Friday, February 5, 2016

LOCAL LEGENDS

Funny how time flies!

10 years ago, Art Boy and I were honored with a Gail Rich Award for our various attempts to muck about in the Santa Cruz arts community. (We were a twofer!)

We were thrilled to join an illustrious group of artists, writers, musicians, performers, movers and shakers recognized every year in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, to be profiled by Wallace Baine and photographed by Shmuel Thayer (two local legends in their own right).
Mucking about in the arts.

Flash forward to now. The "Gailies," as they're called, are celebrating their 20th anniversary! And here's something I've discovered as a Gailie recipient: It's not only an honor, it's a lifetime commitment!

Okay, once a year, we go to the Gailie Awards at the Rio to cheer on the new inductees, sip free champagne, and nibble on chocolates and cookies.

But this year's list of events keeps expanding. An exhibit of 20 years of Shmuel's splendid portraits of Gailie recipients opened last week at the Cabrillo Gallery, beautifully curated by Rose Sellery.

Also, in honor of the 20th anniversary, 2016 recipient Jana Marcus spearheaded the book, The Creatives Among Us, a coffee table-sized paperback devoted to all of Shmuel's fabulous photos and Wallace's witty words. As a time capsule of 20 years of the Santa Cruz arts scene, it's irresistible. Order yours today! 

But wait: there's more!

This Saturday night, there will be a special The Creatives Among Us performance at the Crocker Theatre, Cabrillo College, featuring an unheard-of treasure trove of Gailie-winning local legends in concert—singers, musicians, dancers, drummers—onstage together.

Everyone from Santa Cruz Ballet Theater to Watsonville Taiko; from Pipa Pinon, Ginny Mitchell, and Mary McCaslin to Tammi Brown, Eleazor Cortes, and The Great Morgani.

And so many more, some 30 acts in all.

One night only!

Cruise over here for the complete line-up, and ticket info. You don't want to have to tell your grandchildren you missed it!

Gailie class reunion and photo shoot from September, 2015, by Kevin Johnson.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

ALL THAT JAZZ AGE

Jewel Theatre Company stages fizzy '20s farce Fallen Angels

The latest production from Jewel Theatre Company is as light and bubbly as the champagne the characters quaff incessantly onstage. For the company's second offering at their new home, the Colligan Theater at the Tannery, Artistic Director Julie James has chosen Noel Coward's crowd-pleasing farce, Fallen Angels.

The play's subject matter—that women might be capable of having sexual lives outside of marriage—was considered quite racy in its day. Even though its day was 1925, smack in the middle of the postwar, anything-goes Jazz Age, when sexuality was obviously a fact of life, it was still not something usually discussed onstage.

But Coward got away with it with his trademark wit and grace by not depicting an affair, but its aftermath, providing wry commentary on what happens when the wild past of two proper, married English ladies comes back to haunt—and entice—them.
Doukas and Pizzo: waiting for Maurice

The production is directed by Art Manke, veteran of both Santa Cruz Shakespeare (last summer's hilarious The Liar), and JTC (the equally hilarious What The Butler Saw).

Manke has also directed nine productions of Coward's work, and it shows in the fleet pacing and style he brings to this vivacious show. His Fallen Angels combines elements of the cult TV hit, Absolutely Fabulous—with its two dizzy, champers-swilling girlfriends—with plenty of 1920s chic.

Julia (Nike Doukas) has been happily married to Fred (Kit Wilder) for five years. On the morning Fred is leaving on an overnight golfing trip, they congratulate themselves that they still love each other, but they are no longer subject to the rash throes of being in love.

Torres Koss: extra fizz
Fred heads off to the links, and Julia looks forward to a weekend of amusing herself—until her best friend, Jane (Marcia Pizzo), rushes in with shocking news: a Frenchman named Maurice, with whom both ladies dallied seven years earlier, before they had even met their current husbands, has come to town.

Desperate to keep their youthful indiscretions secret from their husbands, the ladies also fear that now that their marriages have become so settled, they won't be able to resist the Frenchman's charms.

Special kudos to longtime JTC diva Diana Torres Koss' scene-stealing turn as Julia's ferociously competent new maid. She's a riot throughout, sneaking over to the piano when no one else is about, entertaining the audience between scenes.

She brings a little extra fizz to Coward's sparkling cocktail. (Read more)

Monday, January 25, 2016

SURREAL LIFE

Back in the day, a feature cartoon adapted from R. Crumb's randy comic, Fritz the Cat, bore the tagline: "He's X-rated—and animated!"

The publicity is not quite so sensational for the new stop-motion animated feature, Anomalisa; the themes are just as adult in nature, and the storyline remarkably frank, but the handling of the material is both more muted, and yet even more surreal.

And we'd expect no less from the latest experiment in cinematic arts and craft from the febrile imagination of scriptwriter-turned-director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Remember, in the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovich, when the hapless protagonist attempts to stage the tragedy of Abélard and Heloise as a puppet show?

In Anomalisa, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson grapple with the malaise of modern humanity—the emptiness and alienation we've all felt sometimes—using stop-motion puppets.

Michael and Lisa: Everyone is special to someone.
 It's a brilliant idea, in concept, and the choices made by the filmmakers to spin their yarn are often wildly inventive. Still, for all its deeply human themes, the story never quite touches the heart.

Front and center is Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), a middle-aged self-help guru who can't seem to help himself. To express the boring sameness of Michael's everyday life, the filmmakers cleverly have one actor (the versatile Tom Noonan) providing voices for everyone else he encounters—male or female, adult or child.

Until Michael meets Lisa. Her voice—warm, funny, girlish at times—is done by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael nicknames her "Anomalisa" because her individuality is so unexpected. He can't articulate why he finds mousy Lisa so special, but who can explain the mysteries of love and attraction?

In the film's most persuasive scene, they go to bed, with all the awkwardness, humor, and tenderness of a real-life encounter.

There are some truly marvelous moments. When Michael turns on the TV, the filmmakers lovingly recreate a scene from the classic '30s screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey—in black-and-white—with Noonan (of course) supplying voices for both William Powell and Carole Lombard.

But other sections don't come off as well, like a long suite of opening scenes no less tedious for being staged with puppets. As admirable as Anomalisa is in so many ways, by the end, I wanted to be more moved. (Read complete review in this week's Good Times)

Monday, January 18, 2016

BOYS TOWN

Theron: just one of the guys.
What were they thinking with this year's Oscar nominations?

It's pretty much business as usual over at Boys Town (aka: the Motion Picture Academy), with most of the kudos going to movies whose casts, filmmakers and subject matter are—how can I put this?—white and male.

Male ensemble casts are the E-ticket rides this year—The Revenant, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, The Martian. At least Spotlight has a token woman reporter (Rachel McAdams) in the newsroom.

But while Mad Max: Fury Road, prominently features a grundged-out Charlize Theron in its plot and ads, it only reminds us that tough guys are still the gold standard—even for women.

The Big Short: men in suits.

The highest-profile female-oriented movie of the year, Todd Haynes' Carol,  got shut out of the Best Picture competition (although its stars got nominated).

The lovely female coming-of-age drama, Brooklyn, actually is in the running for Best Picture, but without a corresponding nomination for its director, its chances are slim.

The only other nominee with a female protagonist, Room, scored noms for both picture and director Lenny Abrahamson. (But not, curiously, for 9-year-old co-star Jacob Tremblay, the movie's centerpiece.)

The Revenant: men in distress.
And while star Brie Larson is poised to win the Best Actress category, what are the chances of this intimate movie prevailing against the turbo-charged, star-driven big boys?

Speaking of acting, diversity watchdogs are complaining that this is the second year in a row when not one person of color was nominated in any of Oscar's acting categories.

You have to go back to 2013 and 2014, when 12 Years A Slave and The Help garnered multiple nominations (including two winners) for their actors. (And maybe in some Utopian future, actors of color will get nominated for playing something other than slaves and housekeepers.)

No gold for La Mirren this year.
There are some other weird choices among the acting noms. Cate Blanchett is nominated for Best Actress in Carol, and co-star Rooney Mara for Supporting Actress, although, arguably, Mara's character is the protagonist through whose viewpoint most of the story plays out.

Ditto Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, who, amazingly, is nominated in the Supporting Actress category. I thought her character was the heart of the movie, a woman coming to terms with the husband she loves transgendering into a woman—in the 1920s, when nobody had ever heard of such a thing.

How about a nod to Helen Mirren in Woman In Gold? Or a Supporting nom for Mirren as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo? What about Trumbo? And how is it that Aaron Sorkin, fresh from winning a Golden Globe for his smart, literate script for Steve Jobs, didn't even score a nomination?

Surf on over to IMDb to see the full list of nominations. Read 'em and weep...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

TRULY, MADLY

Very sorry today to hear of the passing of Alan Rickman, an actor of extreme talent and terrific wit, with one of the Best. Voices. Ever.

Yes, we all know and love Snape (Snape! Snape!). Every syllable was an event in a Rickman performance, particularly as (spoiler alert!) the presumed villain and tragically misunderstood Potions master at Hogwarts, Severus Snape.

Rickman could pack more oily unction into a single word than most actors can manage in an entire career. Sure, Snape was Harry Potter's nemesis, but he was also one of the most beloved components of the franchise.

But if you'll be streaming your own private Rickman Festival, don't forget these magic moments:


ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES  I'm serious: Rickman's rampaging Sheriff of Nottingham is reason enough to see this Kevin Costner version. Rickman delivers a performance of uncharacteristic bluster, and has a high old time doing it.

He's the real thief here, stealing the movie from Costner—until the very end, when director Kevin Reynolds figured out what was going on, and turned the Sheriff into an eye-rolling cartoon.



GALAXY QUEST Rickman is hilarious as a classically-trained British thespian playing an alien under pounds of latex in a Star Trek-like  TV series that refuses to die.

The show has been off the air for years, but the actor finds himself stuck eternally recreating the role at sci-fi conventions for generations of fanboys.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY Emma Thompson wrote the script for this Jane Austen adaptation, and directior Ang Lee had the sense to cast Rickman as courtly, brooding Colonel Brandon, the older suitor who doggedly proves his worth to Kate Winslet's romance-obsessed Marianne.


TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY I think the first time I ever saw Rickman onscreen was in this wonderfully romantic and warmly witty supernatural love story.

 He plays a recently deceased concert cellist whose spirit returns to his lover (Juliet Stevenson) to encourage her to get on with her life. A winsome romance with a droll sense of humor.  Rickman at his best.

LOVE, ACTUALLY Rickman reteams with Thompson in this entertaining holiday ensemble comedy in which they play a married couple going through a rocky patch. His attempt to stray by buying an expensive gift for another woman crashes head-on into persnickety sales clerk Rowan Atkinson.

A LITTLE CHAOS Rickman directed himself as Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the process of building his palace at Versailles, in last year's charming historical confection.

Did I mention he also delivers the Word of God as a cranky herald angel in Kevin Smith's DOGMA?

The acting profession has lost one of its most accomplished and reliable practitioners. The movies won't be nearly as much fun without him.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

BEAST UPDATE

So, what have I been doing so far in the New Year instead of posting to this blog?

This—staring at the screen, immersed in a massive line edit on my next book, Beast: A Love Story.

I've already done plenty of whining about this process (and wining too, as you can see in this pic, taken at the end of a long workday one evening last week).

But, for those of you keeping score at home, I've been working on this edit since NOVEMBER 7!!!!

Not constantly; I did get unshackled from the keyboard a few times for Christmas and New Year's.

But here's the good news: I've finally finished!

Well, this particular line edit, anyway. My editor at Candlewick Press hints that there may be one more, just to make sure we're all on the same virtual page, but we are still on track to go into the next phase of production—copyediting—at the end of the month.

After that, we get into the fun stuff—cover design!

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

FOR REEL


The inimitable Iris: no expiration date
Fact-based tales top my fave films of 2015

Fact trumped fiction at the movies in 2015—at least in the majority of my favorite films. There's often more truthiness than strict historical fact in anything calling itself a "true story" onscreen, but a lot of entries in my Top Ten had a least a nodding acquaintance with historical reality. Stream these for a happy new year!

TRUMBO Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with edgy, raging wit, in Jay Roach's entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s.

A movie for anyone interested in backstage Hollywood stories, the craft and business of screenwriting, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering.

Cranston as Trumbo: type-cast

SONG OF THE SEA Anyone who loves seals, ancient Celtic folklore, or mythology will be charmed by Tomm Moore's ravishing, hand-drawn, Irish animated feature, combining traditional selkie tales with a stunning visual palette, and an endearing tale of a young girl and her destiny.

COMING HOME Oceans of feeling roil beneath the surface in Zhang Yimou's spare, resonant story whose characters will break your heart. At the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a schoolteacher and her teenage daughter await the return of her husband from a labor camp, but when he arrives, his amnesiac wife no longer recognizes him. A chamber piece for three voices, full of small, exquisite notes to be savored.

IRIS A fixture on the New York City design scene for over sixty years, 93-year-old Iris Apfel proves that fashion has no expiration date. With her wry wit, and easy laugh, she's a beguiling subject for this lively doc by legendary Albert Maysles.

Song of the Sea: ravishing

DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL A 15-year-old girl navigates the tightrope between child and adult in Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel. It's a fresh, poignant female coming-of-age drama set in 1976 San Francisco, a liberating, yet dangerous world of almost no taboos. Star Bel Powley makes an impressive debut.

LOVE & MERCY Paul Dano is terrific as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson in the 1960s, at the height of his creative genius, in Bill Pohlad's generally absorbing fiction film. John Cusack is effective as the '80s-model Brian, and it's all connected by a fabulous, gluttonous feast of Wilson music, from surf tunes to Smile.

INSIDE OUT In the mission control center of the brain, where five key emotions constantly jockey for position, a foul-up in the control booth temporarily disconnects an 11-year-old from her personality. A trek through the adolescent brain is needed to set things right—a journey both hilarious and moving in Peter Docter's smart, animated Pixar movie.
Good vibe: Dano as Wilson, Love & Mercy

THE DANISH GIRL In the 1920s, real-life Danish painter Einar Wegener was one of the first people to have sexual reassignment surgery, transitioning into a woman, Lili Elbe. Tom Hooper tells the larger story of the evolving relationship between Wegener and his wife. Nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander highlight this compassionate portrait of love and identity.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Vera Brittain's WWI memoir inspires James Kent's searing, heartfelt drama. Maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the encroachment of war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a broad canvas in delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.

Vikander in Youth: Woman of the Year
STEVE JOBS Leave it to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin to come up with a punchy way to distill the complex story of the visionary who invented Apple computers. Sorkin's sharp script, and the propulsive energy of Danny Boyle's direction makes for an entertaining biographical drama. This was probably the most unfairly maligned movie of the year, so don't believe what you've heard and go check it out!

Runners-Up:

THE BIG SHORT (which I didn't see before writing this article)
BROOKLYN
WOMAN IN GOLD
SUFFRAGETTE
THE WRECKING CREW

Most Egregious Misfire: Pan Oh, please.

The Force Awakens: a girl and her droid

Guilty Pleasure: A Little Chaos Snape (Alan Rickman, who also directs) as Louis XIV. Kate Winslet as a female landscape designer at Versailles. Plausible? Not remotely, but still loads of fun.

Comeback Kid: The Star Wars franchise. J. J. Abrams' The Force Awakens recaptures the spirit of the 1977 original—by replicating all the original elements: desert planet, lost droid, cantina scene, Storm Troopers, space pilots, ominous father-son relations. With a few fun twists, like a female protagonist, and a chance to see our favorite characters 30+ years on.

Woman of the Year: Alicia Vikander in three great movies: Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

INSIDE OUT

Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, 1921

Actors soar in tender, fact-based transgender story The Danish Girl


What must it be like to feel that the body you were born into is the wrong gender? This cataclysmic emotional shift in identity is such a private matter, it seems near impossible to capture onscreen.


But Tom Hooper makes a valiant effort in The Danish Girl, the fact-based story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people known to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in the 1920s, transitioning into a woman named Lili Elbe.


Although the spotlight is on Einar/Lili, the larger story Hooper tells is the evolving relationship between the painter and his wife, Gerda.

It is Gerda's journey, watching the husband she adores turn into someone else, and the choices she must face to accept and support him, that makes their story so engrossing.

Factor in a couple of splendidly nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne, as Einar/Lili, and Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, and it all adds up to a moving, tender, and sometimes even wryly funny portrait of love and identity.

Vikander and Redmayne as Gerda and Einar: Oscar-bait
Scripted by Lucinda Coxson, the movie is adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff. The book is a fictionalized account, so it doesn't necessarily stick to the facts of the Wegeners' real lives.

 But as a work of fiction, this tale of sexual confusion and transition is told with compassion and clarity.
That magic moment: Einar poses for Gerda
In Copenhagen, 1926, Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful painter of lovely, meticulous landscapes. His wife, Gerda (Vikander), is also a painter, but she can't get anyone in the local art community to take her portraits seriously. The two of them met in art school, married young, and enjoy a healthy, active, sex life and a playful sense of camaraderie.
Redmayne as Lili

 Rushing to finish a commissioned portrait one day, when her model is delayed, Gerda begs Einar to pose in a pair of silk stockings and satin slippers so she can paint his feet. The effect on Einar is immediate and electrifying, as an aspect of his personality he's been trying to suppress his whole life begins to assert itself.

It's no surprise that Redmayne tackles his role with persuasive delicacy. But Vikander (having a great year, after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth) is the real Oscar-bait for her tough, funny, sensitive Gerda. (Read more)

Hooper's film might have been even gutsier had he stuck closer to the truth of the Wegeners' lives. For one thing, the couple had already moved to Paris in 1912 to immerse themselves in the Bohemian art scene and escape the more conventional morality of Copenhagen society.
The real Lili, ca 1930: all girl

Gerda was the more successful artist, a magazine illustrator who became notorious for her decadent drawings and erotic female watercolors. Some biographies suggest that she an Lili lived openly as a lesbian couple in Paris. Lili certainly remained one of Gerda's favorite models.

(That's Gerda's portrait of the two of them at the top of this post.)

Gerda married another man (at Lili's insistence, according to some sources), when her marriage to Einar was legally annulled by King Christian X of Denmark after Einar's first surgery became public knowledge. By then, Lili had a male suitor she also hoped to marry.

Obviously, the shifting psychological currents between them must have been even more complex than in the film.

Sexual identity is a tricky and very personal subject. Hooper tells a simplified version of the story, but that he grapples with it at all, with so much reason and empathy, is satisfying indeed.
The real Gerda and Einar with one of Gerda's paintings

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

HOLIDAY STUFFING

Ghost of Christmas Presents; did we need all that stuff?
Hands up, everyone who needs more stuff in their lives.

I didn't think so. This holiday time of year has become almost exclusively devoted to the acquisition of new stuff—the real reason for the season. Show them how much you love them—buy them more stuff!

Our house is already crammed to the rafters. We call them vintage collectibles—childhood toys and dolls, movie posters, books yet to be read, pieces of furniture no longer in use, random kitchen appliances, clothes and shoes unworn since the Clinton administration—but no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it's still stuff.

And instead of mindlessly accumulating more of it, we're ready to get rid of it.

So this year, Art Boy and I made the radical decision not to exchange holiday presents. We won't totally Grinch-out; we're going to bake cookies, hang stockings, play carols, and deck the halls. I'll even put up my infamous Nativity of Troll dolls.

But our season will be a lot more jolly without the frenzy and hysteria that usually comes with it—desperate trips to the mall, long check-out lines, frazzled clerks and fellow-shoppers. Worst of all is that awful feeling that you just can't keep up with the demands of the season, that you're going to run out of time before it all gets done.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbles Jo March, lying on the rug, at the beginning of Little Women. But as the residents of Whoville can tell you, it doesn't really have to be about the presents. Not even the Grinch could keep Christmas from coming—presents or no.

The gift of space and time.
The impulse to bestow gifts on your loved ones is hard to resist. But maybe it's the nature of the gifts that has to change.

Instead of more stuff, Art Boy and I are giving ourselves the gift of space and time.

No, we haven't bought a Tardis. (Oh, if only we could!) But, as an alternative to stockpiling more things, we'll be devoting a few days to clearing out what we already have, and, hopefully, streamlining and sprucing up our space.

And the time we save by not shopping for more stuff can be better spent in so many other ways—like hanging out with friends and family, the kitties, and each other.

What better way to celebrate this most festive, yet reflective time of year? Hey, maybe I'll even get around to reading some of those old books...

Monday, December 14, 2015

BUILDING A BETTER BEAST

Track Changes: editorial suggestions in blue, author whining in red.
I've been off the radar for a few weeks, and here's what I've learned: editing a book is not for sissies!

After writing two revisions of my next novel, Beast: A Love Story, for my smart and very thorough editor, Kaylan Adair at Candlewick, we were ready to move into the phase called Line Edits. I figured the hard part was over and I could cruise into what I consider the fun part —tinkering with a word here or there, reframing the occasional sentence, finishing up the details.

Hah!

Gone are the days when editing was done the genteel way, with a red pencil on hard copy, making a few tweaks here and there. Now we have a torture device known as the Track Changes program, by which a writer and her editor a continent apart can communicate virtually on the pages of the ms itself—one page, one paragraph, and yes, one line at a time.

The editor reads through the ms and makes suggestions in the Comments column at the right. There's a sample of what it looks like, up top. Editorial suggestions in blue; my feeble responses in red.

For the author, scrolling through the story and encountering the Comments is like entering a minefield. A lot of suggestions are perfectly reasonable and easily fixed—if we both agree there's a problem. But you never know when one is going to blow up in your face.

Maybe she has a different interpretation of a character's personality or motives than I do. Maybe she wants to subtly alter the course of the story in a way that never occurred to me—hmmm, let me think about it. Maybe she wants to soften a scene that I think has to be tough, or reconsider a certain  sequence of events.

Editing, the old-fashioned way!
Maybe her idea is better than mine—as is often the case—or maybe not. The point is, every suggestion has to be thought over and dealt with. When I agree with one of her suggested changes, it has to be implemented, which often includes either minor tweaking or large tracts of rewriting. If I don't agree, or have any other issue, I can leave my own Comments in the margin, attempting to defend my decision.

Either way, there's a lot more writing involved, whether I'm altering the story itself or attempting to compose Comments that will make any kind of rational sense. At times, the very act of writing a Comment makes me think about my decision in a new way, leading to a new batch of changes. Maybe reading one of her Comments triggers a revelation that neither one of us thought of before.

Back to the keyboard!

It's a lot more work than I ever expected, which is why I've sort of dropped off the face of the earth these last few weeks. I would never do it if I didn't have so much confidence in Kaylan and her opinions, based on how much she loves this story.

What's great about the process is it's giving me the luxury to really pay attention to the story again, page by page, line by line. It's not an author vs. editor battle; it's a collaboration. Together, we're midwifing the best Beast he can be!