Monday, October 31, 2011


Wishing one and all a Happy Halloween!

Don't forget to make a shrine to your departed loved ones today, or leave an offering down at the Dia de los Muertos altar at the MAH to welcome them back between now and Wednesday, All Souls Day. If you're not already partied out from the weekend, enjoy the gift of this beautiful day and what promises to be another clear, starry night for all your Halloween festivities.

Speaking of parties, how cool did the Rio Theatre look Friday and Saturday nights for New Music Works' Metropolis event? Take a look at artist Dag Weiser presenting the 8' x 20' Art Deco Berlin cityscape he and partner Leslie Murray crafted out of cardboard for the Rio lobby (complete with a little silver biplane circling overhead).

It was the perfect backdrop to the opening night reception on Friday, celebrating the World Premiere of Phil Collins' new musical soundtrack, which was performed live by the NMW Ensemble as Fritz Lang's 1927 Deco-Futurust masterpiece unspooled. Major kudos to Maestro Collins for his evocative and thoroughly integrated score (not to mention the Herculean task of conducting it live throughout the film's daunting two-hour length).

Simmering electronic effects used to underscore the building tension in the first half gave way to sweeping themes of sustained drama and power in the climactic second half. I especially liked the sly and inventive use of choral voices throughout, performed by the Ariose Singers, and soprano Colleen Donovan.

Meanwhile, out in the lobby, concertgoers were encouraged to attend in 1920s chic, Futurist, or Steampunk costumes. I did my bit, posing here in front of the Weiser-Murray wall, just to give you a sense of scale. Even though the piece is technically flat, notice how the layering of cardboard surfaces (not to mention the extraordinary painting techniques) give it all a 3-D effect.

Overall, it was a great launch for a wonderful score that, in a just world, ought to be permanently attached to all future screenings of Metropolis. (It certainly blows Giorgio Moroder's patchwork score of '80s pop tunes right out of the water.) Hearing it performed live was a special pleasure. My only suggestion for future NMW events would be to have someone come out to welcome the audience, thank the sponsors, and introduce the performers before the show, to amp up the sense of community and excitement. A live performance is an adventure the performers and audience take together, and it's nice to acknowledge everyone as part of the team.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Suppose legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy didn't die in a hail of gunfire in Bolivia, but lived on in retirement for years, until circumstances drew him out for one last reckoning. That's the premise of Blackthorn, Spanish director Mateo Gil's spare, soulful tone poem on the iconography of the West, honor among thieves, and redemption.

The fiercely iconic Sam Shepard is perfectly cast as the outlaw formerly known as Cassidy, now calling himself James Blackthorn. It's decades since Etta Place (Dominique McElligott, in flashback) took the train back to the states (carrying the child Blackthorn still occasionally writes to, signing himself "Uncle Butch"), and the Sundance Kid (Padraic Delaney) died in his arms. (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is also excellent as the younger Butch in these flashbacks.) Now he lives peacefully in a tiny, mud-brick ranch house in the Bolivian countryside, enjoying a loving relationship with Indian woman, Yana (Magaly Solier).

But crusty, grizzled Blackthorn is ready to go back to the states. "If I was gonna die of old age," he says, "I might as well do it at home." A chance encounter with Spanish bandito, Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega), however, costs him his life savings. Eduardo promises to split the loot if Blackthorn will help him recover a hidden bag of money he robbed from a mining company. On the way, Blackthorn takes the younger outlaw under his wing and shares his views on honor, friendship, and life. (Asked why he gave up robbing trains before he got rich, Blackthorn replies, "I've been my own man. Nothing richer than that.") But trust me: there's nothing warm and fuzzy about where this movie is going.

In a nod to the classic George Roy Hill movie, the two men are pursued by a relentless posse, forever kicking up dust just over the horizon, although the character of this posse is very different (a showdown between three women is particularly hair-raising). Meanwhile, ex-Pinkerton detective Mackinley (a terrific Stephen Rea), turns up as a drunken old gringo who's wasted his life in fruitless pursuit of Butch and Sundance, but now embraces the quiet life away from the "war" the corporate railroads waged against the outlaws. Director Gil has previously been known as a screenwriter (Open Your Eyes; The Sea Inside), although here he works from a script by Miguel Barros. He moves the action smoothly along through some luscious Bolivian landscapes to the stark, yet righteous conclusion of this moody, elegiac film.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Fritz Lang's silent Art Deco futuristic masterpiece, Metropolis, has been the gold standard for sci-fi film design since its release in 1927. The visuals are absolutely stunning for their era, or any era since, and with an added 25 minutes of "new" footage recently found in a film museum in Buenos Aires, the plot finally makes complete sense.

Now, the Rio Theatre and New Music Works invite you to immerse yourself in a total, mixed-media Metropolis experience this Friday and Saturday nights.

Accompanying these two special screenings of The Complete Metropolis will be the World Premiere of a new original musical score composed by Phil Collins (Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year, 2011), Performed live by the NMW Ensemble and guest artists Timba Harris, Colleen Donovan, and Ariose Singers. What's more, the lobby of the Rio Theatre will be transformed into a Deco Expressionist Berlin cityscape courtesy of cardboard artists Dag Weiser and Leslie Murray.

Here's a sneak peek. Now picture yourself swanning through this delicious backdrop in basic black and a rope of pearls, or robotic silver paint, because for the Gala Opening Night Reception, Friday night, you, The Public, are invited to come in costume. Dress up as your favorite character from the movie, or in an outfit inspired by the Art Deco era, or don your best Industrial-Age Steampunk chic. The Friday night reception begins at 6:30. The film screens each night at 8 pm.

Tickets available in advance at NMW online, or in person at Streetlight Records, or at the door. Check out the slideshow on the NMW page, or visit the IMDb Metropolis photo page, or just Google Metropolis, 1927, images, to get some very cool costume ideas.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It's been two and a half years since Jim Houston lost his battle with cancer, and Santa Cruz lost one of its most treasured icons (as well as one of its most beloved favorite sons). So it's quite an unexpected pleasure to hear that a new Houston book is coming out, complete with a star-studded launch party and reading this Sunday at Cabrillo College.

"A Queen's Journey" is the historical novel on the life of Hawa'ii's last sovereign queen, Lili'uokalani, that Jim was working on at the time of his death. The book is unfinished, but the 120 pages of solid storytelling left behind will see publication via Heyday Books, an independent publisher in Berkeley, as a gift to Houston fans everywhere.

Sunday's kickoff event begins at 2:30 p.m. at the Cabrillo College Music Recital Hall. Among Jim's friends and colleagues who will be reading from his work are Alan Cheuse, Maxine Hong Kingston, Al Young, Karen Joy Fowler, Wallace Baine, Geoffrey Dunn and Stephen Kessler. Jeannie Houston will also speak, and live Hawa'iian music will be provided by Braddah Timmy.

Admission is free, but advance tickets are required. Go here and print yours out right now. I'll see you there!

Speaking of lost literary lions, this month also marks the second anniversary of the passing of Morton Marcus. Although, in Mort's case, I'm sure he'd rather be remembered as a brown bear, his totem animal.

(Here he is, looking very debonair, on the road in France. The first time we went to France with Mort, his wife, Donna, and our pals Bruce and Marcia McDougal, Art Boy and I took the train to Switzerland for a couple of days and brought Mort back a Swiss chocolate bear from Bern, whose city mascot is the bear. The next time we went to France, we all went to Bern together, which became Mort's favorite medieval city—until he and Donna discovered Prague a couple of years later. That we never had a chance to all visit Prague together is one of the great regrets of my life.)

Anyway, it's ironic that we lost both Mort and Jim Houston in the same year, two very different men with different sensibilities, but longtime friends whose lives and careers were entwined for some 50 years. And as Jim has been memorialized by the annual James D. Houston Award established by Houston's family and Heyday Books, Mort is remembered in the annual Morton Marcus Poetry Reading established in his honor by Poetry Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, UCSC, and Ow Family Properties.

Last year's inaugural poetry event with Robert Hass at the Cabrillo Recital Hall was a sellout. This year's 2nd Annual Morton Marcus Poetry Reading will spotlight Kay Ryan, Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S. Poet Laureate, 2008-2010. Gary Young, Shirley Ancheta, and Jeff Tagami will also be on the program. But take note: this year the venue has changed to the UCSC campus, at the Music Recital Hall, 3 pm, Sunday, November 20. Admission is free, but seating is limited, so plan to get there early. As a special incentive, selected items from the new Morton Marcus Archive will be open for viewing at Special Collections in the newly refurbished McHenry Library from 1-3 p.m. on the day of the reading.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Here's the thing about Hugh Jackman. (Well, there are several things, but I'm trying to focus, here.) I'm still waiting for him to get a movie role as charming, exuberant, and versatile as he is himself, as an interview subject (on Inside the Actor's Studio, for instance) and as an awards show host. In the meantime, we get Real Steel, a workmanlike saga of tarnished dreams and redemption from director Shawn Levy. It's by-the-numbers in every possible way, plot-wise, but it coasts along on the considerable appeal of Jackman, playing both tough and tender as Charlie Kenton, a broken-down fight promoter who gets one last chance to turn his life around.

The story is set in the very near future when fighting robots have replaced humans in the boxing ring. Charlie was a contender once, until the bots took over; now he lives a gypsy life on the road, trucking around an old robot called Ambush on the county fair circuit while trying to stay one step ahead of his numerous creditors. (In the film's ugliest scene, Ambush fights a live rodeo bull at a cheesy fair. Art Boy, my charming moviegoing companion, suggested the bot should have been fighting a mechanical bull, which would have been a much more clever idea, and less icky to watch.)

Anyway, just when Charlie hits bottom, with no bot, no cash, and no prospects, he gets word that a former girlfriend has died in an accident—leaving behind their 11-year-old son, whom Charlie has never known. Intending to sell his custody rights to the boy's wealthy aunt, Charlie instead gains temporary guardianship of young Max (Dakota Goyo) for the summer. Their relationship is adversarial in every way until Max, a videogame junkie, gets a load of his first life-sized fighting bot.

When another of Charlie's fighters is pummeled to scrap metal in the ring, and they raid a recycling center (ie: junkyard) for spare parts, Max discovers Atom under a pile of debris. A small, early-model "sparring bot," Atom is made to take a lot of punishment. His vintage circuitry is out of date, and his control box is funky, but there's something soulful about him, and as Charlie and Max start refurbishing their little underdog and winning bouts with him, father and son, of course, begin to bond as well. Thus, Charlie begins to reclaim himself, and salvage his relationship with Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), the plucky daughter of his former trainer who still run's her father's crumbling old gym.

Every crisis, every bad guy, and every triumph plays out exactly as you expect, but I still found the movie almost ridiculously entertaining. I liked the just-a-few-weeks-from-now milieu: the bots themselves are well articulated and distinctive, and all the tech toys are a little more streamlined, sleek and glowing, but clothing and vehicles & weathered old buildings in the low-rent districts still pretty much look the same. (A nice touch is all the green-power windmills in the distant landscape.)

I especially liked all the different levels of Purgatory suggested by the various fighting arenas: the bleak, tawdry fair, the renegade "zoo," where bikers, punks & lowlifes build their own DIY junker bots to fight for peanuts, the sleazy "Crash Palace," where has-been pro bots go for their melancholy last hurrah (with its great, industrial Metropolis-like posters out front), and the way more upscale first pro League Fight. And at last, the Valhalla (maybe I should say Olympus) of the superdome where Atom fights champion mega-bot Zeus.

Jackman is fun to watch. (Although for his Charlie, "broken-down" is meant to be taken spiritually, not literally; Bailey's misty rhapsody on how, in his fighting prime, Charlie was "lean" and "beautiful," would have more impact if Jackman wasn't standing right there in such ferociously good shape.) And the CGI is well-integrated into the visuals; it always looks like the human and robot characters are side-by-side in the same spatial plane.

What it all boils down to is a tale about a little bot with heart managed by a fighter vs big, hulking, hi-tech muscle machines controlled by geeks with joysticks. In Real Steel's universe, heart wins out. Who could argue with that?

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Enter a teeming Bruegel painting in audacious, exciting 'The Mill and the Cross'

I don't know much about Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, but he's made one wild, weird-ass movie about art and the artmaking process in The Mill and the Cross. It's a fairly awful title for such a grand, edgy cinematic experiment. Yes, a mill and a cross figure prominently in the painting under construction in the movie, but this title not only makes the film sound dull and plodding, it suggests none of the originality and sheer visual audacity that makes this movie so exciting.

In general, it's about the 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, caught in the act of creating his vast masterwork, "The Way To Calvary," in 1564. Majewski's film is inspired by a non-fiction book on the subject by art historian Michael Francis Gibson, but Majewski's approach is completely unconventional. We never see the artist actually painting; instead, Majewski creates an onscreen landscape that already looks like a Bruegel painting, especially the background, with its sky full of roiling clouds and the distant hills.

The foreground is occupied by the local peasants that Bruegel always painted with such gusto going about their daily business. Bruegel himself (played by the iconic Rutger Hauer) trudges about in the extreme foreground, deciding how he will marshal these people for allegorical purposes within his composition. He shares these ideas with the audience, sometimes in private voice-over contemplation, at other times in conversation with his wealthy patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Now and then, the busy activity onscreen stops dead in its tracks while Bruegel and Jonghelinck prowl around on the outskirts, discussing the various images and what they mean.

But this is in no way a dry history lesson or art critique. And forget about narrative: Majewski isn't interested in telling a linear story. Instead, life sprawls across his cinematic canvas, in all its messy, teeming, tragi-comic, absurd humanity. A weathered miller looks down on it all from his millhouse perched high on a craggy hill, as his windmill blades slowly churn, and the massive gears grind away.

Bruegel explains that the miller, high on his hill, represents God in his painting, "the Great Miller of Life." In Majewski's view, the painter himself (and by extension, the filmmaker) is also a godlike figure, grinding the raw grain of life and human activity into art. Those enormous wooden gears and cogs grinding away inside the millhouse are like the artist's imagination, set to work by the full sails of inspiration. (Read more)

You won't believe how amazing this movie looks. But don't take my word for it; here's the trailer.

Whatever you do, don't miss seeing this wonderful, questing, radical art film on a big screen, where it belongs! Why are you still sitting there?


Real-life stories take center stage in 23rd Annual Pacific Rim Film Festival

Truth may not be stranger than fiction, but reality is every bit as compelling in this year's edition of the Pacific Rim Film Festival. Now in its 23rd year, Santa Cruz's favorite free film festival unspools October 14-19, at three locations: The Del Mar Theatre, the Rio Theatre, and Cabrillo College Watsonville Center. As usual, the festival presents films from all around the Pacific Rim, from China, Japan, the Philippines, India, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia to Mexico, Hawaii and the U. S. mainland.

And of the 19 films served up in this year's festival, nine are documentaries, including the opening night kickoff event and the closing night benefit. Three other films in the lineup are fact-based stories, lightly fictionalized accounts of real people and real-life events.

What sort of real-life stories are we talking about here? Hot doc topics include music, in many variations, Japanese-American soldiers in WWII, a Korean mother reuniting with her American son, murder in the Himalayas, and circumnavigating the entire Hawaiian Islands via outrigger canoe. In particular, the opening night film (Last Paradise) and closing night film (Patagonia Rising) concern extreme sports, eco-activism (and exteme eco-activism). (Read more)

And speaking off offbeat movies, here are two words you might not expect to see in the same sentence: Norwegian comedy. But that's Happy, Happy, a tart, acerbic domestic satire about two modern couples who don't know what they want and don't want what they have. A big winner at Sundance, and Norway's official entry to the 2012 Academy Awards, it's not exactly a laff riot, but rookie director Anne Sewitsky trades in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying sort of worldview.

City couple Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), a lawyer, and Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), along with their adopted young African son, rent a small guest house from warm, ebullient schoolteacher Katja (Agnes Kittelsen) and her sullen hubby, Erik (Joachim Rafaelsen) for a winter vacation. The cool Elisabeth thinks "Katja is desperate to be my friend," but it's Sigve and Katja who bond; both are lonely in the same way. Elisabeth was cheating on Sigve back in the city, and Katja is emotionally battered by Erik—who has demons of his own.

Director Sewitsky punches up these dark themes with ironic appearances by a quartet of white, Nordic males, singing a capella American gospel. (After a montage of illicit sex, the chorus comes back with a deadpan, yet somehow salacious "Good Religion.") In this way, Sewitsky develops her larger themes. When Erik and Katja's son, Theodor, starts playing "slave" games with the African child (including faux flogging with a towel), Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll introduce the idea iof a bad marriage as a kind of enslavement for couples unhappily shackled together. This is alluded to again in a concert scene by the community chorus that the characters all join, where the oppressed Katja is chosen as a soloist on "Amazing Grace"—a hymn originally penned to support the anti-slavery movement in 19th Century Britain.

The narrative strays into some weird, off-putting moments as these characters attempt to find "tenderness and joy." And they can be alarmingly clueless. (Katja yearns to have more children, but if the results are more demon spawn like Theodor, we're glad she's been thwarted.) But Kittelsen delivers a mostly endearing performance as Katja; the viewer becomes invested in her emotional journey. And Sewitsky displays a droll sensibility (ironic, if not strictly comic) that keeps her feature debut interesting, however strange it may get. Catch up with it at the Nick before it disappears.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


It was all about narrative when Art Boy and I headed out to tour some Open Studios last Sunday. Maybe it's the writer in me, but I like artwork that tells some sort of story, and draws the viewer into some intriguing alternate world.

That's certainly true of Anna Oneglia, prolific painter, printmaker, and draughtswoman. Her live/work space in the Tannery was our first stop; we got there just a few minutes after 11, to avoid the inevitable crowd, later.

Anna has been traveling a lot in India over the last couple of years, and her new work (like "Ganesha On a Bike," left) reflects not only her interest in Indian culture, but how smitten she is with the bicycle. Ask her why, and she'll praise the bicycle as the most democratic and ecological mode of transportation.Yet, the bike is more and more often seen as the symbol of poverty in India; anyone with any pretensions at all to upward mobility invests in a scooter. Anna thinks this is a shame. In her world, the Hindu gods reject snobbery and celebrate the fun and functionality of the lowly bike.

Anna's bold, colorful paintings in acrylics and oils line the hallway leading to her studio. Inside surfaces are covered with stacks of irresistible small studies done in vibrant colors on sheets of brown paper. But if you ever get a chance, page through her wonderful sketchbooks, a compulsive recording of everything—people, plants, animals, clothing food—encountered on her travels to places like France, Hawaii and India, over the years. Prepare to be charmed!

While at the Tannery, we checked out the brand new studio spaces, adjacent to the live/work apartments. (The building isn't technically finished yet, but designated OS artists were let in Friday to set up for the weekend show.)

Some painters and mixed media artists were ensconced between the empty spaces soon to house a dance studio and a cafe. Over in the Clay wing, I liked Carol Eddy's fanciful, hand-built amphora vases with their graphic sgraffito surfaces. But I have to admit, my favorite thing that I saw was a history of the Tannery and other local industries running along the corridors between studios, from a great blown-up map of Santa Cruz, ca 1877, through log and limestone exhibits and on to the rebirth of the Tannery as an Arts Center.

Back across the highway, we stopped in to see what was new with fiber sculptor Susan Else. This year, several of her pieces are being exhibited at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, but there's still plenty to see in her home/work space on Escalona Drive—like this amazing chess set, titled "Your Move." The largest pieces are about 8 inches tall; the "pawns" about 4 inches tall, and, yes, the pieces are separate from the board so in theory you could play a game with them, if you could stop being dazzled long enough to pay attention.

Susan says she didn't know how she was going to interpret the Bishop pieces, not being particularly inspired by traditional bishop figures. But when she found out the French name for this chess piece is fou, fool or jester, everything fell into place; on her board, her kings and queens are flanked by a tumbler, a juggler, and a clown. I especially love the mime in the black bowler hat and striped fabric on the blue side.

She also has a new piece on display. With my typical crackerjack reporter's instincts, I've already forgotten the clever title, but in the work, a lone figure is struggling heroically to row a huge, listing rowboat weighted down with family members and all the implied metaphorical baggage that suggests. Now that's a great story!

Of course, no Open Studios weekend would be complete without a visit to Beth Gripenstraw. A longtime ceramicist of distinctively fun tableware, a jewelerymaker, and an accomplished watercolor painter, Beth doesn't just open her studio/home: she creates entire interactive environments that transport visitors into her alternative reality. And, boy, is it a fun place to be!

Last year, she and her daughter, Allison, collaborated on a multi-media extravaganza inspired by the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland. This year, Beth decided to conduct visitors on an African safari—complete with a tent set up outside next to a jeep, an incredibly detailed "Dr. Livingston's Study" set up in her sunroom inside, and a "Botswana Trading Company" room devoted to her wares. Along the way, the walls were decked with large watercolors depicting Beth and her dog, Benny, on (imaginary) safari in the wilds of Africa.

As if all this wasn't enough, she decorated her grounds with life-sized wildlife—papier maché cheetahs, towering giraffes, and this herd of zebras, who generously allowed Beth and me to join them around the old watering hole.

Beth is a one-woman explosion of creative energy. And talk about narrative! She invents a new scenario every year, and the lucky public gets to come along for the ride. But she only does OS for one weekend, so mark your calendars now to go see her next year. Who knows where she'll take us next?

We had a bunch of other artists to visit, but an unfortunate tire malfunction on the ArtBoyMobile put the kibosh on our plans before we got to the Westside to see Glenn Carter, Peggy Snider, and a few others. It's too bad, since this was our only chance to see other artists; we'll be home here in Live Oak hosting Art Boy's own Open Studios the next two weekends. Oh, well, wait'll next year...

In the meantime, Open Studios runs for the next two weekends, so plot your course, rotate your tires, and go!

Monday, October 3, 2011


I thought there was something wrong with the color on my monitor the other day when I logged onto IMDb and got a load of these posters for upcoming movies. Looks like black-and-white is the new black in movie poster chic—at least for this fall.

What's Hollywood trying to tell us, here? The message seems to be: okay, kids, summer is over, so wipe those goony grins off your faces, sit up straight, and pay attention. Forget about those bubble-gum-colored superheroes of summer. These movies are serious business!

But, wait: gigantic boxing robots? An outer space alien who crash lands in Antarctica? Okay, maybe not SO serious. Only the Geoge Clooney film, Ides of March, a political drama, has any pretensions to grown-up subject matter. But this is always the time of year when Clooney appears in his Oscar-contending movies. Check out the similarly color-challenged posters for Syriana, Up In the Air, and Good Night and Good Luck. (At least the latter was actually shot in gorgeous black-and-white, so the poster is more appropriate.)

Anyway, at least half of the movies coming out between now and Christmas go in for stark black-and-white sobriety in their posters. Chalk it up to another sign of the changing seasons, like longer nights and rain washing away our Indian Summer.

Btw, this new version of The Thing bills itself as a prequel to John Carpenter's 1982 "classic." I say, classic, schmassic. Carpenter's horror thriller had it's moments, but it was basically a more graphic reboot of an older property for the post-Alien age.

The original The Thing, directed by Howard Hawks in 1951, is the genuine classic, and not just in the genre; it's one of my all-time favorite movies! Sure, it sounds silly: a pre-Marshall Dillon James Arness resembles a giant carrot from outer space who menaces a team of Arctic researchers and military personnel.

But the movie is not only relentlessly scary (building acute tension out of shadows and dread, instead of gore), it features spirited camaraderie and snappy dialogue that would be right at home in any other Hawks movie, like His Girl Friday, or The Big Sleep. (It also features a great performance by my favorite unknown character actor, Douglas Spencer, as a wisecracking reporter on the base.) Trust me, Hawks' version is the real Thing.

And speaking of media messaging, did you see The Emmys a couple of weeks ago? Here are some interesting stats:

Number of times an image of James Durbin flashed onscreen during the Reality TV montage: 3.

Number of times an image of putative "winner" Scotty McCreery flashed onscreen: 0.

I'm just sayin' ...