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PBR Book Club Reviews Wolf in White Van

The PBR Book Club has been one of the hippest literary clubs around Lawrence for the past 4+ years. Starting in September 2011, the club has met regularly at bars in town to discuss popular fiction works, often pairing up with Read Across Lawrence selections, and their membership has grown by the dozens. As a special year-end treat on In the Spotlight, we wanted to invite this boisterous book club to review their latest selection, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. Enjoy! Read More..

What’s the T? The Best Movie of 2015 You Didn’t See

Produced by the Duplass Brothers, Sean Baker’s fifth film Tangerine is a rip-roaring, relentless comedy that stars newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as two black transgender sex workers hustling in the streets of Hollywood.

 Shot entirely on an iPhone 5s with an anamorphic lens adapter created by Moondog Labs, Tangerine is nothing short of a technical marvel.  The cinematography is surprisingly lush and exudes an exquisite, sun-baked warmth that immediately transports viewers to the heated streets of Hollywood.  Each scene plays out like a moving work of art, and it is a world to bask in as events occur on screen.

 On Christmas Eve, Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez) gets out of jail after 28 days and stops for a donut with her best friend Alexandra (Taylor).  Alexandra accidentally informs her that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend Chester has been cheating on her with a “real fish” – aka a white woman whose name starts with the letter D.  Sin-Dee will stop at nothing to scour the city, find the girl, and exact her own form of revenge.  Seamlessly woven into this story is the life of an Armenian cab driver, Razmik, whose actions become irrevocably tied to the world of Sin-Dee and Alexandra with a surprising reveal that slowly unravels as the film progresses.

 Tangerine succeeds because of the rawness and honesty of both the story and the incredible performances of Rodriguez and Taylor.  Unlike other comedies, it doesn’t try to sugarcoat life with a veneer and instead explores street subcultures in a documentary-esque film that functions more as an ethnography and less as a work of fiction.  All of the characters are deeply flawed and yet are unabashedly and unapologetically themselves.  Tangerine doesn’t shy away from sensitive subjects or mature content, because that’s not how the world works, and the film is so much better because of it.


When I first heard that the Duplass Brothers were producing a comedy about black transgender sex workers, I had some initial concerns with the potential direction and representation.  All of these anxieties quickly dissipated as the narrative unfolded, and I found myself not only drawn into the lives of these complex characters but also reflecting on my own existence and preconceived notions.

 Tangerine is such an empowering film to watch because the filmmakers have created a story that provides a positive and honest portrayal of transgender sex workers.  Underneath the main story is a compelling social commentary on homophobia, drug addiction, and the illicit sex trade.  It never feels condescending or stereotypical but instead humanizes a part of reality that is often skewed in a negative light.

Rather than take brutality to the max for sheer shock value, Tangerine instead focuses on the characters’ inward sense of self-respect and how they try to remain strong in the face of adversity.  In one particularly hilarious exchange between Alexandra and Sin-Dee while walking down the boulevard, Alexandra remarks, “The world can be a cruel place.”  Sin-Dee responds: “Yeah it is cruel.  God gave me a penis.” Tangerine is at its core a beautiful story of friendship, compassion, and love.  Try not to cry as you become enraptured by the experiences of these intriguing characters.  I dare you.

 In the 2015 Studio Responsibility Index, which analyzes the number, caliber, and range of LGBTQ+ representation in 2014 films, GLAAD notes that out of 114 releases from major studios, none of them had characters that identify as transgender.  Although continual progress has been made in including more LGBTQ+ diversity in television and film, especially with the widespread critical acclaim of shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black, there is still a severe lack of both transgender characters and positive representations in popular media.   Not only is it important that there are more opportunities for transgender identifying and gender nonconforming individuals to work behind the scenes and in front of the camera in all types of roles, but we also need a more true-to-life portrayal of the diversity of the transgender experience that moves beyond stereotype or satire.

 Only when the full spectrum of gender and sexual identity are on the silver screen can individuals begin to see their own experiences reflected back at them, which shows them that they are not alone in the world.  With a recent Oscar campaign push for Rodriguez and Taylor, I can only hope that more people will see this incredible film, and it will leave a lasting impression on their lives just as it has left on mine.

Five Fictional Families Who Are Probably More Dysfunctional Than Yours

Ah, Thanksgiving. The perfect holiday to kick back with your closest of friends and family, stuff yourself to the gills with turkey and mashed potatoes, and pass out on the couch. Read More..

What Are You Reading? Lawrence Book Clubs Weigh In

Pictured: the Church Ladies Book Club of Lawrence, KS.

True confession time. I’m incredibly nosy when it comes to book club reading lists. I love finding out what other Lawrence book clubs are reading. The books range from fluffy summer reads to character building classics. I checked in with some local book clubs and asked, “What are you reading?” Here’s my report. Read More..

Sweat and Stanzas: New Book Reveals Poetry in Sports

There has been a lot going in the sports-sphere around Lawrence recently, with each team telling its own kind of story. We have the triumph and catharsis of the Royals taking the World Series, where they faltered just a year ago; at KU, the football season, with its faint glimmers of potential, still marches on, seemingly as an examination of struggle.

Meanwhile, at Allen Fieldhouse, the basketball squad is just beginning their year with the energy and promise we’ve come to expect every November. Read More..

In Memoriam

Jackie Collins, the author of more than 30 always steamy sometimes banned novels about the rich and famous died on September 19 at the age of 77. Her death affected me greatly. See, me and Jackie go way back. Though we never met, I’ve felt close to her since the late 20th Century. It was 1985 or maybe ’86 when our relationship began. Read More..

All the World’s a Stage

Since the 17th Century, William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, is the most enduring and oft referenced literary works of his career. For an actor, performing the lead role of Hamlet lends much prestige and challenge— also, quite possibly, madness. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play containing 4,042 lines; approximately 29,551 words are for the role of Hamlet alone. If one were questioning the longevity of the Bard’s play, there is no more apparent proof than that of the recent production at The Barbican in London, England.

In early 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch, who rose to international fame in BBC’s Sherlock and since appearing in blockbusters like Star Trek: Into Darkness, announced that he would be playing the lead in Hamlet. Within eight hours of going on sale, the entirety of 100,000 tickets were sold out. Despite being slated for production from August 5th through October 31st, 2015, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet became the fastest selling show in London theatre history. Due to its popularity and the desire to reach as many viewers as possible, in February, 2015, it was announced that there would be a global live broadcast in cinemas on October 15th through the British theatre program, National Theatre Live. This program has made British theatre accessible to audiences around the world through filmed stage productions in front of live theatre audiences. Following the global broadcast, Hamlet has since broken another record for National Theatre Live, being viewed in 25 countries, across 1,400 screens, and by more than 225,000 people. If you’re feeling as if you missed the hottest theatre ticket in recent history, fear not, because National Theatre Live is offering encore screenings of the global broadcast on November 5th and 10th in Kansas City.

benedict1When the play begins, we meet a grieving Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, crouched over a vintage portable record player, and from it strains of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” can be heard. A figure enters; it is Horatio, a university friend, visiting to give consolation following the recent and untimely death of Hamlet’s father, the King. Immediately, this is an atypical introduction, not just in appearance, but conveyance by beginning with Act 1, Scene 2. In making the bond of friendship a focus over the original versions’ discovery of the King’s ghost, in turn, causes the play to feel more accessible and relatable for viewers less familiar.

Katrina Lindsay, costume designer, dons the cast in contemporary pieces from varied time periods giving Hamlet a timeless, yet modern appeal. This is most evident in Hamlet’s wardrobe, specifically, a transition from a toy soldier uniform to a military great coat. stardust1Upon encountering the King’s ghost and possessed to exact revenge on Claudius, his stepfather/uncle, he regresses into a petulant child. During this toy soldier phase, Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting is absolutely remarkable. He physically imbues Hamlet’s mental battle from feigning madness to feeling tortured by actual madness. The great coat has a punk rock aesthetic and is customized on the back with white paint displaying the word KING. This transformation is completed with a t-shirt emblazoned with an iconic image of Ziggy Stardust.

It cleverly reiterates the opening song, as David Bowie once recorded a cover of “Nature Boy,” and, simultaneously, references an alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, from a concept album early in his career. Stardust was an alien embodied as a human whose intent was to deliver a message of hope to the human race before their own destruction. However, Stardust maintained a rock star lifestyle ultimately destroying himself and his idolizers. Through the lyrics of “Nature Boy” and the synergy of Ziggy Stardust, the likeness to Hamlet’s journey and imminent demise is unmistakable.

ophelia1Regardless of medium, the character Ophelia appears to be a thankless role for a female actor. Sian Brooke’s portrayal challenges those previous. When we meet Ophelia, she is a quirky, devoted younger sister of Laertes, and enjoys photographing with her vintage camera. At times, she appears so carefree and loving that it feels almost impossible to imagine what is yet to come. However, to witness the effect of Hamlet’s jilting words, followed by the accidental murder of her father, Polonius, and to end with Laertes’ demise is nearly unbearable. Ophelia is left a husk of whom she once was and shakes with the fragility of a leaf. In the moment when she decides to commit suicide, it is treated with an amount of respect and grace that it is as equally beautiful as it is heartbreaking.

At the heart of this production of Hamlet are questions most true of the human condition: what does it mean to live, to die, and who are we to those in between? We ask ourselves these questions and allow Shakespeare’s words live on infinitely, yet there is one certainty: “the play is the thing.”

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet can be seen at the AMC Town Center 20 on Tuesday, November 10th.


Dragons, Deserts, and Shakespearean Cheerleaders

What I find most exciting about young adult literature is that the books in this category are often not confined to any one genre. They blend elements from many, subvert tropes, and defy conventions. Because readers of young adult fiction are more willing to explore a variety of genres, authors of young adult fiction often have success writing in a variety of genres.

One such author is E.K. Johnston, who spun a tale about carbon eating dragons in her award-winning debut and reimagined the tale of Scheherazade in this fall’s release. Her latest book, due out this spring, subverts stereotypes of cheerleaders in an incisive critique of rape culture. Though vastly different, each novel focuses on the relationships between characters (though none contain a romance), have a rhythm and cadence to the story, and a strong sense of place, whether it’s a rural Canadian town built to withstand attacks from dragons, a sweeping desert, or a cheerleading camp.  Read More..

Fake It Till You Make It

The piercing sound of your alarm goes off at exactly 8:32 am, a sound that can only be described as “dying space robot whales” but is labelled as “Sci-fi” on your phone. You roll out of bed, grudgingly, and stumble to your bathroom, bleary-eyed and groggy. After a late night of binge-watching Netflix (will Luke and Lorelei finally get together?!!), you’re almost afraid to glance at yourself in the mirror and catch yourself looking like a troll. You look in the mirror, anyways.

Your hair is wild and crazy, yet flat on one side, your eyes are crusty and slightly bloodshot, and there is a pillow indentation on the left side of your face. Sigh. You say out loud, “You look… AWESOME.” Read More..

Fives & Maulers: The Pug Life

I won’t begin to pretend that I know what it’s like to have to fight for my life, at least not in the literal sense. I’ve had a few scrabbles of the physical and metaphorical variety in my day, but I’m not about to be the next inaugural member of the local fight club, not by a long shot.

Even if I were faced with limited choices and knew that it would come to blows, I know my limits. I might be tough in one sense of the word, but I certainly don’t have the chops to step up to scratch and fib in the ring, especially with other trained fighters, pugs, and pugilists who are well versed at putting up their fives and maulers to duke it out to victory. Read More..