Saturday, January 28, 2012


Okay, I can't really carp too much about this year's Oscar nominations, since my four favorite movies of 2011 are up for multiple awards. But, oh, heck, I just can't help myself!

Sure, Midnight In Paris, The Artist, Hugo, and The Descendants (which didn't quite make it into my Top 10, but I still really liked) are all Best Picture nominees, with significant nominations in other categories as well. For instance, all four have also scored nominations for their directors, along with (surprise!) Terence Malick for the occasionally brilliant but woefully uneven The Tree Of Life—which suggests the Best Picture category (which also includes four other films) just got smaller.

But in passing out the kudos, how on earth could the Academy overlook Shailene Woodley as George Clooney's elder, teenage daughter in The Descendants? She was phenomenal in the role—poised, edgy, and as subtly nuanced as Clooney himself.

Speaking of subtle, Gary Oldman's Best Actor nomination for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a surprise; his performance is so full of muted, wary reserve he practically blends into the wallpaper. Not that he's not good, but actors usually have to do something more showy—put on a dress (William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman), play an alcoholic or a nutcase (Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas; Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), or play (or pass as) a member of the opposite sex (Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game; Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously)—just to get noticed.

Another interesting surprise: Demian Bichir, nominated for playing a Mexican immigrant trying to keep his son out of gang life in A Better Life, a film that played for about 14 minutes at the Nick, then disappeared. This means either Bichir gave a tremendous performance, or has a tremendous press agent. (I didn't see it, but I suspect the former.)

One more factoid about this year's lineup: only Brad Pitt in Moneyball is nominated for playing an actual historical person. This bucks a trend in recent years where nominees in this category have been cited for playing everyone from Truman Capote, Edward R. Murrow, and Harvey Milk, to Richard Nixon, Nelson Mandela, Johnny Cash, and King George VI.

Vestiges of this trend remain in the Best Actress category, where Meryl Streep and Michelle Williams are poised to go mano-a-mano for playing Margaret Thatcher and Marilyn Monroe, respectively. (I thought Glenn Close would be in the running too, for her cross-dressing Albert Nobbs—see above—but the film seems to be getting a cooler reception than expected.)

It's also interesting to see Rooney Mara nominated in this category for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She was fine, but it seems like a desperate move by the Academy to still seem, you know, with it, after having overlooked the sensational Noomi Rapace in the same role last year in the original Swedish trilogy.

Meanwhile, going back to the Supporting Actress category for a minute, I'm glad to see Janet McTeer nominated for the year's gutsiest performance in Albert Nobbs. But what, no Judi Dench for My Week With Marilyn? Her gracious Dame Sybil Thorndike kept the whole film grounded. And what about Mary Page Keller as the loyal, but understandably acerbic wife in Beginners?

But overall, it's not a horrible list of contenders, by any means. (At least Melancholia wasn't nominated for anything!) Now all I have to do is figure out how I'm going to dress a Barbie doll to look like Margaret Thatcher...

(Above, right: William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman; above, left: Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012


It's Carl Jung vs. Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, the talky new drama of ideas from David Cronenberg. But despite what you see on the poster and in the preview trailers, the dueling doctors are not involved in a love triangle over a woman.

Yes, there is a woman involved, the historically significant Sabine Spielrein (played with overwrought intensity by Keira Knightley), an early patient who went on to become a doctor in her own right, and a colleague to both men. Here, she's introduced as a patient of the youthful Jung (Michael Fassbender) at a Swiss clinic in 1904, whom he treats using Freud's radical "talking cure," or "psych-analysis."

Later, Jung journeys to Vienna to meet his idol, Freud (a marvelously wry Viggo Mortensen), who anoints the younger man his "heir" in the field. But ultimately, the two men split over the direction of psychoanalysis; the fastidious Jung objects to Freud reducing every disorder to a sexual cause, while Freud scorns the "superstition" of Jung's interest in telepathy and religion.

In this atmosphere dominated by discussions of sex, repression, and libido, the uptight and married Jung's decision to take the eager Sabine as his mistress seems more like a case of going with the flow, rather than an act of desperate passion, despite the "ambivalence" of his relationship with his, wealthy wife. (While Sabine's need to be spanked—vigorously and often—to get excited, dating back to early abuse by her father, seems to bear out Freud's theory.) It's also a little creepy that these sequences seem to validate the 19th Century notion that a "hysterical" woman was best cured in bed.

Interpersonal relationships have never been Cronenberg's strong suit, and what's missing here is an emotional center to sustain viewers through all the theoretical debates (and perfunctory sex). That Christopher Hampton's screenplay is adapted from his own stage play, "The Talking Cure," as well as from John Kerr non-fiction book, "A Most Dangerous Method" also contributes to the screen story feeling both rushed and fragmented. Still, the talk is often interesting, it's fun to watch the doctors psychoanalyze each others' dreams, and Vincent Cassel is terrific in a few brief scenes as bad-boy analyst/patient, libertine, and agent provocateur Otto Gross.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I really do try not to clutter up this blog with too many of my Project Runway opinions, since everybody and his Great Aunt Lucretia already blogs about PR. But, seriously, what were they thinking last night on PR All Stars?

They had a simple enough challenge: design a cocktail dress for a pig. And not just any pig, but that international style icon, Miss Piggy, who also appeared on the dais as a guest judge. Since the designers are always being scolded to design for the client and not let their personal style aesthetic run away with them, I was sure designer Rami Kashou had hit one out of the park with this pink polka dot confection.

"That's the most ridiculous, outlandish thing I've ever seen," cried the diva of porcine pulchritude herself. "It looks like an explosion in a candy factory. I love it!"

So did Rami win for reading his client so perfectly? He did not. The prize went to Michael Costello for this couch-brocade sheath to which someone seems to have thumb-tacked one of those huge, ready-made, accordion Christmas bows.

I suppose it's chic enough in its way (except for that idiotic bow). But it's not s much fun as Rami's dress, nor does it capture the spirit of the flamboyant farmyard fashionista in quite the same way.

And as long as we're strolling down the runway, what about the Red Carpet looks at the Golden Globes? The prom-dress look was in: fitted top over big, voluminous skirt (often involving dyed feathers or other flouncy stuff). There also seemed to be a lot of nude-looking fabrics, sequins, and versions of the mermaid look.

But what happened with poor Kate Winslet? She looked like one of those PR models sent down the runway by a designer who didn't have time to finish the dress. The black satin bodice looked like it was still being pieced together over a white skirt that looked like a sheet grabbed at the last minute to cover her up.

This was so disappointing, since once upon a time, Kate absolutely rocked my all-time favorite awards dress ever.

Then there was Niciole Kidman, in a silver sheath fitted so tight and apparently soldered together with so many brass bolts, she looked like Robot Maria—and not in a good way. Iron Maiden chic.

What I loved was Laura Dern's simple, sleek emerald green sequined waterfall of a dress. In a word, yowza.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Last night's Golden Globes Awards ceremony was a study in diplomacy the UN might envy. It wasn't a sweep for any one of the front-running films in contention. Instead, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association doled out individual kudos with even-handed precision—sometimes to a surprising degree.

Biggest surprise of the evening was probably Martin Scorsese winning Best Director for Hugo, even though Hugo did not go on to win Best Picture in its category. (The Globes split the top nominees—Picture, Actor and Actress—into two categories, Drama and Comedy Or Musical. And the divide between the two is often, um, tenuous, as it was this year with the fanciful, slapstick-laden Hugo nominated in the Drama category, and the bittersweet My Week With Marilyn relegated to the Comedy list. Still, semantics aside, I liked Hugo a lot, and a Scorsese win for this love letter to early moviemaking is okay by me.)

Anyway, The Descendants won for Best Picture (Drama), which means its director, Alexander Payne, was shut out. Ditto director Michel Hazanavicius, whose film, The Artist, won Best Picture in the Comedy/Musical category. But I guess it was just their bad luck to be up against Scorsese, who is so beloved by the HFPA that he also won Best Director in 2007 for The Departed, even though something else won the Best Picture award that year too.

(Look out, George and Shailene. Someone might be gaining on you...)

As to this year's winners, looks like it's game-on for a showdown between The Descendants and The Artist for next month's Oscars. Both films scored multiple wins at the Globes, including Best Actor awards for their respective leading men, George Clooney (Drama) and Jean Dujardin (Comedy/Musical).

The Artist also picked up an award for its Jazz Age/romantica musical score by Ludovic Bource (an especially crucial element in a silent film), despite his controversial use of Bernard Herrmann's love theme from Vertigo (all rights legally purchased, Hazanavicius contends).

(The Artist gets ready to muscle into the Oscar nominations.)

Best Actress winners Meryl Streep, for The Iron Lady (Drama) and Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn (so-called Comedy/Musical) also seem poised to duke it out at the Oscars. Meanwhile, the HFPA doled out small, considerate appeasements to some of its other multiple nominees. The Help picked up a Supporting Actress award for Octavia Spencer. Woody Allen won a best Screenplay award for my favorite film of the year, Midnight In Paris. In what might have been the nicest surprise, Christopher Plummer won the Supporting Actor prize for the under-nominated Beginners—and delivered an excellent, eloquent acceptance speech into the bargain.

Less happy surprises of the evening: how did Scorsese fail to mention Georges Melies in his acceptance speech about the history of movies and film preservation? (Most of the Hugo film clip featured Scorsese's re-creation of Melies' sequences.) And how did Clooney fail to mention his teenage co-star and fellow nominee, Shailene Woodley? Sure, he thanked his "whole cast," but a lesser actress in the pivotal role of Clooney's eldest daughter would have made the entire film less persuasive.

But overall, I'm content with this year's Globes. Nothing really egregious won in any major category. (Well, I'm not sure about that tinny dance-mix pop tune Madonna wrote for her Edward VIII/Mrs. Simpson movie, W. E., set in the elegant 1930s.) And, for once, a lot of my favorite movies of the year seem ready to make a splash at the Oscars. Those nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24. Stay tuned ...

(Top: Martin Scorsese. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill.)

Friday, January 13, 2012


One benefit of the Digital Age is the democratization of the arts. There are more ways than ever before for artmakers to reach an audience—bands can record their own CDs, authors can publish their own ebooks, visual artists can participate in regional Open Studios events, or show their work in online galleries. And every year, aspiring playwrights have a chance to see their work produced onstage, with live actors in front of a real audience, in the annual Eight Tens @ Eight short play festival staged by the Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre.

For this, their 17th season, ET@E Artistic Director Wilma Marcus Chandler solicited submissions from all over the country via their annual spring ten-minute playwriting contest. Chandler and her team of intrepid judges combed through the entries to select the final eight, which are now produced onstage at the Center Street Theatre with local actors, directed by such local theatrical luminaries as Maria Crush, Marcus Cato, and Daria Troxell.

The result is an evening of short, pithy, original plays well-suited to this intimate venue (the original Actors' Theatre, once upon a time), with its intense sense of community spirit. Five of this season's eight plays are comedies, two are dramas. My favorite is the one that falls between genres, "Crossing The Line," by Seth Freemn. Directed by Sarah Albertson, it's a close encounter between a high school math teacher (well-played by Scott Kravitz), a teenage vandal who calls himself "Shooter" (a persuasive Kamaxtli Perez-Granados), and the principles of logic and consequence. The dialogue is funny, the situation tense, it has a complete story arc, and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The comedies tend to be more like sketch pieces, but most have their bright moments. Perhaps the best realized, Earl Roske's "Measure of a Man," directed by Steve Brenner, a sly satire in which a lowly, 18th Century Scottish crofter (Steve Capasso) and his laird, the Colonel (a flamboyantly funny Denny Vierra) discuss the value of a library. ("The more books I have, the smarter people think I am.") Part of the fun here is watching the actors maintain their Scots accents.

"The Unwedding," by Martin Azevedo and directed by Troxell, begins with a funny premise—a divorcing couple divvying up their friends like community property—but it doesn't know how or when to make a graceful exit. Marcia Rudin's "Waiting For Wilma," directed by Joan Van Antwerp, a comedy of colliding values in an overbooked hotel room during a hurricane, also ends a little abruptly.

Diane Patterson's satirical "The Bank," also concludes with more of a whimper than a bang, although director Cato coaxes a wonderful performance out of Kendall Callaghan as a ferociously chirpy bank teller. Jaye Wolfe and Brett Karleen deliver good comic performances as a corporate honcho and a hopeful hiree in Jeffrey Gold's "Fair Shake," directed by Crush, although the comic purpose of the buzzer that keeps interrupting their interview isn't always clear enough.

Both dramatic shorts deal with love and loss. In Elyce Melmon's bittersweet "It Begins With Goodbye," directed by Bill Peters, an angry, blustery widower (Chad Davies) searches for closure with a volunteer grief counselor (MarNae Taylor). Grief is pending in Andrea Fleck Clardy's "Gay Paree," directed by Peter Gelblum, where two lifelong friends (Helene Simkin Jara and the deeply empathetic Gail Borkowski) swap raucous stories while one of them battles cancer.

All the plays look great onstage, with surprisingly detailed sets, and sophisticated lighting and sound. ET@E is community theater at its most elemental, a labor of love in which local actors, directors and tech crews get to share the magic of live theater with the public.

The production continues Thursdays through Sundays at the Center Street Theatre, through January 29. As an extra bonus, the company is also presenting The Best of the Rest, staged readings of the eight runners-up from the ten-minute playwriting contest, to be held the next two Wednesdays (January 18 and 25) at 8 pm.

Read all about the Actors' Theatre here. Click here for tickets and info.

One more thing: the evening show tomorrow night (Saturday, January 14, 8 pm) is an actor's benefit. (Shades of Vincent Crummles!) This is charming practice left over from 19th Century theatre in which all proceeds go directly to the hard-working volunteer actors who make this festival possible. (In the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens' actor/manager Crummles was afoot in the profession, it was also called a "bespeak," in that the proceeds were bespoken for a particular actor or the company of actors.) It's a chance to support live local theater and your favorite players, so get your ducats right now!

(Above, "The Great Bespeak for Miss Snevellici," from Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby. Engraving by Phiz, 1838, scanned by Phillip V. Allingham. As seen on The Victorian Web.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012


I've been meaning to write about the new James Durbin CD ever since Santa Boy gave it to me for Christmas, but I've only just stopped singing along long enough to sit down at the keyboard.

Here's the thing about James: he's just as much fun to listen to as he was to watch on American Idol. His debut CD, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, is a lively collection of heavy rockers, power anthems, and a ballad or two. Its eleven selections are peppered with driving rhythms, insanely infectious refrains, and sweet melodies, all the styles that James sings so well.

Since all the songs are new and unfamiliar to me (no covers), I wasn't sure how much I liked it on the first hearing. I even fretted here and there that the vocals were getting lost in the mix. But approximately 1.8 minutes into my second playing of the CD, I was singing along.

(Here's how my personal rating system works. For movies, it's a woefully inexact science: my tastes are eclectic and even I never know what I'm going to love or hate. But the Jensen-o-meter for music is much more direct; I tend to love a song in exact proportion to how quickly I start chiming in.)

Two cuts from this CD are being promoted as singles, the power ballad "Love Me Bad," and the anthem-like, "Stand Up," both big-beat rockers. (Here's a link to the preview trailer for the upcoming "Stand Up" video.) They're both good, but if it were up to me, I'd be pushing the opening track, "Higher Than Heaven" with its irresistible chorus.

Other highlights, for me, are the percolating "Right Behind You," another big anthem, "Screaming" (a rock manifesto for anyone who's ever felt different and/or bullied), and the wistful, bittersweet ballad, "May" (Art Boy's favorite, the old softie). That haunting "She was just like she was" chorus just kills me!

In time, with a few more recordings under his rat-tail, James Durbin will learn how to have more control over his big voice, and to wield it with even more nuance. But for right now, his singing is raw, gutsy, and heartfelt—which is everything we love about him. Jensen-o-meter rating: 8 (out of 10).

Btw: how completely does James Durbin now belong to the world? The story of his New Year's Eve wedding to longtime soulmate, Heidi Lowe, in the Santa Cruz Mountains (above) was carried by Yahoo News, Rolling Stone, People, TV Guide, and CBS News—to name just a few!

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Most movie technology is wasted on me, as we all know. I've suffered through various bombastic Sensurround, THX, and Dolby Digital sound systems over the years (often with my hands over my ears). And 3D? Oh, please. With the exception of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which really made a case for a deeper field of vision, I still think of 3-D as a cheesy gimmick from the '50s. It doesn't do anything to enhance a mediocre movie, and a good movie would be just as good—if not better—without all that distracting visual clutter.

("They probably said the same thing about talking movies, once," my friend Michael scoffed at me when we were debating this point. Damn right; if I'd been around in 1927, I would've been one of them! Of course, by now, sound is integral to the storytelling process onscreen (she admits, grudgingly). But not so 3D, not by a longshot.)

However, I have to say even I am impressed by the new digital upgrade that went on over at the Nickelodeon and the Del Mar during the holidays. They managed to make the conversion to all-digital projection and sound pretty seamless for the public, only canceling a few matinees here and there to get the new equipment in.

I assumed a technologically-challenged lay person such as myself would never even notice the difference, but boy, was I wrong! I was amazed at the crystal-clear quality of the image when Art Boy and I popped in last week for a matinee of Young Adult upstairs at the Del Mar; even the pre-trailer commercials were bright and vivid. Speaking as someone who used to work in a movie theater, I imagine it must get kind of lonely up in the projection booth without the comforting clattering of film sprockets, but it's good news for patrons who want to remember why they love movies on a big, beautiful screen. Check it out!

Big kudos to the folks at Nickelodeon/Del Mar for taking the plunge. At last, technology even a Luddite can appreciate.

(Above: Bwana Devil, 1952. The first but, sadly, not the last 3D movie.)

Thursday, January 5, 2012


For the majority of English-speaking readers who devoured Stieg Larsson's international bestselling crime thriller trilogy in translation, but never saw the 2009 Swedish film version, this Hollywood reboot from director David Fincher is reasonably compelling.

Kudos to Fincher and scriptwriter Steven Zaillian for maintaining the story's setting in Sweden (not relocating it to, say, New York or LA), and assembling an excellent cast. Daniel Craig plays effectively against heroic type as rumpled, middle-aged muckraking Stockholm journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

As eponymous heroine Lisbeth Salander, pierced, tattooed, Goth computer hacker extraordinaire, whose self-imposed mission in life is to prevent the abuse of women, Rooney Mara navigates her character's tough, brittle fragility and savvy competence with verve (her guttural howl at the mercy of her slimeball probation officer is bone-chilling). She and Craig develop a convincing rapport.

But what's really missing from this version is the ingrained and pervasive sense of white male entitlement at every level of society that was so deftly portrayed in Niels Arden Oplev's Swedish adaptation. That film shrewdly depicts this subjugation of women, not only by sexual predators, but in the offhand way women are dismissed every day by co-workers, colleagues, government officials, even casual encounters in the street, the climate of perceived feminine inferiority that allows violent, abusive misogyny to flourish.

Noomi Rapace took no prisoners as the original, Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Swedish film was a harrowing roller coaster ride through these themes that left viewers pummeled and exhilarated, chewing on the subtext. Fincher's version reduces this theme to a single string of maniacal serial killings, thus containing and defanging Larsson's intent. (Don't forget, Larsson's original subtitle to the first book is "Men Who Hate Women.") Fincher has made a crisp, suspenseful, extremely well-acted thriller, but it doesn't quite have the substance or the impact of the original. (Read complete review)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Not to get all Pollyanna on you, but I'm still enough of a romantic to view a brand new year as full of new possibilities. 2012 certainly got off to a promising start here in Santa Cruz; it was a warm, sunny 74 degrees when Art Boy and I took a walk around the harbor about 11:30 in the morning on New Year's Day. Freakish, yes, but not unpleasant.

Last Year about this time, I wrote a column in Good Times about my personal mantra for the then-new year, a single-word talisman to express my attitude for the future. Then, I chose the word "Life."

If I were taking this challenge again this year, I'd need more words. My mantra for this year is: If Not Now, When?

It's not just about getting older. (Although as Art Boy charitably points out, we're not getting any younger.) But at some point, you realize the ugly rumor may be true that time is not, in fact, infinite. And this is before factoring in the Mayan Calendar Theory, which says the year 2012 may be the end of life as we know it.

(Nobody knows why. Maybe it was a Mayan clerical error. Maybe modern doomsayers have no idea how to interpret the data. Maybe the Mayans somehow got a look at this year's crop of Republican Presidential hopefuls.)

The point is, if there are any things you really need to accomplish, what are you waiting for? Do them now. You know the kinds of things—cleaning out the clutter from one's house/life/psyche. Finishing (or even starting) that novel, art project, or other magnum opus. Climbing that mountain, taking that journey, solving that problem, doing whatever you need to do to make the life you have the one you want to live.

There's no time like the present, as the saying goes; for all we know, there's no time BUT the present. Mayans or not, it's always a good time to start making every nanosecond count. If not now, when?

(Btw, remember that awful disaster movie, 2012, that came out a couple of years ago? The promotional synopsis for it always cracked me up. Something like, "After the end of the world, a few survivors struggle to (do something or other)..." What survivors? It's the end of the world; all that comes "after" is space dust.)

(Top: Aztec adaptation of the Mayan calendar, as seen online at WebExhibits.)