Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Favorites of 2015

Clockwise from top right: Mad Max: Fury Road, South Park, Pericles,
Mr. Burns, Gotham, and Bluebeard's Castle

Not a comprehensive best-of list; just my personal favorites from all sorts of media in 2015.


The sun comes out after a good book.

Billie by Anna Gavalda: It rained all the first day of a family vacation, but I didn't mind, because I'd brought this book. This little gem of a novel (translated from the French) chronicles the relationship between two childhood friends determined to break away from their white-trashy town and make it in Paris. The two stick together through classroom awkwardness, homophobic violence, and a potentially fatal hiking accident - the immediate aftermath of which finds Billie telling their story to a star. Gavalda's skill shines in her use of Billie, an inarticulate girl who's bold but lacking in confidence, as narrator. Like Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami last year, this was just the right book at the right time for me.

Horse Medicine by Doug Anderson: I'm a sucker for dead horse poems. Although that's what first drew me to this book, the collection encompasses Anderson's reflections on not just horses, but religion, war, and aging. My favorite lines come from "What the Angel Said": "Who are you to think/ you will not have to/ live history/ out all the way/ to the consequences/ and beyond?"

Paper-Doll Fetus by Cynthia Marie Hoffman: In this poetry collection, a rock falls in love with a goat placenta, and it makes sense. With fearlessness and compassion, Hoffman dives into the female reproductive system, exploring miscarriages, stillbirths, phantom pregnancies, and the traumas and joys of childbirth. There are poems told not only from the point of view of the aforementioned rock and the titular doomed fetus, but from a strap used to inhumanely restrain laboring women and a lamb who dies shortly after being born. Periods still suck, but I appreciate them a little bit more having read this book.

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry by Tom Cox: Yes, Cox writes cat books about a famous twitter handle, @MYSADCAT, but his books transcend cat books and twitter books. They're thoughtful and funny reflections of the English countryside, parents, nature, music, and yes, cats.

Favorite Old Books I Read or Re-read

King John's Prince Arthur and Hubert in Laslett John Pott's engraving.

Dangerous Liaisons/Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos: I finally read this French epistolary novel, and despite this being a cliche...yes, something written in 1782 can still be scandalous in 2015. Bored aristocrats the Marquise de Merteuil (a wealthy widow) and her best friend and former lover the Vicomte de Valmont (a bachelor and libertine) manipulate others sexually for fun and revenge. But what starts as a quotidian (for them) ruining of others' lives slowly turns into a battle of wills. Of particular interest are Merteuil's ruminations on the strict gender roles of the time and how she's gotten around them.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: I do a lot of my reading on the bus, and re-reading for the first time since high school this epic about an extended family who needs to get the mix of incest just right in order to heal always made me sad to reach my stop. It's too bad E. Brontë gets accused of romanticizing bad male behavior, because that's not really what's happening. Heathcliff and Cathy are weirdos who need to do their Heathcliff and Cathy thing, not a template for all heterosexual relationships. After reading, I watched three different adaptations (what Wuthering Heights really needs is a mini series that shows all generations at the correct ages) and listened to Kate Bush's song about the novel about a million times.

 King John by Shakespeare: I read this lesser known drama as just another stop on my way to reading all of Shakespeare's plays, for better or worse...but I really liked it and don't see why it isn't performed more. It's basically a less powerful Richard III, but I can see how it would be entertaining on stage. It has a central character audiences are somewhat familiar with (John is the mama's boy lion in Disney's animated Robin Hood), a great comic relief character in Richard the Lionheart's bastard son, a crazy mom meltdown, and a kid talking his way out of a hot poker to the eyes. How is this not a hit?


Patricia Velasquez leads Liz in September's cast.

Mad Max: Fury Road: This thrilling action movie had style, substance, and heart.

Liz in September: This beautiful tearjerker from Venezuela is the country's first lesbian romance movie.

Tom at the Farm: This tense, arty Quebecois rural noir finally got a limited run in the US.

Cartel Land: The drug cartels of Mexico have been a subject of fascination and horror for years. While 2015 saw fictional characters in Sicario tackle the US's involvement in the violence, Matthew Heineman went on the ground in this documentary about local efforts to quell the reign of terror. The film is an absolute gut-punch, although not in the way you'd necessarily expect: one grassroots group of courageous locals starts out as the lovable underdogs peacefully standing up to the cartels; later, Heineman pans his camera around the now-powerful group's new headquarters as individuals they've detained wait to be tortured. It's a crushing statement on moral corruption and the complexity of fighting evil.

One disputed artistic decision Heineman made was to include scenes of a self-appointed anti-cartel group in the US - basically gun aficionados in camo parading consequence-free around the border. Some critics felt like Heineman was giving this group legitimacy and supporting their cause, but I read the inclusion as ironic. The American group's belief that they're brave soldiers fighting a battle is shown to be a delusion of grandeur when juxtaposed with the citizens of Mexico who are actually dealing with the deadly reality of the cartels.


Nadine Sierra and Brian Mulligan in Lucia di Lammermoor.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play - A.C.T.: Anne Washburn's Simpsons-inspired meditation on storytelling and human resolve is one of the most polarizing plays I've seen. Full write-up here.

Swimmer - San Francisco Ballet: Yuri Possokhov, SF Ballet's choreographer in residence, based this ballet on a John Cheever short story. The loose plot is that a philandering businessman swims through neighbors' pools, glimpsing others' lives. But when he returns to his own suburban home, he finds his nuclear family is gone. The piece is a celebration and examination of the American mid-century modern aesthetic, and is visually stunning. However, while the video projections sometimes added a lot, they weren't always necessary (example: in the final scene, it was clear from the dancer's pantomime that he was flailing in the water; the added video footage of a man flailing in water was superfluous).

Pericles - Oregon Shakespeare Festival: I'm so glad I got a second chance to see the play that made Pericles good!

Lucia di Lammermoor - San Francisco Opera: I was lucky to share in a friend's complimentary tickets to this opera with rising star Nadine Sierra (excellent as Musetta in last year's La Boheme at SF Opera). The set for Enrico's office was breathtaking and properly imposing, and the famous "mad scene" was especially visceral.

Other theater favorites this year: Dan Clegg unexpectly stole the show as Edmund in California Shakespeare Theatre's King Lear; Berkeley Rep scored one of the top Eponines, Samantha Barks, for Amelie; and I finally got to see The Book of Mormon!


Mikhail Petrenko and Nadja Michael in Bluebeard's Castle

Great Performances at the Met: Bluebeard's Castle: I caught the second part of this PBS double feature by chance. I turned on the TV, intending to veg out to the hot twins show on HGTV or something else other than a two-person Hungarian opera, but the channel was set to PBS, and the very first frame arrested me. By the end of the day, I had watched several other versions of the opera on YouTube* and added the music to my iPod.

At its most literal, Bluebeard's Castle (by Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs) is about a woman gradually realizing, and finally admitting out loud, that her new husband is a serial killer. But it's also about what we keep hidden within ourselves and the competing desires to deny or investigate in the face of unpleasantness. Mikhail Petrenko's and Nadja Michael's performances; the Met's minimalist yet dramatic staging in black, gray, white, blue, and red; and the skillful cinematography of this stage performance make for an hour that is almost unbearably tense, but too captivating to turn from. 

*Sadly, it looks like there's no DVD of the Met's production available yet. Other productions available on YouTube include Michael Powell's 1963 moviethis modern, noirish version; and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra's performance (in English).

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy Schmidt joined the heroines of Mad Max: Fury Road and Room by also escaping her Bluebeard in 2015. While Fury Road told the tale as an action movie and Room used stark realism, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt did a risky take - humor - and succeeded.

Better Call Saul: The prequel is off to a good start with this concise first season. While it shares characters and the gorgeous New Mexico setting with Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is developing its own brand of dark humor and character drama, and has its own breakout stars in Rhea Seehorn and Michael Mando. A highlight of the season was finally learning what happened with ex-cop Mike in Philadelphia in an episode that ended with a bravura monologue by Jonathan Banks. I'm hoping a future season will reveal the similarly hinted at dark past in Chile of Giancarlo Esposito's Gus.

South Park: South Park continues its high note as it nears drinking age. The satire in season nineteen was topical and withering without over-the-top seething. Targets included both politically correct ideology and reactionary conservatism, online advertising, gentrification (most notably in a stomach-churningly accurate condo commerical), and America's gun lust. And there was a nice break from the heaviness of real-world problems in a meta episode acknowledging one of the curiosities of the fandom: certain fans' obsession with the imagined romance between minor characters Tweek and Craig. The hilarious episode included musical montages set to fanart submitted by viewers.

Gotham: The pre-Batman Batman show hit its stride in the second season, leading with stellar performances by Cameron Monaghan (I will be so mad if Jerome's not in Indian Hill!), James Frain, Erin Richards, and the rest of  the regular cast. The intertwining of Gotham society's underbelly became more insidious than ever: Jim Gordon's relationship with Penguin's criminal enterprise became even deeper steeped in blood, Ed (the future Riddler) and Penguin became murder-buddies and roommates, and Wayne Enterprises was revealed to be working with Arkham Asylum on a series of inhumane medical experiments.

Besides the Jerome thing, my main complaints are the premature end of Sarah Essen and the unremarked upon absence of Renee Montoya. I hope Montoya's back in the second half of season two, which will feature the great BD Wong as Hugo Strange.


A Robert Dighton work from Luminous Worlds

Janet Delaney: South of Market at the de Young: SOMA is probably the best example of San Francisco's gentrification and housing bubble, so 2015 was the perfect year to look at Delaney's photos of the neighborhood as it was in the 70s and 80s.

Luminous Worlds: British Works on Paper at the Legion of Honor: Tucked away in one of the farthest corners of my favorite museum, this exhibition of physically delicate works by Turner, Beardsley, Blake, and more was truly luminous.

Time|less: Kappy Wells, The San Francisco Gallery: Working with sheetrock and charcoal, Wells captured the magnificence of the glaciers we are losing to global warming. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Pericles and Macbeth: Actors and Character

Pericles's wife dies in childbirth (or does she???)

On Friday, December 4, I saw the Justin Kurzel film of Macbeth, one of Shakespeare's most popular tragedies. On Saturday, December 12, I saw the Joseph Haj stage play of Pericles, one of Shakespeare's most unknown works to modern audiences (and probably containing early scenes added by another author). Both are visually beautiful, but they also both highlight in contrasting ways the importance of heart and character when turning words into performance.

The new Macbeth film has breathtaking cinematography of a wild, foggy, muddy, bitterly cold Scotland that will make you want to huddle under a blanket. It's a beautiful and bleak stage for the story. But while it makes sense to have the setting be relentlessly grim, the tone and performances are similarly unchanging.

Hey, lil mama lemme whisper in ya ear.

Let's start with an addition that a few reviews have mentioned: the movie starts with a silent scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at the funeral of their toddler daughter. The loss of a child is obliquely alluded to in the text of Macbeth, and the Macbeths-as-grieving-parents angle adds some weight to later scenes (Macbeth's pain as Banquo greets his own son, Lady Macbeth's regret as Macduff's children are killed).

But I think showing the Macbeths as deadened by grief was also a hindrance - we see almost nothing of how they "are" as a couple. In his letter to his wife telling her of the Weird Sisters' prophecy, Macbeth calls her his "dearest partner of greatness," no small thing given the gender roles of the time, but when they are reunited, we see almost no connection between them. There are so many ways actors can portray this marriage: co-dependent, love-hate, emotionally abusive, passionate, etc. It can be a marriage of convenience or the union of two devious soul mates. But there's a flatness to the performances here. I mean, just to put it all out there: there is a scene where Michael Fassbender fingerbangs Marion Cotillard while discussing murder, and it is boring.

The staging is also confusing and the monologues are cut up in a mix of performance and narration in an experiment that doesn't quite pay off.

Despite her famous obsession, Mr. Macbeth is clearly the one with dirty hands.

Now to leap to a production that seems the opposite of this in every way: Joseph Haj's Pericles.

This production was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2015 season. I've gone to Ashland the two years previous to this, but didn't this year. But the news that someone, somehow had made Pericles good trickled through Shakespeare media, and I had a pang of regret every time I saw a glowing review. So when I saw that the play's success meant it got a run at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, I had to take that second chance.

If you've never heard of Pericles, you're in good company. It's, well... It's silly and a little weird. This is a play where the opening includes a horrifying incestuous abuse revelation, where deus ex machina comes in the form of cartoonish pirates, and where a girl sold into sexual slavery is so good at preaching that her would-be johns dutifully run off to church instead. It is as far from Macbeth's gravitas as you can get.

Haj and his OSF cast embrace the silliness with open eyes but without derision. There's music and dancing. The narrator, John Gower (a contemporary of Chaucer and the author of the source material), is brought to life by a folksy, amiable Armando Duran, and with his charm and Haj's direction the pirate scene becomes a moment celebrating the fun of storytelling.

The entire cast bring this passion and energy to their performances. Characters who were lightly sketched in the text become people we care about on stage. Wayne T. Carr is compelling as brave, sensible, and caring Pericles, whose fortunes change drastically throughout the play. Brooke Parks is supremely lovable as Pericles' wife Thaisa and unrecognizably ice-cold as evil queen Dionyza. Jennie Greenberry and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend make their characters' sudden engagement believable. The supporting cast fill their multiple roles well, especially Cedric Lamar, Scott Ripley, Michael J. Hume, Barzin Akhavan, and U. Jonathan Toppo.

As texts, Pericles might not have the depth or skilled composition that Macbeth has, but this lovely production offers its audience humanity and joy. It runs through December 20 at the Folger Theatre in DC, and will run January 16 - February 21 at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

A happy moment before tragedy in Pericles

Side note: the Stratford Festival in Canada also had a well received Pericles this year, as Shakespeare cartoonist Mya Gosling reports. The popularity of individual Shakespeare plays tend to wax and wane through the years/decades/centuries...maybe Pericles is having a resurgence? I vote for King John to be next!

Image info:
Pericles production photos by Teresa Wood from Folger Shakespeare Library
Macbeth photos from the official Facebook page

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Welcome to Night Vale the Novel

Authors Jeffrey Cranor (center) and Joseph Fink (right) at the Castro Theatre

Although I like to think I'm not a crazy Welcome to Night Vale fangirl, I have been to four events for the hit spooky-funny-quirky podcast. In January 2014 I attended a panel at Haight-Ashbury's Booksmith and then a live show at the Mission's Victoria Theatre (I wrote about both events here). Earlier this year I caught a second live show at the much bigger Fox Theatre in Oakland. And on 10/29/15, I attended another Booksmith event: the release of Welcome to Night Vale the novel, held at the Castro Theatre.

The book, written by the co-writers of the podcast, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, has been rabidly anticipated by legions of fans and debuted at #4 on the New York Times bestsellers list. Having read it...I'm interested in what other fans think, mostly because I wasn't that into it. While I found the book entertaining, I didn't find it strong, deep, or lasting. Characterization and plotting issues took away from the enjoyment for me. Other reviewers, like speculative fiction stars Cory Doctorow and Amal El-Mohtar, have been effusive, so maybe there's something I'm missing. Maybe I'm like Cecil Palmer with Steve Carlsberg's scones. Or maybe I'm just Steve Carlsberg.

Fans line up for the 10/29/15 event

It's impossible to not compare the novel to the podcast, for better or worse. Not only are the tone and voice similar, but there are endless references to what's gone on in the fake newscast, and even segments of Cecil's reports. And while this dry, oddball humor often works well in the novel's prose, sometimes it falls short. This is especially true in the aforementioned news reports. Reading the transcripts makes you realize just how how much voice actor Cecil Baldwin brings to the material. Details that might have gotten laughs as asides on the podcast (the many rituals and oddities of the town) clutter up the pages here.

Despite the presence of Cecil's reports, the biggest change from the podcast is the lack of Cecil. His show is incorporated into the narrative, but he's not really present as a character. There are probably fans who are relieved by this, and fans who are deeply disappointed by this. Cecil's romance with scientist Carlos has been one of the most popular parts of the podcast, inspiring swoons and fan art galore, but it has also threatened to overpower the podcast at times, and some worry about the series devolving into pure fanservice. Cecil and Carlos are great, but Night Vale can and does excel even when they aren't in the picture (such as standout episodes "A Story About Them" and "The September Monologues," for example).

Like this, except they're an actual (fictional) couple

Fink and Cranor compromise here: Cecil and Carlos are not the protagonists, but how amazingly in love they are is mentioned about a billion times. It's not clear if this is an earnest attempt to appease fans or a self-parody. Carlos does get a cameo, as do other favorites like Cecil's sweet but hapless brother-in-law Steve, angelically protected Old Woman Josie, and intern-turned-mayor Dana Cardinal.

The main characters in the novel are two women we haven't seen much of before: Diane Crayton, single mom to a fifteen-year-old shape-shifting son, and Jackie Fierro, perpetually nineteen. Diane is unsure how to tell her son, Josh, about his absent father. Jackie doesn't know why she's perpetually nineteen. After a (or rather, the) man in a tan jacket gives them both notes reading "King City" and they both start seeing a blond man around town, their quests converge.

Diane, I felt, was the heart of the story. This wasn't surprising after hearing Jeffrey Cranor speak at the Castro event - he talked about how his own experience of being raised by a divorced mother helped him identify with the character of Diane. While this sort of personal history isn't a requirement, it is possibly why Diane feels so authentic. She's one of the most "normal" people we've seen in Night Vale: a PTA mom in a dull office job. But this normality alone isn't what makes her relatable - that comes from the specificity and depth Cranor gives her (although a collaboration, Cranor worked more on the "Diane" sections). The way she agonizes over what to write in a text, her mixed feelings about her secluded spot in the office, and her anxiety over meeting a colleague outside of work make her not just a stock "soccer mom," but a real woman we care about.

We get nearly none of that with Jackie. Her backstory is intriguing and typically Night Valean: a girl who has been nineteen for decades, watching her former classmates grow up and grow old. She can't remember her childhood or how she started working at the pawn shop she returns to everyday. But all we get of her character are a few signifiers. For example, she says "man" and "dude" a lot. Sometimes she's a retiring homebody and sometimes she acts in a way that seems intended to make the reader say, "What a badass." While plenty of people are sometimes homebodies and sometimes badasses, her personality shifts seem to have more to do with the needs of the plot than with her own complexity or growth. So much of how the plot progresses has to do with the bond Jackie and Diane develop, but that bond felt forced and artificial to me.

Fink spoke of being drawn to Jackie much like Cranor was drawn to Diane, but it's hard to say what he sees in her and wants to show us. This is especially frustrating when you consider the many characters of the podcast who became dear to listeners with just a handful of well chosen words. Why weren't the writers able to do in a novel what they can do in a few sentences? Would a voice actor have been able to bring to Jackie what Fink and Cranor couldn't? Maybe those listening to the audio book read by Baldwin will have a different impression.

Spoilers below Hiram!

Beyond the characterization issues, the plotting falls apart a bit at the end. Our protagonists finally get to King City, and there are some haunting and unsettling descriptions of the town, but we don't get much of a satisfying conclusion at our destination. The explanation for the ubiquitous "King City" notes was almost definitely thought of after the fact. We finally meet Troy, Josh's (and Jackie's) father, but we don't learn much about him, and why one of his children was thought to be needed by the city is unclear. Why is Jackie stuck at nineteen? Is it because of who her father is or just a Night Vale thing? These questions are answered with a shrug, but it's a shrug that feels unearned.

My biggest disappointment was the revelation of the identity of the man in the tan jacket. The mysterious character with his deerskin suitcase full of flies has haunted Night Vale since episode 14 in 2013, and he always seemed to be a part of one of the secrets behind the scenes, possibly with ties to former mayor Pamela Winchell. It turns out he's the mayor of King City but was forgotten because of Troy for some reason and needs to spend more time with his family? You deserved better, Evan Eric Elliott man in the tan jacket!

Image info:
Crappy photos: mine
South Park: from episode "Tweek X Craig," which is amazing
Welcome to Night Vale novel cover: official page
Hiram McDaniels: Night Vale Wikia

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Eff the Haters; Pan is Bonkers But Fun

Note date in lower right corner.

When the first trailer for Pan landed - who knows how long ago, since this movie got shelved once or twice - I knew two things immediately: it looked questionable, and my friend JD and I would definitely see it. I don't remember how Peter Pan became a thing for us. We've been friends for over 15 years, and somewhere along the way the Peter Pan thing happened. Maybe because we both watched the Mary Martin version a billion times as children? Because of the Peter Pan marathon party she threw when the terrible sequel Return to Never Land came out in 2002? Because she forced me to read the actual Barrie novel and it was actually really interesting?

Anyways, we were obviously going to see this movie together, despite the Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily drama, despite the weirdness of Flamboyant Blackbeard Hugh Jackman, despite the delayed release, despite the mountain of bad reviews. And so we saw it this past Sunday.

And it was amazing.

I don't mean that it was a masterpiece of cinema. But we had feared a bland, characterless, rote fiasco, and this was a much better kind of fiasco. This is a crazy, loving, fanficish fiasco. Spoilers below.

His boat has his face on it.

It starts out with a not unfamiliar British setting: bright-eyed troublemaker Peter and his best friend get into mischief in an orphanage run by sadistic nuns. Blah blah blah brick in the blah. Then we learn that the nuns are selling children to fantastical flying pirates: Blackbeard and his drag show/circus-themed crew, and Peter is one of the victims.

Let's just focus on that for a moment. This human trafficking deal between English nuns and Neverland pirates is never explained or brought up again. Despite Neverland being unknown in "our" world, these nuns somehow have a way to communicate with the pirates for these transactions. Maybe this is a Vatican secret?

Moving on, as the pirates re-enter Neverland with their human cargo there are some absolutely gorgeous special effects involving fish and crocodiles swimming in floating spheres of water, and then we're in a giant mine and Blackbeard is leading all the miners in singing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a cappella.

At this point JD and I fucking lost it. WTF was happening? Was this a Moulin Rouge shout-out, since that movie also used that song in similarly blase fashion? Was Blackbeard leading a Nirvana cult? Were they all going to sing "Rape Me" next?

Trying to out-Johnny Depp Johnny Depp.

In the mines where kidnapped men and boys from around the globe dig for pixie dust, which Blackbeard needs to snort through a Darth Vader mask to stay young, Peter meets Captain Hook, who at that point is just Hook and has both hands, and Hook's work buddy Sam "Smee" Smiegel, a clipboard-carrying middle-management guy.

Hook is super hot, a trend started by Jason Isaacs in Universal's 2003 Peter Pan (probably the best version to date) and taken to the next level by Colin O'Donoghue in Disney's franchise soap Once Upon a Time. WB's entry in this Hot Pirate Cold War is Garrett Hedlund, who is indeed very hot and likable. The Hot Pirate Cold War is not entirely non-canon.

I thought Hedlund's voice sounded like Tom Hardy's in Mad Max: Fury Road, and JD thought he sounded like Karl Urban as McCoy in the new Star Trek movies. Both of us assumed he was a non-American trying and failing to do an American accent, but that's actually his voice and he's from Minnesota. That's what Minnesotans sound like, I guess (JD and I are born and bred Silicon Valley girls, so obviously we have no accents...to our ears, at least). Why is James Hook, who in the Barrie story is so English he attended Eton now a Minnesotan miner? Who knows. At least Hook's future life partner Smee is a British person: Adeel Akhtar, best known for prescient terrorism comedy Four Lions.

Peter, Hook, and Smee are hunted by the Neverbird.

After an unremarked upon child murder and Peter waking up in Blackbeard's bed to learn that he's thought to be the foretold messiah of Neverland, Hook, Smee, and Peter manage an escape during which Hook learns to fly a ship in trial-by-fire fashion. Then they crash in the Neverland forest and have some Timon/Pumba/Simba hang-out time until the "Savages" kidnap them.

What to do with the stereotypical Indians of Barrie's 1904 story has been a conundrum for modern retellings. This version decided to go with no Native American imagery and a multicultural cast, including Aboriginal Australian Jack Charles and South Korean Na Tae-joo. But despite considering actresses such as Pooja Hegde and Lupita Nyong'o for the role of Tiger Lily, they went with white Rooney Mara. I mean, I remember my mom explaining the issues with a blonde Tiger Lily back when I was watching the Mary Martin VHS in the early 1990s, and that was a 1960 production. Mara does fine as a slightly cold warrior who eye-fucks Garrett Hedlund, but let's be honest: anyone could eye-fuck Garrett Hedlund.


And here's another big departure from Peter Pan canon: the Hook/Tiger Lily romance. Tiger Lily is traditionally around Wendy's age and like her, gunning for a relationship with Peter that Peter, who will never go through puberty, can vaguely sense but can't fully reciprocate. Here she's older and knew Peter's mother (Amanda Seyfried): a sex slave of Blackbeard's who was saved by the prince of the fairies, fucked that fairy to create Peter, and then returned to Neverland to fight to the death alongside the Tribe and the fairies against the pirates.

By the way, when members of the Tribe die, they explode into brightly colored powder like a Color Run of Death.


Then we've got some pretty typical action-adventure plotting. Smee betrays the group to the pirates (albeit on threat of death), solving/ruining a potential Smee/Hook/Tiger Lily love triangle. Peter can't fly because he doesn't believe in himself. Hook and Tiger Lily eye-fuck, unable to do more since this is a PG movie and they're also with Peter most of the time. Hook takes an abandoned ship and leaves to go back home (Minnesota?) alone, but predictably returns just in time to help save the day, having realized Neverland is his real home (or maybe Minnesota just sucks). Peter and Tinkerbell have an obligatory meeting. Peter believes in himself and flies. Blackbeard is killed. Peter gets to talk with his dead mom via fairies becoming a pixelated image of her?

Anyway, for the happy ending, Peter, Hook, and Tiger Lily take the flying ship back to the orphanage and rescue/kidnap all the orphans. Then the group heads back to "second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."

I liked the ending, but wow... We close with a happy makeshift family: Dad Hook, Mom Tiger Lily, and Son Peter. But the opening narration hinted that the rest of the traditional Peter Pan story will still happen. Which means if we're sticking to canon, at some point:

-Peter chops off Hook's hand and deliberately feeds it to a crocodile
-Tiger Lily develops romantic feelings for Peter
-Hook attempts to murder Tiger Lily by slow drowning, and also wants to murder Peter and the orphanageload of kids he just helped rescue.


On the drive back from the theater, JD and I tried to imagine how this Breaking Bad-level familial destruction would happen. Does Hook take too many "fishing trips" with Smee? Does someone become a blue pixie dust kingpin? Apparently lots of tearful and shouted recriminations are in store for our adorable leads.

Reverse course! Reverse course!

Random notes:

-The movie is beautiful and the 3-D is worthwhile.

-This story starts during WWII, even though the original Peter Pan is placed much earlier. It's possible this flash forward was solely for the Blitzkrieg scene, although I'd like to hold out hope that the time change is meant to indicate we're seeing a different Peter Pan whose new surrogate family maybe won't become a Euripides tragedy.

-Levi Miller is a good child actor. Although this version didn't feel classically "Peter Pan" (this Peter seems too grounded to me to morph into the somewhat sociopathic anti-adult original), the role asked a lot emotionally of its star, and Miller delivered.

-Peter's fairy dad used his one day alive as a human to have sex with Amanda Seyfried. Understandable.

-Speaking of which, I liked that Peter's parents were a "warrior and a prince" instead of the more common "warrior and a princess." I also liked that his mom trained Tiger Lily in warfare.

-When Hook, Smee, and Peter are first captured by the Tribe, to spare their lives Hook has to defeat the Tribe's strongest warrior (in trampoline-aided combat). JD was hoping Hook's Rufio would be that warrior, but alas, I don't think this production had the rights to the sexual awakening of millions of older millennials. Rufio would match the Tribe's crafting-disaster aesthetic, though.


-Astoundingly, Hugh Jackman's weird Blackbeard getup is apparently the one he's worn that most gets his wife's motor running. Do you think they kept the bustle for private use?

-That Hook is a good guy softie in this version is a huge change, but I think it makes sense when you consider the history and meta nature of the Hook role. Traditionally, the actor playing Hook also plays Mr. Darling (originally Barrie was going to have Hook be a double role for the Mrs. Darling actress, but changed it to Mr. Darling before showtime). The idea is that for children, adults - especially parents - are both loving protectors and meanie villains who don't let you do what you want. With gentle, nerdy Mr. Darling (the Disney animated movie slanders him) out of the picture for this film, Hook takes on a welcomed paternal role for Peter's early years as Peter Pan. The hand-chopping times come closer to adolescence when you start getting weird feelings about Mom.

-There will probably not be a sequel, and I kind of hope there's not. I enjoyed this movie, and I love King Lear, but I don't want to see Peter Pan: King Lear. I'm just going to imagine everything's nice and peaceful and that when Hook and Tiger Lily have ridiculously gorgeous children, Smee babysits. Basically, this is not a remix I would have ever imagined, but I was won over.

-Other not-so-bleak possibility for the future: maybe Hook will have to fill the power void left by Blackbeard in order to prevent someone worse from doing so, and he'll have some sort of "we'll pretend to be enemies but not really" arrangement with the Tribe and the Lost Boys a la Wicked or The Dark Knight? If I'm overthinking this, I blame being up at 5am with kidney stones.

Actually...she is kinda checking him out in 1911.

Image info:
Most: MovPins
1911 title page: Wikipedia

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Movies I Want Right Now That I Can't Have Right Now

Get it, Mia!

There are a number of movies coming up that I'm impatient to see. Some will be out in a few weeks, some in nearly a year, but they all feel like they're taking forever to get here. Here are the movies I'm most mad I can't see yet, in order of release date.

Crimson Peak

Do it for all of us, Mia

I jump when my toast pops up, so this movie will probably terrify me. But that's okay, because it's Tom Hiddleston. And, as the trailer has promised, he takes off his clothes (I'm a lot more understanding of stuff like Sports Illustrated's swimsuit annual now that so many movies cater to the female gaze). Hiddleston teams up with his onscreen sister-in-law from Only Lovers Left Alive, Mia Wasikowska, general phenom Jessica Chastain, and the guy who said "MAKO" a lot in Pacific Rim in this Guillermo del Toro haunted house movie. With a great cast, great director, and lush Gothic visuals, I'm sure the nightmares will be worth it.

Bonus Upcoming Hiddleston: Loki and the Scarlet Witch will pair up to do Southern accents in I Saw the Light, AND he's also starring in High-Rise.

Using the teaser trailer because of the cover of Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand." Nick Cave is always a plus.

Out: October 16, 2015


Entertain your captive child with Eggshell Snake(tm)!

The "princess locked in a tower" trope is ancient. And while it features in countless fairy tales and video games, it's rooted in the very real fear that if you're a woman, some asshole might kidnap you and imprison you somewhere in order to rape you repeatedly. The Cleveland and Jaycee Dugard cases are just two of the biggest headline-makers of the past few years. These horrors have been reflected in contemporary culture in various ways, including Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which creates bright humor out of darkness. Room, by Emma Donoghue, is a thoughtful wonder of a novel. Embracing the challenge of writing a non-cloying child narrator, Donoghue tells the story of two survivors: a young woman who was kidnapped and the son she births and raises in captivity.

I'm sharing the teaser trailer here because the full trailer is kind of an all-over-the-place mess. I hope the movie itself does the book justice.

Out: October 16, 2015


Did you spend all our blood money at Sephora?

If you're Michael Fassbender or Marion Cotillard and also married to either Marion Cotillard or Michael Fassbender, I'm not sure why you would strive for anything else; you have reached peak achievement. Just chill in that French-Irish sea of beauty. But the Macbeths refuse to chill when it comes to the possibility of ruling Scotland in the 1040s, even though it's not like crowns are going to get them indoor plumbing or anything else remotely good. I'm really excited for this. After the disaster of last year's Cymbeline, we need (or at least I want, because I'm greedy) a big, successful Shakespeare adaptation to follow the promise of 2014's blockbuster broadcast of Coriolanus (more Tom, no apologies) and the near-perfect 2013 Much Ado About Nothing. I'm pissed that we're getting this two months after the UK does, in December instead of October. Are they sending an actual reel of the film by dinghy? Maybe they're hoping the Christmas spirit will make Americans more likely to see Shakespeare, even if it's the play containing the famous lines:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

God bless us, every one!

Out: December 4, 2015  >:(

Batman vs Superman

Oooooooh, Superman's in trouble.

I think all DC fans are on pins and needles for these next two. Like most of the internet, I found the Batman vs Superman marketing pretty laughable (So grimdark! Ben Affleck? What's with the title - is the Kent family farm in a class action against Wayne Enterprises?), but I'm including the above screenshot because that's the exact moment I gained some faith in Batfleck. Seeing him run through Superman-caused destruction to save a small child and then glare at the sky convinced me that this Bruce Wayne is pissed off and motivated enough to really take on the Man of Steel.

Out: March 25, 2016

Suicide Squad

A true gentleman carries a lady when she's trapped in unusable shoes.

The "DC = grimdark" fears were further fanned by San Diego Comic Con footage of Suicide Squad set to morose music, but hopefully David Ayer's film has some actual fun in it. I mean, it is about an off-the-books supervillain task force whose members have names like Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc. But it's likely that a good portion of Suicide Squad's success will depend, fairly or not, on its two most popular characters: Harley Quinn and the Joker. Margot Robbie seems perfect for Harley (this is the character's first live-action appearance), although it's weird that someone born in 1990 will be in a romantic triangle with Jordan Catalano and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There's been a lot of drama regarding both Robbie's and Jared Leto's characters' design (though mostly Leto's), and to be fair, it's pretty easy to imagine Robbie Quinn and Joker Leto re-enacting this scene, though obviously Batman would never let anyone choke to death on their own vomit.

What the dynamic between them will be also has a lot of fans anxious. Interpretations of the relationship can range from "supervillains in love" to "Harley is the poster child for domestic violence." Their relationship origin story has been told various ways in the canon, but I prefer it when Harley's transformation to supervillain Harley Quinn is done by her own initiative. Is a good decision? No, but it's hers. The Adam Glass version in the "new 52" Suicide Squad comics, the most probable source material for the film, is my least favorite. Not only does Harley not have a say in becoming Harley Quinn, she wasn't even deviously planning on a trashy tell-all true-crime book while treating the Joker - her boss was. She does kill her boss and free the Joker when she finds out, but it's done in a sort of fugue state. Weak.

So I've gone on for two paragraphs while barely mentioning any of the other characters/actors, which I feel is going to be pretty typical for this movie. Sorry, guys! Viola Davis will likely be fantastic as boss lady Amanda Waller. Will Smith has the right former-military-precision/soulful-interior look for Deadshot. I'm also looking forward to seeing Catholic gangster supervillain El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and stereotypical Aussie supervillain Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), whom I call Sargent Australia in my head.

Sidenote: I love that we now have a real-life DC villain marriage with Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith.

Here's the trailer, which was first seen as leaked SDCC footage. How do you do have a Bee Gees song in a Suicide Squad trailer without it being "Stayin' Alive"???

Out: August 5, 2016

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Let's Speculate on Gotham's Probably-Joker's Amazing Wardrobe

And. Here. We. Go.

I was totally prepared to hate Jerome. The premise of Gotham is/was "Gotham before Batman," with Bruce Wayne as a recently orphaned tween and Jim Gordon as a rookie cop. Seeing a city steadily decay and burn over the years to the point where a high-tech vigilante dressed as a bat seems like a reasonable solution sounds like a great prequel.

But either the writers or the studio or both could not help themselves, and tons of established Batman characters have been crammed into the show already, despite Bruce Wayne being a child at this point. I was hoping they could at least refrain from blowing their Joker load, but near the end of Season 1 came the extremely unsubtle teasers that the mythology's #1 scene-stealer since Batman #1 would be appearing.

If Batman pursues us, we'll step into a 21+ establishment.

I didn't like the lack of restraint; I didn't like the cloying campaign; and I didn't like that assuming this is Joker and not an obnoxious bait-and-switch, he has a known background (he's not a John Doe, his name is Jerome, and he grew up in future-Robin's grandpa's circus being forced to listen to clown sex).

But alas, Cameron Monaghan won me over with a virtuoso performance of a monologue delivered in the presence of Inara from Firefly and Uncle Hector from Breaking Bad. I'm not an actor, but my advice to young actors would be that when performing a monologue for an audition, definitely do it while flanked by Inara and Uncle Hector. Maybe Kaylee and Skinny Pete in a pinch.

Anyways, like the 1960s Batman series, Gotham's best assets have been good actors having the time of their lives as flamboyant villains (RIP Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney), and previews of Season 2 (premieres Sept. 21) suggest we'll be getting a lot of Monaghan's Jerome, who appears to be high on the "I'm not a carny anymore" life. Joker-fashion focus has been on Jared Leto's version, but Monaghan, finally out of that blue sweater, is also getting a lot of fabulous costumes. What do they mean? Let's speculate.

This screenshot is from this clip, where Jerome and Barbara do some flirting in Arkham Asylum. Barbara is clearly the fashion standout here thanks to her clever re-purposing of the traditional convict stripes to form a cute summery dress, which is apparently allowed, but Jerome's not looking bad either, showing off his undershirt in a Stanley Kowalski move. This isn't a dynamic we've seen before, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out (and how and if Barbara ends up back with Jim to produce Batgirl). If she's not the one, Jerome, don't worry: Arkham remains a great place to meet your significant other.

Rampant speculation: Jerome is so going to be future-serial-killer Jim Gordon Jr.'s biological dad.

These pics from Just Jared show Jerome in what seems to be the world's most fashionable and least effective straitjacket. It looks great, but there do not seem to be any arm restraints, which I think is the only point of a straitjacket? To be fair, arm restraints would make it harder to hijack that bus and thus pay homage to The Dark Knight and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Rampant speculation: Jerome's clearly Arkham's problem child from Day 1. Here he incites rebellion when the questionable asylum rents the inmates out as backup dancers for a Lady Gaga video.

Why is Jerome dressed like Hugh Hefner? It looks like he's out of Arkham at this point, unless Arkham is holding some sort of inmate smoking jacket competition, maybe as an attempt to make amends for the Lady Gaga incident.

Rampant speculation: Ok, this is actually interesting. In the clip showing the above scene, Jerome appears to be coached by Season 2 newcomer Theo Galavan, who some think might actually be Ra's Al Ghul. This still doesn't explain the Hefnerwear, but oh well.

Jerome is already causing havoc in stolen uniforms, seemingly another nod to the Joker's actions in The Dark Knight. Does Gotham realize at this point just how much of the city's annual budget will be dedicated to dealing with this guy?

Rampant speculation: At the end of the season, Jerome goes good and becomes an upstanding GCPD officer. He is such a great cop that Batman is never needed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Run, Tom, Run: Tom at the Farm

I'm new to the work of director Xavier Dolan, who is new to the world, having been born in 1989. Despite not yet reaching 30, the Quebecois Dolan recently finished his sixth full-length movie. Tom at the Farm/Tom a la Ferme is his fourth; while it was released in 2013, it only got its stateside viewing last week.

Tom at the Farm is an adaptation of the Michel Marc Bouchard play, and actors Lise Roy and Pierre-Yves Cardinal reprise their stage roles. I haven't seen or read the play (the San Francisco Public Library's copy is currently MIA), so I don't know how closely this version follows it. Regardless, it stands on its own as an artsy thriller.

After the sudden death of his boyfriend Guy, cosmopolitan Tom (Dolan) leaves Montreal to attend the funeral in Guy's distant, rural hometown. He finds Guy's dreary childhood farmhouse (a place with no cellphone reception, always a red flag in movies) and meets Guy's mother, Agathe (Roy), who doesn't know who he is, and Francis (Cardinal), the older brother Guy never mentioned, who knows exactly who he is. Guy left home at sixteen, and the story that has been relayed to Agathe from Francis is that Guy (proper name Guillaume, as Francis firmly insists on calling him) was straight and had been in a long-term relationship with a co-worker named Sarah.

Cardinal, Roy, and Dolan at an awkward funeral

Francis violently forces Tom to play out this lie, and this eventually leads to him also violently keeping Tom at the farm. Cardinal brings such a frightening, alluring mixture of subtlety and raw physical power to the brutish Francis that it's clear why Dolan brought him on for the film. While Tom's first instinct is to get away from this hick bully, he's also drawn to Francis. Francis reminds him of Guy, both in appearance, and, it's hinted, in the sexual roles they find themselves playing. When the two fall into a perfect tango and Francis asks Tom who taught him to dance, he doesn't answer and doesn't need to. This might shed some light on Tom and Guy's relationship, but more so and alarmingly, it seems to illuminate what Francis and Guy's was.

Soon, it's not just the fact that Francis removed his car's wheels that's keeping Tom at the farm. When Tom uses the farmhouse's landline to call the real Sarah, it's not a plothole that has made him forget he had that option all along despite his useless cellphone. But whether he's made the choice to stay willingly or has succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome, the farm is still a place of danger. Shortly after a revelation chillingly scored to Corey Hart's cheesy 80s hit "Sunglasses at Night," Tom must rethink his decision.

Dolan's been called narcissistic for shots like this, but he is very pretty. 

I can see Tom at the Farm being one of those "love it or hate it" pieces: it's beautiful and intense, but its lack of defined answers will be aggravating for some. This is a movie where everything is implied, and you have to put the pieces together yourself or even just say "screw it" and commit to your own interpretation with little to no evidence. What does an empty table mean? What about twin beds pushed together? Lise Roy's excellent performance feeds into this ambiguity - it's clear she's anguished, but it's uncertain what she knows about either of her sons.

Tom at the Farm is currently playing at the 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Midsummer Night in Silicon Valley and Hollywood

Puck and Oberon react to a phone (photo by Evelyn Huynh)

A Midsummer Night's Dream has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, and I've gone to performances by Silicon Valley Shakespeare (formerly Shady Shakespeare) for many years, so I had to see their production of Shakespeare in Hollywood, a play about a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, ASAP. It opened last Friday and runs through the end of August. Written by Ken Ludwig, the work was originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

The set-up is that after the events of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck (lively Lucy Littlewood) screws up transporting himself and Oberon (stately Walter Mayes) back to their forest, instead landing them in 1930's Hollywood, where Max Reinhardt's film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is starting production. The duo soon find themselves cast as themselves in the movie, which is plagued by missing actors, push-back from the studio, and threats of censorship. Puck enjoys the movie star life (especially the Rolexes and sunglasses), and Oberon finds himself falling for the film's Hermia, Olivia de Havilland (April Culver). And, of course, that magic flower makes an appearance and creates some romantic chaos.

How movies get made (photo by Evelyn Huynh)

The script itself is clever and sweet, and SV Shakespeare does a wonderful job with it, doing a lot with their talented cast and small budget. Everyone feels perfectly cast, from our two otherworldly stars to the exasperated Reinhardt (Roger Hooper) and the priggish villain (James Lucas).

Ludwig's version of Reinhardt's production is fictionalized (Reinhardt couldn't speak English at the time, Jean Muir is replaced by a fun character played by Danielle Williams, etc.), but I still wanted to revisit the 1935 movie after leaving the outdoor theater at Sanborn Park. I'd tried to watch it before. Tried. But despite seeing many, many Dream productions of varying quality, the Reinhardt version's hacked-up script and weird acting idiosyncrasies threw me off. And I got through all of A Midsummer Night's Rave.

Bad trip from Midsummer Night's Rave or puppet from the '35 Dream?

But after Shakespeare in Hollywood, I decided to give it another try. It's not on Netflix or Amazon streaming, but you can rent or buy it on YouTube. It's probably at many libraries, too, but I was in a hurry.

When I watched/tried to watch it before, after wincing through the reassembled dialogue of the first scenes, I made it to the fairies' introduction before noping out of there. First we meet Mickey Rooney (already a showbiz vet at fourteen) as Puck in a jarringly rushed and dubbed "whither wander you" scene. Rooney's is an odd performance to watch, because he handles the Shakespearean language so well but his manic over-acting feels amateurish (he "cackles like a drunken hyena at no one in particular" as Film School Rejects put it). I'm guessing this has to do with the state of the craft in the awkward vaudeville/silent film/talkies transitions era. Acting was still adjusting to this new medium.

Then we have the entrance of Titania (Anita Louise), whose prancing, giggling, and high-pitched random sing-songing was off-putting to me, accustomed to more serious Titanias (her speeches on the natural world's confusion and the mother of the baby she's raising are left out and pared down, respectively). "Please just hand Oberon the baby," I silently pleaded as she erratically gamboled, seemingly moments away from an ambulance ride from Coachella. Fortunately, she levels out later in the film.

Pretty as hell, though.

De Havilland and Muir are well cast as Hermia and Helena, but I don't know if the scene establishing their friendship was not filmed or just not in the cut I saw (apparently there are several). Dick Powell doesn't seem quite comfortable as Lysander (he supposedly tried to get out of the role) and Ross Alexander is fine as Demetrius. The traditional cherry-on-top of the play, the Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-the-play, gets short-changed by having the lovers' funny commentary and Theseus's reasoning for seeing it in the first place changed.

I think this film works better as an artifact of 1930s silver screen gorgeousness than as a Shakespeare production, but that might not be entirely fair on my part. Because I know the source material so innately, all of the film's edits and reorganizing stand out to me, creating plot holes and lack of context, but I can't know how the finished product reads to someone new to the story.

Hippolyta is not interested in whatever Theseus has to say.

And there were elements I really liked. Mainly: the beauty. The film is composed almost entirely of moments that look like Erte or Mucha at their best. The forest alone is certainly worthy of the "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows" speech. Reinhardt lingers on sylvan scenes of deer, fairies, owls, and flowers all lit by moonlight and fireflies. Without CGI, the special effects are gauzy twinkle-lights and multiple exposures (and a Shetland pony with a unicorn horn headband). Especially impressive are the trains of fairies, including the contested scene mentioned in Shakespeare in Hollywood in which one of Titania's white fairies succumbs to one of Oberon's black fairies (more about that dance here).

As in the 1981 TV movie, this Titania and Bottom (James Cagney) are both so great with the little kids playing fairies that you kinda want them to make it work and have a laid-back fairy family in the woods. Also re: Cagney, seeing the film made me even more impressed with the Cagney and Joe Brown impersonations done in Shakespeare in Hollywood by Shawn Andrei (disclosure: former co-worker from a long time ago) and Erik Browne.

I'm glad I finally finished this A Midsummer Night's Dream, even if it's not the perfect A Midsummer Night's Dream, which probably only exists in my mind. Watch it if you want to see something beautiful and interesting, and see Shakespeare in Hollywood if you're in the Bay Area and want to have a good time.

1935 Oscar Winner: Best Unicorn

Silicon Valley Shakespeare production photos from their Facebook
1935 A Midsummer Night's Dream screenshots complements of my laptop's print screen button

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Two Films from Frameline39

I was fortunate to get two free tickets for this year's Frameline39, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. The popular festival features dozens of diverse movies, documentaries, and shorts from all over the world. At last year's festival I watched Out in East Berlin, a documentary with a wide range of viewpoints about being gay in the GDR in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This year I picked two international narrative films: Liz in September from Venezuela and All About E from Australia.

Patricia Velasquez and Eloisa Maturén in Liz in September

Liz in September/Liz en Septiembre

A few years ago, I had a type of thyroid cancer: papillary thyroid carcinoma. This is generally one of the most treatable cancers. The surgeon chops out your thyroid, maybe you get a little radiation thrown in, and you take a pill every morning. But despite how non-lethal my own brush with malignant cells was, post-thyroidectomy I cry uncontrollably at cancer movies. 50/50The Fault in Our Stars, and now Liz in September are all films that have made me wipe my eyes with my Muni-germ hands.

Liz in September is a Venezuelan film from director Fina Torres. It's based on an American play, Last Summer at Bluefish Cove by Jane Chambers. Liz (Patricia Velasquez) has had an unspecified cancer before, and now it's back and terminal. However, she keeps this diagnosis secret during the beach vacation she's having with friends (an excellent supporting cast) to celebrate her 37th birthday. The tight-knit group is interrupted by Eva (Eloisa Maturén), whose car has broken down. Liz's friends give her the challenge of seducing the apparently straight newcomer, not knowing how vulnerable Eva is: her young son has died, and her husband is having an affair. Still, romance blooms as Liz teaches Eva how to scuba dive and takes her on motorcycle and boat rides. Velasquez gives a subtle, deep performance with pain and humor. Maturén, a former ballerina, is endearing in her first acting role.

I'm not familiar with Chambers's play, but Torres's adaptation is gorgeous and warm. I wanted to be at that beach and at that inn, swimming, reading, and eating fresh fruit. As beautiful as the film is, it was apparently very hard to get made - Torres explained during the Q&A that this "labor of love" was many years in the making, and thanked producer Laura Oramas for saving the production from various last-minute emergencies. Their determination is inspiring for anyone working on their own long-term passion project.

L to R: ASL interpreter, producer Laura Oramas, Patricia Velasquez, 
Maria Luisa Flores, Eloisa Maturén, director Fina Torres, emcee

All About E

On Monday night I saw All About E, an Australian comedy/drama/romance/thriller from director Louise Wadley. E (Mandahla Rose) is a star DJ who parties hard and womanizes harder. But she's also stuck with her controlling, sleazy boss (Simon Bolton) and is so determined to stay in the closet to her Lebanese immigrant parents that she has her best friend Matt (Brett Rogers) pose as her husband. Perhaps because of these constrictions, when a duffel bag of cash appears she impulsively goes on the run with it, dragging Matt along, and we soon learn that deep down, all she really wants is to play the clarinet and settle down with a farmgirl.

The film felt tonally inconsistent to me, but this might be a quirk of Australian comedic cinema. Although they hold together better as dramedies, Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, are similarly erratic and were both mentioned by Wadley as inspiration. All About E is a mix of realistic, authentic moments contrasted with sometimes cartoonish characters and actions fueled mainly by plot. I definitely had some questions at the end (What was up with E and her boss? Why do they still have to get in the plane?), but it's an enjoyable ride.

A lot of that enjoyment is due to the leading ladies: Rose and Julia Billington. Although Billington claimed during the Q&A that she's a "city girl," she's totally believable as a tough but heartbroken country girl riding around on a tractor. The chemistry between Rose and Billington is such that you have to root for their characters' romance, even though E is a mess. That E remains sympathetic is thanks to Rose's performance. The beautiful music by Basil Hogios and Joseph Tawadros and cinematography by Justine Kerrigan are also highlights.

L to R: Simon Bolton, Brett Rogers, Julia Billington,
Mandahla Rose, producer Jay Rutovitz, director Louise Wadley

Frameline39 continues through this Sunday, June 28. An encore presentation of All About E will screen in Piedmont on Wednesday, and it will screen at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 12. Liz in September will also be screening at Outfest on July 12.