Like “The War at Home,” another ‘60s-focused documentary returning this week to the Gene Siskel Film Center, the early Kartemquin Films project “Inquiring Nuns” captures a specific time and place in American history while speaking directly to you, the viewer, in late 2018.
I doubt “Inquiring Nuns” will ever lose its fascination for Chicagoans; it’s as Chicago a movie as Chicago ever produced. And as verite cinema, blatantly and beautifully ripped off from the 1961 French documentary “Chronicle of a Summer,” it gets better and more touching with the passing decades.
It’s back for a weeklong run, and there’ll be various guests (co-director and Kartemquin guru Gordon Quinn among them) throughout the Film Center revival. If you haven’t seen the film, all of 66 minutes in length, this will be the sharpest version yet available, a digitally restored clean-up of the original 16 millimeter picture shot in late 1967 by co-directors Quinn and Gerald Temaner.
“Inquiring Nuns” was never intended for general release. Quinn and Temaner made it for $16,000, financed by Chicago’s Catholic Adult Education Center. Out of a group of young Roman Catholic nuns belonging to St. Denis Parish, the young filmmakers chose Sister Marie Arne and Sister Mary Campion to wield a microphone and ask a random collection of strangers the same question that guided the philosophical interrogations in “Chronicle of a Summer”: “Are you happy?”
The answers gathered by the nuns cover every imaginable topic pertinent to American citizens in 1967. The war in Vietnam comes up a great deal; so does dissatisfaction with work and home lives. The conversations take place on Wabash Street under the “L” tracks; in an exhibition room at the Art Institute; outside a supermarket; on the sidewalk outside a church. Sixty-six minutes later, the film has done its job. It’s a gently profound wonder.
The nuns did not stay nuns. Today, Sister Marie Arne is Kathleen Westling, married to former Tribune sports writer Gary Reinmuth. They live part of the year in New Buffalo, Mich., and part of the year in Tampa, Fla. They visit Chicago a good deal, she says, and they’re regular volunteer ushers at Steppenwolf Theatre.
If the same film were made today, Westling says, “I bet we’d get a lot of the same answers. But it’d be harder to get people to answer. People are a little more suspicious today. Cautious.”
I ask her why. She points to the current president. Life in Trump’s America, she believes, is “more divisive than the country was in 1968. Very discouraging.” Pause. “Very discouraging. The amount of lying that goes on now … ”
That said: In “Inquiring Nuns” one disgruntled Chicagoan calls out then-President Johnson as “a crook.” Things change, sometimes radically, and yet the echoes of the past — this film is one of them — remind us where we’ve been. And who we are.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“Inquiring Nuns” — Four stars (out of four)
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1:06
Opens: Friday (continuing through Thurs. Dec. 6) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; www.siskelfilmcenter.org.
When “Widows” costume designer Jenny Eagan first met the film’s director Steve McQueen, it was a few years ago in New Orleans. “He doesn’t remember it, but he was finishing ‘12 Years a Slave’ and I was just starting ‘True Detective’ at the time.”
For “Widows,” the pair spent more time than is typical taking in the film’s Chicago setting. Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as a group of widows who reluctantly team up for the heist of their lives, the city is more than just a location. Eagan and McQueen wanted specifics.
“Oftentimes as costume designers we don’t go on a locations scout,” said Eagan. “But it was very important to Steve that we drive around so I could see, where is (Rodriguez’s) Linda from? Where is (Debicki’s) Alice living? Where is (Davis’) Veronica’s apartment? And by doing that, you get a feel of what’s comfortable in that neighborhood — socioeconomically and visually.”
The three aforementioned widows live in neighborhoods spread across the city.
According to a publicist for the film: Alice lives on the Northwest Side in the Dunning neighborhood; Linda is based in Humboldt Park on the West Side (with her quinceañera shop located in West Town); and Veronica’s apartment is in the Gold Coast in one of the Mies van der Rohe buildings at 860 N. Lake Shore Drive.
“I would talk to people in each neighborhood,” Eagan said. “Where do they shop? That’s how I like to think about it: If I lived here, what’s around? Where would I shop? What can I afford? So the clothes were bought here. I went into all the boutiques, or I would go to the neighborhoods and check out their thrift stores.”
I talked with Eagan about key characters and how their wardrobes help to tell the story.
(Note: Mild spoilers follow; if you have yet to see the film, best to save or bookmark this piece for later.)
For Viola Davis as Veronica
Q: What is Veronica’s look?
A: She’s the ringleader, so: Practical, powerful, expensive. She’s a very confident character on the outside. She used to lobby for the teachers union, so she knows how to present herself to others and there’s a professional side to how she dresses. Its striking — but not overbearing. Beautiful stuff, and she just wears it so well. If I saw Veronica on the street I’d be like, “Wow, she’s got it together.”
Viola was coming off her television show (“How to Get Away with Murder”) and she plays an attorney on that, which is also power-dressing. She wears a lot of dresses on the show and I just thought, this character does not. Women in Veronica’s position, they wear a lot of pants these days. It’s Stella McCartney and Michael Kors Collection. I believe one of her coats, the blue coat, is Balenciaga.
Q: The clean, tailored lines of her wardrobe match the clean lines of her apartment.
A: That was purposely done. Once I saw that apartment — you kind of have to match the character to where they live. A lot of us do that anyway, our personal style comes into our living space. For that apartment, Steve really wanted the white and the stark and the clean to convey the money, basically.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: Initially it’s a lot of white, like that white skirt suit. And by the end that shifts to all black. Her arc is about getting down to business. She knows what’s going on, so her clothing gets darker.
Q: That shift makes sense for the story — they’re in black for the heist — but it also has thematic resonance because she learns some dark truths.
A: In terms of the white, I was thinking: Her hands aren’t dirty yet. For all we know, she’s clean and she knows nothing about what her husband’s business really was. Either that — or she’s putting that persona on. Angelic, clean, I have nothing to do with this.
Q: Even her dog is all white!
A: By the way, there’s no way I could wear a white suit like that. The way I drink coffee, the way I do anything, there’s no way. But I see a woman like that and I think, “Man, she’s knows how to handle herself.” The skirt suit is Alexander McQueen.
Q: The movie deals with so many different nuanced issues, including race. Before she was widowed, Veronica was married to a white man (Liam Neeson) and she eventually learns information that completely alters what she thought she knew about him and their life together — and some of that is bound up in race. I’m wondering if Veronica’s all-black wardrobe is also a symbolic way of showing her embrace her blackness and reject the proximity to whiteness she had through her husband.
A: I think that’s a fair interpretation. I love that scene of Brian Tyree Henry in her apartment when he’s walking out and just gets in her face and says: “Welcome back.” Like, you tried to escape your blackness — but your husband’s gone now, this life is over and I’m going to take the money you owe me.
Especially as a white woman, I’m asking myself: Am I going to understand? And I have to hope they (McQueen and Davis) help me through it.
Q: That’s interesting — how do you approach any job so that when you’re envisioning the looks for a black character or a Latina character, say, you don’t come with inaccurate preconceptions or inadvertently fall into stereotypes?
A: It’s a good question. Do we express ourselves differently based on culture? Probably so. Will I understand that? And do I need help in understanding that? I’ll ask the actors: “Tell me what you think. What are your feelings?” In any movie you do, you want to hear their voice. And then we work on it together.
Q: Viola Davis wears her hair natural in the film and it’s short, so her earrings really stand out. There’s a pair of gold stick earrings that are unusual and amazing. They create this illusion that a vertical stick of gold is literally speared through each of her earlobes. I couldn’t even figure out how the earrings worked.
A: They look like a tiny tree branch, right? Paula Mendoza is the designer. Normally you put an earring in from the front to the back, and these went from the back to the front. So the post came through from the back — and the stopper, for lack of a better word, was what you saw in the front and it looks like the top of the stick.
For Elizabeth Debicki as Alice
Q: What is Alice’s look?
A: Alice isn’t dressing for Alice, she’s dressing for the men in her life and initially that’s her husband. He wanted her to look a certain way: Sexy. So it’s all about the excess. Tacky, for lack of a better word. It’s all flash. It’s deliberately trying to show the money. And it’s the complete opposite of Veronica — so Alice would shop at the mall verses Veronica, who would shop at a high-end designer boutique.
Q: Her centerpiece outfit in the film is a gold bandage Herve Leger dress. That style of dress has become something of a staple, but I get the sense it’s become sort of passe or dated to people who really pay attention to fashion.
A: In my mind, it was her mom who went out and bought her that dress thinking: “This is what’s sexy to men.” Showing her body, that’s what is important because it will get her what she wants. Again, it’s gold so it’s got that flash. The dress is so impractical for everything — when she walks in the warehouse they’re like, “What are you wearing?” She looks like walking sex, and that’s what we were trying to portray in the beginning. She has no self-confidence whatsoever. And she uses her body — or the way that she looks — as a way to get money.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: As she starts coming into her own we see her in jeans and a leather jacket. The prints are gone and it’s more monochromatic. The attention goes away from her body and to her face and her mind. She starts to take away all the layers of excess and it becomes simplified.
Veronica’s look is pretty steady throughout, aside and the arc of the color change. But for both Alice and Linda, they start becoming grounded and their wardrobe becomes more practical.
And in the final scene, we see Alice in that camel coat. She’s more confident and she’s doesn’t have that need to stand out in quite the same way anymore. She doesn’t need that garish, flashy look.
(Earlier this month Debicki told Vulture: “I know it sounds really flippant, but when we picked out the outfit, I remember saying to my costume designer, ‘It’s so nice to think of her going to like Bloomingdales and buying a coat.’ She had nothing.”)
For Michelle Rodriguez as Linda
Q: What is Linda’s look?
A: Confident but also more feminine than we usually see Michelle Rodriguez, so a lot of florals early on. She also wears dresses in the beginning, which is softer. She’s a mother and she’s running her own business, so she needs clothing that has ease and simplicity on a daily basis. She’s the last person who you’d see in a white suit, in other words. She doesn’t have the time or money to go out and buy expensive clothes. Her wardrobe isn’t going to catch your eye and she doesn’t need it to.
Q: That softer, feminine look in the beginning matches her quinceañera dress shop, which is a very feminine space.
A: Right, and that was a really interesting thing for Michelle because I don’t know if we’ve ever seen her like that.
Q: How does her look evolve?
A: We start seeing an edge to her. Her look gets harder. These guys took her business! So she starts wearing jeans and jackets.
There’s a symmetry to her look and Alice’s look — that was something we wanted to show. Towards the middle and into the end, they’re becoming a team and kind of mirroring each other in their clothing. And you see people tend to do that with their friends, they all have a similar taste or style.
For Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme
Q: Jatemme’s standout look is a leather shirt-jacket with just the top button fastened.
A: Again, monochromatic. Sleek. Strong. It was almost a uniform. There’s power but it’s understated. Everything is expensive but he doesn’t need to show flash for everyone to know who he is.
His look is cool — obviously he pays attention and he has style — but it’s also: I’m all business.
That jacket you mention, that’s a jacket in the shape of a shirt. It was like his power suit. It’s made by Theory. There was something so simple and striking about it. I didn’t want anything with lots of pockets or accoutrements. I didn’t want anything to distract from his eyes. So there was a very pale gray one that he’s wearing when he’s in the cemetery, and then he has a darker one when he’s in the gymnasium and the kids are rapping. It’s the same jacket just in different colors.
Q: If he had worn the jacket open, it would have been a looser look — and that character is anything but loose.
A: He did that during the fitting — he snapped that top button — and it was like yes, that’s it. It gave him Jatemme’s confidence and the walk. Sometimes those happy accidents happen and you’re like, that’s perfect.
When Lisa Jakub showed up to audition as the oldest daughter of Robin Williams and Sally Field in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” she was introduced to a matronly Scottish woman. Jakub thought she was talking to the mother of director Chris Columbus, who was in production on the movie that turned out to be an enduring classic comedy after opening Nov. 24, 1993.
“I remember being introduced to Chris Columbus’ mother and thinking I had to really make small talk and be charming because this was my boss’ mom,” said Jakub, who was 14 when she made the film. “I wanted to make a good impression. It wasn’t until later that I realized [it was Williams]. I totally fell for it.”
It didn’t take that long for Matthew Lawrence, then 12, to realize that something was going on. “I started to catch on because I was a working kid. But definitely for two or three minutes I was sitting next to Mrs. Doubtfire and I had no idea [it was Williams]. I think they didn’t tell me that the cameras were rolling, and they just had us sit down. I think they just wanted to get our natural kids’ reactions.”
His reaction to Mrs. Doubtfire got him the job as Chris. “Robin basically got me the role,” said Lawrence. “He leaned over me and said ‘I really like you. I want you to play my son, so you got to work with me on this one. I’m going to do something, just go with it” He turned his back to the camera and just pinched me so hard, right in that sensitive spot between your arm and your chest. My reaction was a normal reaction — ‘Hey, you can’t do that. You just hurt me. What are you doing?”’
Everyone in the room started laughing. “That was the moment that got me the role,” he noted “The fact that I reacted that way to Mrs. Doubtfire was what they were looking for and Robin knew that.”
Adapted by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon from Anne Fine’s YA novel “Alias Madame Doubtfire,” the comedy-drama revolves around Daniel Hillard (Williams) a freelance voice actor in San Francisco and ultimate man-child who loves his three children, Lydia, Chris and Natalie (Mara Wilson) but his wife Miranda (Field) finds that he’s too unreliable and they divorce.
When Daniel learns Miranda is looking for a housekeeper, he disguises himself — thanks to his make-up artist brother Frank (Harvey Fierstein) and his partner (Scott Capurro) — as the practically perfect nanny, Mrs. Euphegenia Doubtfire.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” earned mixed reviews upon release but earned $441.3 million worldwide and won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy, where Williams also took home the award for comedy actor. It also won the Oscar for best makeup, and went on to become a beloved TV and video staple.
Singer recalled her first encounter with Williams and his then-wife Marsha, who were also producing, at Mr. Chow’s in Beverly Hills. “He alternated from speaking calmly and articulately in his chair to literally getting up and using the entire space around the table to perform and act out what he was talking about — in character, in that stream-of-consciousness trademark Robin Williams way,” Singer noted .
“I thought to myself that it was a good thing he became an actor and comedian, I couldn’t envision him in any sort of normal job. Meanwhile, everyone in the restaurant was watching and smiling. I felt so incredibly fortunate to be working with him.”
At one point during production, Singer brought her infant son on the set. “Robin, in full costume and makeup, took him in his/her arms and launched into character improvising a whole nanny routine about babies and diapers. He kept the gentle Mrs. Doubtfire persona the whole time. It was hilarious, and it seemed as if he could have gone on forever.”
Tony Award-winning playwright and actor Fierstein came onto the project after doing a benefit with Williams and Lily Tomlin.
“We were raising money for the movie ‘The Celluloid Closet,'” he recalled. “Lily, of course, was a huge hit. Robin, of course, was a huge hit and I bombed spectacularly. But Robin stood in the wings and loved it because he knew that would happen and it had happened to him. “
At the end of the evening they began talking and the conversation led to a discussion of Daniel having a gay brother. “His wife Marsha was there, and she said ‘What a great idea. Harvey should do that.’ They sort of gave me the role.”
It resulted in a strong friendship that lasted until Williams’ tragic death four years ago.
By the time Fierstein joined the cast, “They had already set up a sort of rhythm where you would shoot a scene the way it was written, so they had that in the can. And then we were allowed a certain amount of time, as I remember, and then they would shoot us improvising for an hour.”
Fierstein recalled teaching him to be the exotic 1940s-star Maria Montez, “which I think a little bit of it is in the movie. I taught him some Bette Davis. We just had the best time.”
Working on the film and with Williams was a life-changing experience for the three young actors.
“Mrs. Doubtfire” was the first film for which Wilson, then just five, had auditioned for a role. “It was really amazing. We had all of these meetings with different kids and I remember the second that I got into a room with Matt and Lisa, I knew that I adored them. I knew that they felt like they really could be my brother and sister. I remember secretly wishing and hoping I could get the part, but they would get it too because we did really feel like family. Lisa and I talk all the time now and we saw Matt last week.”
Williams, she noted, “was just lovely the whole time. He was making hand puppets with us and making all kinds of jokes.”
He was especially helpful during the two weeks it took to shoot an elaborate sequence in a restaurant where Daniel as Mrs. Doubtfire is having dinner with his ex-wife, her charming boyfriend (Pierce Brosnan) and his kids, as well as himself with the owner of a TV station where he works.
“He would make a paper bag bark like a dog under the table,” said Wilson. “He never talked down to us. He would get down to our level, literally, looked us in the eye and talk to us very gently. He was warm and friendly and fun and ridiculous the whole time. But you could tell he really understood and loved kids.”
Williams, said Jakub, not only made her a better actor, he also made her a better person
“When you work with Robin, he did not always stick to the script,” said Jakub, who left Hollywood in her early 20s and has had a successful career as a writer and a yoga instructor. She also gives talks about how to overcome anxiety, which she has had since she was young.
“There was a lot of ad-libbing, there was a lot of things that just came out of left field. At the beginning, I was totally freaked out about this. I would just sort of stand there and stare at him and wonder when I was supposed to say my lines. What I learned working with Robin was this deep sense of presence. That you actually stand in the room with that person and listen to them and respond. I feel like it made me more aware in my everyday life.”
Because it was a long shoot due to Williams’ makeup, “There was lot of time for us to just sort of be together,” noted Jakub. “Robin was very open with me about his issues with addiction, his issues with depression and mental wellness. That was incredibly important to me. I had told him about my issues with anxiety. The fact that was so willing to be honest with me had a huge impact on me as a 14-year-old. I’m an advocate for mental health awareness. Part of that stems from that fact that I learned from Robin that’s it’s okay to talk about these things.”
Lawrence, who continues to act, also remembers the quiet moments with Williams, especially when they had a long talk in his trailer after the film wrapped. “We were exchanging gifts. He gave me this leather-bound script that he signed and wrote this really nice note and I gave him these little metal solders he collected and that really touched him. We talked for a good 30 minutes about life. He had his heart on the sleeve all the time. He was such a loyal and exposed human being.”
Audiences in 1993 and until this day have found “Mrs. Doubtfire” to be a healing experience.
“I have had so many people come up to me and want to talk about the because it was so meaningful to them and really helped them get through their parents’ divorce,” said Jakub. “This idea this might not be the way that you thought your life was going to be that doesn’t mean that it’s bad or wrong. You’re going to be okay. That’s a really powerful message.”
Wilson, who quit acting in her early teens and has also become a writer, recalled the time she got a new apartment. “I needed a spare set of keys. The woman at the front desk that they were an extra $20. I said okay let me go back and get my wallet. She said ‘No, actually l am going to give you these for free because you were in ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ and that movie got me through a really hard time in my life.”
Singer felt it was important that Chris and Miranda didn’t get back together at the conclusion. “Anne Fine’s children’s book seemed to be written to help kids cope with divorce,” she explained.
“It would’ve not only have done a disservice to that intent, but it would leave kids in the audience with false hope. Just because parents fail as a married couple doesn’t make it acceptable to fail as co-parents. I’m so proud that in 1993, we had a message that says there are all kind of families and that includes families where the parent were no longer married.”
It seems every year that events conspire to make the Goodman’s production of “A Christmas Carol” an exercise in both cheery holiday escapism and timely consciousness raising. So it is with the 41st edition, which opened on Sunday against the backdrop of headlines about migrant children being teargassed at the border by U.S. agents, grim news from a government study about the soon-to-be-irreparable damage of climate change and military tensions mounting between Ukraine and Russia.
The human capacity for both self-destruction and redemption is vast, of course — even if the scales feel tipped more in the direction of the former in recent times. And that dichotomy is embodied once again by Larry Yando at the Goodman. Yando’s Ebenezer Scrooge feels a little less fearsome in his early scenes than in years past, though just as fearful of human interaction. His soul is wound tight in chains forged from isolation and mistrust, just as Marley’s were forged from greed and selfishness.
But unlike Marley, Scrooge’s soul isn’t dead as a doornail. He’s still redeemable — sort of like the human characters in NBC’s comedy of afterlife ethics, “The Good Place.”
The hints of underlying vanity that have always driven the best comic bits in Yando’s performance are in full flower. Witness, for example, his dance in front of the looking glass as he dresses, post-transformation, on Christmas morning. Yando’s Scrooge shakes his bottom like Hugh Grant’s prime minister in the “Jump” sequence from “Love Actually.” Here, instead of an aide, it’s Jasmine Bracey’s charwoman who interrupts the solo dance party. Bracey also does the honors as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and is in especially fine fettle when she tosses Scrooge’s own mean-spirited words (“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”) back at him with wounding precision.
Scrooge’s latent vanity, combined with his emotional repression, is one key to his redemption. It’s not just the fear of facing his own lonely death that makes him turn the corner after the final visit by Breon Arzell’s Ghost of Christmas Future. It’s shame. Unlike true sociopaths, who can’t be shamed into anything, Scrooge hears the truth in the angry words about his tightfisted ways from Lily Mojekwu’s Mrs. Cratchit and takes them to heart — for he isn’t truly heartless as much as he is heartsick. We hear it in his choked “Let me leave it alone, then!” response to his niece’s reproach about not keeping Christmas at all. Ali Burch returns as niece Frida, a gender switch made by director Henry Wishcamper in recent years that works beautifully at establishing the connection between Scrooge and the women he’s loved and lost, including Frida’s mother, Fan (Ariana Burks), and his one true love, Belle (Sadieh Rifai).
Kareem Bandealy’s Marley is the wedge between Belle and Christopher Sheard’s young adult Ebenezer. Having Bandealy do double duty as the narrator helps with the whole disquisition on relative deadness of doornails that opens the show, but at this point, the exposition bookending the production feels tired.
Women are generally doing more ensemble work here — including Barbara Robertson in two delicious comic-villain turns as the headmistress at young Ebenezer’s grim boarding school and as the fence, Old Joe, who has no compunction about buying a dead man’s nightgown — or about beating the stuffing out of anyone who implies they’re being cheated. Young Paris Strickland, who made history as the first girl to play Tiny Tim last year, is also back and is poignant and impish in equal measure.
The last time I saw this show in 2016, the Ghost of Christmas Past was a chiseled male seraph. Now Molly Brennan, one of Chicago’s most beloved clown provocateurs, does the honors as a punk pixie, decked out in Heidi Sue McMath’s bubble-gum goth costume.
Her performance brings a contemporary edge that frankly should be present in more of the production. No one is phoning it in here — the heart and spirit of the show carries through the entire ensemble, including Thomas J. Cox of Lookingglass Theatre, who makes his inaugural bow as Bob Cratchit and in every scene fully shows us a man battered by life, but still able to treasure the small things.
Yet the issues of class struggle and lack of empathy for the less fortunate underlying Dickens’ world feel even more urgent in ours. Tom Creamer’s adaptation has done its job well these many years, but I join the chorus of those who suggest that it may be time to unleash some fresh spirits into Scrooge’s world and make the sort of adjustments in text and treatment this beloved and comforting tradition deserves for new generations. After all, the best chestnuts are the ones served piping hot.
Kerry Reid is a freelance critic.
Review: “A Christmas Carol” (3 stars)
When: Through Dec. 30
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $15-$45 at 312-443-3800 or www.goodmantheatre.org
Ricky Jay, a master magician who also acted in films and TV shows such as “Boogie Nights,” “House of Games” and “Deadwood,” died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 72.
Jay’s manager, Winston Simone, said he died of natural causes, adding, “He was one of a kind. We will never see the likes of him again.”
His attorney Stan Coleman confirmed his death. His partner in the Deceptive Practices company, Michael Weber, tweeted, “I am sorry to share that my remarkable friend, teacher, collaborator and co-conspirator is gone.”
A New Yorker profile called him “the most gifted sleight of hand artist alive,” and Jay was also known for his card tricks and memory feats.
He appeared in several David Mamet movies, including “House of Games,” “The Spanish Prisoner,” “Things Change,” “Redbelt” and “State and Main.”
Steve Martin, with whom he appeared in “The Spanish Prisoner,” described Jay in the New Yorker profile, “I sort of think of Ricky as the intellectual élite of magicians. He’s expertly able to perform and yet he knows the theory, history, literature of the field.”
In “Deadwood,” he played card sharp Eddie Sawyer during the first season, and also wrote for the show.
In the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Jay played a cyber-terrorist to Pierce Brosnan’s Bond.
He also provided the narration for movies such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.” His one-man Broadway show directed by Mamet, “Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants,” was recorded for an HBOspecial in 1996.
With Weber, he created the Deceptive Practices company, which provided solutions to movies and TV productions such as the wheelchair that hid Gary Sinise’s legs in “Forrest Gump.” They also worked on films including “The Prestige,” “The Illusionist” and “Oceans Thirteen.”
Jay, who was born Richard Jay Potash in Brooklyn, was introduced to magic by his grandfather. He began performing in New York, opening for rock bands. Jay first worked in film with on Caleb Deschanel’s “The Escape Artist.”
A documentary about his life, “Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay,” was released in 2012.
A student of all facets of magic, prestidigitation and trickery, he maintained a large library of historic works and wrote two books, as well as numerous articles for the New Yorker; he also frequently lectured at museums and universities.
A daring and influential craftsman, Roeg’s idiosyncratic films influenced filmmakers including Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh.
He worked his way up from the bottom of the business and by the 1960s was much in demand as a cinematographer, responsible for the lensing of films including “Petulia,” “Far From the Madding Crowd” and “Fahrenheit 451.”
The controversial, oddly compelling “Performance,” which Roeg co-directed with Donald Cammell and starred Mick Jagger, was almost not released and then was recut by Warner Bros.; execs at the studio found it incomprehensible as a gangster thriller. It was eventually recut, released in 1970 to modest business and decades later received widespread acclaim as a classic of British cinema.
Its fractured narrative showed the influence of Richard Lester, as well as Jean-Luc Godard and other European auteurs of the era, though Roeg was to work with a consistently darker palette and on a deeper psychological level.
It also defined Roeg as a director to watch. His subsequent directorial outings such as “Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” starring David Bowie, evidenced strong development in his style. Each was a compelling, idiosyncratic tale with highly stylized performances — and beautiful, moody cinematography.
Roeg immediately hit again with his saga of the Australian outback, “Walkabout,” on which he again did double duty. As with “Performance,” the narrative was fractured, and it offered a certain mysticism that captivated arthouse audiences.
Two years later, in 1973, Roeg directed “Don’t Look Now,” with two major stars, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, in the leads. This occult story set in Venice was perhaps his most fully realized and moody thriller, though it never reached a mass audience as it was overshadowed by “The Exorcist” in the year of its release.
As he had mined Jagger’s menacing appeal in “Performance,” Roeg used Bowie’s alien persona to good effect in “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” another odd but satisfying film about a visitor from another planet.
Later films such as 1980’s disturbingly effective romantic tragedy “Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession,” the first of his films with soon-to-be-wife Theresa Russell; “Insignificance,” based upon Terry Johnson’s audacious play; and “Eureka,” starring Gene Hackman, proved less popular even as he was telling dramatic stories in a slightly more straightforward manner.
Perhaps his most successful later film was 1990’s “The Witches,” a studio assignment starring Anjelica Huston and based on an eerie Roald Dahl children’s tale.
“Castaway,” in 1987, was notable mostly for its beautiful cinematography. His “Un ballo in maschera” selection from the 1988 compilation film “Aria” was impressive, but “Track 29,” co-starring future Oscar-winner Gary Oldman, was confusing to many critics. Among his many long-gestating projects that failed to reach the screen, Roeg came closest to finding financing for “Kiss of Life,” which was based upon the edgy French novel “Mygale,” later made as the feature film”The Skin I Live In” by Pedro Almodovar.
Nicolas Jack Roeg was born in London. Following his military service, during which he functioned as a projectionist, he started in the movie business in 1947 as an office boy and apprentice editor. By 1950 he was working at MGM’s London Studios and worked his way up from being a clapper boy to assistant operator and on up to lighting cameraman. During the 1950s, he worked on films including “Bhowani Junction” and “The Trials of Oscar Wilde.” He was the cinematographer on small-budget films such as “Jazz Boat,” “The Great Van Robbery” and “Information Received.”
Roeg first made an impression on the profession as second-unit lenser on 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia.” Thereafter, his assignments ranged from the carefree “Just for Fun” and “Seaside Swingers” to such prestige items as “The Caretaker” and “Nothing but the Best” and a wide variety of assignments including Roger Corman’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” the Lester films “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Petulia,” Francois Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” and John Schlesinger’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” He also served as second unit director on 1965’s “Judith” and shot some scenes for 1966 James Bond spoof “Casino Royale.”
When his first post-“Witches” film, “Cold Heaven,” didn’t make an impression, he returned to television: 1993’s “Heart of Darkness,” 1995’s “Full Body Massage” and 1996’s “Samson and Delilah” were cohesive and dramatically centered, while Roeg’s 1989 television adaptation of “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with Elizabeth Taylor, was an adequate representation of Tennessee Williams’ melodrama. His 1996 BBC Films-produced drama “Two Deaths,” about the Serbo-Croatian conflict, was well received though it received scant distribution.
His first big-screen effort in more than a decade, 2007’s “Puffball: The Devil’s Eyeball,” was little-seen.
In 1994 Roeg was made a fellow of the British Film Institute, an award presented to individuals in “recognition of their outstanding contribution to film or television culture.” The London Film Critics Circle presented Roeg with their Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film in 2011 and Roeg published his memoirs, “The World Is Ever Changing” (Faber and Faber) in 2013.
Roeg is survived by his third wife, actress Harriet Harper, as well as his four children with his first wife, actress Susan Stephen, who include producer Nicolas Roeg Jr., Luc Roeg, first a.d. Sholto J. Roegand first a.d. Waldo Roeg; and two children with his second wife, actress Russell, actor Max Roeg and cameraman Statten Roeg.
The touchstone of the glorious Disney animation renaissance, “Beauty and the Beast” had eight masterful songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken when it was released as a movie: the likes of “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Belle” and “Human Again.” So brilliant was this material that then-New York Times critic Frank Rich said that “the best Broadway score of 1991” had, in fact, belonged to a cartoon.
As a result, Disney Theatricals essentially shoved human beings inside those inspired animated creations and stuck the movie up on stage a couple of years later. And it worked brilliantly — so brilliantly, in fact, that the Disney suits worried that it would impossible to replicate. Fortunately, Julie Taymor soon came along with another strategy altogether.
“Beauty and the Beast” remains a huge title at the box-office — but new directors with fresh productions have to face a lot of challenges, not the least of which is the audience’s expectation that young theatergoing princesses will experience something comparable to the movie and the original theatrical staging, both of which were much the same. This frustrates many artistes who want to bring new vistas to material, even though Disney won’t let them change a word.
You can see these tensions on full display in the new production at Drury Lane, directed by Alan Souza, whose last endeavor here was “Joseph.” Anything but relaxed, this tense, invulnerable show fights many of the fantasy aspects of the title: There is no storybook castle, relatively little humor and only minimal romance. With the exception of the terrific Bri Sudia’s Mrs. Potts (a real bright spot), few of the characters ever smile — even Cogsworth the clock (Nick Cosgrove) and Lumiere the candlestick (Tony Carter) mostly are serious souls. Mark David Kaplan, who plays Maurice, fights this mood, but he’s often undermined. There are some momentary exceptions. But the show takes its main cue from the cover art on the program, an image dominated by gilded darkness.
This all is about as far from a day-glo Disney breakfast with a princess as any “Beauty and the Beast” is ever likely to roam. Fair enough. We all like to make our stamp on the tough old world.
But know this if you are planning on taking a very young child: I thought some of the sequences too scary for some in the traditional demographic (older kids will be fine). That’s an unusual choice for this particular title, especially at the holidays.
Of course we’re in an era when many shows struggle to embrace fantasy and have fun. This production has an excellent Belle in Erica Stephan, an actress whose charm reaches out beyond the chilly concept, and I warmed, eventually, to Brandon Contreras’ very intense Beast, although even when he transformed himself, it still felt like Belle would need to find a marriage therapist to make a go of their relationship.
But the Gaston stuff struggles here, partly because the show doesn’t make you relax and know that Belle will always be able to outsmart this jerk. I suppose a less-comic Gaston (he’s played by Mark Banik) adds to the tension and the drama, but I’m not sure that’s worth all the stress. It’s just really hard to stage “Beauty and the Beast” like it’s not a comedy-romance when it is, in fact, precisely that. In its DNA. Sure, there is fear and evil abroad. But it’s a celebration of human resilience that even little kids are supposed to be able to embrace.
This “Beast” seemed determined not to traffic in the colors of the daytime — it seems always to be dusk in this particular staging, which does not make enough use of its choreographer, Ron De Jesus. And — with all due respect to the overall creativity and risk-taking, the uniformly excellent singing from the entire ensemble and the truly epic costumes from Ryan Park — I deeply missed that sunlit image of Belle running through her beloved little French provincial town, reading books, trampling on idiots, loving her wacky dad and living her best life.
Ready to plan your holiday theater-going? Let me see if I can help. Everything mentioned in this column has been reviewed in, and recommended by, the Tribune, either this year or not too long ago.
I want “Hamilton” and only “Hamilton” under my tree: No problem — for a price. The Chicago production of the mother of all hit musicals is more easily available than in other cities, but prices for tickets spike much higher during the holiday period. As an example, I found good “Hamilton” orchestra seats for Dec. 1 online for $147 — but if you want to go Dec. 22, there was nothing under $300 a pop. The week between Christmas and New York is hardest of all. Here’s my advice. Either make it an advance gift and go on a weeknight as early in December as you can, or put an I.O.U. under the tree and then go and see the show in mid-January. You’ll save a lot of money and, frankly, there is less chance of seeing an understudy than in the heavy vacation period. You’ll need something to look forward to when the decorations are down.
I guess “The Book of Mormon” might do instead: Sure, it’s an hilariously funny show and still touring with exactly the same production. This musical is, of course, satirical rather than earnest, Dionysian rather than Apollonian, but it’s a gas for anyone older than age 15. Sales have been brisk, so I’d snag a ticket now if you want to go, especially on a weekend. “The Book of Mormon” exits on Dec. 2. As with “Hamilton,” you could try the lottery for low-priced seats.
Find me something seasonal in the suburbs: Can do. My colleague Kerry Reid recommended the Marriott Theatre production of “Holiday Inn,” a true seasonal attraction in all its retro glory. And if you can sell Shakespeare to your party, try “Twelfth Night” at the Writers Theatre in Glencoe. You won’t find it hard to follow and the piece has been directed very much with holiday warmth in mind. It even snows.
I worry about finding something everyone will like: Who doesn’t love an old-school ghost story? So think about “The Woman in Black” at the Royal George Theatre in Lincoln Park. It works for pretty much anyone over age 12 who enjoys being scared by gothic ghosts in the dark. Better yet, it does not use digital technology, so you’ll impart a lesson about how skilled artists can manipulate our imaginations.
But is that a big, spectacular show? No. If you’re looking for that kind of night out, consider “Miss Saigon” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. This new touring production doesn’t stint on the visuals, and you’ll see a fine cast warbling some of the most famous melodies ever composed for the theater.
But does that really say the holidays? Not as much as “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre, which hasn’t changed much in years, or “The Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre, which is a beautiful staging themed around historic 1893 Chicago. Prices to “A Christmas Carol” increase close to Christmas, so go earlier in December if you see Scrooge’s point. And one note about “The Nutcracker”: You do not need to be in the costly front section to appreciate what the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is doing: On a recent search, I found good seats toward the back of the main floor for only $35, which is a bargain and a fine vista for the show.
But I want something more cozy. For the theatrical equivalent of curling up in front of the fire, think about the venerable American Blues Theater production of “It’s a Wonderful Life — Live in Chicago!” That retro attraction has been running now for an incredible 17 years. I’ve seen and enjoyed it many times. And if you want a show to bring a family together, check out The House Theatre’s “The Nutcracker,” which is not a ballet, but a lovely, long-running piece of theater that imparts lessons of kindness, self-sacrifice and understanding. No one has ever told me they regretted going.
We just need to have some laughs: Understood. Tough few weeks. “The Q Brothers Christmas Carol” always has been a good time at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (and it’s now at The Yard, a much bigger space).
Enough with the facile holiday stuff. Where are the must-see shows, period? If you like plays about our beautiful but agonizing town, check out Ike Holter’s “Rightlynd” at the Victory Gardens Theater. If you love new work, move fast to catch “In the Canyon,” a terrific play by Calamity West at the Jackalope Theatre Company. And if you want a great musical, wrought Chicago-style, you still can catch “Gypsy” at Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago.
How’s your week going? Let’s hope more smoothly than for the tinny hero of the gorgeous new show at Lookingglass Theatre who, in short order, is tormented by a big baby, propelled from a windowsill, swallowed by a storm drain, chased by a rat, eaten by a fish, humiliated repeatedly by a Jack in the Box and ultimately, incinerated.
Security at O’Hare was enough to send you into a tailspin? You have it good, my friend, for everything is relative.
That’s one lesson to be gleaned from Mary Zimmerman’s brand-new adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” the first major original adaptation in Chicago from this essential theatrical artist since “Treasure Island” in 2015. I use “major” even though “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is barely more than an hour long and does not use a lick of human speech. But the piece is major all right — it fits entirely within the overarching concern of Zimmerman’s singular body of work in Chicago theater, output which has long centered itself on the power of transformation.
We don’t die, Zimmerman often has declared from a stage at either the Goodman or the Lookingglass, we merely change shape. And if you grasp that truth, these works have said, death will never separate you from those you love.
Or, as those holy prophets named Journey sang, “it goes on and on and on and on.”
The other teaching moment of what will be a boffo holiday attraction on Michigan Avenue comes from the original story. Through all these travails, with the added burden of standing on only one shank, the solider remains, well, steadfast, meaning that he pushes through adversity and keeps on believing in his shot at happiness. Since it’s Thanksgiving and no one wants to eat turkey in sadness, let me throw all spoiler-alert caution to the wind and reveal that he gets what the steadfast surely deserve, even though the cruelties of the real world often deny what is just.
The story is told at Lookingglass in a chocolate-box-like world. You’re greeted by a giant advent calendar — Zimmerman always has loved the opening and closing of little boxes, finding a life metaphor therein.
All of Zimmerman’s longtime visual collaborators from “Metamorphoses” and beyond are back together here: Todd Rosenthal, Ana Kuzmanic, T.J. Gerckens. Rosenthal has designed a set that nods at European pantomime (Christopher Donahue, who plays the maid, hilariously, is very much a panto dame), and at those classic Pollock’s toy theaters some of us craved as a kid — you may have seen those beautiful little creations by the London toy shop, with their wings and drops and hand-painted borders. Kuzmanic’s outre costumes are a feast of wit as are the puppets by Blair Thomas — also understanding that this show fundamentally is about the heart.
A four-piece orchestra sits at the front and plays an original score, co-composed by Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert. The music feels like it belongs to the era of the original tale, but at times it ranges subtly beyond. It’s all just perfect.
As she has shown us time and again, Zimmerman can switch the scale of the characters and yet, since we develop such a strong emotional connection to them we still believe in their realities, whether the solider shows up in miniature form or in the full-size person of Alex Stein. The miscreant who wishes him ill — deliciously played by Anthony Irons — also changes shape, as hobgoblins always do.
In its original form, “The Steadfast Tin Solider” was a love triangle. The soldier loves a toy ballerina (here, the melancholic-but-optimistic Kasey Foster), in part because she also stands on one leg. The goblin has designs on her, too: in fact, a lot of scholars of Hans Christian Anderson argue that this is his most sensual work, even though it was still cast as a story for children.
Zimmerman downplays that aspect of the tale and, grasping the tenor of the moment, emphasizes a message of personal resilience.
This truly is an all-ages show: kids as young as three or four, I will wager, will be entranced by what they see, and the running time won’t tax their attention span. On the other hand, adults won’t ever feel like they’ve been misdirected to something for children — you can enjoy the work without whatever baggage you happen to bring with you inside the theater.
It’s transformational, truly. So if there is one holiday show you don’t miss …
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” (4 stars)
When: Through Jan. 13
Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave
A weirder and more interesting movie than “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” tells a lie right in its title because isn’t that thing broken already?
The sequel to Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 2012 release throws a tremendous amount at its key characters, the ’80s-era video game villain voiced so sweetly and well by John C. Reilly, and Vanellope von Schweetz, one of 16 hopped-up competitors in a retro racing game called “Sugar Rush.” Sarah Silverman voices Vanellope, and she’s the ringer here — less of a maniac this time around, as written, and more prominently placed inside the mad swirl of the story.
You can tell Reilly and Silverman recorded their banter in the studio together, as opposed to the usual isolated taping sessions conducted for animated feature projects. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” concerns a long-established friendship on the verge of inevitable, painful change, and Reilly and Silverman work every part of that dynamic successfully.
The material is half-satiric, half-sincere and perpetually in motion. As before, Ralph, Vanellope and their arcade game comrades live and work in an anachronistic Centipedes and Pac-Man emporium called Litwak’s. A broken steering wheel threatens the existence of Vanellope’s racing game, and the hard-to-find replacement part is pricey, which means all 16 Sugar Rush characters are threatened with becoming “gameless.”
Since Litwak’s has recently introduced Wi-Fi to their otherwise antiquated offerings, Ralph and Vanellope zwoop into the internet in search of something called “eBay” where the replacement part can be had for a couple of hundred dollars. Ralph and Vanellope are new to the ways, means and enticements of currency. As much as it’s about the precariousness of friendships and the insecurities of childhood, “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is about money woes and self-branding in the name of profit. In other words it’s an anxiety attack for all ages.
Mistakenly, Ralph and Vanellope bid up the coveted “Sugar Rush” steering wheel to the $27,000 level, which puts them in a bind. How to raise it? By becoming a viral sensation on BuzzzTube, that’s how. Much of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” careens in and out of various worlds within the movie’s visualization of the web, which resembles a high-fructose corn syrup remake of “Blade Runner.”
Vanellope and Ralph first take a detour to a “Grand Theft Auto” game called “Slaughter Race” (M-rated, presumably), where Vanellope finds an enviably tough big-sister prototype in Shank (voiced by Gal Gadot). This is something new for Vanellope: a threatening but addictive universe where the track and the obstacles hold more (and more dangerous) surprises than “Sugar Rush.” Ralph just wants to get home to his analog existence with his friend.
The yelps of emotional distress from a few preteens during a recent Chicago screening indicate a Disney movie unafraid to hurt some characters’ feelings in a genuinely troubling way. After he becomes a BuzzzTube star, Ralph makes the mistake of entering the comments section, depicted by the animators as a gleaming, cavernous, ominously quiet place. The scene is brief but, given the trash talk he encounters there, devastating for Ralph. It’s an arresting sequence, and it just might scare a few real-world cyberbullies into thinking twice before flaming.
Directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, written by Johnston and Pamela Ribon, the movie’s densely packed but simple enough in its emotional through-line to hold together, even when it’s going everywhere at once. The most inspired section of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” arrives when Ralph and Venellope enter the Oh My Disney website, and Vanellope’s consciousness is raised, brilliantly, by a group of off-duty Disney princesses ranging from Snow White to Moana to Elsa from “Frozen.” They joke and roll their big eyes about the Disney tradition of princesses standing around waiting to be saved, and their habit of singing power ballads near bodies of water. (To find your inner power ballad, one tells Vanellope, “find some important water and stare at it.”) For a corporate enterprise, that’s pretty acute self-incrimination.
The screenplay flirts with various dangers. “Sassy housewives want to meet YOU!” says one pop-up ad huckster character to Ralph, the new guy in town. At the climax, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship is severely tested, and Ralph’s insecurities become the target for an evil replicating thingy, which leads to millions of “World War Z”-style zombie Ralphs. The eyeball-filling product placement for Fandango, imdb.com and Google barely makes room for the hit-and-run Marvel Studios sight gags. (Stan Lee shows up, briefly, along with Groot.) My favorite supporting character, Alan Tudyk’s Mr. Peabody-esque search engine factotum, feels like a throwback but delights in a newfangled way.
And in the end? “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” cleverly two-faced in its alluring/sinister imaginings, presumes it’s too late to keep anyone harm-free online. Whether you’re one of its characters or one of its customers, the movie’s shiny, shady, ceaselessly diverting universe offers little guaranteed satisfaction or safety. It’s just like real life, in other words. And the only surefire advice comes from the BuzzzTube algorithm voiced by Taraji P. Henson, who reminds the heartbroken Ralph: “First rule of the internet — do not read the comments.”
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