Wednesday, November 30, 2011

BOOK NOTES


Local authors are doing it for themselves this week, meeting the public at a couple of choice book events.


Robert Sward, a longtime fixture on the Santa Cruz poetry scene, will be reading from his new book, "New and Selected Poems, 1957-2011"," on Tuesday, December 6, at the Capitola Book Cafe. Robert has taught at Mt. Madonna School, Cabrillo College and UCSC. He calls this new collection from Red Hen Press (his 20th book) "my life's work, really."


Robert gave a private reading for a houseful of enthusiastic well-wishers a couple of weeks ago. Now it's time to launch this collection of new and vintage poems for the public at large. Join the celebration Tuesday, 7:30 pm.


(Btw, that cool book jacket features the painting, "Words, Words, Words," by Robert's wife, artist Gloria Alford.)



Also at the Capitola Book Cafe, Monday, Dec 5, plan to catch local authors Thad Nodine, reading from his new novel, "Touch and Go," and Claudia Sternbach, reading from her memoir, "Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses." Besides being SC locals, Thad and Claudia also have a publisher in common, the small literary press Unbridled Books. A third UB author, Katherine Kindred, will also be at the Book Cafe event, reading from her memoir, "An Accidental Mother." Reading begins at 7:30 pm.

Friday, November 25, 2011

MARTIN LOVES GEORGES


Even if you think you don't know anything about French film pioneer Georges Melies, chances are you've seen this iconic image from his best-remembered film. In A Trip To the Moon (La Voyage Dans le Lune) (19-0-TWO, thank you very much), this is how the Man in the Moon reacts when those upstart Earthlings shoot a rocket at him. And it just gets wilder, funnier, and crazier from there.


I love it that Martin Scorsese's new family-friendly film, Hugo, is such an unabashed valentine to Melies. (Read my review here.) It takes its time getting started, as the pacing stutters along in the first half, but when the movie finally settles down to focus on the elderly Melies and celebrate his past as the irrepressible wizard/court jester of early silent films, well, it's just irresistible.

The story concerns the orphan boy, Hugo, who lives in hiding in a Paris railway station, ca. 1930, whose life changes when he meets a crusty old man who runs a toyshop at the station. This is Georges Melies, forgotten by a more sophisticated film industry that's passed him by. The movie is based on the novel, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (himself a descendant of movie royalty; his distant cousin was David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With the Wind, among many, many others).


Hugo himself is a fabrication of Selznick's ripe imagination, but what I love about the story (and Scorsese's reverent film) is that all the details of Melies' life are actually true. He really did run a shop for mechanical toys in the Gare Montparnasse in the late '20s. Here's what it looked like:



And here's how the shop is reimagined in Scorsese's films. (That's Ben Kingsley as the elderly Melies).



Melies started out as a stage magician who loved creating illusions. After he saw one of the first "cinematographe" presentations by the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, he was hooked on the new medium. In flashback, the film shows us Melies and his muse/mistress/actress Jeanne d'Alcy (who later became his wife) building a production studio made of glass for the creation of movie magic; it housed a working stage, complete with flats and trapdoors for Melies' onscreen illusions. This studio was actually built outside Paris in 1897; here's Melies himself (left, foreground) painting sets within its glass walls.



Scorsese goes into loving detail, showing how Melies and company produce their giddy short films, chock-full of dragons, mermaids, moon explorers and chorus girls. We learn how Melies created depth shooting into layers of sets, added color by hand-tinting each frame, and created special effects by pioneering the stop-motion technique, or snipping out frames of film with a scissors.


This is what the glorious excesses of Melies' unfettered imagination looked like onscreen at the turn-of-the-century:



And here's Scorsese's evocative homage in Hugo:



Best of all, what seems like a Hollywood ending in the film actually happened to Melies. With or without the intervention of a plucky little orphan boy, Melies was discovered at his toy kiosk by a film journalist, ca 1929. When a cache of some of his supposedly lost films (he made over 500 shorts, in his day) was discovered and painstakingly restored, Melies was feted with a retrospective in Paris, and awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his body of work. What's more (it being civilized France), he and Jeanne were granted a pension and moved into a country chateau for cinema veterans for the rest of their days.


It's Scorsese's recreation of the Melies retrospective at the end of Hugo that really knocked me out, when a lengthy montage of real, vintage Melies footage fills the screen. For a few moments, we can imagine what it must have felt like for a moviegoer of that era to enter into the fantastical Melies universe for the first time. I saw the movie in 3-D, which I don't necessarily recommend (although the 3-D process at the Del Mar is the best I've seen in town). I don't think I would have missed anything seeing Hugo in 2-D—except for the thrill of seeing the Melies footage on the giant screen in the Grand Auditorium. Which is where Georges Melies so richly deserves to be.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

FAMILY MATTERS PART 2


As we know here in Santa Cruz, no one is "immune to life"—not even in Paradise. This is well understood by Matt King, a Hawaiian-born lawyer and father on the island of Oahu facing a particularly thorny patch of life in The Descendants, Alexander Payne's incisive, entertaining, tender and life-sized family drama. Shot on location in the luscious Hawaiian islands of Oahu and Kauai, it's a tale of a family in crisis, a culture in flux, and the issue of legacy between the generations, told with wry humor and honest emotion.


Adapted by scriptwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from the novel by Hawaiian author Kaui Hart Hemmings, The Descendants revolves around the King family. George Clooney once again proves himself one of the most watchable and subtle of actors in the role of beleaguered father Matt, who has evidently pursued a successful law career while neglecting his duties to his thrill-seeking wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters. But he gets a big dose of payback when a boating accident lands Elizabeth in a coma.


It's up to Matt to pull the family together, even though he calls himself "the back-up parent, the understudy," who has no idea even how to talk to his girls. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

FAMILY MATTERS


Take a wild ride with a post-modern family in local author Thad Nodine's wry, compassionate new novel


There may be none so blind as those who will not see, as the old adage goes. But in Santa Cruz author Thad Nodine's bracing debut novel, "Touch And Go" (Unbridled Books), there is also no one more perceptive than the blind narrator/protagonist, Kevin Layne. In a patchwork, largely dysfunctional post-modern family related by need, not blood, on an ill-conceived cross-country road trip, blind Kevin is the one with the surest grasp on (and empathy for) the desires and compulsions that motivate the others' actions—motivations they often keep hidden, even from themselves.


It takes a certain amount of audacity—not to mention skill— for a sighted author to write an entire novel from a blind character's, er, viewpoint. For one thing, there are no elaborate visual descriptions to fall back on—interiors, city streets, the changing landscape on the road, not even the characters' faces. None of which daunts Nodine, who makes a vivid sensory feast out of everyday activities as Kevin relates his experience of the physical world. ("Footsteps spat across concrete at odd angles. A stroller nearly clipped me...I blustered across alcoves as the heels of my Western boots echoed the recesses.") From Kevin's perspective, Nodine's descriptions of the other characters are so alive—the emotional pitch of voices, how a shoulder or elbow feels to the touch, a fleeting scent of perfume, or sweat, or chlorine, fidgety hands, intimate confessions—the reader may not even realize he doesn't know what they actually look like. (Read more)

Monday, November 21, 2011

PRE-HOLIDAY CHEER


Let the Revels begin with delightful new SSC holiday production



You don't have know the "Frog and Toad" series of children's books by Arnold Lobel to fall in love with A Year With Frog and Toad, the new holiday production from Shakespeare Santa Cruz. In a fleet, satisfying (and very child-friendly) 70 minutes—sans intermission—this lively production keeps kids and adults rapt with jazzy songs, inventive design, good humor, and heart. They might as well tie a giant red ribbon around the UCSC Mainstage Theater, this production is such a big, happy holiday gift to the community.


Adapted from Lobel's books by brothers Robert Reale (music) and Willie Reale (book and lyrics), A Year With Frog and Toad received three Tony nominations on Broadway in 2003. Staging the SSC show is Art Manke, who directed last summer's rip-roaring Three Musketeers in the Festival Glen. Manke tailors the play to the intimacy of the Mainstage, and keeps the action moving briskly, abetted by a hard-working, nine-person acting company who will steal your heart.


But the show belongs to its stars. As Frog, Nick Gabriel has a lovely singing voice and a warm-hearted sense of fun, maintaining a perfectly froggy stance and gestures in every scene. As Toad, Mike Ryan delivers yet another endearing, uproarious comic performance that can make you weep on a dime. They are enormous fun to watch; round up a couple of kids and get your tickets right now. Why are you still sitting there? (Read more.)


(The SSC production, A Year With Frog and Toad plays through December 11 at the Mainstage Theater, UCSC. Click here for ticket info.)


(Above: Mike Ryan and Nick Gabriel. Photo by rr jones.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MORT: THE ARCHIVE


Just a reminder that the 2nd Annual Morton Marcus Memorial Poetry Reading will take place this Sunday, November 20. Pulitzer Prize-winner and recent MacArthur Fellow Kay Ryan is the featured poet. And don't forget the change of venue and time: this year, the event will be held at the Music Recital Hall up at UCSC, 3 pm. (The idea is to switch venues between co-sponsors Cabrillo and UCSC on alternate years.)


And while you're up there, stop by the exhibit of material from the new Morton Marcus Archive, to be unveiled on the afternoon of the reading. From noon to 3 pm, Sunday, the public is invited to visit the Mort exhibit in Special Collections at UCSC's newly revamped McHenry Library. Mort's widow, Donna Mekis, has been working with Special Collections curators for weeks furnishing the exhibition cases with personal mementos from Mort's study, where he was wont to prowl around in the middle of the night, working on new poems.


Not that Mort couldn't write anywhere, at any time. On the first trip to France we took with Mort and Donna and the McDougals, after a few days in the countryside, haunting the village boulangerie, Mort disappeared into his room for an hour or so one morning. When he emerged, he read us all the first draft of the poem, "The Baker's Wife," with its wry, yeasty sensuality. (It's now in his collection, "Pursuing The Dream Bone".)


But Mort did most of his writing in his upstairs study, surrounded by his books, his cigars, his Buddha, and the other objects he loved. Donna has tried to capture the spirit of his writing environment in the Specia Collections exhibit, so come early and check it out on the way to the poetry reading. (Donna also suggests a stop at the new Global Village Café, operated by the Hoffmans, located in the atrium of the new Library.)


The Morton Marcus exhibit will be on view from noon to 3 pm, Sunday, November 20, in Special Collections at the McHenry Library. The Kay Ryan poetry reading, with guest readers Shirley Ancheta and Jeff Tagami, introduced by Santa Cruz Poet Laureate Gary Young, begins at 3 pm. Doors open at 2:30, and admission is free, but seating is limited (first come, first served), so plan to get there early.


(Photo of Mort Writing, as seen on mortonmarcus.com.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

MAD LOVE


There are moments when Pedro Almodóvar's new movie, The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito) will make you squirm. It has sex and violence—often at the same time—and some very strange relationships, perverse even by Almodóvar standards. In terms of storyline, it's a weird mix of Pygmalion and Frankenstein, with echoes of vintage mad scientist horror movies from the '30s to the '50s. (You could even make a case for this film paying a sort of bizarre homage to my favorite grade-Z '50s horror movie, The Head That Wouldn't Die).


But this is one of those rare movies that gets better and better in retrospect, as the viewer begins to appreciate the scope and intensity of its themes. Very loosely based on the hard-boiled novel, "Tarantula," by the late French author Thierry Jonquet, it becomes, in Almodóvar's expert hands, an outrageous, yet smart and compelling meditation on gender and identity, and how much each depends on the other. Almodóvar asks: what makes us who we are inside? Is it how we look, the surface or skin on the outside? Or is there some unassailable core of identity that determines one's selfhood, no matter what?


These questions come whipped up into a typically lush and spicy Almodóvar cocktail of sex, obsession, gunplay, haunting secrets, merging personas, dubious parentage, and maternal devotion. At the center of it all is Antonio Banderas, making a welcome return to the Spanish auteur's stable of players after a 21-year hiatus.

(Read more)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

MAJESTIC CON JOB



Anonymous is that rare movie from action director Roland Emmerich in which nothing blows up—except the crackpot theory that Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the canon of plays and sonnets historically attributed to William Shakespeare. This hothouse melodrama of Tudor intrigue, sex, and politics, scripted by John Orloff, is based on the most controversial "Oxfordian" theories.

It's all sheer humbuggery, but still an entertaining spectacle: the costumes are exquisite, the overhead shots Elizabethan London are breathtaking, and it's populated by a bunch of attractive young actors on their way up.

Oxford (Rhys Ifans) has penned his plays in secret, ever since he was fostered into the Puritan household of Queen Elizabeth's counselor, William Cecil (an unrecognizable David Thewlis), where poetry was forbidden. However, the dashing young Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower, in flashback) charmed the lusty, poetry-loving young Queen Bess (Joely Richardson).


But now that the queen is in her dotage (Vanessa Redgrave, playing the formidable Bess as dotty and girlish), Oxford starts leaking his plays to the Globe theater company to influence public opinion (or "the mob," as all the nobles call them) in the matter of the queen's heir. Elizabeth's court is evidently teeming with her bastard children, including the young earls of Essex (Sam Reid) and Southampton (Xavier Samuel), whose doomed rebellion is portrayed as a patriotic attempt to retain the English crown for the English Tudor bloodline.

Refusing to claim authorship of the work because it's simply not done, or something, Oxford tries to get playwright Ben Jonson to front for him. But when the first performance of Henry V sends the crowd into an ecstatic frenzy, Will Shakespeare, a buffoonish comic actor in the company, sneaks in to put his name to the unsigned manuscript—a charade Oxford finds it politically expedient to maintain, bankrupting himself to buy the upstart Will's complicity.


This portrait of Shakespeare as a smarmy, boorish, scheming illiterate is irksome (although Rafe Spall plays him with vivid comic brio); so is the elitist idea that only a nobleman could possibly be capable of such brilliance. It's hard to believe that Oxford (or anyone) could have written A Midsummer Night's Dream at age 12, as is suggested here. And would the canniest monarch of her age farm out such a litter of bastard children among the noblest houses of England to be manipulated later by her enemies?

Meanwhile, the filmmakers cheerfully massacre the facts of English history and the allegorical meaning of the plays themselves, in a vain attempt to fit their idle speculation. I disliked the portrait of Christopher Marlowe (Trystan Gravelle) as an oily, conniving malcontent (especially since Marlowe was long dead by the time events in this movie take place). Ifan's mature Oxford is anonymous indeed; circumspect and elegant, but lacking in passion or presence. (Sebastian Armesto's courageous Ben Jonson emerges as the hero.)

Still, for all its faults, the film conveys the Elizabethan era in all its messy splendor, and backstage glimpses of the Globe in its heyday and snippets of the plays in performance are often thrilling.


It's too bad such majestic production values are wasted on such a hopeless con job. If you must fool around with Shakespearean history, I much prefer novelist Elizabeth Bear's audacious Stratford Man Duology, in which Will Shakespeare succeeds Kit Marlowe in weaving magical spells into their brilliant verse for the protection of the realm—after Marlowe has been whisked off to eternal life in the land of Faery. It's far more imaginative, and plausible, than the fairy tale of Anonymous.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

ART AND SOLE



Feeling shoe-ish? Why not hotfoot it down to the Sockshop in downtown Santa Cruz this Friday night (November 11) for the Sockshop and Shoe Art, Wine and Shoes Benefit. Back by popular demand (they initiated the first event of this kind back in 2009), it's a celebration of art, shoes, and wine, built around a silent art auction to benefit the Homeless Services Center.



And we're not taking about just any old art auction. It's all about the shoes, with all donated work from local artists revolving around everyone's favorite fetish object. Printmaker Liz Lyons Friedman offers a giclee of her popular linocut, "Change Your Shoes, Change Your Attitude." As usual, James Aschbacher (aka Art Boy) has a slightly different take on the subject in his original painting, "Good Taste In Shoes."




In addition to art about shoes, the auction also features some pretty amazing artwork painted ON shoes. Check out the Santa Cruz Patch page on this event, and be sure to look at Judi Oyama's slideshow of shoe art being featured in the auction. Don't miss Jimbo Phillips' rad, hand-painted "Santa Cruz" surfer Vans, and his companion painting of a mermaid on the rocks near Lighthouse Point.



Other shoe art painters include Kori Thompson, Danny Sun, and Joey Vela. Much of the artwork is on display for your perusal at the Sockshop right now, so go check it out. The event is scheduled for 6 to 9 pm, Friday evening, November 11, at the Sockshop, 1515 Pacific Avenue. (In the old ID Building, for all you old-timers.) Food and drink will be provided by Chocolate; music provided by Blake Redding. Be prepared for a festive evening of art and sole.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

CLOTHES MAKE THE MOVIE


Nobody ever accused me of being a fashion plate, but I'm a sucker for a great costume. Maybe it was all those Barbies I dressed in my misspent childhood, especially in the outfits I made up. (I once dressed up my brunette Midge doll in a blue overcoat, flat black hat, and umbrella, like Mary Poppins, and attached her to the curtain mechanism above my bedroom window so she could "fly" back and forth over the bed.)


A front-runner in next year's Best Costume Oscar race is sure to be Anonymous, with luscious Elizabethan-era costumes by German designer Lisy Christl. Here are a couple of costumes from the movie on display as we speak at the Century Centre 9 Theater in San Francisco (where the film opened last week). Check out the detailing, especially those slashed, beribboned, and embroidered pantaloons in the foreground. Yowza.


Anonymous opens tomorrow here in Santa Cruz, on the big screen at the Del Mar, and I can't wait. I don't expect to be converted to the idea that anyone other than Will Shakespeare wrote the plays historically attributed to him, but the movie is sure to look fabulous.



Here's a costume sketch from Christl, complete with fabric swatches, suggested stitching and notions details, and painterly inspiration. Notice how the sleeves in the sketch are influenced by the voluptuous, bell-shaped gathered sleeves of the blue madonna on the left.


Many thanks to Daniella Taormina-Keenan at Allied Media in SF for sending out these images. Nothing could make me more excited to see this movie!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

ALL FOR NOTHING


Almost everything that could possibly go wrong, did, in Paul W. S. Anderson's misbegotten attempt to turn Alexandre Dumas' elegant classic, The Three Musketeers, into a cheesy, CGI-laden superhero franchise. If you love Dumas' rousing tale as much as I do (as you might remember from my previous blog), you'll cringe at the concept of Athos as an underwater ninja, Aramis wrapped in a cape swooping off tall buildings like Batman, Porthos as a Hulk-like strongman pulling his chains out of stone walls to attack his prison guards. These guys are assassins, committing mayhem with soulless efficiency; it's half an hour into the movie before anybody even draws a sword.


Anderson makes an oily bouillabaisse out of Dumas's sprightly storyline. In this version, childish King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his poised young Queen Anne (Juno Temple) are in love with each other, but too shy to speak of it. Gone is the neglected queen's dangerous liasion with the Duke of Buckingham, played by Orlando Bloom as a fop in an Elvis pompadour, now temporarily in league with the villainous Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich). (There's a dreary Pirates of the Caribbean-like sameness to the way all the villains keep double-crossing each other.)


Most egregious is the notion that Milady was once a veritable Fourth Musketeer, and Athos' true love. Anyone who actually understands what the story is about will recoil at the idea of Athos, the noblest, most honorable and ruthless of all the Musketeers, ever allying himself with the faithless, opportunistic Milady—especially as she's portrayed by Jovovich as a pouty little tart. (This movie is so amped up, Milady can't simply enter a room by stealth; she has to bungee-jump off the top of a stone angel on the roof—in a corset, yet—in broad daylight, to a balcony below.)



Another pointless addition to the plot is a set of plans stolen out of a secret "Da Vinci Vault," for a flying warship, a ferociously armed wooden sailing ship under an enormous balloon. This could be a very cool thing if handled with any kind of panache, but let's face it, the movies haven't gotten steampunk right since 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (Remember The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Or, worse, Van Helsing?) When this warship lumbers into view and starts raining down random destruction from an arsenal of cannon that blast away like machine guns, it's just ugly. And when two of them go into battle against each other, it's ridiculous how much time is wasted in the ships strafing each other's decks before someone finally gets the bright idea to blow a hole in the other's balloon.



Equally full of hot air is the jokey, creaky dialogue, stuffed with lugubrious, faux-arch witticisms. (Although I did smile when Constance (Gabrielle Wilde) tells Logan Lerman's gauche young puppy of a D'Artagnan, "In the battle of wits, you, sir, are unarmed.")



What else did I like in this movie? Matthew Macfadyen, Ray Stevenson and Luke Evans are terrific as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—in the fleeting moments they get to play the characters Dumas wrote. And there are some evocatively imagined CGI vistas of 17th Century Paris.


The great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen plays antagonist Count de Rochefort exactly as the material demands—as a cartoon—fortunately disguised in a plumed hat and eyepatch most of the time. Less fortunate in Christoph Waltz as evil Cardinal Richelieu, who seems more peevish than dangerous, and about as sinister as Snidely Whiplash. Any director who can't get purring menace out of Christoph Waltz, of all people, playing Cardinal flipping Richelieu, obviously doesn't know what he's doing.


There's nothing here to challenge Richard Lester's classic 1973 film adaptation. And it certainly won't make anyone forget the dash and brio of last summer's live SSC production.