Sunday, March 29, 2020

I WAKE UP STREAMING

It’s official — I’m superfluous!

With theaters shuttered (temporarily, we hope) due to the coronavirus, and no one going out to the movies, nobody needs to know my opinion of a movie they can stream from the privacy of their own couch.

It’s not like they have to pay to get in!

So my column in Good Times is suspended until further notice. If we, as a town/state/country/planet ever achieve normalcy again, I expect to be back on the job. But who knows how long that will take?

In the meantime, I encourage housebound film fans to boldly go into the archives of the product-delivery service of your choice — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, You Tube, Viewmaster, whatever — and explore titles from over a century of vibrant cinema.

Silent films, for instance, are astonishingly creative!  Check out anything from about the turn of the last century through the 1920s, back when the pictures were first learning to move, and they were making it all up as they went along. You’ll be amazed at their ingenuity!

Then there are Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Film Noir, MGM musicals, French New Wave, Hitchcock, Fellini, the Marx Brothers; they’re all out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Be adventurous! If something doesn’t grab you in the first 20 minutes, dial up something else. There won’t be a quiz, and there isn’t anywhere else you have to be.

Me, I’ve been catching up on movies I missed the first time around. Last night it was The Greatest Showman, an utterly berserk fantasia on the imagined life if P. T. Barnum, staged like a Hollywood musical.

Famed 19th Century opera diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) sings a power ballad. Keala Settle as the Bearded Lady leads a chorus of Barnum’s circus sideshow attractions in an empowering Millennial-style anthem.

But, hey, in the midst of it all, there’s Hugh Jackman in the top hat and ringmaster’s outfit, singing and dancing up a storm. I’m home alone — I have to have some fun!

Sure, I’d much rather be watching movies the way God intended, on a great big theater screen. And I fervently hope all this enforced home viewing doesn’t signal the end of the neighborhood movie house down the road, by giving viewers one more excuse not to interact with each other in public.

Still, there’s something to be said for watching a move with a cat on your lap — as long as she doesn’t mind the occasional popcorn kernel bouncing off her head.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

FEMME NOIR


Mayhem, matriarchy merge in entertaining Blow the Man Down

With movie theaters temporarily closed and everybody cocooning at home, the best way to see a movie right now is curled up on your own sofa. Okay, lots of us have already figured this out — there's no dress code and no assigned seating. Even better, with the rise of so many streaming platforms, there's plenty of new product out there too, just waiting to be discovered.

Just released last week on Amazon Prime, Blow The Man Down is an entertaining New England chowder of black comedy, femme-noir, and mood-making from co-writers and directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. Set in a small fishing village on the rugged Maine seacoast (is there any other kind?), the story revolves around family legacies, deep, dark secrets, and fish — lots of fish, chopped, sliced, and pan-fried.

As the story begins, most of the denizens of Easter Cove are filling up the parlor of the Connelly sisters after the funeral of their beloved and respected mother, Mary Margaret. Now, responsible older sister, Priscilla (Sophie Lowe), and her more rebellious sibling, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) — who's had to postpone her freshman year at college — have to figure out how to maintain the family home and fish market on their own.

After the sisters' private spat away from their guests — Mary Beth is so done with Easter Cove and wants out — the younger sib stomps off to the local bar, just looking for trouble. She finds it. But when the chips are down, it turns out, a girl's best friend is her sister.



Saylor and Lowe: Bundle up
 Life in Easter Cove is beautifully realized — you can almost smell the raw fish, and you might find yourself shivering from the snowy chill. (Better bundle up while you watch.) The mood is heightened by a chorus of grizzled fishermen singing sea shanties (like the title tune) deftly salted into the action. But it's the women who really run things; men are relegated to the (largely ornamental) police force, the bar, and the fishing boats.

This subtle tweaking of gender expectations gives the movie its own lively viewpoint. As the entwined dramas and dueling mysteries play out, one character notes, "Lotta people underestimate young women. That's why they get away with a lot." Women of all ages emerge as a collective force to be reckoned with in this diverting fish story of a movie.
(Read more)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

KIDDING AROUND

Children vs, grown-ups in modern Peter Pan remix Wendy

Benh Zeitlin has very specific ideas about how a movie should look and feel, and what kind of story it tells. His first movie, the dreamy, impressionistic Beasts of the Southern Wild, explored themes of childhood resilience, the power of Nature, adult frailties, and community. All of which ideas resurface in his sophomore effort, Wendy.

As the title might imply, Wendy is the filmmaker's nod to the Peter Pan legend. It's a modern remix of the story of children who refuse to grow up, relocated to an uncharted island off the southern wild of America (it was shot largely in and around Louisiana bayou country), told not from the viewpoint of Peter, but from the little girl who, along with her two brothers, is caught up in his dream of eternal childhood.

Written by Zeitlin and his sister, Eliza Zeitlin, the movie stays grounded as much as possible in everyday reality — the kids' mom runs a diner at a whistle-stop on a freight train route; they hop a slow-moving train to "fly" away — kissed with a dash of magic realism. Their take on familiar Peter Pan tropes is often deftly done, from the fate of Lost Boys who outgrow Peter's tribe, to an eerie, unsettling origin story for Captain Hook.

But trying to shoehorn his unique sensibility into the existing structure of the Pan legend seems to dampen the audacious originality displayed in Zeitlin's earlier film. How well the story works may depend on whether or not you think the idea of never growing up is a good thing.

Young Wendy (Devin France) and her twin brothers, Douglas (Gage Naquin) and James (Gavin Naquin), have grown up in the diner run by their mama (Shay Walker). The train rattles by every night, and when they see a giggling figure scampering over the boxcar roofs one night, luring them to come away, they clamber on board.

He is Peter (Yashua Mack, a native of Antigua with a head of bouncy rasta dreads), who leads them to a mysterious volcanic island far out below the train trestle where he and his tribe of unsupervised children play all day long and never age.
(Read more)


Having tinkered so shamelessly with the dans macabre between Captain Hook and Peter Pan for my own purposes in Alias Hook, I'm always fascinated to see what others bring to the story. And it strikes me that, in the end, the Zeitlins make the same mistake as plenty of other recent Peter Pan retellers — promoting this half-baked notion that Hook should just let go of his grumpy adult perceptions and embrace the unalloyed joy of spending the rest of eternity playing pirates with a gang of mangy boys.

Hey, wouldn't that be fun?

Here's what my James Hook has to say about that:

It is my fate to be trapped here forever in a nightmare of childish fancy with that infernal, eternal boy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

COMEDY AND CONSEQUENCE

Austen's ferocious wit fuels savvy, stylish Emma

You never think of a Jane Austen novel as excoriating. Hers is a genteel world of flimsy, gossamer gowns, impeccable breeding, and humorous observation of delicate romantic complications, or so we believe.

But her fourth novel, Emma, while set in the same milieu of tasteful gentility, and written with Austen's familiar ironic asperity, also bristles with savage social satire on upper-class idleness and the damage their thoughtless antics inflict on the people in whose lives they meddle.

The new movie adaptation of Emma, combines a savvy script from Eleanor Catton with a scrupulously assembled visual narrative from music video director Autumn de Wilde, in her impressive feature debut.

It's a more overtly comic version of Austen than usual — a pack of boarding school girls march in and out of scenes like a flock of giggling birds; eyes dart from side to side, or pop wide open in elaborate double-takes; baleful servants perform increasing complex choreography in long-suffering silence on the periphery of the action.

Taylor-Joy and Nighy: idle amusement
But when the filmmakers zero in on the machinations of their heroine, Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), they are unsparing in their critique of her folly.

The rich don't get much more idle than the Woodhouses, landed gentry with a country estate in the small village of Highbury. At 21, Emma has led a privileged life "with very little to vex her,” living with her widower father, Henry (the always welcome Bill Nighy).

Having just seen her former companion married off to an eligible widower to whom Emma had introduced her, Emma decides that arranging matches for others "is the greatest amusement in the world!" Although resistance to Emma's plans is never less than discreet (if utterly futile), we feel just how devastating the consequences can be for those unwillingly caught up in them.

Emma is not always likable in her wrong-headedness. But Taylor-Joy gradually earns our sympathy by giving Emma the grace to feel ashamed of her mistakes and outgrow them — especially after one of her attempted witticisms lands with such cruelty, it's as horrifying as any act of physical violence in Game Of Thrones.

De Wilde directs the well-heeled 1%
 Alexandra Byrne's outstanding costumes, male as well as female, are not only stunning to look at, their intricate layers — and the complicated ritual of getting in and out of them — also mirror the armor of social graces each character must assume every day in polite society. And Kave Quinn's lavish production design conveys just how well-heeled the Highbury 1% really is. Kudos all around for a very smart and stylish production.
(Read more)

Monday, March 2, 2020

THE LEGEND OF MONDAY NIGHT PIZZA

Pizza Boy to the rescue!
Blame it on Good Times.

When I first met James in his comic book store, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I had already been writing for Good Times for two years. Six months later when we moved in together, we only had one rule as we made up our freestyle new life: every Monday night, I had to do the (dreaded) Film Guide.

The Film Guide was the section in the paper that listed every movie theater in town, what new movies would be opening at each one that week, and all their showtimes. There was no iMDB in those days, so TV and newsprint ads were all I  had to go on when it came to blurbing new titles.

But the gnarly part was getting those showtimes. Way before there were personal computers (certainly not in our house), let alone FAX machines, I had to call each theater manager on the phone and scribble down (usually in pencil) every single showtime for every single movie in the course of the week — daily schedule, weekend schedule, holiday matinees, midnight movies, the works. Then I typed them on a typewriter (look it up, kids) into my master list, three pages of hard copy I delivered by hand to the GT office first thing Tuesday morning, deadline day.

With me on the phone for hours, Mondays were a little hectic around our house, especially at dinner time. One theater manager in particular never decided what he was going to play on any given week, until he knew what everybody else had booked. Some nights, I wouldn't get off the damn phone before 8 pm — by which time, I was In. No. Mood.
The yeast goes on: why mess with a good thing?

But trust my Sweetie to step into the breach! Even though he had not yet discovered the cooking gene within himself, he knew how to bake a frozen pizza. While I was stewing on the phone, he'd be in the kitchen chopping up real food — green onions, red peppers, black olives, mushrooms — and grating extra cheese.

His next move was to pop a tape into the VCR and record Jeopardy — my favorite way to chill — at 7 pm. As soon as I could finally hang up and finish typing, he would assemble his pizza, stick it in the oven, and pop a cork. (Okay, he usually didn't wait around for me for that part!)

Et Voila! Whenever I was finally ready to sit down and eat, we had hot pizza, cold bubbly, and Jeopardy! Pizza, champagne, and Jeopardy was our Monday night ritual for years — even after theaters started faxing their info to GT and I was liberated from the Film Guide. The tradition continued through the rest of our married life, and continues for me to this day. Why mess with a good thing?

It wasn't until years later that we started making our own pizzas from scratch. (Well, almost, thanks to Trader Joe's pizza dough balls.) I wouldn't have remembered how many years, except that I found the top photo above of our very first home-made pizza! It's dated November, 2003! Notice how shiny and silvery the pizza screen is. It's completely black now, untold thousands of pizzas later — and, yes, I still use it!


Sunday, February 23, 2020

TRIPLE TREAT

My love affair with Robin Hobb continues!

All three volumes in each of her trilogies are so closely linked with each other, I decided to stop reviewing the individual books, and wait until I finished all three. Reviewing one book at a time would be like writing a film review after only seeing one third of the movie!

So now, looking back with hindsight, I can say there are major changes for Fitz as the first book in the Tawny Man Trilogy, Fool’s Errand, begins, 15 years after the end of the Farseer Trilogy. At 35, Fitz is in retirement on a little plot of land, out of the limelight of Buckkeep, raising Hap, an orphan boy brought to him by itinerant minstrel and occasional bedmate, Starling. (I've never entirely trusted Starling!)

Soon enough, both former mentor, Chade, and the Fool, orbit back into his life, dragging Fitz into more courtly intrigue around the disappearance of Prince Dutiful — not Fitz's son, not exactly, but child of his body. (It's complicated.) Meanwhile, back in the realm, the entire Liveship Traders Trilogy has occurred in the intervening years, which will begin to impact the story of Fitz and Fool as this trilogy progresses.

Also of note, Fool is the tawny man in question, now passing himself off as the idle aristocrat Lord Golden, his coloring deepening, book by book, as his adventures are imprinted on his physical self and his ever-evolving psyche. Salted into the quest/adventure story arc is the wry comedy of Fitz (now calling himself Tom Badgerlock) passing himself off as Lord Golden's manservant as they surreptitiously search for Dutiful.

For all the political intrigue between the outcast Witted and the elite Skilled, and the lovely, heartbreaking exit of one of the series' most adored characters, it remains the evolution of Fitz's relationship with Fool that powers this endlessly compelling series.

Golden Fool is very much the second act in the Tawny Man Trilogy — all the plots are still simmering! And smack in the middle of it, a swirling eddy of characters and backstory from the Liveship Traders Trilogy begins to well up and seep into the story of Fitz and Fool. I was so excited! One suspicion confirmed, some questions answered, and even more intriguing questions raised. The dynamic between Fitz and Fool just keeps getting more intense —irresistibly so!

I read the Liveship books out of order, before I even started the first Fitz/Fool trilogy (Farseer), which I don't think was particularly detrimental to my enjoyment of either series. I was able to piece together a few key elements of the larger story as I went along.

But I am so glad I read the Liveship books before I started the Tawny Man Trilogy! It not only enriches the experience of reading each individual book, it sweeps the reader up in the thrilling scope of Hobb's imagination. Bit by tasty bit, the enormity of her Big Picture begins to take shape.

Okay, maybe Fool’s Fate, the third book in the Tawny Man Trilogy, is not the best book to read on a cold winter night, with our heroes slogging through impeccably rendered snow and ice across a glacier. Brrr . . .

 But in the last two paragraphs of Chapter 29, you will find my favorite single scene of the whole series so far. I dare not provide any context, leaving it for intrepid readers to discover on their own.

Suffice it to say that from the depths of insurmountable despair, the reluctant Changer engineers the Best. Change. Ever. Damn the Prophecy. Damn Fate. Damn whatever may come next.

This is what love looks like. They are so pack!

Friday, February 14, 2020

SEA CHANGE


Heads up, Shakespeare fans! Our own Santa Cruz Shakespeare has announced its lineup for this year's summer festival season — and since it revolves around two of my favorite Shakespeare plays, I could not be more excited!

As in recent summers past, the season opener will be a non-Shakespearean offering, in this case A Flea In Her Ear, the classic French farce by Georges Feydeau, from the turn of the last century. This story of marital mistrust, miscommunication, mistaken identities and reconciliation gets a spanking new adaptation by David Ives (whose adaptation of Moliere's The Liar, back in 2015, was one of the funniest productions in the company's history).

Next up will be Twelfth Night, Shakespeare's lively comedy of romantic complications when a young woman shipwrecked on a foreign shore disguises herself as a young man to seek employment. Full of swift banter, unrequited passion, even a little swordplay, it's an adroit comedy of love, gender, and identity that never goes out of style.


Cut-out poster, Pratt Institute, 2012
But I may be most excited about The Tempest, Shakespeare's last play, and the grand finale of his career, a gorgeous feast of magic and redemption. Duke Prospero, the sorcerer, is usurped by his conniving brother and exiled with his daughter to an uncharted island. With help of his spirit familiars, he causes a shipwreck that delivers his enemies into his power for a day of retribution, romance, and — ultimately — reconciliation.

The Tempest is categorized as a romance (what we might call in modern parlance magic realism), depending on magic, spells, and sorcery to advance the plot. With its scheming royals, drunken clowns, young lovers, antic, otherworldly spirits, disappearing banquets, and exuberant pageantry (as well as its undercurrent of slavery vs. freedom), its effects can be as subtle or spectacular as the playmakers can dream up. 

One previous production of the play (in the company's former incarnation as Shakespeare Santa Cruz) used Balinese shadow puppets and masks to convey the magical elements. In another, director Danny Scheie riffed on Gilligan's Island, with uneven results, but also included a magnificent Ariel, Prospero's chief magical minion, soaring above the action on a trapeze.


The Tempest a la Balinese
A more recent production, set in the Art Noveau era, emphasized the story's humanism, the burgeoning cult of Nature, and the merging of spiritualism with the supernatural.

This will be the company's fourth production of The Tempest, and its first-ever helmed by Artistic Director Mike Ryan, making his debut in the director's chair. I can't wait! Especially since my next novel (under construction as we speak) imagines the further adventures of Prospero's daughter!

The recurring themes of shipwreck and redemption in this year's playlist prompts Ryan to adopt Sea Change as this season's unofficial title. As he explains it, “All of our 2020 plays center around someone (or someones) who are shipwrecked, sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, and sometimes in both ways. These stories ask questions about how we find our way past disaster, impotence, and emotional stagnancy to find fertile ground in renewed joy, love, and hope.”

Finding our way past disaster through love and hope could not be more timely, in our current cultural climate. But, here, I'll let Mike tell you all about it himself!

Meanwhile — full steam ahead!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

ADVENTURES IN DOLLYWOOD

Hey folks, it’s all over but the shouting (and the squeals of gobsmacked surprise) at this year’s Oscars.

Who knew that Parasite would sweep four of the six categories it was nominated in, including Best Director (okay, I knew that one!), Best Picture and Best International Film (quite a double-header), as well as Best Original Screenplay. (It only lost in the Production Design and Editing categories.)

Anyway, I’m awarding myself a half point for suggesting Parasite was the likeliest spoiler in the Original Screenplay category, bringing my total to 7 1/2 correct predictions out of 10.

But even though the hoopla has died down a bit, we all know it wouldn’t be the Oscars without  — The Return of the (Dreaded) Oscar Barbies!

The Best Actress nominees in period costumes are always my favorites, so this year I decided not to even fool around with the nominees in boring modern dress.  Renee Zellweger’s mid-60s Judy (as in Garland) is just retro enough to make the cut. Besides, I knew she was going to win, so I positioned her snuggling up to the man in gold himself.

She’s flanked by Saoirse Ronan, as budding writer, Jo, in Little Women, and Cynthia Erivo as intrepid Civil War slave liberator, Harriet.

And, yes, it’s all about the props!

Monday, February 3, 2020

ONCE UPON A TIME

Whose Hollywood fairy tales will come true at this year's Academy Awards?

You want Oscar predictions? How's this: when the Academy Awards are handed out this Sunday, winners in the top categories, excluding Actress nominees, will be white men.

Sure, some random female co-producers might swarm up in the production team accepting the Best Picture award. But (aside from Amy Pascal, solo producer of Little Women) you have to rappel down to the Screenplay categories before you even find another female nominee. And if not for this year's Korean phenom, Parasite, there would be few top nominees at all of any ethnicity other than Caucasian male.

(Just take a look at the posters for this year’s nine Best Picture nominees. Four feature only white men, two contain subordinate women alongside the men, and only two — Little Women (natch) and Marriage Story — feature women prominently. Only the Parasite poster bucks the trend, with three non-Caucasian men and two women — although one of the latter, appears to be, um, dead.)

Movies are being made from more diverse viewpoints — Us, Harriet, The Farewell, Hustlers, Waves — but the Academy has still hasn't gotten the memo. Can #OscarsSoWhiteMale be far off?

Of the movies that are anointed with Oscar nominations this year, the most hotly contested races are in the top two categories, Best Picture and Best Director. By contrast, all four acting winners are pretty much locked-in, after unanimous victories at all the other awards galas, so let's start with those.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS Laura Dern, Marriage Story. Dern has a lifetime of sterling film and TV credits, she plays a tough LA divorce lawyer (a character familiar to most Academy members), and is likely to score her first win with this, her third Oscar nomination.

SUPPORTING ACTOR Brad Pitt, Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood. Who doesn't want to see Pitt deliver another one of the droll acceptance speeches he's already given for this performance in this awards season?

BEST ACTRESS Renee Zellweger, Judy. Her gutsy performance is so close to the truth of Judy Garland's persona — wry wit, nervous mannerisms, and all — and Garland's effect on her fans, that we can forgive Zellweger doing her own singing. (Not bad, just not Judy.)

BEST ACTOR Joaquin Phoenix, Joker. He's already won everything else. It's chilling that Phoenix has tapped into some kind of grim cultural zeitgeist in this origin story of the pathetic failed comic fueled by psychosis to become the creepiest supervillain in the DC Comics universe. (Talk about art imitating life.) In a just, less traumatized world, the gold would go to Antonio Banderas in Pain And Glory, the performance of the year.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon A Time     . . . In Hollywood. Of the four nominees also contending for Best Picture, Hollywood has the snappiest dialogue, coupled with a typically nervy Tarantino wish-fulfillment plot. But don't rule out Parasite, whose savage satire on wealth and class makes it the likeliest spoiler of the evening.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY Greta Gerwig, Little Women. In this notably guy-oriented field (The Irishman, The Two Popes, Joker, Jojo Rabbit), the Academy might offer Gerwig an olive branch after failing to nominate her for Best Director.

BEST DIRECTOR/BEST PICTURE These two categories used to be joined at the hip. But there have been recent upsets, now that there are so many more nominated films (nine, this year, each of which Academy voters are required to rate in order of preference), diffusing the likelihood of a clear front-runner. There are still only five directing nominees, however, encouraging more focused voting. (That's how Alfonso Cuaron won for directing Roma, last year, but the affable Green Book got more likes for Best Picture.)

So. Narrowing down the movies to the five with nominated directors, Todd Phillips' Joker is perceived as more of an actor's showcase, Hollywood will pick up its awards in other categories, and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman has lost its pre-season buzz. That leaves Sam Mendes' visually daring WWI epic, 1917 (constructed to look like it was shot in one, long take), and the upstart Parasite.

All in the family: Parasite
  1917 is sure to win in the Best Cinematography category for veteran lensman Roger Deakins. Just as certainly, Parasite will clinch the prize for Best International (formerly Foreign Language) Feature. But here's my prediction for the main event:

BEST PICTURE 1917. BEST DIRECTOR Bong Joon Ho, Parasite.

(The 92nd Academy Awards will be broadcast live, Sunday, February 9, 5pm, on ABC. Tune in to find out just how wrong I can be!)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

ART TO GO

Calling all art fans!

You my be surprised to see the name James Aschbacher among the dozens of artists showing at Pajaro Valley Arts’ annual Take Aways: Art to Go show, opening this week. But when the gallery folks called me to ask if I had any of his work left that fit the criteria — small pieces priced at $300 or less — that I’d be willing to part with, I said yes!

James loved the whole idea of Take Aways. It was designed for people who had spent all of the previous month buying gifts for others, and might want to self-gift  with some tasty little art item just for themselves. His work fit the bill, and he always made a few special pieces just for this show between the end of Open Studios in October and the year-end holidays.

I still have some of the last few pieces he made, and I am delighted that they are included in this year’s Take Aways exhibit. James made his work to be sold, to get their unique and joyful little spirits out into the world, and I am happy to spread the joy!

The exhibit opens Wednesday, January 22, and runs through March 8. Opening reception is Sunday, January 26, 2-4 pm.

(PS: This pic was taken at the 2018 Take Aways opening. A few of those paintings will be in the show, and I’m sure my Art Boy will be there in spirit!)