Films I watched, December 2015

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Last Shift 2015 Directed by Anthony DiBlasi
As others have said, predictable in places, but a great example of doing a lot with very little: one location, bright lighting, very small amount of cast members. Great to have in rookie cop Jessica a female protagonist who is strong and police trained, yet also unnerved as the night goes on. Less interesting are jump scares set up for us, not for the character, like when Jessica leaves an empty room, not noticing there are ghosts there for a few moments. Makes less sense the more you think about it, but smart enough.

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Love and Mercy 2015 Directed by Bill Pohlad
The scenes recreating the recording sessions for Pet Sounds are spine-tingling, and for music fans seeing the recreation of the Wrecking Crew and their discussions with the boy genius Wilson…well, you leave the movie wishing there was more, more, more of that. But this is a bio-pic after all, albeit a better one than most, and so we get a living, breathing Wilson from Paul Dano and a touching and wounded older Wilson from the actor who looks nothing like him, John Cusack. Paul Giamatti plays yet another soul- and profit-sucking manager, twice in one year it happens. Terrific sound design from Atticus Ross, who creates an ambient bed of Wilsonics. Good but not great, and frustratingly truncated in its final act.

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Room 2015 Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
A tough adaptation by the author Emma Donoghue of her own book, mostly ditching the voice of the five-year-old Jack, who has been raised to only know captivity in a small room. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, what remains is the survival narrative, first within the room and then SPOILER outside the room, where there are rooms upon rooms and more emotional minefields to traverse. It cries out for a more impressionist, stranger film, one that would tease more out of the metaphors (philosophical, political, psychological) that the Room sets up. Lenny Abramson, who directed the wonderful Frank instead works to get strong performances out of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. I was disappointed that the music takes the edge off what are the film’s most suspenseful section, opting for major key, piano tinklings. Though impressive, this is a room that I don’t need to revisit.

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A Very Murray Christmas 2015 Directed by Sofia Coppola
Holiday piffle directed by Sofia Coppola, once again back in a hotel room overlooking city lights with a sad sack Bill Murray. Wants to have its critique and eat it too, it’s neither too meta, nor too entertaining. But you want to like it because it’s Bill Murray. Take-aways: Miley Cyrus and Maya Rudolph have an impressive set of pipes each.

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Phoenix 2014 Directed by Christian Petzold
A slow burner with hints of Vertigo and Teshigahara’s Face of Another, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix is about a woman (Nina Hoss) returning from the concentration camps with a new face and determined to discover if her husband sold her out to the Nazis. Her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) believes that this “new” woman Esther looks close enough to Nelly that she could help him get her inheritance, never suspecting that they are one and the same. Though we see a gun early on in the film, it’s a song that returns in the third act to do the most damage. A film about rebuilding identity after war and trauma, it’s also about memory and how we see each other, and the battle in a post-war environment to write and rewrite history.

And on television:

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Marvel’s Jessica Jones 2015 Created by Melissa Rosenberg
While the current Marvel films are bloated punch-’em-ups, Marvel’s television experiments have been more grounded in reality and actual character development. The closest that a film has got to replicating in the viewer the after effects and lingering paranoia of sexual trauma, Jessica Jones gets quite nailbiting as it nears its middle section. It’s also a movie of its time in a culture that still has “problems” with the subject of rape. Krysten Ritter balances strength and vulnerability and David Tennant uses all his charm to counterbalance his villainy. Overlong by about two episodes, its climactic scene just misses the mark.

Binge watching in 2015

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If this is the golden age of television, it also has to be the Golden Age of Time Commitments. It’s all very well and good to keep recommending these shows, but by gawd we’ll talking 13-hour chunks of my life, one after the another, binge or no. It’s like friends recommending one thick 19th century novel after another.

Anyway, here are the shows I watched and enjoyed (and finished) during 2015:

Last Man on Earth Season 1 and 2
Although it’s turning too dramatic in its second season, the first was a perfect portrait of venality by Will Forte. And Kristen Schaal makes every line delivery a study in comic timing.

Fargo Season 1
Like a jazz riff on the movie, along with melody lines from No Country, Blood Simple, and other Coen films. Yes, I’ve heard that Season 2 is even better.

Inside Amy Schumer Season 3
Vitally important comedy, more hits than misses

The Affair Season 2
Grew tired of this, as everybody seems miserable, no matter whose perspective we’re taking, yet slogged through! Give me a medal!

Peep Show Season 9
A fitting send-off to one of the originators of cringe comedy

Last Week Tonight and The Nightly Show
John Oliver and Larry Wilmore more than make up for losing John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and David Letterman. The former does better investigative reporting than most networks. The latter brings a much needed voice to race politics. Both will help me survive 2016 with my sanity.

Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe 2015
Six episodes (and a year-end special) is not enough Cunk and Shitpeas

True Detective Season 2
Not as much a shit-show as critics said, and Rachel McAdams was great

Girls Season 4
Nearing the end of its run, I should think, with all the fun slowly draining out of it

Better Call Saul Season 1
A different beast from its father, but a very American story of hustling and capitalism. Mike’s surveillance scene scored to THIS TRACK was pure visual storytelling.

Mad Men Season 7
Creepy Greg: Died in Vietnam. Enlightenment can sell Coke/Coke is enlightenment

The Jinx
Proves that you have to make a fiction film and then a million dollar documentary to catch a rich murderer. (Compare to Steve Avery.)

Doctor Who Season 09
Had some crackin’ good episodes and Capaldi was always a joy to watch. I watch it for the laughs.

Master of None Season 01
Like Amy Schumer, a dispatch from the trenches of modern, socially-networked life

Jessica Jones Season 01
One of the best subjective representations of surviving rape and abuse, including the never-ending paranoia, but cleverly wrapped in superheroism.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 01
Ran out of steam by the end, but those first five episodes were absolutely charming and that THEME TUNE!!! And not to forget THIS.

We also watched loads of food/cooking shows
Top Chef
Master Chef
Iron Chef
The Layover
The Great British Bake Off
(the zen garden antidote to Ramsey’s trials by fire)
…however, none of these shows teach you a damn thing about cooking apart from avoiding clocks and shouty people

And I gave up or forgot about these shows:
The Mindy Project – got too dramatic and lost its edge
Scream Queens – disappeared up its own reference and I stopped caring
The Grinder – Rob Lowe has great comic timing, but show couldn’t make up its mind on tone
Difficult People – Stopped caring after two eps
Wayward Pines – Never found out if Matt Dillon was Number 6 or if he escaped The Village
Aquarius – Does this really need to be more than one season?
Bojack Horseman Season 2 – Nothing wrong with it, just forgot to keep watching it
Daredevil Season 1 – Just lost interest, whatevs

New Year’s Resolution: watch more docs and more “movies”, you know those things that only take 2 hours.

Friends and lovers: Ensemble Theatre Company’s play brings the laughs about a terrible relationship

 Playing the trio of emotionally charged 40ish divorcees from "Women in Jeopardy!" are, from left, Annabelle Gurwitch as Jo, DeeDee Rescher as Liz and Heather Ayers as Mary. Bruce R. Burr photo

Playing the trio of emotionally charged 40ish divorcees from “Women in Jeopardy!” are, from left, Annabelle Gurwitch as Jo, DeeDee Rescher as Liz and Heather Ayers as Mary.
Bruce R. Burr photo

Wendy MacLeod’s play “Women in Jeopardy!” started off with a familiar situation for many friends – watching their divorced friend find a new boyfriend “who we all thought was hideous. We could not fathom how she could be dating this man.” From there she combined the idea of the awful boyfriend with a crime story from her local paper, and out came this new work that previews Thursday, with an opening on Dec. 5, at The New Vic. The play is so new that, despite its premiere at Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theater, Ms. MacLeod is in town to work a little bit more on her play, trimming it down into a “lean, mean, comedy machine.”

The play stars Heather Ayers (“Sweeney Todd”) and Annabelle Gurwitch as Mary and Jo, two divorcees who do not like the new dentist that their friend Liz (DeeDee Rescher, last seen at ETC in “Good People”) has fallen in love with, called Jackson (Bill Salyers). His dental hygienist recently disappeared, and the two think that Jackson might be a serial killer. And Jackson’s swaggering arrogance only seems to confirm their suspicions. When he invites Liz’s daughter Amanda (Sophie Ullett) on a camping trip, the two friends need to both break the news to Liz and stop what they think is a crime about to happen. And that’s just the beginning of this whirlwind farce.

Continue reading Friends and lovers: Ensemble Theatre Company’s play brings the laughs about a terrible relationship

Santa Barbara’s Brewing Revolution

I wrote a story for Vox Orbis about Santa Barbara’s brewing culture and if there really is such a thing as a “Central Coast Beer.” tl;dr: Maybe so, Maybe no!

“There’s definitely a West Coast style,” says Josh Ellis, owner and head brewer at M. Special brewery, one of the many new breweries to pop up in Santa Barbara county in the last year. “It would be an IPA that finishes drier, has less of a malt backbone, less of a caramel flavor. it’s really about a beer that profiles hops, beginning, middle, and end.”

You can read the rest here.

A half century of dance: Choreographer Twyla Tharp celebrates 50 years

Two Twyla Tharp veterans, Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto, perform in "Yowsie." Ruven Afanador photo
Two Twyla Tharp veterans, Matthew Dibble and Rika Okamoto, perform in “Yowsie.”
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While many choreographers would look to a 50th anniversary tour to program a greatest hits package, Twyla Tharp, who will be at The Granada Theatre tonight, does the opposite in a career of bold moves. Instead she’s created an evening of two new works. “Preludes and Fugues” raids the extensive pieces in J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” and bears the influences of all those that came before her in modern dance: Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham and George Balanchine. And “Yowzie” turns from classical to jazz, with bright costumes and a soundtrack of early ragtime and jazz.

“Preludes” is “the world as it ought to be,” she says, “and Yowzie is the world as it is.” Ms. Tharp is quoting herself, and it’s a phrase that graces the evening’s program in her artistic statement. That tension between fantasy and reality has long been part of her work.

Continue reading A half century of dance: Choreographer Twyla Tharp celebrates 50 years

Movies, fame and Jane: SBIFF honors Jane Fonda at annual fundraiser

Jane Fonda received the Kirk Douglas Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday at the Bacara Resort & Spa. KENNETH SONG/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO
Jane Fonda received the Kirk Douglas Award from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday at the Bacara Resort & Spa.
KENNETH SONG/NEWS-PRESS PHOTO

The Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored movie star, writer, activist and feminist icon Jane Fonda at its annual fundraiser Saturday with the 10th annual Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film.

The black-tie gala at the Bacara Resort & Spa recognized the iconic movie star in much the same way as the honors and tribute evenings that make up the February festival’s week-plus schedule.

Continue reading Movies, fame and Jane: SBIFF honors Jane Fonda at annual fundraiser

A second slice: Ensemble Theatre takes on Sondheim and ‘Sweeney Todd’

 David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." David Bazemore photo

David Studwell and Heather Ayers are two of the actors performing in Ensemble Theatre Company’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
David Bazemore photo

Last week Santa Barbara audiences sat transfixed by the odd blend of dance and theater that was Adam Barruch’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” at the Lobero Theatre. In the audience watching the performance was Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox, who just that day was rehearsing his own version of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody and dark musical, set to open this coming Thursday. It was one of those weird coincidences in Santa Barbara theater than happens now and then – like two productions of “Other Desert Cities” in 2015, one at the Rubicon, one at PCPA – despite every company trying for a unique season.

“It’s kind of a funny story,” says Mr. Fox, just before rolling into a story of schedules, contracts, dropping a previous plan, and thinking of returning to the world of Stephen Sondheim. “A Little Night Music” was the first performance at The New Vic. Rick Mokler, some 20 years ago, had put on a production of “Sweeney Todd” at SBCC, but it had never returned to our city.

Continue reading A second slice: Ensemble Theatre takes on Sondheim and ‘Sweeney Todd’

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