Sunday, February 26, 2012

And the Winner Should Have Been... -- Brad Strauss Picks His Alternate Oscars

In case you haven't heard, the 84th Annual Academy Awards will be presented tonight. 

Having already pontificated on the Oscar nominations and made whatever predictions I care about--I think The Artist will win Best Picture and hope it does--I thought I would turn to a film buff friend who has looked back through history and indicated the movies he thinks should have won Best Picture.

Brad Strauss is an organizer of the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group and runs the monthly Sunday Brunch Discussion Meetups where we opine on a given topic, such as films of a chosen director, genre or country. Our next meetup, on March 25, will be about Documentaries. I have been watching many docs and will likely write about some favorites in the weeks to come.

Inspired by a 1993 book by Danny Peary called Alternate Oscars, in which Peary indicated substitute choices for Best Picture, Actor and Actress--unless there were cases where he agreed with the Academy; I don't have the book--and gave his reasoning, Brad compiled his own list of Alternate Oscars.

I thought it would make a good post for today and Brad kindly allowed me to share his picks with the world. So below is a list of the films that the Academy chose as Best Picture and those that Brad thinks should have won for each year (in many cases, his choices weren't even nominated).

I fully respect Brad as a highly knowledgeable cinemaniac with diverse tastes and am happy to share his opinions, even if they aren't necessarily congruent with mine.

In several cases I agree with him; The Social Network should have won last year, Citizen Kane is a fairly obvious Oscar gaffe and Brad's advocacy of a broader vernacular than the Academy typically celebrates makes picks like Memento, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Do the Right Thing, This Is Spinal Tap and M*A*S*H not only agreeable but laudable.

There are also many cases where Brad's picks are just that, his picks. But that's what's makes Oscar night so much fun, more than the awards themselves or even the glamor. We all have opinions and everyone else's--including quite often the Academy's--are usually terribly wrong. Or so we like to think.

If it wasn't for the arguments amongst ourselves, all we'd be left with is a bunch of egomaniacs in fancy clothes thanking their agents.

On that note...

I would like to thank Brad Strauss for straightening out the Academy. 

And his winners are...

Academy Award for Best Picture              Brad Strauss' Choice

2011 - ????…………………………………….. A Separation 
2010 - The King’s Speech……………………..The Social Network
2009 - The Hurt Locker ………………………. Inglourious Basterds
2008 - Slumdog Millionaire…………………….Synecdoche, New York
2007 - No Country for Old Men ……………… Black Snake Moan
2006 - The Departed…………………………..  United 93
2005 - Crash……………………………………  Sin City
2004 - Million Dollar Baby…………………….  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003 - Return of the King……………………... Kill Bill: Volume 1
2002 - Chicago…………………………………  Adaptation
2001 - A Beautiful Mind……………………….  Memento
2000 - Gladiator………………………………..  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
1999 - American Beauty………………………  Fight Club
1998 - Shakespeare in Love…………………...The Truman Show
1997 - Titanic…………………………………..  Wag the Dog
1996 - The English Patient……………………  Breaking the Waves
1995 - Braveheart……………………………..  Se7en
1994 - Forrest Gump………………………….  Pulp Fiction
1993 - Schindler’s List………………………….Schindler’s List
1992 - Unforgiven ……………………………... The Player
1991 - Silence of the Lambs…………….       Silence of the Lambs
1990 - Dances with Wolves………………….. Goodfellas
1989 - Driving Miss Daisy……………………. Do the Right Thing
1988 - Rain Man……………………………….  A Fish Called Wanda
1987 - The Last Emperor……………………..  Wings of Desire
1986 - Platoon………………………………….  Hannah and Her Sisters
1985 - Out of Africa…………………………….Shoah
1984 - Amadeus………………………………..This is Spinal Tap                  
1983 - Terms of Endearment………………….The Right Stuff
1982 - Gandhi…………………………………..E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
1981 - Chariots of Fire…………………………Raiders of the Lost Ark
1980 - Ordinary People……………………….. The Empire Strikes Back
1979 - Kramer vs. Kramer……………………. Apocalypse Now!
1978 - The Deer Hunter………………………. Animal House
1977 - Annie Hall……………………………….Star Wars
1976 - Rocky…………………………………… Taxi Driver
1975 - One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest……Nashville
1974 - The Godfather Part II…………………..Young Frankenstein
1973 - The Sting………………………………..The Exorcist
1972 - The Godfather …………………………  The Godfather
1971 - The French Connection………………. Fiddler on the Roof
1970 - Patton……………………………………M*A*S*H
1969 - Midnight Cowboy……………………… The Wild Bunch
1968 - Oliver!……………………………………2001: A Space Odyssey
1967 - In the Heat of the Night………………..Samurai Rebellion
1966 - A Man for All Seasons…………………The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1965 - The Sound of Music…………………... Chimes at Midnight
1964 - My Fair Lady…………………………… Dr. Strangelove…
1963 - Tom Jones……………………………….8 ½
1962 - Lawrence of Arabia……………………  Lawrence of Arabia
1961 - West Side Story……………………….. West Side Story
1960 - The Apartment…………………………  Psycho
1959 - Ben-Hur…………………………………  Rio Bravo
1958 - Gigi……………………………………….Vertigo
1957 - The Bridge on the River Kwai………....Throne of Blood
1956 - Around the World in 80 Days………….The Searchers
1955 - Marty……………………………………. Night of the Hunter
1954 - On the Waterfront………………………Seven Samurai
1953 - From Here to Eternity………………….Tokyo Story
1952 - The Greatest Show on Earth………… Ikiru
1951 - An American in Paris…………………. A Streetcar Named Desire
1950 - All about Eve……………………………Sunset Boulevard
1949 - All the Kings Men………………………The Third Man
1948 - Hamlet………………………………….. Red River
1947 - Gentleman’s Agreement……………… Black Narcissus
1946 - The Best Years of Our Lives…………..Notorious
1945 - The Lost Weekend……………………..Children of Paradise
1944 - Going My Way………………………….The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
1943 - Casablanca…………………………….  Casablanca
1942 - Mrs. Miniver……………………………. Bambi
1941 - How Green Was My Valley……………Citizen Kane
1940 - Rebecca…………………………………The Grapes of Wrath
1939 - Gone with the Wind…………………… The Wizard of Oz
1938 - You Can’t Take It with You…………….The Lady Vanishes
1937 - The Life of Emile Zola………………… The Grand Illusion
1936 - The Great Ziegfeld…………………….  Modern Times
1935 - Mutiny on the Bounty…………………. Bride of Frankenstein
1934 - It Happened One Night……………….. The Scarlet Empress
1932/1933 - Cavalcade……………………….. King Kong
1931/1932 - Grand Hotel……………………..  Horse Feathers      
1930/1931 - Cimarron…………………………  City Lights
1929/1930 - All Quiet on the Western Front…Pandora’s Box
1928/1929 - The Broadway Melody…………. The Passion of Joan of Arc
1927/1928 - Wings…………………………….  Metropolis

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Paying Tribute to Bird, With Strings, Miguel Zenon Soars With the Chicago Jazz Ensemble -- Jazz Review

Jazz Concert Review

Ornithology: The Music of Charlie "Bird" Parker
Chicago Jazz Ensemble
with special guest Miguel Zenon
February 24, 2012
Harris Theatre, Chicago

High on the shortlist of my all-time favorite sounds is that emitted by a well-played saxophone.

This likely emanates from being such a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with Clarence Clemons' sax having been such a distinctive and definitive part of their music.

While I wouldn't quite call myself a jazz aficionado, I long ago came to love hearing recordings of--and particularly solos by--such legendary sax players as Charlie 'Bird' Parker, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, the last two of whom are still alive and who I've been fortunate to see in concert.

I've also been dazzled by many saxophonists at the club level, most of whose names I'll never know.

Although I don't follow the jazz genre with the same avocation I do rock, I take note when someone is hailed as a great sax player, especially as I feel being a jazz virtuoso doesn't bring the recognition it once did. (I remain unclear if no one is rising to the level of Miles, Mingus, Monk and those named above because America en masse doesn't care much about jazz or if there just aren't many players of that caliber anymore. Or perhaps both.)

Which brings me to Miguel Zenon. Along with Joshua Redman and maybe a couple others, he is one of the few young, in-their-prime saxophonists I have come to know enough to seek out in concert. And if you care about jazz to the level I do--or anywhere beyond it--he is someone you should know.

Last night, he was in Chicago to join the Chicago Jazz Ensemble--led by artistic director Dana Hall on drums--in a program titled Ornithology: The Music of Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Though I would have been thrilled to hear Zenon play anything associated with the great Bird, the focus of the evening was recordings Parker made in 1949-50 called Charlie Parker With Strings. As the affable Hall explained, Parker was the first jazz musician (at least of note) to record with strings, playing "standards" with violins, violas, cellos, etc. At the time when Parker was pretty much inventing be-bop, this exploration may have been seen as somewhat soft, but as Hall mentioned, an essential part of great artistry is the need to try new things.

I have Charlie Parker With Strings, the Master Takes and while it might not excite like more conventional Parker, it still sounds quite good to my untrained ears. Likewise, Zenon playing with the CJE and a guest string section (plus oboe, English horn, French horn and harp) sounded delightful. Songs like "I'm in the Mood for Love," "Autumn in New York" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" lent themselves more to Zenon demonstrating a silky dexterity rather race car solo runs, but there was nothing not to like.

As with classical pianists, when it comes to elite saxophonists, neophytes like me probably often equate playing fast and loud with greatness, but it's not hard to conceive tone and texture as being just as important. Especially as Zenon gave ample proof that he could "blaze," as when soloing on the closing number, "Rocker," even when his playing was more restrained, his talent--like the sound his sax was making--was clear and delectable.

For about half of the two hour performance, Zenon was accompanied only by the string section plus Hall on drums, Jeff Parker on guitar, Jeremy Kahn on piano and Dan Anderson on double bass. But I particularly enjoyed the songs when the rest of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble was onstage as well and the audience was treated to some nice trombone and trumpet solos.

The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," Zenon has often explored the music of his Puerto Rican homeland, including on his acclaimed 2009 album, Esta Plena, about which a rave review by the Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich spurred my awareness and subsequent attendance of a Zenon gig at Jazz Showcase. He dazzled then, but it was just as much a pleasure to see and hear him tackle Parker--and rather unique Parker at that.

With balcony tickets only $18, it would have been nice to see the Harris Theater more full, but at least in Zenon's case--while also applauding the fine work by everyone onstage--it's encouraging to know that even if they aren't bringing out huge crowds, there still exist some new jazz musicians who deserve to.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

'Show Boat' Rolls Along Splendidly in Opera Voyage -- Opera / Theater Review

Photo Credit: Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune
Opera / Theater Review

Show Boat
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru March 17

Originally produced on Broadway in 1927 and oft cited as the show that redefined musical theater, Show Boat is the oldest of the great musicals I feel I should see--excluding the Gilbert & Sullivan works more commonly classified as light opera--and likely the most celebrated of those that, until Wednesday night, I never had.

Even without a point of comparison, the glorious new production by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the direction of renowned director Francesca Zambello, provided an undoubtedy robust introduction to the watershed work composed by Jerome Kern with book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

In the Director's Note in the program, Zambello states that without Show Boat, which she dubs "the beginning of our musical theater history," we could not have "found a bridge from opera to our own American art form." She goes on to explain that she considers this production innovative for the way it marries "the worlds of opera singers, musical theater performers and dramatic actors."

Noted opera baritone Nathan Gunn plays the male lead, Gaylord Ravenal, bass Morris Robinson is Joe--he does a fabulous rendition of "Old Man River"--soprano Alyson Cambridge is Julie and another soprano, Angela Renee Simpson plays Queenie. The female lead, Magnolia Hawks, is played by Ashley Brown, best known for playing Mary Poppins on Broadway (and in Chicago on the first national tour). She is joined by a number of performers I've often seen on Chicago theatrical stages, including Ross Lehman (Captain Andy), Cindy Gold (Parthy), Bernie Yvon (Frank) and Ericka Mac (Ellie May).

As I've explained in reviews of more traditional operas I've seen--such as this one; I've attended over 40--I very much appreciate and admire the art form, but have never come to love it or "feel it" the way I do with Broadway (or rock, for that matter). Thus, while respecting longtime Lyric patrons who may wonder why one of the world's most esteemed opera companies is presenting a "musical," I am far from a purist who disdains the notion and instead very much endorse it.

This was my first trip to the Civic Opera House this season and while realizing that there are many other venues around town where one can see musicals, yet only a very few that present opera, in the name of marketing the operatic form to a wider--and younger--audience, I would fully be in favor of expanding what gets presented as an "opera production."

It's hard to believe that it's been 10 years since I saw a wonderful production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Lyric and that Show Boat is the first true musical they've done since. (They did do Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance some years back.) Having just seen South Pacific last week as a touring Broadway production, that's just one of the obvious musicals ready for an opera production; I'd also strongly suggest the Lyric do Les Miserables.

That said, while it was largely inconsequential to my enjoyment of a well-staged (though the sets weren't quite astonishing), exquisitely costumed and wonderfully sung performance, it seemed slightly strange for many of the songs to be sung in operatic voices yet for others not to be--most notably Magnolia's numbers sung by Brown, who has a great voice but isn't an opera singer.

There's traditionally a difference between "opera singing" and "Broadway singing" and there's an argument to be made for either one holding forth when an opera company stages a Broadway show. But the hybrid, while never really unpleasant, just seemed a bit curious.

Nonetheless, unless you're an opera lover who only loves the classics by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and the like, there's no reason not to take in this ebullient production of a legendary American creation--dealing with racial issues, including miscegenation, but also offering much literal and figurative bi-racial harmony, Show Boat was decades ahead of its time in many regards--and certainly shouldn't be missed if you're a musical theater lover.

I was going to say that tickets start at just $34 for weeknight performances, but the Lyric may be utilizing a dynamic pricing model as in checking on tickets for next Tuesday night, seats at the back of the upper balcony (for which I paid $34) now seem to be $54. (You can check tickets here; scroll to the bottom)

Photo Credit: Dan Rest
According to Wikipedia, Show Boat was last revived on Broadway in 1994, followed by a tour that landed at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre for an extended run in 1996. I wasn't as keyed into musicals at that point and didn't attend, but since becoming an ardent theatergoer in 2000, I haven't heretofore noticed any local opportunities to see the show, at any level. With a huge cast, lush orchestral score and the requirement of something approximating a riverboat, this can't be an easy or inexpensive show to produce.

All the more reason this unique production--with a full opera orchestra conducted by John DeMain and dozens of performers on stage combining to delight on the show's buoyant chorus numbers as well as beautiful ballads such as "Make Believe," "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "Bill"--shouldn't be missed as it rolls alongside the Chicago River. (Act II takes place mostly in Chicago and ends in 1927, which only adds to the charm of seeing Show Boat in the opera house, which was built just 2 years later.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Commanding Presence: Why Denzel Washington is the Best Movie Star of the Past 25 Years ... and May Be the Last of His Kind

Of all the lost art forms I decry as having a dearth of mainstream contemporary relevance and/or newly notable paragons--if you know of any fine artists, sculptors, jazz musicians, poets, classical music composers, cartoonists or even rock bands that have deservedly risen to prominence in the past decade, please fill me in--one that might surprise you as being missing in action is the movie star.

Certainly, moviemaking continues to be big business, in terms of the money spent to produce, market and distribute films--through myriad channels--and the huge returns they bring in (some much more so than others).

From toddlers being taken to the latest Pixar extravaganza to teens traipsing to Twilight to the twenty- and thirty-somethings streaming from Netfix to the middle-aged couple renting from Redbox to the older folks who join me in filling the library auditorium for free foreign film screenings, people of all ages, backgrounds and locales continue to make film the world's most universal art form. (I don't consider Facebook an art form.)

And I know that when the Academy Awards are televised this Sunday, many people will care less about who takes home statuettes and more about who George Clooney is bringing, how Brad and Angelina are looking, what dresses Meryl, Rooney, Viola and Berenice might be wearing and what funny thing Melissa McCarthy may say on the red carpet. And whatever people may care about, as usual, the Oscar ratings will be huge.

So I'm not saying that movies aren't still big or that the people who star in them don't still engender the public infatuation that they have for decades. But I wonder...
Can you name 5 actors or actresses under the age of 35 that you would go see in a new movie regardless of what it was? Or in Hollywood parlance, that you think can "open a movie?"
At 31, Ryan Gosling is probably the best young actor I can name. But Drive, one of the best movies of 2011 by many accounts including mine, ranked #91 in U.S. box office receipts for the year. I didn't see it in a theater and don't even recall having heard of it upon release. The Ides of March, co-starring and directed by George Clooney and also critically praised, ranked #73. Blue Valentine, officially released at the very end of 2010, would rank around #140 for 2011 releases. All three of these are excellent movies, and Gosling was great in them, yet combined they grossed (in America alone) less than the dreadful Transformers: Dark of the Moon its opening weekend.

From this, one might say that Shia LaBeouf is therefore a movie star. Yet besides the Transformers movies and the latest Indiana Jones installment, he hasn't been in much and when he has--Eagle Eye and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps--he hasn't exactly lit the box office on fire.

There's nothing wrong with a franchise launching a movie star's career--look at Harrison Ford, but then, also look at Mark Hamill. Or Daniel Radcliffe, although his recent The Woman in Black has had mildly surprising box office success. But even if he, or Shia LaBoeuf, or Robert Pattinson actually have some marketing mojo, and technically are movie stars, in my parlance they still have a long way to go before they can be called "movie stars."

For the term doesn't simply denote success, it must also connote a certain intangible stature. 

Which brings me to the actual subject of this post, Denzel Washington. 

Last week, I saw his latest starring vehicle, Safe House, and so did a lot of other people. Though it finished a close second in the Valentine's weekend box office derby behind The Vow, its $40 million take was rather huge for a non-sequel film not based on a famous book or superhero (i.e. a franchise). Particularly in February.

Over the extended Presidents' Day weekend, it took in another $28.4 million to finish first.

I wouldn't call it a fantastic movie, but it was eminently entertaining, primarily due to Denzel engagingly embodying a mysterious yet moral badass named Tobin Frost.

If that sounds like the character he often plays, you're not wrong.

Although Washington long ago proved his acting chops--two of his early film roles, in 1987's Cry Freedom and 1989's Glory, earned him Oscar nominations, the later for which he won--and has continually taken on a diversity of roles, never once starring in a sequel or "franchise," he has been frequently drawn to the action genre, five times in films directed by Tony Scott.

He has typically personified a charismatic, calm-and-collected hero who can say as much with his tone of voice and his eyes as with his words or actions.

This recurring "type" is no accident and reflective of the kind of "star images" that were overtly developed back when the studio system was predominant in Hollywood filmmaking (until the early 1960's).

According to Susan Doll, a friend from the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup and a film historian and educator holding a doctorate in film studies:
"Denzel has been very smart about his career in terms of constructing an image, maintaining that image, and then tweaking it to expand its perimeters. This is just what the old studio heads did during the Golden Age to ensure their stars had careers that lasted 30 years." 
Thus, it was far from coincidental that Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn and many others from that era frequently played characters that shared fairly acute commonalities.

Unlike Susan, I am not qualified to write a dissertation on the studio system and the rise and fall of the star system--you should read her writings on the TCM Movie Morlocks blog and the Facets Features blog--but my understanding of the gist is that readily identifiable and distinguishable star personas were consciously and carefully crafted from the mid-1930s until the early-'60s. Yes, great actors were adaptable and "playing against type" could make for intriguing exceptions upon a star's résumé, but audiences generally appreciated knowing what they could expect from Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn or Henry Fonda.

Even after the dominance of studio system--albeit not the end of a small cadre of film studios making and/or releasing most American movies--actors and actresses were still promoted above a film's title and numerous stars wisely adhered to their distinct strengths and prevailing characteristics. In the '70s, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds were all quite popular and successful, and I'm sure most anyone still reading this can mentally connote what made each one unique.

But in noting that Washington understands his star image and has steered his career with it in mind, Susan Doll suggests that "his generation may be the last to understand how star image actually works."

In reading through Denzel's filmography on IMDB, I counted up 26 movies of his that I'm sure I've seen, and I may be a few short. Besides Safe House, in the last couple weeks I've watched (or re-watched) Cry Freedom, Training Day, Man on Fire, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.

Though it may seem antithetical to what I'm trying to convey about his consistent persona contributing to his appeal as a "movie star," the range of his film roles since establishing himself on TV's St. Elsewhere in the 1980s is certainly quite impressive.

I wasn't a watcher of that show, but Susan Doll shared that although the show's breakout star was supposed to be David Morse, she knew instantly that Washington would be the one to best make the leap to movies. She cites that his Dr. Chandler character on St. Elsewhere "had many of the characteristics associated with Washington’s later film roles — attractive, articulate (he rarely speaks in a “ghetto” vernacular or accent), even-tempered and rationale. Most of all, his character had a strong personal code or integrity."

I think this goes a long way in explaining how and why an actor so deft at playing action heroes with intrinsic similarities can also be so compelling and believable in playing diverse biographical or drawn-from-reality characters. Denzel's real-life portrayals have ranged from South African activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom to the title character in Malcolm X to a homophobic personal injury lawyer in Philadelphia (a composite character) to boxer Ruben Carter in Hurricane to inspirational coach/teacher roles in Remember the Titans and The Great Debaters--the latter of which he also directed--to Frank Lucas, the subject of American Gangster. Even when he's playing an unlikable guy like Lucas or the fictional Alonzo Harris in Training Day--for which he won his second Oscar--he still brings a slick intensity and sly integrity that keeps you fixated.
There isn't a movie that comes to mind where I haven't liked what Denzel did with his role, and even the lesser of his films are entirely watchable at worst. 
Although the plot of 2010's Unstoppable, about a real-life runaway train, held no real surprises, Tony Scott kept it edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and Washington played his part so perfectly it's hard to imagine anyone else filling it with the same degree of verve and vulnerability. And just to mention it, 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress may not stand as one of Washington's most famous movies, but it remains one of my favorites.

All of this adds up to establishing Denzel Washington as--in my humble opinion--the best movie star of the last 25 years. And even if you would award your own quarter-century achievement Oscar to Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. or Nicolas Cage or someone whose stardom goes back a bit further or perhaps not quite that far--John Travolta, Jodie Foster, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, Matt Damon, Russell Crowe--taking this back to where I started, I don't think you can name many actors under 35 for whom comparable careers seem likely.

I mean, I actually somewhat like Seth Rogen, and appreciate him amplifying awareness of a great first name--maybe it'll make key chains and coffee mugs yet--but is he really the great hope on the horizon?

(I feel a disclaimer is in order regarding Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis and other men and women who might merit mention as the "best movie actor" of the past 25 years. Without feeling the need to prolong a distinction, nor imply that Denzel isn't also a great actor, this is about him as being the "best movie star," which is something different, though not necessarily mutually exclusive.)
While I am bestowing "Best Movie Star of the Past 25 Years" honor on Denzel solely for his work on-screen, I do find it worth noting that I've never heard much about him off-screen. This is a good thing.  
Unlike some of his contemporaries, including Cruise, Downey and Mel Gibson, Washington has never to my knowledge made news for questionable behavior. Other than the little information Wikipedia provides--he's been married to the same woman since 1983, has served as the national spokesman of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America since 1993 and donated $2.25 million in 2011 to the theater department of his alma mater, Fordham University--I know next to nothing of his personal life.

Think about how many stars of his stature have so thoroughly avoided being featured in the National Enquirer or on TMZ and the like.   

But this jives completely with my one personal encounter with Denzel Washington, in which he proved to be as cool and classy as one ever could hope.

In 2005, I saw Denzel in Julius Caesar on Broadway and thought I would try to get him to sign my Playbill near the stage door after the show. I've done likewise for Billy Crystal, Antonio Banderas, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and others, and while I've been fairly successful, most stars just sign a handful of autographs--or not--as they hustle into their limousines.

But Washington did something I've never seen before or since, and I imagine he did so after every performance, not just the one I attended. He simply told everybody with a Playbill to get in line, and though the line stretched all the way down 44th St. and clearly lasted more than an hour, Denzel signed for everybody and even posed for photos. I remember him making fun of me as I fumbled with my camera phone to take the photo above, which regrettably didn't turn out too well.

As you can see below, he signed both my Playbill and ticket stub. Nice to know that someone who comes across so well on the silver screen--he was also quite good on stage--isn't entirely acting.

Thank you to Susan Doll for the insight she shared about Denzel. And those who read this might enjoy a somewhat related piece I found by Scott Mendelson on the Moviefone website.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

'Spring Awakening' Adapts Quite Nicely to College

Theater Overview

Spring Awakening
Ethel M. Barber Theater
at Northwestern University
Thru Feb. 26

I tend not to review--or especially rate--non-professional theater productions. Even given my very limited sphere of influence, it seems silly for me to essentially grade students (or community theater participants), particularly in cases when giving my honest assessment would appear to be critical of performers still primarily in a learning mode.

Thus, I'm not labeling this a review, didn't award a rating on my @@@@@ scale and wasn't even intending to write it. This despite the truth that I found Northwestern's production of Spring Awakening to be rather strong and well worth recommending, especially to those who haven't seen this musical--one of the very best theatrical creations of the past decade--elsewhere.

But in reviewing at my review from last May of a non-Equity touring production of the same show, I was reminded of my saying that I was looking forward to seeing Spring Awakening as it moved away from its splendid Broadway origins and somewhat devolving national tours to high energy--and perhaps, appropriately, a bit scruffy--renditions at small local theaters and upon college stages.

A couple months back, the show was done at a local level by Griffin Theater, but I wasn't all that ready to see it again and the review by the Tribune's Chris Jones wasn't insistent that I must.

For a variety of reasons--proximity to my home, a cheap ticket through HotTix, the track record of Northwestern's Theatre Program in spawning Broadway talent and curiosity as to how Duncan Sheik's (music) and Steven Sater's (lyrics) rock musical based on a 1892 German play (by Frank Wedekind) about repressed teens would work at the collegiate level--NU's production intrigued me enough that I couldn't resist taking a look.

As Spring Awakening is truly a dramatic work set to music, much of its glory can only be experienced on a first viewing (or after one's recollection has sufficiently diminished). So in seeing it for the 4th time in 5 years, I wasn't surprised by the story, intense onstage occurrences (including of an overtly sexual and tragic nature), teen angst driven choreography or the edgy lyrics. Thus it wasn't only because of the college cast that this production couldn't match the first one I saw, on Broadway in early 2007.

But without wanting to edge into a "review," I was genuinely impressed by the quality of the singing throughout all the main roles, and appreciated how director Geoff Button handled the "adult roles" in an unusual way (a single man and woman typically embody a variety of adult characters, but here they did so entirely offstage).

So albeit short on specifics and devoid of Seth Saith rating, you can consider this a recommendation. If you've never seen Spring Awakening, this rendition will provide a rather solid representation, and if you've liked the show in an earlier production, there's no reason you won't here. It may not be the very best version imaginable, but in giving it the old college try, the cast and crew at Northwestern succeed admirably.

You can check HotTix here or the box office here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Finely Sung 'South Pacific' Makes for "Some Enchanted Evening" -- Theater Review

Theater Review

South Pacific
a Rodgers & Hammerstein Muscial
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 26

Like Picasso for painting, Chaplin for early cinema, Hitchcock for suspense films, Mozart for classical music and Houdini for magic, Rodgers & Hammerstein stands as a de facto synonym for musical theater.

In some ways, at least in my (admittedly askew) mind, this undermines their legacy. The stage works (and film adaptations) of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, including Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King & I and The Sound of Music, are such standards that I tend not to think of them--the shows or the creators--as particularly innovative or daring.

Though as a fan of the Broadway genre, I can't help but hold Rodgers & Hammerstein's music and musicals in high regard, somehow they haven't rung quite as cool as Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Kander & Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret), Bock & Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello), Lerner & Loewe (My Fair Lady, Camelot) or Boublil & Schönberg (Les Miserables, Miss Saigon), among others. 

A year ago, when I published this piece citing my 22 all-time favorite musicals, no Rodgers & Hammerstein shows made the cut. At the time, I had never witnessed a stage production of The Sound of Music, but even after seeing two excellent renditions in 2011 it would only sneak in near the bottom.

Likewise, I still wouldn't cite South Pacific among my very favorite musicals, but on my third live voyage, Tuesday night at the Cadillac Palace, I was again reminded of just how brilliant--and plenty daring--Mssrs. Rodgers & Hammerstein were.

A musical that this openly condemns racial prejudice might seem a bit dated in 2012--though sadly, perhaps not all that universally--but when it first bowed on Broadway in 1949, the Arkansas from which the Nellie Forbush character hails still would have segregated restrooms for several more years. Central High School in Little Rock notably resisted desegregation until it was legally enforced in 1957 and the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Little Rock wouldn't be desegregated until 1963. So in penning a song like "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" (to hate and fear), Dick and Oscar weren't exactly abstaining from boldly commenting on divisive topics.

And while modern day musicals might be lucky to offer one song that can be hummed on the way home, "A Cockeyed Optimist," "There is Nothing Like a Dame," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair," "A Wonderful Guy" and "Honey Bun" are among the most tuneful showtunes ever written. And along with "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, "Some Enchanted Evening" may be the most emotively enthralling solo number ever written for a man to belt out on a theatrical stage.

Fortunately, on the first night of the two-week tour stop in Chicago, these wonderful songs were done proper justice. Derived from the highly acclaimed 2008 Broadway revival from which I'd already seen a tour that played Rosemont in late 2009, this is a non-Equity tour for which Bartlett Sher's original direction has been recreated by Sarna Lapine.

Theoretically, I tend to agree with Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones in his oft-made assertion that non-Equity touring shows should be openly billed as such or priced lower than shows adhering to Actors' Equity union pay standards for performers (and thus, costing their producers more). I've seen enough Equity and non-Equity tours to generally perceive the Equity productions to feature better (or at least more clearly experienced) talent.

But no one's going to put you onstage, let alone on tour, if you can't sing/dance/act and I'd be lying if I said that I could distinguish--especially from the upper balcony, but likely anywhere--the singing in this South Pacific as being lesser than what I'd expect from an Equity cast, or even on Broadway.

Yes, through my handy binoculars, Marcelo Guzzo looked a little young and ungrizzled as Emile de Becque, but as a seasoned opera singer, he belted "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" as well as I could have hoped.

There seemed to be a smidgen of a screech in Katie Reed's speaking and singing voice as Ensign Nellie Forbush, but not to the point of distraction, and the key supporting roles of John Cable, Luther Billis and Bloody Mary were well handled by Shane Donovan, Christian Marriner and Cathy Foy-Mahi, respectively.

Even the most illustrious musicals of old tend to have a different tonality and pacing than more recent ones--even if Rodgers & Hammerstein's works largely represented an advancement in narrative cohesion--and South Pacific (at nearly 3 hours) is a bit long and talky in parts for me to label the source material or this production as absolute perfection.

But as was once again evidenced--and in truth, I've never been disappointed by any of their classics, more just took them for granted--Rodgers & Hammerstein aren't regarded as masters of the musical art form for no good reason. And with a non-Equity cast proving that first-rate talent need not always hold a union card, this production provided far more than a somewhat enchanted evening.

Based on the undersold balcony on Tuesday, and Wednesday's listings, tickets may be had for as low as $15 in the upper balcony (plus fees if bought through Ticketmaster, but without at the box office) or at half-price in the orchestra section through HotTix.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No Lie, The New (Old) Van Halen Album Is Surprisingly Good -- Album Review: Van Halen - A Different Kind of Truth

Album Review

Van Halen
A Different Kind of Truth

If the Grammy Awards were to add a category recognizing the "Most Surprisingly Stellar Album," Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth would seem to be a shoo-in next February.

Although I am an avid fan of the music the band originally made with David Lee Roth as its lead singer--I also liked the early "Van Hagar" years--and was delighted by the hits-laden reunion shows with Roth (but sans bassist Michael Anthony) in 2007-08, when I heard that they were releasing a new album I presumed it would be a train wreck, and that was before I saw the album cover.

Van Halen, in any incarnation, has not released great new music since at least 1991, and that's probably being generous by a few years. Roth left the band after 1984--both the year and album of the same name--and even in the heyday was always more of a charismatic cad than a traditionally gifted singer or lyricist. While Eddie Van Halen still had lightning in his fingers on the last tour, I wasn't expecting him, at 57, to rediscover any great inspiration as a composer.

And in fact, the first thing I read about A Different Kind of Truth was that several songs recycled old demos that preceded the first (self-titled) Van Halen album in 1978. This also didn't stir great expectations.

Of course, I still fully intended to get the album upon its release. (It came out last week.)

But I suspected I would hear hokey-jokey, half-sung lyrics over humdrum Van Halen music, without even the lift Michael Anthony's backing vocals used to provide, as he is seemingly still banished from Eddie's good graces and supplanted by Eddie's (and Valerie Bertinelli's) son Wolfgang. For those not up on Van Halen, Eddie's brother, Alex Van Halen, rounds out the foursome on drums, as he always has.

In many regards, my suspicions about A Different Kind of Truth have proven true. There are no particularly catchy guitar riffs or hooks. None of the songs rank with their best hits of old, at least in terms of being radio friendly. "Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "Dance the Night Away," "And The Cradle Will Rock," "Unchained," "Jump" and "Panama" all outshine anything you'll hear here.

And while DLR proves to be a lech with a gift for creating--and/or borrowing--such witticisms as "mousewife to momshell," "suburban garage-a-tois" and "my karma just ran over your dogma," other than espousing his support for unions--albeit amidst the otherwise banal but relatively catchy first single "Tattoo"--he, not surprisingly, never really says much of substance.

Yet much to my surprise, the album works. Though lacking any tunes that truly rise above the rest, all 13 of the songs rock really hard and Eddie's guitar work is quite simply dazzling. I recently reminded myself how solid the early VH records were from top-to-bottom, and while lacking any ear candy hits, the new work is chock full of strong "album cuts." Most of the songs feature a guitar solo that kind of just shows up, blows your mind and reminds you that this guy pretty much reinvented how the instrument can be played.

In fact, I interpret the album's third cut "You and Your Blues"--with lyrics such as "ain't goin' down to the crossroads"--as Eddie's rebuttal to Page, Beck, Clapton and all the blues-based players he was probably compared to coming up. Either he's chiding them--through Roth--for aping Albert King, Buddy Guy, et al or simply saying that he was otherwise inspired. But there's no denying Eddie Van Halen created a sound all his own, and his playing sounds glorious here.

Not shockingly, it drives much that sparkles about the new album. The lyrics of "China Town" aren't much, but the music--including Alex and Wolfie rather notably--is propulsive. Although Roth isn't bad on this album--he's solid vocally and a good foil for Eddie--many of the songs find me waiting for him to shut up and give way to the Van Halen boys. For example "Stay Frosty" starts as a quirky allusion to "Ice Cream Man," with Roth showcasing the goofy charm that Hagar never could match, but the song really goes into overdrive when he stops singing.

While I don't expect A Different Kind of Truth to stand as my "Album of the Year," it's certainly been a surprise treat in just a week of listening. No, there isn't much here I truly hope to hear in concert, but I also wouldn't dread any 3 or 4 tracks making the setlist when I see Van Halen on April 1 at Allstate Arena (they're also playing the United Center on Feb. 24).

In several ways, VH's return to form reminds me of AC/DC's Black Ice a few years back (even the cover art locomotive evokes AC/DC "Rock and Roll Train" concert imagery). It won't go down as the best album in the storied career of a classic hard rock band, but it's plenty good enough to remind you why they were--and even still are--so great.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Purest Voice of My Generation Destroyed by Life's Impurities

I have never owned a Whitney Houston album and until Saturday night--after learning of her passing at age 48--I don't think I ever specifically sought to listen to any of her songs.

In the mid-'80s and early-'90s, Houston's numerous hit singles were fairly ubiquitous--and some undeniably catchy. Yet while I know she released music long after the tremendous success of "I Will Always Love You" off The Bodyguard soundtrack, I remain oblivious to any songs she recorded after 1992.

Thus, it would be disingenuous for me to portray myself as a devoted fan who is devastated by her death on some personal level.

But if you were to ask me to name a pop singer in my lifetime who possessed a better voice, I couldn't.

Which doesn't serve to make her death any more, or less, of a shame than that of anyone else--famous or not--who has passed before their "rightful age," as if such a thing exists. But of all the celebrity tributes to Whitney that I've seen since hearing of her demise--including a beautiful rendition of "I Will Always Love You" by Jennifer Hudson at last night's Grammy Awards--one from a similarly gifted singer, Barbra Streisand, particularly resonated with me:
"She had everything, beauty, a magnificent voice. How sad her gifts could not bring her the same happiness they brought us."
Although as of this writing, the cause of Whitney Houston's death has not been revealed, it seems safe to suggest that directly or indirectly her well-documented struggles with substance abuse were likely a significant factor.

This has, not surprisingly, prompted some excessive nastiness across the internet, with numerous commenters belittling the gravity of Houston's premature passing due to her problems with drugs and alcohol. While reports of her behavior over the past several years have been disconcerting, it seems to me that her "demons" having stolen so much from her--including her transcendent talent--makes this more of a tragedy, not less of one.

Yes, the self-destructiveness of her life certainly leads her death to feel less brutally incomprehensible than that of someone randomly slain, killed in an accident or stricken by a terminal disease, but couldn't it be said that her substance issues were just a different type of terminal disease?

To non-addicts--at least of drugs and booze, but who among us doesn't eat unhealthily or drive too fast or work too hard or fall prey to other compulsive tendencies--it seems like something more than a pity when one can't overcome his or her addiction. We tend to judge it as a consciously complicit weakness, a failure to make the right choice or seek the necessary help.

Obviously, for those who can't quit or resist relapsing, or have caused irreparable damage, lucid decision-making doesn't play into the equation. Or at least not enough.

It is also apparent that far too often, artists with extraordinary talent and/or fame are--certainly not exclusively but perhaps exacerbatingly publicly--afflicted by devastating addictions, whether causally or not.

From Charlie Parker to Billie Holiday to Judy Garland to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis Presley to John Belushi to Kurt Cobain to Michael Jackson to Amy Winehouse to many, many others, known and unknown, and now to Whitney Houston, how true do the words that open "Howl," a poem written by Allen Ginsburg in 1955, once again ring:
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness"
OK, so some of those cited precede my generation. But Whitney Houston--who is survived by her daughter, her mother Cissy Houston and (I believe) her half-brother, Gary Garland, forever memorable to me as a member of DePaul's 1979 NCAA Final Four team--is very much of "my generation."

And whatever one may think of her lifestyle, or even her music, she has died much too young. Calling her death--regardless of its cause--a tragedy isn't meant to be comparative, nor necessarily reflective of what she meant to one's own existence.

To extol Whitney Houston's gifts is not to ignore her flaws, but one hopes her exquisite voice endures in memory--or at least mp3--long after the lurid tabloid photos have been forgotten.

For the impurities of life are what make us human and those "destroyed by madness" are just as meriting, if not more so, of our empathetic sadness.


Here's an audio only clip of "How Will I Know," a capella, with just Whitney's vocals. It is stunning and chilling at the same time.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Don't Wanna Be An 'American Idiot,' But I Just Didn't Get It -- Theater Review

Theater Review

American Idiot
a musical with music by Green Day
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 19

I love Green Day.

I have been a big fan and devoted follower of the Bay Area punk trio ever since their phenomenal 1994 album Dookie broke big.

I own all their albums--even those that preceded Dookie and the one they released as Foxboro Hot Tubs--as well as a couple of DVDs.

Considering them to be one of the very best live acts I've ever seen, I feel fortunate to have attended several Green Day concerts over the past 18 years and look forward to my next opportunity.

I stuck with the band even as their popularity ebbed around the turn of the century, but was nonetheless delighted to see them reclaim mass stardom with their excellent 2004 concept album, American Idiot. It stands as one of my favorite records of the 2000s, though to be honest, I appreciate it more as a collection of thematic songs rather than ever truly embracing its rock opera "plotline."

But when the American Idiot stage musical--directed by Michael Mayer, who helmed the sensational Spring Awakening--arrived on Broadway in 2010, I championed the notion of a punk rock musical and noted its generally stellar reviews. The show wasn't a big box office hit in New York--Green Day singer/guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong often took the stage to pump up sales--and I never got a chance to see it, but wished I had.

So I was happy to see the Oriental Theatre full on the national tour's first night in Chicago and coinciding with Charles Dickens' 200th birthday, I went in with great expectations.

Unfortunately, I didn't love American Idiot as a theatrical experience. 

Also coinciding with the 48th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America, this Green Day's night was not a 'welcome to paradise.'

Yes, even without Billie Joe, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, the music rocked. Enough so that I was sufficiently entertained to warrant my subscription-series nosebleed seat that cost just $10.

But even in offering inherent appeal to Green Day fans, as the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones notes in his much more positive review, seeing American Idiot is nowhere near as good as seeing the band itself. (They are said to be working on a new album that will undoubtedly by followed by a tour.) And given my failure to discern any characters or comprehend the storyline--despite knowing almost all the lyrics--I imagine catching a decent rendition of "Longview" at a karaoke bar would be comparably enjoyable.

I won't dissuade ardent Green Day fans from seeing this--and to be fair, my friend Paolo loved it--but any other musical theater fans are likely to be disappointed. A few even walked out during the show. And while not every show can offer the same appeal to everyone, American Idiot failed to offer any discernible degree of universality

Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
My mom is no great fan of Green Day or hard rock, but has seen and enjoyed Rent, Avenue Q, Billy Elliot and other rock-infused and young-skewing musicals. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend that she see Spring Awakening, Next to Normal or The Who's Tommy. But if I was utterly befuddled by what was happening onstage during American Idiot, I imagine she would be a 'basket case' (not that the show includes that Dookie classic, though its songbook expands forward from the namesake album).

In my recent review of Come Fly Away, the Twyla Tharp "musical" featuring Frank Sinatra songs that felt too much like a dance recital, I acknowledged that I have never been big on interpretive theater. Even in appreciating the originality of form-breaking musicals, I prefer something approximating a traditional book structure.

Perhaps this is a deficiency on my part, but it's important for me to have some inkling of what's going on, rather than having to make sense of a mystifying jumble. And because American Idiot has hints of a narrative that never cogently develops, it's actually more frustrating than Come Fly Away, and not even as satisfying as Thriller: Live, the Michael Jackson musical that is more explicitly just a revue.

Respectful as I am of Green Day as a band that actually has something to say, I really wanted to grasp the profundity of their rock opera. But it far too obliquely seemed to touch the same tentpoles as Movin' Out, another Tharp interpretive dance show using Billy Joel songs, as well as Hair, which is also far too unstructured for my tastes. Namely: youth, friendship, angst, love, pregnancy, war, protest, rebellion, death, resilience and most centrally, music.

Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
In trying to offer a fair critical assessment for any fan of the theater or even just Green Day, I am probably being too harsh in portraying my disaffection.

I like the music more than enough to have enjoyed the evening on that level. Though I can't cite any cast or band members as being particularly distinguishable, no one was notably bad either.

But if attending American Idiot wasn't as good as seeing the band, listening to their albums or seeing Spring Awakening, Tommy, Rent, Come Fly Away or even Thriller, well...

Let's just say I didn't have the time of my life.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tramps Like Us: The Enduring Resonance of 'Modern Times'

Later this month the 84th annual Academy Awards will be presented. The two films getting the most nominations--with 11 and 10 respectively--are my two favorites from 2011; Hugo, Martin Scorsese's homage to the early silent films of movie pioneer Georges Méliès, and The Artist, an actual (mostly) silent movie imaginatively created by Michel Hazanavicius.

The other night, I watched a cinematic classic that is considered the last mainstream silent movie ever made--with the exception of Mel Brooks' Silent Movie in 1976--prior to The Artist. This was Modern Times, an 87-minute feature-length film written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin and released in February 1936.

Notable for numerous reasons, the movie serves as the last screen appearance of Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character, described on a DVD featurette of fairly recent vintage as "the most universally recognized fictional human figure in history."

Although as referenced in The Artist, "talkies" had become the norm by 1930--per Wikipedia, which notes that due to a preponderance of silent cinemas,  dual versions were produced of most films until the mid-'30s--and Chaplin had originally conceived Modern Times as his first talkie, after some experimentation he concluded that the Tramp would lose his appeal if he ever were to speak on screen.

Thus, though there is some brief talking by another character early in the film and a variety of sound effects throughout, Modern Times is essentially a silent movie, albeit by "Artistic" choice, not necessity.

Candidly, I am referencing my own ignorance in saying this, but Chaplin is too commonly considered merely an iconic caricature, rather than the brilliant, socially incisive filmmaker he was. Besides some short films I couldn't name or distinguish, Modern Times is my first true exploration of Chaplin, so in calling it a masterpiece, I am not informatively ranking it above or below The Gold Rush, City Lights or The Great Dictator, all of which I will make a point of watching.

But I found it wonderful in ways I wasn't expecting. Although it was technologically backward even in its own time, Modern Times remains strikingly timeless.

If you're a reader of this blog with any degree of frequency, you've likely noticed that one of my great vexations is the relative lack of socially-conscious artistry making its way to the masses. We are still in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis caused by corporate criminality, largely condoned by the federal government. But while there have been plentiful flashes--if not yet a ubiquity--of public anger, on both sides of the political spectrum, there has been a relative dearth of commentative, contemplative and/or anger-fueled art making its way to the masses.

Certainly, there are numerous exemplary exceptions. If you pay attention to people like Tom Morello, Michael Moore and Matt Taibbi, you know that there are musicians, filmmakers and journalists trying to facilitate a fairer society. Jon Stewart, in his own way, has been doing a great service to America, and I'm very much looking forward to Bruce Springsteen's new album, said to be centered around a theme of economic justice.

I also understand that with the fragmentation brought upon by the internet age and myriad cable television channels, it is much harder for any artistic vehicle to truly reach the mainstream.

But there used to be movies like Network and Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter that addressed topical societal matters, garnered critical acclaim and also did big business a the box office. TV shows such as M*A*S*H and All in the Family weren't just among the funniest and most watched, they actually dared to comment on issues such as war and bigotry and injustice. Far from being marginalized, musicians like Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash and The Clash weren't shy about mixing their philosophy with their artistry, yet still managed to sell records.

And why, nearly 40 years after Watergate, are Woodward & Bernstein still the prime examples one can cite of journalists who rewrote history?

I apologize to those easily offended, but to be a truly great artist doesn't simply demand extraordinary talent, it takes balls, in order to do something daring and to say something that some people may not like.

With Modern Times, Chaplin--said to have read numerous books on economic theory, from which he supposedly devised a credible economic solution--made a movie that's more socially pertinent to today's times than most movies made today.

And think about it; he made a silent movie long after silent movies were out of fashion, and he made a movie decrying the effects of industrialization in the midst of the depression. While millions were out of work, he pointed out just how dehumanizing certain work could be.

But much of the genius of Modern Times is that it isn't overly strident; it doesn't come off as a directed assault. Rather, it showcases the importance of perseverance and love in battling adversity. As the opening titles state, the movie is "A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."

And as one would expect from Chaplin, it's often strikingly funny, which undoubtedly contributed to its initial success and enduring reputation as one of the best movies ever made (as evidenced by its inclusion, along with City Lights and The Gold Rush, on the AFI 100).

For there's a fine line--oft ignored amidst the rampant polarization that we've embraced--between making an emotional appeal that stirs contemplation and launching a provocational attack that amplifies hostility. Sometimes, a bit of "we're all in this together" humor--even when offered by one with monumental wealth and fame--can be the key.

You can likely find a copy of Modern Times on DVD at most libraries, but per our modern times, it is also posted to YouTube in 9 parts. I've posted the first two parts below.

The movie opens with Charlie's nameless Little Tramp monotonously working on an assembly line. Soon, his bosses are pitched a great time-saving device that will feed their employees right on the line, eliminating the need for a lunch hour. Split between the end of Part I and beginning of Part II below is an absolutely brilliant scene in which Charlie is elected to test out the feeding machine's viability.

From there, the Tramp inadvertently leads a Communist march, winds up in jail, foils a prison break, unknowingly ingests cocaine and falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Paulette Goddard, who was also Chaplin's lover in real life).

I highly suggest you watch the whole film--for which Chaplin also composed the score, including the wondrous "Smile," (at that point without lyrics)--and won't describe much more of it. Yet I don't think I'll be giving away much to cite that at the end, with both characters again down on their luck, Goddard asks the Tramp, "What's the use of trying?"

To which, Charlie replies, "Buck up -- never say die. We'll get along."

Wisdom for modern times, indeed.

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Pretty Super Super Bowl (and a few words about my favorite commercials)

Photo Credit: Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger
As a Chicago Bears fan--and don't get me started on how for the second year in a row, a team that was worse than the Bears at the end of November won the Super Bowl--I have no particular affinity for the New York Giants.

I also have no real fondness, nor distaste, for the New England Patriots, so on that level, the Super Bowl didn't provide any acute joy nor sorrow.

But as has mostly been the case over the past decade, the game itself was really good. Perhaps not in execution--the Pats started out lethargically and there were a number of dropped passes and a few sloppy penalties--but in terms of drama, until literally the last second.

I know many people watch the Super Bowl more for the hoopla--the parties, the pregame, the anthem, the halftime show, the commercials, etc.--and I'll share some thoughts on many of these. Yet I enjoyed that the best thing about Super Bowl XLVI was the football game.

Along with seemingly everyone else who has weighed in, I have to give major props to Eli Manning. His career passer rating of 82.1 may lag well behind his brother Peyton, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and even Jay Cutler, and his regular season winning percentage of 58% as a starter is behind all of the above except Cutler--by comparison, Brady's is 78%--but he has now won two Super Bowls, against the Patriots, in the most clutch fashion imaginable. Along with punching his ticket for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I believe he deserves to be called a better big-game quarterback than his brother.

Much credit has deservedly been given to Mario Manningham for making an incredible catch--and staying in bounds--at the most important of moments. But look again at how good a throw Eli made, threading the needle between two defenders and the sideline.

Certainly, Brady also ranks as one of the greatest football players of all time. But when he had a chance to put the game away, he failed to do so. Yes, Wes Welker should have caught the throw he dropped--one of a number of drops that had Brady's wife Gisele whining after the game--but the pass was a bit behind Welker, and on the next play, Brady failed to get the ball into Deion Branch's hands.

Perhaps simply because of their better regular season record (13-3 vs. the Giants' 9-7), the Patriots were seemingly the "better team" going in. But they were somewhat lucky to escape against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game, and in addition to yesterday and famously in Super Bowl XLII--ruining their perfect season--the Pats lost a November regular season home game to the Giants, who then fell to the 49ers, Saints, Eagles and Packers in the following weeks. The Patriots are commonly called the best team of their era, but that acclimation rings a bit hollow if Belichick, Brady, et. al. have been unable to solve Coughlin, Manning and the Giants.

It feels a bit like men's tennis, where Roger Federer is oft regarded as the best ever, but is 9-18 against Rafael Nadal, including 2-8 in majors.

Anyway, as I move onto Madonna and the ads, I offer my Congratulations to the Giants.

First I'll say that I thought the National Anthem by Kelly Clarkson and America the Beautiful by Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton were properly classy. Well-sung without any drama or forgotten lyrics. Although given the game's setting in Indianapolis, I would've chosen John Mellencamp to sing the anthem.

At least among my Facebook community, Madonna seems to be getting high marks for her halftime performance. I think she did her job rather well, though in addition to likely lip-synching (and/or being substantially aided by a backing vocal track), her whole performance felt as though it was pre-recorded, probably due to the short tape delay that added a weird veneer to my picture.

In reading other perspectives on Madonna's routine today, there appears to be excess hubbub over M.I.A. flashing her middle finger. Until I read about it, I didn't even know M.I.A. (or Nikki Minaj for that matter) was onstage, let alone that she flipped me off.

My only problem with Madonna, and she isn't to blame for this, is that even more than with halftime shows of the recent past--mostly classic rock acts--there was just something too extravagantly surreal going on in the middle of an exciting football game. But simply as an entertaining 13-minute performance, it was well-done.

Of acts yet to perform on a Super Bowl halftime show, to me an obvious choice is AC/DC. Although playing to the typical football crowd is seemingly of lesser and lesser importance. Perhaps they could be paired with Lady Gaga.

And for the commercials...

In sum, as usual, I was underwhelmed. Too much overtly silly and forgettable humor, and those weren't the worst ones. But I'll focus mainly on what I remember liking, aided by watching a few again today.

I liked the Best Buy ad that saluted the technological wizards responsible for key inventions. I also liked--more so it seems than its USA Today AdMeter score--the following Pepsi ad with Elton John, Flavor Flav and a singer I've now learned is Melanie Amaro, an X-Factor winner who did a good job with "Respect." Certainly a bit over-the-top, but Flav's appearance near the end provides a needed jolt of self-awareness.

I tend to like when celebrities are used--properly--in Super Bowl ads, so the Acura ad with Jerry Seinfeld and the Honda spot with Matthew Broderick spoofing his turn as Ferris Bueller were enjoyable, or perhaps more importantly, memorable. Clint Eastwood provided gravitas for the Chrysler ad about Detroit, but it was too long and I kept waiting for him to say "Go ahead, make my day." I didn't much care for seeing Donald Trump, Danica Patrick--in yet another dumb Go Daddy ad--David Beckham or even the beautiful Adriana Lima, who showed up in a few different spots.

Contrary to other opinion, I also didn't care much for the Coca-Cola polar bears, the Audi ad that kills off vampires or the Chevy Silverado that kills off almost everyone. The Bud Light "Weego" ad was funny for what it was, but dogs with the ability to fetch beer has been way overdone.

For it's originality, I enjoyed the commercial below for Fiat. It utilizes a pretty girl better than most Super Bowl ads, including this one for Kia, and while I think ads that don't reveal the product until the very end run a risk of having viewers miss (or not remember) the brand, the reveal that this is for Fiat came as enough of a surprise--I don't think I've ever seen a Fiat ad--that it works.

And as for my favorite Super Bowl commercial of 2012:

I'm not saying that this Samsung spot is all that hilarious, and though I once enjoyed The Darkness circa 2003, I'm not sure Justin Hawkins needed to be resurrected sporting a Rasputin look. I'm also not sure what Brian Urlacher is doing there, nor a gospel choir for that matter. But for advertising the unique value of a new product--e.g. a stylo pen for the Samsung Galaxy Note phone--while poking a bit of fun at Apple, its hardcore devotees and even the ad itself--the last line is "Well that was over the top--I think it works quite well overall.

I'm not likely to rush out to get a Galaxy Note, but I'm much more curious than I would've been without seeing this commercial. A great ad--even during the Super Bowl, when typical advertising tenets needn't always apply--shouldn't just make you chuckle (and few even accomplish that), it should ideally make you want to buy something. Or at least learn more and/or feel better about the product/brand. This one does that.

Well, there you have it. The official end of yet another unsuccessful season for the Bears. Pitchers and catchers report in 12 days.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

'Black Pearl Sings' Worth Seeing, Especially For Just A Song -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Black Pearl Sings
a play by Frank Higgins
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru February 18

Black Pearl Sings won't be the best piece of theater I see this year.

Hopefully it won't even wind up being the best show I see in February. 

For though it is an interesting, informative and enjoyable play--with substantial a cappella singing but not technically a musical--it was not riveting enough throughout for me to bestow my strongest raves.

But it is a prime example of the kind of quality  entertainment that can be readily seen upon Chicagoland stages for much less than what many people might envision "live theater" costs.

Although compared to many other shows I've seen, Black Pearl Sings warrants attracting larger crowds than turned out on Wednesday night, even among theater fans willing to pay $40-$45 for a regular weeknight ticket, I was happily able to walk up to the box office, just 10 minutes before showtime, and purchase a "Day Of" discount ticket for just $20.

I live nearby, so I didn't mind taking my chances, but could've bought a $20 ticket any time that day by calling the box office (a small "phone charge"--perhaps $3.50--would have been added). Information on Northlight discounts can be found here.

Discount tickets for Black Pearl Sings also seem to be commonly available on HotTix and Goldstar, two great online services that are free to utilize, except for the per ticket fees added to the discounted (typically half price) tickets they offer, often a few days ahead of a given performance.

On HotTix today, one could buy discount tickets for over 50 shows in the Chicago area this weekend, most for under $20 (before fees), many for under $10. Goldstar currently has 64 theater listings, plus comedy, music, sports and other events.

My point isn't that productions such as Black Pearl Sings--which features two excellent actresses/singers, E. Faye Butler and Susie McMonagle, who I've seen in many shows--only warrant being seen on the cheap. Rather, that for those of use who love live theater, and lots of it, it's particularly nice to be able to go for a more affordable price. (Besides "day of" discounts offered by many theaters, whether through their box offices and/or HotTix and/or Goldstar, subscription series are a great way to keep costs down. I pay less than $25 per ticket for Broadway in Chicago and Goodman Theatre shows.)

While I wouldn't deem Black Pearl Sings to be fantastic, its merits were recommended by a Northlight subscriber and for the $20 I paid, it was well worth seeing.

Written by Frank Higgins, the play is inspired by the story of famed folk singer Lead Belly being discovered in a prison camp by a Library of Congress "song collector." Here the two characters--whose tales Higgins has fictionalized--are women, with McMonagle playing the prim, New York-bred song collector Susannah and Butler a gifted singer named Pearl who has been imprisoned in a Texas camp for 10 years.

With the first act taking place in the office of the Texas prison camp and act two moving to Manhattan a year later, the differences between Susannah and Pearl drive the narrative. Yet certain commonalities help make their evolving friendship believable, even if often tempestuous.

I felt Susannah betrays herself a bit in the second act and there is something about the whole affair that keeps it from ever being truly mesmerizing, but the topic is appreciable and the performances quite good. 

A couple of "Pearl in performance" crowd sing-a-longs by Butler were great fun and probably the high point of the evening. This may not be a "must see" show--though the audience seemed to enjoy it plenty--but for just $20, there's no reason not to. 

This video will give you a taste, including a snippet of a song with which I was already familiar, thanks to Moby. There are a few more videos on the same page.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Saluting A 30-Year Letterman in Late Night Entertainment

On February 1, 1982, Late Night With David Letterman debuted on NBC. It was on at 11:30pm in Chicago, and being just 13 years old at the time, I'm pretty sure I didn't stay up to watch it. But I've seen clips of Bill Murray as Dave's first guest--now readily available on YouTube--and this week have enjoyed watching Letterman and crew celebrate their 30th anniversary. 

Bill Murray guested once again on Tuesday night and for the actual 30th anniversary show last night, Howard Stern, who also goes way back with Dave, was the only non-musical guest.

Of course, Letterman's show--as it has been since August 30, 1993--is now titled The Late Show, broadcast by CBS and airs an hour earlier. But Dave, bandleader Paul Shaffer, the CBS Orchestra and all involved have been remarkably consistent in delivering quality entertainment for 30 years.

Like Dave himself, quite famously, I was a fan of Johnny Carson, but Letterman's run on late night television has now surpassed his mentor's. And certainly since Carson's retirement in 1992, if not before, Letterman has been the best in the talk show business and my favorite by a wide margin.

Jay Leno might get better ratings on the Tonight Show, but I can't watch him for a minute. And though I enjoy Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel to some extent, if my television is turned on and tuned to a broadcast station anytime after 10:30pm, 9 times out of 10 it will be to see the Late Show.

That said, I actually watch David Letterman far less than I like him. Sure, I'll probably catch him once or twice a week, but far from every night. So of the 5,433 shows cited in the graphic above, I doubt I've seen more than a thousand, yet I've always enjoyed the ones I have.

And I even had the good fortune, largely by coincidence, to attend a live taping--the only one I've been to--of his 25th anniversary show in 2007. The main guest then was, yes, Bill Murray (a bit ironic that it's Groundhog Day). It was quite a fun experience. At the time, the Bears were about to play the Indianapolis Colts--from Dave's hometown--in the Super Bowl, and I prepared a Top 10 list of reasons why the Bears would beat the Colts. Well, that didn't come true, and my list never made it to air--and probably not even to Dave, though I gave it to a staff member--but you can see it here. Wow, the Bears being in the Super Bowl sure seems a lot longer ago than 5 years, doesn't it?

So the fact that Letterman--who had a quintuple bypass in 2000 and will turn 65 on April 12--is celebrating 30 years of being a late night visitor in people's homes is rather astonishing and laudable.

In tribute, I recommend Paste Magazine's compilation of Letterman's Top 10 moments. However, even among shows and interviews I've seen and remember, I think they're missing a few great ones.

Famously in 1982, comic Andy Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler got into an on-air brawl, even dousing Dave with coffee. The fight was later revealed, long after Kaufman's death, to have be staged, but it made for riveting television (and much conversation at school the next day). Beware that this YouTube clip is unedited and uncensored, which means there's a good deal of profanity (I can't find a clip of what exactly was broadcast).

As I cited in this post, Letterman was good friends with musician Warren Zevon, a frequent guest and occasional substitute for Paul Shaffer. After disclosing his having terminal cancer in the fall of 2002--he would pass the next year--he made a memorable last appearance on Letterman, including his final public performances (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). Also quite moving is Letterman's tribute after Zevon's death and for real archivists, this is Zevon's first appearance.

Correspondingly, along with all the humor Letterman has brought in his monologues and his interviews, one can't overlook the importance and influence his show has had as a showcase for myriad musical acts, including many making their initial television appearance. I enjoy finding such "time capsule" clips on YouTube, including performances by R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Screaming Trees, Bruce Springsteen (on Dave's last NBC show and a subsequent E Street Band reunion in 1995), Radiohead, Wilco, Amy Winehouse, Adele and perhaps most famously, Foo Fighters on Dave's first show following heart surgery.

Certainly, Letterman can be rather acerbic, which is probably why America as a whole tends to prefer Leno. But though he is at times notoriously harsh on his guests--such in this chat with Paris Hilton following her 2007 jail stint--he usually reserves his rancor for those who deserve it.

And as the clip below illustrates in showing what may be his finest hour, one of Letterman's best traits is honesty. Though far from depicting a typical Late Show, I believe the video also portrays why he has been such an important presence in our lives for the past 30 years. For that, and all the years of laughter, music and more, I say, "Thanks, Dave."