Sunday, July 25, 2010

New Orleans - in and out of the Vieux Carre

New Gallery on my companion Lick Creek Photography photo website. New Orleans.

I had a quick business trip in there this week. Flew in on Thursday afternoon. Evening in the French Quarter. Business Friday morning, flight out at 5pm - into a driving rainstorm in Chicago and lengthy flight delays home.

I think I captured the French Quarter and the outskirts well in my brief time there. Check it out. Try the slideshow. Leave a comment if you see a picture that you like.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception: Multi-faceted Sleight-of-Hand

Christopher Nolan's "Inception" is more than the movie that I thought it was when I first viewed it. It is a story of resolution of emotional pain wrapped up in an action-adventure team-heist caper.

I know that, because I watched it twice. In one day. Back-to-back. I saw it, walked out to the ticket counter and bought a ticket for the next show, and watched it again. Transfixed both times, but comprehending the 2nd time.

I'm not a movie reviewer and I'll leave it to those capable folks to describe Inception to you in their inimitable way. For Roger Ebert's stellar review of Inception click here, and for his Journal entry on the controversy of the negative criticisms of the film click here.

But, I do think that my marathon double-feature of Inception gives me perhaps a different insight into the movie. Here's how I described on Roger Ebert's Journal how I perceived the movie in those two viewings.

First viewing: I recognized instantly that this was a movie that I would just have to let unfold in front of me. Hang with it. See how it played out. Enjoy the acting, and puzzle out the plot later.

2nd viewing: Ah, now it's making sense. I'm seeing the setups. Understanding the dream layers. Hearing a couple of laugh lines that I missed in the first showing. Completely understanding the inceptions, both of them. Wow.

Inception is intricate. Layered. Precise. Just trying to keep all of the layers, and their differential timing, in my head was stimulating.

Intricate, yes. Layered, yes yes. But in more than one direction. Not just deep, but wide.

"The inceptions, both of them". The key to understanding the movie.

Let me just cut to the chase. Inception is to me much more than the layered action heist-caper that I struggled to hang with in the first viewing. It is a rich emotional character study, driven by emotional pain. The sleight-of-hand that Nolan employs is keeping you so engaged in the caper that the emotional heart of the movie is the gem to be discovered in the second viewing.

By now you've seen or heard enough to understand the Caper. A techological mercenary team lead by DiCaprio's character "Cobb" excels at dropping in to their target's dreams to steal corporate secrets. Their challenge, to do it in reverse. To plant an idea in their target's mind through dreams, and dreams within dreams, to achieve a corporate end. "Not strictly legal", he says. Will Cobb's team succeed in it's mission, and Cobb achieve his yearned for reward?

It's all you can do to hang on and comprehend this aspect of the plot. To track the layers "deep" into the dreams, each layer with it's own timescale. You are inundated with the details of the reverse-heist. With the makeup of the team, and their various roles. With the other-worldness and physics-defying complexity of the mazes created by Ariadne, the Architect. By the parallel actions in the different layers of the dreams.

Questions abound as you watch. How do they team-dream? Can inception be done? Who is the dreamer at each level, and who are the dream-sharers? Will Cobb and his team succeed in their mission and earn Cobb his payoff? Or will Cobb's increasingly threatening subconscious projections derail his success?

I say "derail" on purpose. But, I'll come back to that.

It is entirely understandable as you do all you can do to keep up with the intricate layers of the Caper plot hold a criticism that I am hearing that the negative critics have espoused - that Nolan's movie lacks emotion.

I disagree. I think that Inception is driven by emotion. By emotional pain to be precise. And, ultimately, the resolution of that pain.

Perhaps it is because I can relate to emotional pain quite well at the moment that I think that. That I'm sensitive to that. But, it is there.

The line of dialogue in Inception that is key to understanding the core of emotional pain in the plot mostly escaped me in the first viewing. Said by Cobb's main teammate to the Architect, it is this:

"He knows it can be done, because he's done it before".

Forget the caper plot. Focus on that. The first Inception. Follow those plot elements. What does Cobb's elevator ride with Ariadne mean? The hotel room? The train? The 50-year limbo? Why does Mal show up so often? Focus also on Cobb's face, which is a character study in emotional pain.

I said "derailed" earlier. Why?

Why did the train suddenly appear in the first chase sequence out of nowhere? Because the train has significance in the emotional core of the movie. Significance that is coded in this oft-repeated phrase that ties layers together:

"You are waiting for a train. A train that will take you to your destination. You can't be sure that it will, but it doesn't matter. Either way we will be together forever".

Or the second repeated refrain:

"I am an old man, filled with regrets, waiting to die".

The movie is filled with emotion. Mal & Cobb's love. Ariadne's wonder at "pure creation". Primal emotions: Loss. Separation. Disappointment. Guilt. Most of all, guilt.

It's a sleight-of-hand of sorts. While you are distracted with the deep up-down layers of the Caper plot, the emotional core of the movie is unfolding in the back-and-forth past-present layers of the First Inception. That's what leads to resolution, and payoff.

What a rich and fascinating movie. Worth seeing, I think. Definitely worth seeing twice!

Note: photo from, via Google.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Bonus EbertFest 2010 Moment

I received this great photo of me with Roger Ebert, taken with Omar Moore's camera, after I got back from EbertFest 2010. Here's the story of the photo.

I arrived early at the Ebert Club Meet n Greet at the Illini Union. Before Roger arrived I mingled with the small group and met a few folks whose names I recognized from participating in Roger Ebert's Journal. Sean, Paul, Brett and I were standing together when Roger came into the room. I jokingly said to Chaz and Roger that we were "holding up the blogger corner". (meaning, commenters on Roger's Journal, rather than bloggers ourselves like the Far Flung Correspondents - who were also present).

Roger recognized me as he approached our small group for handshakes. He wagged his finger at me, as if to say "there you are". Or "you!". A positive greeting at any rate.

Eventually, Roger sat down on a couch in the middle of the room and held court for a while, as people sat with him to talk and have their picture taken with him. I was hoping to get over there myself.

I was standing over near the coffee bar, making small talk. Tom Dark and director Charlie Kaufmann were chatting next to me. I wanted to meet both, but couldn't find a moment to break in to their animated conversation. About that time Roger's wife, Chaz, came over next to me to get coffee.

"Chaz, I have a question for you. Do I ever get Roger agitated when we are disagreeing over politics on his Journal?"

Chaz looked at my name tag, which just said "Randy - Ebert Club".  "Randy", she said - puzzling it out. "What is your last name?" When I told her, she lit up. "Randy, you're that brave conservative on the site! Oh, you have got to meet Roger!"

Chaz took my hand and raced me over to the couch where Roger was, and introduced me. Again, I was honored and thrilled. Meeting one of my heroes, Roger Ebert, in person after a year and a half of virtual conversation on his excellent Journal.

Roger patted the couch beside him, and I gladly sat down. A quick picture, from someone using Omar's camera. A chance for me to thank Roger again for his grace and civility and generosity with me on his blog. And then I was up to let someone else have their chance to meet this great man.

Thank you Omar, for sending me this special photo of my moment with Roger Ebert. I will not forget it. Such a gracious man.

And what a week it was at EbertFest 2010.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Best Supporting Character at EbertFest 201

While the Far-Flung Correspondents and invited VIPs were all awesome, my nomination for "Best Supporting Character" at EbertFest 2010 is....The Virginia Theater itself!

What a gorgeous theater to see a movie in! Especially to see multiple movies over several days in...

I got quite familiar with the theater over the multiple viewing days. Seats down front 2nd row for opening night, in the balcony for Friday, and in various places on the main floor on the other days. Several views - all great. True, my seat was an ordeal for the 3 1/2 hour viewing of Apocalpyse Now Redux with a deleterious effect on my eroded backside. Overall, a great experience.

Entered in evidence for my nomination, my pictures of the Virginia:

- My view from the balcony on Friday:

The beautiful architecture of the Virginia main floor, Roger & Chaz onstage:

The balcony, as seen from the orchestra pit railing:

Milling about outside between movies:

Decorative detail in the lobby:

Decorative detail in the lobby:

The office door. I first thought - unfinished? 2nd thought - Art!

The other wall of the Virginia main floor:

Full moon rising above the balcony:

Stage lighting for a panel:

Panel discussion, with ambience:

Of course, the huge screen at the Virginia, the only way to see Apocalypse Now Redux:

Stage lighting:

Different stage lighting for a panel:

My last shot of the theater floor before departing:

Lastly, the men's inside joke during the festival: urinals with a view of Randolph St. Traffic. Really.

Faces in windows. See that upper left window? See the last picture.


To the Virginia Theater: Best Supporting Character of EbertFest2010!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

My EbertFest 2010

Attending a four day film festival by yourself - alone - is an intensely personal experience. Unavoidably a lonely experience. A melancholy and reflective experience. But rich and thrilling too. All of the above.

In the end, I saw 10 of the 13 films screened at this Roger Ebert's EbertFest 2010 in Champaign-Urbana.  Achieving, for the most part, my primary objective at a film festival. I was also able to attend a Meet-n-Greet for the Ebert Club at the University of Illinois Illini Union as well as watching several panels of the festivals VIP's. I met six of the eight Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents, including Ali and Omer and Omar. I spent quality time with several of my fellow Roger Ebert's Journal commenters: Grace Wang, Dave Van Dyke, Tom Dark, Brett, Sean,  and lurker Kassie! I had conversations before movies with long-time festival goers about festival culture. And, I tweeted relentlessly through a Twitter login on the Ebertfest website.

I did it all. Made the most of my solo festival experience. Very few regrets of missed moments.

Most of all, I had my camera as my companion. I think that I captured the spirit of the festival from my POV as best as I could. You can see my full gallery on Lick Creek Photography:   (Please leave a comment on any picture that you especially like.)

What I wasn't expecting from the my first full EbertFest immersion was this: not just "watching" movies, but experiencing movies. Experiencing the full emotional impact that the rich eclectic blend of movies that Roger had selected was capable of delivering.

I wasn't expecting to be confronted with myself.

That emotional impact was heightened by virtue of being back on the campus of the University of Illinois. This beautiful campus is the scene of both one of my proudest times of my life (being accepted and enrolling as a freshman in the fall of 1978) and also of the deepest regret of my life (having to leave before completing my degree - finished 14 years later at a university elsewhere). I have such deep and mixed emotions when I am inevitably drawn to stroll on the Quad. Always, inevitably, ending with pain. If I could have those years to do over again, could I do it so much better than I did? Of course I could.

The movie-emotion and the campus-emotion collided when I went to Steak and Shake Friday night after the powerful screening of Synedoche NY. I was hoping to find EbertFesters there, and found none. Instead, I found a restaurant filled with students, many in dress for a formal. All students, plus me - feeling infinitely old. Stewing in my thoughts on Synedoche NY and my campus regrets. Hazel's words to Caden on the night before she died echoing in my head: "I wish we had this when we were younger, and all the years in between". Wow. Ouch. Damn.

Thoughts on my 10 movies, plus shorts:

a. Short: musicians throughout the world singing one continuous song "Stand by Me". Thrilling and beautiful. A masterpiece in the duration of one song.

1. Pink Floyd's the Wall:

2nd row was two close for this chaotic madness. I enjoyed the music though, including the rich texture of the guitar.

2. "You, the Living" from Sweden with subtitles:

I didn't expect that a movie with 50 vignettes about depressed people would be so funny. Rich laughter in the theater. Repeating themes (Swedish military band, last call at the bar) tied the vignettes together in an unexpectedly sentimental and funny movie.

3. "The New Age"

A Hollywood movie from 1993, with recognizable Hollywood talent from writer / director Michael Tolkin. The jokes about the real estate recession seemed prescient and magnified in today's recession. A quality story well acted. "How are your morals?" was the thematic question of the film to me, and in life...

4. "Apocalypse Now Redux"

Wow. 3 1/2 of a masterpiece on a huge screen in 70mm. It was an ordeal to get through in the Virginia's old seats, and well worth the struggle. The movie brought home again that war is a chaotic and terrible thing for everyone involved. I marvelled at the Kilgore character (Duvall). I saw Brando in a new way. And I was struck mostly by Captain Willard's pain, which he kept at bay only through "mission" - as do many...

"Apocalypse Now" was a formative movie for me when I first saw it as a 19 year old student on the campus of the U of I. I had registered for the draft. I had lived through the Vietnam years as an impressionable teen. I was primed. Little did I know that I would volunteer for the Air Force a few short years later and serve 11 years.

5. "Departures"

This is simply the most beautiful and moving film that I have ever seen in my life. A film about the "encoffinment" profession in Japan, and the deep respect with which they care for the deceased. A perfect relationship development with the husband & wife characters. Humor and pathos perfectly delivered. A well deserved standing ovation for the director at the Q&A.

6. "Man with a Movie Camera"

Not for me. Oh well.

7. "Synedoche NY"

I hated this movie when I first saw it - alone late at night in my living room on DVD. Given Roger's naming it his movie of the Decade, I owed it a 2nd chance.

I had missed much of the humor in the movie. Seeing it with 1500 people laughing will correct that. Still it is a deeply unpleasant and irritating movie about a grumpy hypochondriac who is deeply and profoundly unhappy.

I was offended when the studio head said during the Q&A that the haters "were people who did not know how to watch the movie". Such is the arrogance of Hollywood - people defending why their art project made little money. Because it's a depressing and unpleasant and irritating movie, that's why.

Still, I was struck during the movie by Caden's frequent expressions of loneliness. Sad. True.

I got more out of it on the 2nd viewing. There will not be a third viewing.

b. Short: world musicians playing one continuous song. I don't know the song - seemed to be a Bob Marley song called something like "we don't need troubles" with Bono and others. Beautiful. I could watch these musical shorts all day long.

8. "I Capture the Castle"

A sweet British romantic comedy with strong echoes of the much better "The Other Boleyn Girl". Better than I expected.

9 "Vincent: a life in color"

As powerful a documentary as I've ever seen, about a colorful character indeed. It explained a lot about Vincent Falk - the "Riveraci" & Fashion Show Man who greets Chicago tour boats daily with his colorful dress and spin moves. We learned what makes him tick. What is behind his armor of puns and wardrobe.

As a former foster parent of years, I was deeply moved by Vincent's broken childhood in orphanages, just seeking parents who would love him. "St. Joseph's Home for the Friendless" is the saddest name for an orphanage that I've ever heard.

I met Vincent earlier in the week at the Ebert Club Meet-n-Greet, and got my own pun from him when he asked me where I was from.

I'm from Pekin. Instantly - "Oh, did you stop by the festival to peek in?" Clever.

c. Short by Ramin Bahrani: "Plastic Bag"  Simple and beautiful personification with a message, with Werner Herzog as the narrator.

10. "Trucker" 

Michelle Monaghan's virtuoso performance of a female trucker with a "just hanging on" edge whose unexpected confrontation with parenthood softens her. Sweet and perfect film.

I made one last trip out to the restroom right before the show, and was surprised to find her in the lobby talking to an excited fan. He wanted a picture with her, so I volunteered to take it for him. "Would you return the favor", I asked and got my picture with her. What a treat. She is radiantly beautiful and very sweet in real life (IRL)! Thank you, Michelle for the picture.

I also met the delightful Nell Minow, and got my picture with her as well. I appreciated her input on the panels.

The highlight of the festival for me: why, meeting one of my heroes Roger Ebert twice during the week.

First, at the Ebert Club Meet-n-Greet where he patted the couch next to him and had me sit for a picture. Earlier, as he entered the room and walked around shaking everyone's hand, he approached me and shook his finger at me as if saying "There you are!". That handshake was memorable.

Later, at the Far-Flung-Correspondents panel. I attended with my friend and sparring partner on Ebert's Journal - Dave Van Dyke - who I met through Ebert's Journal. I took Dave over to meet Roger. Roger looked at us and wrote something like "You two are here together?". He had us shake hands, and then put his hand over our clasped hands. Priceless.

I'm home now. I'm exhausted. And I had the experience of a lifetime at EbertFest 2010.

Selected pictures:

Me with Ali Arikan and Grace Wang:

2. Me with Omer Mozzafer and Tom Dark

3. Me with Dave Van Dyke and Roger Ebert, hands clasped:


4. Me with Michelle Monaghan:

Me with Nell Minow - "Movie Mom"

Me, nestled in for another showing:

You can find my festival tweets at