Thursday, March 29, 2012


Sexy, simmering 'Chico & Rita' dances to a Latin drummer

Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba's buoyant, brooding Chico & Rita is a cool, spicy salsa of love, jealousy, politics, betrayal, and fame. It pulsates with glamorous images, sensual yearning, vintage cars and non-stop music in a sprawling romantic drama of sex, drugs, and Bebop jazz that stretches from pre-Revolutionary Cuba to Broadway, Hollywood, Paris, Las Vegas, and finally back again to the Cuba of Castro.

To call this exotic whirlwind of a movie animated is an understatement. But in this case, it's literally true. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year's Academy Awards, Chico & Rita was a surprise Spanish-language entry that went mano-a-mano against the likes of Puss In Boots and Rango.

And as much as I adored Rango (which won), for sheer visual artistry, Chico & Rita deserved to dance away with the prize.

The film is a collaboration between Trueba (an Oscar-winner for Belle Epoch, awhile ago) and Spanish artist Javier Mariscal—comic book illustrator, furniture designer, and one-man graphic arts explosion. (Read more.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Pardon me while I blink my way back out into the sunlight like one of the Mole People, but I've only just emerged from the immersive experience of reading The Night Circus. This stylish debut novel by Erin Morgenstern runs on dark romance and imaginative gusto; it's a glamorous, dream-haunted fable of love, magic, sacrifice, and redemption.

The eponymous Le Cirque des Reves, is only open from sunset to sunrise. Its black-and-white striped tents and shadowy pathways house acrobats, living statues, an illusionist, a contortionist, and a fortune teller, along with many more esoteric entertainments—jars of olfactory memories, a Labyrinth of endless magical rooms, a shimmering Ice Garden, a meditative Pool of Tears.

What's also concealed within the tents, is the rivalry between a pair of long-lived magicians engaged in a fierce competition through their two youthful proteges.  Celia, bred from childhood for the "game" by her manipulative stage-magician father, called Prospero, is the circus illusionist. Marco, plucked from an orphanage by a mysterious mentor and inserted into the employment of the circus impresario, invents many of its uncanny attractions.

Both are adept at weaving the spells and enchantments that keep the circus running. (That they spend so much of their time trying to cloak their skillful sorcery in the trappings of fake stage illusions is one of the story's many witty charms.) But as Celia and Marco begin to understand what's at stake in their inescapable "game," the fate of the circus and its family of inhabitants hangs in the balance—a balance dangerously tipped when Celia and Marco fall in love.

 Most of the action occurs around the turn of the last century; clockwork machinery, bowler hats, and velvet gowns abound, but to label the story steampunk would be to miss the scope of Morgenstern's complex design. Within these dreamlike pages are echoes of Shakespeare and Arthuriana , and shimmering peals of fairy tales and folklore, delivered in evocative, sensory prose that intoxicates with the sights, sounds, scents and feel of this distinctive, enchanted world.

(The passionate followers of Le Cirque des Reves, in their black-and-white dress and red scarves, style themselves "reveurs." Small wonder that the book has spawned its own cult following—like the tie-dyed Deadheads of another era—eager to bask in its alternate reality.  Check out some of their devilishly creative homages on the book's Pinterest page.)

I admit, it took me awhile to get into the story. Time constraints had me reading the opening sections in short, staccato bits, and I had to keep re-reading to remind myself who everyone was. But once the story finally gelled for me, I devoured the rest in two long, luxurious gulps. That the narrative circles around in time and place is not a problem, but the reader is advised to pay close attention toward the end as two parallel stories play out exactly one year apart in alternate chapters. But persevere—this is a tale to get lost in.

 Of course, I loved the use of Tarot imagery. Morgenstern not only introduces symbolic Tarot figures into some scenes to suggest the direction of events, she includes many readings and interpretations of the cards by the fortune teller, Isobel. (Her card for Marco, her lover, Le Bateleur (the Magician/Juggler) keeps popping up in all the wrong readings.)

(Btw, as rich as Morgenstern's prose can be, mere words were not enough to contain her visual imagination, so she's designed her own set of Tarot cards, called Phantomwise, as a sort of companion to the novel. These are some of her images. Click here to feast your eyes on the rest. All images © 2004-2012 Erin Morgenstern, of course.)

Herself a most adroit bateleur, Morgenstern manages to keep all her delicate balls of plot, character, fate, and desire spinning in the air. Dreams are the magic of life, in her world, and The Night Circus appeals to the dreamer in all of us.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


When the going gets tough, the tough turn to — fairy tales?

Our pop culture is suddenly besotted with fairy tales. Sure, they've always been around, and always will be, as long as Disney keeps popping out new, updated, special collector's edition DVDs of its greatest hits.

But right this nanosecond, the genre is surging in popularity. The fairy tale mash-up Once Upon A Time is one of the biggest hits of the current TV season. Next week, we'll see the first of not one, but two Dueling Snow White movies due out this spring, Mirror, Mirror. The second, Snow White and the Huntsman  is due out June 1.

Why fairy tales? Why now? For one thing, they are morality tales (like Aesop's Fables, Greek mythology, and most religions) that evolved out of the collective subconscious centuries ago and deal in potent, timeless themes—love, hate, envy, oppression, betrayal, revenge.  With so much of our chaotic world and even our own lives beyond our control, we return to these comforting allegories of good vs. evil.

(Yes, I know, the original folk tales as set down by Perrault or transcribed by the Grimms are anything but comforting, but that's another blog.)

For another thing, these familiar tales we already know are in the public domain, meaning they can be endlessly tweaked, trifled with and revised to suit modern sensibilities.

Take the "It" girl of the moment, Snow White. We all remember the Disney version from 1937 (above), with her piping little soprano voice; a wet-eyed domestic dishrag, she plays mother to the dwarfs, while her song of yearning, "Some Day My Prince Will Come," launched a thousand feminist tracts decades later.

In one of the many plotlines in the tangled briar patch that is the Once Upon A Time scenario, Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin, right), banished to the forest, becomes a highway robber to survive. Which guarantees that she and her Prince Charming-to-be (Josh Dallas) will "meet cute" when she holds him up in the woods. This is meant to be a more (ahem) proactive Snow, infused with a dose of modern pluck.

(Although, in the show's parallel story, where fairy tale characters are cursed to live in a modern New England town, "Storybrook," not knowing who they are, under the thumb of the Evil Queen/Mayor  (Lana Parrilla), Snow White reverts again to good girl Mary Margaret, a schoolteacher trying to stifle her attraction to her prince, now an amnesia victim with a wife.  I enjoy this series, off and on, especially the flashbacks, but the writers depend way too much on cutesy Disney character names (Grumpy, Jiminy Cricket) in their steaming melange of fairy tale backstory.)

Similarly, in Mirror, Mirror, the story gets a grrl-power twist when Snow White (Lily Collins, below), banished to the forest, becomes the leader of the seven dwarfs, who are a gang of roistering thieves. It also stars Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen, and it's directed by Tarsem Singh, who can be a brilliant visionary (The Fall), or incredibly cheesy (Immortals). From the preview trailer, Mirror, Mirror might be both, but overall, the tone looks regrettably campy.

Snow White and the Huntsman features Kristen Stewart—in armor, yet—in a darker revisionist take on the tale. This time, the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent to assassinate Snow White instead mentors her in warrior-training so she can defeat the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). Rookie director Rupert Sanders is a completely unknown quantity (at least to me), but the visuals in the trailer look stunning.

I'm not sure if turning a goody-goody into a warrior is the best possible use of evolution.  (My ideal of a kick-ass modern heroine is still Lisbeth Salander, who outsmarts her vile opponents  with ferocious cunning and nerve.) Still, female role models have to change with the times or lose their currency, and any fairy tale heroine who does more than sit passively by her spindle, waiting for her hero, is a step in the right direction.

At least fairy tale remixes are more interesting than the cult of zombies and vampires that have monopolized pop culture for the last few years—seriously, don't we get enough of those in the GOP debates?

Monday, March 19, 2012


This image crossed my virtual desk last week, and I just had to share it.

Yes, they're making (yet another) retread of The Lone Ranger, due out in May of 2013, and this is the "first look" still sent to the press. That's Armie Hammer behind the mask, looking suitably stalwart as lawman John Reid-turned-masked avenger for justice.

And beside him his faithful Indian guide. Check out the long braids, the warrior paint, the bandana, and the entire dead crow (I think it's dead) perched on his head. Yes, it's none other than the irrepressible Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Tonto.

Rumor has it that Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, had a yen for a Lone Ranger remake. He offered the title role to his PotC star, but Depp was savvy enough to opt for the far more interesting role of Tonto—which also evidently comes with a much cooler wardrobe.

It's not that I'm expecting much from this production. The reunion of Bruckheimer with PotC director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio almost guarantees another bombastic triumph of slapstick over substance. On the other hand, it's pulp fiction, not Eurpides. And Johnny Depp wearing a crow may be its own reward—at least, we can hope so!

Thursday, March 15, 2012


Editing your own manuscript can be a lot like amputating a limb. But what if, through the miracle of modern technology, that limb could be restored?

It's not that the procedure isn't necessary, especially if the offending appendage has lost its usefulness. Back when my agent was still trying to find a publisher for my first novel, Blesséd Providence, the foreign rights were snapped up by a German-language publisher who brought out the first edition in hardcover with a beautiful original painting on the cover. Two years later, when the equally gorgeous German trade paperback edition came out, but I'd still had no luck stateside, I decided to do something drastic.

Namely, I got a grip and deleted some 50 manuscript pages of backstory that I perceived as cluttering up my first few chapters. These were solid, character-building scenes, but not essential to the plot; on second thought, I decided they were slowing down the action in that crucial opening story arc. So—carefully, with the proverbial scalpel, not a meat axe—I cut them out.

It must have been the right thing to do. The first publisher I sent it to bought it immediately, and published it under my new, improved title, The Witch From the Sea. I was pleased that the story got up and running so much faster this way. But I still had to mask an interior twinge once or twice when an interviewer or book critic mused that they wished there'd been more material about my heroine's backstory. D'oh!

Recently, in the process of teaching myself some (very rudimentary) web-building skills, I decided to build a new site for The Witch From the Sea. Of course, Luddite that I am, the only kind of site so idiot-proof even I can build it is a blog. I set up a home page with introductory remarks and images, and several secondary pages devoted to reviews, a sample chapter, historical background, and various links of interest. But there was still that gaping black hole in the middle of the home page waiting for blog entries.

Gee, how could I possibly fill it?

That's when I remembered my 50 pages of backstory. The book is already written in the voice of my heroine, Tory, writing down her adventures in a purloined ship's logbook while at sea, and I realized the blogspace was the perfect opportunity to leak in pages from Tory's log about her life before the action in the novel begins. These new bits, "From Tory's Log," will serve as a sort of patchwork prequel to events in the book.

Let's be honest; not all of what I cut out  the first time deserves to be resurrected. And what snippets are worth reviving can always stand a little tweaking. But rewriting  is not a problem for me, especially if it makes the story stronger, and I'm more than thrilled to have this chance to answer those questions about Tory's past life at last.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Nick/Del Mar digital upgrade brings the future of movies to Santa Cruz

You may not have noticed, but a revolution occurred in the Santa Cruz arts scene last December. While you were out Christmas shopping, the busy elves at the Nickelodeon and Del Mar theaters were taking a giant leap into the future of movie presentation.

Gone are the huge reels of 35 millimeter film, whirring away with a clattering of sprockets. In their place, the four Nickelodeon and three Del Mar auditoriums have now been converted to all-digital sound and picture projection. If you didn't notice, that was the point: they managed to make the conversion pretty seamless for the public, only canceling a few matinees here and there to get the new equipment in. 

But now that it's up and running, the folks at the Nick and Del Mar want to make sure you, the public, knows all about it. "We didn't cut any corners, we went for the top of the line," says Maurice Peel, Advertising and Publicity Coordinator for Nickelodeon Theatres.  He notes that owner Jim Schwenterley invested half a million dollars to place Santa Cruz directly into the forefront of this new technology. (Read more)

Thursday, March 8, 2012


They  say if you remember the '60s, you weren't there.

But most of us lucky enough to attend last year's '60s flashback event, the Cultural Council's Primavera dinner and auction up at Chaminade, have no problem remembering how much fun we had. For me, it speaks to my inner Barbie doll to go play dress-up for a few hours in my grooviest threads. And all for such a good cause:  raising funds for the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County, which oversees the SPECTRA program for art in the schools, Open Studios, and other worthy local arts-related programs.

Here's my recap of last year's event. Don't worry if you missed it; it was such a hit, the CCSCC is staging a second '60s-themed Primavera groove-fest—"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Art Goes On"— on Sunday, March 18, at Chaminade. (That's Janet Allinger's original period poster, to get you in the mood.)

Doors open at 4 pm, when attendees are invited to sip local wines, bid on items in the Silent Auction room, and admire each other's outfits. Then it's into the dining room for dinner, dancing (to the fabled White Album Ensemble), and the Live Auction hosted by Rob Slawinski.

Once again, yours truly will be on the auction block. Bid on me for a chance to find out what's it's like to be a film critic for a day. Round up three friends and join me and the lovely Art Boy at an exclusive press screening at the Nickelodeon for an upcoming film. Be the first kids on your block to see a brand new movie the week before it opens! Then join us for lunch afterwards and tell us what YOU thought.

As an extra added attraction, the Nickelodeon is providing six additional free movie passes that can be used at the Nickelodeon, the Del Mar, and/or Aptos Cinema.

Participants had a high old time last year. Tickets are only on sale through Thursday, March 15, so get yours now. Click here for all the details and prepare to get your groove on.


Platonic pals try child-rearing in entertaining 'Friends With Kids'

On the face of it, it sounds like one of those typically idiotic rom-com premises: two late-thirtysomething best friends, a man and a woman, decide to have a child together without all the messy complications that come with romantic couplehood. What distinguishes Jennifer Westfeldt's entertaining Friends With Kids is that the actors are so personable and the script so effective there are moments when they make the whole crack-brained scheme seem almost plausible.

Actress-writer Westfeldt established her unorthodox approach to the genre with the wry attempted lesbian romance Kissing Jessica Stein a decade ago. For Friends With Kids, she also steps behind the camera to direct for the first time, and the results are impressive. It's helpful that she surrounds herself with an ensemble of real-life friends and colleagues who resonate as longtime friends onscreen. And it's a big plus for local audiences that Westfeldt's co-star is Santa Cruz hometown boy Adam Scott in a smart, funny, and tender crowd-pleasing performance. (Read more)


Toxic family ties explored in JTC's engrossing 'Hello & Goodbye'

Two of Santa Cruz's best known and most dependable actors receive a gift of a play in the Jewel Theatre Company's new production of Athol Fugard's Hello & Goodbye—a gift that keeps on giving back to local audiences in this intense evening of dramatic theater. Played with both terrific brio and aching subtlety by Mike Ryan and Julie James, and directed by Bay Area theater veteran Jessica Heidt, Fugard's two-character drama emerges as an incisive, microcosmic look at family, class, and cultural dysfunction in the South Africa of the recent past.

The story is set in 1965, the year in which the play was written: Nelson Mandela had just been sent to prison, apartheid policies were in full flower, and the white Afrikaner minority was struggling  to maintain its political control over an increasingly rebellious population. But the viewer doesn't have to know anything about South African history or politics to be moved by the core tale of fractured family dynamics as a pair of adult siblings confront each other, themselves, and the twisted legacy inherited from their parents. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


It was a gorgeous Sunday. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and Art Boy and I decided to ditch the rest of our to-do lists and inaugurate our first annual Act Like A Tourist Day.

This is similar to National Goof-Off Day, which we pioneered a couple of years ago. In fact, there really isn't any difference, except this time we decided to go out and sample some of the fun things that Santa Cruz has to offer. You know, those places where we're always sending our out-of-town guests to get the full SC experience, but we never seem to have time to get to ourselves.

Our various Swedish relatives always rave about the Swift Street and Ingalls courtyard complex out on the Westside, so when our friends, John and Marta, invited us out to Kelly's French Bakery for a light brunch, we were SO on board. The place was packed, inside and out, with happy diners, kids and dogs, lured outdoors by the unimaginably warm, summery March afternoon, but we found a shady table outside where we could hang out, feast on pressed cheese sandwiches and salmon bagels, and watch the scene.

Later, a pleasant stroll a couple of blocks down Swift Street brought us to the Equinox Champagne/Bartolo Wine tasting room. (J and M know the best way to entice Art Boy out into any adventure is to mention the words "champagne" and "tasting" in the same sentence.) Look for the black and gold diamond-pattern sign; the tasting room is down at the end of the parking lot, around the back.

Winemaker Barry Jackson was our genial barman, offering up a wealth of information and droll commentary as dry and effervescent as the bubbles he was pouring. Art Boy detected a hint of apple crispness in the formidable sparkler we sampled, then we segued into the reds of the day. Marta and I are the red drinkers, and while we enjoyed a light, dry Grenache and Cioppino Rosso, it was a rich, velvety Syrah that won our hearts.

In between brunch and wine-tasting, we stopped in at La Sirena. This fun, eclectic antiques store, a favorite haunt on Highway 1 in Davenport for the last two years, has recently relocated to the Swift/Ingalls complex.  (It's on Ingalls St., in the Bonny Doon Cellars building, next to Vero France French Linens.)

French country antiques are the specialty of proprietor Kim Kempke, who has stocked the store with wonderful artifacts culled from her many trips to  France, scouring the back roads for brocantes (junk shops) and vide greniers (village clean-out-your-attic sales). But that's only a small percentage of the goodies on view.

In addition to Old World antiques, La Sirena offers a variety of European laces and linens, international textiles, birdcages, chandeliers, paper ephemera, inlaid boxes, small furniture items, soaps, candles and bath oils, a wealth of silver and ethnic jewelry, and a mouth-watering selection of vintage and modern bohemian clothing—like this fetching black ruffled dress jacket (and beaded bag) modeled by the glamorous Marta. (We thought the Queen T-shirt was a nice touch!)

And don't miss the other specialty of the house: beads! Check out the ropes of African trade beads and other exotic, ethnic bead varieties on display behind the jewelry case. Remember the gift shop in the old Davenport Cash Store,  with its array of global beads and objets d'art? That inventory was collected from around the world by former Cash Store owners Bruce and Marcia McDougal  (Kim's unofficial silent partners), and their collection still provides much of the core stock in Kim's cool new shop.

Tasty treats, excellent wine, and irresistible antiques—take a day off sometime soon and check it out! Why should tourists have all the fun?