Friday, December 27, 2013


Space patrol: Gravity
Big and small films to remember from 2013

What is it about these angsty times that's causing the movies to go all Gloria Gaynor on us? The biggest trend in the films of 2013 was the simple fight for survival—on land (Dallas Buyers Club; 12 Years a Slave), sea (All Is Lost; Captain Phillips), outer space (Gravity), even in the music biz (Inside Llewyn Davis; 20 Feet From Stardom). Some of these were great, but I was mostly drawn to small human stories this movie year. Here are a few of my favorites (including some you might have missed):

GRAVITY A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft suddenly find themselves adrift in space. What can they possibly do? The variety of answers may surprise you in this smart, lean, elegantly composed edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera, it's a space procedural in which ordinary human ingenuity meets ever more incredible and daunting odds.
Mud: McConaughey's performance of the year

20 FEET FROM STARDOM Morgan Neville's documentary tribute to the heroines of rock, the background singers, is as incendiary as the voices of these incredible vocalists. The stories of these primarily black women—how they were used, abused, and/or empowered by the industry, whether or not they dared to take that 20-foot walk into the spotlight—are a remarkable cultural document of five rich decades in the pop music scene. And OMG, the singing!

MUD Jeff Nicholls' hypnotic tall tale simmers with danger, disillusion, humor, and heart, and Matthew McConaughey's star performance radiates all of the above. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are astonishingly good as two 14-year-old boys growing up on the banks of the Mississippi in rural Arkansas who get involved in the crazed romantic schemes of a disheveled desperado. An entertaining yarn of fathers, sons, and surrogates.

BLANCANIEVES Pablo Berger's flavorful retelling of Snow White is a silent film (no spoken dialogue, but a vivid musical soundtrack), shot in luminous black-and-white, set in Seville, Spain, ca, 1920. The heroine is a young lady matadora, and her story unspools in a heady milieu of flamenco music, bullfighting, and women's emancipation.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Who else but Joss Whedon could set William Shakespeare's romantic comedy (original Elizabethan-era wit and wordplay intact), in modern-day Santa Monica, and shoot it in black-and-white? This visual detail suggests the sparkling vintage screwball comedies of the 1930s, an impudent idea, realized with great charm and affection.

GINGER & ROSA The remarkable Elle Fanning and a very affecting Alice Englert star in Sally Potter's simple, yet potent story about teenage girlfriends, mothers, fathers, and daughters, and all the ways those delicate balances can be tipped. The touching authenticity of these young female voices will speak to anyone who has ever been a 17-year-old girl.

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS This harrowing true story about an unarmed US freighter captured in 2009 by four trigger-happy Somalis with automatic weapons is a bracing dose of recent history from director Paul Greengrass, told with his typical no-frills realism and escalating intensity. Tom Hanks' is riveting as the cargo ship's captain; Barkhad Abdi is excellent as the leader of the Somalis.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender: 12 Years a Slave

12 YEARS A SLAVE Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a haunting performance in Steve McQueen's blistering, unexpurgated portrait of what slavery was like in the pre-Civil War American South. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker abducted and sold into slavery in 1841, the film shows with heartbreaking precision how the loss of common humanity is the true cost of slavery. A film of rare courage that educates and mesmerizes.

THE HUNT A child's remark brings lives to the brink of ruin in Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg's complex drama, set in the twilight zone between acute moral responsibility and witch-hunting. The film plays like a compelling thriller, with Mads Mikkelsen giving a performance of astonishing force and subtlety.
Girl Power: Darlene Love: 20 Feet From Stardom

MUSEUM HOURS Anyone who has ever haunted an Old World museum with a rich collection of Late Middle Ages and Renaissance paintings may find herself strangely beguiled by this meditation on art and life, past and present, and the many ways and places in which they intersect.

JUST FOR FUN:  GOOD OL' FREDA Freda Kelly was just 17 when she landed a job as personal secretary to The Beatles in 1962. Ryan White's documentary is as ebullient, down-to-earth, and irresistible as Freda herself.

GUILTY PLEASURE:  THOR: THE DARK WORLD Chris Hemsworth's charismatic thunder god, and Tom Hiddleston's utterly delicious performance as his ne'er-do-well brother, the trickster god, Loki, propel this idiotic, yet surprisingly fun mangling of Norse mythology.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Great music, atmosphere, problematic character in "Llewyn Davis'

The new film, from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, may not quite be what viewers expect. After the Coens celebrated the rural, regional folk music of the American South of the 1930s in O Brother, Where Art Thou, a few years back, fans may expect more of the same from the new film, with a more urban vibe.

But while Llewyn Davis is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene ca. 1961, and positively teems with yearning, vintage-sounding music that might very plausibly have come from that era, it mines a much darker vein of experience as a down-on-his-luck, would-be folk singer struggles against all odds to get a foothold in the music business.

In fact, the new film has more in common with the Coen's A Serious Man, an ironic update of the Biblical story of Job, in which a hapless suburban Everyman had to cope with one damn thing after another thrown into his path by an unforgiving universe. The protagonist in Llewyn Davis also endures trials, but they mostly stem from his own bad judgment and bristly personality.

The problem is,the character as written is all angsty exterior. Oscar Isaac, an appealing actor who has been wonderful in supporting roles for years, manages to bring moments of poignancy, even fleeting tenderness, to the title character. He even turns out to be a terrific singer.

But we never do get inside Llewyn Davis; the journey he takes in the course of the film, both physically and emotionally, lands him back in exactly the same place.

But where the movie comes alive is in the music, and the spot-on depiction of the era. (The legendary T Bone Burnett, along with Marcus Mumford, produced the music.) Isaac sings Llewyn's gritty solos with plenty of verve.

And the novelty song, "Please Mr. Kennedy (Don't Send Me Into Space)," that he sings with Justin Timberlake, with the very funny Adam Driver providing bass and counterpoint (above), is exactly true to the era, and hilarious too. (Read more)

Btw, much is made in the movie of Llewyn hauling a friend's runaway orange cat all over New York City until he has time to return it to its owner. I can't imagine what they gave that cat to mellow him out.

I'm sorry, but if I tried to take one of my cats on a noisy subway at rush hour, my back would be shredded like the Watergate transcripts.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


What Disney Princess movies say about gender, culture, and romance

What would the holidays be without a new Disney feature cartoon? With Frozen, the studio is in full "Disney Princess" mode—the line of femme-centric fairy tale movies designed to market Mattel dolls, outfits and accessories to little girls. (Especially now, as the holiday buying season ramps up.) A marketing ploy made all the more obvious when the movie is animated via CGI, and all the characters already look like plastic dolls, with their smooth, unlined skin and dimensional shading.

Let's take a moment to consider the history of the brand. At least since the revisionist '70s, we've all been yammering on about the evolution, or lack thereof, of Disney's fairy tale cartoon heroines, but I think it's interesting to see how they've reflected their times.

  Snow White was sort of a neutered '30s chorus girl (Betty Boop, without sex), with her bobbed hair and baby-doll voice, pining for her prince to come. Cinderella was the obedient drudge, ca. 1950, sublimating her own desires. A decade later, Sleeping Beauty could let her hair down, but she was still the poster girl for passivity; her most dynamic action was to fall asleep for 100 years.

But since the resurgence of fairy tale princess movies that began in 1989 with Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Disney heroines have become more resourceful, spunky (and, oh please, don't make me write "pro-active"), in taking charge of their lives. And more ethnically diverse—grudgingly—if you count Chinese warrior princess Mulan, and Jasmine, from Aladdin, although it took 72 years for the first black Disney cartoon heroine, Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog in 2009.

Very loosely inspired by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale, The Snow Queen (although it has only the vaguest nodding acquaintance with the source material), Frozen is one of the whitest of all Disney Princess movies. Not only is it set in a Scandinavian island kingdom perched on a fjord and full of Nordic blondes, but there's the whole snow thing—a princess with uncontrollable magical powers whose touch turns everything to ice.

After Princess Elsa accidentally freezes the kingdom in perpetual winter, she flees up into the mountains and magicks herself a crystal ice palace. The rest of the movie follows her sister, Princess Anna, on a trek across the snowy mountains to find her sister and save the realm. Her unlikely guide is humble woodworker and ice delivery man, Kristoff, while she leaves the kingdom under the protection of neighbor Prince Hans.

For those of you keeping score at home, that's two Disney princesses, one handsome prince, and one roguish commoner.

Which brings us to another topic: the evolution of the Disney cartoon hero. Seriously, does anyone even remember the bland, boring, cookie-cutter "Prince Charmings" of those earlier films? The first one to distinguish himself from the pack was Beauty's splendid Beast in 1991, and even he morphed back into a (yawn) prince at the end.

But finally, the folks at Disney are starting to perceive that their new breed of heroine deserves better, maybe a male counterpart with, you know, a personality.

Frog Prince Naveen was a charming wastrel with a line of corny, yet good-natured patter; unfortunately, he spent most of the movie as a green amphibian.

Flynn Rider in Disney's 2010 Rapunzel movie, Tangled, wasn't even a prince, but a thief and a rogue, on the lam from the palace guard. Sure, the rascal hero is as old a cliché as the bland prince, and if wisecracking Flynn were a live-action hero, he'd be pretty obnoxious, but as a new Disney hero, he had his points. And in the landmark Brave in 2012, there was no romantic hero at all; bow-and-arrow sharpshooter Princess Merida was too busy finding herself.

The excess of heroes in Frozen might suggest a regressive step back to the old days, except for the surprisingly clever, even subversive way the love stories play out. And it's interesting to watch the Disney tale-spinners create more evenly-matched romantic figures, characters who grow and endure trials together, and end up together because they deserve each other, not just because they're the only prince and/or princess in the movie.

But wouldn't it be refreshing if a Disney heroine wasn't a princess at all, but an ordinary girl? Now that would be brave.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


'Tis the season for tidings of joy, and this one's for you, fans of Shakespeare Santa Cruz: the show may yet go on! The entity organized to preserve the goals of SSC and orchestrate its future, Shakespeare Play On, has a couple of announcements.

First, the organization now has its own website, a virtual clearinghouse for information.

Secondly, as we speak, SPO and UCSC are in negotiations to produce a 2014 season in the Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen under the Shakespeare Santa Cruz name.

And finally, SPO has been incorporated as an independent California non-profit. It also has a new fiscal sponsor in place—The Arts Council of Santa Cruz County—which means ACSCC is now enabled to accept donations from intrepid arts supporters like YOU, the Public, to help fund this upcoming season.

Here's how it works: between now and January 15, 2014, the group plans to raise the funds to finance the 2014 season and hire the artistic talent. Revenue from the season will fund the 2015 season, and so on. The goal is to raise $885,000, and contributions from SPO board members and friends in the community have already raised a quarter of the funds.

So, in this season of gifting and giving, consider making a contribution to support entertaining and challenging world class theatre, right here in River City. Operators are standing by at the ACSCC donation site. Type "Shakespeare" in the special purpose dedication box, and dispense some genuine holiday cheer.

Trust me, you'll thank yourself next summer, under the redwoods!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Speaking of potential Oscar nominees, I also recently saw Bruce Dern in Nebraska.

For old times' sake (and the dues he paid in all those AIP biker movies), Dern will probably score a nomination for his befuddled, alcoholic Midwesterner whose stubbornness compels his long-suffering son (Will Forte) to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the old man thinks he's won a million dollar prize.

Director Alexander Payne shoots the film in black and white, which is a very cool thing.

But I confess, I just couldn't get into the sensibility of the story. While striving for ironic humor, the overall tone of Bob Nelson's script comes off as condescending and obvious.
The portrait of generations of Midwestern males whose minimal mental radar only blips for beer, football, and motor vehicles occasionally conveys the gravity of missed opportunities and wasted lives—along with those random, uncomfortable moments when adult children realize their parents had lives before they were born. But mostly the whole thing just gave me the willies.

Dern and Forte play the prickly father-son relationship deftly enough on their road trip across heartland America. (It's no accident Dern's character is named Woody Grant, a literally backwards homage to the painter of "American Gothic.") And June Squibb provides some feisty laughs as Woody's perpetually irritated wife.

But for all its visual stylishness, there's very little there there, in terms of story or characters, or the audience's investment in either.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Looks like I'll have to revise my fearless (and/or clueless) Oscar nomination predictions posted here a few blogs back. I just caught up with Philomena, and my guess is perpetual Oscar magnet Judi Dench will score another nomination for Best Actress —a category she has never actually won, despite multiple nominations.

(In fact, her only Oscar gold has been in the Supporting Actress category for the seven minutes she spent onscreen as the splendidly caustic Good Queen Bess in Shakespeare In Love—which shows you what a formidable contender she can be!)

Despite a preview trailer that passes it off as sort of a treacly feel-good movie, Stephen Frears' Philomena, is an adroit and fiercely moving drama.

At its heart are the notorious Magdalen Institutions that flourished for nearly three centuries (notably in Ireland), Catholic convents where young women "in trouble" were abandoned by their ashamed families.
You'd think it was a Doris Day comedy from this twinkly poster

La Dench is marvelous as Philomena, a retired nurse living in London who's searching for the son she was forced to give up 50 years earlier.

Our entry into her story is cynical Martin Sixsmith (the great Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the script, based on a true story), a recently sacked political journalist forced to accept a freelance human interest story about the "little Irish lady".

But as Martin politely squires her around, he and we are sucked into the profound tragedy and injustice of Philomena's story. (Sophie Kennedy Clark—below—is excellent playing teenage Philomena in flashbacks.)

In return for taking in the young women, the convent received four years of indentured servitude, and while the nuns delivered the unwed mothers' babies, they also sold the  resulting children to the highest bidder—which in the postwar 1950s meant Americans.

As they travel to the US on the trail of her lost son, Dench reveals a core of deep feeling, steely resolve, and generosity beneath Philomena's flighty-seeming, romance novel-quoting exterior. What she achieves playing someone less sophisticated than the actress herself, or the characters she usually plays onscreen, is a wonderfully subtle and shaded performance that finds the character's common humanity and strength. It's a lovely thing.

As to my own early predictions, I will happily plug in Dame Judi's name over any of the embattled. Southern-fried viragos in August: Osage County. I haven't even seen it yet, but I've endured the interminable trailer so often, it already sets my teeth on edge.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


SSC program 2000, design by Mott Jordan
Hark ye, all friends and fans of Shakespeare Santa Cruz: here's how to show your support for 32 years of imaginative, inventive, world-class theatre right here in our own backyard.

This Sunday, December 8, at 6 pm, will be the final performance of the final production of SSC as we now know it. Come celebrate the company and all it has meant to the Santa Cruz community by turning out for the last performance of the current holiday show, It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, the final joint production between SSC and the UCSC Theater Arts Department.

Even as we speak, plans are afoot for SSC to reinvent itself and rise phoenix-like from the challenges of these last four months as a new, independent enterprise. At the moment, this entity is called Shakespeare Play On, whose organizers have issued this open invitation to the community re: the closing night of It's A Wonderful Life:

"Let’s fill the theater on the evening of the 8th with SSC patrons and friends.  Come and show your support and appreciation for SSC’s 32 years of artistic excellence at UCSC and learn what the future holds for this nationally-recognized theater company."
Sharon Shao, Julia Finch, and Rosie Glen-Lambert
Written by Joe Landry, It's A Wonderful Life is a re-imagining of the beloved Frank Capra holiday movie staged as a radio drama being broadcast live ca. 1946. The hard-working cast of six actors and three chorus girls/commercial jingle singers voice all the parts and provide all the hands-on, in-studio sound effects for a charmingly retro and warm-hearted dose of holiday cheer.

At this, the closing of the (first) SSC era, let's stop and remember what a challenging and provocative 32 years its been. In addition to dynamic productions from the Shakespeare oeuvre every season (and I mean all of the oeuvre, from crowd-pleasers like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, to thornier work like Cymbeline and Titus Andronicus), local audiences were also treated to the best of world theatre, both classical and modern.

SSC presented Albee, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen (hands up everyone who remembers a pre-Walter White Bryan Cranston in A Doll's House, 1992), and Tom Stoppard, to name but a few. (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead played in rep with Hamlet in 1985, with the same actors in the same roles in both plays.) Non-Bard offerings might be anything from the Stephen Sondheim musical, Company, to Amadeus, from Waiting For Godot to The Three Musketeers.

And let's not forget the exquisite holiday pantomimes (not as in Marcel Marceau; these were "pantos," as Yuletide fairy tale extravaganzas are called in British theatre)—Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Wind in the Willows, A Year With Frog and Toad. Sigh.

Personally, I was hoping there would be a bit more panto in SSC's last holiday extravaganza, but that's just me.

Once upon a time, it just wouldn't be Christmas without Mike Ryan and a dancing bear!

Still, for anyone who has ever loved this company, this is a great opportunity to celebrate all Shakespeare Santa Cruz has been in its glorious past, and look forward to all it might yet be. Get your tickets now!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Reading an antidote to war in beautifully acted 'Book Thief'

You need not have read Markus Zusak's bestselling YA novel to be drawn to The Book Thief. Bibliophiles will find the premise of a child who steals books because she is so addicted to reading just about irresistible.

As usual with literary adaptations, there's a lot more going on in Zusak's 500-plus-page novel than ever makes it to the screen. But the essence of Zusak's story about a girl whose love of books helps her to survive devastating times—the rise of the Nazis in a World War II-era German town—retains its power.

Scripted by Michael Petroni (who's had a hand in adapting authors as diverse as Anne Rice and C.S. Lewis for the screen), The Book Thief is directed by Downton Abbey veteran Brian Percival. It's a stately looking film that wisely concentrates on personal dynamics, while the escalating horrors of the war are kept mostly offstage.

And it succeeds on an ensemble of absolutely lovely performances led by Geoffrey Rush as the girl's warm-hearted foster father, Emily Watson as his crusty-seeming wife, and beguiling 13-year-old French-Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse in the title role.

Taught to read and write by her new foster father, young Liesel (Nérisse) awakens to the transportive wonder of words just as the Nazis come to power with their campaign of moral and intellectual "cleansing." When books are burned in the square, she can't resist smuggling a smoking volume home—or sneaking into the Buergmeister's house to "borrow" books from the family library.

But Liesel's petty crimes pale next to the war encroaching steadily into the town: neighbors are conscripted into the army, Jews are dragged out of their homes for an unknown fate, and terrifying air raids disrupt everything. Tensions mount when Liesel's foster parents shelter Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), in their basement—a young man who also loves words and encourages Liesel to tell her own story.

That the worst of war's brutality is kept offscreen fits with the viewpoint of children who can't really comprehend what's happening in the larger world. But the emotional connection between the characters—especially the moving relationship between Rush's humble Hans, struggling to retain his humanity, and his devoted Liesel—gives the film its validity and grace. (Read more in this week's Good Times)