Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Action in the Pacific in Disney's girl-powered Polynesian adventure Moana

If Disney's gazillion-dollar-grossing Frozen was the perfect holiday animated feature of 2013, with its snowy Nordic landscape, and supporting cast that included a snowman and a reindeer, Disney's new cartoon feature, Moana, is the perfect holiday movie for the opposite reason — enveloped in the landscape and folklore of the Pacific Islands, it's a sunny, beachy, gorgeously animated antidote to winter.

Moana is directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker and their creative team, the brain trust behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Princess and the Frog, among others. The movie's story and look are steeped in Polynesian mythology, and it features a principal voice cast of mostly Pacfic Islander descent, along with a songwriting team that includes Broadway wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame.

The result is a wonderful, girl-power tale of a young woman on a quest to find herself and fulfill her destiny.
Moana: Chosen by the Sea

Scripted by Jared Bush, from a story concocted by Clements, Musker, and their minions, Moana begins with an origin myth about the creation of life in the world, and a slumbering earth goddess in the shape of an island.

But a trickster demigod called Maui stole the sparkling green heart of the goddess, and now the seas are restless, and life in the islands is imperiled.

This tale is told by Gramma Tala (Rachel House) to an audience of rapt island children, and none are more thrilled than her own granddaughter, Moana.

In a brief, frisky montage, we see Moana as a toddler, child, and tween, repeatedly sneaking down to the beach to commune with the sea, only to be dragged back to the village by her father, the chieftan (Maori actor Temuera Morrison). The sea is dangerous, he keeps telling her, but life is beautiful in the village, where her destiny is to lead the people one day.

Moana discovers forbidden boats: love the design on that hull

But the sea herself disagrees. One day when little Moana protects a sea turtle hatchling from predator birds as it crawls into the sea, a wave rises up in a beautiful green spout and deposits a trail of conch shells leading into the ocean at the child's feet.

Her grandmother tells her the sea has chosen Moana to find Maui and return the heart to the sleeping island, far away across the ocean — even though her father forbids anyone from sailing their outrigger boats past the reef that surrounds their island.
Gramma Tala communes with the Sea

But by the time Moana is a young woman (now voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), a coconut blight, and a dwindling fish supply, put island life in jeopardy. The sea reveals the lost heart to Moana, and, at her grandmother's urging, she sets off past the reef, through stormy seas, to find Maui.

The relationship between girl and grandmother is very tender. When Moana is reluctant to leave her granny behind at the start of her quest, Gramma Tala tells her "There is nowhere you can go that I won't be with you."

Navigating by a constellation shaped like the Maui's fabled fish-hook, Moana finds the desolate salt island where the demigod has long been stranded for his crime. With a body full of tattoos, and plenty of attitude, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson; turns out he's part Samoan), doesn't care about Moana's quest, but he covets her boat.

When the sea prevents him from throwing Moana overboard, Maui reluctantly adopts a big brother attitude toward her, and they set out to fix the mess he's made.

After a bizarrely funny encounter with a few boatloads of ferocious pirates made out of coconuts, they visit a scavenger crab (Jemaine Clement provides its sleepy hipster voice) to retrieve the magic fish-hook that allows Maui to shape-shift. (Although, when he wants to soar like a raptor, he's just as likely to find himself transformed into a bug, instead, or an airborne shark.)

A pet chicken provides comedy relief, and the movie spoofs the whole Disney Princess brand. When Moana bristles at that designation, Maui cracks, "If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you're a princess."

Moana's determination to become a Wayfinder echoes another great girl-power movie, Whale Rider. And, most cool are Maui's tattoos, which not only move around and tell their own animated stories, but act as Maui's conscience.

Maui's animated tats: Every picture tells a story
 Like Brave before it, Moana is a newly-minted adventure that's not based on a classic fairy tale, and a Disney Princess movie that doesn't need a prince. It's also great to see the folks at Disney pursuing diversity with such a vengeance, after their first 60 years of all-white heroines. (Remember when it was a big deal that Belle in Beauty and the Beast had brown eyes, not blue?)

Bursting with color, music, beautiful seagoing vistas, and the mythology and folkways of the Pacific Islands, Moana is guaranteed to cure your winter blahs.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Santa Cruz media icon Christina Waters is a true Renaissance Woman.

A journalist whose newspaper stories on arts and culture have been entertaining readers for decades, she's been nominated for the James Beard Award for her food writing (Spirits, Wine and Beer category).

She's a classically trained musician who sings in the University Choir, an accomplished painter, an educator at UCSC with a PhD in Philosophy, and a world traveler always eager to jet off to Milan or Bayreuth for the opera, or London for the theatre.

Now Christina can add "Author" to her impressive list of credits. Her new book, Inside the Flame: The Joy of Treasuring What You Already Have, is out this month from Parallax Press, in Berkeley. Part memoir, part dispensation of accumulated tribal wisdom, it's a collection of punchy, short pieces that exhort us to live now, in the present moment, in the real world — and offers suggestions on how to make our sensual, intellectual and emotional experiences of life even richer.

Christina and I have known each other since the Late Pleistocene Age; we met in the lobby of the Nickelodeon when we were both reviewing movies for rival papers, and we've been friends ever since. But even I was surprised at the sheer variety of life experiences revealed in Inside the Flame, and the depth of her willingness to share them with her readers.

If you're looking for someone to give you tips on how to live life fully, Christina is the mentor for you!

Her thoughtful, often playful pieces have provocative titles, like "Perfume Tattoos," "Up High and Down Low," "Purposeful Wandering,", and "When the World Touches Back."  In "Freestyle Craftiness," she celebrates "the rule that you don't require rules," in the act of creation.

In praise of the rougher, less genteel surfaces found in nature, she writes, "Texture is the world's way of getting our attention." In the piece, "Swimming In the Rain," she turns a story about diving into a public pool in the middle of a summer thunderstorm into an erotic confession.

In these brief, potent vignettes, Christina Waters celebrates the deeper meanings lurking beneath everyday experience, and through a collection of memories and suggested activities, invites us to reimagine our own lives.

Christina will read from Inside the Flame, sign books, and supply witty answers to your questions Monday night, November 28, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. She's liable to have a pretty big cheering section, so get in line now!

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Mental disorder handled with heart, wit, in exuberant Next To Normal

One of the most interesting things about the Jewel Theatre Company is its choice of material. Sure, they produce their share of the classics — Pinter, Shepard, Athol Fugard, Noel Coward — but Artistic Director Julie James also has a sharp eye for innovative work less familiar to local audiences.

Case in point: Next To Normal, the exhilarating second production in JTC's  ongoing 12th season. This show also marks the company's first anniversary in its new space, the Colligan Theater at The Tannery (where they opened last November with Guys And Dolls).

Next To Normal is also a musical, but there's nothing old-school about it. Produced on Broadway in 2009, the show won a couple of Tonys, along with a  Pulitzer Prize, for its audacious depiction of a wife and mother with bipolar disorder whose struggles to cope with her husband, her family, and herself, are surprisingly universal.
Schmitto, with Payne: outstanding

With music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, this is not the kind of musical that comes with show tunes and a chorus line.

It's more like a rock operetta, with almost non-stop music provided in this production by an onstage jazz-rock combo (ably led by keyboardist Katie Coleman) and a cast of six terrific singers.

The music ranges from lyrical to powerhouse, the lyrics are insightful, and the singers perform it in an endlessly inventive series of duets, quartets, and counterpoints.

The story revolves around Diana (Lee Ann Payne), a suburban housewife struggling to get a grip on herself in order to hold her family together. Husband Dan (Christopher Reber) has stuck with her through all the peaks and valleys of her illness.

Payne and Reber: getting a grip
Son Gabe (the outstanding Coleton Schmitto) is the apple of his mother's eye. Teenage daughter Natalie (a poignant, affecting Brittany Law), a scholastic overachiever, also plays keyboards, embracing the classical precision of Mozart as an antidote to the chaos at home.

Payne sings up a storm; she captures Diana's wry wit, and articulates the emotional terrain of each number. Reber's rumpled, loyal Dan, trying to do his best, partners her beautifully. Married in real life, they last appeared onstage together for JTC in the fabulous film noir musical, Gunmetal Blues. (He was the gumshoe; she was the blonde who popped up in all the female roles.)

James (who also directs this production) keeps the action brisk and the audience engaged. The exuberance of this production is what live theatre is all about.

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Race, identity, love, explored in eloquent Moonlight

Black lives matter in Moonlight, filmmaker Barry Jenkins' eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways.

Adapted by Jenkins from an unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the story zeroes in on three key moments in the life of its protagonist as he experiences the world and searches for his place in it.

Beautifully acted, shot with visual intensity, and featuring a haunting soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, the movie begins in the recent past, in the suburbs of Miami.

A minor neighborhood drug kingpin, Juan (the charismatic Mahershala Ali), originally from Cuba, is making his rounds one day in his souped-up, vintage Impala, when he sees a pack of kids chasing a boy.
Ali and Hibbert; father figure

Tracking down the scared, silent boy to a boarded-up apartment house, Juan persuades him to come home with him. Over dinner with Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), the boy reveals that his name is Chiron, but everybody calls him "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert).

Juan takes the boy home to his single mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). But Little starts spending more time with Juan and Teresa.

Juan becomes the boy's mentor and surrogate father; he teaches him to swim in the ocean, and offers thoughtful advice about finding his own identity, no matter what bullies, or his mother, say about him. "You gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be."

Holland and Rhodes: collision course
In the movie's middle section, we meet Chiron again as a 16-year-old high school student (now played by Ashton Sanders). And about ten years later, in the movie's final act, we catch up with Chiron (played as a pumped, hard-edged adult by Trevante Rhodes), whose life has taken a turn that's both unexpected, and yet, sadly, inevitable.

One night, he receives a phone call —out of the blue — from the one friend back home he'd had in grade school, easygoing Kevin (André Holland). So Chiron hits the road on a collision course with the past.

Moonlight gives us a new way to look at characters and situations that are only clichés on the fringes of most mainstream movies.

It's a slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Very sad this week to hear of the passing of the one and only Leon Russell, whose soulful, gospel-tinged boogie-woogie, rocking' piano provided much of the soundtrack for my misspent youth. He was an accomplished guitarist too, but I loved his piano best!

I saw him live at the Anaheim Convention Center ca 1970: Elton John was his opening act. They played separate sets, but their pianos were butt-to-butt onstage. It was a great night!

Saw him again at UCLA, with his own band. Guest star was former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner (who was experiencing a tiny window of celebrity at that moment because of a documentary about him).

Marjoe thought he knew a thing or two about revving up a crowd with his strutting, frenzied onstage antics. But all Leon had to do was lift one pinky and cast a glance: his band started cooking, and the crowd went nuts!

He was featured in two of the greatest rock events of the '70s (spawning two of the greatest rockumentaries, ever): Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour of the States (1970) (movie: 1971), and George Harrison's all-star Concert For Bangladesh (1971) (movie: 1972).

Leon was the musical director and onstage bandleader of the Cocker tour, assembling a knockout collective of studio and session musicians.

He also recruited some amazing vocalists (Rita Coolidge, Claudia Linnear, Jennifer Warnes, among others), not as mere "backup singers," but dubbed The Space Choir, whose contributions were heavenly indeed!

Seeing the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour movie in 1971, I decided joining his choir would be my Plan B career option. So what if I couldn't sing? With all those people crowding the stage, who would ever know?

Here's the entire company rocking out to "Space Captain." (Split screen; very Seventies.) Keep an eye on Leon in the side panels, to appreciate his keyboard riffs, and see just how surely he's in control of the band!

For the Concert For Bangladesh, Leon brought the core of his own touring band to play onstage with Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and members of the group Badfinger.

Here's one of my favorite bits, Leon's medley of the Stone's "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and the Lieber-Stoller chestnut "Youngblood."

(It's kind of a buggy video; a random icon pops up onscreen now and then, and there's a commercial(!) in the middle of the clip. Still, you can see how cool these folks are in concert!)

Both of the soundtrack albums to these movies were at the top of my stereo default list for years!
Did I mention Leon Russell was also a songwriter? "Delta Lady," "Superstar," "Roll Away the Stone," and "A Song For You" are just the first ones that come to mind.

When my brothers and I were cleaning out my mom's house a few years ago, I found this stashed away somewhere. It's a full-page pic of Leon, ripped out of Rolling Stone magazine, in his trademark top hat, and cascading hair (already going silver in his late 20s). I'd taped it o a piece of cardboard, and had it posted in my room forever!

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, killer piano-player, and Master of Space and Time: rock on, Leon!

Monday, November 7, 2016


Sex, lies, gender politics fuel twisty, edgy 'The Handmaiden'

It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London.

But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in The Handmaiden, Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. Filmmaker and source material are both edgy in complementary ways.

Gorgeously shot and composed, audacious, and full of witty visual asides, The Handmaiden is a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.

Park shifts the locale to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Sook-Hee (bright and lively Kim Tae-ri) is a young woman who's grown up in a den of pickpockets and thieves, purchased from a "purveyor of stolen girls." One of the gang leaders, a smooth-talking Korean who calls himself Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha), picks Sook-Hee as his accomplice in an elaborate swindle.
Maid to Order: Kim Tae-ri and Min-hee Kim

The mark is Kouzuki (Jin-woo Jo), a wealthy, middle-aged Japanese man living in splendor at a remote country estate. Kouzuki has been the guardian of his niece, Hideko — and her fortune — since she was five years old.

Now that Hideko (Min-hee Kim) is a poised young woman, the Count, a talented art forger, has secured himself a position as her drawing tutor. He's also arranged employment for Sook-Hee as Lady Hideko's handmaiden.

The plan is for Sook-Hee to assist the Count in persuading Hideko to run away with him. Once married, he'll shut her up in a madhouse and claim her fortune for himself.
Drawing conclusions:Jung-woo Ha and Min-hee Kim

Hoping to make her own fortune from her share of the take, Sook-Hee agrees. Street-smart, but not especially sophisticated (she can't read), she's awed by Kouzuki's grand home, his immense library of rare books that she's forbidden to enter, and the beauty of her new mistress — who's surprisingly close to her own age.

But this is just the jumping-off point for a plot that becomes more bold, twisty, and rewarding as it unfolds. (Park's film could be a subversive co-bill with Miss Hokusai: both deal with ukiyo-e erotica, including the famed print of a giant octopus pleasuring a swoony geisha, an image Park also references in one funny, fleeting visual gag.)

You might want to skip this one if onscreen sex makes you uncomfortable. But otherwise, this is a lavish, intricate puzzle-box of a movie that considers colonial, and gender politics with wicked aplomb. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Three Women Playing Musical Instruments, by O-Ei Hokusai
Art, erotica, girl power, and parent-child relationships — Miss Hokusai ought to have everything going for it.

Set in the Japanese capital city of Edo (now Tokyo) in the early 19th Century, it depicts the life of famed painter, Katsushika Hokusai, and his daughter, O-Ei, also a talented artist, who spends her days completing deadlines for her unreliable father.

This would have been a fascinating story for a live-action film. But as an offering from the popular Japanese animation studio, Production I.G (Ghost In the Shell), it's an odd mix of gorgeous, painterly vistas and lovely glimpses of historical and cultural traditions, with jarring modern rock music, cornball dialogue, and inane slapstick comedy.

(To be fair, I saw a version dubbed into English. It's possible that the Japanese-language version, with English subtitles — both versions are playing at the Del Mar — might work better.)

Daughter of Dragons: Miss Hokusai
Directed by Keiichi Hara, inspired by Hinako Sugiura’s manga comic Sarusuberi, the movie revolves around O-Ei, who lives with her slovenly, obsessed father. He has no vices, she tells us, he doesn't drink or smoke— all he does is paint. She paints too, and when her dad can't complete a commission on time, she's expected to fill in for him — without credit.

This makes O-Ei perpetually fed up and rankled, so she's not a character we ever exactly warm up to. We see her smoking a pipe and sketching erotic drawings (the elder Hokusai was famed for his erotica as well as his iconic land- and seascapes), but neither of these pastimes gives her character much extra dimension.

Hokusai, the Elder's Great Wave

The plot goes off on a lot of weird tangents. There's Hokusai's apprentice, a drunken ex-Samurai used for tedious comic relief, and his buddy, another young apprentice, making painfully gauche attempts to ingratiate himself with the profoundly uninterested O-Ei. It's interesting that one if the brothel geishas turns out to be male, but not much is done with that character.

The movie is most impressive, visually, when its static —a giant wave that recreates the famous Hokusai image, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa; a white winter landscape dotted with touches of red. The supernatural elements are also well-done: a dragon that grows out of storm clouds; Hokusai's dream of his hands flying around the world; a courtesan's nightmares fueled by a painting of Heaven and Hell. (Read more in this week's Good Times.)
Cherry Blossoms In the Night

O-Ei was an actual historical person whose excellent work was almost entirely submerged in her father's career. In most bygone eras, only women who were the daughters, or wives, of artists were allowed into the old boy's club of the arts.

You'd never know it from this movie (where O-Ei seems to be a teenager), but O-Ei (daughter of her father's second wife) had already been married and divorced before she moved back in with her father in his old age, when he was stricken with palsy and needed her help with his work.

She was never credited with any of the painting they did together. Born around 1800, she did her most creative work between about 1830 to 1850. Only ten paintings have been attributed to her hand alone— but look how cool they are!

In the ukiyo-e style of this era, each painting was painstakingly copied by a master engraver, and the images were then published as hand-pressed woodblock prints. O-Ei's Three Women Playing Musical Instruments is remarkable not only for the rich detail of dress, but also for the audacity of that central figure with her back to the viewer.

And given the complicated printing technique, the intricacy of light and shadow is amazing in Cherry Blossoms In the Night. (Also variously titled A Beauty Reading (or Writing) Poetry by Cherry Blossoms In the Night.)

Attribution of this painting to O-Ei is sketchy. Two or three websites credit it to O-Ei, which references keep popping up on other sites. Wikipedia doesn't list this painting among its "selected works" for O-Ei, although that might be due to the confusion about the title.

However, O-Ei was renowned for her work in chirascuro (shadow and light). As a point of reference look at the luminous Night Scene in Yoshiwara, which is definitely attributed to O-Ei.

The movie Miss Hokusai has its ups and downs. But it's always exciting to discover an unsung woman artist!

Sketch of O-Ei and her father by Tsuyuki Kosho, ca. 1842