November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri *****

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is your movie to see this holiday season. It's
a beautifully told story of a mother's grief and the lengths she goes to to find justice. Frances McDormand is perfect as crass, cynical, sarcastic, no-bullshit Mildred. The first scene perfectly shows us Mildred's story - in about ten minutes, you know exactly who you're dealing with and why.
She's not lovable, not by a long shot, but you're with her all the way. And no one delivers a glance like McDormand, so little that says so much.
All the characters have their own stories and are more complicated than first glance, and all that is revealed in due time.
You get to see Woody Harrelson's acting chops in this film, more so in this role than in the much more on-screen role of LBJ, also playing now (which I recommend only for the history). He's so authentic in the part of Chief Willoughby that there's a part of me that believes what's happening to the character is happening to him in real life (I won't spoil it).
It's not a perfect film - if it were then someone wouldn't just happen to have a fire extinguisher in the car exactly when needed, and Mildred would know the police chief's wife, since she knows everyone else in town, but you can forgive things like that when a film is so right. Beautifully done.
Five out of five stars for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

October 28, 2017

Recipe: Do you like lasagna? Do you like Mexican food?

If you like lasagna and you like Mexican food you need to make this recipe. It's pretty easy but if you don't cook then have someone make it for you. Because it's incredibly delicious.
The recipe says it serves 6-8 but I ate half the pan in one sitting because it's more addictive than truffle fries. And because I'm a pig.

Chicken Enchilasagna
Recipe courtesy of Ree Drummond
6 to 8 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 1 ½ lbs.
3 cups part-skim ricotta
3 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
One 14-ounce can green enchilada sauce
One 14-ounce can red enchilada sauce
11 cooked lasagna noodles, cooled (I used Barilla Oven-ready Lasagne noodles - no cooking necessary)
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil.
Mix together the chili powder, cumin, garlic powder and salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle the chicken breasts with half the spice mix. Add the chicken to the skillet and cook, flipping once, until done in the middle, about 9 minutes total. Set aside to cool, then shred.
In a large bowl, mix together the ricotta, Monterey Jack, parsley and the rest of the spice mix.
In a lasagna pan, pour in a little of both enchilada sauces. Add a layer of 4 noodles, spoon on half the ricotta mixture, sprinkle on half the chicken and pour on a little more of both enchilada sauces.
Add another layer of 4 noodles and repeat, ending with a layer of 3 lasagna noodles, the rest of the sauce and the Cheddar on top.
Bake until bubbly, about 30 minutes.

July 31, 2017

Theatre Review: Hir *

Hir is the name of the current play at Steppenwolf. Hir (pronounced here) is also a pronoun. It's not her, it's not's hir. 
In an article in the Playbill, playwright Taylor Mac talks a lot about how there's more than one gender and how the world is changing and how our society is multi-sexual, and he tells us his personal pronoun is judy (I am not making that up), and that that is what this play is about. And I guess that's so, since he wrote it, but it seems less that to me and more about a family that is turning everything upside down in a really chaotic and repulsive way in order to fight against and obliterate the past.
The play opens on a living room/kitchen that is strewn with an immense amount of junk; on the counters, on the tables, on every available surface, piles of laundry on the floor, so much junk they can't use the front door.
"I don't do laundry any more!" the mother cries happily to her son, who's just home from the Marine Corps having been dishonorably discharged. "We don't believe in cupboards any more!"
Everything about this family and home has changed and not for the better, and it wasn't good to begin with.
There's the mother, and there's the father, who's wearing clown makeup and a fright wig, and it turns out he had a stroke and is barely with us except for grunts and inappropriate self-touching for which the mother squirts him with a spray bottle (which is a pretty funny bit because it's done so casually). And there's a sister who's no longer a sister but a transgender sibling.
And if that isn't enough Francis Guinan, who plays the father, walks around for much of the play in nothing but a diaper and, believe me, that’s not something you want to see.
I'm not sure why I stayed for the second act. It was kind of like a really gruesome accident - you want to leave but you can’t drag your eyes away.
Hir is certainly provocative, and that’s a good thing in theatre. Maybe I loved it, but I think I hated it. Good performances, tho.
Here's a video of the playwright talking about this play, and this may make you want to see it. But be warned.
One star out of five for Hir.

July 23, 2017

Movie Review: A Ghost Story *

Will someone please go see A Ghost Story and then tell me what it's all about?
Many looooooong camera shots of a house, or a landscape or a couple in bed or a fork (kidding about the fork) long that you could doze off (I may have) and when you wake you will be looking at the same image and nothing will have moved.
In one particular scene, which has to be seven or eight minutes long, the woman (who has no name and is played by Rooney Mara) sits on the kitchen floor and eats an entire pie, real-time pie eating, eating, eating, eating and then runs to the bathroom to throw up. I get it, it's an expression of her grief for her dead husband, but must we watch her eat the whole thing? (I hope she was able to do that scene in one take.)
Most of the story takes place in the house the no-name woman lived in with her no-name husband (Casey Affleck - what a waste of his talent, wandering around in a sheet with eye holes), and he is the ghost who stays in the house to comfort her and then to haunt a woman and her children who move in, and then to watch it being torn down, but then we see him wandering around an office building (where is that? why is he there?) and then he's on a prairie with a pioneer family.
I do not know what any of this means.
I saw this alone, and when it ended I laughed. There was a man by himself a few seats down and I looked at him and he just shrugged.
The critics love this film. I do not. One out of five stars for A Ghost Story.

June 18, 2017

On Father's Day

My dad lived to 90 and I'm so grateful that he was healthy and strong for most of that time. He was my biggest fan and greatest supporter and I still miss him so much, even after 17 years.
When I think about my dad it isn't what he taught me or what he did for me or what he bought me that comes to mind, it's the love he gave me.
Toward the end of his life I was visiting him in Toledo. He was in independent living by that time. I was there on Saturday and when I went back the next morning he told me he hadn't slept all night because of the men who were there writing on the walls.
"Really?" I said.
"Yes, look..." and he pointed high up on the walls. "See the writing?"
There was no writing. When I told him that, he became agitated.  
"Why can't you see it?" he asked me, clearly puzzled. "It's right there."
Well, that scared the crap out of me, even though he seemed fine otherwise, and so I took him to the emergency room. As we waited for the doctor he sat on a bed and and I stood by his side, and we were chatting when all of a sudden he said, "Oh look at him go!" and pointed down the hall.
"What are you looking at?" I asked.
"That little boy on the tricycle there. Look! Look at him go!"
There was only the hospital personnel in their green scrubs.
Later, the doctor told me this is called "sundowning," a deceptively sweet-sounding term for when your mind is deteriorating and playing cruel tricks on you.
As we waited that day I held my dad's hand and I said, "Daddy, do you know how much I love you?" and he said, "However much that is, I love you a hundred times more."
That was the present my father gave me, the vastness of his love.You're never too old to revel in that, no matter how long they've been gone.

My father was a good, kind man and I miss his smile and the look in his eyes when he saw me, and that memory warms my heart every day.

May 14, 2017

On Mother's Day

My best friend in grade school was Karen Feldstein, whose Jewish father married a
blonde, German shiksa, right after the Holocaust. It was scandalous to our parents, but whatever they thought, all I knew was that she was beautiful; tall and willowy with that long blonde hair; and she was young, around 20 when Karen was born.
I remember a day when she came into our classroom for some reason. All the 8-year-old boys drooled over her and all the girls wanted to grow up to be her.
I wanted that mother.
My mother was 31 when I was born, which was old back then, so by the time I was in kindergarten she was speeding toward 40, and looking like 50. She wasn't young, she wasn't blonde, she wasn't beautiful. She was just my mom. So there was that.
And then there was the reality that my mom and I never had a deep connection, not from the time I was very little. Why? Who knows. Was it because we were so much alike or because we were so different? I see evidence of both today. Whatever the reason, we had a difficult relationship until she died; contentious early on, tolerant later.
It's sad to say I don't miss her, but that's the truth of it. But when I think about her now I can only imagine what it would be like to have a daughter who obviously did not like you; how hurtful and baffling that would be. It makes me sad.
As I got older I made an effort to understand our relationship, and I remember a particular conversation we had where she asked me what she could do. I had no answer but I thought, "You could be Karen's mom."
The truth of that was that Karen's mom was manipulative and controlling, and Karen never connected with her mom either.
Family is a lottery; sometimes you win and sometimes you don't. Do I wish our relationship had been different? Of course. But it was what it was. Mostly I wish I could tell her I'm sorry; that I know she did the best she could. And happy Mother's Day.

April 15, 2017

Theatre Review: Linda Vista at Steppenwolf *****

Linda Vista is the story of a middle-aged man going through a contentious divorce, who's working at a mundane job, has a 13 year old son who doesn't speak to him, and who's trying to find love, or something.
If something good happens in his life he's a master at destroying it.
Would you want to watch a play about this loser? Trust me, you would.
In real life it's the person who has their shit together that you want to be friends with, but in fiction you want to keep that one off center stage. No danger of that here...Wheeler is a hot mess (an expression he hates).
Playright Tracy Letts is a genius with dialogue. Beginning to end, these characters are authentic and funny (funniest when the humor hits home, which it often does) in a casual and organic way, and sad. There's so much laughter that you miss some lines that are surely too good to miss. A good reason to see it again.
Ian Barford
It's a stellar cast; Ian Barford strikes exactly the right note as our damaged hero; he's the guy you'd want to avoid if you met him in a bar but in spite of your better judgement you'd be drawn in by his wit, intelligence and vulnerability. And then you'd kick yourself for ignoring your instinct.
Warning: there's nudity and pretty graphic sex. So it's all good.
Oh, and there's a Steely Dan soundtrack.

Running through May 21, 2017 at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. But I bet you'll see it on Broadway in the not too distant future.
Five out of five stars for Linda Vista.
Go see it!

March 27, 2017

Movie Review: Lion *****

I didn't have time to write a review of Lion when I saw it in early January but I recently saw it again because it's one of those stories that stays with you. I was just as blown away this time, and once again I cried from beginning to end.
Sunny Pawar (right), is the young Saroo who gets lost and ends up 1200 miles from his home and somehow survives all alone on the streets of Calcutta, until authorities find him.
If his remarkable and heart-wrenching performance doesn't wreck you you don't have a heart.
Saroo grows up with a loving and supportive adoptive family and his life is seemingly perfect as he goes off to hotel management school and falls in love. But he's haunted by his long lost family. Through the magic of Google he embarks on a search for them, and the rest of the story seems impossible and unbelievable, but it's all true. The film is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly.
Dev Patel (below) is the older Saroo, and deserving of his Academy Award nomination.
Go see this wonderful, moving film while it's still in theaters.
Five of five stars for Lion.

March 26, 2017

Movie Review: The Sense of an Ending **

The Sense of an Ending is a film that will attract older baby boomers because we love movies about ourselves. Plus it's a great cast (Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling, among others) and stellar acting all around, particularly by Broadbent as Tony, a curmudgeon being revisited by his past.
There's a rather convoluted mystery at the heart of the story involving a girl Tony was involved with (Charlotte Rampling as Veronica) as a university student some fifty years ago. Veronica's mother has died and, oddly enough, left him something in her will that he has to reconnect with Veronica (of course) to get.
It sounds like an interesting premise but it's not. Tony hasn't seen Veronica in all those years, doesn't appear to have ever thought about her, doesn't seem to be carrying a torch. So, except for simple curiosity it's hard to understand why he cares.
But if he didn't there wouldn't be a film. That wouldn't be a big loss.
I have a couple of nits to pick (other than the entire film): Tony has an unmarried daughter who has decided to have a child on her own and is hugely pregnant. By default, Tony is her Lamaze partner, which was unseemly to me as he sat behind her with his hands on her belly. Call me a prude but as much as I loved my dad I would never have wanted him to do that with me.
There's also a gratuitous scene in a bar where Tony has told someone he went to university with Veronica and the guy tells him he doesn't look old enough to have gone to university 50 years ago. Well, yes, he does. And then some.
I wish this had been a more engaging story. I really wanted to like it. The only thing to recommend it is the cast but excellent acting is not enough to overcome boredom.
Two out of five stars for The Sense of an Ending.

March 24, 2017

Movie Review: Personal Shopper ***

Personal Shopper is directed and co-written by Olivier Assayas, who also directed The Clouds of Sils Maria. Once again Kristin Stewart (Maureen) is cast as the assistant to a diva, this time she's a (guess what...) personal shopper to a celebrity of some sort. We don't know much about that celebrity but it's not necessary - it's not her story.
There was something a little "off" (not in a bad way) about Clouds, and unfinished, and Personal Shopper has a similar feel; they both make you scratch your head and work to figure it out, something you may or may not be inclined to do.
Along with her day job Maureen is a medium, as was her now-dead twin brother and she moves though the movie waiting for a sign from him and dealing with ghosts who may or may not be the twin.
The ghost element is a little silly at times (or all the time). Kristin Stewart is good in the role, though not as good, in my opinion, as other critics seem to think.
Three of five stars for Personal Shopper.

Movie Review: Land of Mine *****

Land of Mine is a beautifully crafted film.
Nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film, it's the story of 1945 Denmark; the German occupation is ending and German POWs are tasked with removing hundreds of thousands of land mines.
The war-weary Danish sergeant who's in charge of a group of young soldiers struggles with his hatred of the enemy and his own humanity.
This is a heart-wrenching story with some small heart-warming bits that help relieve the tension; difficult film to watch but worth it.
Five stars out of five for Land of Mine.

February 4, 2017

Movie Review: Fences **

If you like August Wilson's plays, and you like seeing them enacted on the screen with little scene change and page after page after page of dialogue (I heard Viola Davis say that her first speech in the film was 35 pages long), you'll like the movie version of Fences.
I'm sure it's no secret which side of the fence I'm on here (pun intended).
August Wilson is too talky for me. There's little action. His work is all about getting into the psyche of the common man, which is fine, but I don't connect to his characters. Not because I'm a middle-class white woman, but because there's not usually anything likable or relateable or sympathetic or vulnerable about them; nothing to connect me to them.
I went to see the movie because of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Denzel, even though he's nominated for an Academy Award, isn't believable in this role. He sounds like an upper-class black guy trying to sound like a lower-class black guy.
I stayed for an hour and was so worn out by all the yelling and poor-me speeches and his supposedly good-intentioned mistreatment of his son that I walked out.
And see that picture above? That must be an outtake, because there's no smiling in this film. At least not in the first hour.
Even though it's not fair to judge a whole movie by an hour, I'm doing it anyway.
2 stars out of five for Fences.

Theatre reviews: The Bodyguard, Gloria

I'm going to let Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune speak for me on The Bodyguard, the latest Broadway in Chicago offering.
Read his review. He says everything I was thinking, except for this: He appreciates Deborah Cox's (the Rachel character) singing more than I do. Technically she's good but of course she doesn't hold a candle to Whitney. Not that she has to, really, she just needs to put some soul in her singing. Not an easy task when the script is so bland.
And remember that iconic image from the movie promotion back in the 90s? Well, they recreate that scene here in such a gratuitous way, with so little build-up, that people laughed.
As Chris Jones says, the male lead doesn't sing, and what's up with that? Not only does he not sing, there's a karaoke scene to explain why, where he gets up on stage and sounds like a caged cat.
Then, after the show ends, the cast comes out on stage and does some extra dancing and singing, and the show's villain sings a couple lines to Rachel (his, thankfully, is not a singing part), and he sounds pretty much like the Frank character did in the karaoke scene, only this guy was obviously not trying to do that. This felt like he was given an opportunity to show his chops. Kind of pitiful.
This show has no heart, no emotion, no passion and the stars have no chemistry. stars for The Bodyguard.

Don't waste time with The Bodyguard. Instead, go see Gloria at The Goodman. This play is beautifully acted and directed, with snappy, authentic dialogue, and that's what this play is about: cubicle people at a magazine sniping at each other, caring for each other, figuring out who they are and where they're going and their ambition. A crisis in act one changes everything, and that's all I'll say about that - I would not have wanted any hint about what happens.
Act two is all about whose story it is and who should write the book about it and who should make money off of it.
Act three is short, not truly an act, but the curtain comes down for the set change (people started clapping until the word PAUSE appeared on the curtain). This short act seemed unnecessary. The addition of just a few more lines at the end of act two would have made it a perfect place to end.
But all in all, it's a gripping drama.
3-1/2 stars of five for Gloria.

January 9, 2017

Movie Review: La La Land ***

I love the idea of La La Land, a musical reminiscent of the 30s. I love Ryan Gosling and I love Emma Stone, but I don't love La La Land.
What with all the accolades and awards and all the critics jumping on the La La band wagon I thought this was going to be the world's most entertaining movie, so truly, I was very surprised when half an hour in I was looking at my watch, thinking, okay, get into the story already.
The first act could be cut with no loss of meaning (except it bookends with the final act, but that could be cut too - problem solved). The chemistry between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (who are individually great) is lacking, and after the characters finally meet, they break up for such a silly reason that I yawned.
I expected to be amazed by this film. Instead I was underwhelmed.
And yet it won a boatload of Golden Globes, be the judge. If you've already seen it, what did you think?