Friday, December 28, 2012


10 gems worth seeking out from the 2012 movie year

After the bounty of 2011, 2012 was a relatively disappointing movie year; I didn't give one single film a 4-star rating. Still, here are a few (in some cases, undiscovered) gems from the year worth putting in your Netflix queue:

THE FORGIVENESS OF BLOOD The best film of 2012 that never actually opened (at least not in Santa Cruz), this is a moving coming-of-age drama, a cogent look at Old World values in a changing new world, and an elegant and scathing allegory about warfare and justice, directed by American filmmaker Joshua Marston and set in modern-day Albania. As complacent old men convene to dictate the archaic "rules" of a neighborhood blood feud, the frustration of modern young people watching their futures die is devastating.

PINA (Okay, this was technically released in 2011, but we didn't see it in Santa Cruz until this year.) 


Brave, Looper, Argo, Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi


(Read the whole story in this week's Good Times, or watch this space for a link.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


It's Boxing Day, and the first wave of holiday madness is behind us—the shopping, wrapping, prepping, cooking, eating (and, hopefully, cleaning up) part. Whew! Thank heavens that's over! Take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself for making it this far.

Now: who's ready to jump back into the fray and hit the post-Christmas sales? Not me!

Seriously? Fighting traffic and crowds to elbow strangers out of the way over faux bargains (60% off our normally exorbitant prices!) is NOT the way I want to spend the rest of my holiday. My plan is to avoid the crowds, unplug from the Electronic Overlord (fill in your social media of choice), and do something to replenish the soul and renew the spirit as the old years winds down.

There are 12 Days of Christmas left. Here are 12 alternative ways to enjoy them that don't involve a trip to  the mall.

Play with your Pets It's been a fraught few weeks for the fur-bearing members of your household, what with you running around like a lunatic trying to "do" the holidays. Take some time to cuddle the kitties and romp with the dog.

Read a Book You've earned some down time. What better way to spend it than attacking that TBR pile? Heather McDougal's "Songs for a Machine Age" is  next up for me!

Make Art Indulge in the luxury of time between now and the New Year and make that painting, drawing, assemblage, carving, or collage idea that's been haunting your inner artiste. It doesn't have to be perfect; it doesn't even have to be good. No one will judge it. No one else even has to see it. This is something to do just for yourself.

(Art Boy usually takes the week "off" between Christmas and New Year's Day to do an art experiment that's not for public consumption. One year, he made this nifty chess board, which he and his chess buddy now use for their weekly games.)

Play a Game Grab a chess (or scrabble) buddy for some serious face time. Or rally the troops for a spirited game of Charades, Mad Libs, or Trivia. (Hint: it's even more fun if you don't keep score.)

Get Out of the House Not recommended if the weather outside is frightful. But if you're getting partly sunny skies, scattered showers, and rainbows (like we've had all day here in Santa Cruz), consider slipping out for a pilgrimage to your favorite neighborhood park, hiking trail, or beach. Nature is putting on a show; don't miss it!
Build an Altar Every religion, culture, nationality and/or tribe has some sort of rites and celebration for the midwinter festival and the end of the old year. I've been know to make a Nativity scene of Troll dolls in years past, or recruit one of my vintage Barbies to stand in for Mother Christmas, in long robes with a Yule wreath crown on her head and a cornucopia full of goodies.

This year I built a mini Solstice altar to celebrate the return on the Sun/Son. Forest greenery (clipped from our Christmas tree), dried rose petals, and animal figures  are there to honor the natural world that depends on the cycles of the sun.

Share your Pics Whether you keep your picture archive the old-fashioned way, stashed in photo albums, or store them on your iPhone, now is the time to share them with family and friends. You may not even remember, let alone believe all the stuff you and yours have done in the prelude to Now.

Visit a Friend Now that the rush of holiday deadlines is over, and family obligations have been met, pick a buddy or two you haven't had time for lately and hang out.

Write a Letter If your best friends and/or family members are far-flung, sit yourself down with pen and paper to compose a letter to someone you love. The extra time it takes to organize your thoughts before committing them to ink (no "delete" button here!) will not only help cleanse your own mind, Grasshopper, but bring you closer in spirit to your absent friend, as well.

Try a New Recipe The big holiday feast is over. Now that no one's looking (and they're too stuffed to care, anyway), break out that recipe you clipped out of a newspaper three years ago and give it a whirl!

Last year about this time, Art Boy uncorked his first batch of Limoncello, made from our own Sorrento lemons—which has proven to be not only a smooth after-dinner liqueur and a handy gift for friends, but (as we've just discovered in this season of rampant germs) a delightful cough remedy!

Make a Joyful Noise Play music. Sing songs. The most spirited Yuletide carols don't come out of a speaker.

Pause and Reflect Give thanks for the bounties of the Old Year, forgive the mistakes of others (and yourself), keep your loved ones close, and think about the best way to live the life you want in the world you want in the New Year.

(Top: Boxing Day, 2000. Me and the Cats of Christmas Past, Zoe and Sheena.)

Friday, December 21, 2012


Look at the cool Yule card we received from my sister-in-law in the Virgin Islands! It was handcrafted in Haiti; the applied material spelling out NOEL is banana bark (which is shed naturally from the trees, according to the back of the card).

Gathering and prepping  the bark provides a source of income for impoverished families in one of the oldest and least wealthy of Caribbean Island republics.

I don't know where the image of the Wise Men comes from, but I love it! Notice how all the faces and beards are slightly different. And look at their wizard robes! This reminds us that "Magi" is the plural of "mage," as in magician, or a wise person.

(Although it's a bit surprising that they're all white. Traditional representations generally show at least one of the magi as a man of color, as befits a story set in the Middle East.)

What makes this card extra special to us is that came with a donation to the Heifer International organization in our name. This is an outfit that supplies vital livestock, like milk cows or goats, to rural village families worldwide. Helping to spread peace on earth, one cow and/or one card at a time!

Speaking of which, here is another of my favorite 2012 holiday images. Our friend, Liz Lyons Friedman made this card from her recent linocut print, simply called "Peace." Simple, elegant, and to-the-point!

Noel (from the French word for Christmas carol, or song) and Peace. May you enjoy plenty of both this holiday season!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


If a person had never seen a Marx Brother movie before, it's hard to imagine what she might think of A Night At The Nutcracker, Cabrillo Stage's merrily Marxist new holiday musical. But for the initiated, those of us who revel in the gleeful anarchy perpetrated by Groucho, Chico, and Harpo in a series of classic movie comedies in the 1930s and '40s, this new Nutcracker is a welcome holiday treat.

Scripted by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore, with original music by Ed Alton, the play (this production is its West Coast premiere) is an entertaining pastiche of one-liners, sight-gags and silliness that follows the plotline of a typical Marx Bros movie: three goofballs are turned loose in some sector of normal society—in this case, a staging of the holiday ballet, The Nutcracker. Mayhem ensues.

Company stalwart Max Bennett-Parker makes with the Italianate jokes and even plays piano as Chico surrogate, Pepponi; Matt Dunn is sweetly nutty as the scene-stealing Harpo character, Pinchie, the silent clown with his arsenal of horns. Both are somehow installed in the household of the Margaret Dumont character, frosty society dame Mrs. Stuffington (a formidable Lizz Hodgin), who is funding a holiday production of The Nutcracker ballet starring egotistical Russian dancer Rasputin (a funny Kevin Johnston).

There are young lovers (David Jackson and the ever-winsome Ariel Buck) singing schmaltzy love ballads, a con-man called Ratchette (well-played by Adam J. Saucedo) angling for Mrs. S's fortune, and his blonde, sexpot accomplice (a spirited Eleanor Hunter).

Best of all, there's Nicholas Ceglio as Groucho surrogate Felix T. Filibuster, private eye. Ceglio has Groucho's eyebrow-wiggling, cigar-flicking, hip-swiveling mannerisms down to the proverbial T, and he's great fun wisecracking his way through a Groucho-like repertoire of one-liners. ("These steps were given to me by Nijinsky—and, boy, was he glad to get rid of 'em!")

If the production lacks a little of the zing and snap of the original Marxes, it's not surprising; after all, they had decades together on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway perfecting their routines before they ever even made their first film.  The cool thing is how well Andrew Ceglio's production (he directed and choreographed) stays true to the irreverent spirit of the Marx Brothers.

Inspired too are the snippets of the ballet itself we see at the end of the second act, when all the elements come together. Performed by the characters in the story (after the professional dancers have walked out), Ceglio and company offer some very funny takes on the familiar music we all know—from the hilarious dancing of Dunn's Pinchie (on his knees, arms in pant legs) in the overture, to the staging of the Russian Dance as a duel between Groucho and Ratchette, each crescendo of the music accompanying a punch or kick.

The only drawback to the ballet finale is we don't get to hear any more of Groucho's jokes Otherwise, it's an upbeat finish to a refreshingly non-traditional holiday show.

(A Night At The Nutcaracker plays through Dec. 30. Click here for tickets and info.)

Btw, here are the real Marx Bros in action in Duck Soup (1933), possibly the funniest movie ever made, and probably in my Top 5 films of all time!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Hopkins' entertaining performance fuels larky 'Hitchcock'

It takes a certain amount of gutsiness for an actor to try to transform himself onscreen into one of the most famous and recognizable icons in the history of film. But Anthony Hopkins has guts to spare—as it were—in Hitchcock, stepping into the familiar persona and famed portly silhouette of the movies' grand master of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock.

Well, it's not exactly a transformation; from the lugubrious voice and eccentric diction to the baleful bloodhound gaze, there's not a second when we're not watching Hopkins play Hitch.

But the entertaining spectacle of Hopkins' performance is its own reward in a film that never takes itself too seriously. Although the film is inspired by Stephen Rebello's non-fiction book, "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho," don't expect a doc-like piece of investigative research, or even a typical showbiz bio.

The real Hitch on the "Psycho" set
Instead, director Sacha Gervasi adopts a larky approach in this pastiche of backstage Hollywood maneuvering built around the peculiar personal dynamic between the mercurial Hitch and his long-suffering, but briskly loyal wife and longtime creative partner, Alma Reville, played with sense and sensibility by the ever-wonderful Helen Mirren.

Scripted by John J. McLaughlin, Hitchcock begins and ends like an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, with the maestro appearing onscreen to deliver a wry introduction and epilogue directly to the audience. (A reference that might be lost on viewers unfamiliar with the show.)

Then the story kicks in. In 1960, searching for a new property to fulfill his contract with Paramount, Hitch discovers the novel, "Psycho," by Robert Bloch. Inspired by the crime spree of notorious real-life Wisconsin serial killer, Ed Gein, the book has everything Hitch's prurient soul delights in—deviant and/or illicit sexuality, voyeurism, unhealthy obsessions, a blonde in jeopardy, and, of course, murder. (Read more)

Friday, December 7, 2012


Theatrical setting, cardboard star, drain life out of luscious 'Anna Karenina'

All the world may be a stage, but filmmaker Joe Wright takes this notion a bit too literally in his luscious, epic misfire of a movie, Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy's classic novel about an illicit love affair and its consequences in glittering Imperial Russian society has been filmed innumerable times, but Wright and scriptwriter Tom Stoppard have a truly audacious and imaginative idea for putting the old warhorse through its paces one more time: staging almost the entire drama within the confines of an enormous theater set.

The reasoning behind this seems clever enough. It recalls medieval Morality Plays, where traveling troupes would enact edifying moral stories from their wagon stages. For another, it highlights the idea that St. Petersburg high society is itself a kind of grand, public stage, its players on display before an audience of unforgiving viewers ready to pounce on anyone who doesn't act his or her assigned role to perfection.

But the constant artifice of everything—movement, stage settings, the weird, fussy little hand gestures they all use in the waltz—only serves to leech the essential emotion, out of the story. It's all about the presentation of the material, not the material itself, so the drama feels as counterfeit, unreal, as everything else. The figures trapped in Wright's grand design are like cardboard cut-outs in a Victorian toy theatre; they might as well be run in and out of the action on sticks.

This is certainly true of Keira Knightley in the title role. Anna is a woman of immense social standing married to successful government bureaucrat, Karenin (Jude Law), who chooses to risk—and lose—everything for a carnal affair with the proverbial dashing young cavalry officer, Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But Knightley feels too young, shallow, and modern in the role; her entire arsenal of pouts and nervous grins never suggest the depth of feeling Anna must experience. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Feeling lucky?

If Dame Fortune is with you, amble on down to the Santa Cruz Art League this weekend and enter their annual Luck of the Draw art event for a chance to purchase an original work by the local artist of your choice for a mere—get this—$65.

Here's how it works:

First, buy a ticket to the event for $65. Then hie thee down to the Art League any time between now and Sunday, December 9, to peruse the dozens of pieces of original artwork donated by area artists for the show. Make a shortlist of your favorites.

On the day of the event, Sunday, December 9, at 2:45 pm, the drawing begins! (This is where the luck come in.) All ticket stubs are put in a hat; in the order that each stub is drawn, that person gets to pick out the piece of art he or she wants to take home.

Obviously, those whose ticket stubs are selected earliest get the biggest selection of artwork to choose from. But with some 80 participating artists, there is plenty of great work to go around! 

2D and 3D art, textiles, glass, and jewelry are included in the show, by such renowned local artists as Barbara Downs, Ron Cook, Cher Roberts, T. Mike Walker, Sandra Cherk, Jane Gregorius, and James Aschbacher (right), to name just a few. (That's Jody Bare's gorgeous black and gold "Mist Dragons" scarf, up top.)

Check out the Luck of the Draw Facebook page to get an idea what awaits you at the show. (Make sure you open all three Luck of the Draw albums.)

Gallery hours are Wednesday-Saturday, 12 noon-5 pm, Sunday 12 noon-4 pm, and First Friday, 12 noon to 9 pm. All proceeds go to the Art League for the support of art and artists in Santa Cruz County, so Bonne Chance, Buona Fortuna, Suerte, and may the Force be with you!

Sunday, December 2, 2012


This is just about the best story ever! It's art, books, and guerrilla theater all rolled into one!

Feast your eyes on the handiwork of Scotland's "secret book sculptor."  This anonymous female artisan crafts intricate art pieces out of books and their pages and leaves them hidden away in public places to be discovered.

Last year, she caused a mini media sensation leaving her book sculptures in neglected corners of literary places like the Scottish Poetry Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Each piece was found with a hand-written tag reading in part: "A gift for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas..." (Here's a great article on the story so far, with pics.)

This past week, in honor of Scotland Book Week, the mystery artist created five new pieces inspired by the masterworks of famous Scots authors, and clandestinely placed them in appropriate venues around the country. Then she tweeted hints about their whereabouts on the Twitter account of each venue. This wonderful tribute to Peter Pan, with Peter and Wendy rising up out of the book and racing toward the moon, was found in the J. M. Barrie Birthplace in Kirriemuir. (Photo by Chris Scott.)

Here's Long John Silver and a montage of piratical iconography celebrating Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. This one was discovered at  the Scottish Seabird Centre, North Berwick. (Photo by Sasha DeBuyl/Scottish Book Trust.)

Other tribute pieces are devoted to Robert Burns' narrative poem, Tam o' Shanter (found at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway), Compton MacKenzie's beloved  shipwrecked spirits story, Whiskey Galore (which turned up at a pub on the island of Eriskay, in the Western Isles, where the story takes place), and Alisdair Gray's modern semi-dystopian classic Lanark (placed in the Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh Library). (Here's a slideshow of the new pieces.)

With each sculpture, the artist also leaves a note, referencing a quote from the book in question, each note ending with the same mantra: "...Because reading matters..."

What I love about this project, besides the glorious artwork, is the recycling and repurposing of old books (while retaining the emphasis on reading), and the clandestine nature of the operation, creating what now amounts to a national treasure hunt in Scotland as new pieces are announced.

If the artist had just started making these pieces, as marvelous as they are, and then tried to promote them through normal channels, I bet she would have had a hard slog of it. She'd have to find a gallery who thought the work might interest their particular clientele, then wait through the process of shows, reviews, and (hopefully) sales to establish her name. Or she might have opened an Etsy shop or tried to sell the work on eBay, but I bet they wouldn't have nearly the same cachet.

What's great about this story is the artist's anti-celebrity stance, her insistence on anonymity. She doesn't care about making her name; she's too busy making art! Of course, it's also a brilliant marketing tool—even if her name is unknown, everybody in Scotland now knows her work.  But the fact remains that all her pieces so far have been given away, in support of books, literacy, and culture in general. And how cool is that!