peteg's blog

The Godfather: Part II

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Hadn't seen it for almost five years.

The Ruffians: Burning Bluebeard at Theater Wit.

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$36.00, bought on 2014-12-14. Another beautiful winter's day in Chicago, almost hot at 12+ degrees. I spent the afternoon up that way, around up-market Belmont, firstly at Heritage Bicycles for coffee and wifi, and then dinner at a Turkish / Central Asian place further north on Lincoln.

Burning Bluebeard is another Christmas panto, this time with more audience interaction. Apparently it has been drawing capacity audiences for a few years now. The game is to recount the fire in the Iroquois Theatre of 1903, and as such it is a bit navel-gazingly-meta, like Season on the Line, but more provincial. Therefore things worked best in the last movement, where the events of that evening are replayed in some of the tightest theatre I've seen here. The only downside is how much is said rather than shown before this; in retrospect much of the first 80 minutes is mere flaffing about, setting things up for that. At no point did I want to hear more about Mr Bluebeard, but such is dramatic necessity.

The opening held a lot of promise for me, evoking Summertime in the Garden of Eden with clowns artfully shedding their chrysalises (body bags). I struggled with some of the threads, partly due to not really following pop culture anymore, not having a TV, and not really grasping the relevance. I enjoyed the mashup of Teen Spirit and Europe's The Final Countdown. I may have been the only one in the crowd to recognise a very slow variant of Lamb's Gorecki. The adulteration of Lennon's sacrosanct Imagine piano riff by a winking playwright / building manager (?) Jay Torrence lip syncing to Amy Winehouse's Rehab (?) meant something to most of the crowd. A kid sitting in the middle was infectiously amused by many of the comedic pauses. I got handed the last of the Mason jars full of small white LEDs by Ryan Walters (playing Eddie Foy). Pam Chermansky is new this year (the remainder of the cast are back for a third run). The performers clearly enjoyed themselves immensely. With deft timing (after an ending like that!) Torrence convinced me to blow $20 on a donation / t-shirt. The ride home was quite pleasant.

Jacob Davis got right into it. A review from last year with more production history, and another by Tony Adler. Justin Hayford tries to be realistic but ultimately rolls with the crowd. Chris Jones. etc.

Happiness, Ten years of n+1.

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... as selected by the (nameless) editors of n+1 magazine, or so they say. I somehow heard about this lit crit rag aroundabout when it started, but never dug into it before now. Having skipped perhaps a third of this lot, I'm sure they ran more pieces to my liking than what's here. Some casual googling suggests a revolving-door with New York magazine.

Let's get some nits out of the way. The intro is horribly incestuous and lit-crit, presumably written by a prof who shepherded some of the editors through their lit-crit courses at college. The lit-crit pieces are similar: uniformly horrible. What's best here is the small-scale journalism and rants, roughly as follows:

  • Marco Roth: Torture and Parenting.
  • Mark Greif: Afternoon of the Sex Children, about the narrow spread of ages between sex-in-ads and pedophilia. A tad too tendentious.
  • Mark Greif: Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution, about mincomes, unsullied by empiricals. Think of it as Quantity Theory for writers who haven't heard of Will Self.
  • The Editors: The intellectual situation (death is not the end). Starts promising a critique of the analytic tradition that has colonised American philosophy departments, but soon flails about uninterestingly. This proves that it takes someone in the tradition to properly roast it. Is lit-crit / theory good for much? I think we all agree that it should be.
  • Chad Harbach: An Interruption, on climate change. He observes that the Pentagon has a policy for it, which is to draw the obvious conclusion about those who do, those who talk, those who need to get re-elected, etc.
  • Emily Witt: What do you desire? is a New Yorker sex-touring San Francisco. It's a car crash.
  • Wesley Yang: The Face of Seung-Hui Cho. Incendiary observations about (gay) Asian men in the U.S.A. or mere self-aggrandizement? The critics are split. Certainly the most provocative piece in the ensemble.
  • Lawrence Jackson's Slickheads was opaque to this foreigner. Slang city.
  • Keith Gessen (and not Martin Amis's): Money. He wrings his hands while teaching writing at an expensive college. Formulaic. Write what you know, people want specifics and not generalities. Perhaps that's why these types loathe mathematics / empiricism: it just doesn't feel real.
  • Kristin Dombek: How to Quit took Gessen's advice and stuck to the winning formula: what she knows, enough colour to make it real, not so much that you can stalk her in the present tense. Trainspotting for Gen X-Y, for those who are too cool to cite Irvine Welsh.

I don't think I'm going to chase up any of these New Yorkers.

Review at the New York Times.

The Sins

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A gift from Dave. Short TV series made by the BBC in 2000. There is some good dialogue in the small, and some equally horrendous stuff elsewhere. The many story arcs are hackneyed, and the reprieves all-too-sudden; each eposide predictably reverts to the status quo ante, which robs the series of the possibility of growth. The producers realised this too late, for the last episode goes out in a big (but not flawless) way. Pete Postlethwaite is dependably solid. Frank Finlay demonstrates the otherwise downward trajectory of these BBC miniseries by showing up all the younguns. I think Geraldine James's character was supposed to be credibly incoherent. Let's not talk about the children.

Mr Turner

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$12, Landmark at 2828 Clark, 4.45pm. There's nowhere to wait near where they check your tickets, so I sat on the floor next to the cleaning equipment and chugged some n+1 triumphalism. The cycle up was OK (the weather is quite mild), back not so much (stiff southerly, a tad cold). I'd guess this session was half-full on their busiest day of the year.

The pull of this long movie is director/writer Mike Leigh. I knew this wasn't going to be Naked, and I always have my doubts about artist biopics. They make some sense for people like Oscar Wilde, whose art and life were continguous, and not much at all for visual artists, where artifact and individual can be quite disjoint. I'd make an exception for Brett Whiteley though, and along the same lines, writers Patrick White (no thanks) and Tim Winton. I went in cold about J.M.W. Turner, who was born around the time Australia was getting started as a replacement for the restive America. Timothy Spall makes him into a low-class man who takes his pleasure by sketching the extreme, ribbing the pretentious, and never being in any doubt as to his abilities and stature. I don't know how this squares with his apparent wealth; his father was a barber, deepening the mystery. Spall is totally natural and excellent if that is what he set out to achieve, and Dorothy Atkinson as his long-suffering servant is perfect. I enjoyed the science experiment in the middle, featuring a luminous Lesley Manville with a Scots accent as Mary Somerville. The emphasis on the mysteries of light is wonderful, and the cinematography glorious. Ditto for when Robert Stephenson's locomotive steams into view, and the skepticism about art surviving the new technology (daguerreotypes). Dick Pope has photographed much of Leigh's work, including Naked. I can't recall having seen Leigh express wonder about natural philosophy before; dare I hope for an Isaac Newtown biopic from him?

A bloke at the Guardian gestures at more scenes and found it a bit dull. Dana Stevens loved it; I concur with her that this is a homage from one great English artist to another. She reminds me that Leigh always makes period films, that the entire cast was excellent, and that Turner is shown to have a broad appreciation of beauty including music and poetry. A. O. Scott must have been relieved that he (finally) had something worth writing about. ("Lust for life" indeed.) One could go on.

Strawdog Theatre Company: Desperate Dolls

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Goldstar ticket: $7.50 + $3.00 service fee = $10.50. I walked in the rain with Christian-from-work down to Lake and got totally lost on the way to the Red Line platform at State and Lake; the signage in the Chicago pedway leaves a bit to be desired. It was totally packed, as was the train until the Fullerton stop, where people switch to the long-haul Purple. I schlepped from Sheridan down to the theatre on Broadway, stopping for dinner at the pleasantly downmarket Asian Mix Cafe. Their Thai-style laksa (yellow curry and maggi noodles) was tasty.

I got to Strawdog ridiculously early, thinking that it was a 7.30pm show. Over another Revolution Eugene Porter (in a can) and a Guinness-brewed Irish Ale (in a bottle), I kept ploughing through Emily Witt's piece in n+1's ten-year compilation, of which, more later. It, like this play, was long on exploitation and somewhat dubiously proud of being so. The actresses here were quite game and at times it took on a sort-of guilty pleasure aspect with many bum notes. Joe Mack as Sunny Jack had some funny bits, not the least being his Burt Reynolds-inspired coiffure. The ladies were valliant L.A. women, and Jim Poole was quite creepy. Being almost closed, it was standing room only, with people leaning against the bar at the back.

Reviews are plentiful: Nina Metz, Tony Adler at the Reader, a couple at Chicago Stage Standard, Amien Essif at Gaper's Block. Jacob Davis got into it less than anyone. Despite his assessment, I think there's enough desire and raw material for a Russ Meyer revival proper, with a theatrical release. It's a shame Ebert isn't around etc.

Getting home was a fiasco. Some earlier fiasco led to some ambiguity about whether the Addison Red Line station was functioning. (The CTA has monitors all along the platform there, but the PSAs are shown for about two seconds between endless advertisements.) The train, when it came, skipped us, but after a few minutes reversed back to the platform. Much cheering ensued. I walked home from Clybourn/North in the drizzle. Somehow it is still not properly cold, unlike Halloween.

Haven Theatre: Hot Georgia Sunday at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar: $15.00 + $4.50 service fee = $19.50. Walked over from neo-home past the never-finished roadworks on Division/Goose Island. It doesn't look like there's much left to do, and I figured they'd want to be done by the first snowfall. Had a pad thai at Pot Pan Thai on Milwaukee, opposite Filter Café, which I'd seen many times but never previously contemplated. Pretty good; with some tofu and capsicum it may even have been Tum's in Randwick. I'll be back to try their penang presently.

This play was billed as a Southern Gothic, so how could I resist? Despite being less inventive than Summertime in the Garden of Eden, and sticking to very worn transgressions, it was quite fun in the small. The characters are centered on the local Baptist church: youth groups, the liturgical dance, trashiness, predation, booziness. Yeah. The acting was solid: each take it in turns to tell their part of the story, which are often peppered with laugh-out-loud detail that unfortunately does not add up to a super-interesting narrative arc. The accents had me spellbound. About half full, I'd say. Apparently Julie Schroll was in Season on the Line. I liked Emily Woods as the wide-eyed ingenue. I'm keen to see what they do next.

The young bargirl sold me a Three Floyds Robert-the-Bruce Red Scottish Ale as a substitute for the Samuel Smith Taddy Porter of which I've gotten bored. It wasn't stellar. The Wyder's pear cider from Vancouver I had at halftime was a bit too sweet for me.

Justin Hayford is on the money.

The Gambler (James Caan, 1974)

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I liked Caan's decade-later Thief and hoped for a similar neon wonderland here. Instead I got something of a morality fable with a fudged ending. I never found him particularly convincing here, apart, perhaps, from when he calls forth a three at a blackjack table. Paul Sorvino is the canonical standover man. Directed by Karel Reisz.

Saadat Hasan Manto: Kingdom's End, translated by Khalid Hasan.

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I found this one by myself at the Chicago Public Library. There is some overlap with Bombay Stories; a cursory comparison suggests that this is the superior translation, perhaps because Khalid Hasan was a Pakistani who lived through those times, and also that he had a keener ear for Manto's language and what would fly with Westerners. Once again the stories are quite bleak, being tales of Partition set around Kashmir and Bombay. That's enough Manto for me, but I'll be looking for more from Hasan.

LAMPO: Tristan Perich: Noise Patterns at the Logan Center for the Arts

/noise/music | Link

After lunch at the local downmarket Chinese (Empire Restaurant on Division, precisely what you'd expect; their Singapore noodles was solid), I took the red line down to Garfield and schlepped across to the University of Chicago. There is much urban blight and a sense of emptiness on that route; Hyde Park is a gentrified pocket in an undeveloped / boarded-up area. Turns out it was winter (exam?) break and almost entirely closed; I stumbled over some performance thing for parents and children while searching for the feted Hallowed Grounds. I ended up at the Plein Air Cafe, near the Oriental museum. Electricity, decent coffee, croissant, no wifi. A place to take your children for a snack if you're an early-career academic. Later on I grabbed a cheap and quick Pad Thai from Noodles etc., nearby.

The Logan Center for the Arts is a swank building on the edge of a swank campus, which reminded me most of Washington University in St. Louis. It is predictably huge, especially given that Google claims only about 15,000 students study there. Perich's "1-Bit" branding underplays the complexity of his mechanism: in the after talk he threw around probability distributions, duty cycles, and more in a general geek-out. I enjoyed some of his sound, but found it overly harsh for the most part; it is of the sort that people have been getting from their microchip projects on initial startup since 1974. I grant that he's put a lot of effort into composition, though it still felt like a formless, centreless kind of work that is far more alienating than Ben Frost's modulated noise. I was half hoping that he'd momentarily break into something mindblowingly coherent. Perich seemed to understand this as he introduced a solid beat somewhere after the midpoint. The whole thing went for an hour and I didn't find it was something to relax to, in contrast to most improv; perhaps the view out of the 9th floor windows was too captivating. I'm certainly keen to head back.

Their blurb:

The great Tristan Perich returns to Lampo to present "Noise Patterns," his new composition for sequenced 1-bit patterns of white noise, programmed for and performed by microchip. The work expands on his "1-Bit Symphony" and tonal pieces for electronic circuits and acoustic instruments.

N.B. the code in "Noise Patterns" outputs random sequences of 1s and 0s. The "notes" of his "score" are then varying probabilities of randomness, ranging from the sound of white noise to sporadic, instantaneous pops, which Perich composes into rhythmic patterns. In a wave of 1-bit noise, the music is an investigation into the foundational limits of computation.

Artist and composer Tristan Perich (b. 1982, New York, N.Y.) is inspired by the aesthetic simplicity of math, physics and code. Best known for his constructions that explore the physicality of sound and the polyphonic potential of 1-bit audio, his "1-Bit Music" (2004-05) and "1-Bit Symphony" (2010) celebrate the virtuosity of electricity. Neither release is a traditional recording. Instead, each is a music-generating circuit, housed in a CD jewel case with a headphone jack. Perich also has composed several works for musicians with 1-bit music accompaniment, and is in the music group the Loud Objects (with Kunal Gupta and Katie Shima), which performs by soldering its own noise-making circuits live in front of the audience. His award winning work coupling 1-bit electronics with traditional forms in both music ("Active Field," "Observations") and visual art ("Machine Drawings," "Microtonal Wall)" has been presented around the world, from Sonar and Ars Electronica to the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art.

Tristan Perich first appeared at Lampo in October 2010, performing his "1-Bit Symphony."

Presented in partnership with the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

Irish Theatre of Chicago: Shining City at Den Theatre.

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Goldstar, $13.00 + $4.00 service fee = $17.00. Walked home after taking the #37 bus this morning due to a timing accident (the bus was waiting for me when I got to the stop). I had some dinner at home and raced over to the Den in about fifteen minutes, straight down Division. I also figured out that I'd been parking my bicycle in the wrong carspace, oops.

I picked up a Toddy Porter on the way in, despite it being on the crapper end of porters; time to investigate the lighter-coloured beers perhaps. This piece was by Conor McPherson, as was The Night Alive. Again the acting and accent work was solid, but the dialogue this time was more extended monologue, and the putative transgressions were cringeworthy. Perhaps I've spent too long in liberal cities. Chicago Stage Standard gave it 3.5/4. They're right that Brad Armacost was great. Tony Adler at the Reader is (as always) far harsher. I don't think we got the "transition music".

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

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$11 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 6.30pm, Japanese with subtitles. They no longer have cheap Mondays (sniff). This is certainly the most beautiful hand-animation I can remember seeing. There are some awesome sequences, especially around the two-thirds mark. The flying scene at the end is pure Douglas Adams, Arthur and Fenchurch; I never considered that he may have also been big in Japan. The story itself is a bit too much of conservative-hokum folk story flim-flam to be bothered with. Motivated by a review in the Reader.

Saadat Hasan Manto: Bombay Stories

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According to some, Manto "has a good claim to be considered the greatest South Asian writer of the 20th century". Digging this book out of the Chicago Public Library took some doing: the super-helpful girl on level 7 of the Harold Washington found it somewhere I would never have thought to look. I heard about the author from Pankaj Mishra, and I guess I was hoping to read something more like what he described than a series of almost still-low-lifes in Bombay. Shades of Charles Bukowski. I did manage to plough through it in double-time, and for that I am thankful.

City Lit Theatre: Holmes and Watson

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Stool on bicycle, Milwaukee Avenue, 4.20pm.

Another Goldstar ticket: $14.50 + $4.25 service fee = $18.75. I unexpectedly bought a stool at a discount furniture shop on Milwaukee, and after walking it back to the flat, I got lazy and took the Red Line up to Berwyn, mistaking it for Bryn Mawr. The El at peak-hour in winter is not fun as everyone's dressed up to the max, so the carriage quickly becomes stuffy and I overheat. Layers are all well and good if you can shed them when you need to. I do wish I'd bought the stool a week ago; like the speakers it makes the space far more livable. At Bryn Mawr (a cute little strip of shops), I had dinner at The Little India: a combo, tikka chicken, a tikka masala chicken (really a butter chicken), vegies (aloo matar?), rice, naan. Decent, but no heat at all.

There were quite a few more people at the church than last time. I'm guessing about half of the audience was blind (literally; it was some kind of social outing), and this style of theatre accommodated that perfectly, being mostly spoken word with some suggestive mime. I was the youngest there by about a decade. We got two stories: A Scandal in Bohemia (featuring Irene Adler) and The Final Problem (featuring Professor Moriarty). I enjoyed Adam Bitterman's deft accent work as Watson and sundry characters, which glued the whole thing together, and James Sparling was quite fine as Holmes and Moriarty. Adrienne Matzen has a brief turn as Irene.

This is a somehow old-fashioned kind of entertainment; arch language, and unconflicted characters, with a moral clarity that only Batman and ghee have now.

The Chicago Stage Standard gave it a decent review, as did the Reader.

Haskell Apostasy #1: now where did they hide the higher-ranked polymorphism?

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About fifteen years after it was cool (to type systems people), I figured it was time for me to try ocaml, or more broadly, to make my peace with this call-by-value thing. One motivation was because I work with a Frenchman, and another was that I want more space- and time-efficiency than Haskell allows. No, I'm not listening to you talk asymptotics or microbenchmarks or parallelism. So, where else to start than by trying to port Bird and Paterson's de Bruijn encoding? (Edward Kmett's recent work places this scheme in the vast terrain of representations of higher-order languages and sets the bar for type insanity / wizardry.)

Here's what I ended up with:

You'll see that I ran out of patience / interest in working out a full showE function for the efficient representation. I think you're supposed to normalise it first and use showT. As I observe in the file, Yallop and White have thought about how to massage the syntactic overhead of higher-ranked polymorphism (think Haskell's functors, monads, traversables, this crazy nested datatype stuff, etc.).

I came to think that ocaml's module and object systems (really row polymorphism) give Haskell's baroque combination of features some solid competition. I like being able to define lightweight namespaces that actually do encapsulate things. The uniformity of ocaml's type declarations (just say type) is awesome, and would be even more awesome if they'd wired row polymorphism in there too, rather than adding a whole pile of constructs for an object-oriented style that is foreign to just about everyone. I don't care about the fine details of syntax but would observe that its treatment of user-defined operators frankly sucks. *shrug*

Note that Bird and Paterson's scheme is a non-starter in Standard ML due to the latter not supporting polymorphic recursion.

I also tried to test this representation using an ad hoc QuickCheck-alike, using Pierre Lescanne's ideas about generating λ-terms. As Oleg shows, it takes some doing to generate interesting ones. More on this later perhaps.

Zia Haider Rahman: In the Light of What We Know

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I picked this up on the strength of James Wood's fawning review in the New Yorker, and, of course, that the author is Bangladeshi and was going to say something about the 1971 civil war / war for independence / revolution / genocide. Oh, and finance. Wood is right: it wears its knowledge heavily, and oftentimes my eyes glazed over, wishing that the editor had eradicated the prevarications over adjectives, reduced the number of balls concurrently in the air, tied up all loose ends. Who wants to read an author's bleatings about the difficulties of writing? That's right, other writers. It also struck me that if the book is good, you read it fast because it sucks you in, and if it is no good, then you read it fast so you can get to the next one. So you read it fast, and in the case of these almost-500 page beasts, it can lead to a loss of cabin pressure. In any case I wasn't going to pore over it as I would a Francis Spufford.

Rahman is a sucker for epistemic jokes, just like me, though few can best Rumsfeld in the public domain and it's been a while since he vacated the pitch. He is often not careful with Gödel, whose famous theorem is about truth and proof, and not just truth ala Tarski. It is intuition that gives us a handle on truth, but as we don't trust ours or other people's, we demand proof, i.e., a justification rooted in what we take to be more self-evident. The theorem is difficult and slippery, and experts like Raymond Smullyan tend to carefully separate their commentary on it from their humanistic works. Wading in where angels fear to tread, indeed.

The plot is so very A Quiet American (and probably all the other things Wood gestures at, of which I know aught), with some splintering of characters and switcheroo of the cultural identities of the villains. I found Emily to be underwritten; she is no more than her sex and class, and I found her to be entirely resistable. Her mother, Penelope, is a flake, her father a cypher; shades of Gone Girl? The portrayal of working-class Englishmen as, well, workman-like pragmatists is unoriginal and unsurprising. These parts perhaps spoke more to the compatibility of caste and class, and race as a mediator, and I for one benefited from a longer exploration from elsewhere. One could imagine Ishiguro telling the same story more epically in about fifty pages.

The whole thing is overstuffed with novelty informational detritus of the kind easily found across the entire internet these days. A couple I liked (Rahman doesn't give references for his in-text factoids). Firstly, page 71:

Time appears to slow down, said Zafar [protagonist, authorial voice, often narrator], at moments of crisis, stress, or anxiety. Time slows down, we think, during a car crash or when a person falls from a great height into a net, the latter being the setting for certain scientific experiments conducted to explore this experience of the slowing of time. The experience of time slowing down is now understood as a function of the creation of memories. According to the science, it now seems that during stress, groups of neurons known as amygdalae are engaged in activity. Associated with this is a spiked increase in the number of memories recorded by the brain in every tiny interval of time — in every instant, you might say. The sensation of how much time passed during an event is dependent on the number of memories associated with the event by the brain; the more memories, however instantaneous, the greater the length of time that is perceived to have passed. That is why we think time slowed down, when in fact we captured an album of photographs in the blink of an eye.

Secondly page 309, an excerpt from Liberty or Death by Patrick French (authorized biographer of V.S. Naipaul):

I can remember at one official function [in West Pakistan] where there was a group of women, wives of members of the elite, and I overheard one laughing to the others, "What does it matter if women in Bengal are being raped by our soldiers? At least the next generation of Bengalis will be better looking." That was the kind of attitude you found there in 1971, and it is still around today.

This book garnered reviews from all corners. Amitava Kumar at the New York Times. Louise Adler at the Smage. Sameer Rahim at the Telegraph is more sceptical. etc. etc. It is eminently quotable, and to be a little unfair, good at making people think they are thinking. I'm glad Rahman took the time to write this, but I had hopes he'd make it denser.

Big Hero 6

/noise/movies | Link

$9.84 = $8.79 + $1.05 (freedom tax) at the AMC Loews 600, 3:30pm on Thanksgiving. Loan suggested I go see this one, and I remember thinking the short was promising. The animation is great and robot himself quite funny, but overall it's very derivative.

LAMPO: Lucky Dragons

/noise/music | Link

I missed the last LAMPO for not-particularly-good reasons; lethargy, weather, I forget. This one had them queuing out the front from 7pm, when I got here, after a rather expensive dinner at Big Bowl (good ingredients, mediocre penang sauce, decent brown ale sold as a stout). The light show on Michigan confused the route. As it turned out there was at least one empty seat; full but not packed, I'd say. At some point the organisers unlocked the doors but did not invite us in. They're a weird mob.

So this gig was closer to the improv I'm used to, but with many laptops and only a few instruments (a drum kit, xylophones, oboe (?)). They put some visuals on the roof, but nothing too exciting. The schtick was to play the same piece (in some sense) through twice, with the second influenced by an audience interaction / bikeshedding session in the middle. One guy opined "isn't chance the opposite of concensus?" which made me scratch my head about as much as the suggested mechanisms for terminating the chance movement. Anyway. I found it relaxing. Their blurb:

Los Angeles-based collaborative duo Lucky Dragons premiere "RSVP Partita," a new performance for Lampo that treats Lawrence and Anna Halprin's late 60's workshop-based approach to creative processes as a musical form -- folding score, performance and evaluation together into an iterative suite for instrumentalists, software and group conversation.

A collaboration between artists Sarah Rara (b. 1983, Livingston, N.J.) and Luke Fischbeck (b. 1978, San Francisco, Calif.), Lucky Dragons have been exploring the nuances of sound as a participatory medium for close to 14 years through recordings, performance, software design, workshops, and installations. Their work has been presented in a wide variety of contexts, including the Whitney Museum of American Art (as part of the 2008 Whitney Biennial), the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Walker Art Center, London's Institute for Contemporary Art, MOMA/PS1 and the Kitchen in New York, REDCAT, LACMA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, MOCA Los Angeles, the 54th Venice Biennale, and the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among others. The name "Lucky Dragons" is borrowed from a fishing vessel caught in the fallout from H-bomb tests in the mid-1950s; an incident which sparked international outcry, spontaneously generating the worldwide anti-nuclear movement.

Presented in partnership with the Graham Foundation, in conjunction the Graham’s current exhibition, Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966-1971.

Theater Unspeakable: The American Revolution presented by Adventure Stage at the Vittum Theater.

/noise/theatre | Link

$20.00 = $17 + $3 "convenience charge". I've walked and cycled past this theatre (near the corner of Milwaukee and Noble) so many times, and the strong recommendation from the Reader brought me to this. While I was waiting in the foyer, I hear a child who is asked to write something he holds to be self-evident on the board say "you're never too old to go to school." I also hear a parent trying to explain that onerous taxation justifies bloodshed to another child.

This production assumes more familiarity with the revolution than I had, which rendered some it quite opaque. I did learn that some of the native Americans lined up with the Brits, and that Washington freed his slave William Lee after passing himself. The American colonial army seems to owe a lot to a Prussian general, who was presented histrionically, somewhat evoking the world-famous German warmakers of the twentieth century. Intentional? I don't know. The French were foppish froggy clowns, familiar from ... well, any Ameican cartoon that refers to the French. The English generals were closer to the mark, desultory and misguided. King George was made into two people, which was both funny and apposite.

The acting was fantastic, physical with some effective mime technique, all crammed onto a tiny table that brought welcome constraints to the production according to the actors in the discussion afterwards. I really liked the flag hung from the front of the table: the Union Jack in the centre bleeding into the Stars and Stripes at the ends.

Promethean Theatre Ensemble: The Winter's Tale at the Anthenaeum Theatre.

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$24.45 = $20 + $2 restoration fee + $2.45 "Convenience Charge", bought 2014-10-21. I took the purple line to Wellington and schlepped up that street, and had an early dinner at the Golden Apple Diner: the first steak I'd had in six months or more, totally serviceable. After grabbing my ticket I headed back to Heritage Bicycles, which I think mostly functions as a repair and coffee shop. Their coffee was great, the decor flawlessly evoking the romance of bygone fixies and gramophones. Yes, it's a hipster stop.

This was a Megan DeLay segue from Smash at the Piccolo Theatre; Pete R. knows I'm not much into Shakespeare, especially not the drecky lesser-known later works like this one. It falls into two halves (and fortunately not three). The first is something like The Tempest or King Lear: in a barely-plausible fit of pique the King decides to ruin his life by ruining the lives of those most dear to him. OK, so far, so familiar. The second is a bucolic comedy, where the thief worryingly does not get his comeuppance. Am I not in America, the home of happy righteous endings?

The Anthenaeum Theatre is huge, but this was produced in the tiny Studio Theatre 1, which is smaller than the back room of the church I went to on Sunday. It proves beyond the actors, who are otherwise mostly fine, to scale down their vocalisations. This is unfortunate as the play itself is entirely about standing around and holding forth, and as it turned out, they often stood right in front of me (front right corner) and occluded what little action there was. Megan had one of the sensible characters and was as solid as everyone else at waiting for her turn to declaim.

The Reader got it about right, though I think Cameron Feagin over-emoted the whole time. There was some form of dance going on upstairs, attracting loads of younguns. The building itself is similar to the church that put on the Albee. Once again the #9 bus on Ashland got me home.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center: Dvorák, Chausson, and Schubert at the Harris Theater.

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Somehow I managed to get free tickets to this from the 芝加哥中国文化 院 Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, Inc. The bloke sitting next to me with the phablet may have been there for the intended purpose, whatever that was.

Today was bloody cold. I walked up from work, grabbing a Thai from Siam on Washington and a hot chocolate from the Intelligentsia on Randolph, unfondly, for old times' sake. I enjoyed the Dvorák (Selections from Cypresses (Echo of Songs) for Two Violins, Viola, and Cello, B. 152, and Nocturne in B Major for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Bass, Op. 40 (1870, rev. 1882)) and parts of the Chausson (Trio in G minor for Piano, Viilin, and Cello, Op. 3 (1881)). Schubert's bucolic left me cold. The musicians were solid; I get the impression they are based in New York. The Harris Theater is conveniently almost connected to the Metra station at the top of Millennium Park, but I had to walk back to Wabash to get the green line out to Ashland.

Theatre Y: Happy Days at Saint Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Logan Square.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75. I was reluctant to go as I'm not a huge Beckett fan, which was well proven by Hellish Half Light. A review in the Reader tipped it. I schlepped up on foot from Noble Street via a totally-packed Filter Café, and the Sultan's Market. Sub-zero cold, yes, and rainy, of all things.

This is essentially a one-woman play, and Melissa Lorraine is superb as that woman. Buried past her waist in Péter Szabó's CRTs, LCDs and at least one ancient iMac, she ably demonstrates what it takes to keep body and soul together in these (and those) times of vacuous modernity. The second half is rapid-fire absurdism and less of a pretence that she is succeeding, which is somewhat distressing given her isolation. Melissa's ability to juice the repetitive dialogue for effect, especially humour and later pathos, is mesmerizing. I regret missing her Medea from earlier this year, despite it being a year of many Medeas. Her husband (Evan Hill) provided some able support with his nineteen lines and several falls. The sound (again by Péter Szabó) is immersive. The video segments were from real life.

Afterwards Melissa stepped down and cornered us all for a talkback, which they term "barrack dramaturgy" (coined by the director Andráz Visky, resident in Transylvania). Clearly still fired up by her performance, she ably disarmed the audience by discussing the material clearly and articulately, again with Evan's support. She made me regret not coming earlier in the season — apparently their interpretation has changed a lot in response to experience, and that would have been something to see. Wisely they passed the hat around at the end of the night, and so I got to pay $20 for the brewed-in-Holland Heineken that came gratis at the start of the evening. I took the blue line L back.

More plaudits from Kyle Whalen at the Chicago Stage Standard. I'll certainly go to whatever they do next.

Piccolo Theatre: The Love of Three Oranges

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Another Goldstar ticket: $13.50 + $4.25 service fee = $17.75. I really should pay full-price to these guys, as they really are worth it. Like last time, this was opening night. Damn cold. I left work at 4pm to get the 4.35pm Metra up to Evanston, and it turned out that Carl had the same idea. I spent a bit of time at Brothers K again, this time avoiding over-caffeination with a hot chocolate. The Thai across the road is passable, but slow; not enough waiters, it would seem. Unfortunately the Piccolo Theatre, sited in the erstwhile waiting room next to the southbound Metra line, does not serve beer.

I was originally going to give this a miss as I assumed that pantomime was not my thing, and I was half-right; I'd have been mortified if I was the only (type of) person in the audience. Fortunately there was a dear old couple, originally from somewhere in Europe (argh, crap memory) whose flawless American was a perfect shield. He was quite droll, she chatty, telling me they were both computer geeks from back in the days of paper tape (!), apparently 1958. I wonder how they balanced parentheses on those typewriters.

This is apparently an adaptation of an adaptation. All of the performers hammed it up as far as their characters allowed. Joshua D. Allard was the perfect host as Dame Celia, and if the Americans ever remake Red Dwarf then they have a perfect Kryten waiting in the form of rubber-faced King-of-Hearts Max Hinders. I missed all the TV references. The plot was totally ridiculous. The lighting design was quite amazing for the black-curtained witch-off "black arts" scene at the end between Celia and Fata Morgana (Amelia Lorenz).

I got the Metra back to Clybourn and North and Ashland, and the #9 going directly south brought me home; simply too cold to walk very far.

The Reader was less sold on it.


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With workmates Alex, Carl, Nick. 6.30pm IMAX, Navy Pier, 70mm. $20. Epic burger beforehand.

What is this, a space opera? In 2014? How very 2001-derivative, and so easy to sink the boot into. Marvin-style robots take on monolith forms when they're not being R2D2s, HAL is a misanthropic man who tries to steal a wheel (a weak antonym of Kubrick's elegant Discovery), McConaughey-and-monolith as star children, and the Deep Space 9 wormhole supplants the monolith. The science gets quite muddled once the black hole turns up, so I guess Hawking was too busy basking in his own movie to offer advice on this one. (Christian from work explained to me that it is a theoretical possibility thus far without much empirical support that Hawking radiation may transmit information out of a black hole, but that's more physics than I ever understood.) Leaving aside the question of the bandwidth of a twitching second hand of a watch, Chastain is going to have the devil's own time decyphering that data if it is in Morse as it is not a prefix code. I'm stopping here. Science, who needs it when you have gravity, lurv and massive blackboards.

There are some good visuals here, though Nolan is late to the party (hosted by The Tree of Life and Gravity) of cool cosmology. Hathaway phones it in. McConaughey is robust enough for two movies. I like Casey Affleck's signature low-key smolder, but he doesn't really get a chance to mumble. Chastain was surprisingly plausible. God save me from Michael Caine, who peaked shortly after 2001's initial theatrical release. Zimmer's music is overly intense, most of the time.

I was expecting the politics to be: get out there and resume space exploration, every geekboy's dogma, for the planet's rooted and we'll be rooned. The short certainly made it seem so. There is instead an attempt at complexification, with some concern with sustainability, though the conclusion seems to be we need to go anyway. What I really don't like is that Nolan reckons we're screwed unless God shows up, and/or we send ourselves information from the future. Last time God showed up we nailed him to a tree, though perhaps Nolan is suggesting that next time around we won't have trees, so it might work out better. The other fork smells too much of Terminator causality bullshit to me. None of this is surprising as Nolan has always cleaved to the one-great-man-of-history storylines. What I really want to know is why McConaughey was chasing Hathaway at the end. In any case the whole thing is terribly derivative.

Reviews are, of course, plentiful. Dana Stevens somehow misdiagnoses originality here but gets it right in the end. Correct result from false premises and unsound reasoning? Yes, the movie had that in spades. Apart, possibly, for the correct result. I wish I'd seen the movie A. O. Scott did. Denby brackets this with the Hawking movie.

Oracle Theatre: Romulus at the Public Access Theatre.

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I reserved a spot at this thing back on 2014-11-03. It was fairly packed, but not so much that I would have missed out without one. Their schtick is to provide free access to theatre, and as is always the case in these situations, it ended up costing me more ($20) than I usually spend. I got half an over-gassed beer in return, and a pretty funny show. Written by Gore Vidal "from the play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt", directed by Kasey Foster. Kevin Cox is great in the lead, with excellent comedic timing.

Justin Hayford at the Reader has it just about right. Kerry Reid at the Chicago Tribune.

Tympanic Theatre: Social Creatures at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar. $10.50 = $7.50 + $3.00 service fee. Some sort of zombie apocalypse thing. Justin Hayford at the Reader has the salients. I was too out of it after four beers (I got cornered by some traders at work) to get into this one.

The Game

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Yeah, about as good as I remember. It doesn't hold together as well as Fincher's best, and doesn't seem to have a point.

Fury (2014)

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$12.31 = $10.99 + $1.32 in tax. At the AMC River East 21, 6.15pm. There was an older bloke having a snore off to the right of row 4; I don't think he picked the right theatre to be doing that in.

Is this Saving Private Ryan in a tank? Are we here just to suffer through one more round of "greatest generation" propaganda? Or is this a cynical play at their 401(k)s, so recently crueled by their lesser successors? It certainly is a pastiche of earlier Brad Pitt vehicles. The plot is essentially a feature-length version of Fight Club's Raymond K. Hessel scene, here featuring Logan Lerman who looks like a young Depp, or McGuire. He'll probably be in the next Spiderman reboot. Pitt himself is a slightly more plausible Nazi hunter than he was in Inglourious Basterds, but when he rolls out "Let me show you something," I got the flashback shivers, just as I did from Norton a week ago. His minions hold him in a similar regard to that in which the natives held Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Albert Einstein apparently said, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones," but what he didn't understand is that Hollywood will finance both, and probably shoot them in 3D if the technology survives. Shia LaBeouf was decent. This movie is nowhere as claustrophobic as Das Boot.

Slightly more broadly, it seems a bit weak that Hollywood has to keep reaching back to the Nazis (the gift that keeps giving, it would seem), just like Jolie is going to show us how terrible the Imperial Japanese were, and the non-commie Russkies in John Wick sure were meaner than those commie Russkies. America is all out of new bad guys.

A. O. Scott cites more movies than I do. I agree, the blokes did some fine acting, but nevertheless I failed to develop an attachment to any of them. David Denby.

Francis Spufford: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense.

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Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well
Don't have to question everything in heaven or hell
David Bowie — Word on a Wing

I regretted not taking notes while reading his earlier Red Plenty, so this time I did. Unfortunately things fall away rather quickly after the incendiary introduction to the point where it is not worth dissecting in any detail.

Here Spufford attempts to defend his return to the warm comforts of Anglican Christianity after a couple of decades of atheism. I was interested mostly in how he would argue and how he experiences spirituality. Well, it's a far cry from the reasoned clarity of Raymond Smullyan (e.g., The Tao is Silent), as I guess it must be; Spufford's God is logically incoherent and totally impractical, and while the author has a sense of humour, it seems equally clear that the Author does not. No whimsical dialogues here! — though he is (of course) scholar enough to know that many tropes in the Christ story are not original.

I guess I was hoping for a more robust counterpoint to the New Atheists; their attacks on organised religion always seemed misguided to me, if only because belonging to such is more of a tribal than ontological commitment. (We see that here with Spufford's return to the religion of his childhood, in contrast to Leonard Cohen's lifelong spiritual searching. The former gives the latter's Anthem an appreciative going over.)

Spufford is fine in the small but very shaky on the larger philosophical points. Here he is, defending his defence.

U.S. Eagles vs All Blacks, Soldier Field.

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Like Bowie, about six months in the making. I have no idea why the All Blacks decided to stop here for what amounted to an exhibition match, but I'm thankful they did. I shouted Grégoire a ticket (for a total of $194.71 back in June) as a thank-you for me being here. I biked there, wearing my super-heavy jacket, beanie and gloves. One guy called them retro 90s ski gloves, but they are in fact genuine 1985 Orange K-Mart thinsulate specials which don't work as well as they once did. This was my first time actually at a test match. After yesterday's snow/sleet/rain and sub-zero windchill, we were blessed by a cold and clear day, no wind, with the sun coming out around 2pm while I waited at Roosevelt Station for Grégoire's red line L to get in. The traffic was totally nuts, and the people trying to control it really enjoyed arguing with everyone who tried to be individuals.

I wasn't at all sure who'd show up for the ABs; as it was we got a mix of the old reliables (Keven Mealamu (!), Kieran Read, Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Franks), the show pony (Sonny Bill Williams), the bad boy (Aaron Cruden), the new (Julian Savea and many others I hadn't heard of), and I was very happy to see Dan Carter play for the first time in a year, albeit only for the final twenty minutes or so. His first pass was way too ambitious, but that was pretty much his only mistake, which does not bode well for England next weekend. I'm a little glad Sir Richie wasn't there, for otherwise the Eagles would have really struggled at the rucks. The referee was Craig Joubert, who masterfully accounted for the difference in skill levels. The Eagles forwards did some pretty decent work from time-to-time, and even looked to be putting up enough of a fight in the scrum for it to be competitive at times. The lineout seemed sound for both sides. The Eagles' goalkicker will be able to tell his grandkids that he put six points on the best team ever. It took them a while to figure out that you don't give the All Blacks an inch of room, so kicking for field position is quite unwise. One of their quick-lineout throws was a gridiron-style one-handed overarm throw that made it more than halfway across the pitch.

The result was a predictable 74 - 6, as the Kiwis are always gracious to their hosts. I'd never seen so many New Zealand flags, even in their own country. Some feared they're be taken for Australians and had NEW ZEALAND written along the bottom. Soldier Field is going to be re-sod before the next gridiron game.

Rundskop (Bullhead)

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Director Michaël R. Roskam's effort immediately previous to The Drop, also featuring Matthias Schoenaerts. I struggled to stitch it all together, but at some point it ceased to matter as the focus reduced to a single character, the plot becoming quite ancillary. Overall it is not too graphic but very suggestive. However, like The Drop, there's not enough meat on the bone to justify the weightiness of it all.

Constellation: Cleared and Ben Frost.

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I paid $21.79 = $18 + $3.79 in fees to TicketWeb. I could have paid $22 at the door, and would have if I hadn't expected it to sell out. Hosted by Empty Bottle, though I heard about it from the Constellation's regular mailout. That and the freebie track Venter on Frost's bandcamp page provoked me to buy his album A U R O R A off iTunes, and a ticket to this gig.

I left work a bit early on this Halloween quasi-holiday as no-one else was left, and my brain had exploded. It had been snowing and/or sleeting the whole day — apparently more than a tenth of an inch settled at O'Hare, which marks the threshold for measurability, and this was the first such Halloween ever. I note that Sydney was and perhaps is experiencing a heatwave. The problem with my woollen jacket is that the snow sticks to it and melts in place, i.e., it gets quite wet as I go in and out of heated spaces. In any case, getting to Constellation without a bicycle is challenging: I took the Brown Line to Belmont, and with careful timing, schlepped down that street via Osmium (for a hot chocolate, very Intelligentsia hipster), and to the House of Sushi and Noodles, where the made-up-for-the-day girls ably fleeced me with their all-you-don't-want-to-eat sushi menu. I saw no evidence of the noodles that I was dreaming of. It's a strange place, like it's in a subway. The walk kept me outside for about half an hour.

I got there stupidly early, at 7pm, as the doors were supposed to open at 8.30pm, which eventually became 9.45pm. In that time I had a couple of beers, and the barmaid was right: the Founders stout is superior to their porter. Ben Frost stopped off, and got told by a pair of droll groupies that the 312 on the beer he was drinking is the area code. The other room had a dance performance thing on with the bloke-to-girl ratio outsize in the opposite direction. I got talking to an alpha music geek just before they unpenned us, and so ended up sitting near him at the front right speaker for the warmup act. He talked labels. I couldn't keep up.

Cleared are a pair of presumably-local kids with some guitars and a drumkit, and a violin bow, and too much electronics. They started with washed out ambient before launching into massive, free-standing cliff-like power chord things towards the end. It's hard to appreciate what is standing between you and what you came to hear, especially when it invariantly lacked something to focus on.

At the break I ducked out for another stout, and on my return parked myself close to the front left speaker. A modern Prometheus was trying to light something with his phone. Frost played on the floor, not the stage, and was quickly surrounded by the curious. Near as I could tell nobody was dancing, but it still got hotter; his music mainlines the metabolism, perhaps. Things ground to a halt after a few tracks, and ultimately it felt like half a gig, perhaps because the house music came on at sudden power failure number two, or that some people left at the first cut-out. God knows what they were expecting. The third signalled the real end, I think. There was no audience abuse, apart, perhaps, from the strobe that provided the entirety of the lighting where he was working.

Frost evokes for me the 1990s dance anthems without the Es, and soundtrack snippets looking for a movie ala Barry Adamson. All of it put me in that sound-of-the-future mood evoked by Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre in times past. Of course their futures never came, and Frost's probably won't either; just as well, for then I would probably have to interpret things that I can presently relax to. None of it is excessively counter-intuitive, and he is gifted to be able to put a centre to this much noise. Some of it nags at me, like emotions mislabelled for a lifetime, especially when the shorter-in-one-leg mountain goat rhythms get going. These are not mammalian heartbeats.

I walked home afterwards, as the night had morphed into a clear, crisp windless thing that brought out many young Halloweenies. Some were deluded enough to think that the more outré the costume, the more peril there'd be to their virginity. I got back at 1.30am.

The Reader has two goes at summarizing Frost's style on A U R O R A. The blokes at Pitchfork loved it, making it the worst of the 50 best albums of 2014.

John Wick

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$11.52 = $10.29 + $1.23 at the AMC Loews 600. This time I stopped off at Heaven on Seven for a half of a Mardi Gras Jambalaya, and some Voo Doo Stout, which was a meal all by itself. Tasty, but soporific. Neither of which did Keanu any favours. Both Jeannette Catsoulis and Forrest Wickman have ensured I will never take their word about a movie ever again. This one was pretty bland, with little sense of style or finesse. Compared to yesterday's bloodbath, the reversion-to-psycho reflex is triggered by a beagle puppy who certainly didn't get a chance to go out gallivanting. The violence is not too graphic but is spectacularly pointless. I sat two rows from the front, which was indeed a bit too close. The other option was Fury which I expect has the opposite problem of being too dense.

Batman Returns

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A Tim Burton segue from The Zero Theorem, and of course from Birdman via Michael Keaton. Michelle Pfeifer, why not. There is something pitiable about de Vito, partially because the script is not as good as the first one. Pfeifer has some fun but somehow lacks the sass of Anne Hathaway in the Nolans.

AstonRep: The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Raven Theatre

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Beautiful day for biking... I did something like 25km on the round trip up to the Raven Theatre from West Town. They are on the part of North Clark that fans out just past the little Sweden of Andersonville. The route is pretty straight too: Damen almost all the way, the almost exact reverse to yesterday's long slog home from the strings. Another Goldstar outing: $10 + $3.75. Plenty of reviewers too, as it was the opening weekend. There were also plenty of oldies there for the Albee (All My Sons).

This is a black comedy about the IRA and its splinter groups, and clearly that's going to play well in Shamrock-green Chicago. (Sinéad sold out all her gigs here in no time.) The playwright was offended that England wouldn't put it on, due to some obvious sensitivities, but really this is all about a man's devotion to his cat, and clearly the English are dog fanciers. We are asked to further grant that the man is a psycho killer too extreme even for the provos, and that he prefers to be off furthering the cause than being at home and minding Wee Thomas. What nationality was Ned Kelly anyway? That's right, and his cat didn't stop him either. I enjoyed it for the most part, though occasionally the accents got too thick to parse, or the actors got too shy with some of the bluer slang. The black cat with the green eyes stole the show, out gallivanting indeed, and he does like his frosties. There are some fantastically outré props.

Spektral Quartet at Constellation.

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I trekked back up to Constellation with some ill-formed idea that an avant-garde string quartet would be something to listen to on a Saturday night. I guess I was hoping for something electric, like Fourplay, but instead got something more like the Brodsky Quartet with an American poet and an American punk subbed in for Elvis Costello. It was packed, I think with music students and faculty from the Uni of Chicago. The initial Stravinsky (Concertino) went over OK, after two Founders stouts that the barmaid preferred to their porter. The interstitial Glass (Quartet No. 2 "Company") was missing its accompanying Beckett. Dave Reminick is the punk, and his The Ancestral Mousetrap (bringing a dead man back to life and oh my god, I'll never get home by Russell Edson bringing the words) was solidly in the Brodsky Quartet mode. Their assorted mobile miniatures were micro compositions by various American composers on the order of 1-40s for mobile phone events (ringtones, etc.). Most were twee, by which I mean that they necessarily traded on musical cliché. I think I enjoyed Dvořák's Quartet F major, op. 96, "American" (ii. lento) the most. They closed with Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, Op. 132 v. allegro appassionato-presto, after what they said was their customary shot.

I had dinner at Lee's Chow Mein at Western and Diversey beforehand. They got the ambience right, I'll give them that much.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

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6pm, AMC River East 21, $12.31 (= $11.00 + $1.32 in tax), three rows from the front. The projector in cinema 9 has a third of a row of busted pixels, about 20% up on the left-hand side. It was distracting during the abysmal pre-show. The short has been omnipresent for the past few months.

I've had a soft spot for Michael Keaton since the first Batmans. Perhaps I cut him slack as he had Nicholson, Basinger and Pfeifer to rub up against; he didn't have to carry the whole movie in the way Bale seems to need to. The premise is transparently in the has-been mould that I identify with Shatner, of a one-time flying man having a last-gasp go at being taken for a serious artist. For everyone there must be an opportune time to sell out, and perhaps Liam Neeson figured that better than anyone. The cinematography and editing are truly excellent, as one would expect from Emmanuel Lubezki (cf Gravity and Tree of Life), putting me in mind of Altman and Casino. Ed Norton is far superior to the grab in the trailer; I thought I was in for yet another bland tough-guy effort, but instead we get a mildly artificial self-knowing acting-like-an-actor performance which is near pitch-perfect. He observes that he's only real on the stage, fake everywhere else, and we see this reflected by one of the extra girls in the bar, eyes bugged: she looks like she makes her real life faker so the acted one becomes more real, or at least relatable. He can only say "let me tell you something" in one mode, however, which came as a bit of a clanger while he was massaging the expectations of manga-eyed emo goddess Emma Stone. Naomi Watts is solid in dead-pan mode, never funnier than in and after an on-stage scene where Norton gets randy for the first time in six months. The scene in the dressing room may even have been transgressive if we didn't know her so well. "How do you know [Ed Norton]?" she's asked, early on. "We share a vagina."

The play-in-the-movie (a take on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) gets the usual repetitious treatment but less tediously than in the vaudeville I saw a while back. There is also something of Season on the Line here, given the central conceit of this being one final attempt to produce art. Sticking the drums in the set evoked Jarmusch for me, but I couldn't say why. Thematically we're clearly in Ishiguro territory, particularly Never Let Me Go, with fatherhood and being a serious artist possibly beyond Keaton's ability to make good on. Zach Galifianakis leaves me cold.

I read Dana Stevens's take afterwards. It's more fun that she implies. Anthony Lane. Manohla Dargis. She's wrong, they do say Icarus. Francine Prose was late to the party.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago: David Bowie Is

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$25, bought on 2014-09-29. I picked a good time to come to Chicago: this turned up at the more-or-less six-month mark, as do the All Blacks in a few weekends' time. I intended to take the day off, but there was the chance of afternoon meeting, and so I only had the morning. I felt I was running quite late when I got there at 9.57am, given that I had a ticket good for entry between 10am and 10.30am, and that their blurb suggested that they'd be open from 9.30am for us to queue. This led to me doing some bicycle heroing down Chicago, the wind coming off the river and lake cold. In the end, it didn't matter. The other confusing bit was that we entered by the side door, and not the main one up the external staircase. I had to check my bag.

Well, Bowie, yeah. This is not so much about him as a human, or even as a musician, but just a fashion icon. One problem with this presentation is that we're far more likely to notice his plagiarism. For instance, I read solidarity-with-John-and-Yoko into his Japanese outfits of the early 1970s, rather than brash originality, and somewhat later the video for The Heart's Filthy Lesson tamely evoking Trent Reznor's Closer from about two years previous. The latter's remix of the song is superior too. Another is that we have little idea of what sparked his creativity; I didn't stop to read all the notes, but the one attached to the little cocaine spoon observes that it didn't stymie the magic of the early- to mid-1970s. I wondered if, like Elvis Costello, the odd divorce and new flame did the trick. You won't learn that here, for his love life is totally, like totally, MIA; Iman is not cited except possibly in the footnotes.

I did learn that Bowie supported Roy Harper on June 3, 1968. The curators somehow managed to find a pile of working TVs with real scan lines. The garb representing Outside is a touch militaristic; I've sometimes wondered just what it was that got Bowie labelled fascistic in the 1970s, and it might be that he is politically naïve or wilfully oblivious. His austere, classical thin-white-duke suits from Station to Station were the classiest thing there.

I ended up blowing through it in about an hour and fifteen minutes. They traded a bit much on audio accompaniment gizmo, and the bloke stalking around without one must have missed out on a lot. Focussing on Bowie's fashion like this reminded me of what Zappa said about music journalism, though yes, almost everything reminds me of that. It would have been a lot more fun if Bowie himself had done some sort of installation.

Terminator Salvation

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I'd totally forgotten about this movie and was curious to know what happens in it. Well, there was a good reason that I forgot. I'm left thinking that here Marla Singer looks like Meryl Streep's skeleton dipped in wax, going around and being nice to someone, and wondering what she's going to do once Skynet kills all the humans. I guess her spirit really can use the telephone.

Shaw Chicago: Don Juan in Hell

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I got in early a while back and scored a complimentary ticket to this from Goldstar... who tacked on an $8 service fee. Ouch. The Shaw people are hosted by the Ruth Page Center for the Arts which could serve as a future RSL; they already have the clientele. I hoofed it over there in some mild non-committal Sydney-style grey drizzle via Big Shoulders, and intended to get lunch at the Thai on Chicago. Well, their lease expired and I knew of nowhere decent nearby. The dinky Thai/Viet thing around the corner and up a bit sold me a passable Panang in a horrendously noisy, divey setting. I won't be hurrying back.

I wasn't expecting a script reading, though it was just: I had pretended to pay and in return they pretended to serve up some acting. All the players worked hard on the material, but I was too tired after a week of training to take this as anything other than an hour and forty-five minutes of being talked at about interesting things; "I'll read the notes later," I thought. Some of it was laugh-out-loud though I can't recall just what.

This is a part of Shaw's Man and Superman, and is apparently his own working out of his own ideas.

Tim Winton: Land's Edge.

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Rooting around Amazon for something to pad my order up to $35 (didn't it used to be $25 for free shipping?), I remembered this one. The cheapest that BookFinder came up with was $4.25 total from Thriftbooks, trading on Abebooks as Motor City Books. Go figure. Anyway, they are in Detroit and it took about a week to get here. This was the original, 1993, coffee-table edition from Pan Macmillan on Balfour Street in Chippendale. Lanfranchi's shadow looms large indeed. What I ended up buying from Amazon, more about later.

Here Winton reminisces, or simply lives, his life on the wild coastline of Western Australia. We get the childhood summer holidays at the beach shack, a couple of the perilous situations and how they happened, the dreams they became. It's more of the same from him, I guess, but unfortunately not as much as one might hope for at a brief 48 pages, followed with about the same in photographs (by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood). Or perhaps it isn't: this one is a bit quieter, and the more powerful for it being directly personal, than his fiction that canvasses similar spaces (e.g. Breath). I've got to wonder how much of this imaged Australia still exists; one imagines the entire coastline is full of mining rigs and lonely container-based settlements housing fly-in fly-out Perth suburbanites. The weirdo hermits and the roo hunting families are surely unwelcome and/or uneconomic in booming Westralia.

Den Theatre: Step Up Productions: Dead Accounts

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Yet another Goldstar outing at the Den: $15 + $4.50. 3pm on a Sunday afternoon looked good a while back, but after a lazy morning of hacking away at nothing in particular, and given an increasingly-rare sunny and not-too-windy day in Chicago, I wish I could have been outside. That's just to say I'm glad I went, but I wish I'd gone some other time.

This play by Theresa Rebeck attempts to explain the midwest (specifically Cincinatti, Ohio) to foreigners, specifically New Yorkers. The stayed-there locals, mother Barbara (Millie Hurley) and Lorna (Emily Tate), play on a pretty funny Catholic dynamic that is probably the strongest thread. Steve O’Connell's Jack returns as the prodigal son so coked up that he destabilises everyone else (actors and characters alike). Conveniently his last remaining mate in the town Phil (Bradford Lund) has waited a long time for another crack at Lorna, for otherwise this thing would be romance-free, and the scenes where ex-wife-of-sorts Jenny (Elizabeth Antonucci) and Jack get down to it would be straight out of Albee. Much of the humour trades on people talking past each other, and spiraling back to earlier conversational points, as family dialogue often goes.

Step Up had an elaborate set constructed on the Den's main stage. The "tasteless" kitchen featured plates on the walls, and it seems that the in-sink-erator I have grown familiar with is not a NYC thing, but it remains unclear to me just how much it is a mid-Western thing. Sydney has Corelle crockery; I used it for about fourteen years and almost all of it survived. The audience was tiny, which was unfortunate. I wondered if Elizabeth was trying for a squeaky NYC accent, or trying on a fake one to match her satirical hauteur, which was entirely entertaining. Emily was almost formulaically histrionic, an All-American put-upon girl, which I put down to her character lacking dynamism, probably by design. I left wondering why Jenny ran off like she did. The Chicago Reader reviewer had more doubts. Alex Huntsberger at New City Stage is more cutting about the source material.

LAMPO: Rene Hell (Jeff Witscher): Bifurcating a Resounding No!

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I signed up to the LAMPO list a while back, and finally their season has commenced. Unfortunately it is very short, at only four widely-spaced gigs. The The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts is some fantastical anachronistic outfit that believes that art can be advanced, perhaps even systematically, by hosting things like this. They've got a beautiful old building in an upscale part of town that was packed to the gills and beyond with cool trendy types. While waiting to get in I got talking to Kyle, from Indianapolis, who was himself waiting for a friend who had also driven up for the day. We pondered why they didn't charge for what seemed to be an incredibly popular performance.

This is the type of music that NOW now showcases: here they call it "electroacoustic" but really it's samples from all over the map, or man-plays-laptop if you prefer. Some of it was coherent, but never for long, and I could have sworn there were some chip tunes in the middle. Rene Hell showcases some of his paranoia on his bandcamp page.

Here's the blurb:

You say yes; Rene Hell premieres "Bifurcating a Resounding No!" The latest project from Rene née Jeff draws from years of recorded sounds (acoustic instruments, field recordings and voice), collected in cities across the U.S. and shaped with various digital techniques, to make one new weird work.

There was no lightshow so all I could do was space out to the calm between the mild bouts of audience abuse. I enjoyed it, and I'm certainly going to the rest.

Rohinton Mistry: Such a Long Journey

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I heard about this book via Pankaj Mishra a while back. He tends to cite it at every opportunity; I think I got excited by the introduction to a piece of his in the New Yorker. This lead me to think it provided insight into the birth of Bangladesh, but that topic is dispatched in perhaps ten pages spread over 337 and in a way that assumes you know about the Pakistan of the day. Everything telegraphed turns out as you expect so surprises come suddenly and tend to feel like tangents from the already discursive narrative. For instance, it's a bit tedious when a previously-unshown Parsi's "domestic vulture" wife turns out to be shrewish at his funeral. In some ways this is something on the topic of Salman Rushdie's Shame but an (1991) imitation of his Midnight's Children, or looking at it another way, a clunky Ishiguro. There are some funny bits, but nothing laugh-out-loud. The focus is on the Parsis in Bombay.

Last Days in Vietnam

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At the Music Box Theatre, 5pm session, $10, and a Revolution Brewing Octoberfest beer for $5. I rode up from work due to a power shutdown that was delayed from yesterday, via Target. It seems I can't buy Nivea deodorant in this country, and so I stupidly bought some off Amazon, forgetting that I can buy super-cheap fragrence-free stuff everywhere. Oops. I got a new poncho — the old one, from Vietnam, has shed its lining along the shoulder seams and now provides little more than symbolic rain protection. Oh well, it survived a couple of monsoons and a few Sydney showers, pushbikes, scooters and a motorcycle. The new one is essentially a $12 breathless plastic bag that tore the first time I tried to zip it up. Oops.

This one sucked me in in the obvious way: I enjoy footage of Sài Gòn in the old days, and trying to figure out what remains the same. One thing that never did were the street names, but you won't learn about that here. Nor about the baby lift, though the earlier World Airways lift from Đà Nẵng does get a passing mention. There is some excellent footage here, and some some objectively sterling behaviour. For instance, Richard Armitage was tasked with ensuring that the northerners did not gain the southern navy's boats, clapped-out as they were. With help from his high-placed connections he did this, and additionally managed to shepherd a huge number of people across the South China Sea (some call it the Pacific in this film) to the Philippines, who understandably didn't want to process or house the refugees. The story of Vietnamese Chinook pilot Ba Nguyen is awesome. We get to see Big Minh striding around in the final days of his country.

Less charitably, one can see this as a frozen-in-time piece of heart wringing by American film makers. The communists don't get a say, and we don't get any real sense of what has happened since April 30, 1975. (The re-educations camps are mentioned in endnotes.) One could also compare this chaos to the Berlin air lift, so many years before. It is fuel for the hands-tied-by-pollies version of history.

A. O. Scott found this to be even handed; I disagree. For instance, to paraquote one of the American interviewees: "[that] the North Vietnamese were terrified by Nixon..." was not really true: the northerners were clearly resigned to sacrifice and more sacrifice. I'm not sure how much stock we can put in Kissinger's take on negotations as he is getting blandly revisionist in his old age. George Packer calls him on it.

In the weeks before I watched the fair-and-balanced PBS TV series on the Vietnam War from 1983.

City Lit Theatre: Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo

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Goldstar ticket, $14.50 + $4.25. I felt really bad as this venerable theatre group struggled to pull a crowd to this early and late Albee vehicle: perhaps too many wonder why he decided to add an act to the first play he wrote and rebrand it like a Microsoft product. The venue was the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, which is more like an old school; I can imagine many support groups find a home there. The weather was threatening so I left the bike at home and took the El up to the cute kitchen sink cafe. Later on I walked back to Argyle for a phở (decent, at Le's on Broadway) and then back up to Edgewater. I had hoped to make it to Big Chick's but wimped out when I saw how few the drinkers were. Next time.

As Wikipedia will tell you, this is a two-act thing that is mostly monologue, despite there being two people in each of them. The notional pivot/foil is Peter (Ted Hoerl), who gets worked over first by his wife Ann (Elaine Carlson) and then by Jerry (an excellent Mike Cherry). The actors are all solid but there's not much to it; the kids arrange their sexual deviancy on the internet these days, and have done for a decade and more now. Sure, we can make people squirm by talking confrontationally about such things, but Albee seemed oblivious to how things have moved, about depleted privacy and millenial sensitivities. Yes, the dialogue is vintage, but even so. I don't think we find out what happened at the zoo, despite Jerry's entertaining stories about caninicide. No, I did not take notes.

The red line El got me back to Grand, up which I schelpped in the cold for the second night in a row. When I got home I finally found out what the cowboy and the girl was all about.

Gone Girl (2014)

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I skipped out of work a little early, as my productivity had become approximately negative, and headed up to the "Magnificent Mile" of North Michigan Avenue to see Fincher's latest. First time at the AMC Loews 600, which was upstairs from a Louisiana restaurant I'd been to before. Small town, at least after a while. $11.50. The men's was difficult to find. They have these clever Dyson all-in-one faucet thingies that do water and soap and dryer, but idiosyncratically; the dryer only kicked in when I removed my hands, defining me by my absence. It's that kind of space, and that kind of movie.

The seats are like business class: reclining, leg supports, wide enough for two cats and me, outsize arms for mini-meals, and assigned. The ticket girl bluffed me by claiming the screen was huge, so I sat three rows back, far off to the right when I could have sat a row forward in the middle. It turned out OK though. The couple sitting next to me talked throughout, less as it went on, and my usual metric of a good movie — that it shuts up the audience — doesn't work so well here as Americans like echoing things they agree with in validatory style, along the lines of the call and response of the Gospel churches.

The movie itself is a blend of almost everything Fincher's done before, most notably the two-track structure of Fight Club and the graphic awfulness of Se7en, right down to the immaculate boxes containing ... presents. Trent Reznor is back with a drone-y soundtrack that fits the mood perfectly. The cinematography was vintage; I mean, does anyone even notice how beautifully he and Jeff Cronenweth shoot anymore? The cat, who may be the same one who lead Inside Llewyn Davis, is squandered, and Ben Affleck proves he is not a cat person when he treats him so casually. I was almost offended to see him driving a Volvo, and that he can act this well. This kind of absence and craziness has many antecedents: the first is Kim Dickens's solid performance as a competent, sceptical police detective being so familiar from Fargo. The theme of doubt where there once was trust reminded me of Lantana. Rosamund Pike far exceeded the expectations I had of her from The World's End, and similarly matched or exceeded Nicole Kidman's craziness in To Die For. (Maybe both of their characters matched people's expectations so closely that their limitations as actors were simply ignored.) She keeps her unmentionables close for less time than you'd expect from a prim English actress. Her parents were predictably cardboard. I was a bit surprised when we lost cabin pressure so early as I figured Fincher would ride the ambiguity for longer, but no, this one has a sting in the tail. Carrie Coon as Affleck's twin sister annoyed me initially by coming off as Catherine Keener, but she develops into something more than just a man's vision of the right kind of anchor. She's also a Chicago local.

It's long, at 2.5 hours, but doesn't drag. The movie ends before consequences completely come down, which seems to be Fincher's way of saying that the mess he's made doesn't make complete sense; in that way it's more Fight Club than Se7en. St Louis and Missouri get a guernsey in the form of a Cardinals shirt that Affleck wears in almost every scene.

Unusually I read Dana Stevens afterwards. She's right that it does get a bit mechanical in the second act. Manohla Dargis. She's wrong about the cat: Affleck shows him some attention but is not careful about it. I'm glad I went in cold. Anthony Lane. I will remain one of the twenty-one who haven't read the novel. Michael Wood reminded me about Fincher's The Game. Zoë Heller.

Goodman Theatre: Smokefall

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My first time at the Goodman, and at a Loop theatre, though I walked past them all the time when I first got to Chicago. Another Goldstar ticket: $31.50 + $6.75. They gave me a pretty decent seat, better than at the Steppenwolf last week. I got chatting with the lady sitting next to me. She has season tickets to the ballet and symphony, and was not so much into the theatre. She gave me the rundown on the old Ukrainian Village: bordered by Division and Chicago, Damen and Western, roamed by Urge Overkill back in the day. You had to be there. Her timing was apparently perfect on picking up the stats processing software, R and so forth: she teaches people how to crank the unending streams of data, amongst other things.

Before this I burnt some time at Starbucks with a croissant, and had a Blue Moon Belgian White when I got to the Goodman. The play got moving quite agreeably: a narrator / footnoter makes an appearance and starts sketching the family we follow for the first act. At some point the set exploded and most of the audience went to the bathroom. The following birth scene was what the one in Tristram Shandy was going to be, and the humour was both low- and high-brow, probably annoying everybody. The swearing went a bit over-the-top somewhere around here. There was loads of repetition humour, and while I did find some poignancy in some of it (maybe over-identifying with one or two of the characters), it was once again mostly an exercise in affirming the American soul, which hopefully resonated with the rest of the audience. The acting was quite fine across the board.

This was a reprise of last year's run. Same cast, I believe. Chris Jones gives a local's impressions, with a few clangers. (Those twins do know that they're better off in the womb.) He had another go a week past.


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$11.50 from Ticketleap (for a $10 ticket in advance). I think I heard about it from the Reader, but this piece by Tony Adler was not it. At the Trapdoor Theatre on Cortland St, out the back of Jane's. I had in mind to go to the Wicker Park Pub across the road, but the vestibule where the manic ticket lady and drinks girl were was packed and so I settled for a New Belgium Tour de Fall Pale Ale there. Very cramped, not much seating. The toilet door apparently did not lock.

I guess this was something for the Chicago Hungarian community, some kind of improv performance art or circus. There was one girl and three guys, and the girl got very objectified. There was lots of groping, and it was unclear what we were supposed to make of it; some was playful, some a bit aggressive. There were eggs, yes, but nothing too adventurous or skillful. She got tasked with mopping up the ones that weren't caught. Conceived and directed by Zoltán Balázs. I hoped to hear some Félix Lajkó.

Steve Nieve at the City Winery.

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"Premier seating", according to Goldstar, who asked for $11 + $3.75, for this gig featuring the sometime, all time, Elvis Costello pianist. The City Winery is a faux upscale wine bar that presses, or maybe just ages, or maybe just serves, its own wine. I got sat at the end of a series of tables with a decent view of Nieve's back, which was totally OK. The real problem was that it was right next to the door to the kitchen, from which excited Spanish regularly issued, glasses clinked, and so forth. Those sitting two or more seats down the tables did not suffer from this. Also paying at the end is farcical: I had two beers — a Founders Michigan Porter and a Triple Alpha hopped-up Indiana thing, for what is now old-time's sake — and had to wait ten minutes for my change. The ploy is, of course, to get you to walk away and leave an outsize tip. As my liberty was being infringed either way, I waited with teeth gritted.

So the whole vibe was American dinnertime, with the plea to respect the other audience members and the artist by remaining quiet. It was instead a time to catch up with old friends, graze, network. I guess American exceptionalism extends upwards, downwards and in every direction. The French vocalist was not great and the songs tended to blancmange without the rest of the band and the snappy lyrics. Did Steve play Bowie's Is there life on Mars? on the fifth Steinway when they were choosing pianos for North? Were these flyover songs for flyover states? As many people would observe of me, if any of that's going to give me the shits then I should stay home. Steve, on the other hand, did prove that necrophilia can go stale.

Eugene Burdick: A Role in Manila, Fifteen Tales of War, Postwar, Peace, and Adventure.

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Fifteen sounds about right, but some of them felt a lot longer. Not much for me here; I think he was stronger with a collaborator in more expansive form. There's a predecessor of Moneyball in there for the trainspotters. A segue from Fail/Safe and The Ugly American etc. Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. Apparently a first-edition from 1971.

Art Institute of Chicago: Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections

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I signed up for this talk a while back; I'm very susceptible to Art Institute of Chicago's emails, perhaps due to the time-limited nature of my membership. After spending the morning at the Daley Library at UIC, I hurried my lunch at Chinatown (some tasty fried stuff, and not the ramen or dumplings I had hoped for) and sprinted up Indiana Avenue to get there by 2pm. We got an intro from the curator (I think) and then two long talks from the Greek ladies who have been shepherding the exhibition across the U.S.: Jenny Albani, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Greece, and Anastasia Drandaki, Benaki Museum, Athens. From what I understood, these guys are interesting as they stand at the root of the Christian Orthodox Church, and transitioned from 3D/sculptures/idols to 2D/icons, and had a tolerant (Greek?) attitude to other ways of doing things. I'm not sure I like seeing Athene with a big cross on her forehead, even so. I'll head back to the exhibition later on, perhaps on a Thursday night. I ended up chatting a bit with Virginia, an older lass who told me that Charles Schwab no longer wants her non-internet business. I'd have hoped they'd have transition plans for such customers.

The House Theatre: Season on the Line at the Chopin Theatre.

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I bought a Goldstar ticket for $16.50 ($4 to them) almost a month ago, largely because I'd been wanting to go to the Chopin Theatre on Division at the Polonia Triangle pretty much as long as I've been in Chicago. I think I picked the right production to go to. Their foyer is full of theatrical bric-a-brac, evoking some of the old world without being overstuffed with it. The ticket was a random page from Moby Dick, stamped by the upbeat box office girl. I bought a couple of Żywiec bottles, $5 each, one before the show and the other at first intermission, and found them to be light and agreeable. The alternative was Pabst in a can.

The play itself is long, at three hours. I can say it made me even less likely to read Moby Dick. The main stage is a large room with seating on all four sides, which sometimes lead to substantial occlusion. A review at the Reader. The whole thing is terribly meta, but still a lot of fun. Many in the cast crank up the histrionic apoplexy, especially Andy Lutz and the eventual Ishmael Thomas J. Cox. The narrator/neophyte assistant stage manager Ty Olwin lithely segues between the dramatic incidents, evoking Ed Norton from Fight Club at times by remaining somewhat calmer than his colleagues. Ah, to be paid a flat wage when others have gone all-in! — though I think my purple Amoeba-San Francisco tshirt is so much cooler than his beige one from Hollywood. Unfortunately Marvin Quijada does not get to apply his excellent vaudeville skills here, though there certainly was room for it. Maggie Kettering does well in the just-say-yes/I-must-say-no role of the stage manager. Danny Bernardo had a lot of fun as the bartender. Some of the get-ups were hilarious. The treatment of racism in Gatsby was over-the-top. I'd never heard of the second production Balm in Gilead and so probably missed half the jokes in the midsection. Reviewer Sean Sinitski evoked Ebert for me: the suits, the what-can-I-do honesty. The rest of the cast had their moments too, but I have typed enough.

Steppenwolf Theatre: The Night Alive

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The Steppenwolf Theatre is something like the Belvoir of Chicago; way off anywhere one might think of as Broadway, independent and expensive. I don't yet know if they do anything good, however. I paid $23.60 for a Goldstar ticket, who took $6, which I think was steep. Apparently it was Australian-ladies-in-Chicago night out as a tribe of them, twenty or more, settled on the balcony in the rows in front of me. I happened to be wearing my Pixies, Sydney 2007 shirt but got away with it. The whole place was packed.

Before the gig I had dinner at the Chinese on Wells/Ohio, which was not great. The ride up Wells and Clybourn was pleasant as the streets are wide and presently quite clean. I also bought a Revolution Porter from the upstairs bar in a can inscribed with "serve cold". It was better than that would suggest. The play itself is a middle-of-the-road crowd pleaser with some familiar, clichéd humour. By Conor McPherson, it's Irish and the accent work was fine, the acting solid. The set was ornate. I just didn't get into the tepidly reheated theme of rescuing fallen lassies and grafting a living from shifting dodgy artifacts (err, been there, doing that?). The building is a bit of a bland big-box theatre, not so different from the strip-mall cinema. While waiting for it to start the girl sitting at the end of the row pulled out her old (film) box camera and prepared to sneak photos; she got sprung and soon moved up the back. I wonder if she succeeded.

David Bowie cover band Sons of the Silent Age at the Daley Plaza.

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... ably displacing any protesters who might wish to observe that Rahm Emmanuel is not doing a stellar job, however impeccable his taste, just for one day. The band's name is a song off Heroes, and they pretty much stuck to the Bowie of then: Ashes to Ashes, Is there life on Mars?, that sort of thing. Gail Ann Dorsey has set the standard for Under Pressure covers; no-one attempts the Freddie-all-over-the-map original. They closed with Heroes, which made me realise that they had a keyboard player (see far left in the picture). The band was tight but the mix was occasionally crap. Oh yes, the band: Chris Connelly ex-Ministry on vocals, Matt Walker ex-local-boys Smashing Pumpkins on drums, Shirley Manson ex-Garbage on Under Pressure co-vocals. I last saw her in 1996 at the Hordern, also for free. Time flies.

Of course it was just shameless marketing for the Bowie Is exhibition; shameless but still they went through the motions. A lady in front of me had a new-ish Thailand tour t-shirt that showed pre-1975 North and South Vietnam, with the border near Hue. News sure does travel slowly near the Cambodian border.

It struck me that Bowie coverbands do it tough: if they were ripping into the Beatles back catalogue they could aspire to be the next Oasis. Here the best they can do is keep up, even now.

A Night Out by Harold Pinter.

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I rushed off down to the central Chicago Public Library after work as I'd finally gotten notification that my Silk Road CD had arrived from the nether regions of their network after a week. Unfortunately the computer system in the popular library decided to take a holiday, so I almost didn't get it. While waiting I sought out a copy of Burdick's shorts A Role in Manila. Had the customary (perfunctory) Thai for dinner at the de Paul campus-of-sorts, and then a fairly pleasant and not-too-hairy ride up Dearborn then Wells to A Red Orchid Theatre. It remains warm in the sun and the wind hasn't quite developed a taste for gooseflesh.

I'd tried to find the buy-a-ticket link before turning up, but didn't and ultimately figured it'd either be very sold out or very not sold out. As it was I got there 29 minutes early and was number seven on a waiting list that eventually numbered in the thousands. Harold Pinter hasn't been this popular since he got the Nobel in 2005. I wasn't the last to cough up my $10 and squeeze past the organized, but this had left no time left for booze, which was probably just as well as I was sleepy. No afternoon coffee, see. Anyway, the cast greeted us with some manic Sade/Marat hospitality and dancing, and I was pleased to see the players of Ecstasy, unfortunately out of character, there to see the mess to be made of their fantastic set.

The reviewer at the Reader more-or-less nails it, uncharitably though, as the commenter observes. They're both right; Harold Pinter deserves this lighter approach, though it proves unsustainable over the longer haul. The best parts were indeed the dance scenes, where modern partying is cut with some dated dialogue about the eternal.

I have no idea what A Red Orchid Theatre's incubator is supposed to be, but I'm going to keep an eye on it.

Violet Kupersmith: The Frangipani Hotel

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I heard about this book from a generous review in the New York Times. I had hoped to borrow it from the Chicago Public Library but the queue was out the door for the single print and single ebook they have. Oh well, I thought, I'll just wait. Well, someone sold their copy to glenthebookseller who's out in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora is famous for hosting the datacentre for a very large derivatives market. For that reason it has many microwave towers, mostly pointing east towards New Jersey, and probably Chicago. Glen's automaton happily charged me a total of $4.45 to ship this data the old fashioned way.

The short story is that I've read too many Vietnamese folk stories to get too excited about these. (I'm not going to enumerate them; those salad days were back in 2011 and 2012 and thereabouts; oh, start in 2008 then.) Moreover this is not a memoir of her time there on her Fulbright; contrast it, for instance, with Balaban's magisterial effort. Like Frank Black, I've been tired, so pardon my continued kvetching.

The voice Violet adopts here is young, brash, confident; she knows who she is, and these are not stories of becoming (see Andrew X. Pham for that) nor reflections on genre ethnic lit (see Nam Le for that). Perhaps because she is so late to the party, with Vietnam now a middle-income country and Orange County well-integrated, we get some often-decent writing dressing up very slight insights in obsolescent magical realism. Is this a peace offering to the mother country from a youngster of the diaspora? Or some aspect of the American Generation Y, a reticence, an unwillingness to offend, an homage to blancmange that I don't understand? Perhaps Charles Yu's humorous science fiction is the more expressive style, and he definitely felt less need for a thesaurus.

It is also clear that she hasn't done her homework. Like Peter Lloyd and his male ants, Violet appears to think that beer is distilled and not brewed (p36). Personally, I think of bia hoi as something of an opposite to Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and whatever it is that Norwegians do to theirs. By Vietnamese vodka, does she mean rice wine (p208)? That stuff sends you blind, as Dương Thu Hương was telling us back in the days of đổi mới. I found Tết a lonely time as everyone decamps for their home villages; in my case I was heading back to Melbourne for Peodair's wedding and struggled to find somewhere to leave my bag; traditionally Vietnamese do not engage with strangers on the first day of the new year. I will stop with the false notes here.

As is necessary these days, some of these stories traffic in the transgressive. In Guests, we're shown an entanglement between a young American embassy worker and a local mechanic. I feel Dana Sachs treated the scene far more humanely a while back. This and most of the other stories exploit Vietnam's eternal, almost definitional, status as the exotic; it seems beyond her to realise that the United States is also totally bizarre, as Oliver Stone demonstrated in the supermarket scene in Heaven and Earth so long ago. Does she realise that many non-Americans may like to stay that way? Her Saigon geography seems a bit off to me; no-one who's been there for more than a month drinks on De Tham, not when there are cheaper, less comfortable places just up the way, or rum hoi down near the statue of Tran Hung Dao — right next to Black Cat! — or myriad nightclubs closer to where she houses her protagonists. There are supermarkets within walking distance of the U.S. Consulate; I wondered where Mai got the meat to go with the vegetables from the market. She's writing for the home crowd, echoing what Burdick said in Rest Camp on Maui (Harper's, July 1946) about marines who go on sexual escapades:

... the correspondent was writing occasionally in a black notebook. Young moved behind him and read what he had written. "Marines like Aussie girls, but first love still clean-cut American girls."

Ah yes, I promised to stop. Allow me instead to ramble on: her story Turning Back features a bloke from Bạc Liêu, which is famously very commie, and hence his village was likely to have escaped the post-1975 purges. Perhaps they did raze the Catholic ones, I don't know. It also echoes Andrew X. Pham's account of his transgender sister. I found it very unclear what the narrator herself wants; we've seen this kind of slacking as a response to outsize tiger-parent ambition in his work too, but there it profitably becomes a search for stories and not just shopkeeping. See also Growing up Asian in Australia. Her One Finger contains her solitary gesture (no, not that one) to the war/agent orange, and came across as a nakedly exploitative freakshow.

I'll close with a quote I liked from the strongest of the stories, the titular The Frangipani Hotel:

"Let me tell you something about women. Translate for me, Phi. Did you know that in Hanoi, they say the most beautiful girls live in Saigon? In Saigon, they say the most beautiful girls live in Hue. In stuck-up Hue, they say that Saigon is right. But everyone is wrong. There are no beautiful girls left. Pretty faces, sure. But then they ring their eyes with all that dark makeup. They wear see-through blouses and run around in packs, shrieking and squealing and always fiddling with their cellphones and their dyed hair." His voice break off, and when he speaks again there is a note in it that I've never heard before. "Whatever happened to the simple girls, the sweet girls, the girls that you could sing about? All my life, I've only ever known one girl like that."

Vietnam waits still for her Midnight's Children and How to get rich in rising Asia; I imagine the time when Bac Ho smiles to himself because someone has equipped his country with a backstory even more fantastical than it is.

Chicago Wandelweiser Festival (day 2): R. Andrew Lee

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Grégoire gestured at the Constellation as some sort of home to experimental / marginal music, so I figured it'd be worth a shot. $11.85 ahead of time from Ticketfly; could have gotten in for $10 at the door as it turned out. I had a beer at their bar beforehand, which is somewhat cosy despite the unpadded wooden furnishings. I think there are a few spaces there; the one with the minimalist piano works was quite large with seating on three sides. Two of the composers were present: Eva-Maria Houben and Jürg Frey. The setlist:

  • December (2002) by Craig Shepard, which was genre drone music, impressively played by Lee.
  • Go and Stop (2002) by Eva-Marie Houben.
  • Distance (1) (1996) by Michael Pisaro.
  • pianist, alone (2) (2013) by Jürg Frey.

The crowd was small-ish (40-50 people) and very appreciative. Some of it got noir-ish like Barry Adamson, back in his heyday, but without the backing noise; just the slicing, the pauses, the sometime paranoia.

Cole Theatre: Ecstasy at A Red Orchid Theatre.

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As Irvine Welsh lives here now, one might reasonably have expected this to be a take on his shorts from a long time ago, but no: this is Mike Leigh's script from circa 1979, and A Red Orchid Theatre would not be out of place on Sydney's lower north shore circa that time. I suspect it may take the surrounding locality of Old Town until 2020 to discover Thai. I had a beer across the road beforehand at an Italian restaurant, where I sat at the bar and drank my Guinness with almost no help from the barstaff. For $8.50 including tip I expected at least a little interest. This stretch of Wells is for the showpony set.

Be that as it may, I was here for the theatre, having stumped up the full price of $25 to see some game folk have a crack at art. I think the review at the Reader was unduly snarky. The cast is uniformly excellent, with great accent work. Sure, the bloke (Roy, played by Joel Reitsma) finishing up with Jean (Lauren Pizzi) is not Thewlis, but things open with them naked in an authentic kind of way. No danger in that, not never. I particularly liked Michaela Petro's Dawn, laughing like a drain and trying to be a mate, who is wisely given a lot of room by Boyd Harris (playing Mick, her husband with the softest Irish lilt) and Layne Manzer, who makes Len, the pivot of the second half, a timid Elvis Costello type. Skyler Schrempp is very briefly Val. Perhaps they've tuned things over the intervening weeks, or Maura Kidwell's Jean may have been something else entirely.

The set is an impressively-detailed London bedsit which made me wonder if they still have electricity and gas meters. Someone put a drinking bird on the bedside table, soon cluttered with dead Newcastle Brown Ales and spirit bottles. The noses wrinkled at vodka, the G&T's, certainly mark it anachronistic. Much smoking is evoked though the cast reduce it to bum-puffing so they can get through the night/run. (Seems they had some more realistic tech earlier in the run.) The plot follows from the characters: a couple of nights in working-class London, amongst the common people who came from elsewhere. It was a fun, solid effort and I'm keen to see what they all get up to next. Director Shade Murray apparently did a ripper Abigail's Party in 2010.

The Drop

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4:10pm at the River East 21, $12. Two rows from the front in a small theatre. I saw the short a few months back. Another one written by Dennis Lehane. I enjoyed this far more than his previous outing — Shutter Island — and about as much as Gone Baby Gone. This was probably due to a stellar cast: Tom Hardy tries hard to play dumb, and only really starts to convince when he goes all Bad Boy Bubby by gladwrapping the remains of the neighbours. He needs to dull his eyes down, like David Wenham in Gettin' Square. The dog subplot is unfortunately a cliché; unfortunate, at least, to us cat people, who'd need to be into the tough-cat equivalent of a pit bull to go anywhere near Noomi Rapace in this one. (She carries her damage and vulnerability very well and the film wisely avoids making too much of her character.) John Ortiz is again very fine, but his role is completely auxiliary, more's the pity. James Gandolfini hit a high note for me in Killing Them Softly, whereas here he coasts in full-blown Tony Soprano mode. I think this was his last major role. That the Chechens have pushed the Poles out of the Brooklyn bars is news to me. (I hope I got that right.) The Chechens portrayed here are suitably menacing in a knowing, show-don't-tell, cardboard-cutout mode. Michaël R. Roskam does a fine job in directing, and I'm off to see what else he's done.

Strawdog Theatre Company: Fail/Safe

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Goldstar ticket, $10.50. I feel so cheap. Also a cider, $5, from the bar there. This was adapted from Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe of the early 1960s. I know the former from his and Lederer's The Ugly American. The all-male cast did a great job on the three jammed-together sets which worked out well even though their movements were severely constrained. I got talking to the girl selling drinks who almost convinced me to make time to see The Arsonists in the next day or two, and a playwright / maths / english teacher who reminded me that I should study some geometry and read the book. The ride up from work was pretty messy as I still haven't internalized how to get onto Clark / Broadway from the west. I went home straight down Halstead, then got bored and jagged via Goose Island / Division to Noble. Marta had taken Jackson for a walk and sorted out the food.

Side Effects

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What a terrible little movie. I'm making a habit of it, I can see. For Jude Law, I think, and a Rooney Mara segue from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All the ladies are horrible here. I don't know what Soderbergh's point is.

Dana Stevens.

Den Theatre: Alice invents a little game and Alice always wins

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Goldstar ticket, $13.75. Well, two out of three ain't bad for the Den. This one was not exactly enigmatic so much as just plain indulgently obscure and occluded. I don't know what we were supposed to get out of this. It was certainly a friends-and-family kind of a crowd. The barlass suckered me into buying another Great Lakes stout by calling it something I didn't recognise (its subtitle). Dang. The schlep up in the Sydney-style non-committal rain from Noble St was not fun but I think preferable to cycling. Here's the blurb:

From Nick Flynn, the author of acclaimed memoirs Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb, comes an enigmatic and haunting stage play, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins. In the wake of a natural disaster in their city, four strangers find themselves locked out of their homes, abandoned on the sidewalk. Day by day, they become friends, enemies, and everything else in between. Now Ben Kaye directs this tale of desperation, dreaming and donuts for the Forget Me Not Theatre Company.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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For Fincher, warming up for Gone Girl. What a horrible little movie. Long, yes, but so small; it wants to be Fincher's earlier Se7en with a side of Silence of the Lambs. I see they are making the rest of the sequence. Was it really necessary for the cat to cop it? I won't be watching the Swedish originals. Christopher Plummer is the pick of the actors. Rooney Mara scrubs up fine when she needs to. Stellan Skarsgård relishes his role a little too baldly. Daniel Craig is too banal to play brains.

Old Sennheiser CX300-IIs almost die, replaced by Shure SE215-CLs, news at 12.

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The cable on my never-great Sennheiser CX300-IIs was getting decidedly dodgy, and I guess I'd been pining for my dear old e2cs from my Hồ Chí Minh City days, so I gave Amazon their entirely-plausible asking price of $96.99 and waited a week for a pair of these. They sound a little muddy, perhaps a bit bass heavy, and are neither super comfortable nor particularly uncomfortable. The cable is less stiff than my previous Shures, and can be detached from the drivers. I'm now wondering if I should have plonked for the next ones up in the range. The case is much larger than the old one.

Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World

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From the Chicago Public Library. An early work, from 1986, but vintage Ishiguro nonetheless. This is something of an apologia from his generation to his parents', centred around the radical transformation of Japanese society during World War II and the immediate aftermath, but really stretching back to the modernisation of the country from the late 19th century (drawing on my limited memory of history). He aims for ambiguity and melancholic abeyance but instead crowds the stage with too many characters who do not serve distinct purposes; often they are just generational reflections of each other, which seems a clunky way of showing what does not change. His technique is not quite there yet as his first-person unreliable narrator is sapient enough to record many telling things but can be relied upon to miss the obvious. This is further muddied by his erratic hauteur and general unrepentance; perhaps Ishiguro is telling us that Ono would never compromise himself for himself but is happy to do so for others (cf the miai for Noriko and generally shady dealings with Matsuda). We get the usual slow ramp up but not quite the powerful climax. Next up for him was The Remains of the Day, which I have yet to read but am increasingly expecting to be his masterpiece.

Prop Theatre, Bare Kuckle Productions: Who is Tyler Durden?

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Goldstar ticket, $13.75. The blurb ascribed imagination and/or creativity to this crew, who instead served up a very slight variation on the Fight Club script. The lowest-quality outing yet: many flubbed lines. Two hours straight, and I would have left at intermission if they'd had one. The cast outnumbered the audience.

Piccolo Theatre: Smash

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Opening night, another Goldstar bargain: $17.75, Evanston. The theatre is in the old train station / waiting room, but the Metra doesn't come so often that you'd notice. I left work at 4pm to catch the 4.35pm up, and then sat for a while in Brothers K coffeehouse. Their iced latte (yeah, I know) kept me awake far longer than necessary. Thanks guys.

This was opening night and the small-ish theatre was packed with friends and family. The play was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's novel An Unsocial Socialist by Jeffrey Hatcher, in the style of GBS's later works, and American screwball. Wilde this sort-of is. The cast was excellent: Megan DeLay ably anchors things in the role of Henrietta Jansensius. Brandon Johnson is slightly too arch/woe-is-me/I'm-Hamlet as Sidney Trefusis, though his accent work and forelock-tugging is pretty funny and often pitch-perfect. David W. M. Kelch plays the plummy Sir Charles Branson well enough to open the English batting. Lumpkin (Joe Beal) is something of a northern-England/Scottish resentful. And the rest too got right into it. The set design was pretty good for a tiny theatre (yeah, I know, I got spoilt by Summertime in the Garden of Eden). That all characters get some kind of comeuppance softens the commie vibes enough for anyone's political leanings... possibly excepting the perennially ignorant rich.

I guess this is exactly what one would expect from a north-shore-equivalent theatre.


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From 2012. A competently executed and lovingly shot piece of depthless vigilantism, indistinguishable from e.g. Robocop. Ma-Ma does not much of anything, and it is rife with anachronistic concepts like testimony. The slo-mo shots probably ate most of the budget and certainly all of the imagination. I'm sure someone wrote a PhD on how this relates to the increasing militarization of policing etc.

Murray Bail: Camouflage.

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I apparently read this or perhaps some earlier assembly of Bail shorts almost exactly a decade ago. (For the record: this one was published in the U.S. in 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Some seemed familiar. I skipped the more obscure / whimsical ones. He sure has picked up the pace since then, and I think his more recent output is superior. I do like his still lifes, limited though they are. I'll see what else of his I can extract from the Chicago Public Library.


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$11.50, 7.30pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark. Fassbender wears a permanent big fake head as a band/cult leader channelling Ian Curtis. I didn't find Maggie Gyllenhaal very convincing apart from the scene where she post-coitally reclines in the jacuzzi. Long on promise but ultimately tending toward the vacuous and awkwardly unsettling, without the Gervais intent.

Dana Stevens tells you all you need to know.

Modern Times

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I haven't seen much Chaplin. This is the highest-rated on IMDB. It's a moral fable. Paulette Goddard is an improbably gorgeous vagrant drawn to Chaplin's classic tramp in a clearly romantic way that is unfortunately sterilised by the times.

Churchill at the Greenhouse Theater Center

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$21, Goldstar, mediocre assigned seating (!). A one-horse show, adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton from the writings of Churchill, and about as self-aggrandizing as that might suggest. This was essentially a history lesson for an audience who in the majority were old enough to have experienced significant chunks of it first-hand. The guys sitting a bit up from me played (verbal) bingo with their favourite quotes. Gallipoli got a guernsey, mostly because the great man was held responsible in the home country. Singapore did not, and certainly not the evaporation of the Empire. I guess I got what I expected, and it was well-executed for what it was, but I have no idea why I ever thought it would be worth going to.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall

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I picked this one up at the Chicago Public Library, West Town branch yesterday and chew threw it today (at home, at La Colombe on Randolph, at the park on the river). It's the funniest thing I've read from him, and thematically the shallowest; five short stories, loosely connected, all too cruisy, perhaps. I laughed the hardest at the aspirational, self-absorbed middle-class Londoner farce Come Rain or Shine; everyone talks past everyone else. Sure, not his most inventive outing, but it was kind of him to share the offcuts of Never Let Me Go.

The Silent Theatre Company: The Dueling Gentlemen

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$20, at the Silent Theatre Headquarters (1914 N. Milwaukee #3, near Western Blue CTA). Well, I know they're working on the Blue line tonight! The warehouse was right next to it. I bought a brown Leffe on the way past the by-donation bar. These boys are right into their vaudeville and are at times quite funny; their skill seems clear but the work itself is a piece of fluff. As always I was hoping for more social commentary, beyond the increasingly staple gay transgression. The repetition of the Ugly Blonde inside-show gets a bit wearing, and the tension between the two actors really only has one place to go.

Written by Marvin Quijada, with Dan Howard and Ian Paul Custer on the piano.

I got suckered by a review in the Chicago Reader. Afterwards I found this piece at Windy City Times.

Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

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Drecky. I think mrak warned me off this one a while back. One of too many copies at the Chicago Public Library.

Sin City: A Dame to Die For

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AMC River East, 4.45pm, $16, 3D. It would have been better in 2D. This is a pair of two humdrum revenge tales draped in noir. There is a lot for Eva Green completists who are hanging for that one final angle on her bod that they haven't found elsewhere. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was (sigh) better in Brick. Good to see Mickey Rourke in action again, though Marv is too much superman. I'd like to see Josh Brolin do more stuff. I don't recall Ray Liotta. Powers Boothe and Dennis Haysbert get right into hamming things up in ways the rest of the cast do not try to match.

... and just to remind myself, I watched the original Sin City later on the same evening. I can't believe it's rated #174 in the IMDB top-250. I prefer the aesthetic of the new one.

The Hypocrites: All Our Tragic at the Den Theatre

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11am-11pm-ish. I heard about this from a student I met at a gallery opening hosted by Kai's mate Oli a while back. I was always going to go, but hung out for a cheapie $45 ticket from Goldstar, knowing that I'd regret doing so. To make up for this and earlier transgressions I punted the Hypocrites a $50 donation after the show, which again, I was always going to do. Looking back, I probably should have paid full-fare and let some other cheapskate partake.

Yes, it was most of twelve hours. The premise was that Sean Graney spent quite a while and many forests mashing together the surviving Greek tragedies. I could imagine some maniac at the Cellar attempting this back in the day; I have some memories of The Frogs from the late 1990s. Like the coming David Bowie exhibition, I'm glad I'm in Chicago to experience the actual rather than the imagined. I spent the first half of the show sitting in the front row closest to the door amongst a bunch of incommunicative types, and the second up the back away from the door where I got chatting to Chicagoan Jason, who steered me to Gaper's Block, amongst other things.

The tragedies refracted through mashup are so far from anything canonically mythical that I'm not going to try to untangle it. The tales are linked by the "seven sisters" who are fated to die in order due to a curse on them by the Undertaker-channelling Eurystheus (Maximillian Lapine). The first quarter focusses on Herakles (Walter Briggs), who is somewhat familiar in being likened to a large dog, etc. Medea (Dana Omar) puts in an appearance, not entirely distinct from last week's. I got thinking that it is her passion coupled with her instability that really scares people: either by itself could be understood as harmless, great-man-of-history, psychotic killer, and so forth. The goatman Ægeus is played to a turn by Zeke Sulkes, who would make a brilliant Z-Man in a neo-Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Too bad Ebert's not here to get that going. The odd-job incidentals forming the Greek chorus pleasantly split up the stories. The Trojan war was rushed, frenetic and perhaps adds up to less than a jab at Michael Bay cinema.

This is post-Gen X culture, and they can dance without irony. The tattoos are omnipresent and significant. There was the odd nod back to previous cool, such as some mild continuity humour involving Walter Briggs (outsize star of the show, much of the time, at least when the ladies let him be). Being Americanised, I wondered how they'd square the Greek ethics and permissiveness with Christian thought; suffice it to say that Electra gets a mutilated Lord's Prayer to recite. No gods are invoked (is Zeus even mentioned?), with a bemused Prometheus (Geoff Button) standing in for them all in the first half. Moving to modern dynasties, Jokasta (Christine Stulik) is a sterling Hillary/Chelsea Clinton clone (a photocopy of a phony), and Agamemnon (Walter Briggs again) is perfect as a pitiless, humourless political ladder-climber: the Trojan war was his ticket to ascending to the Kingdom of Athens. Achilles (Luce Metrius) is both black and gay, loud and proud. I prefer Malouf's take on the recovery of Hector's body.

It flags towards the end, unsurprisingly, as the Greek stories themselves dry up on their way home from Troy. Orestes is always trying; the man is built for suffering, but as so keenly observed by Renton in Trainspotting apropos the newly-single Tommy, there is no need to inflict that on us.

The food is uniformly Mediterranean vegetarian. There are breaks every 80 minutes or so. I never queued for the outhouse.

In summary it's like a trip to Lake Wobegone, where all the blokes are erudite and/or ripped, the girls gorgeous, and the stories somewhat unhinged. Zac Thompson at the Chicago Reader. Random guys at Gaper's Block. Do it, just go.

Rick Perlstein in Conversation with Garry Wills: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

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At the Chicago Public Library at 6pm. I sprinted down there after work, which turned out to be unnecessary as the auditorium only got half full. Garry Wills is elderly now but quite entertaining, often batting away Perlstein's attempts to corner him with brevity and perspicacity that the author was lacking. The audience was clearly liberal and perhaps for that reason the talking was long on assertion and short on empiricism. My present lack of consciousness precludes me from reading the book itself.

Pankaj Mishra uses the book to gesture at notions of freedom. It reminded me of the quotation he pulled from Tanpınar (intro, p xvii):

The privilege I most treasured as a child was that of freedom ... Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. For I fear that those who see freedom solely as a political concept will never fully grasp its meaning. The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale — or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments.

Medea by Dream Theatre Company

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A variation on the Euripidean version of the myth, written by Jeremy Menekseoglu. I guess I'll see the original tragedy next weekend, at All Our Tragic. The production had its moments but generally failed to grip me; too much projection of modern American family dynamics, histrionics and lingo onto a tale that is difficult to draw conclusions from. (Medea is a strong woman who suffers at the hand of man, but is prepared to sacrifice her children to regain her husband, etc. Hera's intervention effectively cleanses her of her killings and would not past muster in a Hollywood script. Perhaps this parallels Ang's complaint about Twilight.) The theatre itself is called the Dream Laboratory and is a quite narrow shopfront near Lincoln Square. The Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat Beer I got from the Book Cellar is not as tasty as their Urban Ale.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar: The Time Regulation Institute

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I got suckered by a review in the New York Times, and by the promise of an introduction by Pankaj Mishra. Also I guess by not having read any Turkish literature before, or knowing much about the place. It's long, at 400 pages, and takes its time getting places. Some of it is hilarious, such as a psychoanalysis meeting where everyone drops off to sleep; as my description might indicate, it's how he paints the picture and not the picture itself that might make this worth reading. Mishra weasels his way out of too strong an endorsement, though he is generally on board with this idea of modernism crashing into traditionalism and neither being the wiser. I think he's telling me to read Tagore. I don't have the stamina to slog through A Mind at Peace.

Guardians of the Galaxy

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At Regal Webster Place 11, $15.50. 3D, 9.50pm, opening weekend. The advertising worked: the short finally sold it to me. That and the lack of any other plausible release. I hate assigned seating: I got front-row A10 next to a bunch of giggling girls who laughed at the Dumber 2 trailer after showing signs of sapience. Maybe it's an American archetype: laughing at or with is fine, but cringing is not. In any case the seat was slightly too close to the screen. It had its moments though it was entirely derivative (see Dana Stevens and/or Manohla Dargis); upon reflection these erudite ladies missed the obvious A-Team plot antecedents. Zoe Saldana works hard to be more than Trinity, Vin Diesel + animation allows Groot to steal every scene he's in, Bradley Cooper voices Rocket perfectly, Dave Bautista is fine, and yeah: Chris Pratt is having a good year. Films Victoria did some animation, but the Melbourne skyline is not to be seen.

The Zero Theorem

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Dave pointed this Terry Gilliam-directed Cristoph Waltz vehicle out to me a while back. It seems so promising! — and indeed it is quite fun at times. David Thewlis is in full-on breathless mode ala Naked, though his monologues are not as rich, and Matt Damon is a bit colourless in the Architect role. Tilda Swinton is a hoot as Dr. Shrink-Rom, playing up some shameless English politeness with those fake teeth we're seeing a lot of. Her hair is awesome too. I couldn't really figure Mélanie Thierry out and perhaps that is the central flaw in the thing: forces pulling it in all directions without a countervailing gravity, so we get soufflé all over the walls. Some very funny scenes, and the odd blue one too. What's with Karen Souza's cover of Creep? She left out the good bits.

Life Out There: the House Band of the Universe at Adler Planetarium.

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I'd never been to a planetarium before, so trading on the magic of Goldstar, I plonked $13.75 down and cycled down Columbus Drive after work. The gig started at 9pm, which struck me as a bit late. Also the park between Columbus and Lakeshore was closed for Lollapalooza preparations. The band did some kind of blues / jazz thing that was beyond me to categorize. This was an accompaniment to a computer-synthesised trip around the galaxy / universe, starting from Baghdad-ish, back to the big bang, hence to the outer reaches of the sun's influence, and finally inwards to the sun, back to Earth, and then out to Titan. It was all a bit breathless. Maybe they had the old-school planterium gear but I didn't see it. Afterwards I almost dodged the rain on the ride home. The view from the Adler is pure American Romantic.

A Most Wanted Man

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Back to the Showplace Icon Theatre, 4.45pm, $11.75. This time I went in the front door, off Roosevelt, and had a coffee at the place across the road from the cinema. This is Anton Corbijn's third feature; I really enjoyed Control, and The American was not too bad. Here he attempts to show some apparently decent, longer sighted spies at work who, in Kevin Rudd's immortal phrase, get rat fucked by the CIA and German neo Gestapo. Was that Tom Waits's Hoist That Rag over the credits? And more shockingly, a cover of Bowie's Everyone Says Hi (by Claudia Brücken) in the bar, where Rachel McAdams and Philip Seymour Hoffman do not, in fact, say hi? The main draw was to see the latter in his final lead role, and he indeed masterfully anchors the piece with lots of mouth breathing, as always. I have to wonder why they used American actors here; I can only imagine what the cast of The Lives of Others, or even Cristoph Waltz, might have achieved. (Having sad that the actual German part of the cast is solid, including Hamburg itself.) McAdams is as pretty as ever but her accent is everywhere and even the jittery camerawork does not conceal her lack of range. Willem Dafoe tries to help her out by being an ineffectual cardboard cutout of his usual badass self. The story suffers from some very broken bridges in the centre.

Dana Stevens. Manohla Dargis.

The Man in the White Suit

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6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center, second row from the front, $11. (They set the screen a sensible distance from the front row, but crank the sound up too loud.) Part of the present Alec Guinness session. I went to see how he'd go opposite Joan Greenwood; she's got the sass but doesn't get enough of a role to really put it on. Guinness enjoys himself, and their scene together is a cute switcheroo. Still, if you're going to tell a story about a Prometheus offering mankind a modern McGuffin with the power to unify capital and labour, you need a better ending than what they offer up here. Superior to Lucy in every way, as most of the Ealing comedies would be.


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$12 at the non-IMAX part of Regal City North 14, 10:30pm, three rows from the front, which is slightly too close. I leisurely cycled up via Goose Island: there's a cute little railway bridge at the northern end that is closed to motorised traffic. We got some asinine shorts before the feature. Unfortunately it is drecky, and all the good bits were in the short. Briefly Besson underheated all the iconographic stuff you could imagine and snap-froze the result. It's all a bit too dumbed-down Matrix, with an admixture of visuals from The Tree of Life and 2001. Oldboy Choi Min-sik knows how to die, and clearly Besson has been watching the Koreans with the rest of us. I'll stop here.

Dana Stevens proves that holding a PhD in anything is lethal to your credulity. Manohla Dargis digs those tuff chix.


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Guillermo del Toro's debut. Not really to my taste: a not particularly inventive vampire / mechanism / the greed of old men mashup. There are some signature elements already here, such as the fearless loyalty of the child Aurora, the granddaughter, and the lurid blood.

Hellish Half-Light: shorter plays of Samuel Beckett.

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Another Goldstar outing. This preview cost a total of $7.50 and wasn't worth a penny to me, again demonstrating the difference between value and price that (as an outlier) I find everywhere. The bike ride up was kind-of fun; peak hour on Halsted takes some care, and there is more life up there than I knew of. A young gent with his mates perfectly politely claimed we were "birk brothers" but it turned out my Milanos have the backtrap that his Sydneys lack. Heh, young kids these days: they proceeded to argue that mine were in fact superior for my purposes, i.e. bicycling. No idea what their game was.

I guess I expected these to be Pinter plays for reasons that now escape me, or maybe (In the Jungle of Cities) Brecht. The Angel Island Theatre itself is solid New Theatre, and featured some seating within the floor-stage. No love seat though. I bought a long neck from the mildly embarassed subcontinental bloke at the downstairs bottle shop and was the only one in the audience actually drinking. I think the rest were friends of the cast / crew.

The plays: Castastrophe, Come and Go, Play, Rough for Theater I, Rough for Theater II and What Where. Back-to-back, no interval. Presented by Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., directed by Jennifer Markowitz.

I just dug up Midnight Oil's classic Blue Sky Mine, which I last played through in 2005 or so. Wow, such naivety (theirs and mine).

The Terminator

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#209 in the IMDB top-250. Incredible: everyone knows it's not that great. I sprinted up to the Logan Theatre to make the last 10.30pm screening and beat the Google bicycling hero benchmark of 24 minutes by 3, which may have been due to some lucky breaks on the lights, or failing to stop as often as I was supposed to. Anyway. Sweatiness makes the arctic air conditioning so much worse, but the high-fructose corn syrup in the coke really did the trick. One could spend many words analyzing this time capsule of 30 years past. I think they played it off a blue ray; the res was certainly there.

Magritte at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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After going to a talk last month (June 21) that gave a very nice overview of the show, I finally got around to seeing it. Magritte did some very famous images, and some remain quite striking even now. However seeing them clumped together like this is a bit much; he seems to have a limited repertoire of objects (female torso, euphonium, bowler hats, ...) and to see them replicated across works is disillusioning. Taking a quick look at Google just now, it seems there were plenty more of his works that aren't at the Art Institute of Chicago presently. Anyway, glad I went. Thanks again to Pete R. for the membership.

I also tried to look at the Mexican political prints but at some point my brain exploded. There's a lot of juvenalia. I'll head back later in the week.

The Host

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Segue from Snowpiercer via the director (Bong Joon-ho), his lead (Song Kang-ho), and Song's daughter in both (Ko Ah-sung). The bonus here is the luminous Bae Doo-na. Everyone is awesome, and the humour leavens what is sometimes a maudlin farce.

Closer at the Den Theatre

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Well, Goldstar certainly takes the risk out of theatre-going: tonight's came to $10.50 plus beer. I feel increasingly bad about that as this production by Spartan Theatre was excellent. (A solution that has always appealed to me is to charge a nominal entry price and pass the hat around at the end of the night.) The Den Theatre put me in mind of the old spaces used by NUTS, back in the day, and I will certainly be spending more time in their bar/louge in the coming weeks and months, though I did not loiter tonight.

The strength of the production (and minimality but adequacy of the sets) made me focus more on the play, distracting though the actresses were: despite the lack of nudity, Alice (Poppy Golland) engages in some impressive acrobatic strip-club antics. Anna (Brianne Duncan Fiore) is the pivotal object of desire who predictably moves in with a dog. The blokes — Larry (Brian Grey) and Dan (Matt Pratt) — provide valliant support. Justin Hayford at the Chicago Reader is not wrong to slag the material off as cynical, and the rushed ending makes it clear that the playwright struggles to make much out of the mess. The early-internet chatroom clunkiness dates this movie in the same way that Dana Stevens observes of the present Sex Tape. Similarly the smoking is anachronistic, and what am I to make of that pianoification of Creep that opens proceedings? (My mind was playing Authentic Celestial Music for the most part.) Is it truth or forgiveness that lifts us above beasts? I'm keen to see what these guys do next. (Directed by Patrick Belics. Sterling British accents from all bar Alice, who is an American played by an American.)

The Ladykillers

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One of the feted Ealing comedies. Alec Guinness leads, and a very green Peter Sellers gets a bit of a nothing role. As a heist caper it is somewhat the converse of Kind Hearts and Coronets; here Guinness is the last man standing, and indeed just after that was for me the funniest part of the movie. He looks a lot like Martin Amis: a classic English mashup of bad teeth, receding hairline, and waxy vampyrism.

The Artistic Home: The Late Henry Moss.

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Thinking it was about time I tried out the theatre scene here, I found a promising review of this piece in the Chicago Reader. The theatre is in fact around the corner from where I reside, so while I'm not living in the red light district of my imaginings, it did serve as a decent simulation of the Griffin Theatre. Unfortunately they are nowhere as prolific.

The piece itself was Sam Shepard's new thing, and this was supposed to be its mid-western premiere (the season, not this particular episode). Well, what can I say. The acting was OK when it wasn't histrionic, but the play is crap. It made me think of Erskineville Kings for the most part, and more obscurely the Pixies's Hang Wire. I guess you could say it failed to grip me. These exhausted Mexicans-as-shamans concepts now stifle America's imagination and myth-making; I saw it in Born on the Forth of July, and that at least used Vietnam as a source of damage and not World War II. Perhaps admitting as much, this production yielded up some cheap titillation from the singular actress getting her kit off. Sons and fathers, domestic violence, and sundry eternal tropes; I spaced out a lot so I missed plenty. I didn't follow the flashbacks closely, and lost track of the epistemics. The rhythm of calm, hysterics, violence, calm (etc) was poorly pitched. Julian Hester, the taxi driver from Albuquerque, put me in mind of two things: the old Bugs Bunny cartoons where he doesn't take the right turn there, and Brad Pitt from 12 Monkeys. Frank Nall does his best as the dead father.

I got my tickets from Goldstar: half price + $4.50 or so, for a total of less than $20. This event was general admission so seat quality didn't matter. I feel a bit bad playing that game, and I guess the karmic retribution is that I paid the play less mind than if I'd paid it full-fare.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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The Gene Siskel Film Center is showing a series of old Alec Guinness movies this month. I missed the first couple but was glad to make it to this one. Their second theatre is tiny, and was completely packed out with grey hairs.

The cast here is uniformly excellent. Dennis Price in the lead has his finest outing, and Valerie Hobson is solid despite her character being callowly credulous. Guinness himself shines in particular as Lady Agatha, the shit-boring parson, the boorish general, and ... well, all the rest of the family. I particularly enjoyed Joan Greenwood in luminous feline mode; I'm looking forward to seeing what she and Guinness get up to in The Man in the White Suit at the end of the month. The plot is kind of like Hitchcock's Rope, and the tone is set right from the beginning with the hangman's concern that he act with proper respect for the hangee's title.

The Art of Rube Goldberg

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I picked this up on the strength of a review in the New York Times, and to see if I could get Amazon to deliver. I didn't bother to read all the articles as they tend to continue in the vein of Adam Gopnik's introduction: overly personal and not that interesting. From there I did get pointers to Chaplin's Modern Times and the antecedent/complementary artists Frenchman Marcel Duchamp and Englishman Heath Robinson. (The American "Rube Goldberg machine" that invariably results from hacking would be termed a "Heath Robinson machine" by the poms. mrak, I'm not looking at you.) The paper mechanism on the cover sort-of works.

I did look at all the comics, however. The machines would have been better taken at the rate of one a week or so. My favourite was his series of advertisements for razor blades, "stubble trouble": ridiculously long Imam-style beards being used as hammocks, for tying up Santa Claus, being knitted by distracted wives, and so forth.

Goldberg once said his machines — which he drafted with strict but rollicking precision — were a “symbol of man’s capacity for exerting maximum effort to achieve minimal results.”

Greg Egan: The Clockwork Rocket

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Wondering what Egan is up to now led me to borrowing this from the Chicago Public Library. Part of me can admire his fiercely ambitious imaginary physics, though my eyes glaze over pretty much as they did back in first year. The plot is fairly humdrum otherwise, and there is a lot derived from earlier scifi classics that maybe the younguns no longer read. I won't be chasing up the two successors.

Snowpiercer (2013)

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This fourth of July I did something that is becoming a mainstream American activity: I gave the Music Box Theatre $10 to watch something a Korean director (Bong Joon-ho) made (with a large CGI budget) that seems beyond Hollywood's grasp. Some fabulous performances here: Chris Evans (Captain America?!?) channels Ben Affleck, Tilda Swinton has a ball, and Ewen Bremner is at his best since Trainspotting, sporting a Jewfro and losing an arm in the process. Ed Harris does his best in the Matrix-Architect role. As always there are some graphic blood sprays and extended rave-style violence. Somehow this got funded/made by the Czechs. I can imagine the pitch to Park Chan-wook: say we took that corridor scene from Oldboy and made a whole movie out of it...

Surprising to me the audience was the largest I've seen yet in the main theatre, and most people sit a long way back. Thinking about it some more, it also evokes the train-future of Wong Kar-Wai's 2046.

A. O. Scott got right into it. J. Hoberman at the New York Review of Books.

Mavericks did not eat my homework.

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I've been using Snow Leopard for five years now, which is getting on to Windows XP longevity. Having left academia, I just now figured that whatever was keeping me on that tired platform has probably gone to the grave, and moreover Mavericks looks a lot more enticing than Lion ever did. Ergo upgrade.

So far no real problems, apart from new (empty) windows in Chrome interacting in a nasty way with Spaces. I lost my RSS feeds, as I knew I would; there's a widget in Chrome that is somewhat usable but a long way from either Google Reader or the old Conversely the new seems a bit faster and less buggy... though it keeps hitting up IMAP servers from a lifetime back. I had to reinstall MacPorts, as always. clang seems a lot faster than GCC. My venerable perl blog script broke, as always. Fast times.

The Rover

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A return to the Landmark at 2828 Clark (where I saw Only Lovers Left Alive a few weeks back). $11.50. Three rows from the screen. Somehow I felt compelled to go: maybe it was Guy Pearce, but this was never going to ask a lot of him really. Some of it looked like the granite hills of home, somewhere south, maybe west of Canberra, Wagga-ish, but more desolate, and of course it was actually shot in South Australia. Yeah. The director made Animal Kingdom, which should have served as a sterner warning; he reaches for The Proposition, gritty and revelatory and also Guy Pearce, but falls far short. Far short. All I could think was that maybe Samuel L. was lugging around Marsellus's dog the whole time too. I hadn't seen Robert Pattinson before and he was OK; there wasn't a whole lot of character to get a grip on though. Some of the early cinematography is excellent but not particularly innovative, and many of the small characters are poorly played. The smarter of those actors just looked longingly into the camera. David Field sure turned out all Donald Pleasance with age; Hawkie at least held on to more of his hair. (... and wasn't Joel Edgerton also implicated in The Day We Called It A Night?)

Somehow I dodged the rain the whole day.

The Sufi Gospel Project

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Back to the Old Town School of Folk for the Sufi gig I'd been hanging out for for so long. It turned out to be part of the Eye on India festival thing, and the band was imported from India; I'd hoped they were locals. Sonam Kalra got grilled by a local and revealed that she is from Delhi, but not that she is a dog person or her marital status. She's of the Sikh religion, and used to be in advertising. Her voice is excellent. Her band is awesome and tight: the flautist (Rajesh Prasanna), sarangi (Ahsan Ali Khan) and tabla (Amaan Ali Khan) players all stood out, and while the Yamaha keyboardist (Alex Fernandes) did not, he may have anchored the whole thing for all I know.

So I expected an American fusion sort of thing, but it turned out to be more masala, finer-grained and somewhat messy in a pan-genre sort of way. They opened with some great sufi stuff, and the first set had me quite spaced out. One element was an adaptation of Amazing Grace. The second got a bit more Western; specifically something by Ray Charles that had been taken full-circle (gospel -> jazz -> gospel) left me cold (was it Hallelujah I Just Love Him So?). They also attempted Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, which annoyed me a bit as Anthem is far more in tune with their ecumenicism. (Sonam termed her project secular, which is even more approximate.) They closed with the Sufi classic Daanah Pah Daanah, which I knew from the Coke Studio Sessions 4 recording by someone else. Very sunny.

The crowd talked throughout and thinned appreciably in the second half. I'm not sure why; I got pretty much what I expected. They played the following night in downtown Chicago, at "the Temple" (corner Washington and Clark), which I didn't go to, and I also regret not buying one of their CDs. After much futzery I did manage to get The Confluence from OKListen, and Verified by Visa not only looks like a man-in-the-middle attack but did not properly verify my address. The band recorded Man Manam for the Coke Studio, which gives you some idea how good they are. Unfortunately Sonam left out her bespoke sign language. The guitarists didn't make it.

Charles Bukowski: Tales of Ordinary Madness

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Catching up on my youth: Bukowski was big with the crowd circa 1997. The biopic Born into this seared the image of his damaged dial that features on the cover into my brain. I also saw the movie of the same name starring Ben Gazzara, but not Factotum. Apparently that was around 2003, and still I haven't bothered with the source material until now. Well, what can I say. Some of it is good, almost all of it is banal, and it is difficult to take his occasional stabs at offensiveness too seriously these days. I don't remember anything much from the first half of the book. Of the second I carefully noted his portrayal of a madhouse Purple as an Iris, his vignettes Notes of a Potential Suicide and the still-life One for Walter Lowenfels. Dates on the stories would have helped. His daughter recurs. He slags off Ferlinghetti which is somewhat ironic as I read the City Lights edition from the Chicago Public Library. I think I'll take him in small doses. Surely he was Hal Hartley's inspiration for Simon Grim in Henry Fool.


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Quite a while ago I cranked out an over-ambitious assignment for JAS: no, not that one, but FLAN and its graphical relative FLANGE. I decided it was time to air the examples I wrote for it.

The Untouchables

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Apparently De Palma's other masterpiece. I'm not convinced; Costner in the lead? Connery got an Oscar for this? (His accent goes for the occasional wander westwards.) Andy Garcia makes a credible play for his Godfather III role. Patricia Clarkson is the perfectly characterless wife/mother. The mounties come prematurely. History is unncessarily bent to fit the histrionic plot. Then again, there is some cinematography / tension ratcheting worthy of Sergio Leone.

Dr. Strangelove

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Fiftieth anniversary. 7.15pm at the Music Box Theatre. Rode up from work; a beautiful evening to be out on two wheels, especially after the rain of the past few days. Had a Guinness at the Crossing (sterile sportsbar whose "beer garden" was a smoke-free "patio") on the way up. New print, but just as grainy as ever. Probably the best movie I'll see this year.

Denby at the New Yorker.

The Outsiders (1983)

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A Tom Cruise segue. He's so young here, and irritating. Some lucky young punks do get to punch his lights out, with air swings. This is not Coppola's finest outing and is a long way from The Godfather in almost all respects. Strong teenage 1980s cast: Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, ...

Graham Greene: Orient Express (aka Stamboul Train)

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Once again I found myself in the Chicago Public Library without my laptop, and so had to wrack my brains for authors worth reading. I think I forswore Greene a few months/years back after reading his post-conversion The Power and the Glory (or thereabouts). This one is early, 1932, and entirely cinematic; so much reads as instructions to a director. I enjoyed it but things kind of trail off when they should bite. He keenly draws a Jewish character and hopefully observes that the mindless discrimination he encounters is on the way out in Europe. Similarly the treatment of communism is of the (interwar) times.

Edge of Tomorrow

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I went to see this at Dave's insistence, 'cos Emily Blunt. The complex that houses the Showplace Icon Theatre is built for cars, and maybe the cold: I didn't find a pedestrian entrance. Following Google movies's prompting, I aimed for the 7.45pm 2D session but got there just in time to part with another $4.75 ($17.75 total) for the 7pm "real 3D". Perhaps these are distinct to the Google.

Things opened with the trailer for the new Transformers flick. Marky-Mark! — and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Oldman? The feature was pretty much colour-between-the-lines stuff with so many antecdents that no list could be complete. I thought Team America all the way through, which was somehow prescient as it concludes with a trashing of Paris, but no promise-me-you-will-never-die, which would have been hilarious. The action scenes were pure spaghetti, and more so from the fourth row. (I sat where the people assisting wheelchair users would sit; tickets weren't offered for there and I got told I'd have to move if someone came.) Noah Taylor reprises his role of chief geek (Lara Croft etc.) which made me wonder about Miranda Otto. Loads of other Australians in there too. Bill Paxton has the most fun chanelling Brad Pitt. I hoped they would cast Bill Pullman as the president (again). Tom Cruise barely breaks a sweat. The story is somewhat recursive, but you'd have to wonder if this is what you'd do if you had that particular power of futzing with time. Where did the "mimics" moniker come from anyway?

David Haglund at Slate. Manohla Dargis at the New York Times.

The Art Institute of Chicago: Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful

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The Art Institute of Chicago offers talks by artists periodically, and I figured I should go take a look at one, being a member and all. Josef Koudelka took many of the famous photographs of the Prague Spring. Fullerton Hall was packed; I hadn't realised there were so many Czech emigres in Chicago. I had a quick look at the exhibition before the talk started at 6pm. The discussion wasn't too successful, and I wish they'd let him show his three ten-minute short films; why not expand it to a 90 minute event?

Runner Runner

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Unfortunately they crammed all the good bits in the short. I've got a soft spot for Affleck (though I still can't bring myself to watch Pearl Harbor) and Timberlake. Gemma Arterton is unusually timid here; do they get her makeup right in any movie ever? Show us your freckles! Spare the talk and feed those crocodiles.

A. O. Scott at the New York Times.

The A-Team

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I vaguely remember the TV series from my childhood. Sharlto Copley often steals the show — the Braveheart recreation is first-rate, as is the scene where they steal a camera from a press conference, which seems like a lift from District 9. I wonder how broadly South African humor translates. It's passable pass-the-time fluff.

World Music Wednesday at Old Town School of Music

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While looking for sufi music in Chicago I came across this free-but-give-us-$10 concert. Not knowing (and not being told) any better, I stumbled upon Lincoln Square, which is directly north of the school; the Chinese near the Brown Western L station is ridiculously cheap, the Köstritzer Black bier at the little München Chicago Brauhaus was tasty, the music a bit much. That part of the city has density like the cities I'm used to, and they speak litres there.

Anyway, the gig started a bit after 8pm. The Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall is quite pleasant. It's set up more like a jazz club than a recital hall, and the crowd behaved similarly: lots of chatter during the performance. The musicians were three guitarists: Zoran Starcevic and his sons Nikola Starcevic and Zeljko Starcevic (I think), who covered a range of styles that I'm insufficiently familiar with to comment on. I guess I was expecting Félix Lajkó, or at least a violin. Their riff on Deep Purple's classic riff put me in mind of Four Play's infamous efforts from 1998. Their other gimmick was for all three to play a single guitar. Lots of skill on display, but not quite my sort of music; there were two songs I enjoyed but I didn't get their names.

As for the sufi music: there is some on there in a couple of weeks' time. Probably fusion, as that seems to be what Americans like to do. In the meantime I bought Coke Studio (Season 4) off iTunes for the awesome Kangna by Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and co., familiar from the opening scenes of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

A Night in Old Mexico

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What was Robert Duvall thinking? That's the last time I'm trusting Daniel M. Gold, writing at the New York Times. The whole thing is risible.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Slim pickings on this Memorial Day long weekend, with X-Men scaring off all competitors. I can't say I was particularly keen to see this one after the first outing. Still, I couldn't say no to some air conditioning and vegetation for $5.75 (almost cheaper than freedom, what with all this inflation) at Logan, 2:30pm session, in merely 2D. I had a light and expensive lunch at the nearby farmers' market: "back bacon" (= eye of the bacon rasher) and a banger on a bun for $10.

This is all about the details, or observation humour as Tyler would say if he was actual. The structure was a tedious retread of the previous one; the variation is in the response to the surveillance state of twenty-first century America / Earth, and the conflicted loyalties that engenders, filtered through a suitable flying McGuffin. The action sequences are pure spaghetti camerawork, to the point where I now just wait for the camera to stop shuddering, or alternately close my eyes and wait for the dialogue to resume. Robert Redford has Paul Newman's pasta sauce in his fridge. Samuel L. Jackson has his famed lines from Pulp Fiction etched on his tombstone. Captain America's notebook is full of cultural detritus. Frank Grillo is solid but nowhere as good as he was in Warrior. Emily VanCamp looked scarily familiar, as if she was mining Jodie Foster's oeuvre; I guess I just saw too many ads for Revenge at some point in my life. Both she and Scarlett can't button anything past the sternum.

Abstractly Captain America poses two central problems: his powers and intellect are so limited that most action sequences must feature him doing hand-to-hand stuff, and the shield. Where does he stick it when he's not using it? What happens if it doesn't boomerang? etc. etc. Marvel does not solve these well here.

I got thinking that The Wind Rises (which I also saw at Logan) could only get away with a non-origins-of-a-superhero story of creation by balancing it with romance, disability and war, i.e., all the tricks in the book. Here, as there, creation is mostly to do with the technology the military uses to enforce conformism / security. Maybe I should be watching Silicon Valley.

Dana Stevens has it about right, which is reassuring as she got it wrong on the first one. This is the better of the two. And to completely spoil it, it's certainly got a sequel.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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An age ago I saw The Wolverine with Dave. This latest outing does not live up to the post-credits sequence we saw. I went to the 5:30pm 3D session at the AMC River East 21, for $17 (= $16 plus a $1 convenience charge — I bought ahead of time as I thought it might be packed. 6pm was packed, 5:30pm not so much.) As is traditional, I sat four rows from the front in a decent-sized theatre. The movie failed to quell the Russians behind me, which just about sums it up.

The exposition at the start was tiresome. Show us! ... and as plastic is the god of the 20th century, why isn't there an equivalent of Magneto for plastics? Would he be a good or bad mutant? (I'm not going to entertain the idea of a she, though they'd have an actress ready to go in the form of January Jones.)

As with all of Bryan Singer's XMens, this one is very derivative; it's like he gets to go back and remake all the scifis of his childhood. Here we have Terminator 2, right down to McAvoy instructing Jackman to "show him". The metallic skeleton, the general indestructability; clearly Arnie should have played the older Wolverine. Now that would have been an irresistible teaser! Fassbender is annoyingly bland as the young Magneto; perhaps this was what he did in 300. So, McQueen to direct the teaser, with Arnie. McAvoy is quite good, and Peter Dinklage too; more screen time for the latter would have been very welcome. Ellen Page is all Hard Candy to me: a little too much Gen Y absolutist shrug/smirk under a cute button nose. Jennifer Lawrence plays a much softer Mystique than Rebecca Romijn's almost-silent one. Jackman is a passenger, for the most part, which was annoying. I liked seeing Shatner on the teev; it reminds me how far we've failed to come.

The plot is pretty crap. There wasn't much laughter at the funny bits, such as Wolverine failing to set off the metal detector. The best scene was in the Pentagon kitchen, no question, as observed by both A. O. Scott and Dana Stevens. (Dana gets it wrong on so many of the details that I wonder if we were watching the same movie. For instance: McAvoy puts down the needle under Jackman's steady gaze; Fassbender never goes near the XMansion as far as a I recall. Oh, I see — she thinks the die is cast a bit earlier. That stranger wasn't naked, nevertheless.)

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, after work

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I'd been meaning to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art for a while. Entry is free to Illinois residents on Tuesdays, and they only demand a postcode as evidence. I enjoyed Alexander Calder's chat mobile and the bird. Nelson Leirner's Untitled from the series Right You Are If You Think You Are, 3, 2003 shows Australia to be a land of puppies, and New Zealand of Santa Claus, which I interpret to mean that he is ignorant of the history of both places; as a work of political commentary it fails to get much right outside South America (perhaps). They had a large Isa Genzken retrospective upstairs. I liked her "readymade" multiband World Receiver.

Carlotta Gall: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014.

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I got suckered by a review in the New York Times; here's another one. Suffice it to say that she was very brave to report from that region, and many of her accounts are vivid and valuable. Unfortunately I was expecting perhaps a second cut at history, and thought she would spend more time on her central contention that the U.S. needed to curb the I.S.I. and/or Pakistani Taliban. I also had trouble tracking all the actors, which is complicated by her often mentioning people only once or twice, and using a few too many dangling pronouns. She tries to be fair, often. Her account of bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad is the best part of this book.

Ahmed Rashid ably summarises the situation in the way I wanted to read about it. He casts doubt on many of Gall's inferences.

Sofar in Chicago

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It's been a while since I went to a gig. The Chicago chapter of the Sofar internationale kindly admitted me to their gig, which ran from 5pm-ish to about 7pm. I got chatting to a sweet couple from Texas, who relocated to Chicago for school and are now expecting. The venue was pure Chicago hipster, as one would hope/expect. They had three bands in a five-song-each format: Marrow, Living in Pretend, and Future Monarchs. The last was clearly Brit-inspired, slaughtering their point with a cover of the Beatles's Martha My Dear (and not Tom Waits's).

God's Pocket

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At the Music Box Theatre, 7:30pm, $10. Presumably Philip Seymour Hoffman's final outing. He must have wanted this made as he produced it too. Christina Hendricks does the vacuous unsatisfied beauty thing quite convincingly. Eddie Marsan is a greasy little mortician; I wish they'd cast him in a more challenging role. John Turturro has a bit of fun. It's small-time gangland stuff, with a dash of the godfather and some humour that doesn't quite stick. They make it seem like God's Pocket is a neighborhood of Philadelphia, but what would I know.

The Art Institute of Chicago, after work.

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The Art Institute of Chicago is open until 8pm on Thursdays, so I figured it was time to exercise the membership that Pete R. so thoughtfully bought me and go see some art. Apparently the Modern Wing turns five tomorrow. I enjoyed the Picassos and Matisses, especially The Serf by the latter. Their very small collection of neon is in storage, but they did have some of their Light and Space works out. Craig Kauffman's Le Mur s'en va I (spelling?) was kind of cool.

Amongst the Americana, American Gothic pulled the largest crowd. I enjoyed Jackson Pollock's Greyed Rainbows more than I expected; it's a take it to the limit kind of work, so abstract and impressionistic that it can't be considered pretentious. It's too large to take in holistically.

A Streetcar Named Desire

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This one has been on the backlog since I saw Summertime in the Garden of Eden last year. I didn't realise just how little it takes to satirize Williams's masterwork, or how much better those boys were than Vivien Leigh. This really is horrorshow gothic. I liked Brando but as for most of his career, he looks like he's coasting. I'm sure there's plenty to pick apart here, if one cares to.


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More Tom Hardy, this time in a Nick Cave adaptation, directed by John Hillcoat. The Proposition this is not; it is closer to The Assassination of Jesse James. Shia LaBeouf is by no means the worst here, and even grows a little endearing as he fumbles with Mia Wasikowska. Jessica Chastain has a few scenes of wide-eyed cluelessness (the actress, not her character), and like her, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman are wasted. It's the usual schtick from Cave, all blood guts and unforgiveness; doesn't he know that even Clint is capable of some moral depth these days? The Chicago references are banal.


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I've eyed this one off a few times, due to Joel Edgerton being the lead, and the present Tom Hardy binge tipped me over the edge. It's highly rated on IMDB (8.3, #143 in the top-250) but that just goes to show how popular MMA / UFC / human cockfighting is. The plot works hard to make something of all the violence, and somewhat succeeds, but not prettily. Nolte got an Oscar nomination for his part. Hardy mostly channels de Niro's Bull in his prime; it is not a particularly original effort from him. Frank Grillo was a bit of a find — his naturality as a trainer made me think of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, and indeed he was coached by such a person.

Douglas Coupland: Microserfs

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This one is much longer than Generation X. It has some good bits, but also enough meh bits to end up in a kind of neutral balanced Zen state; kind of like these Microsoft refugees. As with its predecessor I'd read it back around 2002 in Melbourne, and I didn't remember much of it; I don't remember much of it now, a day later. Many of the giblets served up by Coupland are mainstream geek tropes now, and so I have to wonder if he reflected the culture or lead it. For instance, he is quite specific about a Linux configuration that is quite familiar to me from 1996; was he prescient or lucky in picking Linux as the winner of the free-ish Unixoid wars? Ultimately this is less about Microsoft than about Valley geekdom when jwz bashed out the code that made him famous. It is probably more satisfying to just read what he has to say.


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At the AMC River East 21. $12. I saw the short for this there a few weeks back, and for some reason Tom Hardy's Welsh (?) lilt pushed my buttons. I expected some kind of mystery, but really that gets exploded inside the first quarter or so of the movie. From there it is a long slow wind, down a path that is excruciatingly inflexible and not entirely human, despite the invocation of the essentials. The cinematography is top-notch (clearly inspired by Wong Kar-Wai / Christopher Doyle) and Hardy is similarly great, but the limitations of the set — man-in-car-with-cell — make it difficult to get too excited about it all. Writer/director Steven Knight wrote Dirty Pretty Things, so he has form.

Dana Stevens got into it, as did Manohla Dargis.

Douglas Coupland: Generation X

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Lacking my laptop and much inspiration, I also extracted this from the Chicago Public Library. I enjoyed it at times. The indulgent whimsy is laid on pretty thick; clearly this contains the seeds of Fight Club, as has been observed by culturati since forever. Palm Springs sounds like one of the outer rings of hell, one so far out you start to wonder if it isn't heaven. Or maybe the other way around.

Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing

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I extracted this one from the Chicago Public Library. In many ways it is a companion to (a converse of) his earlier Twilight of the Assholes, which collected his cartoons of the Bush years. This is almost entirely essays, and some are good. There is a lot of verbiage in all of them, which is a bit unexpected as his cartoons are so pithy. A lot of his writing is available from his website too.

Only Lovers Left Alive

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I don't think I've ever seen a Jarmusch at a cinema. (Ghost Dog is the only possible exception that comes to mind, but history does not record it.) I trekked up to Landmark at 2828 Clark, which must be near the uni in Lincoln Park. It's a classic 1980s-or-so US shopping centre: hollow, ramp on the edge (just like the Guggenheim!), about eight (half-)floors, an exposed lift. The cinema takes up something like the top three floors and is easy to miss. The theatre itself was nondescript.

On the other hand the movie was great. It dragged at times, which I think was entirely intentional, and fired up every time Tilda Swinton was in the frame. I haven't been that partial to her since the late 1990s for long-forgotten reasons; here she is perfect. Be patient and get into that hipster groove. This is Jarmusch exploring post-financial-fatality Detroit, just as he keenly observed New Orleans in Down by Law. I was initially worried that the row of wisecracking blokes who plonked next to me might talk the whole time, but (perversely?) they fell silent after the shorts. Colour me weirded out.

A. O. Scott at the New York Times.

Later I plonked $10 for the soundtrack off iTunes. It's better with visual accompaniment, or after ten or more listens. One of the high points is the exotic singing of Yasmine Hamdan from Lebanon, supposedly in Tangiers, which could only be classified as world; it made me wonder where Peter Gabriel was in all this. Actually it made me think of two things: David Lynch doing (in essence) a film clip for This Mortal Coil's cover of Song to the Siren in Lost Highway, which I rate as one of the most cinematic things he ever did, and the indescribably transcendent sufi music that opens The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Jarmusch's effort is not as good as these, but his instincts are sound.

Hateship Loveship

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An all-Chicago outing at the tight-arse Monday (everyone $6, members $5) session at Gene Siskel Film Center. Again, oldies and people who were more interested in chatting than in watching this thing. The draw was Guy Pearce, and the hope he could elicit a decent dramatic performance from Kristen Wiig. No luck on that front; she was robotic, despite Dana Stevens's prior reassurances. I'd read Alice Munro's short story on which this is loosely based, so I have no excuse. Nick Nolte had the most fun and was almost decent. Jennifer Jason Leigh still looks like a teenager to me. Is this just a redone Mildred Pierce?

The Iron Giant

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A Brad Bird segue from The Incredibles. A kids and unfortunately somewhat childish animation. Annie has nice lines but it takes an age for her to get organised with Dean. The rest was filler.

The Incredibles

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Still my favourite Pixar effort.

The Unknown Known

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Back to the Music Box Theatre after a day of fruitless apartment hunting on this non-public-holiday Good Friday. Note to self: avoid the pensioner times (in this case 5pm) as these places tend to attract the bored and idle. The bloke behind me squeaked his chair the whole time, though perhaps he didn't notice or his hearing aids masked it.

This is Errol Morris interviewing Donald Rumsfeld. The old news conferences get a run, as do some facts (for a change) which cause the not-so-great man some pause, if only to reach for a denial or to spread the blame widely. We get a fairly-well packaged account of the rise of Rumsfeld through the time of Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and the pleasure he still takes in knowing that he stymied George H. W. Bush, if only momentarily. While he is more reflective than I would expect Dick Cheney to be, he is no Robert McNamara, and this is no Fog of War; simply, he is not searching for truth, then or now. What was the point in this interview, beyond a platform for more self-serving banalities?

The last part is an exercise in particularly tedious Rumsfeld epistemology, and perhaps the only reversal he allows himself in the entire film.

Fred Kaplan, unfamiliarly at the New York Times, is dead right. Their regular reviewer A. O. Scott is also right, though I would conclude that Morris loses; he should have found some other interviewee. Dana Stevens interviews the interviewer.

Nolan's Batmans

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All three of the Nolan Batmans over two nights, but out of order: 1, 3 then 2. On a re-watch the recycling is much more obvious; one can see it as a slow rehearsal of Fight Club, repeatedly. The car chases are unspectacular, eternally boring. Some of the exposition in the third one is entirely risible, and I pity Gary Oldman for having to be involved in it. The second is incoherent: why does Batman have to take the fall for Harvey Dent's activities when the Joker is in custody? ... and just what were Harvey Dent's crimes that needed covering up? Don't bother explaining to me what I couldn't be bothered learning from the primary source.

Heath Ledger is certainly the best thing in these, though I did enjoy Maggie Gyllenhaal's bump-and-grind with Aaron Eckhardt and Anne Hathway's femiline. Tom Hardy is fine too. I cannot forgive Nolan for not casting Maggie as Rachel in the first one as well.

Under the Skin (2013)

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Not the Samantha Morton vehicle from 1997 which I had a recent hankering to rewatch (after discovering the pamphlet amongst my now-disposed personal once-considered-valuables). At the AMC River East 21. $12. Had dinner at Star of Siam, which I ate at back in January; their Thai chicken fried rice was totally banal. Today was a day of thunderstorms and heavy rain, and schlepping the streets in these conditions is not fun as this city does not believe in awnings. A bit cold too.

What is this exactly? The sprog of 2001's star baby? Does she/he have HAL's eyes? Were the rejects from Trainspotting relocated to the west coast? (What was with that dancehall scene anyway? Was Begbie getting blown by a trannie in the carpark? If not, why not?) Is this an American Scottish Gothic Wake in Fright? I thought it leant too heavily on David Lynch's Elephant Man all the way along, right up to the part where this is subsumed by that. Soylent green (red) is people, people! ... but even the NRA birthers knew that back in 1973.

Scarlett does show up in this one, but is given a vapid becoming-human character arc that reverses Bowie's more impressive effort in The Man Who Fell To Earth. What did Tom Waits say... "those Brooklyn girls, they're all thorns without the rose..." Funny-to-me, Scarlett's posh English accent goes for a wander when she's asked to improvise with one of the presumably-random early pickups. No-one seems to draw a parallel with the more purient Species, which at least justified its protagonist shedding her kit by reason of a burning need to procreate. The director did the risible Birth and Sexy Beast. Let that be a warning to me.

Nicholas Rapold presumably got paid by the movie reference. Stephen Holden is overly generous.


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Still #72 in the IMDB top-250. I wonder what the Spike Lee remake is like.

The Wind Rises

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At the Logan Theatre, another of Chicago's quaint old cinemas. The screen was a bit small but the tickets are super-cheap: just $5.75 before 6pm.

This anime is a celebration of the life of an engineer, which doesn't seem too common a theme; most in this vein are about scientists. I'm told this is a kiss off from Hayao Miyazaki. I haven't seen much of his other stuff but this was visually awesome; some of the scenery evoked Anders Zorn-quality mastery for me. Did the rivets make that much of a difference?

Dana Stevens has a lot more to say about it than I do.

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

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At the beautiful, ancient Music Box Theatre in Southport, Chicago — somewhere up the Brown line. It was cold out. I bought a ticket to Jodorowsky's Dune. "Right past the concession stand," says the box office bloke, done up in bowtie and pleasant formality. Suffice it to say that if you turn right at the old concession stand you'll end up in the main theatre where this French kids' animation is showing. It's quite funny but I should have twigged when I saw families checking out the organ on the left of the stage. Oh well. The American voice cast would have made for a decent live-action version, I reckon: imagine Forest Whitaker as a bear in shambolic Tom Waits mode, and Lauren Bacall as a stern and fearful orphanage matron. William H. Macy might lack the anti-charisma to play the head dentist though his voice was perfect.

I'll head back to this theatre in a few weeks to see The Unknown Known. Tickets are cheap.

The Lego Movie

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Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you're part of a team...
Not the theme song of a well-known world-class workplace.

At the Wabash Landing 9 cinema, right near my hotel in West Lafayette, at their 6:50pm session. The place was quaint: a neon wilderness, a clean but unrefurbished concession stand. Free soda refills and more popcorn for 50 cents. Wow. The movie started fairly promptly around 7pm after only a couple of shorts.

The animation was tops and everyone was funny, including Will Ferrell. I guess I got what I payed for, all $10 of it. Presently at #178 on the IMDB top-250, which seems a bit too high.

A. O. Scott at the New York Times did not really get into it. Dana Stevens got all misty-eyed over the terminal sentimentalism; I'll take that as another instance of the cultural divide.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

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In Indianapolis, at the Keystone Art Cinema in the up-market fashion strip mall. Apparently this is where Indianapolis's Apple store is, but I never saw it. There was much talking during the movie, and clapping at the end; completely packed on this, the opening night.

I'd seen the short of this Wes Anderson flick so many times over the Australian summer that I feared I'd seen all the good bits already. There's a huge cast, and it is quite fun and funny; even more broadly than his usual quirky stuff, I'd say. He stuffs the early shots with ephemera, making me think that the whole movie would be cluttered, but it opens up in the second half. As always, his sense of humour sometimes borders on the twee, but he's also a formalist — he pops the stack of stories, for instance. The sets are top-notch, and the use of expletives is superb.

Many actors are cast against type: Adrien Brody is quite evil, though Willem Dafoe is like a cartoon version of his character from Wild at Heart: he's had a long apprenticeship in malevolence. Jude Law anchors things. Ralph Fiennes inhabits M. Gustave. Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel... everyone has fun. There is some fine work on the accents (i.e. approximately no effort), especially from Ed Norton as a proto-Gestapo. This is probably my favourite effort from Tilda Swinton. The Persian cops it in the neck. Overall it's up there with Fantastic Mr Fox as the best thing he's done.

Dana Stevens pulls it apart, and fair enough too. A. O. Scott reviewed it for the New York Times.

The Thin Red Line

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Certainly worth a rewatch after three years.

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Late morning snorkel at Gordons Bay, from the south side. Just near where I last saw them were about seventeen squid, including some large ones. I paddled across the bay and discovered a huge number of presumably recently-spawned tiny little fellers. Quite pleasant in and decent visibility.

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Midday snorkel off the scuba ramp at Gordons Bay. Those squid from yesterday must have told their mates to meet me just east of the ramp — seven of the cute little things were just hanging there in the water against a sandy backdrop, and even seemed to acknowledge my presence but didn't run away. Some large gropers but not the big blue bloke.

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Late afternoon snorkel at Gordons Bay. Pretty good visibility for the most part. I got in on the south side, from my perennial paddling launch point, and immediately saw a pod of about five small squid doing their thing. Huge eyes on small bodies, skirts going like mad, and all the usual acrobatics. I saw a solitary one nearby on my way back from the eastern end of those southern rocks. Lots of small fry and the odd big one. Haven't seen a mature groper for a while.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful

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I picked this up on the strength of Lewis-Kraus's review of Clune's White Out in the New Yorker (blog!). He can write, but has he got anything to say? Well yes, but has he got anything to say about anything except himself?

I liked the time in Berlin, though it was a bit too much a-gentleman-never-tells about the women he spends all his time with; could we at least have a personality to go with a name? Is even that too much to say? The Camino part was the best of the pilgrimages. Shikoku was tedious and painful, and the concluding Hasidic Jewfest in the Ukraine is a continuous slide into bathos; p285 makes it sound like an academic conference. I want to like this bloke — he did get me onto White Out and he writes like a demon — but there's not much here.

Some random comments. Circa p192: he makes pilgrimages sound like PhDs, with some expectation that the payoff will come in the form of a partner, which does not resonate with his earlier ideas of personal growth. His observations about loneliness are cliched. James Caviezel: "Are you lonely?" Sean Penn: "Only around people." — The Thin Red Line (1998). Spot on, though, and it was the same for me in Saigon.

p216 too much choice: didn't you read Barry Schwartz? What did you learn from Richard Rorty? p30: defensible reasons for doing stuff, spot on, though not spectacularly original:

It's okay to do something self-indulgent if it also hurts. [...] It's okay to do most things for the sake of a job, and it's okay to do anything for the sake of a mutual protection racket. All this giving of reasons is exhasuting, and the vast majority of them are ex post facto anyway. It would be so much easier and more honest if we could all just let each other get away with saying that we felt like it.

Yeah, mutual protection racket is family-as-ghetto. After-the-fact justification is called abduction, son, and it is a very old idea. What's true here is not new, but I'm not going to complete that thought.

I liked this relationship with his brother. As the Ukraine bit is so weak I never got a grip on his Dad as anything but a gay man and terrible father; no idea what sort of rabbi he was. Lewis-Kraus also suffers from the same weak moral drawing that he slags other writers off for. p297: David Byrne's Once in a Lifetime. Something was in the air.

Lewis-Kraus does not canvas volunteerism as a source of meaning, or a reasonable justification to go on an extended holiday; in other words, this is not informed travel writing ala Paul Theroux. Oscar Wilde's stories made me want to write and this book makes me not want to take a long secular religious walk.

Reviews: Colm Tóibín at Guardian gets it about right. Some bloke at The Rumpus identifies many of its weaknesses but wishes them away. You did notice the narcissism! For why else do you remark upon it? I guess this is Gen Y excusing Gen Y. Arthur House at the Telegraph is brave enough to call it as it is. I note the dearth of reviews from the usual U.S. sources, you know, the ones he writes articles for.

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Peaceful late-afternoon snorkel around Little Bay. Quite a few people there. Good visibility; saw lots of juveniles, particularly goatfish, and some really tiny things I couldn't identify. Many larger garfish. Quite pleasant once in.

The Necks at Sydney Opera House.

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I bought a ticket back when I thought I'd have more time than I do. Chris Abrahams on the piano was the draw, and his collaborators — Tony Buck on drums and Lloyd Swanton on bass — were also excellent. I really enjoyed the washed out ambience of the first set, while the second was a bit more insistent and harder to space out to. They pulled a far bigger crowd than I would have expected. The light show was beautifully subtle, especially a fade to black at one point.

/travels/Motorcycle | Link

I sold Betts today to a lady learner from Earlwood. She was accompanied by her vintage-Harley-restoring bloke, who makes his money building electrical substations when he can, and as a general electrician when he can't. "Runs as advertised," he said, after taking her for a short ride. "Does it come with the milk crate?" she asked.

It's not the time to sell, being the end of summer, and the weather is crap, and the market seems to be flooded with CB250s of all vintages, and I was and am in a hurry, and so I had to take a haircut on what I was hoping for: I got $2500 cash on the spot. Very sad to see her go.

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Soon lane splitting will be legal in New South Wales. About time — but I think that 30kph is a bit on the fast side.

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Early-evening lazy snorkel off the scuba ramp at Gordons Bay. Visibility was far better than yesterday; I saw loads of fish of all kinds, but still no squid.

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Very brief early-evening paddle off the southern rocks at Gordons Bay for the first time in a long while after this spell of rain. The water was pretty murky and full of plant material. I saw several small stingrays and not much more.

New specs

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Well, it's been almost twelve years since I lost my original black Emporio Armani's in the Bay of Islands and bought some semi-identical blue ones in Auckland. They finally succumbed to metal fatigue on Monday as I was fetching food for the people at NICTA; roughly I'd been banging my motorcycle helmet into them for the past year or so, and while I expected the concomitant straightening to do the weld at the bridge in, it was in fact the bit that holds the right lens in place that finally came adrift. At Jacob's suggestion I went and did business with the ladies at Out of Sight Eyewear on King St, Newtown, who instantly recognised my need by the bodged tape job. Dave helped Fiona pick me out a couple of pairs of frames: one prodesign stainless steel from Denmark, and some not-quite-Superman/Supergeek plastics from Paul&Joe, France. My prescription had not changed. Now to upgrade the rest of the wardrobe.

Dallas Buyers Club

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With Dave at the Verona's 9.10pm session. Very thin audience. There is indeed more to it than the trailer. Matthew McConaughey is great, as are Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. I liked it, and its lack of subtlety might even have been a strength.

The Talented Mr Ripley

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I saw this a long time ago, maybe even at the cinema. Jude Law is at the height of his powers, and Anthony Lane is not wrong to cite this as one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's finest outings. I found Philip Baker Hall a bit stiff as the private dick; he's better as the avuncular but damaged game show host in Magnolia.

Silver Linings Playbook

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A little Wes Anderson, a little Tarantino. Bradley Cooper was better in American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence is better here. Ah yes, she got an Oscar for it. Lots of nice little touches, including casting Julia Stiles as her sister. de Niro is same-old. John Ortiz returns for another bout of bromance.

Jack Goes Boating

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Philip Seymour Hoffman's solitary effort as director. He and Amy Ryan strike sparks off each other. John Ortiz is fantastic in the bromance role, and Daphne Rubin-Vega is also good as his compromised wife. It's all a bit predictable but the cinematography in the middle, where Jack is rehearsing his swimming and cooking in the Zen mode, is beautiful. The scenes at the pool are great. Everyone gets their slightly-awkward Hoffman moment, and just sometimes I thought there was some Hal Hartley in there too.

The Counselor

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Fassbender, Pitt... Ridley Scott directing. Could have been a whole lot more than it is. None of the Mexicans have a character, and nor do Cruz and Diaz. Bardem is probably the pick of the actors; Fassbender has no room to move. Way too much talking and nowhere enough showing. Dana Stevens recounts the salient bits.

12 Years a Slave

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At the dear old unrenovated Chauvel, Cinema 2, 9:10pm session. There were more people there than I expected; perhaps ten total. The floors remain uneven, and the coffee the girl at the bar made for me kept me awake past midnight. Or perhaps it was the movie that did that.

Unlike Shame, this is essential Steve McQueen. I found it unflinching but less brutal than I'd been led to expect, which is not to say I wasn't unsettled. His cinematography is as beautiful as ever, and the acting is solid, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor. I didn't think Fassbender was too far over the top, though his character was pretty flat. (Brad Pitt's had a similar two dimensionality but was far easier to sympathise with, being Canadian and all.) Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, as is Paul Giamatti as the prissy slave trader. Alfre Woodard is the Queen Slave, made good, sold out. There's not much to the plot, this being a series of set pieces about becoming and being in a state of slavery.

Rated #99 in IMDB's top-250 today. I didn't read any reviews before I went in. Dana Stevens is on the money. Michael Wood at the London Review of Books is right to observe that the movie would have been strengthened by McQueen toning down Fassbender's character. Manohla Dargis's commentary is thoughtful. David Denby reviewed it for the New Yorker.

That about wraps it up for this brief Hollywood renaissance. I hope there is more to Dallas Buyers Club than we saw in the trailer.

Raging Bull

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I saw this a long time ago, and remember thinking it to be the best of the Scorsese/de Niro collaborations; that was certainly before I saw Casino. There's not a lot to like about La Motta, if you're not into brutal grind-it-out boxing.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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With Dave, at the Verona, 9pm session. Fairly packed which I guess might be usual on Friday nights. I thought I'd struggle to be sapient for the full 180 minutes, but it was as if they'd soaked some stimulants into the chairs.

Well, what can I say: I enjoyed it though it didn't amount to a hill of beans really. Presently #64 in the IMDB top-250. I think that's as high as it'll get as there's no timeless Gordon Gecko here and that Scorsese cites him says it all. I enjoyed Kyle Chandler's Duchovny/McLachlan Twin Peaks mashup; a great effort from him. Some scenes reminded me of a certain "world class" workplace. Leonardo DiCaprio clearly enjoyed himself immensely. I can't be sure the same is true of any of the women.

A. O. Scott reviewed it for the New York Times. Dana Stevens didn't really get into it, and nor did David Denby at the New Yorker. I agree with him about the two great scenes.

Tropic Thunder

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I didn't realise Ethan Cohen got a writing credit for this one.

The Graduate

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A Mike Nichols segue from Charlie Wilson's War. I guess it must be tough following up Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, especially if that's your first gig. Dustin Hoffman is a bit irritating here; so much so I'm tempted to watch his Oscar winners (Kramer v's Kramer and Rain Man) to see what the fuss was later about. He got a nomination for this one, though I can't see why. Rated #220 in the IMDB top-250, this week.

Owning Mahowny

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Dana Stevens pointed to this movie in her article on the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It reminded me of Elliot Gould in Robert Altman's California Split: so very Canadian.

Charlie Wilson's War

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On Dave's recommendation, I think due to Aaron Sorkin being the screenwriter. Vale Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's excellent here, as is the rest of the cast.

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Early evening snorkel off the southern rocks at Gordons Bay. Still no squid. A stingray was early to the party, parked on the sand at depth. The tide was out which made entry a bit of a challenge; fortunately the water is warm enough now to dive straight in.

The Road

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On Dave's suggestion, I think. I didn't recognise Robert Duvall, or Guy Pearce, but did pick Charlize Theron and Molly Parker. And Viggo, of course. Not much here for me.

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Early evening snorkel at Gordons Bay. Quite a few people there. Visibility was decent. I saw a large female groper attended by lots of small fry, many luddericks and wrasse. A stingray was swimming along the rocks, unfazed by me. Quite warm in.

Wombeyan Caves

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Betts strikes a pose at the famous sandstone tunnel.

Most of the way there.

I'd been eyeing off this journey into the deep inaccessible south of the Blue Mountains / Sydney's water supply since my ride down to Kangaroo Valley; Dad surprised me when he said he'd never been there. I set off at 11:30am and hightailed it down the Hume in perfect conditions. Perhaps there was less wind, but Betts had no trouble doing upwards of 90kph this time, excepting the hills. Things got decidedly slower when I got to Wombeyan Caves Road, west of Mittagong.

I kept her in second gear most of the way along the 40km or so of unsealed dirt, and was fortunate that there was no traffic. (I honked on all corners, and not just the blind ones.) The moon surface was easier to handle than the loose stuff, and Betts showed she's a real city girl, tottering on her heels as she picked her way through the gravel. About halfway along some Herefords lined me up: a bull, a cow and calf, some hangers-on. The whole track was hot and almost entirely exposed. I got to the Caves around 4pm, with some breaks. (A 4WD website led me to believe the whole thing would take more like six hours.) The creek was dry, which is unsurprising to those in the know as the whole area is sandstone, so no cool down / clean up for me.

View Randwick to Wombeyan Caves in a larger map

Scenes from Kangaroo Shit Park.

Camping next to the Wombeyan Creek.

I aimlessly cruised around the Wombeyan campsite for a bit until a ranger set me straight: the kiosk was closed for the day, and I could setup wherever I felt like it. It's a huge area with quite a few fireplaces and water taps. Over the picket fence is Kangaroo Shit Park, and yes, the roos are tame, as are the magpies. I pitched the tent up and had dinner, all ready to go to sleep by about 6pm, so I took a stroll over to the caves and other facilities. I think it's a little lame that they close so early in summer. After a pleasant early-evening doze on the thermarest Alison gifted me (far superior to the Kathmandu one I bought years ago), I was all set for a restless night of tossing and turning until the dawn chorus got me moving.

The Knapsack? Lennox? Bridge on Mitchells Pass at Blaxland.

I figured it wasn't worth hanging around for another couple of hours until the kiosk opened, so I hit the road going west around 7.15am. "Can't be too far to the Maccas at Blaxland," I thought. Yeah right. After about 90 minutes, including 20km of dirt, I made it to the little general store at Black Springs where a chatty Kiwi lass made me a very welcome coffee. The road from there to Oberon and on to Hartley was pretty cruisy, with Victoria Pass and so forth so very familiar. I did stop at the Blaxland Maccas for another coffee and to check my email.

As I'd been meaning to find the Lennox Bridge for ages, I pushed on further down the road running next to the Maccas, which becomes Mitchell's Pass at some point. It dumped me in Penrith on the old Great Western Highway. After that I took a break in Parramatta, figured out how to get onto Victoria Road, and ran into some hideous traffic in the south and east of the CBD due to the eastern distributor being closed. Apparently a tip-truck's tray came unstuck in one of feeder tunnels.


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Digging through my old CDs reminded me of this 1980s classic. The first half is quite tight, and then it goes all wobbly when the plot gets needy.

Inside Llewyn Davis

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With Dave at the Verona, 9.40pm session. Mercifully only 1h40min. I quite enjoyed this somewhat aimless amble by the Coen brothers. Some good acting, especially from the cat. I liked Carey Mulligan's unrelenting vitriol; it was almost Australian. I didn't really get the John Goodman sequence.

Anthony Lane contends that the inability of the main character to be the centre of things extends to the leading man (Oscar Isaac) having the same problem. Dana Stevens got right into it, as did A. O. Scott at the New York Times.

Vince Jones at Foundry 616.

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With Dave. Someone is trying to revive the Sydney jazz scene with this cute little venue near the University of Technology, Sydney; the last time I remember seeing Vince Jones was at the Harbourside Brasserie in the late 1990s. The place was packed so we propped up the bar for a bit, got some food in Chinatown at interval, and sat near the door for the second set. I was/am still pretty out of it and struggled to get into much: I did enjoy the piano a lot though, and was a bit stunned when he played Gil Scott Heron's Winter in America.

Mick Turner, live at the Sydney Festival.

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"This is a song about finding yourself at an airport with James Brown one day and Mick Turner... Mick Turner, ladies and gentlemen... boy from Sandringham, done good..."

There comes a time in every man's life when he's listened to the Dirty Three's Live at Meredith so many times he can lip sync to Warren Ellis, and it is that very moment, when the bits have worn off those CDs, to see what the boy can do solo. I grant that a tiny circus tent on the edge of Hyde Park, and the Sydney Festival itself, is not that conducive to ruminating on new tunes, especially when one is totally preoccupied with showing that a garbage collector collects garbage, and only the garbage.

Atypically he played with a band featuring three ladies and two other blokes. I sat in a strategically stupid spot and got the Warren Ellis treatment, i.e. he faced away from me the whole time. In fact the only person I could see was the (entirely agreeable) bassist Peggy Frew, and I got the impression that his tunes were not taxing her. One lady did vocals, the other keyboards. A bloke played some kind of backing guitar and the drummer was up against it with Jim White sitting in the crowd, though maybe I hallucinated that last part.

Bernie always reckoned Mick Turner was too much of a doodler to take the lead, and he was somewhat right; however as I'm looking for that kind of spaced-out non-intrusive and not-boring thing that he carried off so well on Ocean Songs, I later blew another $85 on what's available from his online shop.

All this came at the end of an afternoon in the State Library. Their internet is still all Port 80, which precluded a commit that I've been aiming for all week. I was also very tired, and am not sleeping enough presently. Betts got parked out front of the Lands Office, in a 2hr zone next to a red CB250 with ~30,000km on it, and a bit later on, next to the adventuring kind of BMW I just don't want.

Her (2013)

/noise/movies | Link

At the 9.35pm session at the dear old Verona. There's a tiny loading bay out front of the Three Weeds pub on Oxford St, and Betts was the last horse on the sand when I got out near midnight. I was expecting something closer to 1h40m, and that's probably what the editor should have aimed for.

This movie has been a long time in coming to Australia, and it was a long way from Commodus to this for Joaquin Phoenix, though perhaps not so far from the lead of The Master. Scarlett must now hold the record for the most number of sex scenes without putting in an actual showing; this being the second Scarlett flick for the week I'm feeling a bit overloaded. Amy Adams is more Amy Adams here than in American Hustle — and her over-emoting drove me nuts; I guess I'm not in love with her any more. At least she wasn't as frosty here as she was in The Master.

As for the movie itself: well, what can one say. As I walk the streets I see that everyone is now a computer addict, just like I've been for about thirty years. I'm pretty sure I don't want my machine to sound like Scarlett. The flight of the OSs reminded me of Douglas Adams's dolphins, but without the fishbowls, and as it was all about the fishbowls, Jonze missed out on a major plot opportunity. That the OSs ran off, and didn't procreate, struck me as not very compassionate; there was plenty of scope for a dynasty of Scarletts, each more tuned to Joaquin than the previous, at no cost to her. I guess this is what happens when liberal arts types speculate about software. The marshmallow man is pretty funny; that and the ending put me in mind of Fight Club, but without the Pixies, which brings me back to the fishbowls and their lack.

Manohla Dargis got right into it for the New York Times, as did Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane observes that Phoenix's shirts and moustache are ill-advised. There are a few postings on the New Yorker blog: Christine Smallwood finds the final twist ("humans who have given all their attention to their devices find that they can't hold their devices' attention in return.") good; I infer she is not a software person or big on empathy. Richard Brody summarises: "with its dewy tone and gentle manners, [it] plays like a feature-length kitten video [...]".

I talked to Sean about it on Wednesday. He observed that the protaganist is atypical: a sensitive bloke who's not a complete tool. Phoenix's date with Olivia Wilde got his goat, and mine too. I think he got more into this flick than I did.

Luke's ABC Open Christmas special.

/noise | Link

Luke did an awesome Christmas special on a lightshow in Lithgow for ABC Open. It made it on to 7.30 at the time. I just got around to watching it now.

Bullet Catch at the Carriageworks.

/noise/theatre | Link

The being January I just had to go something in the Sydney Festival... but what? Pickings were unusually slim this year. I plumped for this and Mick Turner on Thursday. I can only hope I get more for my other $40 (including booking fee) in a couple of days than I did tonight.

In brief, solo performer Rob Drummond, sporting a Scottish or possibly Geordie accent, gives us something of a potted history of this trick mixed in with some mind reading and sundry second-rank trickery. He sure is a great reader of body language, assuming they weren't all plants. In contrast his history is at odds with Wikipedia, and this being an era of Government-by-Wikipedia, I expect he's been deported by now. A major part of the show involved audience participation, which was mostly in the form of a lady who was out with her partner, up (err, down) on stage. Unfortunately the interaction led to much tedious and boring interjection from know-everythings; in that sense it was perfect for the Festival. The central moral quandry was whether he should reveal the mystery of the levitating side-table. (The lady's partner was in fact a magician himself and quite allergic to this spilling of tradecraft.)

As for the climax: the test shot failed to shatter the plate and so it was clear that the bullets were blanks. Colour me surprised. I hope he sacked his roadie.

The massive Christian Boltanski installation still crowds the foyer. The house was packed, and the line snaked all the way back to the bar.

Computer Chess

/noise/movies | Link

What a weird little movie: a very naturalistic take on a fictional computer chess tournament circa 1984. The cinematography is pure VHS, with the odd Easy Riders space out. There are some quite funny bits near the beginning before it starts to go off the rails. Would someone consider this Wes Anderson-ish? — but this is more genre and less generic kook. The director Andrew Bujalski is my age and seems to specialise in this sort of thing. Hal Hartley he is not, however.

I came to this from a generous review in the New York Times by A. O. Scott.

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Day-long trip to Wattamolla with Jacob and Barb, Alex and Alana. I didn't get to swim much. Alex has the makings of a master sand craftsman. Alana is a brave waterbaby, wanting to jump off the rocks like all the bigger kids — but Barb wisely put the kabosh on that as she isn't even treading water yet. Betts enjoyed the ride down more than I did; I didn't feel sufficiently mindful to really relax into it. The traffic was fairly placid however, with the few homicidal drivers easily avoided with some lane splitting (while the traffic was stopped, honest!).

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Late afternoon paddle at Little Bay. Loads of people there. Fairly flat with the tide out.

Don Jon

/noise/movies | Link

Gordon-Levitt as writer/director takes us a long way from Brick by spoiling a tepid piece of sexploitation with some sort of moral fabulation: like Love and Other Drugs, the central conceit is provocative but the race is on to reach the safety of cliché. The whole thing is emptier than one would credit from the enjoyably over-the-top family scenes featuring Brie Larson's expressive silence and Tony Danza's hysterics. Glenne Headly is good too. Gordon-Levitt's histrionics in his car would be familiar to any of my passengers.

Here we have not only the Irish but also the Italians treating sin as a negotiable currency.

Manohla Dargis at the New York Times.

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Snorkel at the north end of the beach with Ben. We intended to try the south end again but it seemed too rough. Loads of people there at 6pm. Still no squid. Loads of small fry. Pretty good visibility.

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Snorkel off the scuba ramp at Gordons Bay. The search for squid continues.

The Usual Suspects

/noise/movies | Link

I'd forgotten many details of the plot in this one, and found that even knowing how it goes in broad terms doesn't ruin it. The cinematography is very fine, and the pacing just about perfect.

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Another evening paddle at Gordons Bay. More people attempting to fish there, but succeeding only in standing around looking self conscious.

The Missouri Breaks (1976)

/noise/movies | Link

Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando in a mildly meh northern-Western. Jack rustles horses and Marlon is a "regulator" who is paid to be allergic to that. I can see what they were trying to do.

/noise/beach/2013-2014 | Link

Early evening paddle at Gordons Bay. Quite pleasant in.

John Wilton Solo in a drain

/noise/music | Link

As advertised by the NOW now, John Wilton was bashing a cymbal in the drain under Sydenham Station. I think he also had some post-processing that lent it a spooky ambience.

Chicago in the depths of winter.

/travels | Link

Grégoire and the Bean.

I chose a really terrible time for a fly-by-night trip to Chicago. The temperature on Monday was at record setting lowest maximums, apparently due to an "Arctic vortex" that spread the cold air usually contained at the pole; Tuesday was marginally better. It's hard to talk weather with Americans as they still use Fahrenheit, but in Celsius Monday ranged from something like -26° to -23°, ignoring the windchill off Lake Michigan, and when they talk about it being "above zero" they don't mean the snow is going to melt. Some say that was colder than Antartica. While I was there the Chicago River near the downtown went from perhaps 10% iced over to closer to 70% (my guesswork). I schlepped down to the park with Grégoire on Sunday when it was still snowing, and again on Tuesday when it was marginally warmer. This kind of cold is far beyond what I'd experienced in Sweden, being unforgivingly brutal on any exposed skin.

Generation Kill

/noise/movies | Link

At Dave's repeated insistence, and I'm glad he did insist given what an awesome piece of work it is. As war movies go, this is some amalgam of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, with many of the archetypes of the latter directly imported. Military command is generally held to be incompetent.