Steve & Rob on The Trip to Italy: Sequel without equal

A sequel that’s at least as good as the original? I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but I wasn’t going to miss The Trip to Italy, the latest road trip by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Their first culinary journey film was The Trip (2010) in which these two hysterically funny, highly literate British comics traveled and ate in restaurants in the north of England. The pretext was that Rob was asked to take on this assignment for The Observer and his girlfriend was not able to go, so he asked his old friend Steve. The highlight of these films is not the food, although there are food porn scenes and clearly these two enjoy eating and drinking fine wine.

The-Trip-To-Italy-movie-posterNope. The highlight is their interaction, banter and constant dueling impressions of famous actors. In The Trip, they outdid themselves in imitating Michael Caine at many stages of his career. In The Trip to Italy, they try to outdo each other in the best Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Bogart and Eastwood impressions. In one hysterical scene, they imitate Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in their unintelligible dialogue from behind the Batman mask. However, that is outdone by the impressions of the various James Bond actors, culminating in the bawdiest joke you will ever hear about a kumquat.

Coogan and Brydon also show their British loyalty by retracing the paths of their favorite Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley, posing in front of their plaques and statues and quoting them at length. Oh, and they drive a new Mini convertible, but that is homage to what Michael Caine drove in the 1969 caper film, The Italian Job. (Better than its 2001 remake, but both are very funny.) Another lovely moment is the two singing along to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD Rob brought along. (First they have to debate how to pronounce her first name and whether her father was named Alan and really wanted a son.)

Coogan and Brydon are laugh-out-loud, snort-thru-your-nose funny. The 108-minute film is mostly improvised and director Michael Winterbottom may only need to plot out the itinerary and turn these two madmen loose. They travel down the Ligurian and Amalfi coasts, stopping in half a dozen places to dine and visit. The scenery is gorgeous, from the seacoasts to the streets of Rome to the glories of Capri.

There are some serious points in this lightly fictionalized film. The two leads play themselves, but their backstories are fictionalized. In the film, Coogan has a teenaged son who joins them briefly and Brydon has a wife and young daughter. Occasionally, they will stop their banter and mourn the problems of being aging men. While watching a table of young people drink and chat, Coogan notes that he probably would have gotten a smile from at least one young attractive women. “Now they just look straight through you,” he laments.

Here are the trailers for The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip (2010). The former is in theaters right now and the latter is available on Netflix streaming and other sources.

Both Brydon and Coogan are well-known comics and actors in England, but you may not be familiar with them. Coogan played the journalist Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, where he helps the character played by Judy Dench to seek out the child she was forced to give up for adoption when she was a teenager living in an Irish convent.

24 Hour Party People

24hourpartypeople-posterMy other favorite Steve Coogan film, however, is 24 Hour Party People from 2002. Taking place in 1976 through 1992, it’s the story of the birth of the punk rock scene in Manchester, England, set off by a legendary concert by the Sex Pistols. The concert audience was only 42 people, but was one of those events that hundreds claim to have attended.

Among those rocking with the Sex Pistols that night were four young musicians who were inspired to form the band Joy Division. Tony Wilson (Coogan), a Granada TV presenter, was there and decided it was his mission to bring this new kind of music to a larger audience. He founded Factory Records to record it and later opened a club, The Hacienda, to present it. The Hacienda became part of the rave and drug culture and eventually closed down for lack of revenue. The two-hour film is mainly the story of Joy Division, which later became New Order, and other Manchester bands.

I just watched the film again on YouTube and it’s as good as it was the first time I saw it. Click on this link and see it in its entirety.

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The art of fashion: Punk, Impressionism, Ebony

Three important exhibits this summer are threading art, fashion and social issues into fascinating museum experiences. I keep trying to decide that one or another is my favorite but each one is equally discerning and compelling in its own way.

Punk rules

I wrote recently about seeing the exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Of course, I’m tempted to say this is my favorite of the three because I love punk rock and its alienated, disruptive, DIY and disheveled nature. Punk, especially Brit punk, was critiquing the evils of society in the 1970s—the ones that we see even more vividly today. Poverty, economic and educational inequality, and the evils of the establishment.

cbgbbathroom2Most especially, one of my favorite bands of all time, The Clash, is represented in the exhibit by a quote from its late lamented frontman Joe Strummer, explaining what the band wore: “We didn’t have the backing of the Sex boutique (like the Sex Pistols) so we rented a warehouse in Camden Town and painted it. We got all covered in paint….”

Some of my favorite things about the exhibit were the facsimile of the bathroom at CBGB, the famous punk club on the Bowery; and the DIY Bricolage section, which used trash materials in costuming. The exhibit was intended as an immersive experience with almost-loud music, music videos and other multimedia examples of the period. (Photo copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

From punk to Paris

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago is an elegant tour of the fashions and social customs of the late 19th century as displayed in impressionist paintings from the collections of the Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the three museums that organized the exhibit. The exhibit is highlighted with gowns similar to those worn in the paintings displayed and properly accessorized with footwear, gloves and chapeaus. The exhibit takes us from the elaborate, fussy, long-trained gowns that required corsets and cautious walking to day gowns and walking ensembles that freed the 19th-century woman from some of the strictures of corset, bustle and fabric. (Photo courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.)

The-Parisienne_360Museum legends and signage describe the changes in styles and social customs that accompanied and, indeed, enabled the fashion changes. Other displays show period examples of accessories such as fans, lorgnettes, jewelry, hats and footwear.

We can also see examples of fashion magazines and catalogs with announcements of the openings of important new fashion emporiums in Paris, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine and Printemps.

The Art Institute has an ongoing series of lectures (some are members-only) about the exhibit and the period. They are free and provide invaluable insights to enhance your enjoyment of the exhibit. See the Art Institute calendar for information.

The world’s largest traveling fashion show

Chicago has another stunning exhibit of art and fashion at the Chicago History Museum. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair runs until January 5, 2014.

feature-exhibitionI reviewed this exhibit for Gapers Block and you can read my article here. The exhibit is a gorgeous display of almost 70 of the 8,000 gowns and ensembles from the costume collection of the Johnson Publishing Company.

The Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit presents the history and style of the traveling fashion show that began in 1958, brought visibility to African-American designers and models, and helped Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company reach larger audiences.

It’s a stunning exhibit of fashion and history and shows how the fashion fair recognized and encouraged changes in socioeconomic and elite status for African-American women. The fashion fair was produced and directed by Eunice Johnson, whose husband was John H Johnson, the visionary founder of Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

The exhibit shows the original garments by designers such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly, on stunning African-American mannequins. The garments are sleek, dramatic, vibrantly colorful and often exotic. The exhibit also tells the story of Eunice Johnson’s persistence in gaining access to the fashions she wanted to show (cash helps) and how she brought high fashion events to African-American audiences. More than 5,000 fashion shows in 180 cities all over the US were produced as charitable events, raising more than $55 million for civil rights projects and scholarships.

While you’re at the history museum, you can also still see the Vivian Maier exhibit that I wrote about here. It runs through January 5, 2014.


A tale of three cities: Mostly Manhattan

New York was fascinating as always, despite being beastly hot. My favorite thing about New York is always tramping uptown and downtown, east side and west side. Unfortunately, since temps were in the high 90s, my tramping was focused on finding cool buildings for respite or walk-thrus. In my next tale, I visited friends in Connecticut and I finished up with a family wedding in Brooklyn in the neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

Manhattan

First we’ll take Manhattan, as Leonard Cohen sang (or sort of sang). The highlight was my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its special exhibit on Punk:  Chaos to Couture, which runs until August 14. I also saw two very good plays – one at Irish Repertory in Chelsea, my regular favorite New York theater, and the other a Richard Greenberg drama on Broadway.

PUNK_landing4Punk: Chaos to Couture was the Met’s 2013 Costume Institute exhibition and it celebrates both the look that punk musicians adopted in the 1970s in the UK and the US and the impact it had on couture (meaning clothes-not-going-to-be-worn-by-the-average-woman). Original punk clothing was shown, especially that worn by some performers and some designed by Vivienne Westwood for her London punk boutique. Couture by name designers of that period and later decades is also shown. The exhibit was visually and aurally appropriate with period music and videos.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) nature of the punk scene was celebrated in the organization of the exhibit. The section DIY Hardware displayed the use of safety pins and metal ball chains in both punk and couture looks. DIY Bricolage used trash materials in costuming. Here we had the use of bottle tops, plate shards, plastic shopping bags and Tyvek envelopes to create wearable garments. Best of all, black trash bags were shredded or chopped to make glamorous gowns. Really.  They were couture and I would wear one of them.

Most of the couture seemed fakey to me, especially that from the last two decades. The use of safety pins or other metal and shredded and torn fabric doesn’t make sense outside of its musical context.

gibraltarcoverGibraltar. At Irish Rep, the two-character play Gibraltar, “an adaptation after James Joyce’s Ulysses,” was being presented in its tiny basement studio. I felt like I was at home in a Chicago storefront venue. The play was written and performed by Patrick Fitzgerald, along with Cara Seymour as Molly Bloom, and directed by Terry Kinney, one of the Steppenwolf founders. It’s beautifully done, retaining Joyce’s language, and leading us through many of Leopold Bloom’s errands and encounters on Bloomsday. (I was a month or so late for Bloomsday.) It ends with Molly’s monologue, usually called the Eight Beatitudes. Beautiful lighting and sound design make this scene magical.

The Assembled Parties by Richard Greenberg is a family affair set in a large old Central Park West apartment in two acts on two Christmas Days, 1980 and 2000. Judith Light and Jessica Hecht give fine performances as sisters-in-law in a family in decline. The dialogue is charming, funny and vivid and we glory in their lives in act one and grieve for them in act two. It’s a terrific play. (Greenberg also wrote Take Me Out, The Violet Hour and Three Days of Rain.) The revolving set displays five rooms of the apartment, designed as only Santo LoQuasto can furnish a room.

Stamford

Stamford was a short visit, punctuated by shopping (I learned that Stew Leonard’s is a destination, not a supermarket), eating, visiting, exploring Stamford and Greenwich, and going to a movie. We saw The Way Way Back with Steve Carell and Toni Collette. Carell is Collette’s obnoxious boyfriend, a character you love to hate. The movie is funny and sweet, one of those coming-of-age stories about the Collette character’s 14-year-old son. Sam Rockwell (remember him in Seven Psychopaths?), a very talented actor, manages to give it an edge and keep it from lapsing over into sentimentality.  His performance is the treat of the movie.

Brooklyn

bridge-EmpireStBldgShort story. Family wedding at a lovely old temple with a lively reception in DUMBO. The bride and groom were darling and it was nice to see friends and relatives. Just before we reached the reception, we passed an intersection that offered a fabulous view of the bridges (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and we walked back to take lots of photos. I took this one with the Empire State Building playing a cameo in the distance.


Storefront theaters shine in Chicago

I’ve been seeing a lot of theater lately and I wanted to post my last three reviews for Gapers Block.  Two of these shows close in the next week, so hurry up and see them. We have an unbelievable wealth of theater talent in Chicago. These plays are worth your time – and these small theaters will appreciate your support.

My next post will get out of Chicago and report on my visit to New York, featuring one off- and one on-Broadway show.

Mahal at Bailiwick Chicago: It’s a Family Affair

Mahal by Danny Bernardo is a story about a Chicago Filipino family, the first play with that ethnic focus, to my knowledge. Bailiwick Chicago is presenting it at Stage 773 at 1225 W Belmont, formerly the Theater Building. The Stage 773 owners have upgraded the space, especially the entrance and lobby area, to be very attractive and contemporary—a great improvement.

Mahal-2My review begins:

Mahal is a family story. A Filipino family with strong roots in the Philippines adjusts to life, love and loss in its new country. The family members – father, two sons and a daughter – are each recovering in their own way from the recent death of their mother. (Some family members call the mother’s phone number to hear her voicemail greeting – and leave messages for her until the mailbox fills up.)”

Bailiwick Chicago presents Mahal until August 2 at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. Read the review here.   Photo of Kevin Keyes and Jillian Jocson by Michael Brosilow.

The Casuals at Jackalope Theatre: Exploring Life in the Atomic Era 

The Casuals is set in 1955 Nevada and involves personal as well as political issues. It’s a new play by Jackalope Theatre Company with script by Chance Bone and Andrew Burden Swanson, and direction by Jonathan Berry. Here’s how my review starts:

TheCasuals-GB“Some things about The Casuals might make you uncomfortable–nuclear testing, for instance. Government agencies that hide the truth (and insist you don’t ask questions). Stories that may be lies or truth. A mother who tells her son how his father died a hero. An uncle who tells his nephew’s wife how his brother really died.”

The Casuals runs until July 28 at DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph St. Tickets are cheap: $10-$15.

Read the review here.  Photo by Alex Hand: Watching an atomic test.

Rooms: A Rock Romance at Broken Nose Theatre

I hardly ever get to indulge my love for rock and roll at the theater. So I was very excited to get to review this show, which includes a scene set at CBGB, the famous New York rock club. Rooms features a talented live band and some straight-up rock as well as a little punk.  My review starts this way:

IanGuitar-Rooms-GB“The sign outside the theater says, “This is a rock musical. It will be loud.” And it starts loud with a four-piece rock band playing preshow music including the classic ‘Seven Nights to Rock.’

“Rooms: A Rock Romance is a fairly traditional musical, punctuated by some great rock and punk rock songs performed on stage with a band. It is, at its heart, a love story about two people with different visions of life. Monica (Hillary Marren) wants to be a rock star, to travel and perform all over the world and Ian (Matt Deitchman) is a musician who prefers to stay at home in his own room with his guitar.”

Broken Nose Theatre will present Rooms until August 11 at the Collaboraction Pentagon space in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Read my review here. Photo of Matt Deitchman by Taryn Goodge.

Broken Nose Theatre, by the way, takes its name from the way Nelson Algren describes my favorite city in his book, Chicago: City on the Make.

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”


Czech Dream + Pussy Riot: Political reviews

Czech Dream – a hoax reviewed

The Czechs got punked in this smart and funny documentary set in 2003 Prague. It was created by two film students, who get government support to create the documentary.  Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me) introduces the film. He says admiringly, “I wish I’d thought of it.”

ceskysenlogoThe two filmmakers (Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda) go through the elaborate process of launching a new hypermarket for the shopping-crazed Czechs (who still remember waiting in long lines for basic necessities in the Communist era). Vit and Filip, as the store managers, get personal makeovers, pose for corporate portraits, and work with the local office of a well-known global advertising agency (BBDO). The agency (they’re in on the hoax) creates logos, signage, clever anti-consumerist advertising, giant billboards, flyers, even fake product labels for house-branded products. The campaign teases about the nature and location of the hypermarket, named Czech Dream (Cesky Sen) as a result of a focus group process.

The film ties in with the 2003 Czech Republic referendum on the question of joining the EU. The referendum passed with 77 percent of the votes and the country joined the EU in 2004. The political overtones of the film are probably more apparent to Czechs than they may be to viewers today.

On opening day, May 31, 2003, thousands of people gather hours before the store opening. Fencing keeps them a long hike from the colorful and massive storefront, which they can view in the distance. Finally, after long opening ceremonies and a bungled ribbon-cutting, the crowd is allowed to enter.  The crowd trudges across the field toward the store, including families with baby carriages, and elderly people using canes and walkers.

When they get there, they find it is a Potemkin village. A storefront with nothing behind it.

The reactions of the prospective customers are most interesting. Some are really angry. Some blame the government. Some get the joke and enjoy it.

Both filmmakers have continued to make films in the Czech Republic since then. They must have learned a lot about audiences from this process – and so will you.

Pussy Riot, A Punk Prayer – an activist’s review

We’ll stay in eastern Europe for this 2013 film: a profile of the feminist performance-art collective known as Pussy Riot, which premiered on HBO this week. Because of their February 2012 performance on the altar of a Moscow church, a protest against Putin’s reelection, they were arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to two years in a penal colony.

Pussy Riot on trial: Nadezhda Tolokonnikova,Yekaterina Samutsevich,Maria Alekhina

L to R, Masha, Katia, Nadia (Maria Alekhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova)

Nadia and Masha are still serving prison terms; Katia’s sentence was suspended and she was released. They have become poster children for free speech all over the world. They are activists who use art to communicate and bring about political action. They were defiant to the end. “Come and taste freedom with us,” was Nadia’s closing remark at the trial.

In the film, religious people tell the filmmakers how much they were offended, even insulted, by Pussy Riot’s protest on the altar. Russia supposedly is a secular state with a secular constitution, according to one of the defense lawyers. But they were charged with blasphemy. Katia’s sentence was suspended because she had not actually done anything on the altar; she was taken away by police before being able to perform. She continues the Pussy Riot activities while Nadia and Masha serve their terms.

Pussy Riot has many more members who demonstrated in Moscow wearing neon-colored balaclavas and tunics. One of their early protests was “kiss a cop.” The documentary shows video of members attacking Moscow police with kisses. The day of the sentencing, many protestors wearing trademark balaclavas protested around the trial site. Their protests involved climbing on to the court building, shouting and singing their political messages and punk lyrics.

I wrote about Pussy Riot last fall and showed this photo of the three defendants; Nadia is wearing her No Pasaran shirt. @free pussy riot is on Twitter and has a multilingual website http://www.freepussyriot.org To my great joy, #nopasaran is a trending hashtag on Twitter, almost 70 years after the Spanish Civil War.


Richard Hell revisits his life in punk rock

Richard Hell, the punk rock pioneer and author, read from his new autobiography Thursday night at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. The cozy bookstore was packed when I arrived about 20 minutes before start time and I felt lucky to find a seat. I thought (as I did at the packed Peter Hook event at the MCA in February. “Yes, punk lives on!” http://bit.ly/Yt6t8W)

Hell was born Richard Meyers in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1949. The book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp (HarperCollins, 2013), starts with his childhood and moves to New York and his work as a poet and musician with bands like the Neon Boys, Television, the Heartbreakers and the Voidoids.

richardhell2Hell read several moving passages, such as this one on the thrill of making a band’s first sounds: “The power and beauty of it was unimaginable until then. It can’t be overstated, that initial rush of realizing, of experiencing, what’s possible as you’re standing there in the rehearsal room with your guitars and the mikes turned on and when you make a move this physical information comes pouring out and you can do or say anything with it. It was like having magic powers.” Later he continues “All through this book I’ve had to search for different ways to say “thrill,” “exhilaration,” “ecstatic” to communicate particular experiences. Maybe the most extreme example of this class of moment is what I’m trying to describe here. What it felt like to first be creating electrically amplified songs. It was like being born….”

Hell also read other passages about playing at the legendary rock club CBGB and working with musicians like the late Peter Laughner, Robert Quine and critic Lester Bangs.

After the readings, he answered questions about his music, his influences and other musicians he knew and worked with. Hell created the punk look of spiky hair, safety pins and shredded shirts, which will be represented in the exhibit of punk garments and punk-influenced couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening May 9. The exhibit includes a re-creation of the famous toilet at CBGB. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/punk About the punk look, Hell said, “We just wanted to be noticed” and “I tried to figure out how I could make myself look the way I felt.” He wrote the preface for the exhibition catalog.

Check out the two articles about the Met exhibit in the April 27 New York Times. “Haute Punk” http://nyti.ms/10xfPuE and “Anarchy in the Met” http://nyti.ms/15adYEp

Hell was also the creator of the famous t-shirt displaying a target and the words “Please Kill Me” stenciled on the front. The shirt may have been worn only once by another member of the band Television. Replicas of that shirt can now be found on several internet sites.

PKMbkcovrHell signed copies of books and he also signed my own copy of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (Grove Press, 1996). Hell is pictured on the front cover, second from left. And for the person ahead of me, he signed the jacket of a pristine vinyl copy of the Voidoids’ 1977 album Blank Generation, which features a photo of Hell, shirtless, with the words “You make me _______” written across his chest.

Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain is a very good overview of the people, bands, trends and events in US and UK punk rock, starting with the Velvet Underground in 1965 and Detroit bands like the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges. Hell commented, in answer to a question, that there are a lot of errors in the book. Personally, I think it’s more the Rashomon effect: the book is made up of quotations and perceptions from dozens of musicians, producers, roadies and hangers-on – each from his or her own point of view. If you were there, you would surely find some of those perceptions to be factually incorrect.

Punk has been defined as “making up life for yourself.” (That’s usually credited to Legs McNeil.) It’s a sort of all-American attitude that allows for reinvention of the self. A teenaged Richard Meyers moved from Lexington, Kentucky, to Manhattan, wrote poetry, turned himself into Richard Hell, became a punk rock and fashion icon, wrote successful songs such as “Blank Generation,” then dropped out of music, left the drug culture, and became a successful writer.

A slightly different version of this article was previously published on Gapers Block, a Chicago website. http://bit.ly/16eOXIe


Peter Hook at the MCA: Punk lives on

peterhookmca2
It was one of those nights I’m glad I live in Chicago …. Peter Hook, bass player of the post-punk band Joy Division, has written a book about the concert and touring life of that band: Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division (It Books, 2013). Hook and Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro music venue, carried on a lively discussion about that book and the life of the band the other night at the MCA theater. (That is really a nice space, by the way. Excellent acoustics and not a bad seat in the house.) The event was a sellout and the audience was mostly made up of young people (way younger than me, that is). It’s good to see that Punk Lives On.

Joy Division was highly influential in alternative rock and surely made an impression on bands like U2, Radiohead, REM and the Killers.  Joy Division played for only a few years when their lead singer, Ian Curtis, died in May 1980 just before their first US tour. The band members reformed later as New Order.

Unknown Pleasures also was the name of the band’s debut album. Hook talked in his strong Manchester accent about how the band toured around England with makeshift equipment in a broken-down van. “It generally tends to be the bass player who drives the bus,” Hook said. He observed that the bass player is often the archivist as well, which is why Hook had a collection of ticket stubs, setlists, posters and other memorabilia that appear in the book.

Hook tells about seeing the Sex Pistols as a teenager (at a famous gig in Manchester) and thinking two things: “The first was: I could do that. Because, fucking hell, what a racket. I mean, they were just dreadful; well, the sound was dreadful. “ Punk is all about capturing the spirit, Hook said. Even if it’s sloppy.

Here’s a short interview with Hook by Kimberly Austin of the Rock Book Show. http://rockbookshow.com/rock-book-show/peter-hook-book.html

You also can see Joy Division perform a couple of their best-known songs: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHYOXyy1ToI  or “Transmission” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_zLxPNUIqw