Thursday, May 30, 2013


If you love fairy tales, in all their infinite variety, don't miss Blancanieves, Pablo Berger's flavorful retelling of Snow White with a decidedly Spanish twist. That it's a silent film (no spoken dialogue, but a vivid musical soundtrack), shot in luminous black-and-white, only adds to its distinction. By making the story so uniquely his own, Berger proves just how universal the enduring and endlessly adaptable fairy tale format can be.

Snow White was the "It" girl of the moment last year with two separate Hollywood productions vying to bestow the kiss of life on the old tale. But Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman failed (the one being too giddy, the other trying to graft on too much epic fantasy action) by attempting to recreate some kind of familiar, if nebulous, fairy tale realm.

Berger shows how to do it correctly by setting his version of the tale in a very specific era and culture—Seville, Spain, ca, 1920. It's a heady milieu rife with flamenco music, bullfighting, and women's emancipation.

The story begins with the heroine's parents. Her father is a famous matador, Antonio Villalta  (the elegant Daniel Giménez Cacho); her mother, Carmen (Inma Questa), is a beautiful flamenco dancer. On the day Antonio suffers a paralyzing accident in the ring, Carmen goes into labor early and dies giving birth to their daughter, called Carmencita.

Antonio can't bear to look at the baby, who is whisked off by her grandmother (Angela Molina) to be raised. Meanwhile, the scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), worms her way into the household of wealthy but now helpless Antonio, and drags him into marriage.

Years later, on Carmencita's Communion day, her loving abuela dies, and the young girl (the winsome, vivacious Sofia Oria) is sent to live in her father's household.

Here, filmmaker Berger borrows a page from Cinderella as her stepmother, Encarna, shuts up Carmencita in the cellar, cuts her hair, and puts her to work as the household drudge. Her only friend is a chicken—until the day she accidentally wanders into her father's room. Smitten with the girl who now reminds him so much of her mother, Antonio rouses himself out of his emotional doldrums; he reads her fairy tales and teaches the eager girl the art of bullfighting.

Of course, Encarna finds a way to permanently squelch their growing bond, and the now young adult Carmencita (Macarena Garcia) finds herself cast out into the world. She's revived from an attempted drowning by a troupe of dwarves with a traveling torero act; they stage mini bullfights with horned calves.

She can't remember who she is (they call her Blancanieves, i.e.: Snow White), but she joins the act when she proves she knows her way around the ring. (Animal lover alert: no bulls are killed in this movie; it's all about the artistry of the cape.)

Soon, the young lady matadora is the toast of Seville—famous enough to once again attract the notice of the jealous and powerful Encarna.

Verdu is great nasty fun as Encarna, swanning around in her chic clothes with matched pair of greyhounds, seeking advice from her mirror image in a reflecting pond. As Blancanieves, both little Oria and fresh, poised Garcia are spirited and appealing, but never sticky-sweet. This girl isn't sitting around, waiting for her prince to come; she's, er, grabbing life by the horns!

Berger has an eye for striking images (time passes as a full moon dissolves into the Communion wafer on the tip of Carmencita's tongue), and an ear for evocative music—his score includes flamenco guitar, propulsive hand-clapping, and the occasional haunting strains of a Theremin.

And these are definitely not your Uncle Walt's dwarfs, from the cheerfully cross-dressing Josefa (Alberto Martinez) and pompous, embittered Jesusin (Emilio Gavira), to soulful Juanin (Jinson Añazco)—who is far more substantial than any typical storybook prince.

Berger's ending will be controversial. It seemed to me to occur about five minutes short of actually resolving the story that Berger sets up with such an inventive flourish. (Although it does work as a sly, cautionary warning to artists to never, ever sign a contract for life with a diabolical agent, as Blancanieves does here.) But at least the open-ended finale adds another layer of intrigue to a truly enchanting film.

Friday, May 24, 2013


Characters, action, humor, surprise fuel 'Star Trek Into Darkness'

J. J. Abrams has figured out the secret to building a better franchise: treat the source material with respect, but not reverence, don't be afraid to tweak its foibles, jazz it up with a lot of youthful energy, and, most of all, have fun with it. This is the policy that made his first Star Trek prequel such a hit in 2009, and Abrams and his team continue to revitalize the series with the fast, punchy, slyly funny, yet surprisingly touching Star Trek Into Darkness.

Working again with the writing team from the first film, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, abetted here by co-scripter Damon Lindeof, Abrams maintains the same balance of irreverence and affection for Gene Roddenberry's beloved characters and the idealized, multi-cultural future they represent.

Then he grafts it all onto a kick-ass action narrative that hurtles along at warp-speed and has viewers literally holding on to their seats. True, it's too easy to get lost in the labyrinth of the plot, and some of the gigantic action sequences devolve into silliness, but mostly it's a fresh and satisfying ride.

The film begins in the middle of the action, with brash young starship Captain James Kirk (well-played by Chris Pine) breaking a few Starfleet rules to spring his First Officer, Spock (the excellent Zachary Quinto), out of an erupting volcano on a primitive planet.

(Berated for not following the Prime Directive, Kirk shrugs, "Aw, c'mon, Spock, they saw us. What's the big deal?" as awed native people on the ground draw an image of the Starship Enterprise to worship.)

When terrorist explosions rock the very core of Starfleet HQ, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) dispatches Kirk and the Enterprise unofficially to go after the man responsible, called John Harrison (the always marvelous Benedict Cumberbatch), a genetically-engineered superman with a particular grudge against Starfleet. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


An Art Nouveau adventure in Prague with the Inconstant Traveler

From my previous posts about our adventures in Vienna and Prague last summer, readers might get the mistaken idea that all the art was in Vienna.

Not true: in addition to all its other charms, the magical city of Prague is alive with art. Centuries-old carvings, corniches and whimsically painted facades decorate just about every other building in the city.  An amble about the "New Town" section (which dates to around the turn of the last century, as opposed to the adjacent Old Town, which dates back to medieval times) is a feast of Art Nouveau architecture and decoration.

And then there's the Mucha Museum. Just off the main shopping boulevard, Na Prikope, in New Town, a couple of blocks down Panska Street, the museum is dedicated to the life and extraordinary work of Czech native son, Alfons Mucha, whose flowing, ornate style is among the most recognizable of all Art Nouveau artists.

And what a great museum it is! All on one floor, and beautifully laid out so you can follow and appreciate the chronology of Mucha's career.

An early popularizer of organic Nouveau forms, his first success was as a poster artist for Sarah Bernhardt in Fin de Siecle Paris. His revolutionary litho poster for her production of "Gismonda" (1894, above) was such a sensation, stealthy Parisian collectors crept out in the middle of the night to razor them off the kiosks!

During his Paris years, while becoming the premiere designer of advertising posters (for cigarettes, bicycles, tea, biscuits, and, of course, champagne), Mucha also produced illustrations, portraits, and decorative panels—the latter in four-part series, like "The Four Seasons," or "The Four Times of Day" (Matin, Jour, Soir, Nuit).

I love this Claire de Lune, from Mucha's four-part "The Moon and Stars" series. These pieces are not on display at the museum,  but I fell in love with the image on this bookmark in the gift shop and had to have it!

In 1910, Mucha rediscovered his roots, returned to Prague, and began creating posters and artwork celebrating Czech history and folklore, culminating in his 20-panel "Slav Epic" series of oil paintings.

These massive works are off-site, housed in the National Gallery's Veletrzni Palace, but the museum displays a large study for one of them, the haunting, enigmatic Star (or Winter Night), in which a Russian peasant woman embraces her fate on a snowy night.

Mucha's decorative lines and sinewy forms are exquisite, and it's fascinating to see some of his original drawings on display next to the printed poster versions.

Sketches and sketchbooks are also viewable in glass cases featuring the artist's designs for jewelry, furniture, and decorative motifs.

At the end of the exhibit, there's even an informative 15-minute biographical video—in English!

Stroll a few short blocks away and prepare to be dazzled by the Municipal House (Obceni Dum), begun in1906 and opened in 1912.

This block-long corner building situated on Namesti Republiky is an Art Nouveau masterpiece, from its gorgeous glass, and iron filigree, and painted and sculptural exteriors to its luscious tiled and stained glass interiors.

Among other things, the building houses three elegant restuarants and cafes—including the very cool Americky Bar in the basement—and the Smetana Concert Hall featuring Mucha-painted lintels and murals.

This is the principal venue for the Royal Prague Orchestra.

The day we visited New Town, we stopped in at Tesco (sort of the Czech Costco) on the way back to our apartment for more Bohemian Sekt ("sekt" being the all-purpose Eastern European word for champagne-like sparkling wine; we sampled sekt in Vienna as well).

Imagine our delight to find this bottle of Mucha Sekt!

The label is a lovely reproduction of a vintage Mucha champagne poster design.

Of course, we had to try it! And, of course, I had to bring the bottle home with me, in memory of our Mucha Day in Prague!

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Baz Luhrmann delivers a Deco-licious, surprisingly effective 'Great Gatsby'

With Baz Luhrmann in the driver's seat, the slick, shiny roadster that is The Great Gatsby could go either way. This meeting of the florid visual stylist (Moulin Rouge) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic American novel of the Jazz Age might be a head-on collision of inappropriate style, anachronistic music, and frantic bombast over substance. Or it might just as easily be a brilliant reimagining of an American classic revitalized for a new generation.

In fact, there are glimmers of each of these possible scenarios in Luhrmann's Gatsby. Fortunately, the more self-conscious stylistic touches—jarring Jay-Z rap music to convey the frenetic energy of the postwar Twenties; gigantic, overly-choreographed party sequences shot from above like Busby Berkeley routines—mostly occur early on, while Luhrmann is setting his stage.

Once the set-up is established, Luhrmann ditches most of his tricks, letting the characters and their agendas propel the story for a surprisingly faithful and urgent account of Fitzgerald's enduring tale of class, money, and shipwrecked dreams.

To make use of Fitzgerald's shrewd observations on a war-weary America caught in the act of reinventing itself, Luhrmann employs a framing device set in post-Crash 1929. The novel's narrator, aspiring writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), now being treated for alcoholism, is encouraged to write down the story of his former neighbor and friend, the famously rich and elusive Jay Gatsby.

As the tale unfolds in Nick's memory, a great deal of Fitzgerald's prose (occasionally even scrawling across the screen) is effectively preserved.

Leonardo DiCaprio's delusional Gatsby comes complete with alluring smile, mystery, and vulnerability intact. And Luhrmann's attention to period detail is fabulous, from the gorgeous black and white Warner Bros. logo at the beginning to the Deco-licious costumes and production design, both by Catherine Martin. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


Har! Look what the tide washed in, me hearties!

Precious booty, indeed—a box of my author's copies of Alias Hook, freshly arrived from my publisher in  the UK. It is, without doubt and irrefutably, a book!

I would love to let them sift through my fingers like gold doubloons, to dive into them like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin! But in the interest of common sense and physical possibility (those old killjoys), I guess I'll have to content myself with rapt gazing.

This is a hugely exciting moment in the life cycle of an ink-stained wretch (or ink-stained wench, as my friend Vinnie calls us). But it's not THE most exciting moment. That's the one that comes next, and it can only be achieved with audience participation.

Let the Reading begin!

Friday, May 10, 2013


Does your mom crave art? Or chocolate? How about combing the best of both addictions this Mother's Day weekend by taking Mom out on the 6th annual Art & Chocolate art tour.

This is the popular event where a dozen local artists in the Live Oak/Pleasure Point area of mid-county open their studio doors to the public.

Not only is there a staggering amount of original art on view—landscape, abstract, figurative and whimsical painting, stone and ceramic sculpture, art glass—but each participating artist will also provide free chocolate to all intrepid art tourists. Such a deal!

This year's A&C artists include abstract painter Daniel S. Friedman, ceramicists Geoffrey Nicastro (abstract and functional) and Carole DePalma (whimsical figures and colorful mosaics), landscape painters Maggie Renner Hellmann, Lou Renner, Amy Stark, and Paul Rodrigues, figurative painter and sculptor Richard Bennett, abstract stone sculptor Mike McClellan, and painter Janet Ferraro, who specializes in horses and the natural world.

As usual, Art Boy will be on board; that's his For the Love of Apples up top. New this year is that we're sharing our studio space with the phenomal hand-blown art glass creations of Jim and Connie Grant. Here's a vase in their Silver Ribbon series. Pretty cool, huh?

All the artist are located within a two-mile radius of each other in Live Oak/Pleasure Point, so it's a fairly low-impact, high-reward kind of event. Admission (and chocolate) is free, so grab your mother, your offspring, or the loved one of your choice and check it out!

For more info, to download a tour map or find a list of outlets carrying the free A&C brochure, click here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Downey puts the irony in entertaining 'Iron Man 3'

Forget the armor-plated body suit and CGI. The secret weapon in the Iron Man franchise has always been Robert Downey Jr., whose ironic, deadpan aplomb in the face of utter chaos has fueled more memorable series moments than an entire army of jet-propelled suits.

What makes Iron Man 3 such an entertaining load of hooey is that incoming director Shane Black gives Downey plenty of room to deliver his special brand of crisp, pungent commentary. Sure, it's too long, and too full of random stuff blowing up, but Black keeps the focus on the character of Tony Stark, creating ample opportunity for Downey to rise to the occasion—and keep the franchise afloat.

Black is an inspired choice to take over from original series director Jon Favreau, having given Downey one of his best ever screen roles in the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Co-writing the script here with Drew Pearce, Black imagines an intriguing trajectory for pampered, zillionaire "tinkerer" Stark when he loses his invincibility and has to literally pick himself up and rebuild his equipment and his psyche from scratch.
Tony Stark says: "I'm just a man in a can."

In IM3, the western world is on alert against a bearded terrorist of unknown origin calling himself The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, who is excellent). He commandeers international media to deliver anti-US broadcasts, and sets off bombs in public places. The ever-watchable Guy Pearce is also on board as the slick head of a sort of reverse-X-Men program that turns ordinary disabled people into self-regenerating mutants.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark (Downey) lurks in the high-tech lab of his lavish, beachfront Malibu estate tinkering with an army of iron-clad suits (each with a robotic life of its own), trading bon mots with the computer entity he calls Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), who keeps the equipment running smoothly, and fighting off the occasional panic attack that he won't be strong enough to save the world next time.

The villains' various agendas get a bit murky by the finale, which devolves into a Clone Wars situation with robotic armor and mutant cyborgs whaling away at each other. But Downey's cheeky asides save the day. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


There are mysteries—as in crime novels and whodunits—and then there are Mysteries, pertaining to larger issues of faith and the human quest for the Divine.

If you are interested in the intersection between the two, get ready for "Higher Mysteries," a panel discussion coming to the downtown library next week featuring our own Laurie R. King and three other crime-writing women on the topic, "Faith and Theology in Crime Fiction."

The event is the 2013 installment of the King Lecture Series, an annual program dedicated to the work of the late UCSC History and Comparative Religion professor Noel Q. King to promote dialogue between faiths. This year's lecture is actually a quartet of authors, a Mysterious Regiment of Women (or Regiment of Mysterious Women?), whose fictions are fueled by issues of religion and theology.

Sharan Newman writes the marvelously atmospheric Catherine LeVendeur mystery series set in medieval France. Once a novice under the famed abbess Heloise, Catherine investigates mysteries that often involve the delicate relations between Christians and Jews (the secret faith of Catherine's father) in twelfth-century France.

Zoe Ferraris lived for nearly a year in Saudi Arabia with her then-husband and his family of Muslim Saudi-Palestinians. Her novels set in the city of Jeddah feature a female lab technician in the coroner's office helping to solve crimes against women while battling prejudice and extreme religious conservatism in a culture where women's lives (and deaths) are shrouded in mystery.

In the novels of Julia Spencer-Fleming, ex-Army helicopter pilot Clare Fergusson becomes the first female Episcopal priest in a small town in upstate New York. While attempting to prove herself to more conservative members of her flock, she must also cope with her kindling attraction to the local (married) police chief, with whom she embarks on a series of criminal investigations.

And, of course, Laurie King's audacious and entertaining series introduces former theology student Mary Russell as protege, investigative partner, and ultimately wife to none other than Sherlock Holmes.

Sponsored by UCSC's Noel Q. King Memorial and Santa Cruz Public Libraries, "Higher Mysteries" takes place Tuesday evening, May 14, 7 pm, at the downtown branch of the SCPL at 224 Church Street.

Oh, and if you'd like to do a little prep reading to get in the mood (and who doesn't want another excuse to read?), here are some suggested titles:

Zoe Ferraris: Finding Nouf and City of Veils
Laurie King: A Monstrous Regiment of Women and A Darker Place
Sharan Newman: The Outcast Dove and Strong As Death
Julia Spencer-Fleming: In the Bleak Midwinter and Out Of the Deep I Cry