Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Early production sketch of Princess Merida in Brave
I admit, I'm not a big fan of weaponry. When the Southern guy on Antiques Roadshow starts relating the long, complex history of somebody's great grandaddy's Civil War sabre, I go out and do the dishes. There's no surer way to persuade me not to see a movie than to show me a trailer full of cannons, six-shooters, machine guns, flame-throwers, Uzis, and/or space guns firing off in all directions.

Yet there is one weapon whose mythos appeals even to me. Humble, yet elegant, it's something I have even used on occasion (although not in self-defense). I refer to the bow and arrow, a weapon practically as old as humankind itself,  which is experiencing a sudden resurgence in "cool" right now.

First, it was Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, racing through the forest in survival mode, armed with only a bow, a quiver of arrows, and true grit. Then came Hawkeye in The Avengers, taking aim with cold precision while the rest of the team were hurtling off into space in their jet-propelled suits or smashing things to smithereens. Next up is Brave (we've all seen the trailer), a Disney/Pixar adventure where a spirited young Scots princess puts the kibosh on an archery competition for her hand in marriage by out-shooting the menfolk.
Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) & pals, The Avengers

What could be more simple, stealthy, and reliable than a bow and arrow? It doesn't make any noise, except for a subtle sproing and whoosh, it doesn't require any kind of internal combustion or ignition, and it doesn't explode on contact (unless you're shooting a flaming arrow into a powder magazine).

And it's all about individual skill—one person, one bow, one arrow; a keen eye, a sure grip, and the steely composure to go into the zone in the midst of utter chaos and choose your moment. Best of all, it's not gender-specific; it can be wielded just as surely by a woman as a man.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, The Hunger Games

I took a semester of Archery back in junior college. I loved that it wasn't a team sport, and it didn't require a uniform; you could do it in street clothes. (And, OK, since I couldn't take more than two semesters of Modern Dance for credit, it fulfilled my dreaded P.E. requirement.)

It takes a lot more strength to draw back the bowstring than you think. To nock the arrow into place, feel the fletch pass by your cheek, stay focused on the target—let me tell you, it's a Zen-like experience.

Of course, I trace it all back to those early Robin Hood, movies of my misspent youth, especially the Errol Flynn version (scroll down to the bottom of the page). With his usual brio, Flynn made archery look like fun, not a warrior's tool, but  a character-building skill to be mastered for the sheer joy of it.

I thought Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe did an admirable job with the material 70 years later, except for one thing: for a story whose heroes were employed in the king's company of archers, there wasn't enough, you know, archery. (Although there was plenty of cannon fire, siege weaponry, and things blowing up, which is always considered more macho.)

Archery is an anti-macho discipline; it takes skill and smarts, not brawn. No wonder archery lessons are becoming popular again, especially among women. Personally, I'm looking forward to a Disney Princess doll who comes equipped with something more useful than a tiara.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A reader wrote that she'd like me to comment on the James Durbin's concert at the Boardwalk on May 19, and boy, would I love to oblige—if ONLY I had been there!

Circumstances way beyond my control prevented me getting to the beach for Durbin Day # 2, and I'm not happy about it. But now, through the miracle of modern technology, those of us who missed it can catch up. There's an entire menu of tasty selections from the show on You Tube, an opportunity for all of us to see James in his new short, bleached blond 'do rocking out with his new band (Dylan Rosenberg, Blake Bunzel, Jeff Fabb, and Tyler Molinaro) with a playlist of numbers mostly culled from his debut CD, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster.

 I recommend you start by watching them power through "Stand Up," then segue over to the links menu to sample some of the others—"Love In Ruins," "Higher Than Heaven," and a fine, emotional acoustic version of "May."

But here's my favorite (further down the page): James rocks the National Anthem before a LA Kings/SJ Sharks hockey game in L.A. He doesn't just hit the dreaded high notes in the notoriously tough-to-sing anthem, he smokes 'em—and then he goes higher. Yowza.

The Boardwalk has also posted an album of still photos from the event on its Facebook page (like the one above, snapped by Sherry Wise). That's a million-dollar smile, right there. We're always happy to see you too, James! Come back soon.

Monday, May 28, 2012


The marvelous 14-year-old Michaela DePrince in First Position
Future ballet stars shine in irresistible dance doc 'First Position'

Anyone addicted to Smash, or any of the so-called "reality" talent shows on TV will find First Position irresistible. Bess Kargman's suspenseful and entertaining documentary captures the real-life drama of exceptional teen ballet students from around the world training for the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix dance-off in New York City. 

The YAGP is not exactly a competition, in the sense that the last contestant standing wins all the glory. Instead, it's a showcase that allows all the young dancers who qualify for the finals to perform in front of a panel of 30 judges representing ballet companies from all over the world. Their five minutes onstage might earn these kids a medal, a scholarship to a ballet school, or a professional contract—or send them back to the barre in obscurity. Kargman doesn't impose a narrative on the film; she lets the dancers, their families and trainers tell their own stories. But as her focus narrows to six finalists, the filmmaker invites us to ponder the collision of childhood with the grueling, terrible beauty and exaltation of the ballet life.

One can only imagine the thousands of hours of film Kargman and her globetrotting crew must have shot in the act of choosing their "stars." Every year, more than 5,000 dancers between the ages of 9 and 19 enter the YAGP, out of which only 300 make it into the finals. Kargman casts a wide net to come up with a handful of youthful contenders who exemplify what one judge describes as the ideal and necessary combination for a professional dancer: "Beauty, training, passion, and personality." (Read more)

Monday, May 21, 2012


Cabrillo Stage is getting into a New York state of mind for its upcoming 2012 musical theater season. On deck for summer are two musical classics and one exciting world premiere, each with a connection to the Big Apple.

If you've been eating up Smash on TV, you'll love A Chorus Line, the much-lauded Marvin Hamlisch musical about a bunch of Broadway ''gypsies" (singers and dancers looking for their big break) auditioning for the chorus of a new Broadway show. Cabrillo veteran Janie Scott directs the show, opening July 13.

Anything Goes is an updated revival of a classic Cole Porter musical from the '30s. The frothy plot about a mismatched group of New Yorkers setting sail for madcap comedy and romance on board a luxury ocean liner bound for England is the merest sketch on which to hang such vivid Porter tunes as "It's De-Lovely," "You're the Top," and "Let's Misbehave," as well as the title song. This production will feature the book from the Tony-winning 1987 revival. Directed and choreographed by Kikau Alvaro, it opens July 27.

The world premiere comes from none other than Santa Cruz's own restaurateur, caterer, and foodie gadabout, Joe Ortiz. Testing his chops as composer, author, and co-librettist, Ortiz presents Escaping Queens, an autobiographical musical memoir about a boy growing up in an immigrant Puerto Rican-Italian family in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge. Greg Fritsch is director-choreographer on this one, which launches August 10 with a gala kickoff party; of course, there's food involved, provided by Gayle's Bakery and Rosticceria. Watch this space for further details.

Further down the road, Cabrillo's holiday show will be A Night at The Nutcracker, a modern musical based on classic Marx Brothers comedies in which zany characters inspired by Grouch, Harpo, and Chico invade a ballet company at Christmastime. Cabrillo's secret weapon, the irrepressible Andrew Ceglio, has the helm for this one, and I can't wait!

So it should be quite the season. Click here for more info.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Art Alert: only one month remains to catch up with a terrific traveling exhibit at the Legion of Honor, Golden Gate Park in SF.

The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900, is a sensuous, multi-media freefall into the Aesthetic Movement, the ornate and highly decorative rebellion in the arts that played out in counterpoint to the propriety and the artistic formalism of the late Victorian Age. The show opened in February and closes one month from today, June 17.

We went up for the Pre-Raphaelite paintings that I've loved since my misspent youth, with their stylized medieval, Arthurian, and faux-classical imagery. And, of course, the illustrations of master draughtsman Aubrey Beardsley. He's best known for his bold, clean images (some reprints of his famed Salome illustrations are on display),  but despite his sensuality of line, his work is incredibly composed.

Take a look at this one, (The Abbe, 1894). It looks like an etching, but it's a pen and ink original in the show. Look at the detail! Until you see it in person (it's only about 6" x 12"), you can't really get a sense of the work involved.

All the usual suspects have paintings in the show—Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  Frederick Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, John William Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt—and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head! But there's a lot more going on here than paintings and illustrations. Dozens of artists and craftsmen are represented, whose "Art For Art's Sake" aesthetic produced decorated cabinets, sideboards and chairs, ceramics and tiles, gilded fireplace surrounds, painted screens, jewelry, wallpaper, and two or three saucy, streamlined silver tea sets that presage Art Deco, and 1950s Atomic Moderne.

(There's even a mini-exhibit of luscious faux-medieval costumes from Liberty House of London, commissioned for wealthy patrons who wanted to dress the like the languorous characters in the paintings.)

This is just about my favorite piece in the show, the Ladies and Animals Sideboard painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1860). It's done in oil paint with gold and silver leaf applied to pine wood. In person, the paint is so thick in some areas, it almost looks 3-D, like mixed-media or decoupage, but it's just applications of paint, leaf, and patterns.

The figure on each panel is about 18" tall, and there are more female figures with animals painted on each side of the cabinet, as well. Apparently, Burne-Jones made this for his own home, and although he was a highly sophisticated painter, this piece has the expressive energy of folk art. I love it because it invites you to take something as simple and unassuming as a piece of plain wood furniture and make it into something unique and alive.

There are several of James McNeill Whistler's sumptuous portraits of women in white in the show, but this is a side of Whistler I'd never seen before! It's called The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor) (1879), and it's oil on canvas.

It's a huge painting (the figure is just about life-size), the gold elements really pop out of that teal background, and look at those scaly claws masquerading as hands and feet. (One art historian believes this picture is a lampoon of Whistler's former patron, Frederick Leyland, a man who wore frilly shirts, which accounts for the odd title.)

I was drawn to its graphic, illustrative quality (it could be out of an Arthur Rackham fairy tale book), so unusual for a painting of this size. Talk about Avant-Garde!

It shames me to admit I had never heard of Simeon Solomon before. But I found this  sweet little piece, The Sleepers and the One that Watcheth (1870) strangely haunting. It's very small (maybe 14" x 11 " or so), and although I would have sworn it was done in pastels, it's actually watercolor on paper.

The arrangement of the hands is a bit problematic, but I love the sense of dreamlike serenity. And see how the tiny star flowers (echoing the stars above) seem to weave a visual web around the two sleepers, while the watcher remains wakeful, and pensively removed.

This exhibit taps into a lot of the ferment that was going on in the arts during the rise of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. So much of the work of Aesthetic Movement artists was a hands-on response (if not reproach) to the Industrial Revolution, and the conformity of mass-produced objects. This artistic moment erupted at almost the same time as the anti-establishment Vienna Secession of the 1890s, and the turn-of-the-Century Arts and Crafts movement, and it is SO worth seeing these pieces up close and personal!

(And while you're there, don't miss the concurrent exhibit of Victorian Illustrated Children's Books in the tiny Logan Gallery (it's right next door to the museum cafe).  Examples culled from the museum's large collection of illustrated art books include splendid picture books by Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and William Nicholson—and what a treat they are!)

This is the only US venue on the Cult of Beauty tour. (The other whistle stops are the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Musee D'Orsay, Paris, so this is a pretty big deal.) Here's the preview on the Legion of Honor website, although if you go up mid-week, like we did, you can avoid the crowds AND the online ticketing fee.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


It was almost exactly one year ago today that Santa Cruz's own James Durbin came home to rock the Boardwalk with a vengeance after finishing fourth on American Idol.

30,000 fans thronged the Boardwalk for the first concert of the rest of James' career. If you weren't one of them (or even if you were), now's your chance to catch up.  This Saturday, James returns to the band shell to kick off the Boardwalk's summer season.

Once again, the concert is free to the public, so get in line now to snag a good spot on the beach! But unlike last year, this time James won't be limited to three songs. He'll be performing with his new band, so be prepared to hear your favorite songs from his first CD, Memories of a Beautiful Disaster, as well as a sprinkling of classic rockers. They take the stage at 5:30 pm.

James is even more fun live than he was on the tube, so don't you dare miss him!

And speaking of the Santa Cruz music scene, check out  Under the Boardwalk: a Ukulele Love Story, coming back to town Saturday afternoon, on the last day of the Santa Cruz Film Festival.

Starting out as an informal monthly gathering in the home of local book artists Peter and Donna Thomas, the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz has morphed into a 2000-member cult, as documented in Nina Koocher's entertaining film. It's full of music, uke lore, and interviews with founders Thomas and Andy Andrews, and members like Rick 'Ukulele Dick' McKee, Jayme Kelly Curtis (showing of her custom Hawaiian Koa wood uke with Santa Cruz redwood top), Ian Whitcomb, and many others.

The late James Houston notes the "big-time connection" between Santa Cruz and Hawaii, and everyone celebrates the easiness of uke-playing in democratizing the making of music—"a participatory event, not a spectator sport," says member Dave Egan. Peter Thomas calls the Uke Club "a place where people make bonds of friendship that weave their way out into the community."

Koocher's film captures that fun and magical Santa Cruz vibe. It screens at 4:45 pm, Saturday, May 19, at the Del Mar Theatre) Tix available here.


Listen up, me hearties.

The Capitola Art & Wine Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The fest itself doesn't take place until September, but the kickoff party is this Thursday night, 6-9 pm, at Bargettos Winery in Soquel.

This year's event has a "Pirates & Pearls" theme, and the public is invited to come dressed like a "pirate, scallywag, or saucy wench."  $35 procures you a 2012 Art & Wine Festival Glass, wine-tasting from 21 Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries, Caribbean-style hors d'oeuvres provided by E & J Catering, participation in a silent and live auction, an art auction, and music by platter-spinning Music Now DJ. Call 831 475-6522 for tickets.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on this year's Festival poster by printmaker extraordinaire Liz Lyons Friedman.  (I love the handy corkscrew stuck in among the paintbrushes!) Liz will be signing copies of the poster at the kickoff party, so stop in and claim your fair share of the booty.

Another anniversary on the horizon is the first birthday of the spacious new family-friendly Scotts Valley Library. To celebrate, SVL has commissioned ten life-sized, papier-mache animal sculptures from Santa Cruz artist Beth Allison Gripenstraw, to be unveiled at the SVL birthday party this Saturday.

Beth showed some of her papier-mache cheetahs at the library earlier this year, and they were such a hit with the public, she was asked to make new animals for the library's permanent collection. Seeing an opportunity to do something educational, Beth chose animals from the endangered species list.

This is Sasha, the Siberian Tiger, so soulful and lifelike, you can almost hear his rumbling purr. Other critters in the collection include a Snow Leopard, a Siamese Crocodile, and an Iberian Lynx, and I can't wait to see what the other ones are!

Beth will be at the SVL birthday party from 2 to 4 pm. Cake and refreshments will be served. Also, check out the "gently used" book sale from 10 am to 4 pm. Click here for more information.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Seriously? 1 billion dollars?

That's what The Avengers has racked up at the box office after only 11 days in US theaters (19 days worldwide). There are mitigating factors, of course: as time marches on, ticket prices keep going up and our population continues to explode, so a lot more people are paying a lot more to get into the theater than even 16 years ago when Titanic ruled the waves.

(To bear this out, in the Top Ten All-Time Worldwide box office champs—of which The Avengers is now # 10—only Titanic (currently #2) was released before 2003.)

But, number-crunching aside, is The Avengers $1 billion worth of movie?

On one hand, what movie ever could be? On the other, well, it has its moments (good and bad).

Here's what's cool about it: casting, casting, casting.  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man? 50% of the movie's success, right there: funny and irreverent, with comic timing to burn. (Way more effective here than in those chaotic Sherlock Holmes movies.)  The other 50% is writer/director (and cult fave) Josh Whedon, bringing his ironic sensibility to the superhero genre and generally making it stick.  Whedon manipulates Stark's arrogance like another character in the plot, then devises a nifty storyline that allows Stark to evolve out of it.

Chris Evans makes Steve Rogers/Captain America a nicely retro throwback navigating post-modern irony; he's sometimes corny, but mostly, we buy it. Mark Ruffalo is terrific as a rumpled, bespectacled, self-effacing Dr. Bruce Banner, who's become an expert on gamma-rays while trying to cope with his huge, green alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk.

It falls to Scarlett Johansson to play the fanboy fantasy figure, superspy Natasha Romanov, aka Black Widow. This is the kind of role feminists euphemistically describe as the FFT (the G-rated translation is Fighting Sex Toy), meaning her value depends on how well she fills out her rubber suit and how much cold (male) ruthlessness she brings to her fight scenes. Personally, I'd have liked to see a little more of another Natasha (from the Rocky & Bulwinkle series) in the character—she never had to fight; she was too smart and sneaky—but at least Johansson plays the part as tough and resilient.

I wasn't sure if I'd go for Chris Hemsworth as Norse god Thor, checking in from the mythical Paradise of Asgard; in still photos, his face is a little unformed, and there's that dubious widow's peak, but like the Sundance Kid, he's better when he moves. Onscreen, he's a serious presence with gravitas (well, as far as is possible in a Marvel Superhero movie).

As his half-brother, designated villain Loki, Tom Hiddleston, too, has a lot of pazzazz; he's the petulant kid brother who wants his share of the marbles, and (in this version) doesn't mind allying himself with a bunch of weird, metallic-looking outer space aliens to get them. (It's interesting how Hiddleston's career has jounced along in the last year. Remember when he played Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight In Paris and Rachel Weisz's feckless lover in The Deep Blue Sea?)

But here's the other thing. These superheroes spend way too much time fighting each other.

Okay, bickering, I get. There's a great scene in their flying lab where the prickly team members start taking pot-shots at each others' flaws, while the sceptre of Loki glows ominously nearby. (Completely appropriate, since Loki is the discord-sowing god of mischief in Norse mythology—although not necessarily the god of teaming up with a bunch of robotic alien monsters to conquer a petty planet of mortals. What does Loki, or any Norse god, want with Earth? They have Asgard.)

But I digress. I suppose you could even make a case for the scene where Natasha dukes it out with former SHIELD op Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who's been mesmerized to do Loki's bidding. She's trying to break the spell, a duel made more poignant by their shared history; he once disobeyed orders to save her life.

But when Dr. Banner finally hulks out and starts chasing Natasha throughout the station like the gigantic rock rolling inexorably after Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark (and for no particular reason; just because she happens to be nearby when he loses it), well, it's not fun, and a waste of our time (in an already overlong movie) just because it's time for another action scene.

But by far the stupidest slugfest occurs when Thor first appears out of nowhere to haul Loki off to some astral plane and give him a good talking-to, and Iron Man speeds after them to get him back.  Captain America joins in, and during the extended sequence where the so-called heroes are busy clobbering each other, Loki—their mutual enemy—is completely forgotten; he could be ordering take-out or subjugating the Earth, for all the notice the other guys take of him. It goes on and on, and it's just ridiculous.

And after Hulk goes postal in the lab, trying to destroy anything that breathes, how can they suddenly deploy him like a smart bomb in the finale? Hulk is pure blind rage; that's what makes him dangerous. He doesn't take direction, and re-writing the rules for the big finish is cheating.

Meanwhile, back in NYC as platoons of the alien menace fall out of a wormhole in the sky, how can  all the Avengers vault around skyscrapers and fly into outer space at will? Stark's gadget-happy techno-suit, okay, but aren't Captain America, Hulk, and Natasha, you know, mortal?

And speaking of which, Loki is still an immortal god with mystical supernatural powers. Shouldn't that trump a bunch of humans in souped-up suits? I'm just saying...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Any time you get to spend with your mother is its own reward, of course. But suppose you and Mom got to spend Mother's Day Weekend visiting the homes, studios, and garden of a dozen local artists? And what if there was chocolate involved?

Welcome to the 5th Annual Art & Chocolate studio tour going on this weekend in beautiful midtown Live Oak. Twelve artists working in a variety of media will participate in the event: painters Richard Bennett, Maggie Renner-Hellman, Amy Stark and Paul Rodrigues, mixed-media artist James Aschbacher (aka Art Boy), Lou Renner, and Janet Ferraro, abstract painter Daniel S. Friedman, ceramic sculptors Geoffrey Nicastro and Carole DePalma, stone sculptor Mike McClellan, and woodworker Ron Day.

And in honor of Mom (and to keep your energy from flagging), each studio will be offering chocolate to visiting art lovers throughout the weekend. Hours are 11am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday May 12 & 13). Click here to download a map, or a color brochure, or visit the websites of participating artists. Admission is free!

So make a date with your mom, step-mom, surrogate mom, mother-in-law, kids, partner, or the loved one of your choice and plan to make a day of it. I'll be baking, and hope to see you there!

(Above: Gardening as the World Goes By, by James Aschbacher.)


Splendid cast tries retirement, Indian-style, in entertaining 'Marigold Hotel'

The perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster season,The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wistful, humorous, grown-up story of love, loss, family, identity, and the ever-present whooshing of time's wingéd chariot. Its splendid ensemble cast play Englishmen and women of a certain age, gobsmacked by circumstances, who decide to "outsource" their retirement to sunny, inexpensive India.

Scripted by Ol Parker, it's adapted from the 2004 novel, "These Foolish Things," by Deborah Moggach. (She also wrote the terrific screenplay for the 2005 Pride & Prejudice). And it's directed with quiet affection and precision by John Madden (Shakespeare In Love; The Debt), who knows a thing or two about maneuvering gifted ensemble players around the screen and standing back to let them do their thing. The plotlines are fairly predictable, and it all relies a bit much on inspirational messaging, but it's still a pleasure to watch throughout.   

New widow Evelyn (Judi Dench), learns her husband has mismanaged their finances and she must sell her comfy home in Sussex to pay his debts. Graham (Tom Wilkinson), a retiring judge who grew up in a diplomat's family in India, has a debt of his own to repay. Civil servant Douglas (Bill Nighy) and his wife, Jean (Penelope Wilton), have invested their life savings in their daughter's failed start-up, and can now only afford a "beige" flat in an assisted living community. (Read more)


Dead ex completes offbeat romantic triangle in JTC's entertaining 'Blithe Spirit'

A standard device of the classic drawing room comedy is the man with too many women: a wife and an ex-wife; a wife and a mistress; dueling girlfriends. In 1941 Noel Coward added a new, um, element to this classic situation in his comedy, Blithe Spirit, about a man, his wife, and the ghost of his previous wife (deceased). A fizzy concoction as dry as a martini, written as an antidote to the gloom of World War II, Blithe Spirit materializes once more in an upbeat and elegant new production by Jewel Theatre Company, the season finale to its seventh season.

For this production, JTC Artistic Director Julie James, who frequently appears onstage, opts to stay in the background, co-directing the play with Diana Torres Koss (who also takes a featured role). Together, they cook up a spry comedy of bad manners, nicely played and beautifully designed, that captures the essence of Coward's central joke about English aplomb in the face of the utterly surreal.

Charles Condomine (an excellent Shaun Carroll), is an amiable English novelist married to droll, competent Ruth (Cristina Anselmo). They are the perfect playful, martini-swilling, wisecracking drawing room comedy couple. To gather material for a new crime novel, Charles and Ruth hold a séance in their home, presided over by Madame Arcati (played with vibrant, pealing brio by co-director Torres Koss), a flamboyant, eccentric medium swathed in robes and beads.

Imagine everyone's surprise when Madame Arcati's parlor tricks succeed in conjuring the very visible ghost of Charles' first wife, Elvira (Diahanna Davidson, in a flowing, bleached beige gown, pallid make-up and frosted wig to underscore her ethereal quality). (Read more)

(Above: Shaun Carroll and Diahanna Davidson in Blithe Spirit.)

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Okay, officially May Day was yesterday, but get ready for a big May Day Weekend that's all abloom with local art and art events.

Check out the First Friday Art Tour Friday night to get in the mood, but that's only the aperitif. On Saturday and Sunday (May 5 and 6), welcome back the Santa Cruz Clay collective for their 8th annual show and sale at Bargetto Winery. Participating artists include Jacquie Walton (that's her gorgeous dragonfly vase), whose Arts & Crafts Movement-inspired art pottery is streamlined, tactile, sophisticated and yet simply beautiful.

Also on the bill are two generations of the uniquely talented Hennig family—Dan and Laurie, and Iver and Jennifer—with their antic animal sculptures, reptile and bird bowls, and playfully surreal ceramic statuary.  You'll find the functional pottery of SC favorites Steven and Bonnie Barisof and George  Dymesich, the figurative ceramic sculptures of Nora Sarkissian, the slip-decorated pottery of Tasha High, and much, much more—20 booths in all, from the Bargetto parking lot into the charming, creekside wine-tasting courtyard. Showtime is 11 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday.

Speaking of collectives, the 17th Avenue art studios in beautiful midtown Live Oak open their doors this weekend for their annual Spring Show. Look for a variety of paintings, sculpture, drawings, art papermaking, encaustic, and jewelry. Or just poke around; it's always fun to see who's new in the complex. Doors open Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm.

Over on the Westside, there's a new Art For Art show at the R. Blitzer Gallery. Co-curated by artists Dee Hooker and Sara Friedlander, the guerrilla artists of AFA stage collective local shows a few times a year, with a percentage of the proceeds going to to the Santa Cruz Artists' Assistance Rlief Fund (SCAARF), which provides funding for local artists facing career-threatening emergencies.

There are 35 artists in the show, which features painting, drawing, photography, scupture and other 3D media, jewelry, and wearable art. FFAT reception is 5-9 pm, Friday, May 4. Artists Reception is Saturday, May 5, 11 am to 5 pm. The show runs at the Blitzer through May 26.

And while you're out there don't miss the annual May Day Garden and Art Show at  mosaic artist Nancy Howells' Painted Chair Studio (421 Gharkey Street, SC). Tour Nancy's beautiful wrap-around garden and enjoy the work of 15 participating artists, including Alena Byrnes with her distinctive jewelry, the "Serendipty" jams  and preserves of Lynette and Kristen Cederquist, these colorful Kimekomi "Everyday Ornaments" by Ann Ostermann, and many, many more.  (Salient tip: Mother's Day is just around the corner!)

Hours are 10 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday. I'll see you there!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


"It's only impossible if you stop to think about it!"

As a call to action, this line is typical of both the exuberant silliness and the sly, throwaway gaggery in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, the newest stop-motion animation comedy adventure from  Aardman studios, those cheerfully nutty folk responsible for the Wallace and Gromit series, Chicken Run, and Arthur Christmas.

This time, they apply their considerable skills to a swashbuckling pirate adventure, a huge canvas that involves a ship and a crew and the wide-open seas, and a story that stretches from the exotic pirate islands of the West Indies to the foggy, cobbled streets, dockside taverns, and royal palaces of Victorian London. It's a daunting task for a bunch of people whose job is rolling up teeny bits of colored clay into faces and figures and photographing them in action, one frame at a time (but, hey, it's only impossible if you stop to think about it).

Okay, I'm a sucker for a good pirate yarn, as we all know. And I'm usually the first one to pull a mournful face and weep into my grog over the sad fact that ever since the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, pirate stories are once more considered goofball kid stuff. (What other kind is there? Captain Blood, says I, the 1935 Errol Flynn version. Subversive in its sympathetic portrait of pirates as mostly ordinary men who have fallen out of favor with fortune or, worse, been victimized by social injustice, it's viewpoint may be romanticized, but it's still a perfectly credible basis for rousing drama.)

But if we must settle for silliness, the Aardmanites are the undisputed champs.

In this case, they are aided and abetted by the source material, author Gideon Defoe and his series of slim, absurdist comic novels. (The film is mostly based on his "The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists.") Scripted by Defoe, and co-directed by Aardman co-founder Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt, the story takes place in 1837, by which time most piracy had already been routed out of the high seas. But tell that to our hero, Pirate Captain (voice of Hugh Grant), known for his "luxuriant" beard, his beloved pet bird, Polly, and his insatiable love of ham.

Adored by his crew (including the sensible, loyal Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman), the Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson), the gentle Albino Pirate (Anton Yelchin), and the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jensen)), Pirate Captain longs to win the coveted Pirate of the Year Award. But to do so, he needs to amass a lot of booty. After some unsuccessful attempts to plunder passing ships (a school field trip, a nudists' cruise), he and his crew board The Beagle and capture naturalist Charles Darwin (David Tenant), a science nerd who fears he'll never get a girlfriend. When Darwin informs the Captain that Polly is a rare Dodo, long thought to be extinct, and hints there could be a lot of prize money for exhibiting her to the Royal Society in London, the crew sails for England.

The fun is all in the details. There are rival pirate captains (voiced by Jeremy Piven, Lenny Henry, and Salma Hayek), an Elvis-like Pirate King,  a deadpan monkey who communicates with flash-cards, brief appearances by Jane Austen and The Elephant Man, a hot-air dirigible, and the notoriously pirate-hating Queen Victoria herself (Imelda Staunton).

Pay attention to the wry dialogue, the newspapers, posters and paintings glimpsed in the backgrounds (most of which are scrolled over again during the closing credits, so stick around), and sight gags, like the Captain's flag, with its skull and ham bones. The cartoon maps with their animated winds, Neptune, and mermaids chasing the ship around are a riot, too, so abandon rational thinking (that old killjoy) and enjoy the ride.