Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Sci-fi gets smart in literate robotic thriller 'Ex Machina'

Screenwriter Alex Garland has written some of the more interesting sci-fi scripts of the last few years—the bio zombie plague thriller, 28 Days Later, for one, and Sunshine, about a group of astronauts on a mission to jump-start the dying sun in time to save the earth.

Now Garland moves into the director's chair with his new film Ex Machina. It's a simmering chamber piece for three, with elegant echoes of Frankenstein and Blade Runner, yet very much rooted in both the technology and the prevailing mind-set of today.

The dialogue-free prologue sets up the premise in swift, deft strokes. Caleb (appealing naif Domhnall Gleeson), an anonymous programmer at a gigantic Internet search engine company, receives an email at work one day, telling him he's won a company-sponsored contest.

The prize is to spend a week with the company's elusive, tech-genius founder at his private, forested retreat in the mountains, accessible only by helicopter, hours away from any other human habitation. (All of this is conveyed via text messages and computer screens, until the info goes viral, and Caleb's co-workers come spilling into his cubicle to congratulate him.)

After hours in the air, Caleb is finally set down seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Thus, he descends into the lavish, largely subterranean compound of his boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

Mercurial, no-nonsense, hard-drinking Nathan needs another brainy guy to help with his latest project, a top secret experiment in artificial intelligence. He schedules Caleb for daily test sessions with his new robotic creation, called Ava, to help determine if the machine has developed a consciousness of its own.

But while much of her body is clear Lucite, revealing the wires and circuitry within (think of the '60s kids toy, Mr. Machine), Ava has the face and form of a seductive young woman. She's played by Alicia Vikander (abetted by some very sophisticated CGI imagery).
 And here, the game of cat-and-mouse begins, although Garland is cagey about which of this three players is which. Any one of them might be predator or prey, at any given time—or not. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Baby critic in the making: media was always the message
40 years on the movie beat in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz in 1975 was heaven for a fledgling film buff. The movies were great: Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather Part II, Nashville. Admission was around $2.50 for a double-bill.

Those were the days! Much has changed in the world since then—especially the movie scene, and the moviegoing experience, here in Santa Cruz.

My affair with both began in the summer of 1974. As a freshly-minted UCSC grad, I packed up my BA, and went to work nights selling tickets and popcorn at the U. A. Cinemas (now the Riverfront). It was the streamlined "flagship" of the United Artist chain of theaters in town (which at that time included the Del Mar, the Rio, 41st Avenue Playhouse, and Aptos), before the corporation lost interest in Santa Cruz and let its theaters crumble into ruin.
Fledgling critic ca. 1976

The flip side of this corporate mentality were independently owned mom-and-pop movie houses. The Nickelodeon, operated by Bill and Nancy Raney (one screen, with a vintage nickelodeon movie machine roped off in the lobby), was a popular venue for foreign films, maverick indies, and festival programming. (Like a brilliant French New Wave retrospective that my roommate, Jan, and I drank in like fine wine every Saturday afternoon for weeks.)

The family-owned Capitola Theater, and Cinema Soquel, showed less-than-brand-new double features. (Although, in a couple of years, Cinema Soquel switched to X-rated films in a desperate, but doomed attempt to stay solvent.) The Skyview Drive-In was still showing movies, but Gary Culver had not yet opened Scotts Valley Cinema, and the Cinema 9 was not yet even a gleam in the developer's eye.

In January, 1975, Rene Fuentes-Chao opened the Sash Mill Cinema, with 25-cent popcorn and double bills like A Streetcar Named Desire with Last Tango In Paris, Sunday Bloody Sunday with Persona, or Chinatown with Touch Of Evil.

It had poor insulation, no ventilation, and a corrugated metal roof that guaranteed patrons would freeze in the winter and roast in the summer; raindrops sounded like Taiko drumming. We loved it. Its program of vintage and recent films changed three times a week, and they published a poster-sized schedule every quarter, which everyone I knew had taped to their refrigerator.
Early GT promo (ca 1977) for its new full-time critic
The Sash Mill and the Nick catered to Santa Cruz's new identity as a university town. Programming was inspired and offbeat, prices were relatively low, and the sense of community was enormous—especially among students (and recent students) discovering David Lynch, or RKO musicals, or Japanese samurai movies together.

Jan and I went out to the movies with my brother, Steve, almost every night. And I wrote obsessively about everything I saw in my journal, long before anybody ever paid me to do it.

Enter Good Times, a 12-page entertainment weekly started in April, 1975, by Jay Shore. By then, I was working at Bookshop Santa Cruz, in the textbook room managed by Steve, and my nights were free. When GT film reviewer Christian Kallen advertised for an assistant, I hauled out my old (manual) college typewriter, hammered out a one-page review of some dreadful B-movie we'd recently seen at the drive-in, and mailed it in. Two weeks later, Christian called me up to tell me seven people had responded to his column, but I was the only one who'd actually written something. It must have worked; I became Christian's official stringer

I love to write, and I love movies, but the rest was strictly on-the-job training. When Christian left town, about a year later, I inherited the job.
In the lobby of the "old" Nick, ca 2004

One of the greatest perks of that job was the fabled Nickelodeon press screening. In big cities, films are screened early for the press, so writers can meet their deadlines and get a review out on opening day. The Raneys embraced this idea for a small, movie-loving town like ours. Their eclectic films needed attention right away; if a movie didn't get reviewed that first week and draw a house, it probably wouldn't last a second week.

For years, Thursday afternoon press screenings at the Nick became the place for the SC film elite to meet. It was like a private club for local scribes, where we all got to hang out together, whatever rivalries might have been going on between our papers.

I had known Buz Bezore slightly at UCSC, but the Nick lobby is where I first met Christina Waters, Tom Maderos, and Michael Gant, all of whom wrote about film sometime or other in the various incarnations of the Santa Cruz Express/Independent/Taste/Metro/Weekly. Bruce Bratton was a regular, as were Rick Chatenever and, later, Wallace Baine, from the Sentinel. I'm pretty sure I met Morton Marcus for the first time at the Nick, and probably Geoff Dunn, when he was making his first local history documentaries. UC professor and film historian Vivian Sobchak attended the screenings for years, and, more recently, Dennis Morton and David Anthony from the KUSP Film Gang.
My first GT review! Monty Python & the Holy Grail. October 23, 1975
In one sense, we knew we were all on the same team—the collective treasure hunt to discover great movies and spread the word. We saw the sublime, the ridiculous, and everything in between at those Nick screenings. And since we rarely agreed on which was which, debates were spirited as we filed back out into the (always unexpected) daylight.

Sadly, those press screenings are no more, much like film itself.     Movies are projected digitally. Vintage film reels are preserved as objets d'art suspended from the ceiling in the lobby of the Nick, relics as quant as that old nickelodeon machine once was. Today, movies assault you in 3D, seats rock or recline, theaters call themselves "cafe lounges." But it was never about all that stuff. All that really matters is the transformative magic of the movies.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Posted to my Goodreads page this week!
Listen closely: do you hear that lovely vibrato wafting on the breeze?

Sounds like the fat lady is singing at last!

Previously, here on the blog, I was trembling on the brink of a new direction in my writing career.

Now, it's my pleasure to announce that a very generous offer has been made for my novel, Beast: A Love Story, by the good people at Candlewick Press. I spoke to my new editor-to-be, the esteemed Kaylan Adair, last week, and I know this is the beginning of a productive relationship.

Soulful Beast or handsome Prince. Which would you choose?

How do I know? For one thing she loves my book! 'Nuff said. For another, you can Google her until your keyboard turns blue and not find one single iota of snark directed at her by anyone she has ever worked with. Her authors and colleagues all adore her, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to join their ranks!

Set in Renaissance France, Beast is an origin story from which future Beauty and the Beast tales might have evolved. In my story, "happily ever after" depends on perspective as Beast struggles to conquer his treacherous inner prince and emerge as the true hero of his own tale.

Publication is set for Spring, 2017, which gives you an idea of the time, care, and attention Candlewick lavishes on its books. And you can be sure I'll keep you posted as the process unfolds!

In the meantime, if you'd like to visit Beast's world, please do hie thee off to my Beast page on Pinterest!

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Hey kids, feast your eyes on the cover flat for the new paperback edition of Alias Hook!

Cool, no?

Okay, it looks a lot like the "old" cover from the hardcover edition.

But that's okay, because I love this image! Captain Hook, himself, a mysterious thicket of roses, and enough of a subtle feminine presence to whet one's curiosity.

Just enough to let you know this is not your father's Captain Hook!

Publication date is May 5, from St. Martin's/Griffin. Available soon at a fine book emporium near you!

(Or pre-order it this minute from Bookshop Santa Cruz. Shop locally, read globally!)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Juicy story too subdued in lovely but listless 'Effie Gray'

The first time Emma Thompson wrote a movie script, she won an Oscar for her smart and lively adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. She doesn't have the good fortune to collaborate with Jane Austen on her new film, Effie Gray, but she does have a fascinating true story to tell in her original screenplay. The real-life Effie Gray was an innocent country girl wed to influential London art critic John Ruskin at age twenty, in one of the most bizarro marriages of the era, even by Victorian standards.

It's a tale rife with thwarted desire, confused sexuality, monstrous in-laws, cruelty, scandal, forbidden love, and Pre-Raphaelite art. And Thompson and director Richard Laxton have assembled a cast of stalwart British thesps to tell it. But as juicy as the story ought to be, the movie just misses the mark dramatically. The acting is generally first-rate, and the film is lovely to look at, but the writing is often flat, as if Thompson were trying so hard not to sensationalize the story that she drained the life out of it instead.

Effie and John: not exactly a fairy tale
In her clever prologue, Thompson sets up the story as if it were a fairy tale about a beautiful young girl (Dakota Fanning, as Effie) who leaves her drafty home in Scotland as bride to a famous and wealthy man (Greg Wise, as John). "Her mother and father were kind," the narrator intones. "But his were wicked."

And how. Effie soon realizes she's married the entire Ruskin household, including John's imperious mother (Julie Walters), who still bathes him, and his father (David Suchet), who prizes his son's influence as a critic for increasing the value of the paintings he invests in. They stand guard over every precious minute of their son's day so he has plenty of time to write, and not be distracted by petty matters, like a wife. Effie is ignored by everyone, including John; on their first night together, when she plucks up the nerve to strip off her chemise, a horrified John walks out of the room.
The real Effie Gray

Effie is untouched, unloved, and belittled at every turn. It's not until his parents commission a portrait of John from one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters he has championed, John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), that anybody begins to pay attention to her. (Read more)

Btw, Internet commentators have objected to the use of Millais' famous painting of Ophelia on one version of the poster (above), implying that Effie was the model. But in the film, it's clear that Effie attends an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art where the painting is already on display before she and Milllais ever meet. But the painting does recur throughout the film as a potent symbol of the way Effie is drowning in the social and sexual mores of the day—until she dares to make a gutsy move to free herself.

The real-life Gray is famous for fighting back against the conventions of her era. But this satisfying conclusion to her story is only hinted at in the film, while we don't see enough of her courage and determination in achieving it.

Monday, April 6, 2015


Something wicked this way comes to Santa Cruz Shakespeare this summer. And if you know your Bardic quotes, that means that Macbeth will be one of SCS's featured productions. Since rising, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the entity formerly known as Shakespeare Santa Cruz for its first forward-funded season in 2014, SCS continues to soar with an ambitious four-play program for 2015. (Which is already one more play than last season.)

Full of blood, murder, and intrigue, not to mention witches and ghosts, Macbeth is always a crowd-pleaser—especially staged at night in the spooky Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen. The dark maneuverings of "The Scottish Play"will be balanced out by one of Shakespeare's wittiest, sprightliest romantic comedies, Much Ado About Nothing.

Also on tap is The Liar, David Ives' modern adaptation of a 17th Century farce by Pierre Corneille, in which a young man torn between two lovers embroils himself in ever more Pinnochio-length deceptions. And continuing in the spirit of antic male-female relationships, this year's Fringe Show will be The Rover, a Restoration comedy by Aphra Behn, one of the first English women writers to earn her living by her pen, famed in her day, as now, for her frank observations of sexual politics.
Gender-bent Hamlet, 1899

Gender equality is also much on the mind of Artistic Director Mike Ryan, who, according to a press release, "aims to fill at least half of all roles with women" this season. In the famously comic and romantic battle of the sexes at the heart of Much Ado, one assumes that Beatrice and Benedick will be played by gender-appropriate actors.

 But in the interest of inclusiveness, Ryan has announced that the role of Leonato, the patriarch and father who opens his home to the returning soldiers, will be re-cast as a woman, matriarch Leonata. Which ought to deepen the comedy (or at least the "ado") even further,  with a household of women juxtaposed against the military men.

This isn't some random attention-getting device, either. There's a long tradition of slippery gender identity in the plays of Shakespeare, dating back to his own era, when women were forbidden to act onstage and female roles had to be played by boys and young men. It wasn't until the Restoration era of Charles II that female actresses were grudgingly allowed to play female parts on the boards.

(For a wonderful overview of the complications arising from this transitional period, I highly recommend Stage Beauty, a sly and marvelous film about love, passion, gender identity and sexual confusion on the Restoration stage. Netflix it today!)

At the turn of the last century, the legendary stage actress Sarah Bernhardt was acclaimed for her interpretation of Hamlet. More recently, Julie Taymor's The Tempest featured Helen Mirren as a female Prospero ("Prospera")—giving extra texture to the idea of a noble skilled in herbs and magic banished from her homeland for "witchcraft."

In addition to the usual subsidiary events, like Noon at the Nick lunchtime appearances by SCS actors and directors, and the annual Weekend With Shakespeare, SCS will be providing a free groundling ticket (the open picnic area just in front of the stage) for anyone under 18 years of age accompanied by a paying adult. The 2015 season runs from June 30 to August 30.

The forward-funding method has already netted the company 75% of this season's operating costs. But donations are always welcome, so visit the SCS website for further details on all of the above. Then get ready to get wicked!