Friday, July 21, 2017

FISH TALE

So, this just crossed my virtual desk.

Normally, of course, I wait until I actually see a movie before I start raving about it. But I think this just shot to the top of my list of (potential) favorite movies of 2017!

(Despite stiff competition already from Franck and Their Finest.)

From the great Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), behold the new trailer for The Shape of Water.

Looks to me like a gender-reversed Little Mermaid meets Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a little Beauty and the Beast tossed in, just to spice things up!

And you know how much I love a good mer-folk tale!

Opens Dec 8 on a big screen near you.

I am SO there!


Sunday, July 16, 2017

COLD COMFORT

Are we psyched up yet for the Game of Thrones season premiere tonight?

Much has changed since last summer, when Season 6 ended. The Obamas were in the White House, and some determined stabs at social progress were still being made — like the international Paris Climate Agreement — despite the torporous just-say-no congress here at home.

But now everything has changed, to the point that our so-called "real" life has begun to mirror George R. R. Martin's art in sinister ways. The tagline for GoT Season 7 is "Winter Is Here," and boy do we know how that feels!

Winter has been here in our political landscape since January, and now that it's mid-July, it just keeps getting colder. That's just a metaphor, of course, as abnormal heat waves continue to ravish large pockets of the planet.

But in the GoT universe, the threat is very literal. A vast, unstoppable army of the undead, led by giant, frozen, immortal White Walkers, are advancing out of the North with but one objective — to obliterate every mortal in its path until the entire known world is reduced to frozen wasteland.

Jon Snow: blade-wielding
As metaphors go, this one is pretty acute for the destructive power of Nature unleashed on petty humans who have failed miserably as caretakers, and continue to ignore the warning that — yes — "Winter Is Coming." (Which dedicated Thronies will recall, was the tagline way back in Season 1.)

(There's actually a second tagline for Season 7, the even more ominous,"The End Begins.")

So now, along with the usual fear of fan-abuse that comes with every new GoT season, as we wait in dread for which of our favorite characters will be killed off, we also have to worry about the whole of the Seven Kingdoms getting overrun by the white menace.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, what armorer has forged the Valeyrian steel blade to vanquish our own White Walker-in-Chief, and his ghoulish, giraffe-killing sons? And where is our Jon Snow to wield it?

And who will step up with the savvy wit and the brains of Tyrion Lannister, and the passion for justice of dragon-girl Daenerys Targaryen, to lead us out of this morass?

Daenerys, Tyrion and company to the rescue!
Season 7 will run for only seven episodes (instead of the usual ten), followed by an even shorter final Season 8, next summer, which will be reduced to only six episodes. The days are literally numbered for the GoT universe.

Let's hope the same is not true for us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

RUNNER'S HIGH

Smolin and Rao: mysterious
Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off season with uproarious 39 Steps

It's not exactly the Bard, but the 2017 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare gets off to a ripping start with The 39 Steps.

Based on an adventure novel by John Buchan, famously made into Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller movie, the story gets another makeover in director Paul Mullins' uproarious production — long on sly wit, short on logic, and absolutely irresistible.

This 2005 stage adaptation by English playwright Patrick Barlow is an exercise in comic audacity. All the parts are played by a cast of four — three men and one woman —in a variety of costumes, accents, and disguises.

Gilmore, Ryan, Smolin: strangers on a train
Barlow takes his inspiration mostly from the movie (especially in the '30s period setting), and nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to Hitchcock and his oeuvre pop up throughout.

You don't have to know the film to enjoy the play, but those familiar with the Hitchcock version will get a special kick out of the sheer chutzpah of this interpretation.

At its center is Richard Hannay (Brian Smolin), a bored young man puttering around his London flat one evening who decides to distract himself by "doing something mindless and utterly useless — I'll go to the theatre!" It's the first step on the road to disaster.

At a music hall performance by a mentalist called Mr. Memory (Allen Gilmore) and his partner/handler (Mike Ryan), Hannay meets Annabella (Grace Rao), a sexy dame with a ripe German accent, who begs to come home with him.

Stagecraft: Smolin falls from a (ladder) train trestle
In short order, the mystery woman is dead in his flat. The police suspect him, the sinister men who were following her are now following him, and Hannay is on the run. All he knows is she was trying to convey secret information about an international spy ring to a colleague in the wilds of Scotland, so he grabs a map and takes the train north, hoping to sort it all out before the police can arrest him for murder.

But who cares about the plot? All the fun is in the playing. Smolin, who won hearts and cracked funny bones in the title role of The Liar a couple of seasons back, is the only cast member to play only one character, and his Hannay anchors the show with his determination to be a good sport, his insinuating double-takes, and his acrobatic dexterity.

(It's a riot when he limbo-slides out of an armchair from under a dead body.) The subtle ways he preens while running in place onstage as police bulletins describe him in ever more flattering terms is also very funny.
Name that Hitchcock reference!

Rao is also terrific as the three principal women —Annabella, the femme fatale, Pamela, an innocent Scottish lass married to a parsimonious old farmer, and Margaret, an angry blonde who winds up handcuffed to Hannay in his trek across the Scottish moors.

She and Smolin get a lot of comic mileage out of those cuffs, trying to go over, no, under, no, around a wooden stile out in the country, or traversing a bog — played by Ryan.

Ryan and Gilmore (their parts are called Clown 1 and Clown 2), play everybody else, and they're both hilarious. Gilmore is especially memorable as the ferociously self-abnegating farmer saying grace, or an ancient staffer at a political rally attempting to set up a podium. Ryan brings down the house in the rally scene as an elderly speaker with a miniscule voice.

Rao and Smolin: comic mileage
A lot of the biggest laughs come from the Clowns missing their cues, or struggling to change costumes fast enough — like their virtuoso duet on a train platform, playing three parts simultaneously by feverishly switching hats.

Scenic designers Annie Smart and Justine Law's rolling staircase set cleverly adapts to every locale, from music hall to train station to manor house. Special kudos are due to properties designer/master M. Woods for transforming objects like crates, chairs, and a ladder into a train, a car, a railroad trestle, and the Scottish Highlands. (One door frame on wheels is particularly ingenious.) B. Modern's period costumes are deft and impeccable.

Clearly, everyone involved in this production is having a high old time, and the audience can't help but be swept along.

(Fabulous photos by Jana Marcus.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

LET'S GET HITCHED

Fasten your seatbelts, folks! Next week, Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off it 2017 season with a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller, The 39 Steps.

(Full disclosure: by all accounts, this 2005 adaptation by Patrick Barlow is more of a romp than a thriller, with its three-man, one-woman cast playing all the parts, at breakneck speed. But more about that in my review next week!)

Hitchcock's legend looms large over our cultural landscape. Okay, he loomed large everywhere, but he cast a particularly long shadow around here, as a longtime resident of Scotts Valley (he owned the Heart O' the Mountain vineyard for 34 years).

The Bay Area also provided inspiration, as well as locations, for several of his most memorable films, including Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds.


Dali's set for the Spellbound dream sequence: the eyes have it
In celebration of their upcoming production, and our local connection to the maestro, SCS is hosting Hitchcock Week, a series of film screenings and related events to be held at various venues around town.

First up, this Friday, July 7, is this year's first Noon at the Nick, the annual collaboration between SCS and the Nickelodeon, where SCS creatives meet the public to talk about their upcoming productions. A Q&A with SCS Artistic Director Mike Ryan about The 39 Steps begins at 12 noon. Admission is free.

Saturday, July 8, is opening night for The 39 Steps at the SCS Grove in DeLaveaga Park. Curtain time is 8 pm, but savvy patrons are encouraged to get there early for the pre-game wine tasting, beginning at 6pm, to sample Heart O' the Mountain Estate wines. Hitchcock's granddaughter, Tere Carruba, will be on hand to introduce the show.

Still thirsty? Fall by 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, downtown, on Sunday, July 9, for an evening of "Hitchcocktails." Drinks will be accompanied by a screening of Spellbound (1945) — although even teetotalers will feel woozy during the surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Bar opens at 5 pm.

On Monday, July 10, strap on some protective headwear for an outdoor screening of The Birds (1963) at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery .

Although it was based on a Daphne DuMaurier novel, Hitchcock relocated the action to a small Calfornia coastal town after a news report two years earlier that hundreds of seabirds (later discovered to be poisoned by toxic algae bloom) had flung themselves into buildings and structures all along the Monterey Bay — particularly in Pleasure Point and Capitola. Showtime is 8pm. You buy the beer, but the movie is free.

Tuesday, July 11, is a twofer: first, check out the exhibition, Hitchcock: A Look Back on display at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. Then stick around for a discussion of The 39 Steps — the book, the film, and the play — hosted by Maria Frangos, SCS Dramaturg, and Theatre/English professor at DeAnza College and UCSC, and co-hosted by moi, your humble movie critic.
The old McCrory Hotel: Santa Cruz Gothic

We'll be there to answer your burning questions about the SCS production, and the Hitchcock version. Questions like, what are the 39 Steps? And what the heck is a MacGuffin, anyway? So get ready to fire away! Discussion begins at 6:30 pm, and is free to the public.

On Wednesday, July 12, the Nickelodeon presents the one and only Psycho (1960), with special guest Tere Carruba, the maestro's granddaughter, to introduce the film.

Rumor has it that Hitchcock's inspiration for the seedy, Gothic Bates Motel was the old McCrory Hotel on Beach Hill, which has since been renovated into the Sunshine Villa. (Look here and here for background info and more images.) Showtime is 7pm. Visit the Nick, in person or online, for tickets.

The festivities wrap up on Thursday, July 13, with a screening of Vertigo (1958) at the Crepe Place. Showtime is 8:30 pm. Admission to the film is free, and Hitchcock's favorite cocktail, The White Lady, will be available.

Looks like it's going to be a thrilling week!