Thursday, October 31, 2013


Redford powers through solo screen voyage in 'All Is Lost'

Actors don't get much more iconic than Robert Redford. A Hollywood superstar since the 1970s, he founded the Sundance Film Festival, Institute, and cable TV channel in support of emerging filmmakers, and has been a tireless activist for the environment. His one-man seagoing thriller, All Is Lost, is a gift to fans who want to see Redford in action.

But it also feels like a gift from a grateful industry to Redford, a harrowing physical workout of a film that shows off what his 77-year-old body is capable of, while proving that Redford can still command the screen for 100 minutes all by himself.

The movie is written and directed by J. C. Chandor (Margin Call)—although "written" is a relative term in a film that is almost completely without dialogue, except for a few sparse sentences spoken at the very beginning. There is a definite narrative shape to the story, however, and a strong emotional arc that Redford's character undergoes. 

 Like Gravity, it begins at what seems to be an ending: a lone sailor finds his craft and equipment disabled hundreds of miles from anywhere out in the middle of the ocean. It's a slightly less enthralling, more claustrophobic experience than Gravity, but All Is Lost is similarly intense in exploring the outer limits of human tenacity.

1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits in the Indian Ocean, an unnamed sailor wakes up to find his 39-foot yacht taking on water. We have no idea why this obvious Yank of a sailor (his boat is called the Virginia Jean) is out here alone, and we never find out. 

All we know is that water is suddenly rushing in through a window over his desk in the cabin below, flooding his computer and radio equipment. 

To avoid spoilers, any further discussion of the plot should end here. Suffice it to say that tribulations involve a massive storm at sea, dwindling food and water supplies, desperate repairs, an inflatable life raft, sharks, and of course, fear itself.

Redford resonates with the audience as a gritty Everyman who refuses to give up. Kudos are due the veteran star in this physically and emotionally exhausting turn for keeping viewers involved—as the sailor keeps his wits together— through sheer strength of will. 

The filmmaking drifts here or there, but Redford powers the story through. (Read more)

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Hitmaking funk studio celebrated in rousing music doc 'Muscle Shoals'

Musical heroes don't come much more unsung than the so-called Muscle Shoals Swampers. A handful of young, white hometown boys, session musicians at the FAME recording studio in backwoods Muscle Shoals, Alabama, they were responsible for laying down some of the funkiest R&B and soul tracks to come out of the 1960s and '70s, behind such stellar artists as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Etta James, and Wilson Pickett.

Pretty much unknown to the public, they finally get the recognition they deserve in Muscle Shoals, Greg "Freddy" Camalier's raucous musical documentary on the founding of FAME studio and the distinctive brand of funk produced there.
Aretha and the boys in the band

Muscle Shoals is a rural village on the Alabama side of the Tennessee River, which the Native American people called "the river that sings."

Bono of U2, observing there's always a river involved in musical movements, like the Tennessee or the Mersey in Liverpool, has a more visceral idea: "It's like the songs come out of the mud."

But the chief architect of the Muscle Shoals sound turns out to be Rick Hall, founder of the FAME studio, the son of a dirt-poor sawmiller, and onetime guitarist in a local rock band.

Among the first records he produced were the classic "Steal Away" by Jimmy Hughes, and the Arthur Alexander hit, "You Better Move On."

To cut these records, Hall called in the other guys from his previous band for back-up.

With guitar, bass, drums, and a vibrato-heavy electric organ, they became the in-house rhythm section behind such iconic hits as Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman," Aretha's blistering "I Ain't Never Loved A Man," and Pickett's "Mustang Sally." 

"All 'funky' was, we didn't know how to play it smooth," laughs one Swamper. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Exciting news!

So there we were, in the middle of the last day of Open Studios, when Art Boy & I were pretty much running on fumes. During a break in the action, I snuck upstairs to check my email, and discovered that my US editor-to-be had just sent me cover art for the US edition of Alias Hook!

Of course, I can't post it here (not yet! Stay tuned!). And even though I knew there would be a US edition  coming out from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press) in May, 2014 (in hardcover, yet!), there's nothing like feasting your eyes on the actual cover art to make it all seem suddenly real.

What's even more exciting? They're keeping the original title, to my great relief.

Could I be any more stoked? I think not!

Since then, I've spent my first day revising with my editor at TDB. 85-90% of his suggestions are right on, and for the rest, there's room to negotiate. Overall, a surprisingly painless experience!

Watch this space for further details...

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Where do creative artists get their ideas? Art Boy always used to answer, "The Idea Channel," until he realized people were rushing home to check their cable listings.

In real life, creative inspiration springs from the strangest and often least expected sources, as varied as the artists, writers, musicians and dancers who seize a phantom idea and run with it.

This occurred to me while reading through a new ebook anthology called Story Behind the Book: Volume 1 (Essays on Writing Speculative Fiction). Imagine my delight when I found out an essay I wrote earlier this year on the writing of Alias Hook is included!

The book is presented under the auspices of the fine sci-fi/fantasy book website Upcoming Site editor Kristijan Meic edited the anthology with Ivana Steiner. It's an outgrowth of the website's regular feature, "The Story Behind..." wherein sf/f authors reveal the deep, dark secrets of their writing processes.

I’m very pleased to be included in these virtual pages with such distinguished fellow essayists as Jo Walton, Ian Whates, L. E. Modesitt, and Susan Palwick (among many others). Some 40 contributors discuss their inspiration for writing in a variety of speculative genres—epic fantasy, horror, alternative history, sword and sorcery, ghost stories, dystopian future sci-fi, absurdist zombie fiction, and what one author describes as "Hornblower in space."

 The book is up on Amazon and as we speak! All proceeds will be donated to the Epilepsy Action charity in the UK.

If you want to know where writers really get their ideas, check it out!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Summer Pasture (China/USA) at the Pacific Rim Film Festival

Pacific Rim Film Festival celebrates 25 years of cross-cultural understanding

Break out the silver confetti! One of Santa Cruz's most beloved cultural events, the Pacific Rim Film Festival, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Originally inspired by the Hawaii International Film Festival around the theme, "East Meets West: When Strangers Meet," our own home-grown PRFF marks its first quarter-century with an expanded program.

Twenty films from twelve countries will unspool over seven days, October 17-23, at four venues county-wide. And as always, except for the closing-night musical fundraiser, every single film will be shown free of charge.

This year's dramas, comedies and docs come from North Korea, Cambodia, Tibet, China, the Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand/Samoa, Japan, Taiwan, India, and the United States. Participating theatres include the Theatre Del Mar, the Rio Theatre, and the Riverfront Twin in Santa Cruz, and Green Valley Cinema in Watsonville.

Q & A sessions with filmmakers will follow select screenings.

Among this year's highlights is Starry Starry Night (2011, Taiwan, 80 minutes). Tom Lin's beauteous live-action adaptation of the celebrated Jimmy Liao picture book captures all the whimsy, magic, and artfulness of Liao's paintings in a very moving story of a 13-year-old girl and boy learning to navigate life, loss, love, and growing up. (Read more)
The kids bond through art (a jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh's eponymous painting looms large in the story), and their projects bleed into their real-life landscape in fanciful ways. Giant origami animals march over bridges and own city streets; when the kids board a train out of town, it flies through Van Gogh's painted sky.

I was unfamiliar with Liao's lovely book until I saw the film and did some research. Look how gorgeously filmmaker Lin reimagines  some of the book's painted images, with all their humor and soulfulness intact. I loved this movie so much—don't miss it!
(Starry Starry Night plays twice Friday night at the Riverfront, 7 pm, and 9:30 pm.)

Monday, October 14, 2013


Santa Cruz artist Susan Else is earning a national reputation for her elaborate fiber sculptures. She makes unique conceptual and figurative pieces entirely covered in quilted, printed and painted fabric.

The onetime Open Studios artist delighted visitors for years with such signature pieces as a complete fabric chess set and board, or a five-foot in diameter rotating Ferris Wheel with her boisterous sculpted figures in every seat (created in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk).

Starting this month, Susan will be showing a collection of her work at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame (1777 California Drive, Burlingame).

Called "Tilt-A-World," the exhibit will feature Susan's marvelous, whimsical and/or sardonic figures, unexpected fiber landscapes, and large show-stoppers. That's her delightful "When Pony's Dream," above.
"Boundary" by Susan Else

In her artist's statement, Susan says, "I treat cloth not as a flat surface but as a wild flexible skin for three-dimensional objects. Life is always a complicated stew of positive, negative, and shades of grey – all at once – and I want my works to reflect that complexity and ambiguity.”

The show opens October 20 and runs through January 26, 2014, in the East Gallery.

A reception for the artist will be held this Sunday (October 20), 1-4 pm, so if you're in the neighborhood, drop in to cheer Susan on and see a fabulous show!

Monday, October 7, 2013


Gripping, intense, emotional 'Gravity' will put you in orbit

It's the perfect set-up. A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft for repairs suddenly find themselves adrift in space, tethered to each other, and no longer in contact with mission control. Where can they go? What can they possibly do?

The variety of answers may surprise you in Gravity, a smart, lean, elegantly composed and utterly gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera—and far more than simply a star vehicle for appealing headliners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—Gravity is more like a space procedural in which ordinary people pit their own human ingenuity against ever more incredible and daunting odds.

Scripted by the director and his son, Jonas Cuarón, the story begins in space, where medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock), on her first space mission, is outside the craft in her bulky suit trying to repair a communications link-up to send data back to Houston.

Meanwhile, her colleague, veteran mission commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney), is on a long tether, cheerfully chugging rings around her, trying to beat a Russian cosmonaut's record for the longest space walk.

"You're the genius up here," Matt reminds her, "I only drive the bus."

But things change in a heartbeat when debris from some of the myriad international space stations sent into space and abandoned comes hurtling toward them. But that's only the beginning of a taut plot of mounting intensity.

Cuarón doesn't waste a single frame, and every one of the film's 90 minutes counts.

And as if the adrenalin-rush storyline were not enough, the movie is astonishingly beautiful to look at. It looks as if the entire film were shot at zero-gravity; nothing looks fake or CGI. But Cuarón's emphasis is always on the human element. Awesome on so many levels, Gravity will put you in orbit. (Read more)

Here's something else to ponder: George Clooney in Gravity, and Buzz Lightyear: separated at birth? It's all about the chin, and the eyebrows. Just sayin'…

Sunday, October 6, 2013


Another fabulous Open Studios event at the home of Beth Allison Gripenstraw!

At the sign of the burro (with his payload of fresh flowers), visitors were invited to follow the cacti/agave trail to Beth's Mexican Hacienda "installation." Beth doesn't just show art, she transforms her entire home into an irresistible fantasy environment!

A person has to snoop around thoughtfully to appreciate all the details. In the Mercado room, Beth showed colorful ceramic fish, turtle, and jellyfish platters, along with a cornucopia of ceramic earrings—cacti, palm trees, Dia de los Muertos, big cats, fruit, and on and on.

In the dining room (past the Mariachi guitarist complete with sombrero, napping in the window seat), a marvelous series of stacking tableware was on display, platters, plates, and bowls in a cactus motif in shades of terra cotta, turquoise and black.  A few steps away on the balcony was the tequila bar, where visitors were invited to sip the wares in tiny pottery shot "glasses" given away as souvenirs.

And in the sunroom stood an amazing Dia de los Muertos altar (complete with a vintage ceramic tile Virgin of Guadeloupe, sugar skulls, and doggie biscuits) dedicated to the iconic and beloved terrier Benny—whose last adventure in Mexico earlier this year is immortalized in a painting next to the altar. Of course, Beth's charming watercolor paintings decorate every room.

Beth's explosive creative energy is an inspiration to all of us! It's such a treat to have her in our community.

Thursday, October 3, 2013


The first three weekends in October are fast approaching, and we all know what that means! Time to strap on your pith helmet, grab your treasure map, and head out to Open Studios, the self-guided art tour to visit Santa Cruz County artists in their natural habitats—studio, garage, kitchen table, or whatever workspaces they call home.

Most local art lovers already know the drill. But if you're new to the Open Studios experience, here's a handy guide to getting the most out of your custom-designed art adventure.

(And because I'm a journalist, I'll stick to the facts, Ma'am.)

WHO do you really want to see? With over 300 participating artists, you can't possibly see them all (even over three weekends), and following all those giant green signs around the neighborhood can be so random.

Best have a plan for ferreting out your new favorites—which means investing $20 in an OS Art Tour Guide (above) featuring a full color image from every artist in the event, as well as maps, addresses, and contact info to show you how to reach them.  (That's the treasure map I was talking about.)

The Guide also functions as a gorgeously illustrated year-round calendar. Pick one up a bookstores, galleries and art supply stores county-wide.

WHAT does the work really look like? A 2.5-inch square image in the OS Guide is a terrific appetizer. But if you want to know how the work stacks up as a main course, if it can nourish and sustain you over the long haul in your own home, go down to the OS Preview Exhibit at the Santa Cruz Art League (526 Broadway, S C) to see the work in person.
Viewing art, up close and personal
With one life-sized piece from every OS artist on display, the show helps give you a sense of color, texture, quality, materials, and anything else you need to know about the work. The exhibit runs through October 20; hours are Wednesday-Friday, 11 am to 5 pm, and Saturday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm. (And while you're there, pick up a free color postcard from your favorite OS artist!)

This year, there's also a sister exhibit of North County OS artists—from Davenport, Bonny Doon, San Lorenzo Valley, and Scotts Valley—at the R. Blitzer Gallery (2801 Mission Street, SC). This show is also up through October 20, Tuesday-Sunday 11 am to 5 pm.

WHEN is your designated artist 's studio open? OS is so colossal, its intrepid organizers at the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County have to divide the county in half so visitors aren't completely overwhelmed. This year, North County artists (everyone north of the yacht harbor) open their studios the first weekend, October 5-6.
Art postcards at the SC Art League

South County artists (south of the yacht harbor to Watsonville) open their doors the second weekend, October 12-13. And just to make it interesting, all North and South County artists are invited to participate in Encore Weekend, October 19-20, if they so desire.  To find out when yor artist is open to the public, and whether or not he or she will be open for Encore, refer to your handy OS Guide.

WHERE the heck are these crazy artists located, anyway? That's why you need the map! from the wilds of Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek to the back roads of Live Oak to the hidden byways of Aptos and La Selva Beach, artists tend to stray off the beaten path. It's your job to plot a course to find them. Pick your favorites, then try to find two or three other likely-looking prospects to visit in the same neighborhood, so you can spend less time in your car and more time viewing art!

WHY? Because art matters. It's not extracurricular, it's not an afterthought. It's not a privilege or a luxury. Art is essential to life. Take the tour. Plot your course. Feed your soul.

In other OS news...

Painter, ceramicist, and jewelry-maker Beth Gripenstraw doesn't just show her art. She creates entire fantasy environments. Two years ago, she turned her home into an African safari during Open Studios; last year, she delighted visitors be recreating Paris in the 1920s.

This year she's turning her home into a Mexican hacienda, complete with coordinating paintings, jewelry, and tableware (like these cool pots with a cactus motif). Last I heard, she was painting life-sized masonite burros and looking for a baby pig to borrow for the weekend!

Whatever she comes up with for this year, trust me, you won't want to miss it!  Beth is a North County artist and she will only be open this weekend, October 5-6, 11 am to 5 pm. She's on Towne Terrace in Santa Cruz, # 93 in your Artist's Guide.  I'll see you there!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Romantic, parental relationships at heart of engaging 'Enough Said'

In her last two films, writer-director Nicole Holfcener's sensibility was way off the mark. The characters in Holfcener's Friends With Money and Please Give were distinguished by their fuzzy motivations, unconvincing friendships, and often baffling behavior.

But the filmmaker is back on track with Enough Said; her focus is sharper and the results far more rewarding in this wry, engaging, life-sized modern comedy about refreshingly real people. And it doesn't hurt that Holfcener had the wit to cast the late, beloved James Gandolfini in a rare romantic role.

In Enough Said, larger themes of class, money, and privilege that have been obsessing Holofcener lately are relegated to subtext. This time, she moves personal relationships to the forefront—romantic, parental, and marital, along with her trademark friendships between women.

 And as our tour guide into this milieu, she gives us protagonist Julia Louis-Dreyfus, at her most appealing and least snarky, as a long-divorced single mom unexpectedly trying to navigate the dating game at a crossroads in her life.

Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is a mobile masseuse who schleps her massage table around to the homes of her various clients in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Cheerful and tolerant of her clients' quirks, she's also dreading the imminent departure of her teenage daughter, Ellen (an impressive Tracey Fairaway) to college.

At a party, Eva meets Marianne (Catherine Keener), a professional poet, who becomes Eva's new client. Eva is dazzled by Marianne's beautiful house, perfect furniture, and excellent taste, and they become fast friends.

Meanwhile, Eva also meets big, warm-hearted bear of a man, Albert (Gandolfini), a divorced father whose only daughter is also college-bound. They start dating and having a great time together.

The only sour note is sounded by Marianne, who keeps harping on the copious faults of her own ex-husband, and disparaging the very idea of romantic relationships. Soon enough, Eva is viewing her romance with Albert through the prism of Marianne's negativity. (Read more in this week's Good Times)