Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Celtic selkie lore comes alive in dazzling Song of the Sea

Anyone who loves seals (and who doesn't, around here?) will be utterly charmed by the magical Irish animated feature Song of the Sea. Ditto anyone with a taste for ancient Celtic folklore, fairy tales and mythology.

Directed by Tomm Moore, whose previous film was the lovely Secret of the Kells, inspired by the famed illuminated manuscript, this Oscar-nominated follow-up combines traditional tales of the selkies (seals who transform into humans on land) with a stunning visual palette.

Every hand-drawn frame of this movie is ravishing. You keep finding yourself reaching for the remote in the darkened theatre, trying to pause the image so you can study every gorgeous detail.

Scripted by William Collins, Song of the Sea offers a fresh take on the old legends. It's set in a recognizably modern world, but a world in which ancient gods and heroes, fair folk, witches, and magical beings are always nearby.
Underwater grotto: pay attention to those rocks

In traditional tales, female selkies come on shore, take off their sealskins, and dance on the beach in human form. There's usually a dazzled human fisherman who sees it all, hides the sealskin, and marries the selkie in her womanly form. But the selkie must always return to the sea eventually, or die.

In Moore's film, Conor (voice of Brendan Gleeson) is a lighthouse keeper on a wild, rugged promontory jutting out of the sea off the Irish coast. He has a little boy named Ben, and a very pregnant wife, the beautiful, mysterious Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan), who sings ancient folk songs to Ben and teaches him to make music with a nautilus shell. But on the morning Ben wakes up to discover he has a new baby sister, Saoirse, his beloved mum has disappeared.

Growing up on their windswept island, Ben's best friend is his floppy sheepdog, Cú. But kid sister Saoirse is kind of a pain; she doesn't speak, and has an unsettling habit of wandering off to the water's edge—where, in one of the movie's happiest images, dozens of seal heads are always popping up out of the water to greet her. (Underwater, in this movie, they sound more like whales than seals, but they're still so cool!)
Happy seals!
 On Saoirse's sixth birthday, their granny (Fionnula Flanagan), removes the kids to the mainland to lead a civilized life, but they run away, determined to find their way home. Their journey back to the sea is beautifully rendered. The landscapes have the softly-blended textures and rich, muted colors of pastel chalk drawings, and every rock formation, whether nestled in the underbrush or protruding up out of the sand in the beach scenes, bears the delicate tracery of ancient Runic designs. A marvelous interlude occurs at a Holy Well, a shrine in the countryside festooned with candles, painted icons, and rustic statues.
Holy Well: not all the coolest images are underwater
All of these details emphasize the nearness of the Otherworld, and as the siblings find their way home, they also take a larger journey through the heart of Celtic lore. Informing all is the legend of a giant so traumatized by the death of his wife that his mother, the Owl Witch, casts a spell and turns him into a rock so he won't have to feel any more sorrow.

She's banished the emotions of all the other gods and heroes, as well, and as the children discover fairies, elves, and the Owl Witch herself alive in their world, they also encounter the remains of ancient heroes turned to stone, silent faces etched into granite like the famous chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis, awaiting the magic that will set them free.
Look at the detail in this image!

Moore's film is also an endearing tale of a young girl who discovers her own unique destiny. (And she doesn't have to become that tired modern cliché, the "kick-ass heroine," to do it.)

Ben learns to love and respect his little sister for her special gifts, but it's up to Saoirse to save the day and reverse the spell, releasing scores of Celtic heroes from their stony prisons in a gorgeous, eye-popping finale.

And not even those whose feelings have been turned to stone could resist Moore's gently moving conclusion. Humorous, heartfelt, and dazzling to look at, Song of the Sea has it all.

(If you'd like to do something wonderful for real live seals, consider making a donation or volunteering your time at the Marine Mammal Center. Pinnipeds are having a rough time along the California Coast right now. These guys need you help! )

Monday, February 23, 2015


As we all know, Oscar Season isn't complete without the Return of the (dreaded) Oscar Barbies! Yes, I got out the ol' doll trunks once again on Sunday morning before the show and cast a few of my old dolls as this year's Best Actress nominees.

In Oscar Barbie Land, it's all about the props. Most fun to do was Reese Witherspoon's character in Wild, the inexperienced hiker with her gigantic "Packzilla." A beat-up old khaki make-up pouch I found in the back of a drawer stands in for the backpack.

(And many thanks to Art Boy for figuring out how to attach it to her!)

All the other items are vintage Barbie accessories—which is why her hiking boots are (cringe) bubblegum pink! Not everything in the Barbie universe had to be pink, back in the early 60s, when the doll first came on the market: notice the road map, cookpot and sneakers. Once upon a time, she was chic, but that was before she started hanging out with those tarty Disney Princess dolls.

Here's the rest of the lineup: Marion Cotillard clutching her pink slip in Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones, in a perfectly vintage '60s outfit in The Theory of Everything, and winner Julianne Moore, trying to hold on to her memory in Still Alice.

The fifth nominee was the easiest: Gone Girl.

In other news, 6 out of my top 8 Oscar predictions were right on this year.

(I was actually 10 for 12, if you count the four extra titles I cited in my Miscellany category.
Although my plug for Ida was not technically a prediction, it was more like wishful thinking. Anyway, I'm thrilled that it won!))

Unfortunately, the two categories I glaringly missed were Best Picture and Best Director. D'oh!

I should know by now to stick to the trail of the pre-Oscar craft guild awards; that's how I've managed to look so smart these last few years. The 2015 Oscars aligned with the guild winners right on schedule, including the wins for Alejandro González Iñárritu (Directors Guild) and Birdman (Producers Guild).

But this year I was really pulling for my favorite (Boyhood), so I ignored my own sage advice. Next year I’ll be back on my game!

Curtain call for the entire 2015 lineup

Friday, February 20, 2015


Only Sherlock could predict this year's Academy Award winners

Okay, it's that time of year when I typically dazzle readers with my Sherlockian deductive powers and predict the upcoming Academy Award winners. But the cold, hard truth is, by the time all the Hollywood craft guilds—directors (DGA), producers (PGA), writers (WGA), and screen actors (SAG)—have weighed in with their own pre-Oscar award ceremonies, not to mention the pre-game warmup show of the Golden Globes last month, it's pretty easy to follow the trends and pick the front-runners.

But not this year.

I wouldn't say all bets are off; there are clear favorites in three out of the four acting categories. But the battle for some of the top prizes is turning into an epic slugfest. between two (or three) very tough and worthy competitors. Nobody gets a cakewalk this year, including me; I really have to put my so-called deductive powers to the test. So here goes:
Ellar Coltrane grows up before our eyes in Boyhood
 BEST PICTURE Boyhood. Of the eight nominees, we can eliminate the four films whose directors were not nominated in their category—which (surprisingly) includes Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, even though it's made a ton of moolah at the box office these last few weeks.
There's a chance Birdman might still fly off with the gold

A month ago, Boyhood was a slam-dunk for the gold. Director Richard Linklater's completely original concept redefines the process of filmmaking and the art of storytelling in audacious new ways. But its biggest challenger, Birdman, has come on strong in the post-season awards. You can see why Hollywood loves Birdman—it's all about showbiz and acting, the cult of celebrity, and the cultural impact—for good or ill—of the movies. Its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has already been anointed with a DGA award, the film won for Best Ensemble at the SAGs, and craft guild members also vote for the Oscars.

Still, I'm voting my heart on this one. Yes, Birdman is wildly entertaining. But Boyhood offers a resonant glimpse into modern family life that will endure, in addition to its amazing contribution to the craft of making cinema.
Chalk up a victory for Eddie Redmayne

BEST DIRECTOR  Richard Linklater, Boyhood. Even more than usual this year, these two categories are joined at the hip, as both Boyhood and Birdman represent such singular director's visions. Most egregious omission in this category? Ava DuVernay, for her extraordinarily powerful and accomplished handling of Best Picture nominee Selma.
BEST ACTOR Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything. Redmayne has the buzz (and, significantly, the SAG award) for his precise and nuanced turn as Dr. Stephen Hawking, no matter how the Birdman/Boyhood smackdown plays out.
Julianne Moore: it's finally her turn

BEST ACTRESS Julianne Moore, Still Alice. This is the only sure thing in the big four categories. Moore has already won every other prize for her performance as a woman coping with Early-Onset Alzheimer's. And with four previous nominations, it's perceived as her turn to win.   

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR J. K. Simmons, Whiplash. Like, Moore, he's already won all the preliminary prizes.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Patricia Arquette, Boyhood. As a divorced mom raising two kids, Arquette brings plucky, real-life-sized humanity to this film, and has been recognized for it at all the early award shows.
Family gal: Arquette in Boyhood
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY Birdman. This wry, well-crafted screenplay deserves to edge out Boyhood in this category. (Linklater's film doesn't feel scripted—which, of course, is a large part of its charm.) And since Iñárritu also co-wrote the script, this is the Academy's best chance to give him his Oscar if he's aced out of the directing prize.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY The Imitation Game. It's popular enough to be nominated in eight categories, and this is the best chance the Alan Turing codebreaking biopic has at striking gold.   

MISCELLANY The only Foreign Language Film nominee I saw was Ida, which I adored, so I'm rooting for it, even if I can't predict this category. The much-nominated Grand Budapest Hotel looks poised to win the Costume and Production Design awards, but Birdman should fly off with the Cinematography prize. And since I saw none of the Animated Feature nominees, you guys are on your own for that one!

(The 87th Annual Academy Awards airs Sunday, February 22, 5 p.m. on ABC.)

Sunday, February 15, 2015


What, you mean you didn't jet out of beautiful, balmy California for ice-encrusted New York City last week to catch the Matisse show at the MOMA before it left town?

Well, guess what: neither did I.

But that's okay. For all of us art-loving slackers, the New York Times has kindly posted a slideshow of the entire exhibition online!

As a painter, Henri Matisse was renowned for his audacious use of color and vibrant patterns (not to mention his long-standing rivalry with contemporary Pablo Picasso).

Matisse's "The Green Line" (1905), a portrait of his wife, Amelie, her face bisected by a subtle stripe of green, basically ushered in the Fauve movement and helped launch what we now think of as "Modern" art.

But the recent MOMA exhibit was devoted entirely to Matisse's series of marvelous paper cut-outs. These were begun around 1940, when Matisse was entering his 70s. Debilitated by cancer surgery, demoralized by the separation from his wife of over 40 years, and confined to his bed or a chair most of the time, Matisse still found a way to make art.

Armed with scissors and sheets of paper hand-washed by his assistants in bold gouache colors, he produced an extraordinary variety of images devoted to shape, color, and movement.

Just look at these examples! I love the way they bounce around the canvas like living things. There's nothing remotely static about any of these images. They percolate with life.

As art critic Holland Cotter points out in the text that accompanies the NYT slideshow, some of the work became studies for larger pieces. The famed Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, on the French Riviera, features amazing stained glass windows and vestments designed by Matisse, based on his cut-outs.

It would have been great to see this show in person, to examine the smaller pieces in all their richness, up close, and  be happily dwarfed by the larger pieces! "The Parakeet and the Mermaid" (1952) is roughly 12' by 25'! I want to go swimming in this picture!

But I think this slideshow is the next best thing. Amazing what an intrepid spirit, along with the unquenchable will to create can achieve!

Sunday, February 8, 2015


If you're interested in art or history or both, hie thee hence, pronto, to see Mr. Turner. Mike Leigh's cinematic valentine to expressionistic English landscape artist J. M. W. Turner may be a bit too stately paced at times, and short on dialogue, but it's also absorbing and kind of rhapsodic, in a weird, curmudgeony way.

It's funny that Leigh, purveyor of such life-sized, English working-class dramas as High Hopes, Secrets and Lies, and the brilliant Another Year, should feel such affinity for the painter of wild, larger-than-life canvases from what's now known as the Romantic era. (Which also spawned lyric poets like Byron, Keats and Shelley, and the rise of Gothic melodrama.)

Although, besides the exaltation of Nature, there is nothing "romantic" about Turner's work. Rather, call it furious, with enormous, turbulent skies, mostly shrouded in mist, fog, or raging storms, that dwarf the few tiny humans on land and their petty concerns. Furious, too, is Tim Spall, onscreen just about every minute as the driven Turner.
One Spall grunt is worth a thousand words.

Detractors complain that Spall simply grunts his way through the film. This is partly correct, although his Turner proves himself capable of uttering the gallant, ornate language of the day when need be. ("Now I must throw myself into the arms of Morpheus.") But his grunts—of pleasure, relief, dismay, and especially disdain—become a wry language unto themselves. Spall expresses more in a single grunt than many actors can manage in pages of dialogue.

I'm not a Turner scholar, so I can't say how accurate a portrait Leigh creates of Turner's relationship to his deeply wounded and resentful wife (the mighty Ruth Sheen) and the grown daughters he apparently ignores. Or to the housekeeper who adores him and suffers his occasional random sexual advances in silence. (Dorothy Atkinson is very touching in the role, although her character is allowed to become almost a comic caricature mid-film.) Or to the sweet, earthy landlady (Marion Bailey) who becomes his mistress in later years.
Turner's family do not share his devotion to Art.
But Leigh paints a lively depiction of Turner's interactions with the other artists of his day, and their art scene. When he breezes into the Royal Academy as a new show is being hung, the monosyllabic greetings he exchanges with each of his fellow artists tells us all we need to know about his relationship with each one. (Especially the clipped way he and rival Constable barely acknowledge each other.)

Famed art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire) is portrayed as a pampered son of privilege with an affected lisp, eager to dazzle with his intellectual analysis of art (which mostly confounds the artists). And while the success of Turner's work forgives his eccentricities in most eyes, all it takes is one unfavorable remark from the new young queen, Victoria, for Turner's star to fall as it becomes fashionable to mock his work.

I love how this movie immerses viewers in the teeming life and culture of its historical period, roughly the late 1820s through around 1850. Carriages clatter across the cobblestones, hawkers cry their wares, rugs are beaten outside in yards, and a new horse-drawn railroad engine belches a plume of white steam across the countryside.

The period details of an artist's life are well-depicted too. At the Royal Academy, most of the artists are still applying paint to their framed canvases even after the show is hung. Paints are mixed from powder and oil, and canvases are stretched by hand. To obtain the perspective he craves for a painting, Turner has himself lashed to a ship's mast, like Odysseus, during a storm at sea.

Leigh's take on Turner's "The Fighting Temeraire."
 Leigh can't resist framing many of the film's outdoor vistas as if they were Turner paintings, to gorgeous effect, as well as recreating onscreen some if Turner's famous pieces (like the towing away of the decommissioned warship, Temeraire, to be broken up). Which sets up the finale, when Turner sits for a photographic portrait and realizes the camera will forever alter the world of painting.

Art has continued into the modern world, of course; it's simply adapted, as everything must. But even by modern standards, Turner's work still seems visionary, captured in Leigh's film in all its robust grandeur.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Hey kids, the annual Hearts for the Arts show is up now at Artisans Gallery in downtown Santa Cruz.

Once upon a time, this was a gigantic art and social event held at the Santa Cruz Civic for artists and their collectors. The event itself has been downsized these days, like so much else, but its spirit is carried on by the intrepid crew at Artisans.

Here's how it works: dozens of local artists donate original work (not to exceed 10" x 10") in a variety of media. Out of this raw material, the Artisans elves construct a "Wall of Hearts" exhibition to be ogled by the public for the next two weeks.

At the end of that time, February 14, Valentine's Day, each piece will be auctioned off to lucky bidders, with proceeds to benefit the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County, and its education programs, SPECTRA and Mariposa's Art.

 It's an ongoing silent auction, which means the public is invited to come by Artisans during the next two weeks, check out the artwork, and place bids on their favorites.

High bidders will claim their prizes when the auction closes on the 14th—so check back often, to see if you need to up your bid!

The usual wide variety of artwork is up for auction this year. Participating artists include Isobel George, Linda Levy, Claire Lerner, Sandra Cherk, T. Mike Walker, Margo Mullen, and James Aschbacher (that's his Trampoline of Love decorating my margin!), among many others.

The show also includes a rare sculpture from Maggie Renner Hellmann, found art assemblage from Peter Koronakos, jewelry from Lynn Guenther, printmaking from Melissa West and Stacy Frank, and lots of other treasures.

The silent auction runs through February 14. Drop by and bid on your favorite piece!