Friday, March 2, 2018

The Oscars - 2018 Edition: The Good, the Bad, the Undeserving and the Overlooked

This is the post I almost didn't write.

Because if you thought I was bored and apathetic about the Oscars last year, you have no idea how uninterested I was this time around.

My enthusiasm for the 2018 award season quickly began to wane about the time that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri swept the Golden Globes. When it subsequently picked up an armload of Screen Actor's Guild awards, my growing apathy morphed into rage.  By the time of its stellar showing at the BAFTAs (Britsh Academy Awards) I had progressed to outright stupefaction.

Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings whose appeal I cannot begin to fathom, but Three Billboards outstrips them all.  Where so many others apparently saw a modern masterpiece, I saw a muddleheaded, mean-spirited, pointlessly sadistic screed containing not one iota of truth or genuine insight.  And I've worshipped Frances McDormand for most of my adult life, but I swear if I see her unsmiling, make-up free face behind one more awards podium, I'm going to pitch a fit so loud the folks at the Kodak Theater will stop applauding, cock their heads and ask each other "Did you hear that fit being pitched? It sounded like it was coming from Chicago!"

Three Billboards aside, I also find I am intensely weary of the self-imposed pressure to see every major Oscar nominee before the ceremony.  And this year, I gave up the fight. As I write this, I still have not seen The Post or All the Money in the World - let alone most of the Best Documentary, Foreign Language or Feature-Length Animated films on the Oscar Ballot.  But before we get to my terribly important thoughts about what should win, what shouldn't win, and who got unfairly overlooked for a chance at Oscar glory... let's talk about this year's host.

For years now, I've been carping about the Academy's inability to find a master of ceremonies who sets the right tone for the evening.  They've cycled through everyone from James Franco to Ellen DeGeneres, but they finally found the right man. I'm very pleased that Jimmy Kimmel will be returning as emcee this year; he strikes exactly the right balance between pointed, topical comedy and low-key, light-hearted mischief.  Now if only the Academy would pick the right nominees and winners!

Best Supporting Actress

Will win:  Allison Janney for I, Tonya

I love Allison Janney, I really do. I will watch anything this woman acts in, primarily because she is in it. I even cheered when she accepted a BAFTA award while wearing a bizarre gown that made her look like a giant space alien. (I'm not kidding about that - Google it and see for yourself.) But in all honesty, this is not the best supporting female performance of the year. Janney nails the character's coldness and anger alright, but it's a fairly one-note take on Tonya Harding's monstrous mother. And frankly, it's the kind of role she could do in her sleep.

Should win: Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird

Metcalfe's take on stressed, imperfect motherhood was lovely, rich in nuance and brilliantly rendered emotional detail.  The actress, at 62, has been enjoying a bit of a late-career renaissance, starting with her Tony Award last year for A Doll's' House, Part Two. An Oscar would be a perfect, well-deserved companion for that Tony.  She's recently emerged as a dark-horse possibility for taking this category from Janney, so the idea is not entirely far-fetched.

Overlooked: Michelle Pfeiffer for mother!

Pfeiffer swaggered into the middle of a difficult, enigmatic and divisive film, providing a bracing shot of much-needed comic relief.  The film was always better when she was onscreen. There's no better recommendation for an Oscar nomination, and Pfeiffer certainly deserved one.

Also overlooked:  Vicky Krieps for Phantom Thread -  She more than held her own against old pros Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville. And, like them, she deserved a nomination.

Best Supporting Actor

Will win: Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

I like Rockwell, and I'll admit he made a pretty interesting meal out of this film's most problematic character.  So I'm actually kind of OK with him taking this trophy - although I wish to God it had been for a better movie.

Should Win: Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project

People tend to think of Dafoe as the guy who plays creepy or bizarre characters, but niceness and restraint are also qualities in his wheelhouse. (After all, he's played both Jesus and T.S. Eliot). As the motel manager working on the tawdry edge of Orlando, Dafoe comes off so authentically torn between frustration and compassion towards his residents that he doesn't seem to be acting at all. You forget you're looking at Dafoe and just see a man who tries to be fair to his residents and look out for their neglected kids.  He's the quiet soul of a fine film.

Overlooked: Armie Hammer for Call Me By Your Name

I'm not quite sure how Hammer has been so overlooked in the slew of awards nominations for this film.  His Oliver is the perfect match to Timothee Chalamet's justly praised Elio in this emotionally charged romance.  Just his dorky dance moves alone are award-worthy.

Also overlooked: Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller for The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) - Two stunning performances by these actors playing estranged brothers.  Each has an electrifyingly good monologue and many great scenes.  I'd have expected as much from Stiller, but Sandler's work is revelatory.

Best Actress

Will win: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

Oh, dear. I worship McDormand and can name at least three other films I'd loved to have seen her get an Oscar for (in addition the one she deservedly won for Fargo.).  But I just can't get past how much I hate this film in general, and her character in particular.  So I can't rejoice about this, but it's a foregone conclusion.

Should win: Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water

Hawkins' performance was so beautiful, sweet but not cloyingly so.  Her character had a refreshing grit and stubbornness. The scene where she tells her friend - without words -- why the sea monster's love meant so much to her was the most emotionally devastating piece of acting I saw all year.  Also, this would be a welcome corrective to the academy's unforgiveable snub of her performance in Happy Go Lucky in 2009.

Overlooked: Diane Kruger for In the Fade

Forget McDormand's Mildred Hayes.  If you want to see the best, most devastating portrayal of a grieving, vengeful woman look to the German film In the Fade and the riveting performance of Diane Kruger.  Kruger won the Best Actress award at Cannes; I can only assume her absence from most awards slates this year is due to the fact that In the Fade has not yet opened wide in the U.S. It's a devastating, harrowing film, and Kruger's performance is one for the ages.

Also overlooked: Cynthia Nixon for A Quiet Passion -
Her take on the poet Emily Dickinson delved into deep emotional corners of anguish and frustration.

Best Actor

Will - and probably should- win: Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour doesn't really amount to much, but Oldman's Winston Churchill is wonderful.  Consider the Oscar he's certainly going to win as a very well-deserved lifetime achievement award. The emotion in his eyes behind all that old-Churchill makeup is the whole show here.

But I wish we could give one last Oscar to Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread

If this really is his last film, that's a damn shame. Phantom Thread is a gorgeous film that celebrates the fine art of acting in stillness and nuance.  Day-Lewis communicates more with an artfully arched eyebrow or a fleeting glance than most actors do with a whole, scenery-chewing cathartic monologue.  I know he already has three Oscars, but this was his last chance....

Overlooked? No one, really.... I'm pretty happy with this category as is. (Although I suspect if I'd gotten around to seeing The Post, I'd be filling the space with my annual rant about Why Tom Hanks is a Better Actor than the Academy Thinks He Is.)

Best Director

Will win: Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water

Del Toro is pretty much a shoo-in here, having won every other Best Director trophy on the planet this season.  It's not undeserved either.  The Shape of Water is beautifully crafted fairy tale for adults and it's a stunning achievement. But...

My heart is with Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is a bit too slow, stately (and, ultimately, creepy) to be to everyone's taste.  But I loved it - luxuriated in it, even.  If you look at the trajectory of Anderson's  career - from early, messy epics like Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the level of craft he's achieved in The Master or There Will Be Blood - his growth as an artist is truly stunning. Phantom Thread is the work of an artist in full command of his powers. Sadly though, it's not likely to win much on Oscar night except Best Costume Design (of course!) ...and maybe (hopefully?) a Best Original Score trophy for Johnny Greenwood.

Overlooked?  How about an Honorable Mention to Joe Wright for Darkest Hour?

Oh sure, I could make a case for Luca Guadagnino and Call Me By Your Name (which is up for Best Picture) or Dee Rees for Mudbound (which isn't - more on that later). But apart from Oldman's performance, I think the whole reason Darkest Hour got a Best Picture nod is Joe Wright's inspired direction. The script is awful, really, and most other directors would have delivered a stillborn, stodgy snoozefest.  But Wright finds a stunning visual style and utilizes fluid, urgent camera movement to ratchet up the drama - and it just about works.  And while we're at it, let us remember that in 2007's Atonement, Wright managed to evoke the entire Dunkirk experience in one spectacular 5-minute tracking shot. Take that, Best Director nominee Christopher Nolan!

Best Picture

Will win ( probably?....) The Shape of Water

I say 'probably?" because - although The Shape of Water has been the odds-on favorite in this category for weeks - there has been some late-breaking groundswell for both Three Billboards and Get Out.  I can't bear to think of the former film winning, and I can't wrap my mind around how the latter one even got into this category. (I've seen Get Out twice now; I liked it and thought it was a solid debut for Jordan Peele, but also significantly flawed. It will be interesting to see how it's regarded five or ten years from now.)  Anyway, I won't be disappointed if Shape takes the top prize - it's certainly deserving.

But... again, my heart is with Phantom Thread

Because the happiest two-and-a-half hours I spent in a movie theater this year was watching this. As previously noted, I still haven't seen The Post.  But I would rank the other 8 nominees in this order: 1. Phantom Thread; 2. The Shape of Water; 3. Lady Bird; 4. Call Me By Your Name; 5. Dunkirk; 6. Get Out; 7. Darkest Hour; 8 and a Distant Dead Last. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.  

Overlooked: Mudbound

I guess it's encouraging that this straight-to-Netflix release got any nominations (for Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Song). Oscar voters have been slow to embrace films distributed through home streaming channels, and I suspect that if Mudbound had been a theatrical release, it might have knocked Darkest Hour off the Best Picture roster. The story of two Southern families - one black and poor, one white and poor ( and there's a difference between what poor means for each family) - it's emotionally gripping and  effectively subtle in rendering the details of an ingrained, unconscious racism practiced even by the most well-intentioned characters. There is a particularly horrific sequence late in the film, but it doesn't feel forced or exploitative - only sadly inevitable. It's downbeat but honest, offering no easy solutions or breakthrough moments for any of its characters.  Director Dee Rees does skillful, masterful work; as noted above, she deserved a Best Director nomination.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Seventeen for '17: Not the Best Films of 2017

What follows is not a definitive list of the best films of 2017. How could it be?

It's compiled by a weary part-time cinephile who fits as many movies as she can in between the deadline pressures of her day job, family commitments, and other interests like choral singing, travelling and napping.  It represents the highlights of her moviegoing year - a year in which she ran out of time and/or opportunities to see any of the following critical darlings:  The Florida Project, Wonderstruck, Call Me By Your Name, The Darkest Hour, Mudbound, All the Money in the World, Novitiate and I, Tonya. 

I could have run around from theater to theater this week, working like a woman obsessed to catch up on these films so I could publish a respectable 'year's best' list.  But I've lost interest in respectability. And I simply don't have the energy or motivation to be a 2017 completist.  Like most of my readers, I lead a distracted and fragmented life. I'm not an academic, nor am I a professional critic.  This year I managed to see 96 films - which is a lot, but still only about a half of what a real critic sees in a year. (Rest assured however, I will likely manage to see every film mentioned above before the Oscars on March 4. Some habits die hard.)

More importantly, I find my tastes in film are changing and evolving as of late.  Honestly the very best film I saw all last year was Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1991 classic The Double Life of Veronique. I loved it for its beauty, its haunting musical score, and the transcendent,/radiant/joyous screen presence of Irene Jacob in the title role. Her performance embodied the kind of humanity and wonder I want my 'year's best' list to celebrate.  I'm all done with films that revel in darkness and brutality for shock value or uncomfortable laughs, regardless of how well-crafted they may be.  So don't expect to see mother!, Killing of a Sacred Deer or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on this list. (And yes, I saw all of those.) But don't expect to see a roll call of mindless, escapist pleasures, either. The world we all live in is crazy and violent and scary enough;  I don't want to live in denial of that exactly, but I want to celebrate the art that rises defiantly out of this muck and leads us back to the better angels of our nature.

You'll still see some significant overlap between this list and the year's best lists of many prominent critics. But it remains as personal and idiosyncratic as ever. It is an honest representation of the films  that meant the most to me in 2017 - and ones I believe my readers will love as well.

One other thing: because this cinephile lives in the Chicago area, eligibility for this list is limited to films were first in general release here (whether in theaters or via home streaming) between 1/1/17 and 12/31/17 inclusive. What this means is:
  1. A number of films that are on 2017's awards slates and critic's lists - but which haven't yet opened in Chicago - will be considered for my 2018 list (including The Post, Phantom Thread, Maggie's Game, A Fantastic Woman, Hostiles and Loveless).  By that criteria, this list also excludes two fine films I saw at this year's Chicago International Film Festival that have not yet opened in general release here: In the Fade and God's Own Country)
  2. Conversely, some films that were on 2016 awards slates/critic's lists were considered for my 2017 list (among them Silence, Paterson, Neruda, Hidden Figures, Things to Come, Toni Erdmann).  SPOILER: Some of these made the list!
So here is my "17 for '17 - NOT the best..." list, ranked in ascending order of preference, from 17th best to best....

17. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened (Lonny Price)

This documentary about the ill-fated 1981 Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" would be worth it just for the audition and rehearsal footage, plus its behind-the-scenes insight into the shaping of a flawed but underappreciated musical.  But it is elevated and made resonant by its poignancy. Sondheim and director Harold Prince cast the show entirely with teenagers and very young adults, playing jaded middle-aged showbiz types who age backward into their younger, starry-eyed selves over the course of the play.  The concept was not successful, and the show flopped badly.  Some successful careers were launched (Broadway director Lonny Price, Seinfeld star Jason Alexander), but much of the cast would eventually give up on performing to pursue other careers - some to public acclaim, others in obscurity.  Much like the show it profiles, this film is as much a testament to the way life's realities transmute our youthful hopes and dreams as it is about musical theater.

16. Their Finest (Lone Scherfig)

Every so often, I need a film that is old-fashioned in the best possible way - romantic, funny and sad in just the right proportions. The kind of film you want to watch on a snowy Sunday afternoon, curled up under your favorite quilt with a cup of tea. (There's at least one such film on every one of my 'year's best' lists: Allied last year, Brooklyn in 2015). Their Finest is hardly groundbreaking, but its story of young woman finding her way in Britain's wartime propaganda film industry (and falling in love along the way) is engagingly and affectionately told.  Bill Nighy's supporting turn as a once-celebrated actor seeking one, last great role is just the delicious icing on the teacake.

15. Brad's Status (Mike White)

Ben Stiller's Brad wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and jealousy during a long weekend of college visitations with his son.  Friends from his own college days have largely eclipsed and abandoned him, caught up in their own successful, high-profile careers while Brad toils in the non-profit sector for little money and even less recognition. Here is fresh evidence of what a terrific and nuanced actor Stiller can be. We have access to his internal musings via voiceover, and no honest one among us will deny having struggled with these same kinds of tortured, often ugly and uncharitable thoughts. Writer/director Mike White manages to be both unsparing and compassionate towards his main character, and the finale offers a sweet moment of redemption.

14. Colossal (Nacho Vigalondo)

How to explain the conceit at the heart of this film without causing my readers to roll their eyes and move on to the next review?  Anne Hathaway plays a woman who's fast approaching rock bottom; whenever she has a wild, drunken night, a huge Godzilla-esque monster goes on the rampage halfway around the world in Seoul. This isn't coincidental, and the cause-effect relationship is more complex and dramatically satisfying than you'll ever expect. (Hint: monsters can be metaphors!) Even better is the film's welcome inversion of overused romantic comedy tropes when Hathaway returns to her hometown and reconnects with an old boyfriend (Jason Sudeikis). He seems like the sweet, adoring guy she's always needed, but it's so much more complicated than that.  

13. Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (Griffin Dunne)

Probably no one but Griffin Dunne could have produced so intimate and revelatory a portrait of writer Joan Didion, who happens also to be his own beloved aunt. There's an ease and openness in their filmed conversations, yet they cut right to the heart of Didion's marriage (to writer John Gregory Dunne), motherhood and work - and all the challenges that came with them.  There are just enough passages with Didion reading from her books in voiceover to tantalize you into reading more (exactly what any documentary about a writer should do.)  And the film doesn't back off the grief that fueled Didion's most recent works ("The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Blue Nights" about the deaths of her husband and daughter, respectively). It's generous and appreciative without descending into hagiography.

12. I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)

I am of two minds regarding British director Ken Loach's approach to this story. On the one hand, he's made a beautiful, compassionate film about the lives of ordinary, working class folks that eschews big emotional moments for quieter, more truthful ones. On the other hand, he's a cranky technophobe with some startlingly retrograde ideas about government social welfare programs and the underpaid, underappreciated people who work in them.  Both sides of Ken Loach are very much on display here, but the film's quiet compassion ultimately triumphs over its sneering disregard for computers and petty bureaucrats.  Dave Johns gives a particularly lovely performance as a man struggling to get either work or aid after he's felled by a heart attack, and Hayley Squires is sweetly sympathetic as the struggling single mother he befriends and tries to help.  There are no happy endings here, only a reminder that every man and woman is entitled to dignity and a helping hand.  That's a sorely needed message in these times.

11. Silence (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese wanted to make this film for over 20 years, since he first read the book on which it is based while traveling through Japan.  I'm not sure how it plays to atheists or agnostics, but for people of faith it poses some challenging, important questions about the value of evangelization and martyrdom.  A tale of 16th century Jesuit missionaries attempting to convert Japan and wrestling with the country's unspeakably cruel torture and murder of its Christian converts, it's alternately gorgeous and painful to watch, overwhelming in its scope. What, finally, is the more Christian thing to do - convert the people only to see them viciously killed? Or to give up the fight for the faith and allow them to live in peace?  I watched this on Good Friday; I can't think of a more appropriate time to grapple with that kind of question.  And I won't pretend I have the definitive answer for the situation depicted here - just as the priests played by Andrew Garfield and Liam Neeson don't find entirely satisfying resolutions to their own spiritual struggles.

10. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected) (Noah Baumbach)

Here's a sentence I absolutely never expected to write: Adam Sandler gives one of they year's best performances - every bit the equal of those turned in by his co-stars: Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson and Elizabeth Marvel.  (And Dustin Hoffman, too - but I'm probably not allowed to say that, because #timesup for him, right?) Noah Baumbach  is a frequent chronicler of dysfunctional family dynamics, but here he's absolutely perfected his game.  Hoffman plays the self-absorbed father of three adult children by three separate former wives.  Each has a different kind of fractious relationship with their father, indicative of the kind of man he was in each of his marriages.  There are several electrifying scenes of great acting here - the fact that some of them honestly belong to Sandler makes me wonder how much he's been holding back over the years.  In fairness, both P.T. Anderson and James L. Brook have teased some decent work out of Sandler before (in Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish, respectively). But after this triumph, he really can't go back to doing something like Grown Ups 3.

9. Beatriz at Dinner (Miguel Arteta)

In Beatriz at Dinner, director Arteta and screenwriter Mike White resurrect themes from their HBO series Enlightened, then hone and sharpen them into deadly satirical daggers.  Selma Hayek plays the massage therapist - equal parts radiant Earth Mother and raging nutjob - who becomes an awkward, last-minute addition to a wealthy client's dinner party.  She faces off with John Lithgow (superb as always) playing his ruthless corporate bigwig as an outwardly charming and sensible sparring partner to her earnest, cuckoo-bird do-gooder.  Meanwhile Connie Britton hovers, soothes and attempts to put a good face on every exchange between them, as only a desperate-to-please-everyone hostess can.  Some of the class conflict insights are a bit obvious, and the dinner guest played by Jay Duplass is a bit more of an asshole than was required for any dramatic purposes. But, as was true in Enlightened, even when the battle lines between spirituality and commerce are broadly drawn, the actors raging from behind those lines are positively riveting to watch.

8. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

This film might seem an odd choice for the list, given my preamble about celebrating the good and the noble... but come on, it's fun!  Baby Driver was, in fact, the most fun I had at the movies all year (with the possible exception of Thor: Ragnarok).  I normally hate action films (too loud, too overstimulating), but under Edgar Wright's direction, this had some of the most elegant and coherent action sequences I've seen in years, if ever.  And I'm a sucker for any movie that can perfectly synchronize getaway drives to some insanely rockin' tunes. For pure, exhilarating fun and thrills, nothing matched this one - and I think that's something to celebrate, too.

7. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)

There's a sweet simplicity to Paterson that is in direct contrast to just about any movie you've ever seen about a poet.  Adam Driver's Paterson is no tortured, drug-addicted genius, but rather a New Jersey bus driver, living an outwardly unspectacular life while writing some truly lovely poems about it in his spare time.  Director Jarmusch finds the poetry in Paterson's life too, from his delight in his wife's ditzy, dilettantish schemes for self-expression to the small dramas playing out in the neighborhood bar he frequents.  Paterson celebrates the transcendent nature of life's simplest pleasures (a cold beer, a cupcake, new curtains, the thrill of mastering your first song on the guitar), and reminds us that poetry can be a part of everyone's life.

6. Columbus (Kogonada)

It takes place in Columbus, Indiana - which is both a mecca for devotees of modernist architecture and the hometown of vice-president Mike Pence.  The latter fact has nothing to do with the film, but the town's architecture gives the film its soul.  In his directorial debut, Kogonada finds a visual style that showcases and complements the town's architectural treasures. There's an elegance and understated beauty to this film that is oddly calming; it sneaks up on you with an answer to the question that its main characters ponder: Can architecture heal you?  Turns out, it can.  John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson give effectively understated performances as, respectively, a young man grappling with a long-standing estrangement from his critically ill father and a young woman who can't bear to leave her recovering addict mother behind for college. Rory Culkin really nails the role of a nerdy graduate student who awkwardly attempts to court Richardson.  But the lovingly photographed buildings and interiors are Columbus's real stars.

5. A Ghost Story (David Lowery)

Yes, this film has Casey Affleck playing the ghost of his deceased self in a white sheet with two eyeholes like Charlie Brown on Halloween. Silly as that sounds, this haunting (no pun intended) film is actually a profound and moving meditation on grief, offering the highly original theory that the deceased grieve, too. It's poetic and impressionistic, without a strictly linear narrative or much in the way of dialogue, but it's also kind of mesmerizing.  There's an infamous scene in which Rooney Mara, playing Affleck's widow, eats an entire blueberry pie during one, uncomfortably long shot. If you've ever grieved for the sudden loss of someone you loved, you'll recognize the character's desperation to numb her emotional pain by any means available - even by gobbling a whole pie - as completely authentic.

4. BPM (Robin Campillo)

Pedro Almodovar, a judge at the Cannes Festival this year, reportedly wept when BPM was passed over for the Palme D'Or in favor of The Square.  I've no doubt he's broken out in fresh, new tears of grief over its egregious exclusion from the Oscars' shortlist for Best Foreign Film, once again bested by Ruben Ostlund's vastly overrated art-world satire. I saw this at the Chicago International Film Festival in October; see my review here.  This French-language drama about AIDS activists in early '90s Paris remains vividly in my memory for its ravishing, emotionally charged visual images and performances.

3. A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies)

Three are two types of films that Terence Davies does exceptionally well. The first are impressionistic memory films about his boyhood in Liverpool. The others are emotionally charged dramas about passionate or unconventional women out of step with the times in which they live.  In the life story of poet Emily Dickinson, Davies has found his greatest female subject yet, and Cynthia Nixon gives an exceptionally complex and impressive performance in the role.  Behind the period trappings and the florid, sometimes stilted dialog, we can see and feel Dickinson's passionate intensity struggling to channel and express itself within a rigid society and under the specter of her declining health. Nixon doesn't shy away from Dickinson's prickly, cantankerous side, and she brings illuminating conviction to the poet's ambivalence towards men and marriage.  Jennifer Ehle, playing her devoted sister, gives Nixon gentle and generous support. This is an utterly perfect depiction of an artist struggling with an ambition that exceeds her ability to produce, as well as the ways in which her family and familiar domestic routine help her to bear that frustration.

2. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig)

You could call Lady Bird a coming-of-age story or you call it a mother/daughter drama; either or both is true, but confining it to a neat category would reduce and misrepresent what it achieves.  It's really a story about being human - about being young, unformed, hopeful and figuring life out - while at the same time, it's about the disappointments of adulthood and the anxieties and hopes that parents have for their children. Greta Gerwig imbues her directorial debut with a sweetness and humanity that brought me to tears more than once, each time during scenes that weren't particularly sad - just beautifully realized.  The performances by Soirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracey Letts are pitch-perfect, sublime.

1. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

Guillermo del Toro's gorgeous fantasy film is a fairy-tale for grownups, embracing both the enchantment and the darkness that true fairy tales possess.  Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning woman at a government laboratory where a South American sea monster is being held and studied for mostly nefarious purposes.  She befriends, then falls in love with the "monster," and Hawkins makes us believe in it all; she gives her character a grit and stubborn emotional urgency that prevent any Amelie-esque, cutsie-poo nonsense from diluting the story's power. The scene where she explains to a friend, via sign language, what the monster's love means to her is possibly the most emotionally intense moment in an entire year's worth of films. The film's dense, imaginative production design and its thematic inspirations (which include Cold War intrigue and classic movie musicals) combine to evoke our terror and wonder.  (Also, there is inter-species sex . Like I said, this fairy tale is for grownups.) The Shape of Water ultimately celebrates love, goodness, tolerance, and the movies themselves, while dazzling us with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances. I'm not sure what else I would ask of a film.

Monday, December 18, 2017

My Top Ten Binge-Watches of 2017

Contrary to what this post might suggest, I actually did have a life away from the TV screen this year.

I travelled to Europe. I performed with two choral groups. I was on the planning committee for my high school reunion (which took place in September) and on the fund-raising committee for one of my choral groups.  Hell, I lost over 30 pounds this year, and you can't do that by just sitting on your butt in front of the TV!

But the fact that I have 10 favorite binge-watches to write about clearly indicates that I binged more than 10 series this year.  Then again, there was a lot to choose from - and I  still didn't even get around to watching any of the following: Dear White People, She's Gotta Have It, Godless, The OA, Stranger Things, Thirteen Reasons Why, Wormwood, I Love Dick.  The ones I got to, but didn't like so much?  I'll just leave that to your imagination.

Here are the series that kept me glued to the screen and the couch for extended periods of time this year, in ascending order of preference:

10. National Treasure (Hulu)

This four-part British miniseries could not be more timely - a moody, complex drama about a beloved comedy star (Robbie Coltrane) whose life falls apart after women from his past accuse him of sexual assault. It's not without distracting flaws, however. There are far too many artsy-fartsy flourishes (tolling bells on the soundtrack or actors' faces obscured by shadows or washed in blue light at the most intense moments), and the have-it-both-ways finale is, frankly, infuriating. But a quartet of superb actors in the lead roles carry the day. In addition to Coltrane, there's Julie Walters as his long-suffering spouse, Andrea Riseborough as the estranged daughter who doubts his innocence, and Tim McInnerny as the former comedy partner determined to preserve the duo's reputation and legacy.

MVP: Walters, who is the quiet soul of the series. Her transformation from supportive wife to a fed-up woman seeking her own peace is rendered with exceptional delicacy.

9. Transparent, Season 4 (Amazon)

Lots of family secrets were spilled in this year's installment of Transparent. Unfortunately, they'd already been revealed to the audience via flashbacks over the previous two seasons - only the characters themselves had to catch up.  Anti-climactic and repetitive as it was, Season 4 still managed some engrossing drama from the family's trip to Israel and its thematic meditations on the meanings of homeland and boundaries.  Sadly, the sexual harassment allegations against Jeffrey Tambor have cast an uncertain shadow over the future of the series, but showrunner Jill Soloway and her cast continued their tradition of fine work in this fourth season.

Best Character Development:  Josh (Jay Duplass) finally came to terms with his past and forgave his mother - long overdue growth for an especially frustrating, emotionally stunted character.  Sarah remains, however, The Worst Pfeffernan, so let's hope there's some maturity and redemption ahead for her if/when Season 5 comes along. (I was relieved to see Amy Landecker admit in an interview this year that even she is fed up with Sarah's narcissism.)

8. Master of None, Season 2 (Netflix)

The sophomore season of Aziz Anzari's series was ambitious but uneven.  Ansari clearly watched a lot of Italian films during the show's hiatus, but he mostly missed the point of them.  The season opener, an homage to DeSica's Bicycle Thieves, is almost offensive in equating Dev's lost cell phone to the stolen bicycle that prevents a man in post-war Rome from being able to support his family.  And his putative romance with a Italian woman is too precious by half.  But the "Religion" and "Thanksgiving" episodes are shining examples of what Ansari does best: affectionate, forgiving depictions of the differences between young adults and their parents on matters of belief and behavior that invariably end on a hopeful note.

Best Episode:  "Religion," which depicts his mother's deep sadness over her son's failure to follow the tenets of Islam. It's at once specific to Muslims and universal enough to touch everyone who's had a falling out with their parents over religion. This Catholic girl got teary-eyed over the parallel between Dev's story and my own life - both of us had disappointed our mothers by refusing to accept their lovingly offered legacy of a belief system to help us through the tough times in our lives. In the end Dev finally opens and reads the Quaran his mother gave him when he went off to college. For my part, I returned to the Catholic Church a few years back, and have never regretted it.

7. Feud: Bette and Joan (FX, Amazon)

Worth watching mainly for Jessica Lange's fearless portrayal of Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon's relatively restrained take on Bette Davis.  Plus the behind-the-scenes dirt on the tumultuous making of What Every Happened to Baby Jane ? is wickedly delicious fun.  However, I take exception to the thickness with which Ryan Murphy lays on the whole "tragedy of the discarded aging actress" shtick, particularly with regard to Crawford  Maybe the reason Joan Crawford had trouble finding decent roles (and friends) later in life wasn't because her youth and looks were gone. Maybe it was because she was a mean, unstable drunk and a genuine pain in the ass.

Biggest Load of BS:  Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) tells an interviewer that Crawford's stunt of faking a respiratory illness to shut down production on Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte was "pretty great!"  She then goes on to mourn the injustice of Joan being discarded by the studios in middle-age. My strong suspicion is that the real Joan Blondell would have seen this for the highly unprofessional tantrum that it was.  Also, see my comments above.

6. Project Runway, Season 16 (Lifetime)

I didn't even know Project Runway was still on the air till I signed up for Sling TV and found it alive and kicking on the Lifetime Channel. I discovered it just in time to watch part 1 of the finale live, and soon caught up on the entire season.  It remains the most satisfying and fun of television's competitions shows. (The high-adrenaline stress levels of Amazing Race have been always been too much for me, and watching Top Chef only led me to excessive nighttime snacking, frustrated by my inability to taste the winning concoctions.)  With Project Runway, however, I can fully experience how stunning and (usually) deserving the winning creations are. Plus I revel in the quirky eccentricities of the participants - which this year included a pair of highly dramatic identical twin sisters and a finalist who repeatedly cranked out cropped tops over drawstring pants that inexplicably earned the judges' love week after week. (He didn't win, though.)

Best Moment:  The Season 16 winner, Kentaro, plays a piece of music for Tim Gunn that he has composed to accompany his runway show.
GUNN:  That's beautiful! What inspired that?
KENTARO:  I found a dead cat on the street and I buried it.  When I put my ear to the ground where I buried the cat, this is what the earth sounded like.
Need I tell you that Gunn's reaction shot is absolutely priceless?

5. Bojack Horseman, Season 4

There must have been the usual Hollywood satire, bad animal puns, and general silliness in this season of Bojack Horseman. But all I can remember now is the bold, devastating way it dug into the title character's long-suppressed family trauma.  Yes, this is still a cartoon series about an alcoholic former sitcom star who is also a horse.  But it's also a painfully accurate depiction of family dysfunction and how it gets passed down to each generation.  I can't explain that to you, but trust me, it feels miraculous. And as sad as it sounds, there are just enough goofy riffs on pop culture in each episode to keep you from tuning out in despair.

Best Episode You Haven't Heard About:  It wasn't all about the Horseman family in season 4; in the ninth episode, "Ruthie," we also got a glimpse into the wounded soul of Bojack's former agent, Princess Caroline (brilliantly voiced by Amy Sedaris). The episode opens many years in the future with her great-great-granddaughter telling classmates the story of how Caroline was able to bounce back from the worst day of her life.  It's loaded with witticisms so finely honed that you may not catch them all without a repeat viewing. (A sample: "I take a licking and keep on ticking - like a lollipop with Tourette's!") But the final, surprise twist in the story will break your heart, 

4. The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)

Hulu released The Handmaid's Tale in once-a-week episodes rather than dropping all ten parts on a single day.  But I went back and watched the entire series again over the course of a couple of days - and if you thought the series was scary in weekly, one-hour installments, you have no idea how terrifying it can be for four hours at a pop. Bingeing the series only intensifies the feeling of queasy dread from watching day-to-day life under an inescapable totalitarian regime.  There were a couple of dud episodes in the middle where the writers felt the need to give us backstories on the male characters, but where the series was true to Margaret Atwood's novel, it succeeded brilliantly.  The cinematography and production design combined for some memorably chilling visuals. Elizabeth Moss and Ann Dowd were the standouts in a universally fine cast, both giving performances of carefully modulated restraint that made their emotional outburst moments all the more powerful.

Worst Idea:  Hulu greenlighting The Handmaid's Tale for a second season.  Season One ends on the same ambiguous note as Atwood's novel, and would have been perfect if they'd left it there.  Whenever the series has veered too far from its source material, it's been noticeably weaker.  I don't have high hopes for the next season - this is entirely too hard an act to follow.

3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)

This ambitious comedy from the creators of The Gilmore Girls is a triumph of both personality and place.  It conjurs up 1950s Manhattan in glorious detail, with an apparently bottomless production budget and a soundtrack heavy on charming, period-appropriate novelty tunes.  And it heralds the birth of a star, both within the story and within its cast.  Rachel Brosnahan breezes into the role of Midge Maisel - a pampered Jewish housewife who unwittingly becomes a notorious stand-up comic  like she's been waiting for it her whole life. Drunk on Kosher wine after her husband leaves her for his secretary, Midge stumbles into a Greenwich Village nightclub on open-mike night and wows the crowd with an bawdy, impromptu comic monologue on her predicament.  Brosnahan - a heretofore serious dramatic actress with no stand-up experience - is stunning in the role, channeling the energy and timing of the great screwball comediennes while bringing a wholly original resilience and nerve of her own.  In her hands, Mrs. Maisel is, hands down, the television character I wanted to spend the most time with this year. In a field of deadly serious streaming channel dramas, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a blessedly breezy, merry-go-round ride of a show.

Best Real Estate:  The Maisels' Upper West side "classic six" apartment is the home of my dreams.  

2. The Crown, Season 2 (Netflix)

This season of The Crown covers the years of 1957-1963, and let's just say that the material lacks the glamour and pageantry of Season One - no coronations, state funerals or great loves derailed by the Church of England here.  Even so, its overarching theme of a monarchy adapting itself to the modern age is mostly well-developed and enlightening, despite one speciously awful episode involving a visit from the Kennedys.  (That episode alone kept The Crown from achieving the top position on my list.)

There's a lot of Prince Phillip's backstory this year, giving Matt Smith a chance to shine. (And also proving that no matter how a big a jerk The Crown makes Phillip out to be, the real-life Duke of Edinburgh is so much worse - just read these stories! Yikes!) There's also some startlingly sexy stuff between Princess Margaret and her bad-boy husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, played with devilish confidence by Matthew Goode.

Best Episode: In "Vergangenheit", Alex Jenning's Duke of Windsor resurfaces to ask the Crown for a government post in which he can serve his country. Unfortunately, the Queen has just obtained the classified documents which prove he colluded with Hitler in a plot to regain his throne. The episode briefly resurrects the sort of goofy frivolity that made the Duke and Duchess a reliable source of comic relief in Season 1. (The highlight is a party for their pug, Trooper, with the servants lined up to sing "Happy Birthday."). But it climaxes with Elizabeth's lacerating take-down of her uncle in which she denies him permission to return to England. One of many exemplary scenes this season for Claire Foy, it's an especially shocking moment in light of Season 1's sympathetic treatment of the Duke - as final and dismissive as if the Queen had lowered an ax on his head. The episode ends with a photo montage of the real-life Duke and Duchess smiling and yucking it up with the Fuhrer, just in case you had any doubts about its historical accuracy. Really powerful, really damning stuff.  On the bright side, we also see the beginning of Elizabeth's friendship with American evangelist Billy Graham, a surprising, touching (and also historically accurate) insight into the Queen's devotion to her Christian faith.

1. Alias Grace (Netflix)

I devoured this entire 5 1/2 hour miniseries in one day, because I literally could. Not. STOP watching it.

It certainly was a great year for author Margaret Atwood on streaming television..  Although The Handmaid's Tale got all the glamour and glory, this is the superior Atwood adaptation (just as the novel on which it is based is significantly better than The Handmaid's Tale.)  It circles quietly around the question of whether its title character is guilty of murdering her employer and his mistress and resolves in an entirely surprising way.  Although it is set in the late 19th century, it addresses issues which have come to be every bit as relevant to modern audiences as those in The Handmaid's Tale (the immigrant experience, reproductive rights) but in lighter, less obvious tones.

The series preserves Atwood's first-person narrative structure by allowing Grace (Sarah Gadon) to tell her story to a doctor (Edward Holcroft) over several days and meetings, parceling out the details with an expert storyteller's control.  Gadon plays Grace as deceptively shy and reserved, but she controls the narrative, giving the doctor just enough to tantalize and captivate him, keeping some of the truths and the darkest parts for herself (and the viewers, via her voiceovers in the brief scenes between the doctor's visits.)

Few film or television adaptations of novels are as satisfying as their source material - or at least not satisfying in the same way.  But the series Alias Grace (which was written by Atwood herself, along with director Sarah Polley) represents a new, high bar in literary adaptation: true to its source, with a heightening and intensifying of the themes that make it relevant to a contemporary audience.  It is not to be missed.

The Margaret Atwood cameo:  She's a snooty, hypocritical churchgoer in Episode Four. Blink and you'll miss her.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary - Final Entry

My final trip to the Chicago International Film Festival started with some minor drama - suburban trains were running late due to track construction, I had lost my admission ticket to the afternoon's screening - but all was eventually resolved.  I bypassed the energizing walk along the river and took a cab, which deposited me at the front of the AMC 21 Theater in record time, and the friendly, efficient CIFF volunteer staff replaced my ticket with little fanfare.

The inconveniences were well worth the trip.  The final film on my agenda, In the Fade, may be the best of the four I saw at the festival this year.

I know Diane Kruger has been a steady presence in films and television for the last fifteen years or so. But before yesterday, if you'd asked me what she'd done, the only role I could have brought to mind was Bridget von Hammesmark, the doomed German actress in Inglorious Basterds. That all changes now; Kruger gives a stunning, ferocious performance here as a grieving, traumatized woman whose Turkish immigrant husband and young son are killed by white supremacist bombers.  She won the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year and - depending on how this film is received when it opens in the U.S. in December - she could be an Oscar nominee. (She certainly should be.)

The handful of reviews published so far for In the Fade (from other festivals where it has appeared this year) are almost universally laudatory towards Kruger, but dismissive of the film as a whole, calling it formulaic and predictable.  I can't agree, and I don't share those critics' jaded reaction to the extended courtroom scenes in the middle of the film.  I found the rhetoric employed by the bombers' defense attorney to be unnervingly evocative of the debased political discourse we've seen in our own country as late, while the prosecuting attorney's passionate plea for common sense and decency felt especially cathartic. That timely relevance made for some pretty riveting viewing.

Through those courtroom, scenes, Kruger is a powder keg of barely controlled fury and horror - you can't take your eyes off her. The actress navigates all the stages of grief, despair, trauma, vengefulness, and resignation with impressive emotional stamina.  Her character is equal parts broken-hearted and bad-ass - a tricky kind of duplicity to pull off, but Kruger dives deep to find the character's shattered soul and makes every step of her journey heartbreakingly transparent.

The denouement here is shocking and depressing as hell (and I won't give it away), but the trip there is gripping and powerful.  I give the credit equally to Kruger and her director, Faith Akin, whose earlier work I haven't seen but am determined to seek out now.

In the Fade is Germany's official submission for the 2018 foreign-language Oscar.  I still think BPM is film to beat for the trophy, but I full expect to see this one on the final list of nominees come January.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary, Part 2

The difference between attending the festival on a weekend and attending on a weekday is all in the audience.  Weekends bring a mixed crowd of young-to-middle-aged filmgoers.  On a late Tuesday morning, the audience is dominated by affluent older women. While waiting on line for the first matinee, I am surrounded by: precisely, expensively bobbed silver haircuts; capes and jackets that appear to be a Gold Coast boutique's riff on Chico's outerwear; emphatically delivered opinions on books ("A Gentlemen in Moscow" is, apparently, required reading) and Vanessa Redgrave (who "is absolutely beautiful and does nothing about it," and is "at least 83!'). Editorial comment: Redgrave turned 80 this year - but it does seem like she's been around forever!

Anyway, the first film of the day is Barrage, a tense family drama in which Isabelle Huppert and Lolita Chammah (Huppert's real-life daughter) play a long-estranged mother and daughter competing for the affections of Chammah's young daughter (Themis Pauwels).

Barrage is Luxembourg's official submission for the Oscars' Foreign Language film trophy, and I suspect that is because: 1) Luxembourg is a small country with a small film industry and not much else to submit; or 2) the presence of Huppert mere et fille gives the film an aura of prestige that it wouldn't have earned otherwise.

It's not that the film is bad, exactly.  It's well -acted and engrossing, but not especially revelatory.  Chammah shows up after years away to reclaim the daughter she left with her controlling mother.  The two slowly bond on a trip to a family chalet in the woods, where Chammah decides to discard the pills she keeps to 'keep dark thoughts away.' (Huppert is a supporting player here with a relatively small role.)

There's a muddled, muted feeling to the proceedings - the stakes are never too high, the consequences never too dire - and the dialogue among Chammah, Huppert and Pauwels is suggestive and alllusive, rather than explicit, about long-simmering family conflicts.  All of which is admirable to a point, and not unusual for a European film. But sometimes you really long for something about these people and their anger to be made startlingly clear. Maybe that's the result of my American conditioning or maybe it's a valid criticism; I'm still trying to work that out.

There's also a bizarre dream sequence awkwardly inserted late in the film, of which director Laura Schroeder admitted, in the post-screening Q&A, that she didn't really know whose point of view is represented (an odd comment from a writer/director).  Still Schroeder was so earnest and sweet, especially when admitting that she had stayed for the final screening of her film because she loved Chicago too much to leave earlier, that I find it difficult to be hard on her.   I wish her well, but I don't expect to see Barrage on the Oscar shortlist.

The other film I saw was God's Own Country which marks the promising debut of director/screenwriter Francis Lee.  It's been widely touted as a British Brokeback Mountain, a comparison which I guess was inevitable for a film about two young men who fall in love while working outside with sheep.  In truth, it's a far different story - more about how a good relationship forces its young, unfocused protagonist to grow up and deal with the responsibilities of his life than about furtive, forbidden passion. And without giving too much away, it's far more hopeful than the earlier film.

Johnny (Jason O'Connor) is a frustrated and lonely young man, working the family farm alone as a result of his father's debilitating stroke - and handling his duties none too well. His life is a blur of drunken nights, furtive assignations with other closeted young men, and stand-offs with a father who has no patience with his son's lazy carelessness.

Enter a Romanian migrant worker brought in to to help Johnny on the farm. Alec Sacarenu is handsome with soulful, chocolate brown eyes and his character, Gheorge, is as wise, gentle and patient as Johnny is adolescent and mercurial.  The two fall into a physical relationship while out and away in the hills; upon their return, the relationship deepens. There are further plot developments which force Johnny to come to grips with his life and his desires.  I'm not about to deliver spoilers here, but let's just say it all plays out to a satisfactory conclusion, although not without obstacles to be overcome along the way.

Nothing surprising there, but the journey benefits from Lee's handling of atmosphere and his eye for lovingly rendered details of the rural life and landscape.  Cinematographer Joshua James Richards creates beautiful shots of moody, gray Yorkshire skies that enforce Johnny's sense of bleakness and loneliness. The cast also includes a quiet, beautiful performance by an almost unrecognizable Gemma Jones as Johnny's steadfast mother.

My experience of the film festival isn't just about the films, it's also about being in Chicago.  I'm in the city infrequently these days; to my horror, I've become one of those suburbanites who rarely wanders into Chicago and limits her visits mostly to well-traveled venues.  Still, on a crisp, sunny October morning, there is no better sight than that from the Riverwalk. I strolled all the way from Wells Street to the east side of Michigan Avenue on Tuesday morning.  The Riverwalk was quiet - a few joggers, a scattering of tourists with cameras, the cafes and bars not yet open for business - and the magnificence of the architecture along the river was splendid to see against a brilliantly blue sky. It set the tone for my day and made me happy.  The films I saw were just the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My Chicago International Film Festival Diary (Part 1)

I kept a long-standing promise to myself this year, and actually scheduled a week off work around the Chicago International Film Festival.  So far, I have four films on my agenda with the option to spontaneously head into the city for anything else that strikes my fancy.  Here's my first report.

I headed to the River East AMC theater for the first time on Sunday - a cool, cloudy day following a Saturday deluge of heavy rain.  The Chicago River had spilled over its banks and splashed into the outdoor cafes along the city's Riverwalk, which were closed and ghostly quiet that morning.  

The audience was also surprisingly sparse at the late morning screening of BPM (also known as 120 Battements Par Minute in France). Director Robin Campillo's drama about AIDS in early '90s Paris took the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes this year, and it's not hard to see why. The film is stirring and heartbreaking in equal measures, with very strong performances and expressionistic visual imagery that is at once sad, profound and beautiful.

The film opens at a meeting of ActUp Paris,the Gallic counterpoint of the USA's radical anti-AIDS activist group.  A earnest young man looks directly into the camera and outlines the rules of order for the group's weekly meetings; it's soon reveled that he's talking to a group of new members, but the scene also helps the audience comprehend the many fast-paced, debate-filled meeting scenes that follow. 

This same character is seen throughout the film on the edges of the group's actions (protest marches, disruptions of speeches and public events to throw fake blood or the ashes of dead AIDS victims on 'all talk/no action' scientists and politicians). He never seems to really participate, but rather looks on his fellow activists with wonder and obvious admiration.  He is clearly the stand-in for Campillo, who directs BPM with a cool, documentarian's touch. It's full of righteously angry characters given to fiery debates, yet the film itself never feels angry or polemical.  It does, however, have energy and a well-calibrated rhythmic intensity as it cycles through scenes of Act Up meetings, dance clubs, and intimate encounters between the two lovers at the story's center.  These particular types of scenes recur at predictable intervals, and yet the shape and focus of those scenes evolves as the stakes become more desperate. 

The stand-out in the cast is Nahuel Perez Biscayart, who portrays one of the most spirited members of Act Up  - and whose illness progresses most quickly.  All the young actors are good, but it's Biscayart whose presence and energy light up every scene he's in.  

Most of the audience sat through the entire closing credits crawl before leaving the theater, which for me is proof of BPM's emotional power; you can't get up and walk away from it easily.  This is France's submission for next year's Best Foreign-Language film Oscar. I'm going out on a limb and predicting that it will not only make the nomination's shortlist, but that it will actually win.

By the time BPM concluded, the sun had come out in Chicago.  I had nearly two hours to kill before another Metra train would head back to the northwest suburbs, so I took my time strolling down Michigan Avenue and State Street, popping into stores along the way.  It was maddening.  As is usual for a Sunday, the streets and stores were filled with tourists. Only these weren't the usual folks who drive in from Indiana or Wisconsin for the weekend; today's tourist trade was largely European or Asian and they were clamoring to scoop up clearance-priced designer handbags at Macy's, bargain-priced gewgaws at Nordstrom Rack, chocolate at Dylan's Candy Bar, makeup at Sephora.... you name it. Their near-manic quest to scoop up American consumer goods was startling.

Later, as I struggled to cross the DuSable Bridge, squeezing myself between out-of-towners snapping selfies in which the Trump building would loom ominously behind them, I had an uncharitable thought. "These damn tourists...." the thought began, and spiraled downward from there.

When I had finally settled in with a bowl of tomato basil soup at the Corner Bakery on Wacker Drive - blessedly uncrowded in mid-afternoon and largely tourist-free - I was able to see the irony in my irritation. Surely someone in Prague... and in Rome... and Verona... and Venice... had felt the same away about ME this past summer!