Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Iconic stars, fearless performances, in brave aging drama "Amour'

You don't go to a Michael Haneke film for comfort and joy. His is a chilly, clear-eyed worldview of human nature and consequences that turns an apparent genre thriller like Cache into a study of moral imperatives, or a historical drama like The White Ribbon into a haunted horror movie of deep-seated psychoses. As usual, Haneke's excellent new film, Amour, is not for the faint-hearted; it may look like a domestic drama about a long-married couple rattling around their tiny Paris apartment, but it packs a wallop as Haneke confronts his most ferocious and devastating themes to date—the inevitability of aging, and the nature of commitment.

Two icons of French cinema, 82-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, fearlessly act their age in a pair of mesmerizing, award-worthy performances. You rarely see people their age in movies at all these days, let alone as lead characters in a film with such a freighted title as "Amour." And true to form, Haneke doesn't fritter away their talents in some faux-inspirational tale about finding courage and dignity in old age. Rather, he portrays the end of life—much like the rest of life—as a minefield of choices, in which the struggle to understand and define oneself continues right up to the last breath.

Old age is not for sissies, as the joke goes, and neither is this movie. But while it's not exactly upbeat, it strikes a resonant chord of humanity that is both fascinating and rewarding; it's not always easy to watch but it is never less than honest. And the lovely exit Haneke orchestrates for his characters after all their trials is a fitting finale to this brave, affecting film. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Monday, January 28, 2013


Drop whatever you're doing and listen up!

If you labor in any capacity in the creative arts, you owe it to yourself to watch this video. It's the one and only Neil Gaiman delivering the most inspiring commencement speech ever at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia last May.

In his first ever commencement address, the original and ridiculously talented author of the Sandman graphic novels, "Coraline," "Mirror Mask," "Stardust," "Neverwhere," and oh, so many other fabulous works explains it all for you: how to get and keep a job in the arts, how to keep your attitude fresh and your spirit adventurous, how to say 'no,' and why. Not to mention revealing the best piece of advice he never took.

Gaiman's sensible outlook and droll humor delight throughout, even as his strategies often surprise. Best of all, he shares the best possible Mantra for a life in the creative arts: "Make good art." Come what may, despite all obstacles, the solution to any challenges life throws in your path—"Make good art."

Seriously, the most inspirational 20 minutes you will ever spend. Watch it now!

(PS: Not that anyone asked me, but here's the one thing I would add to Gaiman's glorious litany of good advice, something I wish I'd done more often myself: don't wait around until someone gives you the slightest encouragement before you make your art. It might never happen. Do it because you have to. Do it right now.)

Friday, January 25, 2013


French-born filmmaker Jacques Audiard is best known for his stylish thrillers. His last film was the Oscar nominee A Prophet, a jazzy, yet often brutal crime melodrama about a young Muslim man coming of age inside a French prison. But Audiard's engrossing new film, Rust and Bone, is a departure. While it percolates with suspense, even dread, it's not exactly a thriller, and the love story that slowly wends its way to the surface avoids the trappings of conventional romance for something darker, deeper, and ultimately more satisfying.

Its protagonist, Ali (the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts), is a man on the run from his home in Belgium with his five-year-old son. Hitchhiking, then taking a train, scavenging food that other passengers have left behind, or stealing from a busy MacDonald's, they are on their way to Ali's sister and her truck-driver husband in the French beachfront resort town of Cap d'Antibes. Some mention is made in passing that Ali's wife was using their little boy in a drug-smuggling enterprise, so he's come to France to get a new start.

We get the feeling that, like most of his impulses, Ali's move to France has not been well thought-out. While working as a bouncer, Ali meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), who trains killer whales at the local Marineland park.

Cotillard's wonderful portrait of a woman who decides to be fearless is well partnered by Schoenaerts' tough-tender Ali; theirs is an intricate, delicate mating dance that fuels this dynamic film. (Read complete review in this week's Good Times.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


As a onetime cartoonist, and someone who often storyboards a scene I'm writing so I can see what's going on, I was irresistibly drawn (ahem) to "The Exile: An Outlander Graphic Novel." Scripted by Diana Gabaldon, it's a compacted version of roughly the first third of her popular historical novel, "Outlander" (one of my favorites), illustrated by Hoang Nguyen in hardcover graphic novel format. Except, just to liven things up, this time Gabaldon tells the story from Jamie's viewpoint.

Gabaldon assumes you already know the story, so wastes little time or ink on Claire's backstory, or how she comes to be the woman who fell to Earth in the middle of the 18th Century Scottish Highlands.  The focus is on Jamie, delivered back to Scotland in the dead of night with a price on his head, accosted by a rough-hewn guard of Highlanders, attempting to navigate rugged terrain and dicey clan politics while pursued by his sinister English nemesis, Captain Jack Randall.

But more important than plot here is the seductive invitation to actually see Claire and Jamie's world. (In addition to the gigantic IMAX, 3D, sensurround visuals readers create in our heads while reading, of course.) Marvel and Dark Horse veteran artist Nguyen contributes mood- and mist-drenched images of eerie Highland landscapes and moonlit standing stones, plenty of two-fisted action, pageantry, and character-bonding. And, seriously, who doesn't want a ringside seat for one of Claire and Jamie's epic love scenes?

(Although the blood-spewing brawling, knife fights and shoot-outs get a wee bit over-the-top, in the manner of comic book violence.)

Still, Nguyen manages to infuse a high degree of personality into the main characters' faces. (Although I can't say the same for the other random clansmen in the story, most of whom look alike to me. Even the pivotal Murtagh, Jamie's godfather, isn't always grizzled enough to distinguish him from the pack.)

In this, Nguyen had the benefit of Gabaldon's input, as revealed in the enlightening "Making Of..." section in the back of the book; not surprisingly, the author has very clear ideas of what her characters look like, right down to Jamie's cowlick, and wasn't shy about suggesting subtle changes until the artist "saw" them correctly, too.

In this section too, the editor thoughtfully includes a link to DG's website where you can see the unexpurgated version of that infamous love scene panel. Pretty entertaining all around for seasoned "Outlander" fans.

Btw, I found my copy remaindered at Logos right around Christmastime. There may still be some left!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


The philosophy behind the Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre's annual short play festival, 8 Tens @ Eight, has always been what I call the Bus Theory: if one play doesn't get you where you want to go, there'll be another one along in 10 minutes. What's great about this year's festival is that the quality of the plays overall is so high. Not one of this year's eight ten-minute plays ever runs completely out of gas; all are well-written, well-acted, and cleverly staged, and most have a story arc that delivers the viewer to a valid destination.

This year's Double-Threat award goes to Ian McRae. He's very funny as Phineas P. Japester, a cigar-chomping drill instructor in Dan Borengasser's Clown Camp, directed with pizzazz by Marcus Cato; in his red nose, fright wig, and fatigues, Japester trains a platoon of raw recruits in the art of being a bozo. ("No irony!" he warns them. "No satire! No bon-mots!")

McRae also scores as the author of Dudes Like Us, a funny, wistful, wholly engaging meditation on surfing, aging, life, and even language as a couple of veteran surf buddies (the wonderful Steven Capasso and Rick Kuhn) trying out paddleboards for the first time. Bill Peters' inventive staging places the actors on pedestals, painted to suggest boards, on an empty stage. It works beautifully (right down to the water they occasionally splash over their heads). (Read more)

Only two more weekends to go, so click here for ticket info.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


And speaking of persons of the female persuasion (as I was last post), ladies, this is the weekend to grab a girlfriend and make a made dash to the 6th Annual Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival.

Staged by the UCSC Women's Club, it's a fundraising event to provide scholarships for re-entry students. And what better way to support a worthy cause than by sampling chocolate—dark, milk, bitter, spicy, sweet, organic, and every variety in between—from some 28 vendors, from Santa Cruz and far beyond? It's all happening upstairs at the festive Cocoanut Grove ballroom this Sunday, January 20, from 1—4 pm.

My friend and I had way fun at this event last year. It's a psychedelic experience, staggering from table to table, tasting every kind of cacao-based goodie you can imagine, from candy, ganache, truffles and cupcakes to ice cream, toffee, and Mexican molé. Last year, the trendy flavor of choice was salty caramel and chocolate; this year, other spicy combinations are being dreamed up as we speak.

New this year will be wine vendors peddling their wares to those in need of liquid refreshment between chocolate hits. (Everyone says red wine and chocolate is a match made in Decadence Heaven, although I prefer chocolate and champagne, myself.)  To this end, Festival wine glasses can be purchased for $5 in advance or at the event. The $15 admission buys you six tastings of your choice (wine or chocolate), but you have to buy the glass to sip the vino.

Here's all the info, including online advance ticket purchases. And check this list of vendors to get you salivating!

Remember, friends don't let friends eat chocolate alone, so grab a buddy and go!

(Above: two suspicious characters sample the goods at last years Chocolate Festival. Photo by Stephanie Nielsen, for the UCSC Women's Club.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


It was women on top Sunday night at the Golden Globe Awards.

From the savvy and wicked funny co-hosting of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to some of the evening's most interesting speeches and victories, the 70th Annual Hollywood Foreign Press Association's celebrity clambake serves as an indicator (albeit a teensy one) that women are finding more to do in Hollywood than look great on the red carpet.

(Although they are still required to do that, too. One of my favorite moments came when Adele—looking splendidly, unapologetically Rubenesque—collected her Best Song award for "Skyfall," thanked the foreign press, then paused to note, "I never thought I'd hear myself say that"—a reference to the way she's been hounded by the press for not dieting herself down to waif-size.)
Adele: unapologetic

(Er, weighing in on the same subject, Fey referred to The Hunger Games as "what I call the six weeks it took me to get into this dress," to which Poehler riposted that Life of Pi is "what I'm going to call the next six weeks after I take this dress off!")

Best Supporting Actress winner Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) gave a shout-out to fellow nominee Sally Field, citing her range of roles from The Flying Nun to Mary Todd Lincoln an inspiration for every actress hoping to have a diverse career.

Jodie Foster, winner of the Cecile B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award (at the tender age of 50) made a few wry remarks in which she seemed to be coming out as a lesbian—as if we didn't know—followed by an eloquent meditation on the lost art of privacy.

Even the outgoing president of the HFPA, Dr. Aida Takia-O'Reilly got into the act with a short, zesty comic speech, musing "I know (producer) Jeffrey Katzenberg will never forget my name—because he never knew it in the first place."
Brenda Chapman: unsung heroine of Brave

Lena Dunham won for Best Actress in a TV comedy in her edgy series, "Girls," which also won for Best TV Comedy.

But while it was also great to see the girl-centric Brave win in the Best Animated Film category, it was kind of a disgrace that co-director Mark Andrews got to do all the gushing while Brenda Chapman—who wrote, developed, and directed most of the film before Pixar unceremoniously replaced her with Andrews—wasn't even invited to the party. Since they received co-director credit on Brave, I would have liked to see her on the podium too.

For awhile, I thought that was Chapman up there standing silently next to Andrews (turns out it was producer Katherine Sarafian). The sound was so wretched all night, you couldn't hear what was going on, from the director audibly counting down in the booth at the start of the show, to the roar of ambient noise in the room during every presentation, to an unbalanced audio mix in which the announcer's introductions were constantly drowned out by the orchestra.
One for the boys: Daniel Day-Lewis

Speaking of female directors, Kathryn Bigelow did not win for Zero Dark Thirty, but at least she was nominated. So was Ben Affleck, who astonished everyone—including himself—when he won for Argo. Which went on to win Best Picture in the drama category. Neither Affleck nor Bigelow is nominated for a directing Oscar, although both their films are in contention. Go figure.

My favorite non-female speech of the night came from Best Actor/Drama winner Daniel Day-Lewis (astonishing no one), who thanked—of all people!—the writer of Lincoln, Tony Kushner. Said Day-Lewis, "Every day I have to live without the gift of your words, which reminds me of the impoverishment of my own."

Still, I think the night belonged to Fey and Poehler. In their best introduction, Fey told the audience, "This guy makes the younger George Clooney look like garbage" —then proceeded to bring out "Older George Clooney!" Hmmm...point taken!

Friday, January 11, 2013


Well, shut my mouth.

It's going to be an even more exclusive—and male—old boys' club for the Best Picture category at this year's Academy Awards than even I imagined in my last pre-Oscar post.

Kathryn Bigelow didn't even get nominated for directing Zero Dark Thirty—which pretty much puts the kibosh on that film's Best Picture chances.

Ditto Ben Affleck for directing the much-liked and very well-received Argo. (Maybe Oscar just isn't in the mood for CIA procedurals this year.)

The last Director's Guild nominee to NOT receive an Oscar nomination is Tom Hooper, for Les Miserables. It's not unheard of for a film to win the Best Picture award even though its director is not nominated, but it's statistically rare.

Who did the Academy nominate instead of the above in the Best Director category? Michael Haneke, for the highly-buzzed French film, Amour, David O. Russell, for Silver Linings Playbook, and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild.

All of their films are also nominated in the crowded category of Best Picture. What they don't have is the blessing of a Director's Guild nomination, without which an Oscar nominee rarely wins an Academy Award.

So who does that leave in serious contention for Best Picture?  Life of Pi, whose director, Ang Lee, is nominated by both the DGA and the Academy, and Lincoln (ditto Steven Spielberg). And personally, I cant imagine any scenario in which a movie about a boy and a tiger on a boat (no matter how gorgeous) could possibly lose to a well-crafted drama about one of the most iconic figures in American history at the moment of his greatest triumph.

What concerns me most this year are the Best Actress nominees. Not a single one in historical costume—what fun is that?

Besides which, one nominee is a woman in her 80s (veteran French actress Emmanuelle Riva, in Amour, who is, btw, very well-positioned to take the gold), and another is a 6-year-old girl (the delightful Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild). 

How on earth am I going to dress my Oscar Barbies???

Stay tuned...

In the meantime, check out all the 2013 Oscar nominees, and let me know what you think!


'The Impossible' an intense drama of tsunami survival

If you've ever had a hankering to find out what it's like to be swept up in a tsunami—without, you know, the life-threatening peril—look no further than The Impossible.

Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona's intense drama is based on a true story of survival in the wake of the ferocious Asian Pacific tsunami of December, 2004; it plunges the viewer smack in the middle of utter chaos when a rogue wall of water rises up and devastates everything in its path for miles around in a matter of minutes.

Bayona made the stylish and brilliantly creepy Gothic thriller The Orphanage (El Orfanato) a few years back, and he knows a little something about building and sustaining suspense.

 But while that film was all about the dread of the unknown, this one is fueled entirely on the adrenalin rush of coping with the unthinkable. There's no time to dread anything here; the suddenness of the tsunami as it pounds a completely unprepared human world is its most terrifying aspect.

Bayona, working again with Orphanage scriptwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, takes as his inspiration the true story of the Belón family, a Spanish couple and their three young sons who were vacationing on the coast of Thailand when the tsunami struck. In the film, the family is British.

Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (in an incredibly physically demanding performance) star as Henry and Maria; he's a young entrepreneur and she's a trained medical doctor who's given up her practice to raise their family.

Adolescent son Lucas (Tom Holland) is their eldest. Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and little Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are his younger brothers. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


It's not exactly rocket science. Want to know what films will be serious contenders for the Oscar this year? Well, start with the ten films nominated for the Producer's Guild award last week, then subtract the five films on the list NOT nominated for the Director's Guild award yesterday.


Presenting the likeliest Final Five for Academy Award contention (those nominated by both Producers and Directors Guilds):

Zero Dark Thirty
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

There will still be up to ten Best Picture nominations (although in 2012, I believe there were only nine), and they will probably reflect pretty closely the Producer's Guild nominations, meaning you can add Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook, and Skyfall to the list above.

But only the five films nominated by both guilds have a prayer of actually winning. And who will that winner be? Right now, my money's on Lincoln, along with a Directing Oscar for Steven Spielberg (who hasn't won since Schindler's List). In addition, of course, to a big fat Best Actor award for Daniel Day-Lewis.

True, I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, which is getting plenty of gigantic buzz. But the Academy finally broke down and anointed director Kathryn Bigelow with its first directing Oscar ever awarded to a woman in the history of movies just a couple of years ago, in 2010 (for The Hurt Locker). So it probably doesn't want to, you know, get carried away.

The 85th Academy Award nominations will be announced tomorrow morning at some ungodly hour. Meanwhile, as of Friday, all of the top five will be playing on local screens, with the wide opening of Zero Dark Thirty, and the return engagement of Argo joining Lincoln and Les Miz at the Nick and Del Mar, and Life of Pi at the 9.

See em all! See 'em big!

Friday, January 4, 2013


Can the new filmed musical version of Les Miserables really be as awful—or as great—as everybody says? Your intrepid reporter decided to find out!

Most of what I dislike about the movie has to do with the property itself (which I come to as a virgin, having never seen it onstage). I'm not a big fan of the nouveau-operetta format, revived in the spectacle era of Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera, etc. I prefer spoken dialogue between separate (hopefully catchy) songs; too much exposition written into the music makes it that much more difficult to sing, or for the audience to remember.

Director Tom Hooper had the audacious idea to film his actors singing live on-camera in the moment, not lip-synching to their own pre-recorded songs. This is largely to replicate the experience of live theater (where there are no retakes), and it does bring a sense of immediacy to certain scenes. (I think it also necessitates all the close-ups some viewers are complaining about; in the theater, an actor can prowl the stage, but a film actor—especially singing live—better stay put if he wants to remain properly lit and in focus.) But at other times, the demands of the music run away with the storytelling.

The opening scenes, for instance, feature two gigantic, en masse singing numbers— the convicts hauling a ship on their ropes, and the factory women at their tables—that are impossible to understand, the lyrics as muddy as the bottom of the Seine. In the latter case, since I couldn't hear the words, I really never got why all the factory women suddenly turn against Fantine, which is sort of a key plot point.

(For that matter, women in general fare poorly as characters in this decidedly male world of cons, cops, and idealistic student protestors. Yes, Fantine is an angel, but her grown daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), is a a bland, blonde confection with no personality at all, whose love at first sight (yawn) with a man she's never even spoken to is supposed to fuel the entire final third of the plot. And let's not even discuss the innkeeper's wife played by Helena Bonham Carter as a comic-relief grotesque.)

(As a group, females are either shrewish factory workers, cruel prostitutes, or cowardly citizens who turn their backs and bar their shutters to the stalwart young male revolutionaries when the gendarmes arrive. The only other femme character with any grit and chutzpah at all is Samantha Barks' Eponine—and look what happens to her!)

On the plus side, here are my three favorite things about the movie.

One: Hugh Jackman. He gives a towering, exhaustive performance as Jean Valjean. The muddied, exposition-heavy music doesn't always show his voice off to best advantage (and musical theater veteran Jackman has a great singing voice), but he sings with clarity and gusto throughout, delivers the goods emotionally, and gives the movie a pulse from its very first scene to its last.

Two: Anne Hathaway's raw, heartbreaking performance as displaced factory worker and unwed mother, Fantine. The devastating power of her ragged "I Dreamed A Dream," not only shows how Hooper's live-singing device is supposed to work, but provides the film with its one memorable song/theme—not to mention its dramatic highlight.

Three: Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Shut up! He's perfectly cast as the implacable lawman, and his no-frills, serviceable, workmanlike singing voice is exactly the right shape and color you'd expect from rough-hewn Javert .

Eddie Redmayne also sings well as Marius, scion of a wealthy Parisian family swept up in the events of the June Rebellion, but, as noted above, his ad hoc love story with Cosette is probably the least interesting aspect of the entire 157-minute enterprise. Oh, and did I mention that it's realllllly long?

There are moments when various characters are singing in counterpoint to each other onscreen where it all falls into place—music, resonant emotion and spirit. ("One Day More" is genuinely thrilling.) But for all Hooper's clever filming tricks and techniques, he can't sustain that level of engagement for as long as it takes the entire lumbering beast to unspool.