Sunday, October 22, 2017


Trauma begets kidlit classic in lovely Goodbye Christopher Robin

A few weeks ago, I was ranting about biographical movies that commit a sin of admission —unable to be selective about the facts of a person's real life, they let the point of the movie drown in too many details.

But, in telling a story about A. A. Milne, author of the beloved Winnie the Pooh children's books, director Simon Curtis gets it right.

He chooses one aspect of Milne's life and career to focus on, and follows through to its conclusion. A larger picture of Milne and his era emerges along the way, but it never distracts from the emotional core of Curtis' very poignant film.

Curtis has impressive credentials for translating real-life stories to film (My Week With Marilyn; Woman In Gold). Working from a thoughtful script by veteran Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Curtis crafts a gentle-spirited movie around a serious theme: how Milne's harrowing experiences in the First World War drove him to create the healing fantasy of Winnie the Pooh, inspired by his little son and his toy animals. Serious too is the minor theme: the effect of worldwide fame on a 6-year-old boy.

Gleeson, Tilston, and furry friends: imagination heals
In Jazz Age London, Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is a writer of frothy stage comedies who's finding it hard to adjust to his old life after a tour of duty in the trenches of France. He keeps having devastating flashbacks to the battlefield — whenever a champagne cork pops, for instance, or a car backfires.

After enduring the birth of their son, Christopher Robin, is social-butterfly wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), is eager to resume their usual round of parties and opening nights.

But Alan finds London too disturbing, and shocks his wife by moving the family, along with Olive (the always endearing Kelly Macdonald), the young nanny who has raised the boy, to a country house in Sussex, where he hopes to start writing again.

The real-life Milne, Christopher Robin, and Pooh Bear
When Alan is left alone for a few days with 5-year-old Christopher, whom everyone calls Billy (the disarmingly dimpled Will Tilston), wandering the benign, sunlit wood on their property, the two begin to bond.

Although he longs to produce a work that will convince people to abolish war, as they once abolished slavery, Alan gets drawn into the imaginative world Billy creates for his stuffed animals, which jump-starts Alan's own creativity. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet are born.

These lovely scenes between Tilston and Gleeson (reserved at first, then playfully loosening up) are the heart of the movie. The publication and immediate global mania for the Pooh books and poems go by in a fleet montage. (Director Curtis is smart enough to realize that's the part of the story we already know.)

But their father-son relationship is damaged. It's heartbreaking that they can never again regain that golden time when the stories were just for the two of them, before the whole world was watching. (Read more)

How big a global sensation was Winnie the Pooh? Winnie ille Pu was a Latin translation my parents gave me as a high school freshman studying Latin in the '60s — almost 50 years after Milne's book was published. The Tao of Pooh came out in 1982. Needless to say, Pooh, in his original and various spinoff versions, is still in print!

Saturday, October 21, 2017


Hey kids!

Guess what? Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is available for pre-order from Barnes & Noble as we speak! AND at an insane pre-release discount! (And, yes, that's for the hardcover first edition!)

Check it out!

True, the book will not actually be released until July 10, 2018. But this is one way to be the first kid on your block to get your paws on it on Day One. Okay, it may not be faster than a speeding kindle on release day, but the tactile pleasures of a real ink-and-paper book are their own reward.

Beast is also  now available (again) for pre-order on Amazon, but at the retail price. I expect they will soon offer a pre-order discount as well — but plucky B&N had SO beat them to the punch!

Thursday, October 19, 2017


So, what separates a big, red, fresh tomato from a squashed green splat over at Rotten Tomatoes?

Now that I'm an officially Tomatometer-approved RT critic myself, I am gaining some insight.

I recently got an email from an RT editor, after the site had been posting my reviews for a few weeks. He thanked me for joining the team, but he had a question about one of my recent reviews.

I'd given the movie 2 1/2 stars out of 4 (according to my official Jensen-o-meter, long in use on the Good Times website). He said the staff had read that as "slightly negative," but they wanted to check with me before assigning a (dreaded) splat to my review of the movie.

I told him 2 1/2 stars was right, smack in the middle: the movie had merits, which I cited, but the narrative drawbacks — for me — slightly outweighed them. On the other hand, it wasn't a terrible movie. So I asked, can we give it, like, half a tomato?

But there is no grey area at Rotten Tomatoes, no ambiguity. It's either a "fresh," or a splat.

Still, I was glad the editor invited me to weigh in, in the interest of fairness. Re-reading my review, I had to admit it read as slightly negative, so I had to stand by my opinion: I authorized the splat.

And while I regret that the nuance of critical thinking might get lost in a strictly pass-fail system, readers are always encouraged to click the reviewer's link next to the Tomatometer icon the get the whole story.

(On the other hand, some reviews are completely unambiguous! The movie in question here is the disaster that was Pan.)

Friday, October 13, 2017


The countdown continues!

In 9 months, my Beast will be born! Yes, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge hits bookstores on July 10, 2019.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on my Beast of the Month in this gorgeous illustration of Beauty and the Beast by contemporary artist Toshiaki Kato.

Kato does not apparently have a website of his own, but you can see more of his beauteous illustrations here.

His work is featured in an item called Genshin/Japanese Anime Art Book, which is mostly available on eBay. I have no other information about him.

But Holy Moly, what a cool image!

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Life still mysterious is thoughtful sequel Blade Runner 2049

You don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of the original to enjoy this 30-years-later sequel to Ridley Scott's groundbreaking sci-fi epic.

The new movie tells its own story, with a (mostly) new cast of characters, although the main plot thrust was launched in the original.

But there's enough context to make sense to latecomers, while longtime fans will have lots of new fodder for speculation in how it all plays out.

Incoming director Denis Villeneuve (in close collaboration with exec-producer Scott), sticks to the original theme of the first film and the Philip K. Dick story that inspired it: an existential question of the meaning of life when a breed of super-strong, machine-made androids, called "replicants," have been created to serve the master race of humans.

Ir-replicantable: Rutger Hauer in the original
The movie's two-hours and 43-minutes allow plenty of time to brood over the issue of what constitutes "real" life, and it's worth pondering. Yet, respect for the miracle of life itself, expressed with such aching eloquence in the original film, never feels quite as profound here.

We never feel that urgent sense of loss the renegade replicants felt in the first film, battling for their sense of human identity in the face of extinction.

Still, the movie resonates in its own way as its central mystery evolves — especially when LAPD blade runner Ryan Gosling unearths startling evidence that a replicant has given birth.

And it's great to see Harrison Ford revisiting one of his best signature roles. His testy, cynical ex-blade runner, Deckard, plays well against Gosling's smooth aplomb as they become unexpected allies in pursuit of the truth.
(Read more)

Sunday, October 8, 2017


Beloved Santa Cruz artist Beth Gripenstraw's creative energy is so boundless, and her wacky muse so insistent, it's not enough for her to produce her gorgeous, hand-painted ceramic plates, bowls, cups, serving platters, jars, cups and earrings.

She also has to create an entire thematic environment in which to show them off at her Open Studio every year. The theme might be an African safari, or an underwater adventure a la 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

One year, it was my personal favorite, Paris in the 1920s. She even served absinthe!  

This year, her extravagant set-up is an archeological dig in the desert. The front door is transformed into a recently opened Egyptian tomb, guarded by a pair of carved 'stone" big-cat sentinels.

The foyer inside is littered with pots — some strewn about, some reduced to shards, but others vibrantly painted and gloriously intact!

Life-sized camels lounge about the walkway leading to the site, er, studio. And inside — room after room of fabulous pottery, often displayed on giant packing crates, ready to be shipped off to museums worldwide.

A trio of Bedouin women, in elaborate costumes and headdresses keep watch in the dining room display.

Thematic designs this year include dragonflies and scarab beetles, reflecting the artist's background in botanical illustration. These are grouped alongside her ever-popular floral, fish, and animal designs.

For refreshment, there are camel-shaped cookies! (As you can see, below, I ate most of mine before I remembered to photograph it!) For the more adventurous, munch on freeze-dried insects, washed down with a Camel's Milk cocktail.

Every Open Studio is an event at Beth's place! Santa Cruz is lucky to have her.

Souvenirs from the site: security pass, camel shard, and half a cookie!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Intriguing fantasia on King's last hours in SCAT production The Mountaintop

We all know how the story ends. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. crusader of the civil rights movement, tireless advocate for social justice and racial equality through peaceful protest, inspiration to millions, was shot to death outside his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

Those are the facts. But what may or may not have occurred on the night of April 3, Dr. King's last night on earth, is a matter of pure conjecture. That's the challenge taken up in The Mountaintop, the award-winning 2009 drama from Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall receiving its local premiere in an intriguing new Santa Cruz Actors' Theatre production at Center Stage.

A Columbia grad who received her MFA from Harvard, then graduated from the playwriting program at Julliard, Hall has the audacity to imagine King's final hours as a dialogue between the road-weary civil rights leader and a pretty young motel maid on her first day on the job.

Hall surprises the audience with a portrait of King that dares to be both laudatory and iconoclastic, viewing him as more human than saint, while celebrating his profound effect on the fight for freedom and justice for which he finally gave his life.

Wills and Cruse: sassy and subversive

The SCAT production, well-directed by local stage veteran Erik Gandolfi, begins with the civil rights leader returning to his motel room after delivering a speech to the striking sanitation workers he's come to town to support. King (played with energetic presence by Avondina Wills), eager to get to work on the next speech he's writing, has sent his roommate, Ralph Abernathy, out to the corner store to buy a pack of the Pall Malls he's trying to quit smoking.

When he calls room service for a cup of coffee, it's delivered by a starstruck young maid called Camae (sassy and ultimately commanding Sarah Cruse). As luck would have it, she has a couple of Pall Malls in her pocket; he persuades her to have a smoke with him, and they bring out the flirt in each other — even though she has to keep apologizing for swearing in front of a preacher whenever her salty street vocabulary slips out.

The stage seems to be set for debate along gender, class, and political lines. And for awhile, that's how it goes, especially when they discuss the violence of the Black Panthers vs. King's allegiance to peaceful protest. But there's a seismic shift when Camae's true nature and her purpose are suddenly revealed. It's too good a plot twist to give away here, but it gives Hall's play its slyly subversive edge as it ramps up toward its moving conclusion.
(Read more)

Monday, October 2, 2017


King-Riggs tennis match scores in entertaining Battle of the Sexes

At 29, Billie Jean King was the top-ranked woman tennis player in the world, making waves on the pro circuit by demanding promoters offer women players the same prize money they offered male players.

Bobby Riggs was a 55-year-old former tennis champ, and shameless self-promoting media hustler. When he challenged her to a duel on the tennis court in 1973, the whole world was literally watching.

It was billed as the "Battle of the Sexes," a symbolic milestone in the then-burgeoning women's movement.

And now their match-up comes to the big screen in this thoughtful and entertaining movie about gender, identity, politics, and celebrity at a pivotal cultural moment in American history, written by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine).

The real Bobby and Billie Jean. Guess who had the muscle?
Emma Stone is poised and terrific as Billie Jean, who starts her own tour with eight other female champions when a smug promoter refuses to pay the women players as much as their male counterparts.

(The other women players are so excited to get their own tour, they each sign on for one dollar.)

The publicity generated by the tour attracts gadfly Bobby (Steve Carell), who, since his heyday in the late 1940s and '50s, has been living off high-profile exhibition matches — and the inherited income of his wealthy wife.

Billie Jean rejects Bobby's first offer. Long-married to her college sweetheart, she's too busy coping with a her sudden, intense attraction to Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), here portrayed as a hairdresser who comes on tour with the female pros.

Stone and Carell: match point
But when Bobby starts talking a lot of trash about the male being "the superior animal," Billie Jean instructs her manager-husband, "Call the bozo. Tell him it's on."

Carell plays Bobby with gusto, in all his gross excess, and yet there's unexpected charm in his brash exuberance, vowing to "put the show back in chauvinism!"

A vintage soundtrack keeps the action bubbling along, and clothes and hairstyles replicate the era perfectly.

But despite the hi-jinks, the subject of gender inequality (let alone embracing one's sexual orientation) remains serious throughout — and as pertinent now as ever.
(Read more)