Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Long before I ever became an official movie critic, I fell in love with the Nickelodeon.

Back in my student days up at UCSC, I saw most of my movies on campus, either at student-generated film series (Film Noir! Swashbucklers!), or at any one of the six individual college dining halls where double-or triple-bills seemed to be playing every night. But when my best friend Jan moved to town in 1974, and we rented our first little downtown apartment in Beach Flats, I had to find some other way to feed my insatiable movie habit.

That way was the Nick.

Original owners Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney had operated an art house movie theatre in San Francisco before they migrated down to open the Nick in 1969. The University was just getting started, so UCSC and the Nick sort of came of age together. The United Artists theatre chain owned basically all the other movie houses in town, showing a steady diet of Hollywood fare, but Bill had other ideas.

The original theatre had only one screen (what's now known as Nick I). An old-fashioned nickelodeon machine sat roped off in a place of honor in the lobby. The snack counter was dominated by its vintage popcorn popper, and contained such marvels as a bag of Swedish mints (round chocolate mint balls coated in pastel candy), which quickly became my drug of choice. Price was, I believe, 45 cents.

As if the regular fare of new foreign-language films by Bergman, Wertmuller, Fellini, and Truffaut (always subtitled, never dubbed), and non-mainstream American independents were not blissful enough, there were afternoon programs like a ten-week series of classic French New Wave. Jan and I went to all of them. People ask me where I acquired my "background in film." I say: at the Nickelodeon.

In 1975, I started reviewing movies professionally (ie: in some place other than my journal) for Good Times. Okay, it was awhile before I actually got paid for it, but I knew I had arrived as a real critic the day that Nancy Raney, Bill's second wife, invited me to my first press screening at the Nick.

It was 1976, and the movie was Francois Truffaut's L'Histoire de Adele H (The Story of Adele H), starring the beauteous Isabelle Adjani. I took along my posse—Jan and my brother, Steve—and we got to watch an entire movie with only a couple more people in the audience. (I had no idea who they were at the time, and I was too shy to ask, but it was probably Dale Pollock from the Sentinel, and whoever was reviewing movies for City on the Hill that week.)

What an illicit thrill! A private screening in the middle of the day for a movie that wouldn't be open for the public for another week—it was surreal! Little did I know that would be my new reality for the next 38 years.

Nancy was the consummate hostess. When the Nick screened Almodovar's Women On the Verge (Of a Nervous Breakdown), where gazpacho figures prominently in the plot, Nancy served everybody cups of gazpacho in the lobby.

 When Bill and Nancy bought the three-year-old Sash Mill Cinema in 1978 from its owner, Rene Fuentes-Chao, Nancy was able to use the adjoining Sash Mill Cafe for "dos," as she called them, wine-and-munchies receptions for the press to meet visiting filmmakers. (For Les Blank's doc, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, she even served up garlic popcorn.)

But she really outdid herself in 1987, promoting the Danish film, Babette's Feast, in which a Frenchwoman prepares and extravagant meal for the dour inhabitants of a 19th Century Danish village. Yup—you guessed it! In cahoots with Casablanca Restaurant, Nancy had Babette's entire feast replicated for about a dozen members of the local film-reviewing press, whose ranks had swollen over the years. (And you can see why!)

The point of all this was to get people talking about the movies and the little-art-house-that-could, that kept bringing the best of world cinema to our little burgh. And, oh, how it worked! Bill and Nancy opened a second screen at the Nick in 1976, and added two more in 1981.

While the Nick spread the gospel of indie and art films to the public at large, the Nick screenings pretty much begat local movie culture. I met so many folks (and made so many friends) in the Nick lobby at screenings, I probably can't remember them all. Morton Marcus came to Nick screenings regularly; he was so famous, I was afraid to talk to him for years!

I'd known Buz Bezore up at UCSC, but it was at Nick screenings that I got to know the other alt-journalists—Christina Waters, Michael S. Gant, Tom Maderos, Geoffrey Dunn —who would be staffing Buz's string of alternative weeklies for years to come.

Vintage me, vintage Nick lobby, ca 2004. My home away from home.
Bruce Bratton was writing his column for Good Times when I started at the paper, and was one of the most loyal screening attendees. UCSC film prof Vivian Sobchak was a regular, and, occasionally, her colleague Eli Hollander. I got to know all the various Sentinel film critics over the years—Dale Pollock, Rick Chatenever, Catherine Graham. And while I can't recall the movie being screened, I vividly remember the day I met the "new kid" at the Sentinel in the Sash Mill Cafe, at one of Nancy's dos—Wallace Baine. He was there with his wife, Tina, and he had their infant daughter in a baby carrier over one arm.

Early in my tenure at GT, I went to a screening of one of Bill Raney's favorite movies, the obscure, utterly impenetrable 1965 Polish epic, The Sargossa Manuscript. (He was bringing it back as a classic revival.) This time, there was only one other person in the theatre, and as he and I staggered back out at last into the light of day, laughing and utterly flummoxed, we bonded over the fact that neither one of us had a clue what the movie was about. This was the first time I met Jim Schwenterley, who was then writing for the Cabrillo Log.

Soon, Jim was working for Rene Fuentes-Chao, programming the eclectic repertory double-bills at the Sash Mill. When Bill bought the Sash Mill in 1978, Jim became part of the Nickelodeon family. When Bill and Nancy were ready to retire in 1992, they sold the business to Jim. Who else loved movies as much as the Raneys, or was better suited to maintaining the Nickelodeon legacy?

Jim and his then-partner, Chuck Vowiler, were responsible for bringing the dilapidated Del Mar under the Nickelodeon umbrella, and restoring it to its Art Deco glory. Next came stewardship of Aptos Cinema—to the delight of Aptonians starved for Nickelodeon-style film content down in South County. More recently, Jim and partner Paul Gotlober undertook the massive project of switching the theatres over from film to digital.

Now, after 23 years of savvy, challenging, and entertaining film programming, Jim and Paul are ready to step down. The Nick has been sold to Landmark Theaters; yes, it's a theatre chain out of Los Angeles, but its theatres specialize in art-house and independent films.

The current plucky staff of Nick, Del Mar and Aptos employees are being retained to do what they do best: continue bringing the best movies out there to our community. The theaters will be dark on December 17 and 18, then rise, Phoenix-like on Friday, December 18, in time for the holiday movie season.

Here's looking at you, Nick. Let's hope the fabled Nickelodeon legacy continues!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


David Ledingham as Sky Masterson, & co
JTC inaugurates new Tannery space with spirited Guys and Dolls

The second production in Jewel Theatre Company's eleventh season is more than just an evening of theatre. It's an invitation to come check out the company's spanking new performance space, the Colligan Theater, at the Tannery Arts Center.

Enter the complex from the main parking lot, and the Colligan is the first building to your left (next door to the Radius Art Gallery). With raked seating for 200 patrons above the stage (the incline is gradual, not nosebleed-steep), there are no bad sightlines.

And while the space seems enormous compared to JTC's previous venue, the microscopic Center Stage, it still feels intimate in terms of the viewer's relationship to the performers.

Christopher Reber and Julie James
 To inaugurate this new space, JTC mounts a production of the crowd-pleasing, vintage musical, Guys and Dolls. Originally produced in 1950, but set in the '30s, the show is based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, and populated by his usual cast of lovable Broadway denizens on the outskirts of respectability—gamblers, bookies, and chorus girls.

The JTC production is a bit slow out of the starting gate, but picks up steam in the second lap and gallops to a strong, exuberant finish.

The show features the ever-likable Christopher Reber as Nathan Detroit, David Ledingham as gambler Sky Masterson, Cornelia Burdick Thompson as straight-laced Salvation Army captain Sarah Brown, and JTC Artistic Director Julie James as showgirl Miss Adelaide (having a high old time with her Bronx accent and racy stage numbers like "Take Back Your Mink.")
Diana Torres Koss: Runyon-esque
But the best coup is casting JTC veteran Diana Torres Koss in the male sidekick role of Nicely Nicely. Her Runyon-esque patter, dialect, and attitude are perfect, and she delivers some of the best songs.

The property is a bit dated at times. Viewers may cringe at the comic subplot of Sky getting Sarah drunk to loosen her up (she thinks she's drinking a milkshake). But this is a family show, so he doesn't do anything but beam at her indulgently when she sings her big epiphany song.

Likewise cringe-worthy is the wheezy idea put forth in the ladies' duet ("Marry the Man") that all a woman wants to do is force a makeover on her man the minute he puts a ring on it.

But otherwise this lively production successfully launches JTC's new home.
(Read complete review in this week's Good Times)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Full disclosure: Meryl Streep is only in one scene
Hey baby, it's cold outside, so you might as well go to the movies. Here are a couple of good ones you should try to catch up with before they're gone!

Women who defied social convention to join the "suffrage" movement, campaigning for women's right to vote, risked family rupture, public ridicule, and physical violence. 

Known by the vaguely demeaning name, "suffragette" (based on the Biblical sense of the word "suffer," as in "to allow"), these women on the front lines of the struggle for equality considered themselves warriors, especially as their protests became more disruptive, and the reaction of the authorities more brutal.

Their story is told in Sarah Gavron's illuminating drama, Suffragette a fictional story woven skillfully into the fabric of real-life history about the radicalization of a working-class Edwardian woman into the cause of voting equality. Carey Mulligan plays a marginalized laundress recruited into the movement by Helena Bonham Carter's crusading pharmacist.

Rallied to ever more defiant public acts, the women are routinely beaten with billy clubs, arrested, and brutally force-fed in prison when they try to publicize their cause with hunger strikes. But as police methods become more draconian, the press becomes more and more sympathetic to the women and their goals.
Uppity women campaign for voting rights
The film is very clear about personalizing what these women are fighting for. In their daily lives, they get paid less than men (sound familiar?), and have virtually no legal rights over their own bodies, their property, or their children.

Gavron and scriptwriter Abi Morgan want us to understand how courageously these women fought for something so easy to take for granted now—the chance to have even a tiny political stake in their own destinies. (Read more)

Boy meets Mac: Fassbender as Steve Jobs
Leave it to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin to come up with a punchy, comprehensible way to distill the complex story of the visionary who invented Apple computers into a feature film. In Steve Jobs, Sorkin's sharp, literate script, and the propulsive energy with which director Danny Boyle tells the tale makes for a hugely entertaining biographical drama.

They choose to focus on three crucial moments when Jobs’ career, celebrity and personal life intersect, literally, on the public stage: at the press launch for the Macintosh in 1984, the press launch of the ill-fated NeXT Cube in 1988, and the press launch for the first iMac in 1998—which was destined to revolutionize home computing forever.

Factor in three Oscar-bait performances—Michael Fassbender, mercurial, infuriating, and fascinating in the title role, Kate Winslet (left, with Fassbender), as Jobs' no-nonsense gal Friday, Joanna Hoffman, and Seth Rogen as stoically truth-telling Steve Wozniak—and the result is just about irresistible. (Read more)

Don't believe those naysayers calling this film a disappointing failure. It's a great movie, full of fast, funny dialogue, and emotional complexity. Don't be the last kid on your block to see it!

Sunday, November 8, 2015


The promise of books!
The readers website Goodreads is democracy in action. Any reader can post a review, assign stars, and gush great billows of praise—or snark— about a book she or he has read. Every review, from zero to five stars to dnf (did not finish) carries the same validity, and nothing is ever censored for language, grammar, content, or opinion.

I've occasionally heard of a reader launching a vendetta against an author (or vice versa). But Goodreads is a mostly useful place for an author to find out what the Public—as opposed to your friends and family—really think about your book.

The first thing an author learns about Goodreads is there's no such thing as a consensus of opinion. Reviews are all over the map, criticism-wise, at least for my books.

For all the readers who complained about the flashbacks to Captain Hook's past in Alias Hook, there were just as many who loved the historical backstory. For those who accused me of the dreaded "Insta-love" in the love story, there were others who claimed things finally perked up as soon as the romance kicked in. Some thought the thrilling finale made up for the book's dreary, boring beginning, while others thought the drawn-out finale went on forever.

Still, the canny author might discover certain trends threading through these disparate reviews. In my case, the trending theme was reader expectations. Alias Hook was not what they expected.
What do readers want?

Why not? Most of them were expecting it to be a YA (young adult) novel.

Never mind that it was never promoted as YA, that my publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, doesn't even have a YA line. Never mind that it says "adult fairy tale" right on the dust jacket. The subject is Captain Hook and Peter Pan, the genre is fantasy, ergo, according to the prevailing rationale, it must be YA.

This was not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, some readers were indignant about it, as if they'd been purposely hoodwinked. But others praised the difference between my book and the YA genre fantasies they're used to. (Usually in multi-volumes, with kick-ass heroines battling their way through fantastic family legacies, dystopian futures, or sci-fi/fairy tale landscapes.) Many commentators were also pleased by their ability to rise to the challenge of reading it. (One reader—who loved it—proudly proclaimed "this was the first adult novel I've ever read!")

But here's the thing: an author, scribbling away in her bubble, can't possibly know—let alone write to—a reader's expectations. It's out of our hands. Alias Hook was not written with any particular genre, focus group, or reading demographic in mind; the story unfolded the way it wanted to be told as I went along.

Scribbling away in the bubble...
As most books probably are. The whole idea of YA is a fairly recent construct in the centuries-old publishing biz, this odd notion that a book has to be pitched to a very narrow window of age levels. ("Children's," "Middle-grade," and the very recent "New Adult" are also thriving sub-genres, at the moment.)

Books have not always been so strictly stratified. Once upon a time, a book was released into the world without labels, to find its own readership, regardless of age group.

Consider these literary classics: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, To Kill A Mockingbird. All are read by teenagers in high school today. Would they have been published as YA, if that category had existed back in the day? Would readers have been expecting Ahab's Daughter: Blood Feud (Moby Dick #2)?

Back over at the Republic of Goodreads, reader expectations color reviews on every page. (One reader complained that because the word "alias" was in my book's title, she was expecting a spy novel. And was, of course, sorely disappointed.)

Neither authors, nor readers themselves, can control readers' expectations. When I switch into critical mode myself, to review a movie or a book, I'm as guilty as anyone else in that department. I feel the pain of those disappointed GR readers. If one's expectations aren't met, it's hard to review the entity in front of you, and not the one that might have been.

(Above top: Childrens Book Week poster, N. C. Wyeth, 1928)
(Above middle: Beautiful Reader by Christian Schloe)
(Above bottom: Art Nouveau poster advertising ink)