photo courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery.
To have Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese secure brilliant, attractive actors as your subjects, to have the perfect movie set as your background, to have the lighting already flawlessly arranged for each shot, then for the two famous directors to invite you in to capture it all on film - that is a photographer's dream. Steve Schapiro is a lucky bastard.
Hubbard Street dancers Penny Saunders and Jonathan Fredrickson in Ohad Naharin's THREE TO MAX.
THREE TO MAX, a new work incorporating elements of past works Three and Max by artistic director Ohad Naharin, was an innovative representation of anti-dance but ultimately fell short of its promise, due in no small part to the varying skill of the performers. The repetitions of the moves highlighted the imbalance of certain performers. Naharin's choreography is built on strength and one fall or wobbling limb was apparent and a distraction during the show.
Despite this situation, the choreography was, at many times, humorous and a frank play on elements of different dance genres. Each vignette not only deconstructed the dancer's body but also how the audience views and engages with dance performances. A dancer would conform to the dancers around him or her, and then break apart from the crowd. Despite the action surrounding him or her, the audience would ultimately feel compelled to focus on the individual. As a statement to the ethos (if there is any) to anti-dance, it was a compelling one.
For all his bad romantic-comedy attempts or just bad movies (hello, Tiptoes), I still find Matthew McConaughey an actor worth supporting. When he gets his teeth into a character in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, A Time to Kill, The Newton Boys, Frailty, We Are Marshall, and Tropic Thunder, he's kind of unstoppable. And for a guy who is so well known for showing his shirtless torso in every damn movie, what has always fascinated me about his approach to acting is what he's capable of doing with his face. He can go from seduction mode, concern, fear, and intimidation all with a few tilts of the eyebrows or slight adjustments in how much teeth he shows--not that I've ever freeze-framed his face repeatedly watching The Wedding Planner or anything creepy like that. Heh. But as L.A. attorney Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey gets to use all of his acting prowess, and the result is probably the best purely dramatic role he's every played.
The cast of Hair at the Oriental Theatre. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Before you ask -- yes, there are naked people in the Broadway in Chicago production of Hair, running through March 20. It was the first thing my theatergoing companion asked me about when I invited her to join me for last week's preview. Having grown up with the music of Hair, but never having seen the film or the stage production, I didn't know about the nudity. Sure enough, at the end of Act I, the stage lights dimmed to a predawn glow and the entire cast stood before us, naked as the day they were born. My friend Grace turned to me and whispered: "See, I told you there were naked people." And God bless them for keeping it true to the original hippie-dippie, freeloving original; if it was me up there I would have demanded a merkin. Who knows, maybe they were wearing merkins, I'm no expert on the subject. "Wow," I said to Grace, "that's more naked people than I've seen all year" (and I work in a gym).
In a way, I guess I understand some of the initial negative response to this big, loud summer movie released in mid-March, but I don't necessarily agree with most of it. As an alien-invasion exercise, it works pretty successfully at creating a real-world scenario where aliens suddenly land on the shores of our world and begin a brutal campaign to extinguish human life (or at least enough human life to get done what they came to do). The story is told from the vantage point of a Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart), who has seen his fair share of action, most recently in Afghanistan, and he's ready to call it quits after 20 years in the service.
I caught one of the last runs of Hercules at the Lyric on Monday and I am so glad I did, although when I left the theater I wasn't so sure about that. Peter Sellars offers us a vision Hercules as an American soldier in modern fatigues, and I do appreciate the focus on current events, but I feel like the correlations were already there without having to be spelled out so blatantly. There is also the question of Hercules fighting for the US -- he is a god after all. So some of the director's choices raised questions, but the performances were stellar across the board.
The recent rainy Friday evening did not detract from the opening of SAIC MFA-alum Chinatsu Ikeda's solo show at the Nicole Villeneuve Gallery being well attended. Indeed, the weather seemed an appropriate fit for Ikeda's paintings, some of which feature falling rain and snow, and are made up of tiny washy marks.
The show, comprised of eight recent works on canvas and paper, ranges from oil to watercolor. A particularly strong example of what can perhaps be described as a contemporary interpretation of impressionistic mark-making can be found in an untitled oil painting featuring a clown-like figure situated between a fork and a spoon. The picture is enveloped in a variety of Ikeda's tiny marks that could be falling rain or snow, but in areas alternate between resembling popcorn or rice (further evidenced by a tiny orange bowl in the lower left corner). Elsewhere these same marks help to form the face and arms of the figure-- notably the figure's broad, bright red lips.
Officer #2 (Christopher M. Walsh, left), the Commissioner (Eric Paskey, center front), the Madman (Joseph Sterns, back, red tie), Sporty (Anthony Tournis, right, white shirt), and Officer #1 (Elizabeth Bagby, back right) sing a song together. Photo by Johnny Knight.
There is no apparent anarchy in Signal Ensemble's tidy and well-rehearsed version of Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist. That is not to say it is not in the spirit of anarchy, or that it is not an effective play-- because it is, without a doubt. The impeccable craft, attention to detail and obvious investment of countless days memorizing lines only makes a stronger case for this timely (if not timeless), sharp, satirical production.
This clever, faced-paced story pokes fun of police corruption, inspired by the real-life case of anarchist railway worker Giuseppe Pinelli, who fell-- or was thrown-- from the fourth floor window of a Milan police station in 1969. The events of the play itself, however, are fictional. The play opens with Inspector Bertozzo (Vincent Lonergan) interrogating "The Madman" (Joseph Stearns). The Madman, a scam artist with a role-playing fetish, constantly outsmarts the dim-witted police staff-- pretending to be a judge, wreaking havoc, getting them to re-enact incriminating events and eventually completely lose it in front of a suspicious reporter (Simone Roos).
In Nicholas Knight's latest solo exhibition, Declaimed, at 65GRAND, the artist subtly re-purposes images or the idea of the image to create one unified whole. The image become something new and complete, even as it breaks down the context of and the relationship between the audience and the image itself. His works are re-purposed both tangibly and symbolically.
We live in a world of "declaimed" images and as Knight reiterates in works such as Double Dramatization (2010) and Screen Images Simulated (Youthful Hercules) (2010), it is a matter of breaking down and rediscovering (perhaps even creating) the truth out of the inauthentic image. The questions of authenticity also play a main role in Knight's images: What is true and not true? Are we as cognizant of the false images and ideas that stem from these images as we imagine?
In other, non-photographic works, Knight breaks down the idea of the image to its most singular of definitions: forms captured. Each new piece in the exhibition becomes more and more difficult to identify as just prints or as manipulated images from Knight's psyche. Knight responds to the idea of the manipulated image, in turn making something that is "untrue" but still tangible.
Declaimed closes this Saturday. 65GRAND is open Friday and Saturday from 12 pm to 5:30 pm, or by appointment. The gallery is located at 1369 West Grand.
Laika, Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough. Photos by Evan Hanover.
Laika Dog in Space is a lot of things. It is more than a play; it is an event. A class, even. A field trip. It is a variety show of sorts, with an art gallery/museum for a lobby and a live band.
Upon arrival to the Neo Futurarium, where Laika Dog in Space is playing, audience members are invited to explore the "state park" (a.k.a. the lobby), where there are a few dioramas on shelves against one wall and framed photos of all the famous dogs from pop culture on another wall, complete with clever descriptions underneath. Snoop Dog is even included.
It was right there. The makings of a fairly solid, beautifully photographed, suspenseful 3D movie were within their grasp, and they blew it. Spectacularly. On multiple levels. Sanctum is being advertised as being producer James Cameron's post-Avatar 3D adventure story, and I'm sure that director Alister Grierson (who made the Australian war film Kokoda a few years back) is quite alright with that. Maybe some people will mistakenly think that Cameron directed the film and take some of the heat off of Grierson for this horribly written and acted mess of a story, which follows a group of underwater cave diver-explorers who get trapped underground and must seek out an escape route via miles of unexplored tunnels, caverns, and waterways.
Some people refer to the Coen Brothers' True Grit as a remake, which isn't entirely wrong, but it's far from entirely correct. If you would like to do a side-by-side comparison of a film and its exceedingly faithful remake, you need look no further than Simon (Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the pilot of "The Cape") West's remake of the Michael (Death Wish I, II & III) Winner directed, Charles Bronson-starring actioner about an stoic professional killer who takes a young man (in the original, it was Jan-Michael Vincent) as his protege after killing the young man's father. Other than West's slicker directing style and some newer, cooler weapons, there is very little different in the details of this remake, starring Jason Statham and Ben Foster as the killer/killer-in-training combo.
Statham's Arthur Bishop is a man of few words and even fewer personal connections. One of his only friendships is with Harry McKenna (Donald Sutherland), the man who usually gives him his killing assignments and the occasional bit of advice. But when Harry's boss Dean (Tony Goldwyn, playing the villain a little too much by the book) tells Bishop to take out Harry, Bishop does so begrudgingly. Primarily out of guilt, Bishop befriends Harry's son Steve, who's aware of what his dad and Bishop did and wants to learn the tricks of the trade. Bishop tries to teach him to be stealthy and quick, but Steve has a lust for loud, messy and bloody. Foster excels in these kind of roles, where he gets to play a character who can be quiet and charming, then suddenly launch into a complete fucking maniac.
Sara Gorsky and Michaela Petro. Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.
What's sexier than lesbian vampires? Wildclaw Theater has certainly capitalized on the steamy aspects of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla in their adaptation of the story, re-worked by Aly Renee Greaves. The plethora of cleavage, gore, double entendres and good old-fashioned camp is pretty much what this play has going for it. Audience members looking for subtle drama and narrative buildup will likely leave disappointed, but those who go to the play hoping to be suffocated by fog machines and splashed with fake blood, a la the Shamu show at Sea World, will be thrilled.
Carmilla, a gothic novel first published in 1872, predates Bram Stoker's Dracula by 25 years. It tells the story of a young English woman (Laura, played by Brittany Burch) living in a remote castle in Eastern Europe, in an area that is becoming plagued by mysterious deaths.
I know several critical thinkers who really dislike this movie, and I'm baffled as to why this is the case. I'm not saying that writer-director John Wells first time out as a filmmaker (he's made a comfortable living writing and producing shows like "E.R.," "The West Wing," and the new Showtime dark comedy "Shameless") is the finest example of high drama around in this awards season, but I actually found it a fairly accurate portrayal of the current corporate culture that has led to layoff that have nothing to do with merit and everything to do with the bottom line. If two highly skilled and qualified people are making more money than two underperforming but lesser paid employees, guess which two get the axe. It's short sighted behavior, but it's also exactly what's happening, and I thought the movie captured this trend rather nicely.
Disguised as the young man Ganymede, Rosalind (Kate Fry, center) listens to Orlando
(Matt Schwader) unwittingly proclaim his love for her as Celia (Chaon Cross) looks on in amusement, in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's As You Like It. Photo credit: Liz Lauren
There's something about hearing lines of dialogue spoken out loud for the first time that I've seen in print a thousand times that gives me a direct sense of connection to the past. Before last Saturday's performance, I'd never seen Shakespeare's As You Like It, but I'd heard this line countless times: "All the world's a stage." Hearing it come from an actor standing less than twenty feet from me on an actual stage (Ross Lehman in the role of Jaques) made me realize how clever the line really is, and how little the English language has changed since the 1600's.
The piece is filled with all the cross-dressing and mistaken identities that you'd expect in a Shakespeare comedy, and is amazing to watch unfold on the intimate stage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which is modelled after the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre. The set design is both spare and sufficient, and everything from the lighting to the fight choreography lets you know that you're in professional hands. Every inch of the theater space is used, including the aisles and the overhangs; this is no sleepy performance, the action moves in fast and sometimes unexpected directions, the actors so close to the audience that at times I could have reached out and touched them.
Mascot, a one-act, one-man play running at the Prop Theater for the next four Saturdays, is the creation of writer Chris Bower of Ray's Tap Reading Series in collaboration with Found Objects Theater Group. In it, actor Matt Test draws us into the interior life of a man whose greatest passion is football, and who has become estranged from his wife and son. The action takes place in the man's living room, represented by a sparsely decorated set consisting of an armchair, a TV, and a metal clothes rack dominated by the presence of a soiled bear mascot costume.
In the man's darkly comic monologue we learn about his wife, his son, and the circumstances that led to the restraining order that keeps him from watching his son's high school football games. At times the set goes dark, sending the audience even deeper into the man's mind as he becomes a disembodied voice not only estranged from his family, but from the audience's sight.
It's always a frustrating thing when a film is promoted one way, when the true nature of the work is something quite different. The most recent example of that might be James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which is a quite worthy film about three 30-somethings going through transitions in their lives that are leaving their futures with more question marks than any of them thought imaginable. And now we also have the Ron Howard-directed The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.
On the surface (and according to all forms of advertising for the film), the movie seems to be a comedy about a Ronny (Vaughn), who owns a car-design business with his oldest friend Nick (James), and finds out that Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), is cheating. While Ronny has no doubt in his mind that Nick needs to be told about the infidelity, he questions the timing of the news delivery. The pair are on the brink of signing the biggest deal of their professional career, and Ronny is afraid that breaking the news will wreck Nick's ability to finish the project. Ronny confronts Geneva with his knowledge, and she promises to be the one to tell Nick, but not without revealing a few things about the marriage that shock Ronny right out of his belief that the two have the perfect relationship, one that he has modeled his relationship with long-term girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) after. In the end, Geneva chickens out, leaving the burden of telling and proving the affair all on Ronny.
The first feature film in a very long time from director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied) is an emotion typhoon that manifests the bulk of its power from juxtaposing two very distinct timelines in the lives of Dean and Cindy (Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams), a young married couple whose disintegrating marriage is made all the more tragic with constant reminders of how happy and carefree they were in their initial courtship. Blue Valentine crushes our hearts effortlessly that to the two incredible performances at its core.
The film is filled with secrets, passion, rage, tension, and a collection of moments that reveal how far the couple has drifted apart in only six years. In the present day, Dean and Cindy decide to take a night away from their daughter and got to a hotel with "theme" rooms, in a pathetic attempt to rekindle the romance. An attempt to seduce his wife in the shower is shut down fast by Cindy, and in the next scene (set six years prior) we see Dean put on the same moves with Cindy with more favorable results (you may have heard about the scene in question, which almost earned the film an NC-17 rating). Cianfrance subtly repeats this idea of having scenes mirror each other, proving how much the couple are in love in the earlier moments, and showing how fractured they've become today. It's the equivalent of having a thread of molten metal strung directly through your heart.
Hey everyone. Wow, I watched more than 400 movies on the big screen on 2010. That's not a record for me, but it's damn close. This was one of the most difficult "Best Of..." lists to compile, because so many of the films in the first 20 or so are separated in my mind by a micro-fraction of greatness. As I do every year, I conclude with my "Worst Of..." list, and it becomes painfully clear that I took enough bullets to save a small army of a medium-sized nation. I also created a new category that seemed necessary. I selected my 10 favorite films that I'm pretty sure never were released in the United States outside of a festival setting but will more than likely make their way into theaters in 2011. Consider that list you starting point of films to get very excited about seeing in the coming year.
I've spared you lengthy write-ups on every single film on these lists--just the first 10 on my main list and only the top choice on the other ones. Oh, and if you think 40 is too many for a Best Of list, keep it to yourself and simply stop reading when you've had enough. Prologue done. Let's get to the lists, and allow me to bathe in your loving reactions!
Sometimes, filmmakers put together something that is so strong, so perfect, so abundantly great that they make it look easy, and you wonder why everyone making movies can't produce something this close to flawless. Ethan and Joel Coen's True Grit is just such a film, an effortless work of perfection that captures a sense of place and period so convincingly that you are taken aback by how effortless it all seems. The Coens haven't always reached this level of moviemaking, but they do so with alarming regularity with such works as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. Now, if I didn't name your favorite Coen Brothers movie, it's not because I didn't like it. But in all of their other films, I could see them trying maybe a little too hard. Nothing wrong with that, but when I stumble upon one of these five films (and True Grit will be added to the list) on a movie channel, it gets watched to the end because I don't even notice time passing.
Theater is one of the best ways to warm up on these oppressively wintery Chicago evenings. Better yet, how about a story about people looking for other people to keep them warm? Bus Stop, William Inge's heartwarming, all-American tale of human connections and social blunders in the face of a brutal Midwestern snowstorm certainly fits the bill, although some may find it brutally old-fashioned.
Bus Stop, a collaborative directorial debut by veteran actors Lia Mortensen and Ryan Martin, is the first show at The Den Theatre-- a promising new venue capable of seating about 100 with a spacious stage and a cavernous lobby. It is a solid first show with an inviting small-town diner set by Caleb McAndrew and Aimee Plant.
When is a movie about a ballerina obsessed with perfection not just that? Probably about as often as a horror film takes the conventions of the genre and turns them inside out, while still remaining true to the practices of building tension, piercing the mind of the unstable central character, and making her fragile yet imaginative psyche as much of a character as the timid woman whose mind can't quite keep it locked up.
In the finest work of her career, Natalie Portman plays Nina, a dancer in the New York City whose all-consuming search for the flawless performance is surpassed only by her overbearing mother's (Barbara Hershey) desire to see all of her dreams realized through her daughter's life. I've always been fascinated by the world of ballet and dance, not so much to see the resulting performance but more to see the toe-crushing work that goes into each routine. Director Darren Aronofsky seems to have a similar curiosity about the grueling steps it takes to shape a ballet, which clearly goes far beyond simply knowing the choreography. Nina's career has a chance to soar when the company's artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, who splits his time between being seducer and dictator) decides to put on a production of "Swan Lake" with an emphasis on the darker aspects of the ballet 's lead role of the White Swan/Black Swan.
There's a name I want all of you to know. He's a supporting actor in the new Edward (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance) Zwick dramedy Love and Other Drugs (adapted from the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy), and his name is Josh Gad. Now, I don't know the man personally, never met him, interviewed him, etc.-- I'm sure he's a lovely man. I kinda recognized him from being in The Rocker, 21, and a recent episode of "Bored to Death," but that's it. In Love and Other Drugs he has one of the highest-profile roles of his career as Josh, the brother of Jake Gyllenhaal's pharmaceutical-rep character, Jamie. Here's why you should know him: because he nearly single-handedly destroys what is an otherwise really wonderful film about relationships in the face of medical adversity.
Pictured: (in the background) Pat King (Nick), Marsha Harman (Mercy) and Joel Ewing (Abel) in the foreground.
Photo by Tom McGrath of TCMcG Photography.
Tucked away in a cozy, Christmas-y back room at Lincoln Park pizzeria Ranalli's, Redeemers-- a site-specific one-act-- delivers an intimate, occasionally delightful story of inter-office politics gone terribly wrong. The story is told to us by the three colleagues who started it all by means of a sort of desperate, ill-prepared confession.
New Leaf Theatre's current production of Redeemers, written by Bilal Dardai and directed by Jessica Hutchinson, opens subtly as audience members (of which the room can fit only about a dozen) gradually realize there are actors sitting amongst them, who are acting. The actors in this case are Pat King and Joel Ewing (playing Nick and Abel, respectively). They're not doing much at first, per se, but the way they kind of glare at each other from across the room and exchange sporadic quips and insights as they sip their drinks is just perfect.
Christopher Piatt hosts The Paper Machete at Ricochets.
The atmosphere at The Paper Machete, a free weekly live magazine at Ricochets, is like sitting in the rec room of your best friend's house, if your best friend was an emcee with a microphone and a weekly lineup of writer/performer guests who talk about everything from local politics to the latest movie releases. Roughly a third of last week's audience was comprised of either performers or friends of performers, which added to the laid-back vibe. I shared a table with a stranger, and ordered my first beer just before the show started at 3pm, which seemed early for beer-- but it's getting dark early, so I can justify it.
The show is hosted by former Time Out Chicago theater editor Christopher Piatt (pronounced pie-it), who began the series in January of this year along with his co-producer Ali Weiss, and business manager Maggie Boyaris. Last week's lineup included: theater legend Sheldon Patinkin, who told the audience about the first time the words "fuck" and "shit" were uttered on the Second City stage; Neo-Futurists Dana Slickman and Rachel Claff, who reminded us that the world is not our living room; writer/performer Patrick Gill, who I'm pretty sure convinced me that I need to go see Cher's new movie, Burlesque; 848's Kelly Kleiman, who told us why everything sucks, and that the word "nepotism" is closely related, if you will, to the word "nephew"; comedian Adam Guerino gave us his take on the recent media focus on potentially gay children that was kind of started by that woman whose son dressed as Daphne for Halloween; manicurist and celebrity star-fucker Marlena Biscotti (a.k.a. Kristin Studard) told us what it's like to make love to Prince; writer and editor Jonathan Messinger took on citizen journalism; and musical guest Lili-Anne Brown ended the show with some gorgeous vocals.
Rebekah Ward-Hays (right, front) and cast. Photo by Timmy Samuel
There are people whose sense of identity is validated by their possessions. Most of us, actually, are defined by them to a certain extent. That's what display cases and bumper stickers are for. In times of uncertainty we can be comforted by our collections. Conversely, it can be very upsetting to lose them.
The play opens with a statuesque redheaded woman (Avery, played by Rebekah Ward-Hays) boisterously auctioning off a man's suit-- hat, shoes and all. "He couldn't have gotten too far without his shoes," she proclaims. Soon thereafter we learn that the suit belongs to Avery's late father, and that she killed him, left town, and left the rest of her family behind to pick up the pieces.
If ever there was a film pairing between director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington (the two have made five films together), you might think that the runaway-train thriller Unstoppable would be that movie. Scott is best known stylistically for a rapid-fire editing technique and basically never being able to keep his camera still. Even the films of his I like (Crimson Tide, True Romance, Man on Fire, Domino) seem like all kinds of overkill. Since Scott does mostly action films, his style doesn't always seem inappropriate, but Unstoppable is only about half an action film and even that half is confined to two, fast-moving trains on the same track going in the same direction. Here's the problem with Unstoppable: it tells us right off the bat that it's based on a true story, which I'll accept. I bet the true story is actually kind of interesting. What Scott has done is loaded this "true-life" plot with jet fuel and thrown a match on it, resulting in a film that feels fake when it wants so desperately to come across as authentic.
It's a dream come true for 12-year-olds: take Super Mario Brothers and combine it with nudity. Throw in a locked door and it's a pre-teen wonderland that most greasy-haired guys can only dream of. Boobs and Goombas is (thankfully) not just for sticky-fingered boys, it's a fantastic new show that has been playing to cheering crowds at the Gorilla Tango Theater. Set to run only through October, the show has been such a hit that (lucky for you!) November and December dates have been added.
I wasn't expecting to love Boobs and Goombas as much as I did. I was ready for a standard cabaret style burlesque show made up of rotating performances that have little to do with each other (besides the Nintendo theme) with a host acting as ringleader introducing the lovely ladies- a fun show but also nothing really new either. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that Boobs and Goombas is actually an original play with a plot propelling forward amongst the pasties.
When I was leaving the screening of Todd Phillips' (Road Trip; Old School; Starsky & Hutch; The Hangover) latest comedy opus Due Date, I heard a fellow audience member utter the immortal and highly quotable statement, "It had its moments." I concur...only I think that person's comment was meant as more of a ho-hum evaluation than if I had said it. Truth be told, Due Date has quite a collection of moments that are at times tasteless, hysterical, shocking and occasionally moving. And while the episodic nature of the film (whose screenplay is credited to Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam Sztykiel and Phillips) results in big laughs and even bigger groans at times, I'm not sure Due Date really holds together as a cohesive unit. What it reminds me of is the difference between a stand-up comic who tells joke after joke after joke versus one who tells very funny stories. This movie is like two guys roasting each other, as opposed to a Patton Oswalt or Louis C.K. doing what they do best on stage. One isn't necessarily funnier than the other, but at the end of the latter, you feel a little more satisfied as a human being.
After watching the third and final installment of the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular Millennium trilogy (following The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, which was just released on DVD this week), I realized that as three separate films viewed months apart, the story seems strangely and unnecessarily stretched out. Watched in a single day, one after the other, I think these three movies would feel like exactly what they are--a single, layered story that takes place in both the present and the past, in which the two time frames merge in a fairly unique and imaginative manner. Still, to get this trilogy in a single calendar year feels pretty special, especially when you consider the powerhouse performance we get from actress Noomi Rapace, who played the beyond-damage (but not beyond-rapair) Lisbeth Salander.
Despite what the somewhat sappy trailers for Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort might lead you to believe, this is not a film about what happens after you die, nor is it about what you may or may not see when you die for a time and are brought back to life (in a non-zombie manner). In fact, Hereafter spends all of about 10 minutes dealing directly with these subjects at all, and that's a choice made by Eastwood and the great screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon) that makes the film something very special indeed. Rather than deal with his subject as something precious and new-agey, Eastwood makes Hereafter a work about three very isolated people who are not only seeking answers but also looking for connection with others that understand their specific plight.
The more I think about it, the more I truly dislike RED (which we're cleverly told stand for "Retired Extremely Dangerous"; ooooooh). I actually got into arguments with people about this movie at Fantastic Fest, a festival that is populated largely by folks who admire creativity and edgy works by remarkable filmmakers, both established and brand spanking new. Those who claimed to like RED seemed to come at me with this: "For what it is, it's pretty good." Okay, that's true... if what the film is boils down to unoriginal action sequences, unfunny jokes, and a paint-by-numbers plot, then yes, for what it is (shit), RED is pretty good (shit). Of course it's fun to see Helen Mirren holding a gun, John Malkovich playing monkey-shit crazy, and a great series of extended cameos from the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Richard Dreyfuss, and Brian Cox, but the film consistently fails to bring anything to life with these touches, and the resulting work is almost entirely devoid of sustained fun.
By the time you read this, the 46th Chicago International Film Festival will have just kicked off with the star-studded premiere of Stone, starring Edward Norton, who was scheduled to attend the Opening Night screening. My review of the film is below. I have to admit, I'm impressed more than I usually am with some of the offerings the festival has this year, including the Closing Night film, director John Madden's The Debt, starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington; the Festival Centerpiece, Danny (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle's latest 127 Hours, starring James Franco, about a mountain climber who must cut his own arm off to escape certain death after having a boulder fall on the appendage; Darren Aronofsky's already-celebrated Black Swan; director Tony Goldwyn's well-constructed Conviction, starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell (expect my review next week); Doug Liman's Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts in the story of former CIA operative Valerie Plame; the creepy and exquisite South Korean film The Housemaid; and the lovely story of bored teens on a Friday night, The Myth of the American Sleepover.
Some art makes you think. Some art is beautiful or terrible or transcendent and lofty. Every once in a while, art really makes a difference in the world. The Nairobi Project does none of these things, but I'll bet it'll make you laugh your ass off.
The premise of this play is that it was written by a twenty-two year old Kenyan named Victor Gido, who, after what we can assume were several attempts to sell other plays to American producers via spam emails, was finally discovered by Steve Gadlin. After a series of slightly nonsensical emails between the two, Gadlin paid Gido $50 to write a play about "a millionaire named Quack Quack Quimby who has forgotten the true meaning of the Jewish holiday Tu Bishvat. His daughter goes to great lengths to remind him of its meaning, and make him happy once again. We'd like the play to end with him on his deathbed, reciting a monologue about his regained love for Tu Bishvat, and also admitting a lifelong homosexual affair with his trusted assistant, The Wizard Dumbeldore."
I saw the Aaron Sorkin-written, David Fincher-directed The Social Network two days in a row, and I've held off writing about it because I wanted to get my thoughts exactly right. I'm not sure I did, but this is what I've got. With three months left in the year, The Social Network is the best film I've seen so far in 2010. Is that clear enough for you? If it's at all possible, don't go into The Social Network thinking you're going to discover "the truth" about the founding and possible idea stealing being Facebook, the online phenom that has introduced a slew of new lingo to the English language and has made it possible for every single friend I had in high school to find me within one month of me joining a couple years back. Thanks, Mark Zuckerberg.
What you have here is a surreal, action-packed comedy on speed or mushrooms or something with a healthy dash of politics sprinkled on top. And yes! It's sexy! And there's murder! Above all, this production squeezes every last drop of juice out of an unbelievably talented little troupe of actors-- six, to be exact, playing a whopping 28 roles, running around like lunatics somehow seamlessly performing all the scene changes and costume changes in front of us.
Improv comedy is a pass/fail course; either you're good enough or you're not, and there's nothing worse than squirming through an improv performance that has bad timing, or a troupe that lacks the confidence to be onstage. Octavarius immediately put all my improv hang-ups at ease when they took the stage at last Sunday's performance at ComedySportz. I found myself asking questions like: how do they all know the lyrics to the same random songs? And: how does that guy keep bringing back the same thread of needing credentials in order to claim certain professions, and why is that so funny?
Octavarius' bio states that the troupe has been working together in one form or another since 2003, and it shows; the eight man + one woman group is completely at ease with each other, and I was never once worried about them, which is really the worst thing an improv troupe can do to their audience -- become cause for concern.
Octavarius will be performing at ComedySportz (929 W. Belmont) every Sunday at 7pm through October 24. Tickets are $10. For more info, call 773-549-8080 or visit ComedySportz.
As much as I'm not really eager to do so, I really feel like I need to view Oliver Stone's follow-up to his 1987 indictment of corporate mergers gone wrong and the buying and selling of lives as well as companies to really get a sense of everything that's going on in it. The film is actually about five or six different films all rolling into one intoxicating mess, and at least a couple of the stories are worth telling and watching. In light of the U.S. economy, the bank crisis, government bailouts, and the stock market tumbles of the last couple of year, my only question is, Why has it taken Stone so long to bring Gordon Gekko (still played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for the part more than 20 years ago) out of mothballs.
I went around to a bunch of gallery openings the Friday before last and have been stewing on what I saw since then. The work I keep going back to is Joey Fauerso's installation in Gallery 2 at Western Exhibitions. First of all, the videos are funny. LOL funny. But what made me stick around after the initial giggles was the awkward sexual desperation Fauerso was able to express with this work. There is something very human about it. Or maybe animal. Either way, this work seems to have a heartbeat.
Of all the sources to inspire a titillate-and-tease burlesque show, "The Big Lebowski" has got to be one of the most bizarre. In truth, that's probably half of the reason why "Rollin' Outta Here Naked: A Big Lebowski Burlesque" works so well. The concept is so unexpected that it's hard to wrap your head around what kind of theater you are about to witness. Bowling? Striptease? A roving band of nihilists with a pet ferret? Leave it to the Vaudezilla burlesque troupe to not only to make sense of it all, but to make it one hell of a Saturday night.
Say what you want about Ben Affleck the actor. I'm sure I have said some not-so-nice things myself about the guy. I think he's a solid performer, and that his biggest crime is just picking cruddy movies a little too often. But I will punch a person in the face who even dares to suggest the man can't direct. And with his second film behind the camera, The Town, we have the added bonus of Affleck drawing a fully-realized, well-played character for himself to inhabit in front of the camera as well. Stepping up the scope and scale from his first film as director, Gone Baby Gone, he's also secured one of the best ensemble casts of any film this year, making The Town stand out as one of the single finest crime dramas of the year.
You're going to hear a lot of people (critics, in particular) agree that The American feels retro or has a certain European wire running through its core, and I can see that and maybe even agree with the latter assessment. But what the only 2010 offering from actor George Clooney (after three films out last year) really has is a level of sophistication and understated menace that sets it apart from perhaps every other film about a professional assassin ever made. With guidance from the great photographer/music video maker, Control director Anton Corbijn, The American takes us inside the mind of a man who can kill for a living and lets us examine not only what makes him good at his job, but also how those very elements are the ones eating away at his soul and slowly consuming any remaining thing about him that is good.
The Last Exorcism it as a story of a preacher who has gotten into the exorcism game to bilk the faithful out of their hard-earned cash. He has taken advantage of the uncertainty of the times and the stress that society is under, and has turned that into a business for his unique brand of knowledge and skills as an orator. There's a moment in the beginning of the film where the Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) tells the film crew following him that he can insert anything into a sermon, and his followers will eat it up. He proves his point by literally working in the recipe for banana bread into his fire-and-brimstone speech. He's also considered one of the South's greatest performers of exorcisms. But we soon realize that Marcus hasn't invited a camera crew to document want a fine preacher he is; he's brought them in so he can show them that he's a fraud. This is his version of confession, and his plan is to pick a letter at random from the hundreds he gets requesting his exorcism services and walking us through his tricks of the trade on what is meant to be his final performance as an extractor of Satan.
Had I known that The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard was a play about how the efforts of critique are fruitless and irrelevant, I may not have jumped on the chance to critique it. If you're not familiar with Stoppard's story, written and produced for the first time in 1968, it's a "whodunit" play, within a commentary on the biases of critics. But there I found myself last Thursday, in the Signal Ensemble Theatre's new permanent space in North Center, being sucked into two simultaneous plays and questioning my role as a "critic" in the room.
Do you know how awful the new Jason Bateman-Jennifer Aniston comedy is? It's so awful that even the official synopsis is a lie. Here's how it reads: "An unmarried 40-year-old woman turns to a turkey baster in order to become pregnant. Seven years later, she reunites with her best friend, who has been living with a secret: he replaced her preferred sperm sample with his own." And, no, the lie is not that Aniston is actually 41 (more like 41 and a half). The lie comes (pardon the pun) in the second sentence. Bateman's character Wally is not "living with a secret" because he was so drunk when the titular switch was made that he didn't remember doing it until a combination of meeting Kassie's (Aniston) son and his co-worker (Jeff Goldblum) reminding him of some drunken mumblings said the night of the seed swapping triggers the memory. Got it? Now, please stop the lies.
Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's releases I wanted to tell you about something so stupendous, so magnificent, happening in Chicagoland in a couple weeks, that any true movie lover...hell, any true Chicagoan...would be a fool to miss. And to top it all off, the event in question is free.
On Friday, August 13, the good folks of the Alamo Drafthouse's 2010 Rolling Roadshow (co-sponsored by Levi's brand) have organized a screening of the classic John Landis-directed The Blues Brothers to take place in the only place it truly could--just outside the walls of the Old Joliet Prison--from where "Joliet" Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released at the beginning of the film. The address is 1125 Collins Street, Joliet, IL. Make it your mission from God to make it to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Start time appears to be 8pm. Don't be late. And did I mention, the screening is free? Well, it is.
Hey everyone. This is a light week for film releases anyway, but with my travel schedule what it is this week (I'm in San Diego covering Comic-Con), I'm afraid I've missed the week's biggest opening, Salt, starring Angelina Jolie. Because of this trip, I'm missing a couple of next week's films as well. Sorry, no Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore review. We should be mostly back on track the following week.
One other thing going on for the next week beginning today (Friday), the Gene Siskel Film Center is bringing back one of my (and Roger Ebert's) favorite documentaries of the year, director Jennifer Burns' Vincent: A Life in Color. You can read my original review here. But I wanted to let you know that Burns and star Vincent P. Falk will be present for audience discussion at all Friday-Saturday-Sunday screenings and at all 8pm screenings on Monday through Thursday.
Zoe (Corri Feuerstein) kicks some ass while Sylvia (Sara Sevigny) enjoys a cocktail.
The best thing about The Factory Theater is that every production comes from original writing by ensemble members. The League of Awesome marks the first Factory writing credits for Corri Feuerstein and Sara Sevigny, who also appear in the play as Zoe and Sylvia respectively, and is the directorial debut for Matt Engle.
The storyline is typical Factory-style madcap: there is a villain afoot in the city by the name of Drake Hurtcliffe (Dan Granata), aka The Sorrowmaker, and the local cadre of superheroes -- The League of Awesome -- is out to get him. The league is a band of women: Zoe, aka The Beacon (Corri Feuerstein); Kitty, aka Cat Scratch (Erin Myers); and Rumble (Melissa Tropp). It soon becomes apparent that Sylvia, a bookworm with a drinking habit, has superpowers of her own that involve a near-photographic memory of The Hardy Boys book series. She becomes part of The League, as does her sister Penny (Angelina Martinez), who has the power to get terrible songs stuck in other people's heads, rendering them immobile.
It's hard to write about Daddy Long Legs without commenting on the scenery. Bruised Orange has taken their latest out of the tight black boxes most other fringe companies call home and to the beach (Leone Beach, to be specific, just east of Touhy and Sheridan). Were this a frothy cocktail of beach-bum shenanigans this decision would seem natural, but artistic director Clint Sheffer's script is a pulpy, noirish period piece with twisty, tough-guy language and plenty of combat. It's a bold move, to be sure, offering delights and frustrations in equal measure.
I remember about two years ago almost to the day standing in line for about two hours at the San Diego Comic-Con waiting to get into the panel that would include the world's first look at footage from Twilight. I had to be there to cover the event, but nearly everyone else in line wanted to be there. So I took advantage of the situation to chat with a woman about my age and her 14-year-old niece, both of whom were rabid fans of the then-three Stephenie Meyer books and were eagerly awaiting a chance to gaze upon the actors who had been chosen to embody their beloved characters. I was completely uneducated about the Twilight world when I got in line, but thanks to these two lovely ladies, I got schooled pretty fast. Although their quick synopsis of the first book wasn't winning me over, their unbridled enthusiasm was infectious, and it gave me the energy I needed to survive the screaming mayhem of the panel and the one-on-one interviews I got with the clearly shell-shocked star Kristen Stewart and director Catherine Hardwicke.
I remember while waiting to chat with Stewart, I looked to my right, and saw Robert Pattinson standing almost at my shoulder, unattended as he awaited his next interview. I said hello, told him I liked his work as Cedric in the Harry Potter movies, and for a brief moment, he seemed really happy not to be talking about vampires or how hot he was or what kind of underwear he wore. And if it were possible, he looked even more shaken up than Stewart, like a cannon had been fired while he was in a deep sleep. But again, my mind kept returning to those two ladies in line who made me understand a bit of why they loved the Twilight material. I was envious of their passion and I remembered a time in my younger days when it didn't take much to get me that revved up about a film. So imagine my surprise when I finally saw Twilight months later and felt like I'd just witnessed the birth on one of Satan's largest, most evil toilet babies.
This will not be a long review; there's really no reason. There's no deep, existentialist examination of the human condition going on with Tom Cruise's action-comedy Knight and Day, and that's okay. I actually get a great deal of joy watching Cruise play fast and loose on screen; when he wants to be, he can be a great comic actor. The reason I never took to the Mission: Impossible films like I wanted to (except maybe the third one) is that they took themselves so damn seriously, and they really didn't need to. Knight and Day almost floats off the screen with cottonball weightlessness, but Cruise and his sly grin--and the attitude that fuels that grin--make this film a harmless couple hours spent watching attractive people pretend to get placed in the midst of some dangerous situations and come out the other side smiling and a little bit in love. I probably should have said "Spoiler Alert" right there, because there's no way you could have guessed any of that. Sorry. But please, even when Cruise is shot in this film, it's treated with the urgency of a kid in a Band-Aid commercial. Oopsie!
If there's an actual plot to Knight and Day, I totally missed it. Cruise is being chased down by assassins being led by Peter Sarsgaard because...no, see I knew this, and now I've lost it. I'm not quite sure why they're chasing him. I think there's a battery involved. No, seriously. Cruise meets June Havens (Cameron Diaz) on a plane going from Wichita to Boston, even though she's not supposed to be on the plane. He lovingly hijacks her person in an effort to protect her from the government baddies who clearly won't believe her when she tells them she doesn't know who Cruise's Roy Miller actually is. As much as Cruise's cavalier attitude toward even the most dangerous circumstances is enjoyable, it's also part of my problem with the film. We're never quite sure what we're supposed to be taking as a serious threat and what is a silly distraction.
Susan Price and John Fenner Mays, photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.
Excuse my language, but there's just no other way to put it: there is some fucked up shit going on in Dog & Pony Theater Company's newest production, Dead Letter Office. This play has everything from ghosts to incest to old fruitcake going on all at once in the dreary basement of a post office in Minnesota.
The play (directed by Dog and Pony's Dieterich Gray) opens with our star, scarred ex-boxer Christian (John Fenner Mays) sleepily descending the staircase into the dead letter office, where he's worked for god knows how long, and has trudged a deep path of habit and monotony, which he's happy with. Happy enough, at least.
Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's reviews, I wanted to alert you to a special event happening next week. As part of the Just for Laughs festival invading Chicago in the coming week, the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening two excellent works, including a preview of a superb documentary opening later in the summer across the nation.
At the SXSW Film Festival of 2009, I saw Winnebago Man, one of the best documentaries I saw that year (it made my 15 Best Docs list, coming in at #8). I felt for certain that this profile of one of the internet's first YouTube heroes, Jack Rebney ("the angriest man in the world"), would be released without hesitation. I guess with docs, it's a bit tougher to predict what will get released or catch on, but I can't imagine a single soul watching this movie and not finding some aspect utterly fascinating. Rebney's profanity laden outtakes from what appears to be an in-house selling tool for the Winnebago sales staff made the VHS rounds before they were put on YouTube, where millions of people giggled with delight at Rebney's seemingly insane rants. Part of the film is a thoughtful examination of what makes some internet clips a phenomenon and others seem forced and not as interesting. The rest of Winnebago Man is the search for the reclusive Rebney and attempts to get him to a found-footage film festival where he can meet his adoring fans. This part of the film is absolutely gripping and, in so many ways, heart wrenching.
I know I jokingly say sometimes about films I don't like some variation on the idea that I don't where to start picking it apart. But with the horrifically shallow Sex and the City 2, truer sentiments have never been spoken. This movie is literally about nothing. I don't mean it's not about anything important or significant or noble; I don't need that in my escapist entertainment. No, this film is has no heart, no brain, and an empty soul. And let me throw one more thought your way; this might be one of the most racist, anti-Arab films you will ever have the displeasure of sitting through. Maybe that's a good place to start...
Erich Roach and Jon Steinhagen as Oscar and Felix, photo by Dean LaPrairie.
Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison are such an integral part of our cultural shorthand that most of us can't remember a time before they were brought to life in Neil Simon's 1965 play The Odd Couple. Chicago's own MeTV began broadcasting reruns of the 1970's sitcom of the same name a little over a year ago, and ever since I've been staying up too late to watch Jack Klugman and Tony Randall cohabit in their impossibly large and affordable New York apartment.
Raven Theatre Company, known for producing classic American theater, has brought The Odd Couple back to the stage for an eight week run. The play's vintage comes through in the set design and costuming, and in references to everyday expenses: a pack of cigarettes costs less than a dollar; cooking dinner for four instead of going out to a restaurant yields a savings of $30 to $40; and Felix's share of the rent is $120 a month. These nuggets remind the audience that they are watching a piece of cultural history, but the storyline of two divorced men splitting rent is one that could have been written yesterday.
I'm kind of over people (critics and others) who see the film world in black and white terms (unless, you know, they're talking about a B&W movie). There are so few films that come out in a given year that are so without merit that they warrant the label "suck." All of the digital ink that has been wasted on people trying to explain how terrible Iron Man 2 is or Top 5-10 lists of how it could have been better--give me a fucking break. I'm not saying it's a classic effort, but is it really so terrible that it deserves this much attention? Of course not. But here's the big secret: negativity in the extreme translates into readership.
In many ways, director Jon Favreau has done something rather remarkable--he's made a film about a man who has decided rather impetuously to take on the problems of the entire world and make them his own. And then we get the distinct pleasure of watching that man crack and crumble under the weight of that responsibility. Tony Stark has learned that with great power comes a psychological meltdown that he may not recover from, as only Robert Downey Jr. can personify. As much as we like to think that Christopher Nolan's dark, brooding and largely perfect Batman films have cornered the market on tapping into the psyche of a man who has elected to become a protector of humans, allow me to submit Favreau's Iron Man 2 as a film that challenges nearly every level of hero building and turns it into a profile of a man whose ego is simply not enough to handle the task at hand.
When you enter Bucktown's Gorilla Tango Theatre on Tuesdays this month, you'll find it transformed into a women's ward asylum. An asylum of victimized, broken souls ridden with guilt and codependency.
In every room there is a patient waiting to be "saved" as male clients pay top dollar to be the ones to save them. But who's more damaged? The audience follows Mr. Suit, a young, nervous man looking for someone specific. And it's not going to be easy.
In one room you meet Saint, she's cursed; the next, Ada, she's lonely; next door to her, Grace, who just can't help hurting herself. They're all dependent on salvation-- a savior. But that's not all that's going on here. Mr. Suit finds it's not just the patients that are needy but the clients visiting-- that and the night nurse, but, she's just in need of a good drink.
Unemployed, coming out or battling the Bad Decision Bears? A trip down Avenue Q will set you straight. Presented in a very short run by Broadway in Chicago, the poignant, puppeteered romp through the hazy life maze of New Yorkers hurtling through their 30s spits smart and startling truths like, "The Internet is for porn" and "Everyone's a little bit racist," and reminds the audience that it's quite common for an English degree, a big heart or a dream to become your own albatross. The wry, sometimes filthy musical is alternative therapy for anyone questioning their purpose in life while engaged in a hunt for love (or at least a one-night stand). The Work Light Productions show, acted brilliantly in both human and furry form, also includes full-puppet nudity and swearing. How are you not in already? It runs through Sunday at the Bank of America Theater. For tickets and information, click here.
For many, adoption is viewed as an ideal way to provide a solid foundation for a child; however, when that adoption crosses racial and ethnic lines, it can be met with a variety of challenges. In Will Cooper's Jade Heart, the challenges of multicultural adoption are explored as a Chinese woman pursues her quest to claim her heritage.
Jade Heart, which premiered last weekend at the Chicago Dramatists, is the story of "Jade" (Christine Bunuan) and the complex relationship between her and her adoptive white mother, "Brenda" (Ginger Lee McDermott). The story showed Jade at three different phases of her life: as a precocious, naïve girl, a rebellious teen, and finally, a confident, young adult. Throughout these various phases, Jade searched to establish and connect with her Chinese culture through a caregiver, friends, her dreams, etc.
Hey everyone. Somehow, mostly through no fault of my own other than a continuingly excessive travel schedule, I have managed to miss a great deal of the smaller films opening this weekend, including a couple I'm hearing are quite good, including the Chess Records biopic Who Do You Love (opening at the Landmark Century Center Cinema) and the intense Australian film-noirish work The Square (which opens at the Music Box). I was also excited to see at Facets Cinemateque the new surreal sci-fi work The Scientist, which I've heard is quite cool. And let's not forget, also opening the Landmark, is the latest work from Michael Caine, Harry Brown, and The Cartel, a doc about school teachers struggling to find alternative methods to make sure kids learn, even if those ways directly contradict the way the school boards insist that they teach.
The one thing I did manage to get to that opens this week is this little gem. Hopefully I'll improve my track record and get to a few more screenings. In the meantime, enjoy...
Last week I was lucky enough to catch a preview of the new "street art disaster" documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which opens Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema.
Most of the people I've talked to who have heard something about this film think it's a film about Bansky, and it's not. It's really about the progression of street art as a whole, and how money ruins everything.
Andrea Concetti as Moses in the Chicago Opera Theater's production, photo by Liz Lauren.
147 years have passed since the last time Rossini's Moses in Egypt was performed in Chicago; last Friday, The Chicago Opera Theater's production came to the Harris Theater. The opera company distinguishes itself as a producer of intimate and innovative productions while making the art form more accessible through programs like Opera for All, which incorporates elements of opera into the curriculum of Chicago Public Schools, and through collaborating with After School Matters and the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education.
For amazing voices, the cast of Moses really can't be beat; Concetti's rendering of Moses was commanding, and Taylor Stayton and Sian Davies' portrayals of the star-crossed lovers Osiride and Elcia were magnificent. The space at the Harris Theater is surprisingly intimate, and as the story unfolded in the darkened theater the distance between the viewer and performer seemed to dissolve. The English supertitles above the stage were a bit distracting at first, but it soon became second nature to glance up every now and then as if I was wearing a pair of bifocals. At times I forgot completely to read the supertitles and it didn't seem to matter, the music and the drama onstage communicated the story to me regardless of the fact that I understand about ten words of Italian, and of those, nine are food items.
In the first of what promises to be a summer loaded to the gills with testosterone-infused films about groups of gun-toting, muscular men on a mission (The A-Team, The Expendables), this week's release The Losers, based on the DC/Vertigo comic book series, has the distinction of being, well, first. While there isn't a particularly original story at play here, and the visual style includes such tried-and-true favorites as a Right Stuff-style slo-mo walking toward the camera, The Losers' scores many points based on the strength of its enjoyable characters...some of them anyway.
Last week I spent some time roaming around my usual handful of West Loop Galleries and didn't have much trouble picking out a favorite show-- New York artist Cordy Ryman's Tempest at Kavi Gupta.
I had a feeling I would like this show ahead of time when I got the press release with an image of "Doodle Chips." It's just so nice-- painting on wood chips, tracing the growth rings with pen and paint. It's so big and little at the same time. And it's easy on the eyes, too.
For every time you've rolled your eyes at a self-indulgent teenager, The House Theatre of Chicago's latest endeavor, Girls vs. Boys, reminds you to remember a time when the emotional impact of first loves, first times, and broken hearts were enough to just kill you. It also reminds you how downright obnoxious teenagers can be.
I'm not even sure why I'm reviewing Kick-Ass. It's complete and utterly awesome, and in all likelihood, you're all going to see it, and most of you will have some degree of love for it. Kick-Ass isn't the first film about regular people with no super-human abilities throwing on costumes and attempting to be crime fighters. But it's the first one that's shot like a superhero movie. Let me clarify that; few superhero movies relish their violence and other twisted aspect quite as wholly as Kick-Ass. The film's main villain is a member of organized crime, and the movie takes on the appropriate tone, with a climax that seems ripped right out of Scarface, complete with a torrential rain of bullets and enough explosions to take down a five-story building. And then there is the blood. My god, is there blood. Blood and gore and severed body parts and burning flesh and more blood. When I wasn't laughing or cheering right along with Kick-Ass, I was smiling the smile of a person who has just seen the greatest movie he didn't even know he was waiting to see. With film's like Iron Man 2 less than a month away from opening, I'm sure Kick-Ass will be dethroned, but right now this is the best movie I've seen in the first three-and-a-half months of 2010.
Jordan Phelps, Amy Steele and Shaun Nathan Baer in You Took Away My Flag.
You Took Away My Flag is the brainchild of Henry H. Perritt, Jr., whose extensive bio includes 28 years and counting as a law professor, 20 books, and numerous interviews on the subject of the Balkans. This is his first musical, and the subject matter is just as heavy as the rest of his oeuvre: YTAMF is set in Kosovo, and is presented in the unlikely format of a rock opera; its a high-risk scenario for musical theater. Having recently seen a performance of the very successful Signs Of Life, which takes on the equally risky subject of Theresienstadt, the Nazi camp designated for the academic and artistic Jews of Europe, I was willing to give it a shot -- sometimes high-risk theater reaps great rewards.
The cast is well trained and has some great voices, with standout individual performances that include: Amy Steele, Hillary Marren, Brian Birch, Jordan Phelps, and Patrick Cannon. Unfortunately, the performance is all but drowned out by the musical accompaniment, which is heavy on the drums and synthesizers, and is a constant presence -- almost no lines are delivered without musical backing. I'm not quite sure what genre of music it is, but its nothing I would call "rock." Adding to the dissonance is the incongruously upbeat nature of the music that accompanies battle scenes and other dramatic moments -- think Saving Private Ryan set to ice rink music. Fight choreographer Joey deBettencourt has a bio listed in the program alongside the cast and production crew, and rightly so; the fight scenes are well staged and expertly executed. You Took Away My Flag is showing Thursdays through Sundays at the Theater Building (1225 W. Belmont) through May 23. For information and tickets call 773-327-5252 or visit Ticketmaster
If I really wanted to, I could write this review in one paragraph. In fact, with most comedies, a paragraph--or sometimes a sentence--is all you need. If you laughed more often than you didn't, a comedy is probably worth seeing. The story and the characters are important to a degree, but it's that laugh factor that matters most of all. And Date Night, with its many flaws and occasional dead spots, still had me laughing a whole lot, largely on the strength of the sweet married couple at the center, played by two Second City vets Steve Carell and Tina Fey.
Hey, everyone. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but it's probably worth repeating. I've been traveling like a fiend the last couple of weeks (including most of this week), and as a result, I've missed a couple of big press screenings, including most notably this week's Clash of the Titans. I also somehow managed to miss the screening of the long-awaited Miley Cyrus-Nicholas Sparks collaboration The Last Song (which opened Wednesday) and the Tyler Perry sequel Why Did I Get Married Too? (actually this didn't screen for critics, but I wish it had). I'm pretty sure things will return to normal beginning next week, when I should have reviews of Date Night, the latest Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and a few other choice nuggets.
Saul Williams performing, photo by Gina Picardiello
Lethal Poetry's A Night of Sight and Sound was a very apt description of the evening's events. It launched with a bevy of battling B-boys and a lone B-girl, segued into hip hop blues and then capped it off with a clutch of seasoned, nationally-ranked poets. The night flowed seamlessly with a variety of performers and minimal time between sets.
Kicking off at 6pm, light still streamed in from Lawrence Avenue, a street frantic with dual shows at the Aragon and Riv: Kalleton 2010 and Stone Temple Pilots, respectively. Kinetic Playground saw a respectable crowd as the evening began with B-boys and a B-girl crossing swords on the dance floor. Battle-winner Pi88 is a regular competitor and teaches dance at Alternatives, Inc., a youth and family services agency on Sheridan.
The cast of the TV show, photo courtesy of The Factory Theater
Hey! Dancin'! is a simple play. It is not meant to change your life but to make you smile. It is very much about the 80s, and whether you look back on the decade with nostalgia or disdain, you will have trouble keeping a straight face at this performance.
Hey! Dancin'! takes place in 1986 at the studio where a public access television dance show of the same name, reminiscent of "American Bandstand," is recorded. Our protagonist is a teenie bopper named Halle (played by Melissa Nedell) who, if not for her slut-wannabe best friend Trisha (played by Catherine Dughi), is probably the show's #1 fan.
Everybody knows Keanu Reeves has a special way of acting... a certain je ne sais quoi... so it makes perfect sense that he would be played by a slightly bewildered audience member reading lines off of cue cards in the stage adaptation of Point Break.
Within the first ten minutes of Point Break Live!, Reeves' character, Johnny Utah, is chosen from audience volunteers based on his (or her) ability to mimic Reeves' vacant stare and recall his most popular lines while doing jumping jacks.
In case you're not familiar with Point Break, it's a movie about surfers who are also bank robbers and it stars Keanu Reeves as an ex-jock/FBI rookie and Patrick Swayze as a ripped surfer guru with Gary Busey and Lori Petty (Tank Girl) in supporting roles. As you might imagine, it's pretty over the top, but in an awesome, action packed, 1991 kind of way.
Sometimes you admire a comedy because of its subtle wit and cleverness, because it keeps a sustained smile on your face that lasts the duration of the film. Other times, you fall head over heels for a comedy because it is balls-out the perfect combination of stupidity and intelligence, with a healthy serving of charm thrown in and a dash of the grotesque. Welcome to Hot Tub Time Machine, folks, a movie that almost dares you not to giggle your way into a frothy stupor. What put this film over the top for me was its complete and utter disregard not only for conventional logic and sensibility, but the film actually bothers to set up its own time-space continuum rules and then breaks them with a wanton disregard for the Butterfly Effect. On the plus side, Time Cop's essential rule about the same person from two different times occupying the same space is cited and dealt with quite effectively. But for God's sake, this isn't a movie about science; it's about partying '80s style, and who better to do that with than John Cusack?
Hey everyone. So, I've been in Austin, Texas, for the last week or so attending the SXSW Film Festival. I've done 17 interviews and seen somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 movies (when you read this I'll be at the tail end of the my time at the fest). As a result, I've missed a few screenings of things opening in Chicago this weekend, including Repo Men, The Bounty Hunter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Neil Young Trunk Show at the Music Box, which might hurt most of all. And I'm not done traveling. I've got a couple more short jaunts that will force me to miss films like How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans. And while I've seen many other films opening in the coming weeks in advance, this week in particular I've been pretty useless to you, with one notable exception. Read on, and I'll see you when I have my feet on the ground.
As much as I'd been led to believe that The Runaways was going to be a document of the short-lived, all-female rock band seen through the eyes of its most famous member, Joan Jett (played with convincing edge by Kristen Stewart), the film is, in fact, told from two perspectives--Jett's and that of underage singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning in a career-altering performance). My knowledge of The Runaways is limited at best. There were two of the band's songs featured in the film I recognized, including their biggest hit "Cherry Bomb." But I believe that a bio pic or documentary to any musical performer should not be a love letter to that person or group. The job of a film like The Runaways is to convince those ignorant of their music (like me) that these are people worth paying attention to, exploring, and maybe even collecting. And for the most part, first-time feature writer-director Floria Sigismondi (whose background is in music videos, although the film thankfully doesn't take on that rapid-fire editing approach) has succeeded in crafting a thoughtful examination of a band that needed to exist in the 1970s landscape.
I feel pretty confident in saying that there is no better director of realistic, complex action sequences working today than Paul Greenglass (United 93, Bloody Sunday, and the most recent two Bourne movies). He also has an uncanny ability of building unbearable levels of suspense and making sure an intelligent audience always knows exactly what is happening and what the specific geography of every sequence is. This may sound bizarre, but one of my biggest complaints about the current crap of action directors is that they simply toss the camera around, set off a shitload of explosions, and rattle off gunfire with very little care if the audience can keep track of where all of the players are and who t