Saturday, December 31, 2011

A 2012 Deadline I Won't Miss!

I know, I know.. I am behind on my reviews. But they ARE on the way...  So look for "The Artist", "My Week With Marilyn", and possibly "War Horse", in the coming week.  Also, I'll have a review of the year in movies, and a general 2011 retrospective.

In the meantime, this post is time-sensitive....and my deadline is midnight....

I and some of my friends below wish you all a Happy New Year!  (Special greetings to my blog-buddies and supporters: Mark, Ben, Walter, Andrew, Luke, Jose, Stephen, Mike, and everyone who stopped by this past year!)

All the best in 2012!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Coming Soon: The Movie Year 2011

I just watched "Beginners" again at home, on DVD.  It is a wonderful little film.  My review, written this past June, did not do it complete justice.  Christopher Plummer was even more impressive this time; and the treatment of a son's attempt to comfort a dying father held a special resonance and relevance to me.


Tomorrow I will post a review of "The Artist".  Along with "Beginners", both films charmed me with their canine supporting players, both of them Jack Russell Terriers with the sweetest faces. 
"The Artist" was one of my most highly anticipated films of the year.  I am anxious to share my thoughts about this movie.


In addition to "Beginners", the holiday added a slew of great new films to my personal collection (some of which will be re-viewed on these "pages") including "The Deer Hunter", "Gods and Monsters", "Never Let Me Go", "Inside Job", "Midnight in Paris", "The King's Speech", "Black Swan", "The Exorcist", and "The Thin Red Line". 


When time permits, I'll be checking out "My Week With Marilyn", "War Horse", and "Shame".  I am not yet convinced that I will derive much from "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo".  "The Iron Lady" and "Albert Nobbs" have yet to be released in Chicago. 


2011 was a memorable, heartbreaking and infuriating year.  Great travel, memorable music, an end-of-year movie bonanza, and wonderful Chicago weekends alternated with heartbreaking world news, infuriating politics, and a series of family traumas that have left me numb.  I cherish my closest friends, my readers, my animals, and Mark for helping me keep my feet on the ground as it continued to shift under me.

Looking ahead, Oscars 2011 should provide a well-needed escape, as well as an exciting showcase of some truly great movies (I hope).  I will weigh in at regular intervals.  I'll also take my annual look back to Oscars 40 years ago, when in 1971 the big names were Friedkin and Hackman and Fonda, when New York was the backdrop to the year's most honored films, and when the Russian Revolution played side-by-side with futuristic British  gang wars at local cinemas.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Caroler at Your Door! A Christmas Journal #2

Remembering old friends this season...especially the humorous, four-legged ones who put up with our fashion experiments. 

If Maggie were still here, she would gladly have sung (er, howled) your favorite carols, right at your door.

Wishing you music and good cheer today.......

A Personal Holiday Anecdote: Christmas Journal #1

It turned out to be a better day than I had expected. It was a long, long way from the normal, comfortable holiday we have shared at my parents' house since time began.  Even so,  we are adjusting to a new reality, and are breathing a small sigh of relief, at least for today.

During the past week, after a series of incapacitating falls at home, my father was taken to the Emergency Room, and admitted to the hospital for observation and a battery of tests.  He is in the same hospital where my mother is now, and has been for a good part of the year, for treatment of dementia and other psychological maladies.

My mother has been frantic at the sudden end to my father's daily visits to her ward, where geriatric patients are secured behind a locked door for treatment of various emotional and cognitive impairments. 

Since it was impossible for them to visit each other due to my father's serious condition, he is stable enough now, and she has become strong enough, for her to be informed of his whereabouts, and to arrange for a visit between them.

That is how I, my sister, and Mark, spent our Christmas afternoon.  We signed my mother out and then wheeled her to the tower clear across the hospital, to my father's room.  It was a brief visit, with small gifts, fresh-baked banana bread, a little confusion, some slurred speech, and a smile out of each of them. And, of course, a tearful departure as we brought mom back to her floor.

It has been a time for being a little numb.  Our immediate thought today was to make sure their special visit could be arranged, and to finally allow my mother to know the truth of my father's health.  Her obsessive fear of him being ill or dying has contributed to her anxiety. Now, she can begin to deal with this fear in an honest way. 

All of the other things: their eventual discharge and placement in nursing homes, and the maintenance and/or sale of their current home, will wait another day.

To all of you, especially those who are hurting this Christmas, there are those of us who understand, and wish you peace and support in 2012.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A "Buddy" Christmas

A Brick for Buddy:

What do you give as a Christmas gift to an 86-year-old woman who has everything she needs?

If she likes animals, like Mark's mother does, then a sponsorship to an animal-care organization is a nice idea.

At The Buddy Foundation, a wonderful shelter for homeless dogs and cats in suburban Arlington Heights, a donor can sponsor them by buying a personalized paving brick to be placed in the area surrounding the front walk.

This is what we did for Mark's mom.  The 8"x4" red brick will be engraved simply, with her name and the words "and family", and a paw-print graphic.  It will be placed when Spring arrives.  Meanwhile, we gave her a commemorative certificate to acknowledge her donation, which will forever show her caring for the creatures within.

Christmas Tree Stars:

If any of you would like to remember a special pet, living or not, send me the name and kind of animal.  I will donate to the Buddy Foundation on your behalf, and write your
pet(s) name(s) on a yellow star that is hung on the big Christmas tree in the foyer.

Your pet can join Maggie, our dear departed Bassett Hound, and B.C., a black cat that recently left the care of Mark's sister and brother-in-law.

The dogs and cats of the Buddy Foundation can't tell you how much they appreciate your care during this holiday season.  So I will tell you myself!  Thanks.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I Am A "Modern Family" Junkie

Modern Family_post.jpg
Today, I'm moving on to a more lighthearted look at "family", after the somber, personal musings of my previous entry...

As some readers have guessed, I don't watch a lot of television. It's more of a timing thing, as I have so many other likes, hobbies, and responsibilities. I tune in for movies, news, special live broadcasts, ad retro stuff.

I had never watched a full episode of the ABC family comedy "Modern Family", in spite of media raves and the urging of friends, until earlier this week.  Mark received the Season 1 DVD at a holiday office-party gift-exchange.

Since then we watched the first six episodes, and now I am hooked.

"Modern Family" breathes contemporary life into the traditionally crowd-pleasing but recently tired and pandering sitcom genre. Using recent techniques like roving camera, into-the-lens interviews, and characters stealing sly glances right at us, this show remembers the conventions that made the family comedy so comfortable and so funny. 

It is filled with hilarious situations, mining today's culture for honest and satiric observations that make us laugh in recognition.  It offers recognizable locations, and actual establishing shots.  The characters are funny and foibled, but have a warm center of humanity, and we love spending time with them. It is filmed and directed with impeccable care, and the tone is consistently sunny yet does not blink from the embarrassments of real life.

I have not laughed so hard at a TV series in years..   Nor have I loved the characters in quite the same way.  I have developed a real affection for the foibles of these characters, so sharply written and so precisely and joyously performed by a talented cast. 

I especially love Ty Burr's lovable but fumbling "cool dad", Sofia Vergara's fiery and fun-loving Colombiana with Rico Rodriguez as her precocious son, and the amazingly rare and warm portrayal of a male couple in Suburbia (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet) as the newly adoptive parents of a South Asian baby girl.  In fact, the entire cast, rounded out by Ed O'Neill, Julie Bowen, Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland and Ariel Winter, are all fabulous.

Best of all: All of the characters are related, either by blood or marriage, with surprising and funny connections. 

The show pokes fun at everyone and everything that forms part of our middle-class culture: multi-cultural households, middle-age and beyond,  parents as buddies, kids and their gadgets, gay drama queens, Costco, female competition, and male bonding.  And that's just the first six episodes.

I can't wait to finish Season 1, and devour Season 2 as well, and report on it later!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Child Is Father to the Man (and Woman)--A Personal Journal

My muse has been wrestling with reality lately. So far, reality has an edge in this week's match.

I have never had children.  But I am unique among my friends, in that both of my parents are still alive.  At 77 and 83 respectively, my mother and father have shown alarming symptoms of age-related decline over the past year.

I have had to reinvent myself as a caretaker of two often difficult people with difficult challenges and ailments.  There are no road-maps for people like me, known as The Sandwich Generation. *

(Although, without children, I am more of an open-faced sandwich.) 

I try my best to provide basic needs, safety and comfort to a mother whose world has finally diminished to a small space of fear and forgetfulness, of self-neglect and mindless distraction to others; and to a father who has used silence and rage in equal measure to maintain his view of life and our place in it, who has stubbornly refused offers of help or requests to discuss future plans.

In brief, there was the car accident last Spring; the trauma; my fragile mother's breakdown; my father's annoyance and denial; an initial hospitalization; treatment by electricity; frantic uncertainty; more denial, and a relapse. 

There is my father's lack of mobility due to recent falls, his rapid weight loss, and his refusal to have his injuries examined.  Cognitive decline is evident, possibly due to lack of sleep.  That is due in large part to his insistence on caring for my mom at home....

My mother is in the early stages of dementia, and chronic (maybe lifelong) depression.  After returning home last June, she had not slept a whole night, and continued to keep my father awake.  She was filled with anxiety and confusion, asked the same questions over and over, and responded with belligerence to attempts to care for her.  It had been violently chaotic. It was recommended that a hospital stay would be best.  I agreed.

In this, her second hospitalization of the year, her medical professionals have deemed her unfit to ever return home, and so tomorrow, we must look at the situation and begin to make some hard decisions.

American medicine, and our culture at large, seem unsympathetic to the helplessness and pain of old age. 

In this journal I have chosen not to dwell on these things.  I never felt that this journal's purpose was as a confessional, or as a way to elicit sympathy. I feel that unless one knows the characters involved, it is difficult to make this relevant and to foster understanding with only one or two brief entries.  There are privacy concerns as well. 

Writing this now, as a way to refocus my efforts and clear my mind for appreciation of higher culture and  the kind of writing I want to do, I realize that there is so much more to all of this. The story of my parents, as viewed through the eyes of a son who always felt responsible for making them happy, and who followed his own path with a mixture of regret and pride, is so complex, and so deep, that this could make for a novel. 

You might think you have read this story before.  But if I ever decide to pursue this and shape it artistically, and do it justice, it could be a stunner, the novel I was meant to write.  But it might be so painful, I might not recover.

At such an intense time in the life of this narrator, I felt it was helpful to share some of the events that have consumed my time and mental energy, to put them in perspective.  I intend to return to film and art and animals and politics as the rightful topics of this journal.

Perhaps, instead of avoiding this topic altogether, I might visit it with more frequency.  It would be a release for me, a therapy.  If I can write compellingly, so that others will read with keen interest, then I will grow as a writer. If I share what I am learning from the experience, it might do someone else some good.

I conclude with a brief anecdote:

My parents have never been demonstrative with their affections.  More often, as a child, I witnessed hair-raising conflict, and always felt at fault.  It was rare to see them embrace, or to hear them speak endearingly.  Last night, as I started to wheel my father from the hospital at the close of visiting hours with my mother, I saw them reach toward each other tentatively, as if to shake hands. My mother mouthed the words, "I love you".  My father replied "I love you too". 

Had they been able to do that at home, instead of maintain the horror show that was their dysfunction, I would bet that things would have turned out so much differently. 

Thank you for listening..  I will return from time to time to relate any progress that we have made.

(* If you are a parental caretaker, check out this web site designed to provide help and information, researched and written by Carol Abaya, M.A.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Holiday Images In Chicago--A Saturday Photo-Journal

Tonight I am taking a small holiday from writing, in order to share some photographs I shot a few weeks ago, on the day after Thanksgiving as we joined the crowds in downtown Chicago.

It feels right for me to think back on that wonderful day, to get into a Holiday spirit.

It's great fun to be in the city, especially with friends and loved ones.  That day, Mark and Jillian and I formed an invincible trio. 

We blended into the Black Friday crowds, walked to the Art Institute, had dinner together, and explored the Chicago Cultural Center (which I'll highlight in an upcoming journal entry).  We finished the evening at the Goodman Theater, with "Memphis".

I hope my visitors will enjoy these images as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Macy's, formerly Marshall Fields on State Street

A Sidewalk Puppet Theater regularly seen on the North Side


Mark, Jillian and 'A Christmas Story'

The "L" and shopping crowds

Jillian, Mark, and the Wreathing of the Art Institute Lions

Promoting the Friday Night Holiday Concerts at Cloud Gate ("The Bean")--Windy City Performing Arts had a show on December 9th

The enormous human-face light mosaic in Millenium park

Ice Skating in the Park

The Goodman Theater, where "Memphis" played, taken a few hours before showtime

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Notable Golden Globe Omission

A brief musing on this year's Golden Globe Nominations--  There is one title that is noticeably absent from the list.

After some despair this summer over a lack of mature, intelligent and original films, the fall season has exploded with movies that have appealed to me and that have been cinematically satisfying.

I'm proud that the films I chose to attend during the year are being recognized in large measure by the year-end critic's awards.  On this blog I have favorably reviewed several films that are now appearing on nominee lists everywhere: "Midnight in Paris", "The Descendants", "The Beginners", "Hugo", "The Ides of March", "Moneyball", "50/50", "Take Shelter", "The Help".  Even Films that I mostly disliked, like "Drive" and "J. Edgar", have captured some nominations. 

And I have yet to see "The Artist", "War Horse", "My Week With Marilyn" and "Iron Lady", all of which are of sincere interest to me.

But one film was completely ignored by the Hollywood Foreign Press.  And its absence has made me realize that it is perhaps the most interesting movie I have seen all year, and certainly the most beautiful. 

It is, of course, "The Tree of Life".

No film has stimulated more thought, made me see and feel more deeply, or left me with so many questions worth pondering.  It is freaking miraculous that this film was seen on American movie screens at all, and discussed favorably by so many viewers. 

It seems fitting that "Tree of Life" is not a guest at the Golden Globe party.  It is too lofty.  It is like an eagle soaring above the common fray of activity, too concerned with more noble ideas.  Great as many of this year's films have been, the ambitions of "The Tree of Life" remove it from the realm of simple filmmaking.  To throw it into competition for a movie award feels odd, like entering Beauty and Truth into a popularity contest.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Dogs of "Hugo"

Recently this blog looked at Academy Award-Winning Best Pictures that featured dogs in significant roles. (See "The Dogs of Oscar's Best Picture: Will 2011 Be Dog-Friendly?" December 1).

While dogs have remained mostly in the doghouse as far as the Academy is concerned, I concluded with some hope that this year, Oscar's Best might also feature a Lead Dog. 

"Beginners" and "50/50" are definite long-shots for the top prize, but "The Artist" seems to have legs (four of them) and its adorable Jack Russell Terrier could be the first with a significant role in the Academy's Big Film.

And now "Hugo", another period piece about the early days of filmmaking, is a strong contender with an Important Dog!

The station-master's loyal Doberman follows orders to apprehend orphans who hide in the Paris train station.  Fierce, fast, and frightening at first, this dog carries important segments of the film's plot, and like his owner, is redeemed as a not-so-bad creature by the film's end. 

In addition, two amorous, long-haired dachshunds provide marvelous support in a subplot involving a widow, who is a perennial occupant of the cafe, and her suitor, who must overcome the snapping jaws of the little hot-dog by providing her with a canine companion of her own. 

"Hugo" and "The Artist" have been universally recognized by critic's groups in their list of award nominees and winners.  This gives both films good odds in the upcoming Oscar contest, which could be the most dog-friendly competition since "Babe" was a nominee in 1995.

How can you not love it?

(Read on for my "epic" review of "Hugo" Dec. 13)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"Hugo" A Triumph, And A Good Case For Film Preservation (My Epic Review)

"If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they're made."
--George Melies in "Hugo" 

 Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" is a visual treat, a magical children's story that morphs into an arresting biography of a real-life motion picture pioneer.  It is also an effective plea for the preservation of old movies.

This is unlike anything Scorsese has ever directed before.  Having freed himself from the constraints of his usual material (gangsters and underworld crime), and his often self-parodic style (hothouse lighting, exclamatory camera movement, classic-rock soundtrack) it is as if Scorsese had just seen a movie for the first time, or re-discovered a new magic in making films. He identifies with this character's imagination, and his love of film.

"Hugo" is a finely focused story which utilizes the film medium to the utmost.  It is in 3D (about which I'll say more later), and yet it is so rich in detail and wonderful imagery that it can be enjoyed "flat" with little to diminish it.  Of the few 3D films I have seen since they began popping up a few years ago, "Hugo" makes the best use of the technology.

Scorsese is in his element with this tale of a young orphan named Hugo Cabret, a mechanical whiz and lover of movies, who lives in the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930's.  After Hugo's loving father meets an untimely end, and his clockmaker uncle abandons him, Hugo continues to wind all of the clocks in the station, and looks for the heart-shaped key that will activate a special mechanical man, or automaton, that may contain a message from Hugo's father. 

Surviving on his own by stealing food and small items, and parts for his automaton, and avoiding the clutches of a darkly comical Station Attendant who loves to return homeless boys to the orphanage, Hugo eventually falls into the bad graces of George, the station's toy-maker, who takes Hugo's notebook filled with drawings as punishment for Hugo's thievery.  Hugo befriends the toy-maker's goddaughter Isabelle, and soon they are in the midst of a breathtaking adventure in which they unlock the mystery of Papa George's past, using the history and magic of filmmaking as the key.

Along the way there is comedy, action, some terrific stuff with dogs, suspense, beautifully realized performances, and some of the most awesome shots of the year.  "Hugo", while a bit frenetic in its first half hour, gets better and better as it goes along.  Some viewers, who expect slam-bang slapstick throughout, may not appreciate that the film finally settles down into a richer, more historic realm, but film fans will hunker down for a gentler, more awesome good time.

I have never seen Scorsese enjoy himself as much (the move from New York to Paris has done him good), and I have never had such fun at a Scorsese film.  The word "innocence" comes to mind:  I like this new-found innocence in Scorsese, his playfulness.  He has rarely directed children, and his success is in that area is another happy surprise. 

This new tone also showcases and enhances Scorsese's formidable skills as a filmmaker, and a visionary one, more than much of his later work.  It is as though a skilled musician suddenly proved himself as a master conductor.  There is nothing too menacing here; we are meant to immerse ourselves in a wondrous world.  It's classic material, in the manner of a lighthearted, non-musical "Oliver", or even this generation's "Mary Poppins".

And yet Scorsese has something more lasting that he would like for us to take away from this film.  That is, an appreciation for the cultural heritage that movies have allowed viewers to share through the decades; and a knowledge of the origins of this art form called the motion picture, knowlege that we have lost through the generations.  What comes through most is Scorsese's enthusiastic invitation for us to care about history, and more importantly film history, and to see the benefits of preserving it.

The story of George Melies is intricately woven through this tale of a boy whose love of tinkering was the creative spirit behind the earliest movies.   Scorsese and his superior crew of designers technicians, musicians and performers provide us with a wealth of information, and a kaleidoscope of fantasy and incident and subplot, which enter through our hearts and stimulate our thinking. Special mention needs to be made of Dante Ferretti's sets, which are a marvel of imagination and aesthetic pleasure. All the while, "Hugo" sets our own imaginations spinning and our own creative juices flowing. 

(Read here for more about George Melies' life)

"Hugo" does a great service by resurrecting the long-forgotten figure of  Melies, who was responsible for so much amazing film technique and technology, presenting his life story rather faithfully, and making him relevant to today's filmmakers and moviegoers.  It is by necessity a sentimental story, and an uplifting one, and a rare experience at the cinema today. 

It's interesting that today, in a time when advances in motion picture technology threaten to destroy the emotional and intellectual pleasures of movies in favor of pure sensation, a film like "Hugo" (and even "The Artist") wants to allow viewers to retreat into the origins of what made cinema the popular art form that it has become, before those origins are gone for good, totally forgotten.  By doing so, we realize that the more "primitive" effects that were invented by pioneers like Melies (and that are still possible to achieve with simple home-movie equipment) are extremely effective.  All we needed was the encouragement to really see them. 

If you love movies and the history of filmmaking, you have to see "Hugo". Most of us are familiar with Melies' "A Trip To The Moon", in which a rocket ship lands in the eye of the man in the moon.  (Oscar buffs know that this short film was used in the opening sequence of the 1956 Best Picture, "Around the World in 80 Days".)  But Scorsese uses many different clips from Melies' surviving catalog, and re-creates the making of these films.  We also learn that after exhaustive searches and meticulous restoration, at least 200 of Melies' films, thought to be lost, have been saved, and are available for viewing. What better advertisement for modern film preservation?

Hugo and Isabelle are our on-screen surrogates as we see Melies' remarkable story come to life: of Melies' days as a magician, his introduction to the movies (with the Lumiere Brother's train arrival that made viewers duck in panic), his romance and marriage to his leading lady, his construction of an all-glass studio to let in natural lighting, and his downfall after World War I took Melies' movies out of popular favor.

It is heartening to see the character of Melies be paid tribute in a movie today.  It is also a treat to have a happy ending, without irony, as all of the characters find love and belonging. 

Scorsese takes old scenes and recreates them for his story as well.  I defy viewers not to duck, as early audiences did, when a train speeds toward us, threatening to collide with Hugo on the tracks.  I laughed as Hugo hung from the hands of a large clock in the manner of Harold Lloyd in "Safety Last", also showcased in this film. And watch how seamlessly the contemporary actors are incorporated in the older footage to give the clips authenticity. Throughout, Scorsese masters an unfamiliar technology, and as a result, makes us pay attention, and leaves us with the same feelings of discovery that Scorsese, and Melies, must have felt.

Asa Butterfield, as Hugo, has a quality of a young Elijah Wood.  Butterfield perfectly captures Hugo's curiosity and sly mischief as well as his sentiment and fierce determination.  Few bits of acting this year can top Butterfield's appeal to the Station Master's own sad history as an orphan.  Sacha Baron Cohen, with a thick mustache and trick leg, is terribly appealing as the "villain" of the piece who is redeemed by the attentions of a sympathetic flower girl (the beautiful Emily Mortimer). Cohen is a skillful character actor, maintaining dramatic tension while keeping the humor close to the surface. Chloe Grace Moretz convinces as a young Parisienne who captures Hugo's attentions, and his heart, and is a fun partner in his adventures.

Ben Kinglsey is a revelation here.  While the role is not terribly demanding, his Melies is totally captivating, one of the finest supporting roles of the year.  Kinglsey, without layers of makeup or undue accent, completely disappears into this role, and brings Melies to thundering, imaginative life.  With Kingsley in the role, "Hugo" really triumphs.

If I have any quibbles, it has to do with some plot holes, and some thoughts about the use of 3D thematically in this movie.  As far as the screenplay, I think it is beautifully done, although I wish the matter of Hugo's missing notebook had not been forgotten, and I wonder about the film-historian's assumption that Melies was killed in the war. Otherwise the story is told in wonderful dialog and nicely-plotted set pieces.

As for the 3D, I think "Hugo" uses the technology really well most of the time, especially in the latter half.  I found it distracting during some of the earlier, faster-paced sequences.  And there is so much beautiful detail and depth in the sets, and intricate costume design, that I wished early on that I could have had more time to linger on these things without the added "filter"of 3D.  Also, at some early points,  Scorsese tries to create depth of field by blurring the foregrounds and backgrounds.  While I admire his attention to this detail, unfortunately the foregrounds are sometimes indistinguishable from the backgrounds; the eye doesn't have much time to focus from shot to shot.

But in the less rapid sequences, the effect soars.  Especially in the slow zoom-ins and closeups, in particular of Kingsley and Cohen, the effect is to bring the characters into an unusual intimacy with the viewer, right in one's lap. And during the clock-chase sequence, an overhead shot from the top of the clock tower looking down is stunning. 

File:Le Voyage dans la lune.jpgI was struck by an irony: late in the film, Melies' own work, like "A Trip To The Moon", was presented in a 3D format.  I thought this was a mistake, and, after just seeing a trailer for "Titanic" being re-released in 3D, it had the unintentional feel of an advertisement for 3D.  I would rather have let the old film remain in its original format, as a way to honor that history, and preserve what once was, so we can study it anew.

I think "Hugo" will not herald a new renaissance in 3D filmmaking, but will prove to be the exception to the 3D rule. I fear most filmmakers lack the skill and consummate knowledge of technique and history that allowed Scorsese to create something unique and beautiful.

In the balance, however, I must recommend "Hugo" to viewers who still value the singular pleasures of moviegoing on a large screen.  I hope Martin Scorsese continues to explore material that plays into his love of the movies.  This is one of the finest films of the year, and one that will still hold up on 2-dimensional blu-ray for those of us traditional film fanatics who have not yet taken the 3D home-theater bait. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Meaningless Film-Critic Embargo From Producer of "Dragon Tattoo"

An interesting, but finally meaningless, debate about movie critics and "promises", caught my attention recently...

A firestorm of negative opinion has erupted over David Denby's review of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo",  which is scheduled for publication in the New Yorker, in the December 6 issue. 

It is the date of publication, and not the review itself, that has received the roar of disapproval from "fans" of the as-yet unreleased film, produced by Scott Rudin and directed by David Fincher.

It began when the New York Film Critics Circle decided to announce its annual Film Awards (a year-end precursor to the Oscars) earlier than normally scheduled.  For whatever reason, the New York Critics wanted to be the first to have made their official awards announcement (at the end of November rather than the traditional mid-December time frame), when a few high-profile pictures still had not been released in New York. 

One of the unreleased films, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", which has high award expectations (at least from the Fincher-ites), was in danger of being unscreened, and therefore, left out of the NYFC voting. So the studio allowed the Critic's Circle a special screening, and then demanded that each critic make a promise not to publish any review before December 13. 

(Another highly-touted major studio release, Stephen Daldry's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close", was not ready for screening and was left out of the NYFC voting this year.)

Denby published early, citing the glut of year-end movies to review, and limited time to do so, as the reason for the "early" review.

Producer Scott Rudin, infuriated, banned Denby from future advanced screenings for violating the "review embargo".  Fincher, who reasonably expressed his distaste for screenings in advance of the movie's release date, nevertheless blasted Denby for violating his "promise" and supported Rudin's decision to ostracize Denby. (Check this interesting post in Anomalous Material)

That's when the Web heated up with opinion over film critics' honoring their agreements, and a peculiar defense of the film, that seemed designed to protect some fragile Awards fantasy that  Fincher, and this movie, would triumph at the Oscars. The argument was that by publishing an early, potentially negative review, the fan-fiction that "Tattoo" might be an eleventh-hour Oscar game-changer might not hold up. 

And if future reviews prove as lukewarm as Denby's, then there may be little hope for awards-love for the movie.  The venom directed at Denby,  and the support of Fincher and the as yet unseen "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo", went beyond fandom and bordered on the irrational.

(In the final count, in spite of the special screening, NYFC left "Tattoo" empty-handed, and the film has not impressed other critics' groups as of this writing.  The "Social Network"s critical juggernaut will not repeat itself this year.)

If Denby had played the good sport in this instance, then the movie would have had to rise and fall on its own merits, rather than receive the benefit of promotion by manufactured "scandal". 

I hold to the notion, expressed previously on this blog, that movie-making is diminished when films are discussed nearly to death before their release. That includes incessant analysis of everything from the studio-leaked photos, to the trailers, to the poster art.  That, as much as early reviews, can ruin the experience for a potential viewer, except for those who will attend that all-important opening weekend anyway. 

I agree with Fincher in my preference that reviews should be written after a film has been released to theaters.

But I  disagree with the studios setting up advance screenings---for no other purpose than to make a film award-eligible--and then demand that critics not write about it. It's an almost laughable double-standard in which critics are "invited" to screenings, and are free to bestow their honors upon a film, which they are then sworn not to review until later. 

Film critics write film criticism.  If studios didn't do early screenings, then they would prevent "premature" reviews.  (The old activist in me reacts against any demand not to write about something, especially something as benign as a movie review....thoughts of freedom of the press linger..) If the film is that good, and promoted appropriately, the work will stand on its own, awards or no.

Also, if "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" happened to win major awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the continued enforcement of the "embargo" would have been awkward, if not downright embarrassing. 

I also find a desperate inconsistency in the opinions of some writers on this subject. On the one hand, they put forth the idea that critics don't matter, that the only relevant views on any film come from the average moviegoing audience. On the other hand, the outrage over Denby's early review betrays a fear that critics do in fact matter a great deal, that the opinion of a professional movie critic is potentially damaging, and that it has the ability to plant doubt in the minds of those who would otherwise praise the film to Awards glory.

There are no heroes here.  The New York Film Critics need to chill a little, and wait until they have given each eligible film a fair viewing.  The studios should spread out their releases more evenly thoughout the year, and not effectively censor what and when a writer writes.  Banning Denby from advance screenings serves no purpose. 

 It's all about awards, I guess, and that's not good for the full appreciation of the art of film.

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Posthumous Honor for a Chicago Classic

Almost a year to the day after his passing ("The Cubs...Lose Their Biggest Fan", December 4 2010), former Chicago Cubs Third Baseman Ron Santo was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It's a bittersweet victory.  Santo had been passed over for the honor since he was originally placed on the ballot in 1980.  For over thirty years, Ronnie swallowed his disappointment and put a gracious good face on the annual postponement of his dream.

Consider Santo's record as a Cub in the 1960's and early '70's: his high profile and loyalty to his team and to his city; his popularity with fans and players alike; his proficiency as a third baseman (a position rarely honored by the Hall of Fame) with 90 RBI's in eight consecutive seasons (a record); a 9-time National League All-Star player; and his ebullience and regular-guy good humor in the broadcast booth.  The fact that he was never honored with induction into the Hall until now seems like an almost deliberate, and cruel, snub.  I don't understand it, and neither do most Cub fans nor Chicago Sports Writers.

Santo's Cub Uniform #10 was retired in 2003, and his flag flies over his beloved Wrigley Field along with those of Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, Santo's teammates and the only other Cubs to have their numbers retired. After an emotional ceremony before a packed stadium, Santo declared: “I know getting inducted into the Hall of Fame had to be something, but that flag is going to be hanging there after everybody is gone.”

Having the recognition of his team, his fans, and his city, meant more to Santo than any other honor.  Still, he deserved better from the Hall of Fame voters.

"We dared to dream this because it was so important to Ron and such a long time in coming,” his widow, Vicki, said, upon hearing the news of Santo's posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame. “But we’re all thrilled. When I got the call from the Hall and then Billy [Williams] got on the phone and said, ‘Vick, we finally got it done,’ it made me cry.”  Vicky will make the induction speech in Cooperstown on July 22.

Somewhere, I hope Ronnie heard the news, and reacted with his characteristic unbridled joy:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Puppy And An Ice Cube..What The World Needs Now--Wednesday Journal #1

When I saw this video I knew I had to post it! First, to save it for posterity; and second, to share it with anyone who visits here.  (Thank you, Kirk and Mark.)

Tonight, a few brief posts.  Journal #2 below is a small tribute to the late Laura Nyro, a new inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.  Journal #3 is a gut reaction to today's sentencing of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on multiple corruption charges.

Coming up this week: another long-overdue, posthumous recognition of a Chicago Sports legend; and my thoughts on a movie-review embargo that has the blogosphere abuzz.

But first: enjoy this video of a Welsh Corgi puppy and his encounter with a single ice cube!

The Late Laura Nyro Inducted Into Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame--Wednesday Journal #2

Finally!  Laura Nyro (for the uninitiated, pronounced Ne-ro) was announced as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame's Class of 2012.  The induction ceremony will take place in Cleveland on April 14th.

Nero's heyday was the 1960's.  She scored modest success as a singer, with a voice that was reminiscent of Carole King with a more reckless abandon, and she had two hit albums of collected songs.

But it was as a songwriter that she left an immortal mark on American popular music.

If George Gershwin were writing Top-40 pop hits, they might have sounded like the tunes of Laura Nyro.  She blended rhythm-'n-blues and soul with jazz and pop, for a distinctive sound that is timeless even as it calls to mind the late '60's.

Artists like The 5th Dimension, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Barbra Streisand scored huge hits covering Nyro's songs.  I hope I can encourage others to become familiar with Nyro's music.  Her songwriting resume is unbelievable; all of them can be legitimately considered modern classics:

(click on the links to hear the songs)
Three Dog Night's version of "Eli's Comin'"; "Time and Love" and "Stony End" (Recorded by Streisand); "And When I Die" (Blood Sweat and Tears' biggest hit); and especially the covers by the Fifth Dimension: "Stoned Soul Picnic", "Save the Country", "Sweet Blindness", and my all-time Nyro favorite, "Wedding Bell Blues" ('B-I-I-I-I-I-L! I love you so, I always will ...')

Sadly, Laura Nyro will not be at the ceremony next April. In 1997, at the age of 49, Nyro died of ovarian cancer--the year in which another of my contemporary music heroes was inducted into the R&R Hall Of Fame: Joni Mitchell.

Nyro's induction is an honor that is way overdue.

Did Rod Blagojevich Receive Justice? Wednesday Journal #3

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced today to 14 years in prison for his recent conviction on multiple federal corruption charges.

Among his offenses were conspiracy to solicit bribes  for State contracts, mail and wire fraud, and most notoriously, his scheme to sell the newly-elected President's vacated Ilinois Senate Seat.

Just as shameful, after his convictions, Blagojevich seemed to take a cavalier attitude toward his convictions, proclaiming his innocence, and, seeming unaware of the gravity of his situation, appearing on late-night talk shows, humorous television advertisements, and "Celebrity Apprentice".

There is little to say in his favor. Sadly, he is in large company, having the dubious distinction of being the 4th Illinois Governor to be convicted since 1973.I believe Rod Blagojevich should serve justice for his convictions and for continuing a shameful tradition of corruption in Illinois politics.

But 14 years?

Who's afraid of Rod Blagojevich? 

I'm glad to finally be rid of Blagojevich (see "Good Riddance," June 28, 2011), but frankly his walking the streets does not make me fear for my personal safety. 

Prison is a punitive measure to be sure, and the Judge in the sentencing sought to make an example of the former Governor, as a deterrent to future corruption by state officials. 

But does anyone believe that is really going to work?  I would rather see those who destroyed the financial futures of millions of Americans take their rightful place in Federal Prisons.  The same goes for legislators who pass irresponsible laws, resulting in the deaths of everyone from soldiers and poor senior citizens, to desperate young mothers and innocent victims of petroleum name a few.

Illinois' last Governor, George Ryan, was convicted in a Driver's License scandal that resulted in the deaths of a family of six.  This occurred before his tenure as Governor, while he was still serving as the Illinois Secretary of State.

Ryan got six years.

14 years for Blagojevich?  I think a more thoughtful judge could have come up with a more creative form of justice, one that would combine a shorter prison sentence with a more useful (and humbling) way to allow Blagojevich to pay his debt to the state. 

Now, we are merely paying his room and board for the next 14 years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Windy City Performing Arts Winter Concert, A Rich and Wonderful Program

In three shows filled with heart, talent, and irrepressible mischief, the Windy City Gay Men's Chorus and Aria performed this weekend at Chicago's Senn Campus, and gave their richest, funniest, most emotional holiday show yet.  There was an eclectic mix of musical styles, several show-stopping solos, some alarmingly good showcases of individual talent, a "hot" brass-and-percussion ensemble, and a visit from a besotted special guest, whose martini-fueled, train-wreck of a number redefined raucous hilarity, and may have been the last word in drag (until, perhaps, March).

This year's program, titled "Sassy! Brassy! and Classy!", left audiences as fully satisfied as at a banquet, offering familiar dishes and exotic delicacies, spiced with effervescent staging, and topped off with sweet harmonies and strong vocal mixtures.  Director Stephen Edwards fashioned a wonderful show which, in spite of the  challenges and rigors of rehearsals, the choirs delivered nicely.

Another thing...I felt entirely safe in the comfortable surroundings of Senn Auditorium.  Mark was there all weekend, and the stage was filled with all of my friends who worked so hard to entertain us, with so much wonderful music beautifully performed.  I knew the same warmth I used to know looking at the lit-up tree in my boyhood living room, with all the other lights off, and the promise of good things...

The combined chorus kicked off with "Spirit of the Season" from "Polar Express", a lively number that  raised the house energy level, and set a tone of expectation for both the traditional and the contemporary.

The men moved right into "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year", a perennial classic (that we  break into occasionally when the pressures of the season become insane!)  The men's first set concluded with a beautifully harmonized, hushed version of "White Christmas", a song filled with nostalgia and hope, and still one one of the finest Oscar-winning songs ever. 

Aria took back the stage for a jazzy rendition of "The Holiday Season", at one point vocalizing without words in an amusing "ta-tee-ta" chorus.  Kay Thompson, a well-known actress, arranger, and godmother to Liza Minnelli, wrote this tune in 1963.

"Silent Night" always casts a breathless hush on an audience.  This version is one of the most exquisite I have yet heard.  Stephanie Dykes started with a strong baritone solo in German, with the combined chorus fading in for a melancholy rendition of the song.  Stephanie came back for a brief solo interlude, taking the song into a different key, before the chorus built in volume to a thrilling climax, at which it was impossible not to be moved.

The women lightened things up again with "The Holly and the Ivy" done in a calypso kind of beat, with great piano accompaniment and a fine solo by Valerie Silk Kremenak.

Then things got out of hand--in a great way.

Stephen breathlessly announced the appearance of a special guest!  While the chorus donned hats and grabbed their fur-lined music books in order to provide background vocals for this special soloist, we learned that the singer was none other than Mrs. Santa. 

In white silk elbow-length gloves, silver wig with a ridiculously small hat perched on top of his head, and a silky and flattering dress, Bill Howes, as Mrs. Santa, was wheeled out on a chaise lounge by two shirtless minions (Bill Marsland and Jason Spoor) sporting leather harnesses and hats, sucking on tootsie pops, and bringing continuous martinis to the hapless diva. 

The chorus followed their music gamely, while Mrs. Santa launched into an off-key riff that got appreciative howls of laughter from in-the-know audience members.  "O Holy Night" segued hysterically into everything from "Deck the Halls" to a wild-west version of "Sleigh Ride"; from a confused mix of "Frosty" and "Rudolph" to "Over the Rainbow"; from "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"; to Mozart's "Magic Flute", returning finally to "O Holy Night", before she was wheeled offstage. 

Howes tottered around the stage, goosing Director Edwards (who grabbed a drink himself), able to go from sublime to profane in one alcohol-riddled breath.  A singer has to be really talented to fashion a number so hilariously off-key and well-timed, and Howes really put on a show.  Even Michael Roberts, the Sign Language Interpreter,  seemed to be at a loss, remaining quietly hilarious, frantic to get it all spelled out. 

*   *   *   *

It was hard to top this, but the follow-up was terrific.  The brass section, with wordless vocalizations from Aria, performed a song I remember hearing a lot as a kid, but had almost forgotten, called "Bugler's Holiday".  (I was so happy to reconnect to this song--I felt like the guy in "Amelie" who has his long-lost treasure box returned to him; I had been trying so long to recall the name of this tune. ) I don't think it's strictly a holiday number, but it is appropriately bubbly with a great brass sound.  (Listen to a version of it here). 

The instrumentalists followed with an interlude of their own, "Sleigh Ride", which is more well-known.  Both this and "Bugler's Holiday" (above) were written by American composer Leroy Anderson, described by Oscar-winning composer John Williams  as "one of the great American masters of light orchestral music."

Aria's next, a Hanukkah Song called "We Are Lights" featured lovely solos from Anna Rose Li-Epstein and Katya Lysander, and incorporated a candle-lighting during the number. 

And, to finish the first half of the show, the chorus was led by soloist Libby Lane, who effectively belted "Judah and his Maccabees", a musical bible story of the origin of Hanukkah.  This number requires a strong, vibrant alto, and Lane gave an awesome and animated interpretation of the song. (Here's a version from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, lead by Karen Hart, who wrote the song.)

Act Two was more emotional, more spiritual and even more amazing.  The Men's Chorus offered a quiet and powerful version of "Ave Dulcissima Maria", performed acapella with only a single bell as a regular punctuation, like a Gregorian chant.  This was rumored to be a troublesome, complex number for the singers, but from where I sat, it sounded perfect.  The piece was written in 2004 by Morten Lauridsen originally for the Harvard Glee Club. (Listen to Polyphony's version here).  Michael Vince, Ryan Johnson, and Anton Naess lent their beautiful voices in solos.

Aria came back for a suite of spiritual numbers, beginning with "December" in which the group's delicate voices perfectly captured the awesome solitude of a late winter afternoon, when the sky is all blue and pink from the setting sun.  The chilling soprano solos of Kim Duncan, Rafael Ramos, Beth Bellinger and Meghan Bennett gave the song a haunting quality.  "Hodie Christus Natus Est", "Gloria", and "Alleluia (from Songs of Faith)" recalled for me the brassy religious influence of the film scores of Miklos Rosza or the medieval beauty of "The Lion in Winter".  Paul Basler, who wrote "Hodie..." and "Songs of Faith", was pleased with the arrangement, as seen on YouTube!

Finally, "Pictures of a Season", a suite so wonderfully done that it almost requires its own post. I'll try to do it justice in summary.

"Pictures of a Season" was a set of familiar holiday compositions, arranged in such a way as to provide a depth of meaning, an emotional journey.

Starting with a plaintive phrase from "Do You Hear What I Hear?", which served as a refrain for the whole number, the brass and harp were effectively woven in between. There was a rousing version of "Born in Bethlehem", done as a 4-part round with hand-claps that got the crowd moving. Bobby Owens came in for a brief solo refrain of "Do You Hear", followed by another exciting number, "I Am The Lord of the Dance", fronted by lighthearted solos from Ray Lesniewski and Dan Craig. 

Before the climax of the choral piece, there was perhaps the most amazing solo work of all.  Madelyn Tan-Cohen, the always-reliable piano accompanist, was given the spotlight, and transfixed the crowd as she moved effortlessly across the entire keyboard and back again for a thunderous, delicate, amazing musical interlude.  Influences of Wyndham Hill and Debussy, hints of "Carol of the Bells", "Away in a Manger",  a bluesy version of "We Three Kings", and segments of "Noel" "Gloria in Excelsis", combined for a seamless rhapsody.  Madelyn, who quietly provides such great support for the vocals, here proved a tremendous talent in her own right. She received a well-deserved cheer from the crowd.

Finally, the chorus brought it all home, as the suite built in intensity to the full "Do You Hear", with full orchestral accompaniment and the entire choir giving it everything they had, to thunderous applause.

I hope this recounting of this very special concert will serve as a record of an event for some, a tribute to others, and an introduction to this special group to everyone else. 

In the coming weeks, I'll return to the personal stories of many of the members, the preparation for the March Broadway fund-raiser, and the road to the Gala Festival in Denver in July!  Stay tuned...