Thursday, April 28, 2011


Ten years in the making! Believe it or not, the Santa Cruz Film Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, May 5 - May 14, with a typically full slate of cinematic goodies: 100 films and videos, of local and international origin—shorts and features, documentaries and narrative fiction, animation and live-action, commercial and experimental—along with film panels, gala receptions and other special events, presented at five venues around town.

This year's feature films are offered in a variety of sub-genres, including Cine Latino (films about the Latino experience worldwide), and, once again, a slate of eco-environmental documentaries presented in partnership with EarthVision. As in past years, cash awards will be offered in three juried competition categories: Documentary, Narrative, and the EarthVision Environmental Documentary. New this year is a competition for the Spirit of Action Prize, to be awarded to an outstanding film about a person or organization advocating for change. (Read more, and find out about half a dozen SCFF films you won't want to miss!)


Yo, yo, yo, Randy Jackson said it, not me. Last night on American Idol, the veteran judge told James Durbin, "I think you just might win this whole thing!," after James' sylish, inventive rendition of the old Ronettes tune, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" It was Carole King Night, and while everyone else in the Final 6 were trying to step it up a notch and move out of their comfort zones, James proved once again that he doesn't have just one comfort zone—he's comfortable anywhere, all tempos, all musical genres.

The King songbook includes not only her solo work, but a decade of hit songs written for early Motown artists like The Shirells and The Drifters. James sang the first verse of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" a capella, just himself onstage, holding his guitar. The rhythm section kicked in on the second verse, and he shepherded the ballad through a steady, relaxed uptempo build over some marvelous high notes to a thrilling conclusion—all without breaking a sweat. No flaming pianos, no marching bands; this week it was all about his voice. But you know what? It's always been about James' voice. (Read more and watch the video!)

Now it's up to the American voting public. Will they still love James tomorrow? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The hits just keep coming at the Aptos Cinema Weekend Classics series. This weekend (just in time for May Eve!) they're showing one of my favorite movies, ever, the bewitching Excalibur, John Boorman's voluptuously textured 1981 plunge into the King Arthur saga. This gorgeous take on the rise and fall of Camelot is not set in some recognizable historical period, whose details might be disputed by the Fact Nazis (costumes consist largely of polished silver, metallic lace, and gossamer); instead, it unspools within the misty depths of the collective human imagination, where dreams and myths are born. Boorman's source material was Thomas Malory, and every frame of film in infused with Celtic magic and mysticism.

A young, non-star cast breathes life and immediacy into these archetypal, yet human characters. The noble Arthur of Nigel Terry is a happy surprise after his mewling, petulant Prince John in The Lion In Winter a decade before. Cherie Lunghi makes a saucy Guinevere, and Nicholas Clay an earnest Lancelot. But delightful, eccentric Nicol Williamson steals the show as Merlin, along with the hypnotically sensual and diabolical Morgana le Fey of the young Helen Mirren.

(Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson in Excalibur)

The film was shot in Ireland, and lots of young Irish actors new to the movies got early roles here. Keep an eye peeled for an embryonic Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon. (And btw, this film also features the most exalted use of Carl Orff's driving Carmina Burana chorale ever heard in the movies.)

But it's Boorman's breathtaking images—violent and sensual, sacred and profane—that keep us riveted. This is not a fairy tale for kids, (rated R and 140 minutes, for those of you keeping score at home), nor a conventional Hollywood costume epic. It's an intoxicating spectacle of mythic power and savage grace. This is one movie you really want to be overwhelmed by on a big screen, so don't miss it! Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m., at Aptos Cinema.

So what's the deal about May Eve? In the old Celtic calendar, before our mass culture got so homogenized and disconnected from the land, and the seasons, the first of May was reckoned the beginning of summer. And the night before (Aril 30, May Eve) was the second most uncanny time of year—after the Eve of All Saint's Day, or All Hallows Eve, October 31— when the portals between this world and the magical Otherworld were momentarily in synch. (Sort of like that tricky moment at Kings Cross Station in the Harry Potter books when you can run right through the wall and find the train to Hogwarts.) At these eerie moments of the year, fairies, demons, and spirits were free to run amok in our world.

In pagan times, the festival was called Beltane, for sun god known by various names like Beli, Belenus or Balder, although some insist "Beltane" merely means "bright fire." In the dark of Beltane Eve, fires were lit on hilltops to herald the coming of summer and the return of the sun god. (Something we Santa Cruzans can appreciate after a ridiculously wet winter.) After the Christian Church came along to muscle the old gods out of the picture, fires were still lit on May Eve, but the Church put out the rumor they were meant to scare off pagan witches. In German-speaking Europe, May Eve is Walpurgisnacht, the night of witches' revels, celebrated by stout-hearted practitioners of wicca to this day. That's the thing about folk traditions: the folk tend to hang on to them, no matter who's temporarily running the show.

For centuries all over Britain, May First was celebrated by troops of young men and women frolicking out in the woods before dawn to "bring in the May"— whatever flowering shrubs or blossoms could be found, often leaving flowers on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors to celebrate the fertility of Maytime. Fertility was certainly on the mind of Puritan writer Philip Stubbes, who complained in 1583 that "of fortie, three score or a hundred maides going into the wood overnight," less than one third "returned home again undefiled." They don't call it the lusty month of May for nothing!

(Above: A detail from "A Visit at Moonlight" by E. T. Parris, ca. 1832.)

Monday, April 25, 2011


Okay, I admit it: I'm one of the few people alive who did not read Sara Gruen's mega-bestselling novel about passion and mayhem under the Big Top during the Depression 1930s. But the bones of a satisfying romantic suspense story underlie Francis Lawrence's evocative film adaptation. The movie may not be 100% effective in its storytelling, or in the development of its central romance, but it comes steeped in period atmosphere, and conveys a keen sense of the precarious, knockabout gypsy life of a traveling circus.

Within a brief framing story about 90-something Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) found wandering around outside a modern-day circus after hours, this is essentially a coming-of-age saga told in flashback. On the day in 1931 that young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is taking his final exam at Cornell to earn his veterinary license, an accident renders him both orphaned and homeless. Attempting to hop a freight train lands him in a boxcar belonging to a seedy traveling circus struggling to survive the Depression.

Jacob is soon smitten with fatal beauty Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the equestrienne whose bareback-riding act is the show's "star attraction." Unfortunately for him, she's also married to proprietor/ringmaster August Rosenblum (played with silky psychotic intensity by Christophe Waltz), a sadistic sociopath who works people and animals until they drop; roustabouts he can no longer afford to pay, or who are otherwise inconvenient are likely to be thrown off the speeding train in the dead of night by August's goons. Jacob knows enough to keep his distance, yet he and Marlena are drawn together by their shared concern for the welfare of the animals—especially August's new acquisition, Rosie, a smart, soulful, but much abused performing elephant who steals both their hearts.

Director Lawrence effectively captures the tawdry glamor of this far-from-greatest show on earth: the excitement of pounding in stakes and raising the big top in the morning, striking tents and whispering away at night, and the colorful parade of hucksters, clowns, trapeze artists, wild animals, hoochie-koochie girls, jugglers, fat ladies, freaks, and "rubes" (paying customers) who occupy the midway in between. The camaraderie that develops among the roustabouts to whom Jacob must prove himself is well done too.

Sadly, the crucial relationship between Jacob and Marlena never quite catches fire. It's very effective that they bond over the animals; both actors are at their most unguarded and appealing in their animal scenes. But with her Harlow-esque platinum curls and satin gowns, Witherspoon's Marlena never quite seems like a real person within this gritty environment. Granted, we're seeing her through Jacob's awestruck eyes, but she needs to have both a harder edge, and a deeper reserve of wounded vulnerability for us to care as deeply about her as Jacob is meant to.

For his part, Pattinson is appropriately youthful, stalwart, and at times gutsy. But as Jacob's romance with Marlena supposedly builds over a couple of chaste and careful slow dances, the actors never generate the heat of willful passion, nor the irresistible magnetism of true soulmates finding each other; it never feels like more than a schoolboy crush. However, Jacob's relationship with Rosie, the elephant, is beautifully done, from the flirty way she slides her trunk into his hands, to the moral fury he's driven to in her defense. Theirs is by far the most passionate and tender relationship in the film, and hers the story we care most about.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Needless to say, James Durbin did not spend a single uneasy nanosecond in the penalty box on Thursday night's elimination round of American Idol, waiting to hear how America voted. It should come as no surprise to anyone who saw his performance of Muse's apocalyptic anthem, "Uprising," the night before—sung in a black leather steampunk duster, complete with marching band drum corps—that the minute James was asked to step out and hear the verdict, he was pronounced "safe" to sing another week. The odds in his favor are soaring as high as one of James' own high notes, now that there are only six contestants left. (Read more)

Btw, did I ever tell you about the time I saw Muse live (and how!) onstage? Yes, I know I mentioned it in passing last post, but I mean the whole story. I call it, "I Was a Teenage Geezer." It was all the fault of our pal, Lia Matera, who, a few years back, started burning us CD samplers of her favorite new alt rock bands.

Thanks to Lia, Art Boy and I are crazy for Brit rockers, Muse. Our favorite thing is to putter around the kitchen at the end of the workday with the Absolution CD cranked up to 11. So when Lia emailed one morning back in 2007 that she’d just bought us all online tickets to see Muse live in San Francisco at the Bill Graham Civic, even a pair of notorious homebodies like us were thrilled. Still, she almost talked Art Boy out of going, with visions of a giant mosh pit of sweating, drunken 20-year-olds flailing away while monster speakers splintered our eardrums. (Earplugs required, she told us.)

Since I hadn’t been to a rock concert in longer than anyone in Muse has been alive, I asked if they’d rope us off in the geriatric section, so as not to frighten The Youth.

“We will be completely invisible to them!” Lia promised me. “People our age are blank spaces between pheromones. We might as well put on invisibility cloaks.” (Click here for the whole sordid tale.)

I only bring this up because Muse is set to headline the gigantic outdoor music festival Outside Lands in Golden Gate Park, SF, this summer, August 12-14. Here's the info. Get in line now, says I.

Friday, April 22, 2011


The James Durbin show just keeps rockin' along on American Idol. Last week he was the closer, and brought down the house with his raucous "Heavy Metal." In this week's random shuffle, he was the evening's second performer on Music of the New Millennium night; typically, he brought the show to a premature climax with his powerhouse delivery of the anthem, "Uprising" by Muse.

I love Muse. I've seen them live onstage, and I can tell you, covering one of their songs is not for the fainthearted. "Uprising" is probably one of their best known numbers, played incessantly on TV a couple of years ago as the driving theme song for the sci-fi series "V." But as usual, James put his own stamp on the number.

First, there was the production: he marched out of the wings with a corps of marching band drummers who circled the stage, pounding out the beat, while James sang. Then there was the performance itself. James sang the busy lyrics with power and clarity, but while the song builds in intensity, it doesn't afford the opportunity to hit those high wailing notes that he loves. Undaunted, he created his own drama by singing two of four lines in the final chorus an octave higher. ("They will stop degrading us!") In a word: yowza. (Read more)

Monday, April 18, 2011


'Zounds, this Friday is William Shakespeare's birthday, and I didn't even send a card. But never mind; there'll be festivties aplenty this summer when Shakespeare Santa Cruz presents its ambitious 30th Anniversary Season. Artistic Director Marco Barricelli has a full slate in store for local theatregoers: three plays in repertory (Henry IV, Part 1, The Comedy Of Errors, and The Three Musketeers), plus a Fringe production this summer (July 19-August 28), a special fall benefit show in November (Bard Babes), and the return of the beloved Holiday Musical (A Year With Frog & Toad).

It's a swashbuckling lineup. The mayhem is comic in Comedy, a knockabout farce of mistaken identities where two pairs of identical male twins cause havoc for wives, lovers, servants, and each other. SSC had a huge hit with Danny Scheie's riotous Laugh-In-style staging of the play in 1988 (re-mounted in 1993), possibly the single most entertaining SSC production ever. And since Scheie is such a tough act to follow, Scheie himself will be back in the director's chair, reprising, reinventing, and updating the material for the new season.

(Btw, the summer's Fringe production will be The Brothers Menaechmus, the orginal Roman comedy by Plautus that inspired Shakespeare's Comedy, directed by Patty Galagher and performed by the company's intrepid acting interns.)

HVP1 is a testosterone-infused adventure in which roistering slacker Prince Hal breaks the spell of genial old reprobate Falstaff, his mentor in vice, and starts embracing his inner king-to-be. The last time it was staged at SSC, in 1984, local audiences were introduced to a young actor fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company as Prince Hal: Paul Whitworth. Done up in long hair and Cleopatra eye makeup, Boy George-style (hey, it was the '80s), he made his first entrance on a motorcycle, hoisting a six-pack of brewskis. (That's Paul and his Falstaff, Tony Church, in an excellent photo by maestro Shmuel Thaler.) This new production will be directed by fan favorite Scott Wentworth (he has recently played Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Brutus in Julius Caesar). It's to be the first in the "Henriad" trilogy that SSC plans to tackle in toto, Henry IV, Part Two coming in 2012, and Henry V in 2013.

And the roistering continues in The Three Musketeers, one of my all-time favorite swashbuckling properties. I adore the Dumas novel, and I never miss a movie version (more about that in a future blog), but I've never seen it live, onstage, and I am so stoked! Best of all, director Art Manke is staging it outside in the Festival Glen, so there'll be plenty of room for clashing blades, scandalous seductions, and boisterous bonhomie. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

Read all about the season on the SSC website. Season Tickets & Group Tickets are on sale as we speak; Single Tickets to individual plays go on sale May 17. In the meantime, brush up your Shakespeare, sharpen your blades, and get ready for some rip-roaring summer theatre.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Justice was served on American Idol last night. James Durbin survives to sing another day after his raucous performance of "Heavy Metal" with the wild guitar of legendary axeman Zakk Wylde the night before, which makes James one of the few remaining contestants who has never ended up in the bottom three after a round of voting.

However, the Curse of the X Chromosome was finally broken; for the first time since the field was narrowed down to the Final 13, a man, not a woman, was sent home. That would be Paul McDonald, and I have to say, I think it was a good call. Not that Paul isn't adorable in his own oddball way: that big grin, those goofy little dance steps. But we're moving into the big leagues now, and a contestant has to back up a pleasing personality with something more than Paul's raspy, somewhat limited voice.

I actually thought his good-timey version of Bob Seger's "Old-Time Rock 'n' Roll" on Movie Song night this week was one of his better efforts, but perhaps the voting was cumulative. Who can forget his failing to hit any of the high notes on two Elton John songs in weeks past, "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," and "Rocket Man?"

Not every single contestant has to be a throbbing power singer. Look at Casey Abrams, or Haley Reinhart. (Who, btw, gave the best out-of-competition performance last night, a jazzy scat duet of "Moanin'" that was way more fun than anything served up by guest performers Kelly Clarkson or Rhianna, let alone their fellow competitors.) But Idol contestants hoping to turn pro have to at least know what their strengths are and play up to them, not consistently choose material that's just out of their reach.

In the penalty box with Paul last night were perennial also-ran, Stefano Langone, and (surprise!) Haley. Stefano has the opposite problem from Paul; he knows exactly what's right for his voice—big, emotional ballads—but he just keeps singing them over and over again. He needs to change it up, do something a little more daring or at least different (maybe something, you know, jaunty) once in awhile, to show he has range.

With the possible exception of Casey, who's not afraid to try all kinds of weird stuff onstage, you can't imagine anyone else in the Final 7 stepping out of their comfort zone to the degree that James does—a sensitive ballad one week, heavy metal the next, with the chops to nail it every time. Which may be the edge that takes James all the way. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


A funny thing happened to former Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Claudia Sternbach when she was making the dreary rounds of agents trying to get her novel published. Just for fun, she started writing short-story snippets of memoir, snapshots from her own life very loosely grouped around a common thread: each story contained a kiss. With no thought of publication or "the marketplace," she delved into every aspect of her life's experience: comedy, tragedy, pain, laughter, and every gradation in between. Imagine her surprise when the first publisher she showed it to offered her a book contract.

The result is "Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses" (Unbridled Books, 224 pages, $12.95), a slim volume that builds gracefully in both chronology and impact, from childhood whimsy to complex emotional maturity. It's a wonderful book, full of insight, humor and honesty. Find out for yourself when Claudia reads from and signs copies of her book Thursday (April 14) at the Capitola Book Cafe, 7:30 p.m. (Read more)


The good news is, James Durbin survived another elimination round last Thursday night. He'll be back on American Idol this week, singing up a storm.

The weird news is the one who won't: Pia. Yes, incredibly, Pia Toscano, the gorgeous diva with the huge voice, that most consistent competitor, the one contestant out of all of them who I'd have thought mainstream America (ie: the voting public) totally gets, Pia didn't make the cut. Nobody could believe it. The studio audience booed strenuously. The judges were ready to mutiny. How could this happen? (Read more)


Remember the new Catalyst movie I blogged about a while back? It's now set to have its World Premiere at (where else?) the Catalyst on Friday, May 6, the big-ticket event on Day 2 of the Santa Cruz Film Festival.

This historical rock doc on perhaps the most venerable music venue in town has been cobbled together from 40 years of archive concert footage and interviews by producer Dean Newbury and filmmaker/ photographer/archivist Michèle Benson. Hoping to capture the funky-hip spirit envisioned by owner and founder, the late Randall Kane, the film features concert footage of Neil Young, the Doobie Brothers, Patti Smith, Huey Lewis and the News, Ry Cooder, The Tubes, The Call, and many, many more.

As an extra added attraction, the premiere of The Catalyst movie will be followed by a live performance by the reconstituted SNAIL, one of Santa Cruz's all-time favorite bands, featuring Bob O'Neill, Ken Kraft, Bret Bloomfield, and Don Baldwin. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. The film screens at 8:30 p.m., after which, SNAIL will commence to rock all night.

Advance tickets are $30 ($35 at the door) and can be purchased online from the Catalyst website, or the SCFF website, or at the Catalyst box office. The first 50 SCFF Passholders will receive a $10 discount off the event ticket price at the Catalyst box office, with proof of 2011 SCFF Festival Pass.

In the meantime, check out the movie's trailer and get in the mood.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Accept no substitutes! KING KONG is back, and the Aptos Cinema's Weekend Classics series has got him. The mighty giant ape created by the great stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O'Brien is still "the 8th wonder of the world" in this original, visionary 1933 fantasy masterpiece. As if the poignant, wonderfully expressive Kong himself wasn't splendid enough, the movie is also rich in delicious '30s tough-guy dialogue, especially when Robert Armstrong, as the flamboyant American showman who discovers Kong on a tropical island during a film shoot, captures him, and ships him back to NYC to exhibit on Broadway.

("Say, what's this show about, anyway?" wonders a sassy young woman in the audience on opening night, before the curtain goes up.

"It's just a big ape," says a man nearby.

"Aw, ain't we got enough of those in New York?" cracks the dame.)

Then there's the provocative, pre-Hays Code, tran-species eroticism of Kong's fascination with platinum blonde movie starlet Fay Wray. it's all a grand, often funny, surprisingly moving and soulful adventure, that's still light years ahead of the sequels, remakes, and ripoffs that followed. Don't miss this chance to see it in all it's beautiful, haunting, black-and-white glory on a great big movie screen, this Saturday and Sunday only, April 9 & 10, 11 am, at Aptos Cinema. Trust me, you won't regret it.

And speaking of really big shows, are you watching American Idol yet? Last night was Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame night, and while everybody else was rocking out all over the stage to Elvis, Aretha, and Tina Turner, Santa Cruz's own James Durbin made the gutsy move to sit on a stool and croon "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with power and restraint.

Read all about it in my new Good Times online blog (and watch the video!) or scroll down to my recent post, The King James Version, for the story so far.


What's a reality show, an art competition, and a lesson in green ecology all rolled into one? The answer is "Junk Art Scramble," a new locally-grown, direct-to-web video series in which two teams of local artists are given ten days to create a piece of artwork entirely out of found scrap materials. It's all the brainchild of Ed Martinez, artist, entrepreneur, and environmental activist, who has two self-appointed missions in life: funding art in public schools, and making people aware of just "how much crap this society generates."

The project was launched last Friday evening with the taping of the first half of the initial episode at the vast and amazing Digital Media Factory, upstairs in the old Wrigley Building. This unbelievably enormous, open warehouse space, directly behind the R. Blitzer Gallery, is so huge, sections all around the periphery have been rented out for storage. But in the center of all the Costco-like shelves crammed with boxes, crates, equipment of dubious purpose, and god-knows-what-all else, you'll find the thriving DMF, a highly professional sound, video, film, and recording studio operated by veteran director/cinematographer Marty Collins and musician/ performer/producer Ginny Mitchell.

It was hurry up and wait on Friday as a half dozen technicians scurried on and off the soundstage, adjusting the three-camera set-up, mikes, teleprompters, and props. Then Martinez introduced the show to a small but enthusiastic audience, along with guest co-host, Kathleen Crocetti, multi-media art teacher extraordinaire, seamstress, and public art facilitator, who wore one of her signature gowns festooned with hundreds of shiny, cut-up and recycled CD discs, layered on like fish scales. (Similar to the one opposite; photo by Kyer Whilshire.) They explained the concept of the show, proclaimed their mantra ("Art is core curriculum!"), and put in a good word for the "reuse, recycle, re-purpose" (or "upcycle") movement as a means of saving our throw-away culture from its own junk.

Then it was time to bring out the contestants for this opening show. Team Cabrillo includes art instructors Jamie Abbott, Diane Patracuola, Geoff Caras, Oscar Netsil (aka Ron Baldwin), and student Brandon Burgess. Team Tannery consists of resident artists Kirby Scudder , Stephen Lynch, Art Pitts, Gayle Pitts and the single-named Maha. According to Martinez, their mission is modern-day "alchemy," not turning lead into gold, but turning scrap material into art, "trash into treasure." But, as in most reality TV shows, the competitors aren't allowed to just go do whatever they want. There's a theme challenge involved, and this week it was to visualize in junk art a poem by the late Morton Marcus, selected and read aloud by Mort's wife, Donna. The teams have 10 days to scavenge materials, design and create their art works. Next Sunday, the second half of the show will be taped, when the teams bring in their art pieces to be judged by Wallace Baine, Greg Archer and Chip.

With "Junk Art Scramble," Martinez hopes to put both the DMF and the Santa Cruz arts scene on the virtual map. Stay tuned for info on when the first episode will air online, and how you, too, can be a contestant on a future show.

(Ahead of his time, as usual, Art Boy made this wall piece in the Junk Art spirit a couple of years ago, from a well-used, discarded house-painter's brush we found on one of our walks. He added Sculpey, acrylic paint, five metal cork caps from champagne bottles, one champagne cork, and voila! Behold "Pops." He calls it a self-portrait.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Okay, I admit it. For years, American Idol has been my go-to scapegoat for everything that's wrong with American culture. As real reality becomes more scary and out-of-control, as my rant usually goes, we the people start lapping up the alternative, faux-"reality" of TV competition shows. It's the bread and circuses of the electronic age, with which the corporate powers that increasing run the country mean to keep us too enthralled and distracted to notice as they run riot overseas waging war-for-profit, while eroding our civil liberties here at home, scamming us out of our life savings, and shipping our jobs offshore.

Well, come to think of it, it's all true. But that hasn't stopped me from getting as hooked as anyone on the meteoric rise of local boy James Durbin on this season of Idol. I was first alerted to the brewing Durbin story by Wallace Baine, who wrote this excellent Sentinel piece on James a few weeks ago. He and I and Bruce Bratton met for coffee one morning back in February, to plan a discussion we were co-hosting at the Nickelodeon, and all Wallace could talk about was this local kid with the big voice who was knocking 'em dead in the early rounds of Idol auditions.

A youthful loner, troubled by both Tourette's (a physical, not verbal variety), and Asperger's syndromes, James found an expressive outlet in music, via Kids on Broadway and All About Theatre, starring in local productions of Beauty and the Beast and Singin' In the Rain. A fortuitous meeting with Dale Ockerman of the White Album Ensemble introduced James to rock 'n' roll, and, mama, could that boy ever boogie-woogie. And yet, Wallace pointed out, as a frequent guest singer at WAE gigs, it was James' rendition of the aching ballad, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," that brought the house spontaneously to its feet, cheering, every time.

(James performs with the White Album Ensemble, January, 2009.)

So Art Boy and I decided to check it out. We'd just watch one episode and see what all the fuss was about. It turned out to be the Las Vegas episode, where some 20 semi-finalists performed Beatle songs under the big top at Cirque de Soleil's "Love" production. So our first glimpse of James was him singing a duet with Stefano on "Get Back," perfectly fine but not earth-shaking. We thought we should at least hear him sing solo, so we tuned in next week, and have been watching ever since.

James is establishing himself as the show's top rockster. When other contestants croon ballads, he sings Judas Priest. On Motown night, he opted for Stevie Wonder's gritty, relentlessly driving "Living in the City." When he chose an uptempo, late-model Bon Jovi number on the night they had to pick a song released the year they were born (in James' case, 1989), judge Steven Tyler playfully cautioned him "don't get too poppy!"

So it was a big shock to everyone on the night that each contestant had to sing a song by his or her personal musical hero, and James chose ... Paul McCartney? James, the rocker, the man who had the nerve to audition with the Aerosmith epic, "Dream On," in front of Steven Tyler, and his hero is Paul McCartney?

Oh, yeah. Because he delivered a performance of the slowly building, cumulatively powerful "Maybe I'm Amazed" that was truly cause for amazement. He sang it like he got it, caressed every note, found the source of the song's pulsing power, yet finessed that sweet finish like a pro. In a word, yowza. He did Sir Paul proud, all right, but at the same time made the song radically, indisputably James. Before, I was just curious. Now I'm a fan. Here it is, if you missed it.

Last week was Elton John night. With such an incredible catalogue to choose from, I was hoping for something massive from James, maybe "Burn Down the Mission," or maybe the propulsive "Empty Sky" (go find it on iTunes right this minute!) from John's first British album (bootlegged in this country after his self-titled US debut album). In a way, James opted for something much simpler, the straight-ahead rocker, "Saturday Night's All Right For Fighting." But what a performance! He started out up in the bleachers behind the stage, marched down the stairs, prowled all the way around the apron behind the judges' table greeting the fans, circled back up onstage, leaped on top of the bright red piano, and off again just before it burst into flames, and wound up on his knees, limbo-ed all the way backwards. Singing all the way.

Okay, any idiot can light a piano on fire and prance around onstage like Aldous Snow. It would all be so much empty posturing if that boy didn't have the pipes to back it up, but, boy, does he ever. James can carry off all the schtick without ever missing a note, a beat, or a wail of pure adrenalin. He's the real deal.

They're down to the final nine contestants on Idol now. It broke my heart last week to see may second favorite get booted off, Naimi Adedapo. (Shut up! I loved her reggae version of "I'm Still Standing," which is practically a reggae song already if you listen to the beat.) She has a great look, and if her song choices weren't always great, she delivered them with a lot of punch and savvy. I'll miss her. Her song last week was way better than Paul McDonald's undernourished, attempted "Rocket Man." Paul seems like a nice, affable guy, and America loves his goofy little dance steps, but he is so NOT a rocket man. If James had sung "Rocket Man," the whole studio would have gone into orbit.

It's starting to look like James' most serious competition will come from Pia Toscano. I like her, but basically what she does every week is stand in the middle of the stage in an evening gown and unleash that gigantic diva voice of hers. Seems like she'll have to do more to compete with James' versatility and showmanship. But I don't even really care about the competition. I'll be tuning back in every week just to see what James does next. (Hey, I'm still holding out for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps.")

Friday, April 1, 2011


Rising filmmaker (and UCSC grad) Cary Joji Fukunaga wants to keep you guessing. His impressive first feature, Sin Nombre, was a gritty look at gang violence south of the border—in Spanish, yet. With his follow-up film, a new version of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte's evergreen Victorian-era Gothic romance, not only does Fukunaga achieve a complete about-face, material-wise, his retelling proves to be a deeply felt, beautifully wrought little gem of mood and sensibility.

In this rich unveiling of the oft-told tale, Fukunaga finds a kindred spirit in scriptwriter Moira Buffini. No stranger to Victoriana (she wrote the witty adaptation of Posy Simmonds' Hardy-esque Tamara Drewe), Buffini's smart script mines every nuance of feeling out of Bronte's story, spoken and otherwise, combined with a meticulous sense of what was and was not done according to the mores of the day. Together, the filmmakers resist every temptation to resort to overheated melodrama, weaving instead a compelling narrative of urgent emotional suspense. (Read more)

(Above: Mia Wasikowska is the new Jane Eyre)

And speaking of the movies, the Santa Cruz Film Festival goes Hollywood with its 10-year Anniversary celebration, A Night of Old Hollywood Glamour, next Saturday, April 9, at Top of the Ritt downtown. Time to get your glam on at this festival kick-off event; you're invited to come dressed as your favorite movie star or movie character, strut dwn the red carpet, nibble horse d'ouvres, quaff champagne, bid on fabulous, locally-donated auction items, and watch a special sneak preview of this year's festival highlights. The full SCFF schedule (May 5 - 14) will be revealed at this time. Tickets available at the SCFF website.