Saturday, November 30, 2013


McConaughey's crusading AIDS patient powers 'Dallas Buyers Club'

It's hard to imagine a less likely crusader in the fight against AIDS than Ron Woodroof. A coke-snorting, womanizing, blue-collar Texan, Woodroof was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the mid-1980s and given 30 days to live—a death sentence he defied for years to become a pioneer in making "unapproved" drugs from out of the country available to his local AIDS community.

It's a true story that unspools as a tale of bizarre alliances and unexpected heroism in the pugnacious, yet affecting drama, Dallas Buyers Club.

Directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (switching gears from his best-know film, stateside, The Young Victoria), from a script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, Dallas Buyers Club rests almost entirely on the frighteningly thin shoulders of star, Matthew McConaughey.
Over the last couple of years, the busy McConaughey has been rehabbing his screen image and reclaiming his career from the wasteland of action fare and light romantic comedies in challenging roles in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, among others. (He was exceptional in Mud, earlier this year.)

Playing Woodroof is the cherry on top, and McConaughey gives it everything he's got. His Woodroof is a brash, profane antihero who acquires shading, sympathy, even grace, in the process of rising to meet life's challenges. The actor lost thirty pounds for the role and it's a shock to see him so emaciated.

But he earns his (almost certain) Oscar nomination not for his diet, but for he unquenchable drive and cool chutzpah he brings to the role, and the film. And he's not the only one: co-star Jared Leto (with McConaughey, right) gives an equally bold and vivid performance as a sassy transvestite who becomes Woodroof's business partner.

Jennifer Garner is on hand as a compassionate doctor and low-key potential romantic interest. But the real love affair here is between McConaughey and the acting profession. His bravura performance keeps the movie alive. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Feast your eyes on this fabulous set for the grand finale of Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2013 season—and possibly forever, at least in its present incarnation.

For this year's holiday show, SSC and the UCSC Theater Arts Department present It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, Joe Landry's popular 1997 play in which the beloved Frank Capra Christmas movie is re-imagined as a radio drama being broadcast live, ca. 1946.

Designer Kate Edmunds does a masterful job recreating the Art Deco interior of a vintage radio studio, complete with big-city skyline outside and "Applause" signs above the "studio audience." Six hard-working actors onstage (joined by a trio of chorus girls, who also harmonize on clever jingles during commercial breaks) play all the parts, reading from scripts into stand-up microphones.

While this cast couldn't be any better, I wonder at the selection of this play. SSC has a proud tradition of robust holiday fairy tale pantomimes (Cinderella; Sleeping Beauty) and delightful animal-centric stories (Frog and Toad; The Wind In the Willows). But I fear children might be mystified by this play.

Do modern kids even know what radio is? And even if they do, children who are eager to embrace magical fairy godmothers, drag-queen step-mothers, and grown men as frogs, toads, badgers, and ugly ducklings may not understand a static line of grown-ups standing onstage pretending to be different people.

With the play's single set (as handsome as it is), and no costume changes, the choosing of this play feels like a cost-cutting measure. And that's such a shame. It's a perfectly respectable production in every way. All that's missing is the magic. (Read more)

Friday, November 15, 2013

NaNo No-No

To all you valiant NaNoWriMo scribes out their toiling away, I bring you news from the publishing front. You know that novel you plan to complete between November 1 and November 30? Literary agents do NOT want to see it. At least, not yet.

How do I know this? My own recent agent search has brought me into contact with various blogs and Tweets in which agent after agent expresses dismay over the NaNoWriMo phenomenon.

These folks are quaking in their boots, battening down the hatches, stringing virtual strands of garlic around their inboxes to ward off the annual deluge of half-baked manuscripts heading their way in December.

Trust me, everybody and his dog, Shep, and his Great Aunt Queenie, is getting ready to ship off their newly-minted masterpiece, hot off the keyboard, come December 1st. It's going to get crowded (not to mention ugly) out there in cyberspace, but there are ways to help your opus stand out from the throng. Come November 30, as you gaze in awe at what you've wrought, take a moment to consider these points:

1) What you've written is not a novel. If you've managed to cobble together 50,000 words in 30 days, congratulations! You've achieved major awesomeness, but you have not yet achieved a novel. To do that, you'll have to bump it up to the accepted length of 80,000 words or more.

So far, you've written a novella, and unless you just want it to go out on Kindle (for which you probably don't need an agent), or your name is Stephen King, chances are an agent can't sell it.

2) What you've written is a first draft. You may feel that it has sprung fully formed out of your brain, like the goddess Athena, that it couldn't possibly be any more perfect. But guess what: it can. You may think if you overwork it, you'll destroy the freshness, but there's a vast and critical gulf between "fresh" and "unripe."

The first draft is a major milestone in the writer's life, but it's only one lap, not the whole race. There's still polishing, editing, and revising (yes, work) to do, which any industry professional will realize the minute they see it, because, hey, they're funny that way. Nothing screams "Amateur!" louder to an agent than sending out a first draft masquerading as a novel.

3) What's missing? After all the blood sweat and tears, not to mention heart and soul and oceans of Denny's coffee you've already poured into your magnum opus, what more can it possibly need? The one essential ingredient: time. A finished novel takes time; it has to marinate in your brain for awhile after the first passionate flush of actual writing.

Cut the cord and put it away for at least a couple of weeks, or at best, a couple of months. When you take it out again, you'll be amazed at how much perspective you've gained, how much work there is yet to be done, and (if you're like me), how many bonehead typos there are that you missed the first time around.

NaNoWriMo is an effective way to jump-start that idea that's been germinating in your psyche forever, but it's no substitute for the plain, hard work of writing a novel. You've already come this far; now give that masterpiece the extra time and thought it deserves.

At the very least, don't send it out until after the New Year!

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Diana Torres Koss and Christopher Reber
JTC stages folksy, lighthearted musical revue "Pump Boys and Dinettes'

After the intellectual acrobatics of its last offering, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, the Jewel Theatre Company does something completely different  in Pump Boys and Dinettes, a lighthearted, country-pop musical revue. The Center Stage theatre space is transformed into a roadside diner somewhere along Highway 57 in North Carolina, where a six-man musical combo and two perky waitresses invite the audience in for two fleet hours of songs, dancing, and good times.

With book, lyrics, and music written collectively by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann, Pump Boys and Dinettes was first produced on Broadway in 1982. JTC Artistic Director Julie James has appeared in three different out-of-town productions of the show, and had so much fun, she decided to direct this production for JTC, in which she also co-stars as one of the waitress/co-owners of the Double Cupp Diner (along with Diana Torres Koss).

James and company set the folksy, down-home tone right off. Even as patrons are still finding their seats, the musicians are milling around on stage, tuning up and joking around, while the waitresses, in their pink uniforms and paper caps rove up and down the aisles, welcoming everyone in and chatting them up. Ron Gasparinetti's cozily overstuffed set (coffee counter and stools, pink china on the shelves, black and white checkerboard floor, a neon gas pump sign on one side and a "Diner" sign on the other) deftly evokes the kind of homey place where waitresses in beehives call you "Hon."
Brent Schindele and Julie James lead the company in song
 Fans of JTC's terrific film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues, from last season, will be pleased to know that two of its stars reunite in this show. Christopher Reber (the gumshoe in Blues) stars as the guitar-strumming front man in the diner band, and Brent Schindele (beloved in Blues as lounge singer Buddy Toupee) is back at the piano keys.

With its good humor and hard-working cast, Pump Boys and Dinettes is an ideal prelude to the holiday season, a low-stress entertainment that will keep you smiling. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Despite mangled mythology, Thor: The Dark World delivers the fun

Sometimes, a critic just has to step away from the serious Oscar contenders and go have fun. Which for me this week meant slipping off to see Thor: The Dark World, a movie in little danger of snagging Academy gold, but which, after a rocky start, ratchets up the fun factor big time.

What elevates The Dark World above dozens of other noisy, overproduced comic book movies with Doomsday scenarios? For one thing, it's based on Norse mythology (very loosely based, I'll admit), so it has a more interesting pedigree than your typical guys-in-Spandex superhero movie. (At least the costumes are way more cool, so maybe I should rethink those Oscar chances.)

For another, the script rises above mere jokiness to achieve a refreshing degree of humor and wit as it goes along. Chris Hemsworth's charismatic thunder god, Thor, delivers the eye candy, and Tom Hiddleston's utterly delicious performance as Thor's ne'er-do-well brother, the trickster god, Loki, seals the deal.

Tom Hiddleston as Loki: release me and I'll save your movie

Directed by Alan Taylor, The Dark World begins with Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Father of the Gods of Asgard, explaining how the legions of Asgard defeated the evil Dark Elves centuries ago when the Elves tried to unleash a destructive force call Aether.
Thor and Odin: don't call them gods

 Now, the Aether has been reawakened in its cosmic hiding place, and surviving Dark Elf, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), and his minions, want to use it to destroy the inhabitants of the Nine Realms (a corner of galactic real estate that includes Asgard and Earth) and rule in place of the gods.

Or something.  Who cares?

Hiddleston delivers sardonic lines with insinuating precision, while he and Hemsworth craft a credibly embattled yet compelling rapport that keeps us guessing as their prickly alliance to stop Malekith plays out.

It may be standard Marvel comics fare, plot-wise, and it's extra cheesy that they suddenly make the Asgardians not really gods. Sure, Thor flies through the stratosphere with his magic hammer, Loki shapeshifts at will (watch out for the funny sequence where he momentarily morphs in Captain America), they may live for 5000 years or so, but wait, they're really mortal.

Even worse, Asgard, the so-called fortress of the gods, (defended by stalwart Vikings with swords) is suddenly vulnerable to dogfighting stealth jets and automatic weapons. Snore.

Still, Asgard looks terrific, and in its best moments, The Dark World reminds us how cool Norse mythology can be. (Read more)

(Above: the formidable Rene Russo make her point as Frigga, Mother of the Gods. Natalie Portman as Thor's Earthling love interest? Not so much.)

Friday, November 8, 2013


Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club: coming soon!
It's early days yet, but here are the men I think most likely to succeed as Best Actor nominees in next year's Oscar race:

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

 (As yet unseen: Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis)

As to the ladies, so far there are only two sure-fire Best Actress nominees:

Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)

But femme-o-centric August: Osage County, should earn nominations for somebody, most likely Meryl Streep and/or Julia Roberts.
Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine

And let's not discount the impeccable Emma Thompson as the starchy author of the Mary Poppins books in the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks.

And while I wouldn't dare try to predict all 10 Best Film nominees a this early date (the Academy always likes to throw in at least a couple of weirdsmobile choices just to prove how fresh and unpredictable they are), I'll hazard a guess that the only five that matter will be 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, and most likely Alexander Payne's Nebraska, and the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis.

(Although, given their track records, Oscar-wise, we can't overlook Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street or David O. Russell's American Hustle.)

But, hey, I could be proven wrong (and I usually am). The point is to get out and see these movies now, and in the next few weeks as they arrive, while they're up on the big screen. Remember, you read it here first!

Thursday, November 7, 2013


How accurately does 12 Years a Slave portray the visual as well as the emotional texture of slave life?

Compare filmmaker Steve McQueen's imagery to the excellent online resource The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record.

This is an incredible collection of period drawings, paintings, and sketches of slave life in North and South America and the Caribbean Islands compiled at the University of Virginia, through the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

In every image, the agenda of each artist cannot be discounted. Some are relatively straightforward; others are propaganda for the fiction of happy slave life, or, conversely, tinged with melodrama to promote the abolitionist cause. But all are fascinating.

These were my go-to images when I was posting my illustrated online novel set against the background of slavery in the West Indies, Runaways: A Novel of Jonkanoo.

If you're interested in learning more about the era depicted in McQueen's powerful film, this is a great place to start.

(Above left: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 years a Slave)

(Right: A Fugitive Slave, Surinam, 1839. Image Reference BEN1, as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


 Chiwetel Eliofor in 12 Years a Slave
Nightmare of slavery depicted in fierce, mesmerizing '12 Years A Slave'

If your idea of slavery in the American South is Mammy in Gone With the Wind fiercely protecting her white "fambly" from the evil Yankees, it's time for a reality check. The blistering 12 Years a Slave, directed by London-born filmmaker Steve McQueen, offers up a fearless, unexpurgated portrait of what slavery was like in the only way that could make sense to modern viewers—by plunging a free man into the depths and degradation of the institution from which he is made to realize time and again there is no possible escape.

The film is based on a horrifying true story. Solomon Northrup was a free black New Yorker abducted and sold south into slavery in 1841; he was unable to claim his freedom again until 1853, when he wrote the memoir which inspired McQueen's film.

His was a harrowing journey, which McQueen and scriptwriter John Ridley depict in all its brutality. Those expecting an action-packed escape adventure, or an inspirational Hollywood movie about the triumph of the human spirit had best look elsewhere. 12 Years A Slave is as excruciating as it needs to be in excruciating circumstances, presenting a monstrous chapter of American history in a way you will never forget.

The wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things; Kinky Boots) gets a starring role worthy of his considerable talents as Solomon Northrup. A devoted husband and father in Saratoga, New York, he earns a handsome living playing violin at swanky society dances. Affable, accomplished, and not terribly worldly, he moves in an upscale social circle of genteel whites and free people of color.

So he thinks nothing of it when a pair of traveling performers offer him a fiddle-playing gig down in Washington City for a couple of days. The next thing Solomon knows, he wakes up in chains in a bleak cell, soon to be shipped downriver to a slave auction house in the Deep South.

Solomon's odyssey takes him into the possession of one relatively benign, but ineffectual owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), and one belligerent psycho (a bravura, willies-inducing performance by Michael Fassbender, left). Ejiofor is nuanced and electrifying as Solomon maintains a desperate grip on his identity during his long season in Hell.

But as property without rights, there is no way for these enslaved men and woman to behave with dignity, or maintain any kind of inner moral compass. McQueen shows with heartbreaking precision how this loss of common humanity, even more than chains and beatings, is the true cost of slavery. (Read more)

(Filmmaker McQueen has an unerring eye for the indelible image. In one sequence of calm, spellbinding horror, the victim of a near lynching, with the rope still around his neck, struggles to remain standing on his toes—for hours—while the other slaves go about their business until someone authorized to cut the rope arrives.)
There's already Oscar buzz for the dynamic Lupita Nyong'o (center) in 12 Years a Slave
Perhaps it requires a perspective from overseas to depict American slavery with such cold clarity. (Although a similar story could be set in any of the British, French, Spanish, or other colonized Caribbean sugar islands as well.) 12 Years A Slave is a film of rare courage that both educates and mesmerizes.