Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mamet Molds a Vivid Discourse In Black and White -- Theater Review: 'Race' at Goodman Theatre

Theater Review

a play by David Mamet
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 19

Based on his best work--plays Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed The Plow, Oleanna; movies House of Games, Spanish Prisoner, Heist, The Verdict, Wag the Dog--I consider David Mamet not only high among my favorite playwrights and an inspired movie director and screenwriter, but one of the most important creative provocateurs of the past 50 years.

Offering biting social and interpersonal insight with a mastery of language all his own, Mamet's work has been both brilliantly commentative and highly transformative. I often cite him in the same vein as The Clash, Martin Scorsese, Richard Pryor and Norman Lear as one of the (now exceedingly) rare artists who combined cultural unrest and creative brilliance to simultaneously reflect their times and reinvigorate--or even reinvent--an art form.

There is too little of that angst-inspired ingenuity arising now, or at least invading the zeitgeist.

And sadly, it appeared that Mamet may have lost his mojo awhile back. Recent plays like Romance and November were disappointing at best and his 2008 martial arts movie, Redbelt, didn't measure up to prior directorial efforts. In 2011, he also released a book documenting his conversion from a "brain-dead liberal" to a "newly-minted conservative."

I respect his right to identify with any ideology he likes, but have missed the emblematic observations of American Buffalo, the razor sharp invective of Glengarry Glen Ross, the thought-provoking dichotomies set up in Speed The Plow and Oleanna and the con man "sting" of House of Games and Spanish Prisoner.

Fortunately, though his 2009 play, Race--now in a regional production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--isn't quite on par with his very best work, it offers enough intelligence and insight to remind why Mamet is such a gifted and important writer.

Here he sets up a scenario where a wealthy, married white man named Charles (played by Patrick Clear) has been accused of raping a significantly younger black woman. (It's unclear if he has already been arrested and is out on bail, but Mamet seemingly takes a few dramatic liberties.) His alleged victim is not a character in the 95-minute (including intermission) 2-act play, which takes place entirely within the law office of Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey), who is white, and Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens), who, like their newest associate, Susan, (Tamberla Perry) is an African American.

Photo Credit: Charles Osgood
While asking Charles about the allegations against him, the law partners learn that he has already left counsel of another defense lawyer. Dubious due to the racial connotations they openly discuss, the firm nonetheless winds up becoming his attorneys of record due to certain actions I won't reveal here. But the charged discussions between Jack, Henry and Susan are what largely drive the drama, far more than the question of Charles' guilt.

As with Oleanna, which concerns a college professor and a female student who alleges he raped her, in Race Mamet deftly creates a multiangular discourse certain to prompt post-show debate and disagreement among audience members.

Although pointed questions are raised through dialogue that is intriguing and occasionally humorous and/or profane--as per Mamet's trademark--and the acting under Chuck Smith's direction is stellar throughout, in sum Race just feels more like an excellent (@@@@) play, rather than a truly phenomenal (@@@@@) one. As artful as his setup is, it seems that Mamet unnecessarily tips his hand toward and against a couple of characters; ironically, the resonance could have been even sharper if things were left with a bit more ambiguous.

Also, though questions of race and our relationship to it will always be topical, the ones Mamet raises here don't seem all that novel (if you ever have a chance, see Thomas Gibbons' Permanent Collection). So while tickling our own degree of discomfort on the matter, any newly profound societal statement Race is trying to make was lost on me.

Still, even if Mamet isn't revolutionizing our world the way he once did--if you think that's an overstatement, consider the language used onstage and in film before & after he came to prominence in the mid-'70s--it was certainly quite welcome to see a new work of his be even this good. Unless it grows on me in subsequent explorations, Race may not stand, like it's author, as an all-time great, but--at the very least as a night of enjoyable entertainment--it is a winner.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

And Iran, Iran So Far Away: 'A Separation' Departs, Connects -- Movie Review

Movie Review

A Separation
written and directed by Asghar Farhadi
playing in Chicago area at Music Box Theatre and Century Evanston

In awarding A Separation a 1/2@ under the Seth Saith maximum, it seems I liked the Iranian drama a good bit less than the norm.

Somewhat atypically, it was given a 4-star top rating by both Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times, who also named it his favorite film of 2011.

And of the nearly 33,000 people who have rated the movie on IMDB's 10-point scale, a whopping 63% have given it the top score.

Even among the group of movie buffs I saw it with, it seemed I was a tad less vociferous about Asghar Farhadi's film being truly extraordinary.

Yet my feeling apologetic about bestowing A Separation "only" @@@@1/2 (out of 5) should suggest how strongly I recommend that you make a point of seeing this wonderful film. For even if it doesn't quite meet your expectations--and perhaps mine were over-inflated--at worst, this is a movie almost anyone should find extremely worthwhile and well-made. If nothing else, I promise that--similar in many ways to a great play--A Separation will provide you with plenty to discuss and debate afterward.

On its surface, the movie is a family drama, about a woman who wants to leave Iran with her husband and 12-year-old daughter, but with visa in hand is held back by her husband's wish to continue caring for his father, who has Alzheimer's. Per the title, they separate, but she moves in with her mother nearby until an amenable plan can be reached.

The movie then takes numerous turns that I didn't expect and won't reveal here, but winds up offering--along with much else, including a multi-faceted exploration of truth, deceit and consequences--the palpable suspense of a great legal thriller.

Taking it at face value, I thought I noted some structural/logical flaws and at least one instance of confusing editing. And the motivations of some characters weren't entirely clear, but I believe that was part of Farhadi's point. Far more than most Hollywood movies ever do, A Separation deals with its characters as people really are, including being at times, exasperatingly inconsistent. The acting, led by Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat, Shaheb Hosseini and Sarina Farhadi (the director's daughter), is remarkably realistic and impactful throughout.

The movie also provides quite a fascinating glimpse into Iran, in ways that exhibit vast cultural differences from the U.S., but also rather striking human commonalities. It's a film I definitely look forward to revisiting at some point, and I wouldn't be shocked if I find reason to add that 1/2@.

But at this point, I find no reason--aversion to subtitles, wariness about a film from Iran, etc.--for anyone who likes intelligent drama to miss discovering this terrific movie. In fact, expecting a near sellout and the possibility of not getting in, I was rather disappointed only about 60 people or so made it to the Music Box for the 9:30pm Saturday showing on A Separation's first weekend in Chicago. With a rare film like this, those who make the effort can only be better for it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

With a Kick of Authenticity, This 'Chorus Line' is One Singular Sensation -- Theater Review

Theater Review

A Chorus Line
produced by and presented at the
Paramount Theatre, Aurora, IL
Thru February 5

A Chorus Line must be a tricky show to cast. For while it would seem obvious to select performers who can sing, dance and act wonderfully--and look great in  leotards or men's dance uniforms--those with the polish, poise and vocal panache that often defines Broadway-caliber talent may inherently bring an air at odds with the story of aspirants auditioning to primarily dance in (for most) their first Broadway show. And one set in the mid-1970s at that.

Although I don't pretend to have a clear barometer of what qualifies someone to work literally on Broadway--as anyone who can sing in tune impresses the hell out of me--I've seen enough shows in New York to think I can perceive what distinguishes practitioners at that level from talented people who participate in community theater (for example and in general).

I've also seen enough shows at various levels around Chicagoland to confidently suggest that troupes/venues such as Marriott Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Light Opera Works, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Northlight Theatre and others often produce top-quality musicals with performers clearly capable of working on Broadway (and/or those who already have).

While the Paramount Theatre--a large, ornate Art Deco venue designed by Rapp & Rapp in 1931--has been presenting short runs of touring musicals for years, last fall they joined the ranks of regional theaters producing their own slate of subscription-series shows. Reviews of My Fair Lady there were phenomenal, but Aurora is a good hike from Skokie, so A Chorus Line is the first such show I've seen under Artistic Director Jim Corti.

I got a walk-up ticket more than covered by the $45 I won at the Hollywood Casino across the way and except for the 19-piece orchestra sounding a bit too soft even in the 6th row--it might be my hearing, but I doubt it could be that much worse than the numerous octogenarians around me--I thoroughly enjoyed the show from beginning to end. Even more so than the Broadway tour edition I'd seen in Chicago in 2009.

Early on, perhaps because I had read that some cast members had performed in the most recent Chorus Line revival on Broadway and/or the national tour, I tried to gauge how the ensemble might compare to what I'd expect to see on the Great White Way. And my first thought was that while no one was obviously deficient, the cast as a whole just didn't seem "Broadway caliber."

But then, the thought that I tried to convey in the first paragraph dawned on me. I wasn't supposed to see the people onstage as obvious Broadway stars; I was supposed to believe--while being thoroughly entertained--that they were upstarts, portraying the insecurities one might expect as they are called upon to offer autobiographical exposition.

I realize this may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I don't mean it to be belittling, as all the singing was strong and the dancing excellent. Nicole Hren made for an endearing Val, Pegah Kadkhodaian, as Diana Morales, delivered excellent renditions of "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love," Broadway cast vet Jessica Lee Goldyn dazzled in her dance solo on "The Music and The Mirror" and Kristina Larson-Hauk, a real Rockette, imbued the sexy Sheila with the right amount of sass and vulnerability.

And though he didn't have a vocal solo, Jay Reynolds Jr. as Paul probably did the most to instill this production with the sort of inherent believability that made it stand out.

A Chorus Line was one of the first musicals I ever saw, in an early touring production when I wasn't yet 10. (If you think songs about "tits and ass" might not be appropriate for someone so young, well, I was also taken to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.) So I have long thought the material--conceived by Michael Bennett with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by James Kleban--was first-rate, but have never been completely wowed by local productions nor the 2009 tour.

Without a lead character, it can be a challenging show to calibrate correctly, as it is so dependent on the ensemble, deceptively rag-tag at first but needed to congeal perfectly by the time the show-stopping finale of "One" rolls around. Under the direction of Mitzi Hamilton, who inspired the character of Val, performed in London and on Broadway and has helmed 35+ productions, this production might not quite be the equal of Broadway's best, but of those I've seen, it was a Paramount rendition.

Here's a video to give you a taste:

B-Roll for "A Chorus Line" from Shiloh Studio on Vimeo.

As a corollary, I recently watched the pilot episode of NBC's Smash (on Comcast On-Demand, as the broadcast premiere isn't until Feb. 6). Being a big Broadway fan and interested in backstage stories, I found it worth exploring and there were some nice songs from the composers of Hairspray. But most of the characters--with the caveat that pilots have to introduce them all, quickly--came off as clichés. In watching it, I couldn't help but think how much realistic A Chorus Line seems in terms of a glimpse behind the curtain. Smash, whose pilot I'd give @@@, will need to get considerably better to live up to its title.

Also, having recently seen Sondheim's Follies, for which Michael Bennett was the original choreographer, I newly considered the connection between that "backstage show" and A Chorus Line. While it might seem interesting to do a Chorus Line "whatever happened to" sequel, it dawned on me that Follies already covers similar ground, perhaps not so coincidentally.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beholding a Pair of Aces: Impressions on Nadal v. Federer

Last night, I watched a classic drama unfold in court as Jimmy Stewart battled George C. Scott in Otto Preminger's 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder.

After setting my alarm to wake me at 2:30am, I then watched a classic drama unfold on court as Rafael Nadal battled Roger Federer in the semi-final of the men's draw of the Australian Open.

(In full disclosure, I was compelled to go back to sleep after the first two sets, but saw Nadal complete his 4-set victory in today's replay on ESPN2.)

While I found the verdict reached in Anatomy to be somewhat questionable, there is little doubt about the 25-year-old Nadal having established decisive dominance over Federer in head-to-head matches. Roger is 5 years older and holds a record 16 major titles to the 10 of Rafa--who can get another if he wins the Australian title on Sunday--but Nadal is now 18-9 against Federer, including 8-2 in majors (i.e. Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open).

Just a few years ago, it seemed that Federer's brilliance was earning him widespread acclaim as the best men's tennis player ever. That this came on the heels of similar acclimation for Pete Sampras, whose 14 major wins were a new benchmark, was rather astonishing. So it's remarkable that Federer's reign as the best player of his era, if not ever, may have already been usurped by Nadal, who himself is now #2 in the world and seeded as such in the Australian behind Novak Djokovic, who beat him in their past 7 matches. Djokovic plays Andy Murray in the other semi-final tonight. Last year, he won three majors and went 70-6 overall in what Sampras called the best season he's ever seen.  

I consider myself only a casual tennis fan but I've always enjoyed watching the world's best players compete in the Grand Slam tournaments. Though many of tennis' premier legends were before my time, such as Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Fred Perry and Bill Tilden--and I mean no disrespect to the great women players, but I'm focusing this on men--I feel fortunate to have watched guys like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Sampras and others considered among the very best ever. 

While I can offer absolutely nothing in the way of expert analysis, there is no one I recall being any better than Federer. And now Nadal regularly has his number. And Djokovic seems to have his.

It's a lot of fun, especially at a time when it seems that many art and athletic forms--including for one, heavyweight boxing--are far from their historical apex. Federer-Nadal-Djokovic may well be the closest thing to Ali-Frazier-Foreman the early 21st Century has to offer.

Or to put it another way, I can't name a world-renowned jazz musician, a modern-day painter likely to be a museum mainstay 100 years hence or even a phenomenal rock band whose members are all under 30. But early this morning I saw two tennis players who may well be the very best the world has ever seen.

At least until someone better comes along. Which conceivably could have already happened.

Here's a clip from ESPN of some of the Nadal-Federer highlights. Despite Nadal's 6-7 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory, the match seemingly could have swayed Federer's way if for a matter of inches. Federer was up 4-3 and serving in the 3rd set, and later missed by a hair a shot that would have taken it to 5-all in the 4th. But as TV commentator Patrick McEnroe put it, "It all comes down to belief." For though Federer is still playing phenomenally, seemingly with the requisite talent to win several more majors, his confidence appears to have waned, predominantly when facing his nemesis, Nadal.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Obligatory Oscar Opinions: Nominations, Snubs, Predictions

After weeks of anticipation, major entertainment news was announced this morning. Yes, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will be embarking on a U.S. tour this Spring.

Unfortunately, those of us in the Chicago area are being passed over, but rumors abound that the Boss and his band--no word yet on how the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons might be replaced--will play Wrigley Field in September, after a run of European dates.

And in other entertainment news, the Oscar nominations were announced.

You can see the actual announcement, of the major categories, in this YouTube clip, and beyond my addressing of those nominees below, you can view all the nominations here (or just about anywhere).

I enjoy the Oscars as a celebration of film and a topic of conversation. They are a fun diversion, but as history has shown, clearly not an impeccable arbiter of cinematic excellence. The Academy is comprised of about 6,000 film industry professionals, whose votes determine the nominees and award winners. Like any electoral process, the Oscars are purely subjective, based on personal--possibly uneducated and/or biased--opinion, with popularity, politics, self-interest and sentimentality often being factors, and thus reasons to take the selections with a grain of salt.

As such, I really don't care if the Oscar choices right or wrong, as there really is no right or wrong. But that won't stop me from pontificating a bit. Here are the nominees for the 84th Academy Awards--to be presented on February 26--and what I think about them (you may also wish to see my recent picks for the Best Movies of 2011).

Best Picture

The Artist
The Descendants
The Tree of Life
Midnight in Paris
The Help
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
War Horse

After years of nominating 5 films, for the 2009 awards (presented in 2010), the Academy went to 10. That seemed unnecessary, as does subsequent tinkering that means that now, between 5 and 10 movies can be nominated (the convoluted tabulation process is explained here). Of the 9 that were nominated, I've seen seven of the films, and have heard that The Tree of Life is quite good though rather challenging. I would excise War Horse, which I found far too sentimentalized, and conceivably for similar reasons, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, whose reviews have been lukewarm. Completely missing in action, from any category, was Trust, a March release that I thought was excellent, and Take Shelter, which got great reviews but which I missed in theaters. I just saw The Ides of March and think it belongs as well, even if not quite in a top 5.

The silent film, The Artist, was the most original movie I saw last year, while Martin Scorsese's Hugo was nearly as inventive. I'll be happy if either wins, and imagine that The Artist will.

Best Actress

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

I haven't seen Close or Streep, but assume both were great. Mara was good as Lisbeth Salander, but Kirsten Dunst was better in Melancholia as was Charlize Theron in Young Adult. I didn't see Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin but she was seen as a likely nominee. Based on what I've seen, I think Williams should win, but Davis would be worthy and I wouldn't be shocked if Streep gets it.

Best Actor

Demian Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

I'm not familiar with A Better Life but can't gripe much about this field. Would've been nice to see longtime Chicago stage actor Michael Shannon get a nod for his heralded work in Take Shelter. I think Clooney will win, not undeservedly, but would vote for Dujardin.  

Supporting Actress

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

No complaints, though I haven't seen Albert Nobbs. Some nice performances that I also liked include Melanie Laurent in Beginners, Evan Rachel Wood in The Ides of March, Emily Watson in War Horse and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia. My vote here goes to Spencer.

Supporting Actor

Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Didn't see von Sydow and am not planning to. Nolte was good, as was Plummer, probably a sentimental pick to win, but I have no problem with that. It's a shame they couldn't nominate the dog from The Artist, who was outstanding. Ryan Gosling is a surprising omission for his work in The Ides of March (was it considered a leading role?) and Patton Oswalt also gave a notable performance in Young Adult.

Best Director

Michel Hazanivicus, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

I vote for Haznivicus from a strong group, though I don't think that Allen deserved the nom over Bennett Miller for Moneyball.

Best Original Screenplay

Michel Hazanivicius, The Artist
Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumulo, Bridesmaids
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
J.C. Chandor, Margin Call
Asghar Farhadi, A Separation

I'm looking forward to seeing A Separation, said to be sensational. For now, I'll go with The Artist

Best Adapted Screenplay

Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants
John Logan, Hugo
George Clooney, Beau Willimon and Grant Heslov, The Ides of March
Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin, Moneyball
Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Moneyball was a strong adaptation from Michael Lewis' book, but I think I'd vote for Logan for Hugo.

Sorry that I didn't see any of the nominees for Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film or Animated Feature and thus can't provide an opinion.

If you want to argue about the Oscar nominees or discuss other 2011 faves, consider coming to the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Brunch this Sunday.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Reviews: '11/22/63' Kindles New Interest; a mixed bag from page-turning faves Child, Grisham and Barclay

by Stephen King

Quite substantial in its own right, this book had personal significance on a number of levels, and I'm not even referencing its content. Although the man had written 48 previous novels, virtually all best sellers, published over the past 38 years, 11/22/63 is the first book by Stephen King I've ever read. At 849 pages, it may well be the longest book I've ever read, at least recently or that I can readily recall. And it is the first book I've ever read, in full or anywhere near it, in electronic form. I got through it on a Kindle--and occasionally on my iPhone Kindle app--in a little over 2 weeks.

Though King's work in itself is wonderful, I do believe there is much correlation among the points above. While I was intrigued from the moment I saw the recent release in hardcover, the girth of it was not only a bit intimidating, but meant I couldn't readily take it on a plane, train or elsewhere I might have a realistic chance of delving into it. Thus the Kindle, and the app, proved ideal. I doubt I would have read 11/22/63 yet, or perhaps ever, in analog form (even if such is still my preference). And I enjoyed it tremendously.

Ostensibly, the story is about a modern day high school teacher who is shown a way to travel back in time--but only to a specific date in 1958--and does so to position himself to stop the JFK assassination. This was enough of a thumbnail description to make me want to read the book, but 11/22/63 actually succeeds due to its breadth and intelligence far beyond Kennedy, Oswald, Dallas and conspiracy theories. I don't want to divulge very much about the storyline, for that discovery is much of the fun, but what keeps the protagonist occupied between 1958 and titular date is just as compelling as King's twist on the events of that fateful day. And along the way, King provides plenty of shrewd insight about modern times versus what things were like in the relatively recent past.

Any great book winds up being about so much more than its in-a-nutshell synopsis, and that is certainly the case here. In other words, never judge a book by the cover. Even if you read it on a Kindle.

The Affair
by Lee Child

All of Lee Child's 16 novels revolve around a nomadic and imposing ex-military cop named Jack Reacher, who utilizes both brains and brawn to get himself and others out of difficult situations and/or to right wrongs. While these books clearly fall into the thriller/page-turner category, and I've enjoyed them all on that level, Child does a good job of imbuing them, through Reacher's deductive processes, with keen insight regarding a variety of situations, large and small.

Now out in hardcover, The Affair is Child's latest book, but its story goes back to 1997 to chronicle an episode that would lead to Reacher becoming ex-military. So as an avid Reacherian, I enjoyed it as a bit of flash-backstory. But as usual with works from this series, it reads like a rollercoaster, so there's nothing to stop anyone from starting here. In fact, it might well make sense as the first Reacher novel for the uninitiated to explore.

Though I have a hard time recalling which Reacher novel is which at this point, I don't think The Affair stands among the very best of them. But it's a fun and exciting read, especially if you know Reacher, yet even if you don't. The story involves Reacher arriving in a small town with a military base to explore how a local woman wound up dead, and I have to admit that per a good thriller, the twists and turns kept me guessing. (You can read the first three chapters of The Affair for free on Child's website)

The Litigators
by John Grisham

With seemingly all of his books going instantly to the top of the New York Times best seller list, John Grisham stands clearly as one of the world's most successful authors. Though even early on, with huge hits like The Firm, A Time To Kill (which he actually wrote first) and The Pelican Brief, he seemed to take knocks from some corners for not being a great literary writer, just a popular one. But I was an unabashed fan and had no problem citing him as one of my favorites.

At his best, his legal thrillers were not only great page-turners, but served to offer a good deal of societal observation and commentary. I recall The Runaway Jury informing me about class-action lawsuits and corporate malfeasance (in that case, regarding big tobacco) well before movies such as The Insider and Erin Brockovich traipsed similar ground.

Though I think I've read at least 15 of his novels, plus a non-fiction work called The Innocent Man, at some point I became less passionate about Grisham's books. Perhaps it was just me--though apparently not--but his thrillers somehow seemed less thrilling. So when his latest, The Litigators, seemed to be heralded as a return to form, I grabbed it eagerly when I saw it available on the Skokie Public Library's Bookmobile.

Unfortunately, I was tremendously disappointed. Grisham's tale of two ambulance-chasing Chicago lawyers who, in conjunction with a young refugee from a large firm, undertake a class-action lawsuit of dubious merit, is a rather tepid affair. I got through it in just a few days, but more because I wanted to be done with it than due to caring about the outcome. None of Grisham's characters were particularly likable, adding to the tedium, though perhaps this was his intent. I have no innate affinity for the legal profession, but the author's condescension towards its practitioners--of many stripes--came across as rather ugly. At some points, he seemed to take an almost absurdly farcical tone--a la Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey--but while failing to make its case on many levels, The Litigators also wasn't a winning work of humor.

To be fair, toward the end the book got a bit better and I almost cared about the conclusion. But not enough to make having gotten there worthwhile.

The Accident
by Linwood Barclay

A few years ago, my friend Dave turned me onto the works of Linwood Barclay due to my enjoyment of a similar author, Harlan Coben. Though Coben also has a series of mysteries with the same central characters, his "stand-alone" books (Tell No One, Gone For Good, etc.) and Barclay's thrillers typically take place in New Jersey, New York or nearby--in this case Connecticut--and involve a protagonist searching for a missing or dead family member or significant other (or trying to solve a related mystery).

I tend to prefer Coben due to his ability to bring more extemporaneous humor and insight to his thrillers, but Barclay does good work in a similar vein. The Accident, which involves a woman dying in a car accident under mysterious circumstances, a string of subsequent deaths among her acquaintances and her husband's attempts to unravel what happened, is no exception.

It's a quality page-turner and I was rather surprised by the ending, even if the thrill-ride acceleration throughout didn't quite equal Barclay's Never Look Away, Fear the Worst, No Time for Goodbye or Too Close to Home. This one came out in hardcover in August, so should be available at your local library a bit sooner than the titles above, and is certainly worth "checking out."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Today is the Greatest: Celebrating the 70th Birthday of Muhammad Ali (and remembering when he mocked me)

On March 14, 1992, I was insulted by the Greatest.

Quite justifiably.

I'll never forget it, and today, the 70th birthday of Muhammad Ali, I couldn't help but remember it.

That date might not be exact, but it seems right. I think it was the Saturday of a weekend trip to Las Vegas with my friend Todd. I was living in Los Angeles at the time; Todd had come out from Chicago and we drove to Vegas. It was my first time there, and possibly Todd's.

We stayed in a low-rent, now long-defunct hotel/casino called the Continental, but on Saturday morning we were wandering through the MGM Grand (or perhaps it wasn't the "Grand" yet). I think we were in a gift shop when we noticed a bit of a hubbub, something of a throng in motion.

Upon which Todd, who's almost a foot taller than me and thus quicker to notice the nucleus of the commotion, said, "There's Muhammad Ali." (Ostensibly he was in Vegas due to a title fight taking place that night; I can't recall nor find online who was fighting.)

Although I had grown up a bit too late to see Ali fight in his prime, I was well aware of--and awed by--his legend. In 1992, the Champ was already quite significantly stricken by the effects of Parkinson's Syndrome, but I think that only added to the reverence I had for him. I don't think there are very many celebrities, then or now, that I would be more excited to encounter. Or to photograph.

Unfortunately, as I made my way to the middle of the throng and stood in front of him, I fumbled with my point-and-shoot (well before the age of digital) and missed my chance for a shot of Ali. But, as he was handing out pamphlets about Islam--including one to me--he paused to allow me to snap the photo above.

And though I knew his motor skills weren't what they used to be--when they arguably, at least in a boxing ring, were greater than anyone's, ever--I asked him for an autograph.

Upon which, Muhammad Ali, whose legendary--and often biting--verbosity, but not his acuity, had been stolen by disease, looked right at me and pointed at the pamphlet, as if to say, albeit gently, "Hey you moron, I already signed these." And being a bit dull, I think I still needed Todd to interpret what Ali was telling me.

While I have never actually read the pamphlet, I treasure it to this day.

Later that afternoon, in a shop in downtown Las Vegas, I had a caricature drawn depicting my encounter with Ali. But neither of us was particularly well represented, and I no longer know where this drawing is. 

Somewhat amazingly, it has now been nearly 20 years since I met, and was deservedly mocked, by the Great Ali, who was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville. I read that when he attended the funeral of his legendary foe Joe Frazier, who passed away in November, Ali was rather frail, but I'm hoping he's still relatively well and able to celebrate his 70th birthday in style.

For far beyond my own encounter with him, I truly believe his self-proclaimed title of "The Greatest" is largely accurate. Not just in terms of what he did in the ring, but out of it as well. I greatly valued my visit to the excellent Ali Center in Louisville in 2006, and high among the many things to admire about Ali--who also had his faults--was that he gave up three years of his boxing career, in the prime of it, when he was an undefeated world champion, because he refused to register for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. (When Wikipedia comes back up, you may wish to check out his entry as a starting point to learning more.)

You can also find a number of fine tributes and clips of his often hilarious loquaciousness on YouTube. In addition to commemorating his birthday by watching a fine DVD documentary called Muhammad Ali - Through the Eyes of the World (When We Were Kings is also essential), I enjoyed seeing the videos below of two of his greatest fights in their entirety.

Happy Birthday, Muhammad. I hope it's the greatest. And thanks for the autograph. 

The first clip is of him knocking out Cleveland Williams in 1966 in what many consider his best performance, with his hand and foot speed being astonishing, almost balletic. I find it strange, and a bit galling, that although he had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964, the announcer here, two years later, is still calling him Cassius Clay.

And this is Ali's stunning 1974 victory over George Foreman, who was the undefeated champion at the time. You might want to skip the introductions and get right to the fight, but it's here in full. I was surprised by how well Ali did throughout the fight, in which I believed he was being more thoroughly beaten, even as he employed his famed "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. He didn't have the flash he did in '66, but what he does may be even more impressive.

Monday, January 16, 2012

An Ernest One-Man Performance -- Theater Review: Hemingway's Hot Havana

Theater Review

Hemingway's Hot Havana
by and starring Brian Gordon Sinclair
Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park
Single performance

I've had a bit of a heightened interest in Ernest Hemingway of late, sparked somewhat by the 50th anniversary of his death last July 2. Despite such intentions, this still doesn't equate to much reading of his works, even his short stories, but the one-man show at the Hemingway Museum in Oak Park on Saturday was the second presentation by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation I've attended in the past 6 months.

According to his bio in the program, Brian Gordon Sinclair is "considered to be the foremost dramatic interpreter of Ernest Hemingway in the world today." I don't know if this is indeed true, but I also haven't heard of any other dramatic interpreters of 'Papa,' and Sinclair's hourlong, self-authored monologue on Hemingway's time in and fascination with Cuba, was an informative and engaging performance.

Assuming the guise of Hemingway, Sinclair spoke in the first person about Ernest's fondness for "booze, broads, boats and books," as well as bullfights, bears and, although not fitting in alliteratively, fishing. About his craft, he cited the need for writers to write in a room truly their own, with a mission to "try for something that has never been done." Near the end, referencing Hem's mental difficulties and the title character of The Old Man and the Sea, Sinclair offered "Like Santiago, I had gone further than any man had ever gone. But for me, there was no way back."

Stories also broached on women such as Jane Mason and Ava Gardner, his love of animals (particularly two dogs who met unfortunate ends) and the time when he shot a pirate who had the gall to climb aboard his beloved boat, the Pilar. 

Though it was chronologically beyond the bounds of Hemingway's time in Cuba, Sinclair--who had previously penned a six-play series about the Oak Park native--also cited Ernest's depression and ECT treatments, which combined to debilitate his memory and creativity, and ultimately his suicide by shotgun.

While impressed with the two 30-minute acts Sinclair put together, the hour was about the proper extent for this type of performance, and even as such there were parts where my attention waned. But I could see where I might enjoy a longer piece covering similar ground, if perhaps done as a small ensemble work. Perhaps if Ernie were to be regaling a fellow on an adjoining barstool, breaking up the monologue just a bit.

With only a single performance, primarily attended by members of the EHFOP, this wasn't high theater and wasn't presented as such, but I still very much enjoyed it, in Ernest.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities -- My Week in London & Paris (Part III of III)

OK, after elaborating quite a bit on what I did and saw throughout four days in London (see Part I and Part II), I think I should keep my Paris recap rather brief. Especially as it's been about a month and a half since I was there.

I have been to Paris on two prior occasions and have seen many sights and museums I didn't get to this time (although admittedly, my choices this time were repeats). So although two days seems crazily brief for the City of Lights, I made the most of my time and enjoyed my condensed "greatest hits" itinerary.

I arrived on a Wednesday morning via a train from London and found my way to my hotel, Hotel du Nord et de l'Est, which was near the Place de la Republique, which was entirely under construction.

Via the Metro, I made my way to the Champs-Élysées, where I ate a jambon et fromage (ham & cheese) sandwich on a baguette and a strawberry macaroon from a quick-service restaurant called Paul, Parisien locations of which have existed since 1889. I felt this was apropos, given that I would see Sir Paul McCartney in concert that evening.

After walking to the Arc de Triomphe and taking hundreds of pictures, I did the same with the Eiffel Tower. There I took an elevator to the top, and enjoyed the vantage provided by the observation deck, but missed being able to include the tower in the photos I took from it.

Although I had seen McCartney twice at Wrigley Field last summer, which is a much cooler venue than the externally-unique, internally-dated Bercy arena, it was still pretty thrilling seeing Paul in Paris. He put on his typical three hour concert, which the crowd--including me--loved. He even played "Michelle" especially "for the people of France." Most of the setlist matched that in Chicago, but it was nice to hear "Come and Get It," a song which McCartney wrote but gave to Badfinger to record. Like his 2011 Chicago gigs, I would award his Paris concert @@@@@, the maximum rating on the Seth Saith scale.

I didn't get back to my hotel until about 1am, and although I think Paris is generally pretty safe, I did have some trepidations while walking down desolate side streets after exiting the Republique metro station.

Against my norm in a world-class city with about 50 sights I would happily explore and just one day left to see them, the next morning I wasn't quite up and out of my hotel room by 9am, given the late night before. But I managed to make it to the Île de la Cité by mid morning, where I took a good look outside and in of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral. Content not to walk many steps to the top of the towers, nor have a glass of wine with Quasimodo, I was pleasantly surprised to find that entrance to the cathedral itself is free.

Notre Dame is in pretty impressive shape for a cathedral that has pretty much stood as is since 1345 and on which construction began more than two centuries earlier.

Thursday afternoon was spent exploring the Louvre museum. I had been there in 1993 and 2000, but pretty much just to do the Venus-Mona-Wings dash before heading to the Musee d'Orsay to see all the great Impressionist works. But visits to Italy, Amsterdam, Spain and elsewhere have greatly expanded my appreciation for art over the years, so I've really wanted to get back to Louvre. I still could have spent another week there, but did explore it pretty thoroughly in the time I had.

The Mona Lisa used to be displayed on a gallery wall with all the other paintings; now it gets its own special place on a divider wall with a semi-circle bannister keeping anyone from getting within about six feet of it. Unlike in the past, when taking photographs of it was forbidden but everyone did so anyway, the Louvre now allows the taking of photos without a flash. The scene around Mona reminded me of a press conference, with hordes of tourists jostling to get to the bannister to snap their photos.

Although I was one of them, and also had previously been ignorant of many of the other masterworks displayed nearby, I found it funny that there was a mob scene in front of the Mona Lisa while an even better painting by Raphael went largely ignored just around the corner.

I wore myself out--but happily so--getting to see works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Arcimboldo, Velasquez, El Greco, Murillo and many more. Unfortunately, all the Louvre's works by da Vinci were in the London exhibition I couldn't get into (see Part I). I was also disappointed to find the gallery with Vermeer closed, but that prompted me to check out the Royal Apartments (from the age of Napoleon III), which was an interesting glimpse into French opulence of the 19th century.

Exhausted to the point of not really wanting to do anything on Thursday night except crash back at my hotel, I did manage to enjoy a nice lamb dinner--and a glass of wine, but without Quasimodo--at the Palais Royal, a cafe near the museum. If I wasn't so exhausted, I might have been more concerned with what I didn't do on my last night in Europe, but the Moulin Rouge was too expensive (more than $100 without dinner) and seeing a version of Cabaret done in French didn't seem all that important. So I contentedly went to bed, woke up the next morning and took a train to Charles de Gaulle airport.

So that's what I did in Paris; roughly in the order of my description above, here are some photos pour vous de profiter