Monday, February 26, 2007

Stoppard Odds and Ends

In The Telegraph, Dominic Cavendish reviews "Arcadia" and wonders whether Stoppard is the heir to Terence Rattigan.

In his NYTBR essay on Alexander Herzen, Edward Rothstein views "The Coast of Utopia" as a Tolstoyan "loose, baggy monster."

Michael Bracken at metro new york continues to be disappointed in "The Coast of Utopia," saying that the trilogy "ends on a rocky note."

Continuing the shipwreck metaphor, Toby Zinman of the Philadelphia Inquirer says the "finale runs aground."

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "On the Razzle" get a positive review from a local blogger. Hurrah!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

In the Money in the Oscar Pool

Woohoo! I got eight out of ten predictions correct in this year's Oscar pool at the local video shop. That's ten free credits. Not exactly the Irish Sweepstakes, but I'll take what I can get.

I got tripped up on Foreign-Language Film, which I had assumed would go to "Pan's Labyrinth." And I foolishly listened to the hype for Eddie Murphy, ignoring the likelihood that the Academy would have trouble voting for the prickly star of "Norbit."

One of these year's I'm going to roll a perfect Oscar score. Just you wait...

Friday, February 23, 2007

"Salvage" Pro and Con

Elysa Gardner in USA Today wrote that she "felt like a kid unwrapping the last of my presents after a fabulous birthday party" and was not disappointed.

But John Simon of Bloomberg News spent all of a paragraph on the play, finding it drier than T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages."

Still, Roma Torra at NY1 recommends getting a good night's sleep beforehand and says, "There's a treasure that awaits, but only if you're fully prepared to receive it."

Neverthless, Eric Alterman at The Nation remains dubious, believing that the play "suffers from all kinds of insoluble problems."

Meanwhile, "Rock 'n' Roll" receives a warm welcome from the Czechs, complete with a performance by the Plastic People of the Universe.

And finally, Stoppard's translation of Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" is reviewed in the Yale Daily News. Pay particular attention to the photo caption.

More Pathetic Foobery

Lynn Johnston is working my last nerve by bringing together the Granthony and the Michael-the-Novelist subplots in "For Better or For Worse." For those not obsessed with the banal-yet-totally-unrealistic adventures of four middle-brow, middle-class Ontarioans(?), dutiful son Michael just abruptly quit his full-time job at a major magazine because he didn't have the managerial stones to downsize one of his underlings. Now he's going to write full-time and live off the $25,000 advance for his first novel.

Good luck paying those freelance writer health insurance premiums was my first thought. Then I remembered that some things are actually better north of the border and shut my trap.

Over on the official "FBofW" Web site, Johnston lists the front-runners in the race to find a title for Michael's book. (Thanks, Comics Curmudgeon!) Prayrie? The Soddy? Let Me Be Judged by God? What in the name of all that's good and sensible is Jonhston thinking? Is she just sadistically toying with us?

Could well be, given how she's proceeding with the Liz/Granthony pairing. Liz learned about her brother's new employment situation upon her return from the trial of would-be-rapist Howard Bunt, where Granthony sat supportively throughout the proceedings.

Is it just me, or doesn't Howard look disturbingly like a disgruntled Larry "Second Stooge" Fine? And is that Kim Jong-il leading him away on the right?

This strip just gets weirder and more foobish as Johnston gets ready for semi-retirement.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Salvage" Flotsam and Jetsam

So far, the critical consensus for "Salvage," the final part of the Broadway production of "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy, is mostly favorable, as Istanbul's Today's Zamen notes in picking up a story from Reuters.

In greater detail, Ben Brantley in the NY Times deemed the production "brave and gorgeous."

Meanwhile, the Westport Library will host “Who’s Afraid of Tom Stoppard? Navigating The Coast of Utopia,” a lecture by Mark Schenker, associate dean at Yale College, for apprehensive theatergoers.
Finally, it's unclear whether David Wootton, Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York, is frightened of Stoppard, but he certainly doesn't like "Rock 'n' Roll." He's also obviously not a "Star Wars" fan. While putting down Stoppard, the professor badly paraphrases Harrison Ford's literary critique of George Lucas. The actual (perhaps apocryphal) quote is "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it."

Monday, February 19, 2007

Not Hot for "Heroes"

Knowing my fondness for all things science fiction-y, people have been asking me whether I watch “Heroes.” Short answer: “No.” Longer answer: “If I want superheroes, I like them best in comics.”

I missed the series premiere of “Heroes” back at the start of the season. When the show took its mid-winter break, I watched two marathons of re-runs. I liked a lot of what I saw, including the high production values, the decent acting and the not-stupid scripts. But none of the characters, other than Hiro, really grabbed me: not the weaselly politician, not the stripper mom with MPD, not the cuckolded psychic cop, and certainly not the cheerleader who needed to be saved. The fact that I can’t remember any of their names off the top of my head speaks to my level of emotional involvement with the show. (It didn’t help that the marathons consisted on Episodes 5-7 and then 9-10. Where was the logic in that?)

The problem may be that four decades of reading comics have left me immune to any sense of excitement at seeing a reasonably well-done superhero series on TV. If I’m jonesing for a narrative about people with special powers, it’s a matter of going to the nearby bookshelf and grabbing a volume by Alan Moore (“Watchmen”), Grant Morrison (“JLA” or “Seven Soldiers of Victory”) or James Robinson (“Starman.”). All three have produced superhero sagas whose complexity and depth will probably never be matched in another medium. And the racks at the local comics store are jammed with other folks-in-tights epics if I want something new, like DC’s “52.”

I don’t even like superhero movies that much. Most are terrible, but even the best ones, from “Batman Begins” to “Spider-Man” to “V for Vendetta,” don’t give me the same rush as Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” or Warren Ellis’s “Planetary.”

Most clued-in folks know that comics, as an incredibly elastic medium, are capable of more than just BIFF! BAM! POW! But I’ve personally formed the hypothesis that comics may be the only medium in which BIFF! BAM! POW! actually succeeds artistically.

Besides, right now, I only have room in my life for one miss-a-single-episode-and-you’re-screwed television experience. For the moment, for better or for worse, “Lost” is it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Final Chapter of "Utopia"

"Salvage," the final chapter in the trilogy opened today on Broadway. France's International Herald Tribune ran a favorable review, apparently picked up from AP.

Meanwhile, The New York Daily News has an interview with "The Coast of Utopia" director Jack O'Brien.

Also, the Independent Online has a short review of the Theatr Clywd production of "Arcadia" in Mold.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Totally Nuts!

Sometimes I'm hit hard by the realization that I live in a sociological bubble here in the liberal-minded San Francisco Bay Area. It certainly was news to me that various librarians and parents across the country are up in arms over the appearance of the word "scrotum" in the opening pages of the Newbery Award-winning "The Higher Power of Lucky" by Susan Patron.

Some school librarians are refusing to add the novel to their collections. One wrote, "The inclusion of genitalia does not add to the story one bit and that is my objection. Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud."

People are freaking out over "scrotum"? That strikes me as the perfectly clinically correct term for the body part in question. It's the work of 10 seconds to create a list of 20 other words or phrases that offend me more.

Patron does a good job of defending herself, but it really shouldn't come to that.

Can't Wait for the Maggot-Birth Dream Sequence

Nutty Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg has announced that he, tenor Placido Domingo and film composer Howard Shore are collaborating on a new opera based on Cronenberg's 1986 film version of "The Fly." No word whether a tune entitled "Larva Come Back" will be included.

You Don't Know Me

I am, by nature, a private person, not given to outrageous acts of self-revelation. I’m not a joiner, not someone comfortable with getting up and promoting myself. It’s probably partly the legacy of being an only child who lived inside his own head for much of the day. It’s also probably a result of the ol’ genetic crap shoot. My father is a man of few words, a close-mouthed Yankee if there ever was one.

I’ve come to realize that this tendency toward the antisocial doesn’t always serve me well. It can make me appear aloof, when, really, I just don’t have a pressing need to shoot my mouth off. I’m not good at waving my hands and saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” So it’s sometimes hard to get people to look in my direction at all.

This blog is a small exercise in revealing more about myself in a way that’s useful to me and to others. I’m making more of an effort to contact and thank the people whose work I especially enjoy online. I’m posting more messages on various boards. I’m exploring some of the social networking sites.

It’s a gradual process. Don’t expect any immediate gut-spilling. But there is somebody underneath those bandages.

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll" Part 2

Playbill reports that Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" will move to Broadway this fall.

Oscar Picks -- Put Up or Shut Up

As a cranky New Englander transplanted to Berkeley, I've been known to mutter that the only thing good about living in California is that the Academy Awards are almost always over by 9 p.m. This is a base calumny, but I am still always glad that the process of watching the ceremony can no longer extend across two calendar days, as it did a few times when I resided in Maine and New Hampshire.

Each year, the fine folks at Videots, the neighborhood brick-and-mortar video shop, sponsor an Oscar Pool. The number of credits you can win seems to vary from year to year, but I once scored 30 in one whack, so participation is well worth the effort. Ballots are due soon, and it's time to make my final selections.

Handicapping the Oscar race might be easier had I seen more than three of all the films with major nominations. Let's start with the easiest and work our way up to throw-a-dart-at-The-Chronicle-Datebook-section.

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson. Always nice to see a non-delusional "American Idol" contestant make good. Everybody says she's got a lock on this category, so I'm going with it. I never really liked The Supremes, so "Dreamgirls" holds little interest for me.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren. I think we're all agreed that she's an acting genius, and the Academy always likes to reward glamorously attractive people when they make themselves look frumpy. Again, I'm going with the smart money here.

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker. I managed to see "The Last King of Scotland," and even though I despised the protagonist and couldn't suspend my disbelief at certain crucial points, I thought Whitaker was magnificent. Peter O'Toole, who should have won for "Lawrence of Arabia" 40-odd years ago, might sneak in as the sentimental winner, but I doubt it. He's not going to be guest-starring on "ER" anytime soon.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese. It'll be so embarrassing if he doesn't win. I can just imagine the awkward silence and uncomfortable squirming that will ensue if it's Clint who's called up to accept his THIRD Oscar while Marty goes home with bupkis.

Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy. Reluctantly, because nearly every other movie he's made in the past 15 years has been horrible. Alan Arkin was fine in "Little Miss Sunshine," but didn't they use up the dead-elderly-family-member-in-the-car jokes in "National Lampoon's Vacation"? My personal vote would be for Mark Wahlberg, who was both scary and hilarious in "The Departed," but I don't think he has a high enough profile to win this year.

Best Picture: The Departed. The most giddily entertaining movie I've seen in a long while. May be too low-brow for the Academy, but are they going to repeat last year's strategy and select a polarizing exercise in obviousness like "Babel"? "Little Miss Sunshine" could grab the feel-good vote, but I'm going with my gut here.

I don't quite know how detailed the Videots ballot will be this year. If they need to know the Best Foreign-Language Film, I'll choose "Pan's Labyrith" and, if asked, will give the screenplay awards to "The Departed" and "Little Miss Sunshine." Randy Newman's always my personal choice in the music categories, but I'll assume the Academy will honor "Dreamgirls" again with the Best Original Song award.

Wish me luck. I want those free DVD rentals. Don't make me switch to Netflix!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Books I'm Not Reading -- "Sixty Days and Counting"

Kim Stanley Robinson is not a writer whose books I generally seek out on my own. But I really respect his work and have especially enjoyed his stand-alone novels, including the near-future “Antarctica” and the alterative history “The Years of Rice and Salt.” I’m less keen on his trilogies, “The Mars Trilogy” and “Three Californias.” They are a little too focused on politics at the expense of action, for my taste at least.

However, I liked “Forty Signs of Rain,” the initial installment of his current trilogy about catastrophic climate change. I won’t be reading “Six Days and Counting,” the final volume of the series, though. Why? Because I never got around to reading the second book, “Fifty Degrees Below.”

One of the difficulties of reviewing science fiction and fantasy is the genre’s reliance on multi-volume works. Too often, if you don’t pick up a science fiction series’ first installment, you have no hope of making sense of any subsequent volumes. I’m still kicking myself for not reading “A Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin when it first came out. Given the level of reader interest, I should have covered part four, “A Feast for Crows,” last year. Will I be ready for “A Dance with Dragons” whenever it hits stores? Somehow I haven’t yet found the time to make my way through the 4,000 pages the epic now entails. And I’ll bet “A Song of Ice and Fire” is not something that lends itself to easy synopsis.

Playing catch-up is just too hard. My notable exception was Kage Baker’s “Company” novels. Not knowing any better, I read the third book, “Mendoza in Hollywood” first and was bewildered and not particularly impressed. Fortunately, I sought out the next volume, “The Graveyard Game,” loved it, read “In the Garden of Iden” and “Sky Coyote,” re-read “Mendoza…” and have been captivated ever since. (In some ways, Mendoza is still my least-favorite character in the saga. I’m much more interested in the fates of Joseph and Lewis than in the botanist’s tragic love life. Maybe it’s just a guy thing.)

Other genres usually don’t make it so hard for the newcomer. You will definitely miss some of the nuances if you don’t read Lawrence Block’s “Scudder” novels in order, but none of the books will baffle you if it’s read out of sequence. (No one would be foolish enough to read Len Deighton’s “London Match,” “Mexico Set” and “Berlin Game” in that order, but that’s a special case.) I picked up Carol O’Connell’s “Find Me” after having skipped three or four of the other “Mallory” thrillers, and I followed the plot just fine. It’s not her best book, but it’s still completely comprehensible outside the context of its predecessor.

With science fiction and fantasy, you’ve got to commit yourself early. My commitment to Robinson’s estimable new trilogy obviously waned. And as for Tad Williams’ “Shadowplay,” the 600-page second installment of the “Shadowmarch” trilogy, which arrived in today’s mail, forget about it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The "Wire"/Stoppard Connection

Since I don't subscribe to HBO, it took me a while to develop an appreciation for "The Wire." Once Season One arrived on DVD, though, I was hooked. It's not hyperbolic to say that it's one of the best television series ever.

What I didn't realize until I read this article from The Guardian is that Dominic West, aka Jimmy McNulty, is actually British. In fact, he's currently starring in Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" in the West End. Who knew?

I can't wait for Season Four of "The Wire" to appear on DVD or for the final wrap-up in Season Five. In the meantime, here's a really smart deconstruction of the series' various credit sequences, each set to a different version of Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole."

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The End of StoppardFest

Winnipeg's StoppardFest wrapped up Sunday amid record-breaking cold temperatures. The photo at left, by Wayne Glowacki of the Winnipeg Free Press, shows the city in the grip of "ice fog." Good times in Manitoba, eh?

In other Stoppard news, "Arcadia" is now being performed in Prague, in Czech.

And The New York Time's Christopher Isherwood sez "The Coast of Utopia" is a bore.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

That's Why I Love Mankind...and Randy Newman

"Now it seems like we're supposed to be afraid. It's patriotic, in fact. Color-coded." -- A Few Words in Defense of Our Country

Monday, February 05, 2007

Books I'm Not Reading -- DC Comics' "52"

Last year, after Superboy finished punching the universe back into shape in DC Comics’ controversial “Infinite Crisis” miniseries, the company announced that it would be publishing a 52-issue megaseries, entitled “52,” oddly enough. It would be written by four comics bigwigs – Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka, with art breakdowns by Keith Giffen. But because “Infinite Crisis” proved to be so mean and stupid, I held out little hope for this elephantine follow-up.

But DC has always been good about sending out review copies. (Unlike the insanely stingy Marvel. It took the personal intercession of Neil Gaiman and Joe Quesada to secure a copy of the “1602” hardcover for review in The Chronicle.) Every week, I received a new installment of “52,” and I came to enjoy the anything-goes nuttiness of the serial, which featured, among other highlights: a lipstick lesbian Batwoman; not one, but two, Questions; the Elongated Man driven insane by grief; an entire island populated by mad scientists; and the return of one of the most racist and ridiculous supervillains of all time, Egg Fu.

Now, I never had any intention of reviewing “52” for The Chronicle. It’s pretty much incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in DC Universe trivia and therefore well outside the interest of the newspaper’s core audience. But I was perfectly happy to read it for my own enjoyment, even though I relied on annotations from the estimable Douglas Wolk to keep track of the background details.

But then, without warning, DC cut me off at Issue #28. The free issues stopped arriving! I figured they would resume after the holidays, but no. Apparently, 28 out of 52 is all I get.

It’s not like I can call up DC and demand that they send me the rest of the series. That wouldn’t be ethical. I considered just gritting my teeth and springing for the back issues out of my own pocket, but changed my mind when I realized that would set me back $27.50 in one whack. That’s more than I want to pay for a comics series that’s little more than a guilty pleasure.

Maybe I’ll complete the series once the issues make their inevitable migration to the Four-for-a-Buck bins at my local comics shop. In the meantime, “52” is, with reluctance, another Book I’m Not Reading.