Saturday, August 10, 2013


In the month since its debut on Netflix more and more people are talking about Orange Is The New Black, the online giant's newest original series.  While it didn't seem to have the promotional push enjoyed by House of Cards and Arrested Development, the show seems to be steadily increasing in popularity and audiences are discovering it, and the buzz the show is building is well deserved.

The show is based on best-selling memoir of Piper Kerman who did a 15 month stint in prison for a crime she committed ten years prior. Like the author, her fictionalized counterpart Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is no hardened criminal by any stretch of the imagination.  She's just a privileged, upper class, white girl that had a exploratory lesbian relationship in her twenties and got sucked into transporting drugs for, then girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon).  So, a decade later, when she's sentenced to over a year in prison for her participation in the drug cartel, she is engaged to Larry (Jason Biggs), a journalist who is adorkably loving and supportive of her during this tough time.  The WASPy Chapman is clearly out of her element in this environment of tough chicks, but over the course of the 13 episodes we get to witness her adjustment and unraveling.

Schilling as Chapman is spot on as the fish-out-of-water, scaredy cat and almost too good at being annoyingly naive and uncool.  If you find yourself initially annoyed by her you're not alone, the rest of the cast is not impressed with her either.  Everyone except another inmate Crazy Eyes (the name is self-explanatory), played with abandon by Uzo Aduba, who is immediately smitten with the blonde "Dandelion" and decides early on that they're "wives."  Watching Chapman arrive at varying degrees of horror is part of the fun of the show.  She also seems to have Dennis the Menace's knack for causing trouble inadvertently and is constantly having to come up with creative ways to get out of it.  Sometimes she takes the high road and tries to make allies versus enemies, other times she fails miserably.  The prison drama is interspersed with periodic flashbacks to her life before incarceration and what's presently going on with her lonely fiance and pregnant BFF while she's away.

What colors the show, literally and figuratively, are the supporting cast of diverse inmates.  I could harp on the fact that the only way to get a racially diverse representation of women in the media is to set something in prison, but the roles are so sharply written and relatable that it feels like picking nits.  The segregation of the races is nothing we haven't seen in prison centered shows before (Oz comes to mind), but it's never really explored with women.  The cast of characters range from a career petty criminal like Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) to transgendered parent Sophia (Laverne Cox) each with her own back story and character arc and each actress shines in her own way.  Natasha Lyonne is perfectly cast as Nicky Nichols, a wisecracking, lesbian, recovering heroin addict and Brooks's Taystee and Samira Wiley's Poussey provide plenty of comic relief.

My one complaint isn't about the show itself, but the way each Netflix original series is released in its entirety all at once.  It's great for #BingeWatching, but by the time someone recommends it they've seen the whole season, so you don't have the experience of finding the show along with your friends and completing the season together over a few months, each week hoping to get closer to finding out what will happen to your favorite characters. Then again, maybe that's another adjustment to get used to, just like getting used to the best shows being online versus on television.

Orange Is The New Black is streaming currently on Netflix.

                                                           ******** 8.5/10 Stars

Thursday, August 8, 2013


Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman attempt to show the real story behind the star of the notorious blockbuster skin flick Deep Throat and in a rudimentary kind of way they do.  The first act shows how the film's star, a 21 year-old unknown named Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) met and fell in love with Chuck Traynor (a reliably creepy Peter Sarsgaard) who charmed his way into her pants and her heart with a sly smile and used his sharp right hook to make sure he stayed there.

It was Traynor who brought about her sexual awakening and then went on to nearly ruin her.  The first section of the film shows how he courted her and seduced her into his world, but never really makes it clear how she went from a prudish young woman to a (mostly) willing nymphet so easily.  Once we reach the glamorous Hollywood parties and runaway success of the film, the second act hits the rewind button and shows the flip side of Chuck and Linda's whirlwind romance and we see the full-on slimy, douchiness that is Traynor which we only get a glimpse of in the first act.

That's all well and good, we get it, he's a dirt bag who put his wife through hell, but for a film that is supposed to revolve around Linda we never really get a grasp on the woman that became Lovelace (kind of like a 'pearl necklace,' sounds elegant, but not really).  Even after the tepid third act where we see her renounce porn and try to move on with her life we still don't know who she is.  She comes across as totally naive and so easily manipulated that her redemption even feels like it was handed to her by a husband that just happens to be a good guy.  None of her decisions really feel like her own and the only reason you root for her is because she's such a victim.  Taking into account that this was a time when there weren't nearly as many resources for a woman in her position, it seems that there's something missing, a latent resilience, a quiet strength that would guide a woman who would go on to speak out against the porn industry and the treatment of women in particular.

As played by Seyfried she comes across as a too delicate flower that was plucked all too soon by an undeserving man-child who lacked the strength to battle his own demons.  She does finally get to the light side of the tunnel, but it feels more inevitable than earned.  The strained relationship with her parents manages to feel overplayed and underplayed at the same time.  The scenes with her mother (an underused Sharon Stone) lack the bite and truth that they should and fail to shed any real light on the subject.  Some fun supporting work from Chris Noth as Deep Throat producer Anthony Romano and Hank Azaria as the film's director Gerry Demiano keep the film from being completely boring and unwatchable.  If not for them, and the nudity, we would be left with a Lifetime Original Movie that might've starred a C-list television actress, but would have likely been more entertaining, even if just as vapid.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Oscar isn't a perfect guy.  He may, or may not, have cheated on his girlfriend and mother of his daughter, his work situation is in limbo and he is supplementing his income by selling drugs.  He's no saint, but after spending 24 hours with him, it's clear he's not all bad either.  As director Ryan Coogler's camera follows him throughout the day, we see him preparing for his mother's birthday celebration, help out strangers and friends, and spend time with his daughter who is clearly the apple of his eye.  However, each scene is tinged with a bittersweet melancholy because we know right from the beginning that this is the last day of Oscar's life.

Based on actual events, Fruitvale Station, dramatizes the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22 year-old man that was fatally shot by a police officer at the titular BART station near San Francisco on New Year's Day 2009.  In the wake of the public outcry over the Trayvon Martin trial, it's easy to draw parallels between the two tragedies, while also being reminded that this is nothing new.  Coogler doesn't sanitize Grant's character or gloss over his flaws, but as played by Michael B. Jordan, in a star-making turn, it's easy to forgive him for his shortcomings.  Oscar's infrequent flare ups show that he can be volatile and hot headed, but beneath it all is a young man still maturing and trying to be better. 

The script is so simple and authentic it's as if the actors are improvising. Octavia Spencer is subtly heartbreaking as Oscar's mother Wanda, showing more emotional complexity than she did in her Academy Award winning performance in The Help.  First time director Coogler has presented himself as an assured and natural storyteller.  The ending definitely packs an emotional wallop, but it's earned rather than coerced. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


The fifteenth production of Dancescape LA presented by Cheshire Moon Productions was an exciting and inspiring event benefiting the arts programs in the local Los Angeles community.  The event, hosted by So You Think You Can Dance champion Chehon Wespi-Tschopp was held at the intimate Club Nokia in downtown's LA Live complex.  The cozy setting was appropriate for what felt like a mutually supportive, family event.  The dancers and choreographers of the various performances were clearly fans of each other and with good reason.

The 32 pieces presented ranged from mellow modern dance to hard-edged hip-hop an each performance was more awesome than the last.  In a pool full of outstanding performances it's hard to pick standouts, but the large group numbers like "Golgeler" choreographed by Seda Aybay, Yusuf Nasir's "CollectiveUth" and Miguel Zarate's theatrical "Super Nova Barbie's Dead" all have to be commended for their scope and complexity.

Some of the more intimate performances like choreographer Julia Franzese's emotional tour de force "I Dreamed A Dream", diminutive soloist Sophia Lucia's gorgeous "Dreamcatcher" and the sexy, dynamic duet by Ashleigh and Ryan Di Lello to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" were just as awe inspiring.

I spoke to Dancescape founder Jamie Gregor about the evolution of the event since its inception in 2004 and she talked about how the show has grown from the small show with only ten pieces (three of which she was featured in herself), to the more inclusive and diverse spectacle it is today.  Dancescape XV features over 150 dancers and choreographers from various backgrounds and styles.  She said that when selecting acts for the show she looks for diversity and uniqueness and, of course, invites back popular acts and colleagues she has worked with in the past.

Besides the host, there were other dancers that had been featured on So You Think You Can Dance and also acts from MTV's America's Best Dance Crew like 8 Flavahs, a quintet of pint sized girls that brought the crowd to their feet with a high-energy hip-hop infused performance to songs by Beyonce and Lil' Wayne and Gregor herself was featured in one performance, Denise Leitner's fluid and layered "Passage."  The final and most elaborate performance of the night was Christopher "Pharside" Jennings and Krystal Meraz's "The Black Parade" which featured over 40 dancers with black and red face paint and some of the most intricate and complex choreography I have seen in quite some time, (Think: Rhythm Nation meets The Wu-Tang Clan).

The entire night was filled with one great performance followed by another and 100% of the proceeds go to a wonderful cause.  Looking at the young artists within the show itself it's easy to see why the arts programs in our local schools are so important.  Gregor discussed how she grew up in Pittsburgh in a school district that was fortunate enough to have a broad artistic community and she wanted to help bring those same opportunities to children here in Los Angeles.  She is a dancer, so the events she produces focus on dance, but the funds raised support all arts and music programs in local schools.  Additionally, this year, the non-profit is partnering with the Los Angeles Leadership Academy to pilot a dance education program called Dancescape Ed that will bring artists from the Dancescape community into the classroom.

Photos by R.J. Corby

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


This silent Spanish charmer will garner comparisons to The Artist and they are both well crafted and beautifully told.  Blancanieves tells the story of Snow White with a Spanish twist.  When her matador father is paralyzed and her mother dies in childbirth, young Carmencita is sent to live with her doting grandmother, but once the elderly abuela falls ill she is sent to live with her father and step-mother, played with delicious cruelty by Maribel Verdu (Pan's Labyrinth).  Young Snow eventually grows up and sets out on an adventure of self discovery involving a motley crew of bullfighting dwarves.  You may know the story, but this unique re-telling will enchant you all over again. 

Gimme The Loot 
The two engaging leads in Gimme The Loot make you a part of their world from the opening sequence where they’re stealing spray paint cans to ‘bomb’ their neighborhood.  Malcolm (Ty Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana Washington) are two graffiti artists with a simple plan: They want to tag the giant green apple that pops up at Mets games whenever someone hits a home run.  They just need the money and the access.  The goal isn't as important as the journey in this New York slice-of-life comedy by writer/director Adam Leon.  

The Great Gatsby
Baz Luhrmann's opulent, glitzy, Gatsby whizzes by so fast in the beginning that you might think you're going to lose the story in all of the glamour, but by the second half you find yourself completely engrossed in the complicated relationships and inner turmoil of the characters.  Leo DiCaprio plays the suave, titular millionaire with a quiet sensitivity that is matched by Toby Maguire's Nick Carraway.  Carey Mulligan brings a strength and complexity to what could be a really whiny one-note character.  The anachronistic Jay-Z infused soundtrack might seem jarring at first, but by the end all of the pieces fit together quite nicely. 

Oz the Great and Powerful 
Sam Raimi's big budget prequel to The Wizard of Oz lives up to the whimsy and the spectacle of the original.  It may be substantively soft for adults, but there is plenty here for kids to enjoy.  James Franco plays a young Oz, whisked away in his hot air balloon to a colorful unknown land where he meets three witches played by Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams all with very different agendas.  If you know the original story there won’t be any surprises, but the journey is a lot of fun.

The Place Beyond The Pines  
Ryan Gosling is a cool, reckless stunt driver who finds out he is a father and wants to provide for his son, but the mother (Eva Mendez) has already moved on.  Bradley Cooper is a beat cop with a law degree and a grudge against his father, who is regarded as a hero, but then gets embroiled in department corruption.  The final of the three vignettes in the film involves the sons of the two previous characters 15 years in the future both dealing in their own way with the legacy of their fathers.  It’s well acted, but the plot doesn’t always seem plausible or get to anywhere specific enough to make a clear statement about fathers and sons, which it seems to want to do.

Friday, March 15, 2013


The bold premise of writer/director Juan Solanas's new film is responsible for its high points and low points, you might say it has its ups and downs.  Upside Down, starring Jim Sturgess and Kirsten Dunst, is a romantic drama about two planets that are so close that the highest mountain tops on each can almost touch, but are ruled by opposing gravitational pulls...or something like that.

Adam (Sturgess) and Eden (Dunst) meet and fall in love as children from the two worlds, she from 'Up Top' where she lives in wealthy affluence and he from 'Down Below' where poverty and squalor are the pervasive norm.  Despite their opposing gravity, they are able to interact with each other and form a friendship that grows deeper over time, until Eden takes a tragic fall that ends their relationship, with Adam assuming she's dead.

Ten years later, when Adam is working in a repair shop, he discovers that Eden is still alive when he sees her on television.  She works for Trans-World, (which I was sad to discover wasn't a network specializing in transgendered programming), a global corporation that connects the two planets.  Adam gets a job there to get closer to Eden and devises a plan to impersonate an Up-Topper wearing padding laced with 'inverse matter' that would allow him to interact on her level.

The wacky conceit is sort of hard to follow, and getting into the science of it will probably only confuse you and take you out of the film.  So never mind how the two lovers get to the tops of mountains as children free of any climbing gear, and don't try to understand how long it should take for the inverse matter to burn when Adam is spending time with Eden on her planet, just knowing they are in love and trying to overcome great obstacles to be together is enough to get the idea.

However, the major problem with the film is that the stunning visuals of the intermingled skies and the stark contrast between the pristine coldness of Up Top and the dystopian squalor of Down Below, created by Production Designer Alex McDowell, Visual Effects Supervisor Francois Dumoulin and Cinematographer Pierre Gill, completely outshine the actual story.  The script is mostly flat and the characters, while earnestly portrayed, are hard to connect with, especially in scenes where characters from separate gravitational pulls try to have a conversation with someone, who, from their perspective, is hanging upside down.  Not to mention the head-scratcher of an ending.

Solanas, can be commended on his ambition with this project, but overall it didn't quite work.  Had the science been streamlined and the script been funnier and leaned more toward romantic comedy, it might have had enough levity to really take flight.