birdman.jpgI’m still trying to wrap my head around this surreal bit of brilliance. Michael Keaton’s performance in Birdman is blazing.

In one of the purest cases of art imitating life, this stunning film casts former action hero Batman Michael Keaton as a former action hero “Birdman” movie star Riggan Thompson. Like his character, Keaton seemed to have dropped off the big screen for the past decade, and in both metaphorical and literal senses Birdman is his comeback as a leading man. A resounding, unforgettable, Oscar-contender comeback!

Directed by Babel’s Alejandro Iñarritu, with taut camerawork by Gravity’s Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, the film defies easy categorization. A mannered—at times surreal—black comedy of backstage egos, psychodrama, and promiscuity, the film follows the three final days of theatrical rehearsals and previews before Thompson’s opening night on Broadway. Starring in a play he wrote and directed, Thompson is an engaging mass of anxieties. His daughter (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab is working in the theater and loaded with attitude. His co-star (Edward Norton) is gunning for top billing. Various current and former mistresses, as well as an ex-wife, continue to plague his last grasp at self-worth. Throw into this mix a stalwart producer buddy (Zach Galifianakis) and a caustic New York theater critic (Lindsey Duncan) determined to destroy his new show and you have every stereotype needed to explore the thorny jungle of theater.

Whether we get to be the hero of our own life, or whether we simply play that part, More…

crawler6_0.jpgTravis Bickle—meet Lou Bloom.

In the nocturnal swamp-crawl through Los Angeles that is Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a sardonic psychopath against the gorgeous cinematic sweep of Don Gilroy’s new film. Shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) the film offers a riveting elegy on the loneliness of 21st century urbanity, a landscape upon which Gyllenhaal’s desperate, crafty opportunist Bloom fashions a career out of capturing news footage of grisly, graphic car crashes, suburban shootings, and blood-drenched explosions. “If it bleeds, it leads,” local TV station news director (played by Rene Russo) tells freelance photographer Bloom, who quickly convinces both her, and us that he can and will do anything to get his footage broadcast.

A sobering morality play fusing Yankee ingenuity with narcissistic ruthlessness, the film bristles with all the visual chill of a David Lynch dreamscape painted by Edward Hopper. Oozing eerie geek charm, Bloom and his ill-gotten video equipment stake out violent crime scenes and spectacular accidents, acquiring more skill and sensational footage the more he discards all shreds of decency or compassion.

Gyllenhaal’s gaunt glassy-eyed character thrives on this blood-drenched quest for More…

gone-girl-11-600x421.jpgDirector David Fincher has done some competent, stylish B movies in the past, e.g. Zodiac, The Social Network, and I guess you could call his latest, Gone Girl, a competent, stylish B movie.

I went to see the film because as a writer I was curious about the plotting of the original story. And I came away impressed with the intricate, he says/she/says twists and turns of this lurid domestic saga. I also came away with the sobering lesson that it doesn’t matter how smart your story is, if you don’t deliver an ending that satisfies all of your plotline teasing, your reader (or in this case, viewer) will come away feeling unsatisfied and ripped off.

First off, could anyone tell me why Ben Affleck is allowed in front of a camera? Listless and wooden, he is impossible to like. Yes, I know. His character was supposed to be questionable. Is he telling us the truth when he says he doesn’t know where his wife is? Did he kill her? Is he hiding some huge horrible secret? Maybe Affleck is fine for that character — typecast even. But he is almost unwatchable.

I was curious to see what the fuss was about—the book by Gillian Flynn is such a huge hit.

Okay we meet the couple and their first five years together, mostly in flashbacks told by the wife’s diary. Amy and Nick Dunne have been a dream couple, until More…

bn-ek167_joan_g_20140904162629.jpgJoan Rivers - wow - how many times did I use her “Can we talk?” line when I was a smart aleck kid?

A brilliant, genuinely funny trailblazer who definitely did it her way. Admit it, the world is a less edgy, less honest place without Joan’s witchy tongue and spot-on zingers. Such brazen chutzpah! Such cheek! What a woman!

Thanks for the laughs!

mice.jpgWould you travel 7000 miles to watch a stage full of pink and white mice singing the Wedding March from Lohengrin?

Well I did, and my reward—in addition to hearing sumptuous music performed in an acoustically perfect hall—was watching the reigning Lohengrin underscoring his stardom.

Gifted with a perfect stage name, Klaus Florian Vogt also has the looks and the voice to go with it. I’d been told that I was in for a treat by several of Vogt’s global devotées, but I was not prepared for the tenor’s ravishing opening notes as the mythic knight who arrives in time to save a medieval town from its political rivals.

The voice began high in the tenor register, in a long shimmering phrase and simply spun outward into the entire hall, celestial and pure. Unearthly in fact. Vogt’s voice is lieder light, and yet it has a gorgeous crystalline tone and relentless power. His voice stayed strong and clear to the very end, where in Hans Neuenfels’ brilliant production, Lohengrin rejects human society and moves on to find a better world.

Looking and sounding exactly as a Wagnerian hero should, the blonde, rockstar handsome Vogt More…

rte1.jpgSeriously, this was the most seamless, delicious, relaxing, vibrant farm dinner I’ve ever enjoyed. (And there have been plenty!)

Route One Farms—sprawled out along the fertile alluvial plains by Waddell Creek—joined forces with Feel Good Foods and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard wines - and romanced 125 of us last Sunday.

Courses came swiftly, from salmon and Little Gems salad with dill aioli, on to potatoes and romanos and grilled eggplant, Fogline chicken, pasta with fresh tomatoes and cheeses, it all flowed seamlessly. Paul Rangell and company created the late summer soundtrack.
Wines to match, including a port with ice cream, walnuts, golden raspberries and whipped cream for dessert.
We told our favorite Orin Martin stories—Steiny, host farmer Jeff Larkey, et al.—and sailed out into the super moon on the way home. Kudos to the entire team—Zane, Jasmine, Melody, etc.!! (photo: from Hilltromper’s Traci Hukill)

robin.jpgRobin Williams, so desperately gifted, so desperately troubled.

He died of an overdose of talent.

Thanks for all the laughter and tears!

psh.jpgWhen our finest American actor succumbed to his demons earlier this year, film-goers knew it was a significant loss. But only with the release of A Most Wanted Man, the new film by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn from the book by spymeister John LeCarré, did the full measure of the loss become apparent.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a German intelligence officer relegated to the backwater of Hamburg, pretty much owns this film, and so good is he that even lapses in the story line, the awkward pacing, and acting foibles by some of his co-stars, cannot pry our attention away from him.
When a brutally tortured Chechen/Russian Islamic immigrant surfaces in Hamburg, finds refuge with friends, and a social activist attorney Anna (Rachel McAdams) to help him redeem a lost inheritance, CIA and German security agents start paying close attention.
Somehow the film eludes pacing. More…

nopal.JPGIf you haven’t yet fallen for the delicious, versatile nopal cactus (the pad of the prickly pear cactus, minus the pricklies), then you must head on over to 176 Lincoln Street this Sunday, July 27, for the Festival del Nopal loaded with nopal-driven foods, live music, ballet folklorico, recipe contest, a cactus cooking demo, and all presided over by a genuine Nopal Festival Queen! Truly a community event, lots of fun, and the 10am-6pm festivities are free.

Bring your friends, family, and an appetite for the marvelous nopal. It tastes a lot like a tangy green bean, btw.

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From the first frame, you are hooked. Yes partly because Ida, written and directed by Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, is shot in raw black and white. Partly because the camera is most often stationary, allowing actors to move in and out of our viewpoint—creating a softly unsettling sense of time standing still.

But the visual secret of this mesmerizing 85-minute masterpiece is the choice of an almost square aspect ratio. Instead of the wide horizontals of contemporary filmography, we watch the small, unflinching story emerge in a compressed space. The pressure on all sides pushes the action—such as there is in this quiet, steady pursuit of truth lost—pushes it into a space without time. A continuous Now. We could read this film forwards or backwards. Is it redeeming the past? Or is it pointing toward the inevitable recurrence of the future?

The story, if explained to someone who hasn’t seen the film, will sound unlikely.  A young novice, Ida (played by Agata Trzebuchowska) about to take her final vows, learns of the existence of an aunt—her only blood relative—and is told she must visit this woman before she can enter the religious life for good.

The aunt is played with the sort of spare visual dominance of a dark Ingrid Thulin by Agata Kulesza, a veteran Polish stage actress who is nothing short of shattering. As a former More…