Archive for February, 2013

PostHeaderIcon Euro Film Fest a Chicago Treat

While I normally write about books or concerts after the fact, this week I want to get the word out in advance for the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the month of March. The lineup of 61 new films from 24 member nations of the European Union includes entries from new talents as well as renowned European actors and directors. It’s a cineast’s dream line-up, the film event I anticipate most each year to help dispel Chicago’s long, grey winter gloom.

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres

So, don’t make the mistake of waiting for the reviews or you may find yourself shut out on the day of the screening. That has happened to me but not this year. I’ve already begun buying tickets.

The festival has built a large following over the years largely due to the tireless efforts of Barbara Scharres, Siskel’s esteemed director of programming and former executive director who has been at the center for 37 years. What Siskel has become is due in great part to her guiding hand.

Scharre’s contributions to film as a scholar, writer and lecturer are widely acknowledged. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l”Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for advancing French culture through cinema. The Tribune has named her a Chicagoan of the Year three times.

The impetus for the festival came from foreign consulates in town who thought such a festival would promote the concept of the European Union while Scharres liked the goal of promoting a “higher profile” for foreign films in Chicago. The EU at the time (1998) consisted of only a dozen members; membership has since climbed to 27 nations.

Scharres, in a phone interview, was reluctant to play favorites, preferring to speak favorably about all the films to be shown. She was particularly excited by the greater representation of women directors this year. Roughly a dozen, or one-fifth of the entries, are by women. After my persistent coaxing to shed her rose-colored glasses and don a critic’s hat, Scharres named six favorite festival films to which I have added four others to round out a “Don’t Miss” list.

Ten Must-See Films: She began by lavishing praise on a Polish film, “Imagine”–“An amazing, amazing film” that features blind actors. Her pick of a “wonderful documentary” is “Olma & Bela”, by a female German director that is set in the kitchen of the filmmaker’s Jewish grandmother. Scharres calls it a must for foodies! One of  Bulgaria’s two entries is “Faith, Love & Whiskey”. This movie, made by a University of Chicago grad, is about an upwardly mobile female who ditches her New York fiance and flies home for a visit and an old flame. Her French pick is “Becoming Traviata” featuring diva Natalie Dessay, a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for a 2011 production of Verdi’s opera. And, for serious drama fans, she chose two films from Italy that deal with high-profile political issues. “Piazza Fontana” investigates a 1969 bank bombing in Milan in which the police question if the CIA and Italian military were involved. Director Mario Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty” revisits a controversial 2009 euthanasia case that gripped Italy and stars the always captivating Isabelle Huppert.

Dorment Beauty

My own choices to round out the list are “The Door” by Hungarian director of “Mephisto” fame, Istvan Szabo, and starring the great Helen Mirren. Enough said. “Unfinished Song” stars two fine actors, Terence

Unfinished Song

Unfinished Song

Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave who play a husband caring for his gravely ill wife. Has unmistakeable connections with the recent Oscar-winning “Amour”. Finally, one must take a chance on two films by cinematic masters–Ken Loach and Alain Resnais. I have not had the benefit of screening these choices but think they should be among the festival’s best.

Both masters are offering lighter, comic fare, a real change of pace from their more serious screenplays. Loach’s film, “The Angels Share”, closes the festival on March 28. It centers on a young Glasgow delinquent who discovers he has a rare nose for identifying whiskies. And Resnais’ “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” has an intriguing story line and the added bonus of seeing Michel Piccoli. Resnais has said this will be his last film.

To make your own selections for viewing, go to www.siskelfilmcenter.org/eufilmfest2013. You can purchase advance tickets for what will be many sold-out films. You should consider becoming a member of the Film Center for $50 or purchasing a dual membership for $80 by clicking on the Membership link. That will allow you to buy festival tickets for $6 instead of the $11 admission for non-members.

A number of these films will receive later U.S. distribution but the majority will not.  Part of the festival’s fun is to see them first at Siskel and judging them before the critics check in. Don’t miss this once-a-year pleasure of seeing world filmmakers’ latest contributions to film culture as well as catching exciting new talent. Happy hunting and see you at the movies!

Showtimes: “Imagine”, March 24 and 27; “Olma & Bela”, March 10 and 12; “Faith, Love & Whiskey”, March 2 and 4; “Becoming Traviata”, March 23 and 27; “Piazza Fontana” March 10 and 14; “Dormant Beauty”, March 22 and 24; “The Door”, March 22 and 25; “Unfinished Song”, March 3 and 4; “The Angels Share”, March 23 and 28 and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, March 17 and 21.

PostHeaderIcon Catch This “Motherf**ker” Pronto

Editor’s Note: This review marks the 75th post on this site since I began blogging three years ago this month. Many bloggers hit that mark within a few months but not posting 600-700 word essays. I hope you continue checking the site and sharing your thoughts  so that my humble effort ignites a dialogue.

Maybe you’ve heard about the language (the word “fuck” rolls off tongues like a musical riff at least 60 times), the tenement setting (maybe El Barrio in New York’s East Harlem), or Steppenwolf”s proclivity toward dark tales and have not yet seen “Motherf**ker With the Hat”. Whatever has kept you away, you’re making a big mistake. Here’s a play that opens with a jolt and races like a locomotive to its inevitable  end, taking you hostage on its wild ride. “Motherf**ker” is a poetic and passionate play, very funny, real with a capital “R” and utterly absorbing!

Although the show’s signature image is of a hat marked by a smoking bullet-hole, no gun goes off in the show. The damage is all emotional.

As soon as we take our seat, we spy what to my New York eyes is a tenement in the Puerto Rican barrio of East Harlem. Todd Rosenthal’s must-see set becomes the play’s sixth character though it has no lines.  It vividly captures and immediately locates us in that world with its outside fire escapes, apartment furnishings, and giant iron billboard frame atop the building while screeching subway sounds pierce the night.  Jazz artist, Terence Blanchard, earns kudos for his original, pulsating score.

Veronica in Jackie's arms

Veronica in Jackie's arms

The action starts within seconds. Jackie (played by John Ortiz) races into his girlfriend’s apartment with good news. He has just landed a job after being released from prison for selling drugs. He is full of romantic plans to share with Veronica (Sandra Delgado).  The bathroom door opens and Veronica sashays out in her panties and bra, a sight that raises Jackie’s– and every male viewer’s–testosterone. This is one hot dame.

While she excuses herself to “freshen up,” Jackie continues his excited monologue on her bed. Suddenly, his gaze goes to a night table on which a hat is resting. When Veronica reappears, the good mood has vanished and jealousy is in the house. Who’s been in the apartment and probably sharing her bed, he demands. Veronica denies any infidelity, the language gets intense and charges fly back and forth.

We might assume, at first, that the play’s purpose is to unravel whose hat it is. But playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intent is to explore something else–truth, friendship and the wages of sex. The hat is merely an overlay for the dysfunctional choices these people make that mess up their need for connection and love.  The New York Times accurately depicted the play as a “fast and furious study of lives in collision…at the intersection of love and hate.”

Jackie & Uncle Julio

Jackie & Uncle Julio

The ensemble acting is a joy to observe. Ortiz is utterly natural as Jackie, making us care for his dreams and fevered quest for  revenge. Delgado as Veronica nails the right interplay of sexuality, vulnerability and hair-trigger emotions. Jimmy Smits shines as Jackie’s shifty parole officer (Ralph D.). Sandra Marquez gives an impassioned portrayal as Ralph’s love-starved wife who has squandered her dream. Gary Perez as Jackie’s Uncle Julio provides delightful contrast as Jackie’s finicky, gay uncle who transforms into an unlikely enforcer.

Anna Shapiro

Anna Shapiro

Director Anna D. Shapiro, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, directed the original New York production of Guirgis’ play in 2011. She succeeds again in this remounting making sure each character’s complex interplay of sympathy and destructive self-interest comes through. She finds both the humor and the humanity in these lives. Shapiro also won the 2008 Tony for her direction of Tracy Lett’s “August: Osage County”.

I regret that commitments on other reporting assignments kept me from posting this rave review sooner. So, don’t delay. You have until March 3 to catch this “motherf**ker” before it closes. Tickets are available at www.steppenwolf.org. Twenty $20 tickets are available beginning at 11 a.m. on the day of each performance. Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. And student discounted tickets for $15 are available online using the promo code “HAT 15”.

PostHeaderIcon The Little Label That Could

When James Ginsburg founded Cedille Records in 1989 at the ripe age of 24, the classical record industry was bustling with activity. Four labels dominated the field: Deutsche Grammophon, Decca (London), Columbia and RCA Victor. In the quarter-century since, those labels have had a mighty fall. Multiple mergers, acquisitions, corporate shifts and free music downloading have rendered all four shadows of their former selves.

Lonely Motel

"Lonely Motel"

The one that remains, gaining in strength and stature each year, is tiny Cedille. After years of issuing well-reviewed releases that made a minor splash, Cedille recordings, in recent years, have garnered six Grammy nominations and taken home the prize three times, all for recordings by the new-music sextet, eighth blackbird. Its latest recording, “meanwhile,” captured top honors at last week’s ceremony for Best Chamber Music/    Small Ensemble Performance while “Lonely Motel” won in 2012.

In addition to its roster of fine Chicago musicians and composers, Cedille’s catalog now boasts top young Chicago artists who are crafting major music careers and gaining national media attention: Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh, The Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird, The Lincoln Trio and Wendy Warner.

A full listing of Cedille’s distinguished artist roster can be found on its website at www.cedillerecords.org.

Ginsburg is even making news of his own. Not content simply with his roles of record executive, producer and chief engineer, he has a new mountain to climb: host of a program on WFMT highlighting Cedille artists and their discography.

Ginsburg_at_WFMT

Ginsburg at WFMT

“Cedille Chicago Presents” airs each Wednesday evening at 10 p.m. as well as streaming live at wfmt.com. The station has hosted Cedille Day each May for the past three years. Ginsburg is ever the promoter of both his artists and his vision.

That vision, unchanged since the label’s founding, is to preserve Chicago’s classical music heritage and to feature excellent Chicago-area musicians and composers “performing important music overlooked by the major labels.” Even now, Cedille rarely records mainstream masterworks and then only in distinctive interpretations by its artists.

Ginsburg, now 47, got the music bug while working at Nonesuch Records as a summer intern in 1986 and from writing record reviews for American Record Guide. Cedille’s first release (Dmitry Paperno playing Russian Piano Music) came out while he was enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School. Cedille soon became a consuming passion and he dropped his legal studies.

Running a record label is an expensive undertaking. After five years, Ginsburg chose an innovative approach to enable him to produce more recordings and larger projects. Cedille was reconstituted in 1994 as a not-for-profit label under the auspices of The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation.

The move permits Ginsburg to solicit donations and foundation grants to sponsor his ambitions. Recently, the foundation received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Aaron Copeland Fund for Music.

Ever the entrepreneur, Ginsburg even offers music lovers subscriptions to the label. Subscribers automatically receive each new release (the catalog now numbers close to 140 releases) at a discounted price of $10 plus shipping.

Such moves have insured Cedille’s expansion as well as its survival. They have enabled Ginsburg to upgrade the quality of the CD cover artwork, accompanying booklet and overall production values.

Highly-acclaimed recordings in recent years have brought a new level of success. While commercial labels might issue 30 or more recordings a year, Cedille has heretofore devoted its full attention each year to just six to nine projects. Sales have doubled in the past five years to more than 20,000 discs annually.

Plans are to release nine new CDs this year. The newest, at the end of this month, Celloquy, features the world-premiere recording of composer Lera Auerbach’s “24 Preludes with Postlude” with cellist Ani Aznavoourian and Auerbach on piano.

Ginsburg as producer

Ginsburg as producer

While Ginsburg’s official title is President, he admits his greatest satisfaction comes from being a producer, helping shape future repertoire with artists and sitting at the controls for every studio session. He claims his achievement is “letting the world know the quality of what we have here.”

A Tribune Chicagoan of the Year in 2009, Ginsburg’s vision and dedication have made a lasting contribution not just in Chicago but throughout the universal realm of Music.

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