- This story, about a a man who found a baby on the New York City subway, and who would end up adopting that baby with his partner, is amazing. Even more amazing? That the same judge who suggested they adopt the baby, would later marry the two men. Even more amazing?! Well, just read it.
- I can't possibly be the only one who's a little tired of being told how much better French parents are at raising their kids, right? Here's a story about a mother sending her 3-year-old to preschool in a T-shirt that says "I am a bomb," and "Jihad born 11 September." That's probably not the world's smartest decision, but the craziest thing about it: The mother, and the uncle who bought the kid the T-shirt, are facing fines and possible imprisonment. Because a kid wore a T-shirt.
- I've said it before and I'll say it again: I'm glad I didn't grow up in a time of social media, and I'm nervous about helping my son navigate it when the time comes. Here's an interesting look at how parents can help (which, I'm sure, is totally lame).
- As someone who writes for a living, I definitely don't think there's anything mystical about it, and I think making creativity a simple, everyday thing for kids is not only a smart approach, it's the most honest one.
- Sometimes, when people are arguing over whether government-supported preschool is a good idea, it's just best to watch Jon Stewart.
Need a Friday pick-me-up? How about a video of lab chimpanzees stepping on natural ground for the first time, or tasting fresh air for the first time? Amazing, heart-lifting stuff. It's sad, too, of course, but now that the chimps are in Chimp Haven, it's pretty clear they're in chimp heaven, too.
It's always a good sign when a film starts out with stunning opening credits. The down side? When that’s the movie’s high point, the disappointment feels even greater than it should.
Of course, in simply choosing to create a new back story about how the infamous humbug wizard traveled from Omaha to Oz, Walt Disney Pictures set itself a high bar to clear. From the moment the visually groundbreaking novel appeared in 1900, The Wizard of Oz has exerted a cultural impact as oversized as the phantom head that appears above the wizard's Emerald City throne. From L. Frank Baum's original series to the smash-hit revisionist prequel Wicked a century later (which spawned its own successful book series for adults, not to mention a behemoth Broadway tuner), Oz runs deep. And although they all owe a debt to each other, no singular version has such a grip on our collective consciousness than MGM's 1939 movie musical, which stunned audiences with its Technicolor palette, witty-yet-moving score and, of course, a long list of legendary performances. That film took a roster of already beloved characters and made them immortal.
Judy Garland's star-making vehicle is clearly where Disney turned to for inspiration with Oz: The Great and Powerful, its own would-be prequel. But adding to such a storied legacy is no small feat, and despite some appropriately inspired visuals from director Sam Raimi, the rest of this uneven film melts into mediocrity.
The trouble starts with a shoddily constructed script by Mitchell Kapner and David-Lindsay Abaire. From there, it inexplicably sinks further into mush courtesy of washed-out performances from a list of actors all capable of much better. James Franco (as the slippery prestidigitator), Michelle Williams (as Glinda the good witch), and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis (as a pair of not-quite-yet-fully-wicked witches) deliver flat performances. Franco might have the looks to attract most women, but his character’s self-satisfied and semi-stoned behavior makes it hard to believe he could sustain any con for long. And considering the witches are just as central to the plot, it seems strange that we don’t get more scenes with their interactions. Williams in particular is strikingly bland, and Weisz seems always on the verge of stealing the show without ever quite getting the screen time. It’s hard to shake the notion that we’re missing short, key scenes depicting the sisters’ plotting, or Glinda’s rivalry with them. Maybe they ended up on the cutting-room floor, in favor of more action scenes with the truly scary flying baboons. (If you ever had nightmares from Margaret Hamilton and her brood of actors in monkey suits, wait till you see what Raimi’s CGI team whip up. Leave kids under 9 or 10 at home.)
That’s not to say the film's irredeemable. No, it's got just enough lovely touches to make us long for the film that could have been. Like its predecessor, The Great and Powerful starts with a first act set in the sepia-toned Great Plains. As we meet Oscar Z. Diggs (whose first two initials conveniently give him a nickname identical to the land he’ll come to rule), we also meet a few characters who will soon show up, in another guise, over the rainbow—like Oscar’s assistant, Frank (Zach Braff, a highlight), who becomes Finley, a cute winged monkey.
After Oscar gets sucked into a terrifying tornado (in a hot-air balloon apparently made of tungsten, given its durability) and transitions into Oz, Raimi unveils one of the film's most inspired moments. Not only does it segue sweetly into Oz's saturated color palette, but the picture's aspect ration shifts, too: The image, previously much more square in shape, slowly expands into widescreen glory. It’s an inspired way to announce: We’re not in Kansas anymore. Coming on the heels of the gorgeously animated opening credits (a category, by the way, for which there really oughtta be an Academy Award)—with everyone’s names appearing in a black-and-white puppet theater—it's clear that Raimi has a great affection for the source material.
Alas, however, the flat characterizations and nonsensical plot developments undermine the visual magic. And where’s the whimsy? It’s fine that Disney didn’t want to try to make a musical, but CGI special effects are not a substitute for the whimsy delivered by Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Burt Lahr. All the missed chances of the entire enterprise can be summed up in one inadvertently meta scene: When Oscar meets the Munchkins, they launch into the film’s lone song to Glinda's (and our) delight. Just as this moment of joy picks up steam, Franco barges into the frame, hollering, “Stop!” And they do.
Oz: The Great and Powerful? What a humbug.
Late last year, we B.E.A.T.S. (Bringing Everyone a Tremendous Smile) has won the Red Cross Hero Award for Youth Good Samaritan. Acey started B.E.A.T.S. to help sick children and honor his father Ty, who died on stage before Acey was born in 2003’s tragic Rhode Island nightclub fire. Today, nine-year-old Acey plays the drums and brings musically themed donations (mainly drum sticks, practice pads and iTunes gift cards) to the Naperville and Plainfield neighborhood’s Edward Hospital through B.E.A.T.S. As Illinois’ Legos for Leukemia rep, he also distributes sets of the bricks to children in the hospital.about a few kids who are affecting positive change in their environments. We’re happy to hear and pass on the news that Acey Longley of
Through his charities and volunteer work, Acey says he tries to make people smile. His playful spirit brightens the moods of those around him, like one woman he cracked up while he worked at a local food pantry over the summer. “She just was laughing so hard,” says Acey’s mom, Heidi. “Those are the things that really help these people through these hardships.”
On his B.E.A.T.S and Legos for Leukemia visits, Acey travels from room to room interacting with patients and looking to make them laugh. And though excited about the Red Cross award, he’s more focused on how heightened visibility will affect his charitable ventures than on how it will affect him personally. “It meant to my projects that hopefully more people would donate and I would be able to help more sick kids,” Acey says. “I felt like my dad would be really proud of me.”
Twenty-two local high school students will soon get the chance to tread the boards at the prestigious Goodman Theatre. They’re finalists in Chicago’s August Wilson Monologue Competition—and depending on how they do Monday, they might be headed to the contest’s national finals in New York City.
The nationwide competition calls for high school actors to perform two- to three-minute monologues from August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” plays. Those ten works by the legendary playwright describe the African-American experience across each decade of the 20th century. “I think his legacy is an important piece of Americana,” says Derrick Sanders, assistant professor at UIC’s department of theatre and music, about Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who died in 2005.
“I think [his legacy] needs to be protected,” continues Sanders, who coordinated the competition in Chicago. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Chicago’s first-place finalist will receive a four-year partial scholarship to the University of Illinois in Chicago. Meanwhile, the city’s top three finalists will fly to New York City in May, where they’ll deliver their monologues at the August Wilson Theater, and they also receive prize money: $500, $250 and $100 (for first, second and third place). Schools new to the competition also receive August Wilson’s full Century Cycle for their libraries, courtesy of UIC.
Sitting in the darkened nosebleeds at UIC’s theatre February 11, I watched almost 60 high school students perform stirring monologues from Wilson’s compendium at the semi-finals. Most walked in, greeted the judges with cheery smiles, and then disappeared fully into their characters, sometimes shouting their lines or sobbing between them. Varied performances made monologues (even those acted out once, twice or three times before by different students) feel poles and personalities apart. Some actors made surprising choices that paid off: specifically, one young woman performed the part of Shealy, a male character from Jitney, with convincing flair.
To whom the monologue belongs matters less than a student’s connection to its message. Sanders advises students pick one that feels honest to them—that they identify with, or which has elements they recognize from their environments—and fire themselves into it. “It’s kind of like jazz, or anybody that plays an instrument,” he says. “It’s really like trying to speak your spirit, your truth through those words…like the great musicians do, through that instrument.”
The city finals for the August Wilson Monologue Competition—Monday, March 11 at 6pm—are free and open to the public at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St (312-443-3800). For more info on the event, also sponsored by the League of Chicago Theatres, visit the league's website at chicagoplays.com/august-wilson-monologue-competition.html.
Kids definitely won’t feel afraid of the dark at the Field Museum’s newest interactive exhibit, “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence.” In fact, they’ll love it, and everything else the dim theater-esque lighting enables them to see: an entire world that comes alive when there’s no light.
Children and parents will marvel at the immersive environment the museum has created just off the main hall. They’re greeted by an enormous lightning bug, 210 times its normal size, with a backside that slowly brightens. Next to it, two spotlights pointed at matching plates on the wall simulate a female firefly’s flickering pattern and a male’s reaction to it. Clicking the flashlight when prompted elicits the light version of a “hubba hubba” from potential husbands. It’s the first in a series of interactive activities that will teach your kids the whys and hows of glowing flora and fauna without boring them.
The exhibit is split into zones that highlight certain creatures. A New Zealand “cave” in one corner beckons kids to stick their heads inside a black egg to observe underwater glowworms. There’s also a footbridge that transports you to a Caribbean bay lit by bioluminescent organisms. Walk the area outlined on the floor and watch tiny radiant specks follow your footsteps like a cloud of ethereal gnats.
Technology plays a role in the fun, too. Embedded iPads, which explain displays in more detail, are planted throughout the exhibit. There's also an interactive screen that allows kids to shine a spotlight on parts of the Cayman Islands’ coral-rich Bloody Bay Wall in the light or at night; while its point is to illustrate the difference the daylight makes, they'll get a thrill from finding turtles and snakes hidden in the darkness.
Walking through the exhibit, it's easy to overhear excited kids pointing things out to each other. Though they may not be able to easily pronounce big words such as bioluminescence and biofluorescence, they'll learn a lot, in a way that engages them, about why fish, insects and fungi need their nightlights. In the deep ocean rooms, kids will likely recognize frightening fish—and perhaps disagree with the quote on the wall: “On every deep-sea haul, something interesting comes up … animals no one could have ever dreamed of.” All respect to the man who said that (Field Museum assistant curator of fishes Leo Smith), but kids know these fish from Finding Nemo—and they’ll run to check them out, preserved in jars, in the last room.
"Creatures of Light" runs through September 8 at The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive (312-922-9410, fieldmuseum.org). For more details about specific creatures and features in the exhibit, check out our preview.
Some professions go together like peanut butter and jelly: Singer-songwriter. Model-slash-actress. Roller rink owner and movie producer.
That last combination’s decidedly less common, but accurately describes the occupations of Tinley Park’s Carey Westburg. Owner of Tinley Park Roller Rink, Westburg balanced his business with show business to produce My Lucky Elephant, out now on VOD, DVD and iTunes. Set in Thailand, My Lucky Elephant follows the story of an orphan boy who finds a friend in a painterly pachyderm. Granted the Dove seal of approval, the movie’s been lauded for its adventuresome spirit and presentation of family values. “We wanted to make a movie that you can share with your whole family,” says Westburg. “And not have to worry about ‘Oh God, do I have to turn this off, do I have to mute the sound, is there something violent here? Is there a swear word there?’”
As for Westburg, don’t expect an identity crisis anytime soon; he’s found strong ties between suburban skating and moviemaking. “Roller-skating is an extension of family entertainment. We’ve been in the skating business for over 50 years. We cater to just about everyone,” he says. “We try to provide a nice, safe, clean family environment for everyone, and making movies is an extension of that. Now we have a much broader scope of reaching out to different families.”
Look for more from him and his team in the future, especially as they’ve found their calling matches up with the call of the wild. “We’re going to definitely stay in the family genre, making kids' movies that are also appealing to all family members,” he says. “With the animals and exotic places, I think we found our niche…we’d like to go back to Thailand and do another family movie.” Not a bad way to spend a Chicago winter.
This snowstorm may suggest otherwise, but the Chicago winter season is soon coming to an end. Know why? Just about every outdoor ice skating rink has closed. Yes, this is disappointing for any cold-weather junkies out there, but don’t fret. If you’re looking to squeeze out that last ounce of winter magic, the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park (Michigan Ave & Washington St) is open for a few more days.
You’ve got until Saturday, March 9 to get your skate on. If you’ve got ice skates, it’s free. If not, you can rent a pair for $10. Simple as that. Hours: Tues-Thurs 12pm-8pm, Fri 12pm-10pm, Sat 10am-9pm.
If you can’t make it to Millennium Park this week, you can opt to ice skate indoors at the John Hancock Observatory’s synthetic ice rink. The rink is located on the 94th floor of the Hancock Center, 1,000 feet above ground. Open until April 8. $6 admission, $1 to rent skates.
You'd have to be insane to want to jump into Lake Michigan in the Ides of March, when the water is so cold the asian carp regret their invasion. And by the looks of these photos, these people probably fit the profile, especially the guy in the full Smurf body paint.
Word around town is that the Neighborhood Parents Network knows how to party. And if they don't, certainly the kids who congregated in the Cubby Bear Saturday morning do. NPN's annual Wake Up & Boogie Down fund-raiser/dance party/meet-up is probably the most fun you'll have in a Chicago bar since your kids were born.