Santa Popo


Santa PopoFor Nicholas

In a small town in Florida lived a little dog named Penelope. She was a delightful little thing, barely ten pounds and small enough to hold in the crook of your arm with no trouble. She lived with a family in which there were no small children but she was very loved and cared for. She was an affectionate sort, given to cuddling whenever possible, kissing her owners often and giving them hours of delight with her antics.

Not far away lived a little boy named Nicholas and he was two years old, a wonderful age to be indeed. His mommy and daddy were friends with the owners of Penelope and they saw each other often. Nicholas’ mommy even worked with Penelope’s mommy. The two families went to the park with Nicholas from time to time, or to the movies or sometimes they’d just spend an evening playing board games.

Nicholas was one of those little boys who had a smile that couldn’t be resisted. Once you saw it, your whole body would turn warm and fuzzy and that smile would penetrate straight into your heart until you were smiling yourself. Then, you’d pass that smile to others that you encountered, each smile going from heart to heart until this little Florida town was one of the happiest places on Earth.

Everyone loved Penelope but particularly Nicholas who called her by her nickname which was Popo (Penelope was a little too hard for young Nicholas to get his mouth around just yet). His smile would get even brighter and bigger whenever he went to visit Popo or she came to visit him. They would chase each other around everywhere and Nicholas would laugh and laugh and laugh. Penelope, who also had a wonderful doggie smile, would laugh too in her own doggie way. No matter how bad a day the adults were having, the sight of Nicholas and Popo together never failed to make them feel better.

That year, Christmas was a little colder than usual – for Florida, that is which is to say not very cold at all compared to everywhere else. Penelope’s mommy had been sick for some time, which made things hard on Penelope’s daddy who to begin with had health problems of his own and also on Nicholas’ mommy who was new to her job and was now having to learn her way around without her friend to guide her as much. Penelope, sensing how sick her mommy was, spent a lot of time curled up in her lap as her mommy watched television or played on her tablet. Penelope’s presence made her mommy feel better which was a good thing, but it did mean that Penelope didn’t get to spend as much time with her friend Nicholas.

It would break his mommy’s heart when he would ask for his friend Popo and his mommy would have to say she couldn’t come over. “Popo’s house,” Nicholas would say but because Penelope’s mommy was sick they couldn’t go over. Nicholas didn’t cry because he was a brave big boy, but he would still feel sad.

Nicholas’ parents invited Penelope and her family over for Christmas, knowing that because Penelopes’s mommy and daddy really couldn’t make much of a Christmas for themselves. Nicholas was looking forward to seeing his friend again and was more excited about that than for opening presents, although he loved the shiny tinsel on the tree and the beautiful twinkling lights. He would stand and look at the tree with shining eyes, a big contented grin on his face.

It was Christmas Eve and time for Nicholas to go to bed but he was so excited! He wanted to stay up all night but his mommy wouldn’t let him. “Time to sleep,” she announced and that was that. Nicholas finally went to bed in his crib and sat in the dark of his bedroom lit by a night light (he wasn’t scared of the dark but he liked the night light) and thought about having his friend Popo come to visit him.

At last his mommy and daddy finished doing what parents do on Christmas Eve and they went to bed themselves, listening to their son’s bedroom and hearing only the sound of his breathing before drifting off to sleep themselves. All was quiet.

Nicholas was thinking so hard about his friend that he could see her sitting in his room, her brown eyes wide and friendly, her tongue lolling out of her smiling mouth, her fluffy tail like a plume wagging back and forth so fast it might fly off on its own at any moment. Nicholas was a little puzzled by the silver glow that surrounded her  and at the red Santa hat with white fur trim that she wore. To him she looked like the sweetest little elf that ever was. “Popo!” he sighed softly, seeing his friend and feeling safe and happy.

Penelope spoke. “Tonight is Christmas Eve and on this special night we dogs are allowed to speak but only to very special people.” Nicholas looked at her as if seeing a dog talk was the most natural thing in the world – why, it happened every day of course! But of course dogs don’t talk and had Nicholas’ daddy been there he would have fainted dead away but Nicholas wasn’t surprised in the least. Penelope continued, “You carry the name of Santa Claus as your own. That’s a very wonderful name to have.” Nicholas nodded and giggled. He loved his name and he especially loved hearing his mommy say it.

“It’s not common knowledge, but we dogs help Santa with his important work. There are so many children in the world, he can’t watch them all the time. He uses us dogs to keep an eye on you, to find out who’s naughty and who’s nice. Once in awhile, we find someone who has so much happiness in them that they can’t help spread it around to the world. You’re just like that Nicholas.” Nicholas clapped his hands and let out a loud giggle. In their bedroom his parents snored in their sleep, oblivious.

Penelope leaped into his crib and curled up with her friend. “You’re a very special little boy Nicholas. You have it in you to bring great joy and happiness to the whole world. It is my job and the job of every doggie in the world to take care of children like you. You have the same gift as Santa – and the world needs as many people like you in it as it can get.” Nicholas cooed, stroking Popo’s soft fur and as content as a little boy can be when hugging a beloved dog. Nicholas asked Popo “Stay?” She smiled and said “Just for tonight. I must also take care of my own family in the morning but I’ll keep you warm and safe tonight.” Nicholas hugged her tight. “Popo talk!”

Popo snuggled against him. “You can always hear me in your heart. I will speak to you there.” He began to feel sleepy and he curled up with Popo. She gave him a special Popo kiss on the forehead and whispered “Sleep well, Nicholas. You have so much ahead of you.” Nicholas fell asleep with his arms wrapped around his friend. She curled up with him and let the night flow over her.

In the morning Nicholas woke up and he was alone. “Popo!” he called out. His mother, already awake, came into his bedroom. “Merry Christmas!” she exclamed, picking her son up and giving him a huge Christmas morning hug (the best kind). Nicholas’ disappointment that his friend wasn’t there was forgotten as he hugged his mommy back with all the strength his two-year-old arms could muster. “Yes, Popo is coming to visit you today,” she smiled as she carried Nicholas into the kitchen to give him a little breakfast before they opened presents.

Later that afternoon, Penelope and her mommy and daddy came to visit and Nicholas was overjoyed to see his friend, laughing at the silly sweater her mommy and daddy had put on her. “Popo talk!” said Nicholas. Penelope gave him a sly wink and barked in the friendly way she did. Nicholas’ mom laughed. “Silly,” she said to her son, “Dogs can’t talk!” Penelope’s mommy and daddy exchanged a knowing glance. Only a select few get to hear dogs talk on Christmas eve but only the sweetest and most loving sorts can hear them the whole year round and most of them were children. As Nicholas hugged his friend Popo, he could plainly hear her say “Merry Christmas Nicholas!” He gave his friend a kiss which got an “awww” from both sets of parents and would send fresh sets of joy to be spread throughout the neighborhood, passed on by those who had felt it firsthand.

So don’t be surprised those of you parents with dogs to see your children talking to them. Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean they aren’t answering.

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Goya’s Ghost


Goya's Ghosts

Francisco Goya stands before one of his completed works.

(Goldwyn) Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Mabel Rivera. Directed by Milos Forman

These days the Spanish Inquisition is a punch line, but back in the day the name would induce fear for the suffering it caused. Being summoned by the Inquisition was in no way a joke, and those who received such a summons usually had reason to regret it later.

Francisco Goya (Skarsgaard) is perhaps the most renowned painter in all of Spain. He has the eye of the royal court, including King Carlos (Quaid) and the clergy, including the Inquisitor General (Lonsdale) and more to the point, an ambitious clergyman named Lorenzo (Bardem) who is having his own portrait painted by Goya. Lorenzo has recently lobbied the Inquisitor General to be given charge of the Inquisition so that he might return it to stricter standards.

Noticing a painting of a young girl in Goya’s studio, Lorenzo finds out that her name is Ines (Portman) and she is the daughter of a prosperous merchant (Gomez). When Ines is picked up by Inquisition spies for refusing to eat pork in a tavern (since those of the Jewish faith didn’t eat pork, this is construed as a sign of Judaism and not of someone just not liking the taste of pork; this particular policy was bad news for those who didn’t like pork and worse news for pigs), her parents beg Goya to intercede with the Inquisition. He goes to Lorenzo, who visits the torture-ravaged girl who has already confessed for her crime of not eating pork and therefore being a Jew (horrors!) and rather than helping her, he rapes her instead. Nice guy, that Lorenzo.

As the days and weeks begin to pile up, the merchant decides to take matters into his own hands. He invites Lorenzo and Goya for dinner and pleads directly to Lorenzo. When Lorenzo placidly says that the whole concept of the Inquisition is that those who speak the truth will receive strength from God to weather the torture, the merchant goes ballistic. He feels, quite rightly, that people will admit to anything under torture and to prove it, he strings up Lorenzo (over Goya’s strenuous objections) and gets him to sign an affidavit that Lorenzo is, in fact, a monkey who consorts with other monkeys. Such a document would be blasphemy and Lorenzo would be disgraced and defrocked and quite probably feel the ministrations of the Inquisition himself. The merchant threatens Lorenzo with the document if he doesn’t release Ines; Lorenzo being a stubborn sort rapes her again.

Thus the merchant makes the document public and Lorenzo is predictably defrocked, fleeing Spain in disgrace. 15 years later, King Carlos is dead and Napoleon has conquered Spain, abolishing the Inquisition and installing a new prosecutor – that’s right, Lorenzo. He has wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of the French revolution and enthusiastically applies it to Spain with mixed results.

Goya in the meantime has gone deaf and is embittered, although he is still a great painter (and would be for several decades). Ines has lost most of her mind during her long incarceration; when the French empty the jails, she wanders to her family home only to find all of her family dead, killed by rampaging soldiers during the invasion. With nowhere left to go, she seeks out Goya, begging him to help her find the baby she’d had in prison who Lorenzo had fathered but had been taken away from Ines shortly after birth.

Forman, best known for Amadeus has again presented a place and time in all its glory and sordidness, warts and halos combined. This is a place of disease and putrefaction, but one where great works of art were created.

Forman took many of his visual cues from Goya himself, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a magnificent job of making the movie look not unlike a Goya painting; often dark and mysterious but always full of life.

Skarsgaard makes a formidable Goya, charming and driven at once, his talent protecting him from the worst offenses of the time. The surprising thing is that he is not the central character of the movie that bears his name.

In fact, nobody has that distinction. Ostensibly, it’s Lorenzo’s story but it really isn’t about him, not altogether anyway. Nor is it about Ines, who spends much of the film rotting away in prison offscreen.  It’s not because of the performances of Bardem and Portman who do solid work here – no, it really is because there is no focus on any one specific character, leaving us to focus on the environment, which might be a good thing because Foreman does such a great job at creating it.

This isn’t a trip to the Prado by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the next best thing. Admirers of Goya may cringe at the liberties taken with the painter’s life and the history of Spain but even the most stringent of those will surely be pleased by the overall look of the film, which captures the spirit and intensity of the great artist’s work.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard, Bardem and Portman deliver solid performances. The film depicts a time in history rarely seen in films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a little confusing and the plot a bit brutal from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s rape, violence, murder, nudity, torture, sexuality, foul language and all manner of mayhem. Just another day at the office for me, but you might want to consider hard before letting your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Forman noticed her resemblance to the Goya painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Escapist