Sunday, October 30, 2022


Hold the pepperoni!

Pizza may be no more than snack food (or, worse, junk food) to you. But to the six extraordinary craftpersons featured in the Netflix series Chef's Table: Pizza, making pizza has become a life-altering ritual at the intersection of Life, Art and Identity.

The long-running Master Chef series profiles renowned chefs from around the world in tasty one-hour docu-bites. In its current (seventh) season, the focus is on maestros of the pizza arts, not only in Italy, but from such unexpected regions as Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Kyoto, Japan. The notion of what pizza is, can, or should be (along with an amazing diversity of ingredients, from flower petals to Korean kimchee), varies wildly from one pair of flour-encrusted hands to the next. But all agree that pizza is the ultimate soul food, expressing not only the soul of the pizza chefs themselves, but of the people and community that inspire them. 

Bonci: Revolution on a plate

That may seem like a lot of symbolism to heap on top of a humble pie, but every pizza tells a story — of drama, displacement, family, culture — and the stories are fascinating.

Native New Yorker Chris Bianco left the city trying to find his place in the world. From his first boyhood job hauling flour sacks up out of the basement in a pizza joint in the Bronx, he landed in Phoenix, selling home-made mozzarella out of his apartment to Italian restaurants and finally graduating to pizza chef. At his own restaurant, he concocts a signature pizza, the Rosa, made with hardy wheat grown in the sandy soil outside Phoenix, red onions sliced as thin and curly as potato chips, pungent rosemary, and crushed pistachios, that "tastes like the desert."

Hailed as "The Michelangelo of pizza," Gabriele Bonci became a celebrity TV chef in Rome (with his own irritatingly bouncy theme song), until he realized the TV persona was devouring him. Painstakingly weaning himself off of fame, like any other addiction, he shed a great deal of physical weight while also streamlining his purpose in the pizza kitchen, promoting the ethics of sustainable agriculture and thoughtful food consumption. He buys all natural ingredients from small farmers, raises his own sheep for cheese, and only buys the meat of animals that have "lived well."  He says, "I decided that pizza would be my weapon. On top, I could put a revolution."

Kim: Trusting herself
On her first day of school in Minneapolis, Ann Kim, daughter of Korean immigrant parents, saw that the bento box lunch so lovingly packed by her grandmother did not look or smell like the other kids' lunches; embarrassed, she threw it away, and spent years being ashamed of her heritage. Vigorously assimilated, she took a detour into theater to submerge her identity, but grew disillusioned with the limited roles offered to Asian women. 

 At a bleak crossroads in life, she thought, "Either you can live in the unhappiness, or you can change it. You just have to trust yourself." Impressed with the melting pot vibe in New York City, from her student days at Columbia (summed up in her first slice of sidewalk pizza), and realizing the one constant joy in her life had always been cooking with her mother and grandmother, she decided on a new direction. "I  said, fuck it," she laughs, "I'm going to put kimchee on a pizza!"

Franco Pepe and his brothers grew up in their father's pizzaria in Naples. All three sons had different career paths lined up until their father's death brought them all back to run the family business. Conflict arose when Franco left to open his own shop featuring his own innovative ideas. His Margharita Spagliata (Margharita Mistake), literally turns the classic pizza upside down, with the layer of mozzarella cheese on the bottom, and infusions of crushed (not cooked) fresh tomatoes and basil striped across the top.

Yoshihiro Imai came from a family of dentists in Kyoto, Japan, but a chance encounter with a library book on breadmaking prompted a passion for dough and pointed him onto a new path. He was in training to become a master chef in Europe until news that his girlfriend was pregnant brought him home. Miserable working in a fast-food cafeteria to support his new family, he opened his own pizza restaurant, foraging for wild mushrooms at dawn and fishing for a lowly species of river trout to invoke the flavor and serenity of his beloved forest. "The path itself," he says, with Zen-like aplomb, "is the meaning and the goal."

Pepe: Vats of bubbling alchemy
Trained as a painter, Sarah Minnick discovered the joy of cooking when the work-study program at art school landed her in the campus kitchen. Deciding food was more fun, and inspired by the DIY, pop-up restaurant scene in her native Portland, Oregon, she turns her artist's eye to pizza with a pallette of "weird weeds," wild edibles, colorful flower petals snipped from her garden, and other impressive  "veggie-centric" concoctions.

All of them share a common passion for locally sourced ingredients, and each has forged close relationships with the small farmers, ranchers, foragers, herbalists and millers who provide them. All of them craft their own dough from scratch, by hand, growing the living dough from regional, stone-ground wheat every morning for the day's pies. Their immersive relationship to the dough is irresistible, gleefully plunging in elbow-deep to massage, roll, tweak and shape their humble ingredients into great vats of breathing, bubbling, alchemy.

Stepping up my pizza game
Of course, pizza is the stuff of ritual in my house too, a way for me to commune with my Art Boy over the pizza board he built and painted so lovingly for our Monday night pizzas. He estimated he'd made a thousand pizzas on the broken, blackened (and beloved) pizza screen I still use. Ridiculously inventive and intuitive with his own toppings (leftover Thanksgiving mashed potatoes and stuffing; razor-thin lemon slices), he never met an ingredient he couldn't put on a pizza, which is why he would have loved the Chef's Table series. Whenever I get too melancholy wishing he was still here to watch it with me (reason #4972 on my list of Why I Wish James Was Still Here), I remind myself to Be Like James and get inspired instead.

Encouraged by my Spirit Guide, I'm stepping up my own pizza game. Yes, I'm still buying one-pound dough balls from Trader Joe's, but I'm trying to approach it less like a fearful supplicant, afraid of messing up, and more like a confident explorer, establishing a partnership with the dough, not a contest.

My efforts may not yet be vat-worthy, but the journey of a thousand pizzas begins with a single slice.

PS: Do NOT watch this show hungry!

Saturday, October 8, 2022


 On Turning 70

Just like Halley's Comet, tearing up the sky every 75 years. Or Cicadas, emerging every 17 years to blanket the Midwest with their irritating noise. I'm on a similar schedule: every 20 years I subject readers to the ongoing soap opera of my advancing age. 

(Way) back in 1982, I wrote a cover story for Good Times about the angst of Turning 30 — the age after which no one was to be trusted, according to the '60s pop culture I grew up in. In 2002, when I was writing a biweekly, non-movie-oriented column for GT, I wrote Vintage 1952, grappling with the surprising revelation that I had somehow become an official Golden Oldie at age 50. 

It hadn't really occurred to me to continue the saga in print this year — possibly because it hasn't quite sunk in that I'm on the cusp of yet another scary birthday that ends in a zero. Well, let's not say scary, but momentous. At the close of one decade, you're supposed to take stock of The Story So Far, while advancing glib strategies on forging ahead into the next one. 

My first two articles were determinedly upbeat in tone, genial pep talks for embracing the ongoing adventure of life. They seemed to resonate with the vast Boomer demographic of which I am smack in the middle. But life has thrown me a few curve balls since then, including a surprise diagnosis of MS at age 62, and a sudden, unexpected plunge into widowhood. I wondered if my experience had become too specific for readers to find "relatable." 

Then I was messaged by a reader who remembered Vintage 1952, and asked point blank if I had penned any further reflections on turning 70. 

So. On further reflection, I realize you don't get to age 70 without a few battle scars, visible or otherwise. (Unless there's a portrait of your glamorous youthful self crumbling away in an attic somewhere.) In the immortal words of Gilda Radner, it's always something. At this age, everybody has issues — that's part of the deal. Besides, given the global upheaval of these last two years — not to mention the previous four — maybe my sense of personal upheaval isn't so unique after all. 

Still, how deeply did I want to plumb the roiling murk of my psyche at this turning point in my life? Did I have the insight, the courage (the gall?) to produce my personal McCartney III? 

As I noted in Vintage 1952, age alone does not necessarily confer wisdom and dignity on a person, but the very fact of your persistent existence earns you a few perks. I know several women my age who have joyfully stopped wearing bras, mostly retired professional women (as opposed to hobbyists) whose jobs required a dress code. Unlike me; when your workplace is a dark movie theater, who's going to see? I still wear a pull-on sports bras most of the time, but they're mostly decorative, since time and age have so radically realigned what used to go in them. Glimpsing myself in the mirror, I'm astonished to see how far south their contents have descended, taking my cleavage with them. 

The only parts of my upper body that are still nicely rounded are — surprise! — my biceps, accidentally toned in the daily act of gripping my rollator as I drag myself around. 

But I'm not here to take inventory of my mutating body parts — isn't that what "old people" do, drone on and on about their ailments? I promised myself I was never going to be that kind of old person! But the truth is, none of us ever expects to actually be an old person at all, despite all evidence to the contrary. And it's funny how our concept of what constitutes "old" recedes like a bad hairline the closer we get to each chronological milestone. 

Meanwhile, our inner 17-year-old (that imaginary friend no one else can see) assures us that old age only happens to other people; if we take spin classes, do crossword puzzles, go gluten-free, we can beat the rap. 

The calendar, however, does not lie, and no bribes, threats, or claims of executive privilege can slow its inexorable course. Age sneaks up on us when we're not looking, so the question becomes not if we're going to age, but how we're going to do it. 

 Let's face it, getting older is ridiculous, so maintaining a sense of humor about it is more essential than ever. The more you can laugh at it, the less power it has to terrify you into submission. Of course, at this age, not even the most delusional among us can pretend that the best is yet to come. But tempting as it is, you can't stay mired in the past, or you risk becoming a relic yourself, like pay phone booths or videotape. 

Back when Gloria Steinem turned 50, someone tried to compliment her by saying "You don't look 50." To which she replied "But this is what 50 looks like." 

No one else gets to tell you how to look — or act — your age. That's your privilege; if you've made it this far, you've earned it. It's up to you to show 'em how it's done. At fifty, I joked that thirty had once been the absolute dividing line between fresh, hip youth and the "vast nothingness that came after." But what's out there now, looming in the darkness after this particular milestone? 

Ask me when I'm ninety.

Friday, April 1, 2022


 Late in life, when the great Katharine Hepburn was   asked if she ever watched her old movies, she said no —explaining something along the lines of, "There is very little pleasure in watching oneself rot."

I get it.

At least Hepburn had decades-worth of glamour images through which to chart her oh-so-subtle decline — photographed by George Cukor, gowned by Edith Head. 

But with a persistent autoimmune disease like MS, you don't get to review the progress of your life as a gracefully unspooling montage. It's more like time-lapse photography where everything changes in seconds.

My body is becoming an alien life form, in an ongoing, unpredictable state of metamorphosis. Rising from a sitting position requires 15 minutes of standing in place to see if all pertinent body parts are on the same page before I dare a step. My shoulders and upper arms have grown taut and sinewy from clutching my roallator for dear life as I drag my clumsy body around behind me like a tail.

I don't do fast. I have only two ambulatory speeds: shuffle and lurch. Except when one or the other (or both) of my legs launches into an unprovoked series of random spasms, when I look like a refugee from the Ministry of Silly Walks. 

 In one of my Art Boy's favorite (justifiably) unsung '50s monster movies, The Maze, a young woman arrives at a stately country manor house whose reclusive lord is never seen. But late every night, from her sumptuous chamber (mysteriously locked from the outside), she hears a lubricious schlep-schlep-schlepping down the corridor outside her door. Turns out the lord of the manor is an overgrown amphibian (as in giant frog, not Jason Momoa in sexy scales) whose handlers drag him through the halls in a huge sheet and outside to rehydrate in a secret pool hidden within a maze on the grounds. I think of that movie every time I hear the sound of my slippered feet scraping along in the wake of my rollator.

Remember Wall-E, where technology has rendered future humans so sedentary they can only get around on individual little jet pods? That’s what I need!

I can still pass for normal from the waist up, as long as I'm sitting down. But I envision the day the only part of me still mobile will be my head, hooked up to banks of various communication devices like The Brain That Wouldn't Die, spitting out caustic remarks.

Meanwhile, navigating the world of visiting home health care, I find myself teetering at the edge of a new reality where "toilet" is not only a verb, but a team sport. After spending 40 years as somebody's sweetie, it's weird to think of a future as somebody's client.

Back when I was still relatively ambulatory, I figured the only way to keep things running around here was to get myself cloned. Clearly, I need a staff — Financial Advisor Me for bills and business; Chef Me for meal prep (and Sous Chef Me for back-up and clean-up); Secretary Me for emails and correspondence; Medical Me for doctor's appointments and health issues; Money Pit Me to deal with homeowner issues like peeling paint, disintegrating deck furniture, busted window shades, antique plumbing — well I could go on and on. 

 And while all these clones were running around, maybe — just maybe — Actual Me could carve a couple of hours out of the day to write.

The problem with the Clone Theory is that I've become such a crab, I don't want any more than one of me around.

If only I'd thought to have James cloned while he was still here. My body might be rotting just as fast, but at least he'd find a way to make me laugh about it!

Sunday, July 25, 2021


 "Come out here."

It was never a command, only an invitation, delivered in a subtle tone of voice that seemed to promise something wonderful.

On the afternoons when James took his daily walk to the harbor and back alone (in earlier years, because I was too lazy or preoccupied to go with him; more recently because I only had the stamina to go every other day), he would come home, kick off his walking shoes, grab his first glass of bubbly, and head out to the deck.

The kitties came scampering around, delighted to have a human out on their turf, putting on their usual show — racketing about, stretching out like little fur rugs in the sun, launching stealth aerial attacks on each other.

It was the hour that most people were transitioning into dinner mode, so it was usually pretty quiet in the neighborhood. No lawn mowers or gunning engines. Maybe some distant laughter a block or two away, maybe a neighbor's radio, but mostly birds and leaves rustling in the breeze. James always looked forward to this evening ritual, a chance to just sit down and savor it all.

On mild summer nights, after dinner, when I'd finished washing the dishes and he had dried enough to make room in the drainer, he would disappear outside again with his, er, next glass of bubbly (who's counting?) while I was still puttering around in the kitchen. "Come out here," he would urge me from the deck. "Come see the stars."

He knew I had a thing about the stars. I was always threatening to buy an astronomy book so I could identify all the constellations, although, like so many other things, I never quite got around to it. I knew Orion, however, which was always rising over the neighbor's roof at about this time, mainly because the three-star pattern of Orion's Belt is imprinted in freckles on my forearm. But whether or not we knew all their names, any summer night when the stars were visible before the fog rolled in was cause for celebration!

Of course, I always had some lame excuse. Okay, but just let me finish this one sentence, answer this one email, make this one note for tomorrow.

Okay, but just let me finish up in here, wipe down the counter, put on a sweater. What did I do with my shoes?

It was always something. Something I felt I had to do right this minute, one last chore before I'd permit myself to get out there and enjoy some down time. With you. Listen to the birds, laugh at the kitties. Gaze at those beautiful stars cocooned in black night. Cuddle up to my sweetie.

We thought we had an infinity of time, back in those days. Next time you ask, I thought, I'll be ready.

In retrospect, I'd say that 75% of the time, I finally managed to get out there with you. To take a break and just enjoy the peace and contentment, our reward for this life we somehow managed to cobble together from scratch. Against all odds.

But that means I squandered 25% of the time I could have spent with you. I regret every minute that I put you off with some feeble excuse. It appalls me that all those times when I still had the chance, I thought I had something more important to do.

Ask me again.

Saturday, April 24, 2021


 But all seriousness aside, at my house, the only thing that really matters at this time of year is the (dreaded) Oscar Barbies!


I managed to do four out of the five Best Actress nominees this year — not bad since I've only seen two of the movies.


Hopefully, you don't actually need a program to tell who the players are, but just in case:


Frances McDormand, Nomadland


Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holliday


Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman


Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom


As usual, it's all about the props!


 This used to be the time of year when I would post my fearless Oscar predictions — even as recently as (the dreaded) 2020, when the little gold guys were handed out in mid-February, about a month before the pandemic shut everything down.

Everything has changed since then, of course, including the alarming fact that I have not personally set foot inside a movie theater in almost 14 months. Movies that debut on home screens via Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc., don't seem as real, somehow.  Norma Desmond's classic line in Sunset Boulevard has become literally true (and prophetic): the pictures HAVE gotten small.

Nevertheless, filmmakers, actors and craftspersons have continued to churn out quality work, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has persisted in its nominations for this year's Academy Awards. The drawback for this would-be prognosticator is that, without benefit of a smart TV (mine still has a picture tube; look it up, kids), and after a year in lockdown, I haven't seen most of the nominees.

But do you think that's going to stop me? Hah! Thanks to indulgent (and similarly double-vaxxed) friends who subscribe to streaming platforms, I've managed to see seven movies nominated in some category or other. Not exactly a comprehensive overview of this year's contenders, but just (barely) enough to indulge in some random observations, as if I knew what I was talking about!
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari.

How chaotic has this year been for the movies? Just look at the mashup of colors, graphics and patterns on this year's Oscars logo. Or maybe it's an artistic expression of diversity as the Academy struggles to refute the charge of #oscarsowhite — a diversity that is (for once) reflected in this year's nominees. (Here's the complete list.) Meanwhile, here's what I expect on the big night:

Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari. Full disclosure: I haven't seen Minari, but it looks like the veteran Korean actress' indomitable matriarch is the glue that holds this much-lauded immigration drama together.

Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah. Okay, I haven't seen this one either, but Kaluuya has already racked up the Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild, and British Academy of Film and Televison Arts (BAFTA) awards in this category, playing martyred Black Panthers deputy chairman Fred Hampton.

Oscars not quite so white: Boseman and Davis
Actress: Viola Davis,  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. This category is full of wild cards this year. Frances McDormand and Davis are frequent nominees, but McDormand won three years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Davis won the year before for Fences, but that was in the Supporting Actress category.

Davis is an extraordinary actress who deserves every accolade, and her tough, imperious and curmudgeony blues legend, Ma Rainey is an audacious stretch from anything she has done before. (And, yes, I did see this one!). However, Andra Day walked off with the Golden Globe playing another immortal vocalist in The United States vs. Billie Holliday. And while she hasn't won any of the seasonal awards, here's a shout-out to Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Mulligan's psychological complexity is mesmerizing in the role, her seamless gear-shifting from perceived victim to avenger absolutely bone-chilling.

Mulligan: Would-be victim-turned-avenger
Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. This rather stagebound adaptation of the August Wilson play is not his best vehicle, by far, although the late and sorely missed Boseman, as always, delivers every ounce of nuance and bravado required of him. But no power on Earth or the Cosmos can stop his momentum — and why would they? Who doesn't want to see T'Challa claim his final victory?

Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland. Chinese-born Zhao, who has lived and worked in the States since high school, caused a stir with her acclaimed modern cowboy drama, The Rider, in 2017. And now that we're all feeling a little rootless and dispossessed, her tale of nomadic wanderers living out of their vans in heartland America has really struck a chord. The first woman of color ever nominated in this category (and one of two women nominated this year — another first — along with Emerald Fennel of Promising Young Woman), Zhao is the right face, with the right movie and the right story at exactly the right time.

Director Zhao: The right story for the right time.

Movie: Nomadland. It has powered through the awards season, collecting Globe and BAFTA recognition. True, Aaron Sorkin's entertaining The Trial Of The Chicago 7, won Best Ensemble at the SAGs, often the most reliable predictor of Academy favor. But Nomadland, with its largely non-professional cast, didn't fit  the nomination criteria for the pro screen actors' organization. It's a perfect fit, however, for this year's Oscar gold.

Friday, February 26, 2021


Behold: the new Beast on the block!

Almost three years after the initial release of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge in hardcover, the long-awaited paperback edition is finally here! 

Well, almost. Official release date is March 9, but it's available for pre-order as we speak!

In a perfect world, it would have come out in the middle of last year, but COVID-19 had other ideas; the wheels of publishing slowed to a crawl during the pandemic, just like everything else.

One big change you may notice is the cover of the paperback edition is completely different from the original fabulous cover. (Check it out, over there in the right-hand menu.) It surprised me to learn that this is a thing in publishing at the moment, completely reimagined artwork between original hardcover and subsequent paperback editions.

(As a point of historical reference, Alias Hook came out in paperback almost exactly one year after the hardcover edition — with the same gorgeous cover!)

But as different as they are stylistically, in mood and even color palette, my two Beast covers share the same essential thematic elements— a ferocious-looking Beastly shadow in silhouette, and a candlestick. What I like about the new paperback artwork is the wraparound effect: turn it over and there's an equally shadowy and mysterious silhouette of a young woman.

A woman, a Beast, and a candlestick with secrets of her own. Let the games begin!

You can pre-order right this minute from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and other discerning booksellers everywhere!


Monday, February 22, 2021


45 years and 4 months.

No, that's not how long we've all been sheltering in place. It's the length of time I've been writing for Good Times. To put it in perspective, my very first movie review (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was published in GT in October, 1975. Which was a year and a half before I even met my Art Boy, in the spring of 1977.

We moved in together in February, 1978, and got married 7 1/2 months later. We were together for 40 years, 'til death us did part.

That was almost three years ago. And before, during, and after all that time together, I've been writing weekly film reviews for Good Times.

Until the Attack Of COVID-19, in March of 2020, when my career came to a screeching halt. I haven't set foot inside a movie theater since March 13 of last year, about four days before they all shut down.

Talk about an identity crisis!

I was a fresh-faced 23-year-old just out of UCSC, in my embroidered hippie overalls, when I started my stint at GT. I figured going to the movies would be a fun way to make my rent until I had to go get an actual job. (Historical note: Rents were a lot cheaper in those days.)

On the face of it, I had zero qualifications for this job. I wasn't a film scholar, had never even taken a journalism class. But I'd spent my entire childhood watching old movies on TV with my mom. In those days, you couldn't just dial up something on demand; you had to be prepared to stay up to 1 AM on a Saturday night, for instance, for the weekly movie classics on The Fabulous 52, in L. A., which began at 11:15 PM, right after the news. My mom popped the corn, and my night-owl brothers and I would settle in.

For a couple of years, the series MGM Classics played every Sunday afternoon in syndication, and another station (possibly an early PBS channel) played classic foreign movies with subtitles. Musicals, monster movies, Errol Flynn swashbucklers, even cheesy Italian gladiator movies, my mom's appetite was inexhaustible, and we watched them all!

The rest was on-the-job training. Fortunately, I was inspired by how amazingly diverse the Santa Cruz movie scene was in those days. Besides mainstream movies at the chain theaters, there was the original single-screen Nickelodeon, and the repertory-style Sash Mill Cinema for art house fare, the plucky, independently-owned Capitola Theater (which persisted in showing double-features with cartoons, and 15-cent M&Ms, well into the '80s), a thriving drive-in, even a venue for X-rated "adult" movies at the old Cinema Soquel.

So, ten years after my first byline at GT, I was still at it. Back then, I used to joke that I'd been with the paper so long, people meeting me for the first time expected me to be 80 years old.

Once, in the mid-'90s, a young writer who had recently joined our editorial pool asked around to find out how he could get some film review assignments. Somebody told him, "Lisa Jensen would have to die." (He told me this story later, and we both laughed. I never did find out which colleague made that pronouncement.)

When Siskel and Ebert were all the rage, I appeared on a similar movie review program with fellow critic, Rick Chatenever, then at the Sentinel, on local TV station KRUZ. One early evening, as I emerged from a screening at a downtown theater and started walking past the folks lined up for the next show, an older woman I didn't personally know broke into a merry grin as I went by. "It's our movie girl!" she cried.

During a few flush years, I wrote two reviews a week, and sometimes three, if this or that indulgent editor could figure out how to lay them all out on the same page. For a couple of years, early in the Millennium, when Greg Archer was our fearless leader, I also wrote a bi-weekly opinion column about any damn thing I wanted, which I loved.

True, there have been times when I flirted with the possibility of retiring from the fray. The closest I came was after my first novel was published, back in 2001. The dangling carrot of writing fiction full-time, without having to stop and expend brain cells on a movie review every week, was tempting. After all, Art Boy had given up the comic book store to pursue art full-time, and, boy was he loving it! Still, it's just as well that I didn't follow that carrot off a cliff, since it took another 13 years to get my next novel published!
Marquee de Sad: Not coming soon
But now that I actually am 80 years old, I find myself at a crossroads. COVID-19 has wrought havoc in all facets of the movie business: productions have been halted, release dates postponed, and movie theaters closed. New movies are being released directly into the privacy of viewers' homes, as they shelter in place. It was almost a scandal when last spring's big-ticket releases, like Disney's live-action Mulan and Christopher Nolan's mind-bending Tenet, finally went direct to streaming platforms after postponing their release dates for months. (Tenet actually played in cautiously-reopened downtown theaters for about 15 minutes until they had to shut down again.) By the time Wonder Woman 1984 came out at Christmas, direct-to-streaming had become (yet another) new normal.

And this week comes the news that the Cinema 9 in downtown Santa Cruz, smack in the middle of Pacific Avenue, is now closed for good. It has not yet been officially confirmed, but word is that Regal Cinemas, the parent chain that operates it, is pulling out; employees have been given notice, while the company reportedly is offering to transfer them to other Regal theaters. Of course, most other Regal theaters nationwide have also been shut down since October, but that the company may be abandoning the Santa Cruz venue entirely has an extra ominous ring of finality to it.

The venerable Nick and Del Mar downtown, as well as the Cinelux theaters at 41st Avenue and in Scotts Valley, also remain dark, although their websites maintain that their closures are only temporary. So far.

But after a year-plus on hiatus, what will the future of movie theaters even look like? Millennials are leery of anything that takes them out of their comfort zones, like driving (hence Google buses and Uber). They may have not yet developed the habit of congregating with their fellow humans in a public space with a big screen; they’d just as soon watch movies on their phones. 

Meanwhile, I know plenty of people in my age group (the Stone Age) who have long since given up movies in public for Netflix, et al, in the privacy of their own living rooms. Especially now that what used to be called "first-run" movies are instantly available on the home screen.

I volunteered to review movies going straight to streaming, although it seems a little superfluous to review a movie that's already beaming directly into your home. Who needs my opinion? If you don't like it, switch the channel!

But Good Times is more concerned with supporting and promoting local businesses that are still open to some degree, and available to our local readership, like restaurants, bookstores, and farmers' markets.

So is this my cue to exit, stage left?

After all these years, I had hoped to be able to leave Good Times on my own terms. But now it seems that decision is mostly out of my hands.

We can't know what the future will bring. Once we're all vaccinated, maybe movie theaters will stage a miraculous comeback. Maybe I'll still dabble in the occasional review, if there's something I really don't want you to miss. Maybe I'll finally have new stuff to post on my Rotten Tomatoes page!

But in the meantime, treasured readers, know this: It has been my very great pleasure to be your movie girl for all these years. This community of dedicated, opinionated, and unrepentant movie fans means the world to me.

Thanks for all your support, your encouragement, and your letters, even when you disagreed with me. My favorite, in the very early days, was the reader who objected to "the jejune jottings of Ms. Jensen." Fair enough — you can't get much more jejune than age 23! (I got better — I hope.)

But mostly, as always, thanks for reading. 

 (Top: Good Times promo, ca 1977)

(Cinema 9 photo by Shmuel Thaler, Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Sunday, February 14, 2021


Love is in the Air

This year I'm celebrating Valentine's Day by sharing some of my happiest memories of my Sweetie, James Aschbacher. There are so many more to choose from over 40 years, but (right now) these are my Top Ten:

MARCH OR DIE  It wasn't even a date. I had only recently met James at the comic book store, and I asked if he wanted to come to a movie I had to review. It was March Or Die, a French Foreign Legion movie (a throwback genre if ever there was one, in the 1970s) starring Gene Hackman as an American soldier-of-fortune off fooling around in the desert. It was largely preposterous, but I was "at work," so we were slogging through. At one point, as the camera panned across the vast, golden desert landscape, three figures in shimmering electric-blue satin, sheiks or Bedouins, or something, appeared on the distant crest of a dune. James and I leaned our heads together and whispered, in unison, "Look, it's the Andrews Sisters!"

Okay, maybe not screamingly funny, but the fact that we made the exact same joke in the exact same instant suddenly felt — momentous.

MY FORMER/FUTURE GIRLFRIEND We were at a comics convention, one of the many we attended in the spring and summer before we got married. We would haul dozens of boxes of comics from Atlantis Fantasyworld to the con in James' gutted Econoline van (two front seats, and absolutely nothing in the back) to sell at our table in the Dealers' Room. During a slow period one day, probably when some popular interview or panel was going on in some other room, James covertly drew my attention to a pretty young woman with long hair strolling past the tables. What he meant to say (I think), was "She looks like my former girlfriend." What came out of his mouth, however, was, "She looks like my future girlfriend." Did I mention we weren't married yet? I suppose there were many snarky, irate, and/or cutting remarks I might have made in response, but I was too busy laughing.

MY WIFE We were prowling through an antique store one day during our 4-day honeymoon in Carmel at the Casa Munras Hotel. We were murmuring together about something, and the friendly clerk over at the desk asked if she could help us with anything. "No thanks," said James, "I was just talking to my wife." My wife. We looked at each other and tried not to giggle.

Into the Night

REDDING We had been at a weekend comic convention in Portland, Oregon. The event closed at 5pm Sunday evening, and since we were packed up by 6, we decided to head out immediately to begin the long drive home. That first night, we stopped in Eugene. The next day we got as far south as Redding before the ferocious midsummer heat (the van didn't have AC) forced us to stop at a motel. Our room was upstairs, with an exterior staircase right outside that led down to the parking lot, with a Denny's or HoJo's, or something, on the other side of the lot.

Our plan was to cool off in the blissfully air-conditioned room, then go down and eat so we could get an early start in the morning. But first, there was that bottle of champagne that we'd lugged upstairs in our cooler. (Don't leave home without it, that was James' motto.) We were watching an old Star Trek rerun on TV and I remember a long discussion about comic artist Steve Leialoha's slender, long-fingered hands; he'd been sitting adjacent to us at the con, sketching for the fans. Between the heat and the bubbly, we found we no longer had the enthusiasm, much less the ability, to navigate those stairs, so we went to bed instead, hoping it wouldn't be too hot to sleep.

In the middle of the night we woke up freezing! The sun was down, the earth had cooled, and our AC unit was still roaring away. James got up to adjust it, but none of the controls worked; either it was busted, or the knobs were merely decorative and the machine was permanently set to 'Arctic.' James even tried beating on it with his shoe. We had to bundle up in the one pair of pajamas we had between us: I wore the shirt, he put on the pants; we felt like Rock Hudson and Doris Day. We ransacked the closet for the one extra blanket we could find and piled all the rest of our summer travel clothes on top of that. Next morning we could not get out of there fast enough!

FAVORITE MOMENT A friend is a music producer with a recording studio in his garage. One night, over dinner, he mentioned that his favorite moment of the morning was when he took his second cup of tea into the studio to go to work. Without missing a beat, James said, "My favorite time of the morning is when my wife comes out of the shower naked and gives me a big kiss."

  One night in bed, we were discussing upcoming travel plans. (Well, I was; James, a notorious homebody, was expressing dismay.) At one point I said, "You know, some people actually like to travel." To which he retorted, "Well, some people eat fur for breakfast!" There was a beat of stunned silence as our brains digested his words, then we both exploded like Vesuvius — breathless, shrieking, helpless. We laughed until we cried.
SO(HO) FUN For awhile, James belonged to a loose collective of local artists calling themselves SoHo Beach who once put together a weekend pop-up art gallery in a Watsonville parking garage. He was off somewhere schmoozing and I was sitting in the booth one day when a beloved local matron of the arts stopped in; she had never seen James' work before, and she couldn't stop smiling and raving about it. Finally she turned to me and said, "Oh, I bet he's so much fun!" "Well, I think so," I agreed. "I married him!"

STARS OVER SWANTON We had lazed poolside all afternoon up Swanton Road with our friends Bruce and Marcia, and Mort and Donna. (Donna and I actually got wet; everybody else kept to the shade, sipping margaritas!) As dusk fell, we all drifted upstairs to the wrap-around patio just outside the kitchen, claimed patio chairs, and gazed out over the green hills and treetops of Swanton to a glimpse of horizon beyond, watching the stars wink to life, one by one, in the vast, darkening sky. No conversation, no one-liners, nobody said anything. Just enjoying a magical moment with people we loved.

One day, we set out to buy ourselves the perfect champagne glasses — flutes, of course, narrow enough at the base to keep the bubbles bubbling, and not so wide at the top that the bubbles would dissipate too quickly. But there isn't any way to gauge how bubbles will behave in a glass without taking it on a test drive. And since nothing else bubbles quite like champagne, we brought a well-stoppered bottle along with us to try them out, visiting kitchen stores and housewares departments, pouring little tots of bubbly into prospective glasses to see how they performed. We asked permission first, of course, but not a single sales person objected; they got a lesson in the aerodynamics of sparkling wine, and half an hour of entertainment!
LA VIE EN LA MOULIN James and I spent five days alone together at the Moulin, our friends' centuries-old mill house on the Yonne River in the Burgundy region of France. It was an excessively hot June, and we were pretty torporous during the day. But one evening we found an Edith Piaf CD and played it through the open door as we sat out on the back porch overlooking the river. Dark was just beginning to fall around 9 pm, we were sipping champagne (of course!) and I was fooling around with a set of Tarot cards in French we'd found, with Piaf's throaty vibrato carrying splendidly over the water. We noticed an older gentleman had pulled a deck chair out onto his little dock down the river, as the bedazzling stars emerged in the sliver of black night visible between the tree tops. When Piaf concluded her last song, with a rousing flourish, and all was again silent along the river, the man downstream quietly folded up his chair and took himself and his memories back inside.

"Everybody needs his memories," says author Saul Bellow. "They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."

Wishing you many happy and significant memories in this season of love.

(Paintings by James Aschbacher, of course!)

Monday, January 4, 2021



New Year's shout-out to the Great Plates Program, which obtains grants for local restaurants and catering services to keep their cooking staffs employed creating weekly meals to be delivered to area seniors who may need a break from cooking. 

 Lucky me, they hooked me up with Colectivo Felix, a catering kitchen run by chef Diego Felix, who delivers substantial dinners with a fun, inventive Latin American accent. (He hails from Argentina.)

Goodie bags typically contain a small bag of salad, dressing, and fresh fruit, alongside the meals. One of my recent faves was the Argentine Christmas Dinner (roast loin of veal with creamy tuna sauce). There have also been some holiday surprises: a little cup of Christmas cookies; a split of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc for New Year's Eve.

Each delivery comes with a menu and a delivery schedule for the next week. (They will also deliver breakfast and lunch, although I like to do those for myself.) 

 Calling themselves Culinary Troubadours, the folks at Colectivo Felix cater all sorts of private gatherings (when such things were still possible, and hopefully will be again), and offer various goodies to go four days a week, through their website, among many other activities. They also participate in the Empanadas For Farmworkers campaign, cooking and delivering empanadas to farmworkers in the field, courtesy of local sponsors.

Since I actually do like to cook (when I'm up to it), I've been meaning to see if I can arrange to get a few less meals a week. No point in being greedy! But the food is so good, I haven't done it yet — I don't want to miss anything!

Sunday, September 13, 2020


Diverse cast, soaring spirit, fuel joyous
'Personal History of David Copperfield'


Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel may not be the most obvious choice to play David Copperfield, one of Charles Dickens' most beloved and most autobiographical heroes. But casting the popular Patel is but one of many inspired and audacious choices made by Armando Iannucci in his smart and highly entertaining adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield.


Director Iannucci and his co-scenarist and frequent writing partner, Simon Blackwell, are best known for sly political satires The Death of Stalin, and TV's Veep, created by Iannucci. In their hands, Dickens' classic coming-of-age tale gets and energizing makeover that is absolutely true to this spirit of the novel. While unapologetically diverse in its casting, it never feels unduly PC, and is often brilliant in the originality of its storytelling.


Patel as Copperfield: Noteworthy
 The movie is framed as a theatrical recitation by acclaimed author Copperfield. (A nod to the kinds of public readings Dickens himself staged for his rapt admirers throughout his career.) As he narrates his life story, beginning with his birth, it unfolds onscreen, with the adult David popping up in the shot with commentary— one of the movie's many charmingly surreal touches.


David's idyllic childhood with his loving young widowed mother ends abruptly when she marries grim Murdstone, who arrives with his equally sour sister (an unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie). The spirited child David (Jairaj Varsani) is banished to London to work in a grimy factory. He's a teenager (now played by Patel) when he learns his mother has died, and walks all the way to Dover to throw himself on the mercy of his only relative, the formidable Aunt Betsey Trotwood (a delightful Tilda Swinton.)


Swinton, Patel, Laurie, Eleazar: al fresco
 Peter Capaldi is droll and wistfully philosophical as the impecunious Micawber, and Hugh Laurie is wonderful as the mostly befuddled but sometimes gently insightful Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey's distant relation. He and David share a love of writing things down (David obsessively records his life in notes and sketches), giving the filmmakers ample opportunity to weave Dickens' delicious prose into the fabric of the movie. Ben Whishaw is unctuously oozy as conniving Uriah Heep, although there's not enough time to convey the full menace of his crimes. Aneurin Barnard is impressively grand as Steerforth, David's elitist schoolfellow, but he seems more of a poseur than genuinely charismatic; David's attachment to him never quite feels earned.


Meanwhile, the narrative strides boldly forward through Dickens' busy plot, hitting most of its emotional  high notes, yet boisterously funny throughout. Quick and clever editing keeps the pictures moving with smooth dissolves and ingenious expositions. When David falls instantly in love with porcelain, childlike Dora (Morfydd Clark), daughter of the lawyer who employs him, he sees her face painted on a pub sign in the street, and her blonde curls adorning a passing cart driver. To keep the narrative moving, the filmmakers even have the nerve to write out a key character, at her request. ("I really don't fit in.") I doubt if Dickens would approve, but it's a smart way to keep the movie's tone consistent and focused.


The movie looks terrific, from teeming London streets to the fresh, open countryside to the seaside. Motherly Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), David's former nurse, lives with her family under the upturned hull of a boat on the beach at Yarmouth. (A magical place vividly realized by production designer Cristina Casali.) In addition to the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, David's surrogate family includes his aunt's tippling but well-meaning solicitor, Whitfield (Benedict Wong), and his daughter, Agnes (played with good-humored warmth by Rosalind Eleazar). 


Patel plays David with the right balance of open-hearted exuberance and dawning maturity. The non-traditional casting also highlights the story's core question of identity. David earns many nicknames on his journey through life — Davy, Trot, Daisy, Doady — which are more expressions of who others need him to be than who he actually is. It's a nifty little victory when this David finally discards his nicknames to proclaim himself simply David Copperfield— the hero (at last) of his own life.