Best Movies 2014

For my final trick of the year, I’ll talk about the five best films of the year. These are films I saw in the theaters though I didn’t include silent films I’ve seen. I will point out that 4 of the 5 are about women or by women. I don’t think that’s an accident. :-)

I’ll be taking a bit of a hiatus until in first week of the new year. So have fun and be safe!

In no particular order:
1. Birdman
This film, staring Michael Keaton, is about a movie star directing and acting in his first Broadway show in New York. Michael Keaton’s character was once a star in a superhero franchise but has been trying to find himself in the larger field of art. The film is imaginative and strange at times; his superhero altar-ego talks to him. The movie itself is shot as if it were one long take (it fakes a lot of it sometimes). Brilliant. I hope he wins best actor in the Oscars.
2. The Girls in the Band
I’ve talked about Judy Chaikin’s documentary about women in jazz a few times this year. It’s just that good. It really brings to life a story that has been forgotten. Until I had seen the movie, I had never realized that I didn’t know a single female horn player. As a saxophonist and a woman interested in women in history, that’s really sad. This film remedied that and introduced me to so many amazing musicians like Melba Linton and Vi Redd.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
This Coen Brothers movie is such a wonderful character study of a failing musician. No doubt about it Llewyn Davis is jerk, but it’s hard to watch his life fall apart. He has talent but he doesn’t have what it takes to become a star or even a somebody. Life is hard for him (though he helps make it hard for himself). Chicagoans will feel one scene in particular.
4. Hopeful Hopeless
This is a film that I saw through the Chicago Latino Film Festival written and directed by Coraly Santaliz. It’s a wonderful film from Puerto Rico about a sweet but desperate man who tries to rob a bank to pay for his wife’s surgery.  It’s funny and clever film that is told from multiple perspectives.
5. Finding Vivian Maier
This is a tricky film. I had never heard of Vivian Maier until I saw this film. It explores her troubled life and her amazing prolific work. But I’m not sure the film really tackles the issue that there are a lot of people making a lot of money off of her work who are not her relatives. I understand that significant work and money went into her collection but the casual attitude on part of the filmmaker and narrator was troubling. But it’s well worth checking out despite these issues.
Yes, I’ve seen many other films this year but these five were the ones that stood out. Honorable mentions should go out to  The Book of Life, and a Mockingjay Part 1 (fun film about propaganda).
Until next year, that’s all!

Best Concerts 2014

I’m going to try something new. I’m going to talk about music. I haven’t really done a lot with this since I wasn’t sure I knew how to talk about music. But I’ll give it a try for my top nine list of best concerts of the year.

In no particular order:

  1. Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Blues Festival and City Winery

This all African-American blue grass group is so good I saw them twice in three days. I already had tickets for the City Winery (strange place with disappointing wine), when I heard they were also playing at the Blues Festival. Since the concert was free and I had time, I also went. Sure, they played most of the same songs but they are so good, that I didn’t care. The lead singer Rhiannon Giddons has such an amazing voice. And there is a bones (two small flat wooden sticks) duel. You have to love that. I will see them as many times as they are in Chicago.

  1. Nickel Creek at the Taste of Chicago

To clarify, this is not Nickelback. This is a folk band led by the fiddler Sarah Watkins, a regular on Prairie Home Companion. I was really excited about seeing her fiddle and sing and was not disappointed. The band was great, silly at times, serious at times. Well worth the trip through Taste to see them. One of their new songs, “Hayloft”, blew me away.

  1. Anna and Elizabeth at the University of Chicago Folk Festival

Yes, there is a lot of folk music on this list. It’s my preferred music right now. This duo wowed me at the Folk Festival. They’ve been collecting songs in the South, talking with old musicians, and bring that tradition to life. They also have a visual component to the show where they use a “cranky,” a scroll with pictures moved by a crank, to tell a story. I think my favorite song of theirs is “Sun to Sun” about working in a chain gang. It just blows me away every time.

  1. Arcade Fire at the United Center

There are few bands that I’d see in such a huge venue. Arcade Fire might be the only one. The show was great. The band marched in wearing giant papier mâché heads, like it was a giant party. They had dancers, sparkles, and flickering lights to accompany their amazing songs. My only disappointment was that they did not play “We Used to Wait.”

  1. My Brightest Diamond at Lincoln Hall

My Brightest Diamond was my find this year. I had tried to go see her play at Millennium Park but the rains came and canceled her concert. But the two and a half songs she played had me hooked. Her music is haunting with a touch of electronica. Her opening piece “Pressure” includes a marching band in each city she goes. In Chicago, she had the amazing Mucca Pazza play with her. So neat. During the Lincoln Hall concert, she wore a white suit with red sneakers, which is just awesome. She also is seems to be a very caring and thoughtful person who is willing to share the spotlight.

  1. Lúnasa at Old Town School of Folk Music

Lúnasa has been my favorite band for 14 years. They play traditional instrumental Irish music and they wow me every time I see them in concert. Their songs are simply marvelous examples of Irish music. Their stage presence is fun and delightful. This concert I learned that the fiddler Seán Smythe is not only this world renown fiddler, he is also a medical doctor. That’s just blows my mind every time I think about it.

  1. Nellie McKay at the Space

Nellie McKay is full of mischievous glee. She seems shy, she barely talked to the audience but that’s okay by me. Her songs are delightful and bitter at times. She plays piano and ukulele. At the end, she ended taking suggestions from the audience and played a medley of her best hits. I got to hear my favorite song “Caribbean Time” as part of the medley.

  1. Sarah Donner at a house concert

Sarah Donner is a singer songwriter on guitar. She is simply wonderful and thoughtful. She has witty songs like “The Rebuttal of Schrödinger’s Cat”, which imagines the response of the cat to this experiment. Her songs have some wonderful geek friendly themes but also many are about the Northeast too. Just lovely. Yes, the concert was in someone’s home which made the experience extremely intimate and fun.

  1. Ari Eisinger at the University of Chicago Folk Festival Workshop

I saw Ari Eisinger, a folk guitarist, as part of a workshop he held at the Festival about folk guitar. It actually got really technical; he talked about chords and whatnot with the audience members that was lost on me. But the two songs that he performed at the workshop earn a mention on this list. He seems to play songs that herald back to 1920s-1940s of folk music in the south. He’s simply magnificent. I hope I can hear him at full concert sometime in the near future.

Tomorrow, I’ll end on best movies in theater that I’ve seen this year.

That’s all!

Best Plays of 2014

Yesterday I talked about my top nine books of 2014. Now, let’s talk about the top eight plays of 2014 in my opinion. I have a few plays to go before the end of the year but I’ll just have to report on those later. These are traditional plays, not circus and/or other variety shows.

In no particular order.
1. Since I Suppose by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Richard Jordan Productions
This play is loosely based on Measure for Measure. It had to be one of the most bizarre plays I’ve ever been to…. er participated in. It was just a smartphone and me with headphones wandering around the Loop and River North. I wandered in and out of buildings, even a bedroom!, while I experienced the play in a most private way. Probably the most thrilling thing I’ve done all year.
2, Merry Wives of Windsor by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
This was a fun production at CST. They chose to set it in a post-WWII Britain. There were little interludes with wondrous swing music that I thought were splendid. I even liked Falstaff…well, I enjoyed seeing him get his due.
3. Hamlet by Oak Park Theater Festival
This play managed to do something unique: it made me sympathize  with Hamlet. In other productions, he comes off as a misogynist git. But this one made me feel for him. It didn’t hurt that they set it in 1920s gangster times. And it was outdoors on a splendid summer night.
4. Midsummer Night’s Dream by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
This was another show outdoors on a wonderful summer night. It was a lot of fun. It made me appreciate the story more than other productions. The parts with the Athenians were most engaging; the fairies were okay. But they used people and umbrellas to create the forest that everyone gets lost in. So that was really creative. Also, umbrellas are always an A in my book.
5. All Our Tragic by the Hypocrites
This was the 12 hour production of 32 Greek tragedies. You can see it as one 12 hour chunk or 4 plays in 3 hour chunks. I chose the latter. I saw three out of the four shows of it. I am bummed about missing part 3. It’s playing again this summer and I will see it part three. I think they did a fantastic job of integrating all the stories in a fun and creative way. Also, the chorus playing old American folk music was a nice touch. I loved learning about all these plays and stories that I’d never heard of before.
6. White Snake by the Goodman Theater
This show was a tale of a Chinese fable about a white snake who becomes human and discovers love. It was extremely imaginative. There were puppets, paper rain, and a lot of magic in this show. Goodman created a beautiful world. And the play is about powerful woman fighting evil, conniving men.
7. The Boxer at the Athenaeum
This play was done as a silent movie. This entire play was done with subtitles with sepia colored light. It was an old-fashioned tale about a woman who pretends to be a man in order to coach her crush in his career making boxing match. Convoluted? Yes? That’s just how these things work. It was charming and fun. Also the sepia light was a stroke of genius.
8. Manual Cinema’s Studs Terkel piece
Manual Cinema is a puppet group unlike any you’ve seen. They combine shadow puppets with people, creating rich worlds. A child’s feet kick; eyelashes flicker. It’s magnificent. For the Studs Terkel festival in May, they put on a show that brought some of his oral histories to life. It was heart-wrenching and hilarious at times. I hope they consider putting the piece on again. It is well worth watching. (But then again, all of their shows are).
That’s all for now!

Best Books of 2014

The end of 2014 is approaching! That means its time for lists of the best stuff of the year. Not top ten lists, but lists of indeterminate length. Yay! I’ll be spending this week going over my list of best books, best concerts, best theater shows, and a really short one on movies of 2014.

Today let’s talk about the top nine books of the year. These are not books that have been published in 2014; they are books that I have in 2014. I rarely read books that come out in the same year. I’m allergic to hardbacks. Well, my back is.
In no particular order:
1. Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
This is the story of Achilles told through the eyes of Patroclus. It’s fantastic to see the Trojan War from another perspective. It’s engrossing, beautiful, and haunting. It makes Achilles into a sympathetic character.
2. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
This is a Victorian comic novel written in 1889. Three adult friends decided to take a holiday by floating down the Thames on a boat. Humor doesn’t always translate in time but this book had me laughing aloud. It’s silly and delightful. It’s also the book that Connie Willis references in To Say Nothing of the Dog. There is a sequel to the Victorian novel but I’d give it a pass.
3. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
This is a story about two hired assassins who are brothers in Oregon and Washington in 1851. They are brutal men who rarely show mercy to their victims or anyone. It’s an interesting character study that is very engrossing especially for someone who doesn’t lean towards the cowboy genre.
4. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
This book blew me away. It’s told from the perspective of three women who all have been befriended and betrayed by the illusive and dangerous Zenia. It’s a wonderful example of point of view narration.
5. Invisible Beasts by Sharona Muir
This is a series of short vignettes linked together by the narrator who has the gift of seeing invisible animals. She writes the book in order to catalog them before they go extinct. Each story centers around a different animal but also focuses on a facet of her life, like a white lie or a one night stand. Well written and delightful.
6. Havana Real by Yoani Sanchez
Yoani Sanchez is the heart of the blog Generation Y about her experiences living in today’s Cuba. She writes about how she is going to do something illegal: she’s going to be a citizen. She talks about the day to day difficulties of living in Cuba and the ways that she and other Cubans try to get by. Havana Real is a selection of her blogs from the late 2000s. Some of her blogs are simply chilling. For instance, when she visits a friend in the hospital, she brings her surgical thread to ensure her friend has it for her surgery.
7. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwick
This is a strange travelogue of a man who goes Patagonia to find dinosaur remains. He ends up hitchhiking and traveling all across Patagonia, meeting all the communities throughout. There are colonies of Welsh folks, Boers, Germans and more that still speak their native languages. It’s not the most politically correct work; he’s not terribly sympathetic to non-European Argentines but it’s a interesting work well worth a read.
8. Red Shirts by John Scalzi
This is for people familiar with Star Trek. Several new recruits, “Red Shirts”, are assigned a space ship and discover a unnatural rate of death for the recruits. It’s delightful and fun look at fate.
9. Pastoralia by George Saunders
I don’t know if I love this book but it haunts me. It’s a series of short stories starting with a story about a theme park where they recreate historical scenes (or imagined historical scenes). The narrator is a man playing a caveman whose fellow cavewoman is deteriorating. The stories seem to be about people with failed dreams who either raise themselves out of the muck by thoroughly compromising themselves or falling deeper into the void.
That’s all for now!

Jane Addams Day 2014

Saturday was the 2014 AAUW Chicago’s Jane Addams Day Celebration. Jane Addams has commemorative day in Illinois on December 10th because she was a remarkable lady. We try to celebrate her on the following Saturday. It’s an important opportunity to celebrate a piece of women’s history. Few women have commemorative days; none have national holidays. So with great pleasure, I’ve been able to direct the American Association of University Women Chicago chapter’s celebration for the past two years.

The program centered around one of many historical events that Jane Addams partook in. We looked at the Pullman strike in 1894. Due to the snowfall last year, we put on the show again for the membership. Next year, we’ll tackle another historical event with Jane Addams.

The event was a historical reenactment of the strike, starting with George Pullman, played by Scott Priz, describing his vision for Pullmantown. He talked about how he had raised the city of Chicago from the swamps by raising the buildings with little interruption to the daily flow of life. Florence Kelly, a resident of Hull House and political activist who was played by Carron Little, gave a speech about her research of Pullmantown workers.   Many workers had their wages cut by at least 50% and their rents had not been lowered as a result. Many workers had monthly earnings of $18 and had $16 in rent.

Then the workers, played by Catherine Jett and Sarah Crawford, talked to George Pullman. In the historical record, he didn’t actually meet with them; some manager did. But for the sake of drama, we had the conversation between Pullman and the workmen. They asked for three things: 1) wages increased 2) rents lowered and 3) investigation into the abuses by the foremen and other managers on the shop floor. Pullman rejected the first two but promised investigation into these allegations of abuse. He also pledged that none of the workers would be fired as a result of these demands. However, three workers were shortly let go because of their participation on the strike committee. That’s when the workers decided to strike. We staged a little protest with signs and chants.

The strike, however, got violent. Rail cars were burned and thirty people died. So we had a circus acrobatic fight to represent the violence. We did get a little anachronistic; Pullman tussled with the workers. Eventually, he stood on the shoulders of one of his strikebreakers, played by Jim Priz, and gave a speech to crush the workers spirits. Sure, there was no evidence that Pullman engaged physically with this employees but it made for some good theater. Eventually the strikebreaker wailed on a striker, dragging her body off stage. Yikes!

Next Jane Addams attempted to reason with the workers, asking them to consider negotiating with Pullman. They agreed but made no promises about what will be said. However, Pullman simply refused to meet with her. He then gave a monologue to justify his obstinate approach to his workers.

Jane Addams then gave a speech based on her essay “A Modern Lear.” In this speech, she compares King Lear to George Pullman and the workers to the daughters. She focuses much of her criticism on Pullman who was so confident in his benevolence that he became far removed from his own workmen. He failed to see his faults and was blind to their needs and desires, much like King Lear only saw the slight against him and failed to see Cordelia’s love for him. But Addams points out that Cordelia should not escape censure; her words are cold to her father. Addams advocates that workingmen have to be inclusive of their employers; no future can exist without both sides. It’s a powerful speech about the importance of conciliation. Her belief in peace and justice was a constant throughout her life.

To put things into historical context, we had our Historian, Paul Durica, talk about the history of the strike and Hull House. We learned about the connections between Hull House and Pullmantown. An architecture firm built Pullmantown and later an assistant to one of those architects would build the additional buildings for the Hull House. The purposes of the buildings were very different and reflected in the design. Moreover, we learned that our circus fight with Pullman and the workers was political burlesque and things like it would have been performed in halls during the late 19th century.

Then we closed the show with the song “Solidarity Forever.” It’s a song sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” played by pianist, John Gieger. It was actually first sung at Hull House before going to join a strike.

I was very pleased with the show and people seemed to have a great time. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to celebrate women’s history. It’s really important to me. I thank AAUW for giving me this opportunity again this year.

Until next year!

That’s all for now!

That Belongs in a Museum 6

This week was another thrilling evening with That Belongs in a Museum. For those of you new to the blog or the live literary event scene, That Belongs in a Museum is a storytelling show where folks bring in objects and explain why they brought them in. Objects can be historically interesting and/or personally interesting. People can present anywhere from 30 seconds up to five minutes. It’s a wonderful event.

My fiancé presented on three old coins that he had received the night before. He talked about how coins are little bits of history. The first coin was a Rupee from 1944 with the face of Emperor George on it. Back then, the British Empire was alive (and kicking, I suppose). To buy bread, as my fiancé put it, you had to use one of these coins that were a constant reminder of this foreign domination.

The next coin was a silver coin from the Austro-Hungarian empire. This coin meant something. You can feel it. This was a popular coin across the world since it conveyed strength and trust. On the flip side, the third coin was a 500 Marc coin from the Weimar Republic. It’s made from aluminum and it feels fake, like a poker chip or plastic toy money. Germany was experiencing hyperinflation and this coin really speaks to that. In the beginning of the year sometime in the 1920s, 800 Marc could buy a loaf of bread. At the end of the year, that same loaf cost 8 billion Marcs. So yeah. This coin represents how much trouble Germany (and eventually the rest of us) were in.

One individual brought in a sand collection that he had been collecting for years. He had started with sand he collected near the Pyramids of Giza in the 1980s. He and friends bribed a guard so they could watch the sun rise over the pyramids and the Sphinx. So he collected this little bit of sand to remember it. And then he collected different kinds of sand when he traveled. He has sands from all over Central America and the US. He said Chicago has wonderfully fine sand. One of the most interesting sand was this black metallic sand that he had gotten in El Salvador when he asked for his wife’s hand in marriage. This sand is magnetic actually. It sparkles like the night sky.

But there was a catch. All the bottles were labeled with numbers that corresponded to a separate list, detailing where they had come from. Right now, the gentleman couldn’t find the card! He knew some by sight but others, he’s not sure. Anyway, what a wonderful way to remember life’s events!

One woman brought in a blowgun that she had gotten from a small village in the Amazon. She had the blowgun itself, a quiver and a wooden pouch that was filled with cotton like substance. At one point, she armed the gun and we all started to duck in the audience. It was rather hilarious. She ended up not shooting it, which was probably for the best.

One man brought a board game from the 1970s called “Chug-a-lug.” It was a party game with the goal of getting people to drink. It was truly a relic from the past. There were cards like Chance cards in Monopoly except a bit racier. One said that for every drink, remove a piece of clothing that started with S. Another asked someone to deliver a poem on birth control, etc. etc. It was kinda brilliant.

Finally, I brought my saxophone. It wasn’t my intention to present it (I had originally brought a different item) but I had come from my saxophone lesson and figured it seemed like the thing to do. It was all about my grandparents. My grandfather passed away two years ago this week. We moved my grandmother here to Chicago shortly thereafter. One of the very first things we did was find a string ensemble for her to play in. She has been playing violin her entire life. After seeing my grandmother perform in a concert, I decided that it was time to pick up my saxophone again. I had played it for eight years and then put it down for thirteen years. I played instruments in between but I decided that saxophone was something I should pursue. So I started taking lessons again and even tried concert band again. My grandmother and I once performed in our groups for the same concert. That was rather neat. So it’s a tribute to my grandparents.

Moreover, I’ve been putting bumper stickers all over the case so it’s a little reminder of places, concerts and events I’ve been to. I have a bumper sticker from the protests against Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. I have a sticker from one of my favorite bands, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and two silly stickers from an old web comic I used to read. The case is so strange and eclectic but so thoroughly me.

What a great night! Until February 2015!

That’s all!

Confessions about Opera

Reader, I have a confession to make. I have tried and tried but Opera and I just won’t work together. Yes, it’s a painful confession but I have to make it. It’s not that I don’t love classical music; I love going to the symphony. One of my favorite sounds is an orchestra warming up. But if you add operatic voices to the mix, something goes wrong in my head. It’s not that I don’t like certain arias and whatnot. Maybe the problem lies in the same part of my brain that doesn’t like musicals. I’m not sure.

I’ve seen six classic operas and with the exception of one, they did not work for me. I’ve seen The Marriage of Figaro twice: once as a kid’s version at band camp (yep, at band camp) and another time with a Rene Magritte theme at the Lyric Opera. I loved the allusions to my favorite painter but that was more fun to me than the opera itself. I’ve seen Rigoletto at the Lyric, which my dad says was a strange production. I’ve walked out at the intermission of Handel’s Acis and Galeta. Handel is one of my favorite composers! I saw Lucia di Lammermoor with s Chinese opera company. That production was rather fantastic but I don’t know how much of it was the circumstances of it or the production itself.

And I just saw the Lyric Opera’s Porgy and Bess. I love Gershwin; I think he is the finest American composer. The production has gotten absolutely amazing reviews. But I did not love it. There were some amazing songs in the show, like “Summertime,” “A Woman is a Sometimes Thing” (I know!), “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Eric Owens was fantastic as Porgy. I was moved by his character throughout the show. Adina Aaron as Bess was okay; I don’t know if I loved her voice. The staging was fantastic with a two story stage that they really made use of. But the show did not hold together for me. Sung dialogue was rather bothersome to me. And the other songs didn’t grab me. The sum was not greater than the parts.

So I think it’s me, not the opera. Now, I’ve been told that I should try Carmen and I’ll concede that I need to see it. After all, Carmen Miranda, the “Brazilian Bombshell”, was allegedly named for the opera. Naturally, I have to see that. But I suspect that the same thing will happen. I will love some songs in the opera and get bored by the parts in between. I’m apparently missing the opera gene.

That’s all for now!