Wednesday, February 21, 2018

GLORIA IN EXCELSIS

Film noir star Grahame memorialized in wistful love story Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool


Gloria Grahame is not much remembered these days. She was never as famous a movie star as, say, Marilyn Monroe. But, with her soft, girlish voice, sensual mouth, and trademark pout belying the gutsy toughness of the characters she played, she was a staple player in 1950s film noir, who is still much beloved by fans of the genre.

But it's Gloria Grahame at the end of her career who's the centerpiece of Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool.

Based on a memoir written by Peter Turner, it's the story of how Turner, an aspiring young actor trying to break into showbiz, met and fell in love with the veteran actress when she was working onstage in England in 1979.


Bell and Bening: plausibly beguiling
The book is now a movie by director Paul McGuigan, a wistful tone poem about age and celebrity featuring dynamic performances from stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell.

Peter is 28, and Gloria is almost 30 years his senior. But they bond over the craft and business of acting as he squires her around town, and pretty soon they become lovers.

When, inevitably, she moves back to Los Angeles, she invites Peter to come live with her in her trailer on the beach at Malibu — a heady fantasy for a lad from Liverpool.

That Bening's no-nonsense, often fiercely anti-glam onscreen persona is so different from the kittenish Grahame's gives the casting its interesting edge.

Grahame and Turner, real-life
Instead of trying to mimic the actress, Bening digs into the heart of a woman of a certain age whose appetite for life and the work she loves is undiminished, investing her with a vitality and playfulness that plausibly beguiles the younger man.

Gloria tells Peter the best acting advice she ever got, from Humphrey Bogart. "Keep it all inside," she says. "Let the camera come to you."


Clearly, Bell has taken this advice to heart. Many of the movie's richest moments come from Bell's still face, perceptibly filling with emotion to which he never quite gives voice.

As the movie is based on Turner's book, we have only his word that Peter was as gallant and adoring as Bell plays him.

But if this movie revives interest in Gloria Grahame's vintage movies, I'm all for it.

Here she is at her saucy best, mixing a drink an cracking wise with her big lug of a boyfriend, mob enforcer Lee Marvin, in The Big Heat (1953)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

TIME BANDITS

Books: entertainment the old-fashioned way
We didn't make a resolution, but once the holiday festivities were over last December, Art Boy and I came up with a radical decision for the New Year. We decided to read more books.

It takes some planning, of course, given the finite number of hours in the day. So we came up with three strategies for wresting time away from our usual allotment. Just call us the time bandits!

Strategy 1: In the dark of winter, we designate the hour before we start prepping dinner to reading. What a luxury! I've already read more books in the last six weeks than I was able to read in all of last year!
Time to excavate those bookmarks and put 'em to work!

As a writer, too, I have to keep filling up the well. It's not like stealing ideas from other books; it's more like the act of reading plunges you into the milieu where ideas are created, both on the page and in your own imagination.

As a smart sociologist once wrote, "we create as we read in a way that we do not as we watch Roseanne." Or, I would add, bringing the comparison up to date, as we do not as we watch the latest Looney Tunes emanating from the White House.

(No offense intended to the original Warner Brothers Looney Tunes of classic cartoons. If only Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were running things in DC!)
Oh, if ONLY we'd had this option!

Which brings me to Strategy 2: Unplugging from the nightly news frees up another extra hour — or an entire evening, if you decide to give your psyche and your sanity a break. Stay informed. Seize every possible opportunity to resist. But don't let it occupy your every waking moment. Besides, you'll catch up with the news the minute you go online again.

Strategy 3: W'eve started getting up one hour earlier in the morning. Yes, it's daunting to try to roll out of bed when it's still dark outside. But once showers are taken, the cat's been fed (and, sensibly, gone back to sleep), and caffeine has been imbibed, I find myself at the keyboard before 8 o'clock in the morning! Which means three uninterrupted hours of writing time before we're off to yoga!

And the more writing I get done in the morning, the more deserving I feel about all that rapturous reading to come!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS

Revolting Rhymes: Girl vs Wolf
Dark themes, wit, diversity, in Oscar Nominated Short Films

A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the bright idea to start packaging each year's Oscar-nominated short films in two programs to play in movie theaters — one featuring all five nominated live-action shorts, and a second featuring all five animated nominees (plus a few extras, to bump it up to feature-length).

The 2018 editions of the Oscar Nominated Shorts are in theaters now. If I was forced to pick a favorite, I'd go with the Animated Shorts —far more stylistically diverse, in a format that encourages  creative imagination.

The Live-Action nominees represent a broader range of racially and culturally diverse experience, evoking some powerful responses.

Who knows what you'll find in the Lost Property Office
Purists planning to see both should start with the more serious-minded Live-Action Shorts, then treat themselves to the Animated Shorts for dessert!

Among my animated favorites is Revolting Rhymes, from Jakob Schuch and Jan Lachauer (UK). Adapted from a collection of fairy tale-inspired poems by Roald Dahl, it's a sly, subversive mash-up of classic tales conveyed in Dahl's waspishly elegant verse.

A dapper wolf (voice by Dominic West) spins a tale for a sweet little old lady in a tea shop in which strands of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs are woven into a fiendishly clever narrative where little girls are not as helpless as they seem, and "goodness" does not always prevail.

The Silent Child: Maisie Sly
Daniel Agdag's Lost Property Office (Australia) isn't even one of the nominees, but the retro-steampunk vibe in this dialogue-free sepia-toned tale of a lowly clerk in a lost-property office underneath a metro station is completely beguiling.

The most moving of the Live-Action films is The Silent Child by Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton (UK), in which a compassionate young audiologist bonds with a 6-year-old deaf girl whose well-meaning family is too busy to engage with her.

Kevin Wilson Jr.'s My Nephew Emmett (USA), set in Mississippi in 1955, is a dark elegy exploring events leading to one of our nation's most notorious racial crimes, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, told with stark, potent grace.


Watu Wote/All Of Us, by Katja Benrath, (Germany) tells a harrowing true story of Muslims and Christians protecting each other on a bus trip between Kenya and Somalia when their bus is invaded by terrorists.
(Read more)

The film was completed by director Benrath as her graduation project at the end of her studies at the Hamburg Media School.

 (Right: Adelyne Wairimu in Watu Wote/All of Us)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

GOLDEN BEAST

Poor Beast!

He can't get a break. No matter how nobly he behaves, Beauty can't accept him as a romantic partner.

Of course, Beast gets a different story in my book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge!

Speaking of which, as the countdown continues to my publication date (July 10, 2018), behold my Beast of the Month! This lovely image is by Gordon Laite (1925-1978), a popular illustrator of children's books in the 1950s and '60s.

Laite is perhaps best known for The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, a Little Golden Book (remember that series of thin cardboard-bound picture books with the shiny gold spines?), and the collection Five Fairy Tales (which was a Big Golden Book). One of those five stories is Beauty and the Beast, which is the origin of this image.

Although Laite's Beast does not resemble mine, I still love the vivid colors and fanciful details of this picture — look at that winsomely decorated candelabra, and those busy butterflies! Not to mention her gown festooned with peacock feathers!

But I especially love the tenderness of Beauty's hand attempting to comfort Beast.

He gets the companion he deserves in my version of the story!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

ART to GO!

Hearts for the Arts: love themes
Now that it's positively spring-like outside, it's time to do what Santa Cruz does best: celebrate art and the artists in our midst!

Two fabulous new art shows are up and running this week.

First up, welcome back a beloved local tradition, Hearts for the Arts, the long-running benefit for the  Arts Council of Santa Cruz County.

Once upon a time, it was the biggest clambake of the art season, a catered affair at the Civic Auditorium, where artists came out of their lairs to mingle, while art patrons came all fired up to bid on their work — fueled by free champagne a chocolates provided during the increasingly raucous live auction that closed the evening.

These days things are a bit more (ahem) decorous. Artisan's Gallery, downtown, generously provides the wall space for an ongoing silent auction that opened February 1st, and continues to February 13.

In keeping with the Valentine season, most of the art pieces feature hearts or other love-oriented themes.

And the varying interpretations of that theme is what makes the show so interesting — as you can see from the eclectic grouping, above!

Besides small paintings, there are textiles, mixed media, encaustics, and a selection of fine jewelry to tempt art lovers — 100 pieces in all. Each piece comes with a preemptive strike option, a "Buy Now" price that will secure that item without any further bidding.

Several pieces have already sold out of the show this way, so get out there and place your bids!

I love my Connie Grant watercolor!
And while you're there, check out the vast selection of art, craft, jewelry, and greeting cards Artisan's has to offer. (How funny is it that Art Boy's painting ended up above the greeting card rack featuring champagne cards!)

Meanwhile, down in Watsonville, it's time for the Pajaro Valley Arts annual fundraiser Take Aways: Art to Go. The show features 62 local artists showing small, original pieces, priced to take away!

The cool thing about this show is that each artist displays a selection of pieces, grouped together, so you really get a sense of not only their style and use of materials, but the kind of artistic journey they're on.

It's also handy to have a few extra pieces on display as others are sold and whisked away!

The Aschbacher wall, PVA: on a journey

(Here's our score from the Preview Reception (above): a lovely little watercolor by Connie Grant that we just couldn't resist! You may know her from the fabulous art glass she's made for years with her husband, Jim Grant.

But just look how wonderful these little abstracts are! We love ours!)

The PVA Gallery on Sudden Street is such a rabbit warren of interesting little rooms (it's converted from a stately Victorian house), it's worth it just to poke around and see what marvels you find. There's always a surprise around the next corner!

See for yourself in this virtual tour of the Take Aways show!

One of my other favorite discoveries was this marvelous little window suite of mini chairs (each about 12" tall) from Cristie Thomas and Scott Lindberg. How cool are these? I especially love the one with the tree-limb chair back and legs!

Take Aways: Art To Go runs through March 4 at the PVA Gallery. There will be a closing reception March 4, 2-4 pm. But don't wait 'til then to see the show — pieces are already disappearing off the walls!

Exclusive Seating: mini-chairs by Cristie Thomas and Scott Lindberg


Thursday, February 1, 2018

BEAST GIVEAWAY


Totally thrilled to announce the first pre-publication giveaway for Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge!

It all starts today (Feb 1) on Goodreads, and continues through March 10 — exactly four months before publication day, July 10.

If you're a Goodreads member (or even of you're not, yet; it's free to join), you're eligible to enter the giveaway.

Only three books (printed Advance Reading Copies, not digital) are being offered by my publisher, Candlewick, sponsor of this event. But if we get a good response, who knows? Maybe we'll do it again!

Just click on the link — it's live today.

And Beast of luck to all!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

LOST IN THE STARS

Pizzo, Koss, Drexler, as unsung heroines
According to an old Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky." You couldn't dream up a better tagline for the lyrical play, Silent Sky, the new production from the Jewel Theatre Company, in which women at the turn of the last century defy traditional domestic female roles to join the team of astronomers at Harvard in the work of mapping the stars.

It's a tale of unsung heroines finally getting their props, beautifully told in this exhilarating production.

First produced in 2011, Silent Sky was written by prolific American playwright Lauren Gunderson.

She structures her play around real-life astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who had a knack for mathematics and a deep hunger to know the vastness of the world, and the place of humanity within it.

Gunderson charts Henrietta's personal course through sexism and ridicule in an extraordinary age that produced the theories of Einstein and the rise of the suffragist movement, touchpoints conveyed with wit and grace in the JTC production by director Susan Myer Silton.

Women's work: Harvard Observatory "harem" ca 1900
Henrietta (a vivid performance by Michelle Drexler) has just graduated from Radcliffe. (She first appears, goddess-like, floating in a vast sea of stars in the play's breathtaking opening moments.) She accepts an offer from Harvard to work as a "computer" (filing and recording data) at the school's famed observatory.

But her dream job comes with some caveats. The female computers working for observatory director Edward Pickering, called his "harem," are glorified secretaries, cataloging the photographic glass plate images from the telescope they are never allowed to touch.

Real-life Leavitt, Cannon, and Fleming
Working on their own research projects is forbidden, yet Henrietta loves the camaraderie of her colleagues, the at-first daunting, but fiercely supportive Annie Cannon (played with authority by Marcia Pizzo), and droll Scotswoman Williamina Fleming (Diana Torres Koss, in another entertaining turn).

And yet, Henrietta pioneers a theory of star luminosity as a way to measure its distance from Earth and find out how vast the universe really is. (Her work influenced Edwin Hubble, among others.)

All the women scientists in the play are historical personages, so it's a nice touch that the video playing in the lobby features photographs of the real Henrietta, Annie, and Williamina. Check it out while pondering this inspiring story of mapping out a life by charting the stars. (Read more)

(Photo, above, right: Henrietta Leavitt, 3rd from left, Williaming Fleming, standing, and Annie Cannon, far right.)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

PERSONAL BESTS

Face time: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, The Shape of Water
I used to reveal my Top Ten movies of the year in December, when all the other year-end wrap-ups appear. But it's become increasingly ridiculous to stick to that pattern, since so many of the movies that might be contenders don't even get to Santa Cruz until January.

So now that the awards season is in full swing — the Oscar nominations were announced last week — it feels like the right moment to look back on the movie year (just) past, and pay homage to my personal candidates for Best Movies of 2017.
Catch them if you can!

THE SHAPE OF WATER Okay, I'm right in step with the Academy on this one, Guillermo del Toro's perverse fantasia on forbidden romance (inter-species) and the solidarity of the oppressed against the oppressor. For my money, it's the onscreen love story of the year.

French lesson: Pierre Niney Anna Beers, Frantz
FRANTZ French filmmaker Francois Ozon revisits the complex aftermath of WWI in this moody, engrossing tone-poem on love, loss, and absolution. With a disturbingly timely theme about the wages of nationalism, this haunting, immersive movie features the compelling Pierre Niney as a mysterious young Frenchman who shows up in a small German town grieving for its war dead.

THEIR FINEST Set in 1940 London, during the Blitz, Lone Scherfig's smart, entertaining, femme-centric movie follows a film crew trying to complete a morale-boosting epic to help the war effort. The mood is witty, urbane, and irreverent. Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy head a marvelous cast in a movie that consistently engages with its wit, skill, and heartfelt emotion.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS Dan Stevens is great as Charles Dickens, who, beset by financial worries, sets out to write and publish A Christmas Carol in only six weeks. Dry facts are transformed into delicious fiction by scriptwriter Susan Coyne, who combines Dickens' real life with the volatility of his imagination, as his impudent characters haunt him like ghosts. Hugely entertaining.

The Write Stuff: Claflin, Arterton, Their Finest
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI Frances McDormand is superb as a middle-aged mother with a spectacularly vulgar mouth, a fearless take-no-prisoners attitude, and a relentless drive to see justice done after the unsolved murder of her teenage daughter. Filmmaker Martin McDonagh mixes raucously funny dialogue and irreverent observation of human nature with an uncompromising sense of morality.

CITIZEN JANE Matt Tyrnauer's excellent documentary shows how engagement, activism, and a keen sense of moral outrage can foil the best-laid plans of rats and politicians. In 1950s New York City, the Utopian, post-war urban planning of neighborhood-killing high-rises is opposed by Jane Jacobs, journalist and architectural critic, who believes life lived out on the streets and the stoops of old buildings creates community. Their showdown becomes a fascinating "battle for the soul of the city."

WIND RIVER The consequences of violence — on victims, families and friends — is rarely portrayed with this much somber eloquence. Thoughtful, infuriating, and heartbreaking, this searing, expertly-told tale of crime and punishment on a Wyoming Indian reservation leaves you breathless. In his second feature, director Taylor Sheridan combines swift and cogent storytelling with an impressive sense of visual composition.

Consequence: Jeremy Renner, Gil Birmingham, Wind River
LADY BIRD Writer-director Greta Gerwig delivers a wry, warm-hearted portrait of family, home, and dreams in modern America. The family is not dysfunctional in any clichéd movie comedy way, but Gerwig captures the gulf of potential calamity in the fractious relationship between a Sacramento high-school senior (Saoirse Ronan) and her loving, but harried mom (Laurie Metcalf).

BATTLE OF THE SEXES Emma Stone is terrific as Billie Jean King, and Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with gleeful gusto. The media frenzy around their 1973 match becomes this thoughtful, entertaining movie about gender, identity, politics, and celebrity, at a pivotal cultural moment in American history. Directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine).

LADY MACBETH As a woman so completely warped by a monstrous society that she becomes a monster herself, Florence Pugh delivers a chilling gemstone of a performance in this Victorian-era tale of female suppression, sexual awakening, and revenge. Not a movie to love, but a grueling and profound psychological thriller.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

STOP THE PRESSES!

Stop the presses!

Beyond delighted this week to receive this Beast endorsement from the great Laurie R. King:

When is beauty shaped by ugliness? When does a simple fairy tale give way to the dark textures beneath its surface? When Lisa Jensen takes it on, that’s when.  Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is a love story, and so much more.

— Laurie R. King, New York Times bestselling author of The Beekeeper's Apprentice

My editor at Candlewick is so excited, they're going to redesign the dust jacket to fit the quote in.

Thanks, Laurie!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

TIME'S UP

Not exactly a "woman's picture"
Hands up, everybody who remembers when the Academy Awards declared 1992 the "Year of the Woman." Hah! I thought not.

(No wonder. Clint Eastwood's guy-friendly western Unforgiven won four Oscars that year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Revival Of A Macho Genre Previously Considered Stone Dead.

The most talked-about female role of the year was actually played by a man—Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game.)

It's taken 26 years for Hollywood to catch up — even though it's had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward enlightenment by a sisterhood of industry professionals who have launched the #MeToo and Time's Up movements.

What might this unexpected and organic movement portend for this year's Oscars? Let's take a look at what's been going on in the awards season so far.

Black Power: Hollywood celebs and their social justice activist dates at the Globes

The flow tide of black gowns and black-on-black tuxes on the red carpet at this year's Golden Globes were worn in solidarity with the above mentioned movements.

(Although I wonder if black was  the best color choice to associate with the group announcing the end of the culture of sexual harassment and gender inequality. If Time's Up (at last!) for the old boys club that perpetrated it for generations, why should people dress in mourning?)

McDormand: Year of the Rampaging Woman
(Still, everybody was rocking the look, and many of the black gowns and tuxes will be auctioned off on eBay this month to raise money for the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund.)

Meanwhile, it was a bad night for movies about men. Odds-on favorite, The Post (directed by Steven Spielberg, with Meryl Streep's Katharine Graham playing den mother to a bunch of male reporters) got shut out, along with Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, and the boy-meets-boy coming of age love story, Call Me By Your Name.

Frances McDormand as a rampaging working-class mom demanding justice for her raped and murdered daughter won the Best (Dramatic) Actress award, as expected, but it was a surprise that the movie devoted to her character, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, also won for Best Picture/Drama.

Gerwig (with Ronan) directs herself to a DGA nomination
The other big winner was Lady Bird, about a loving, if volatile, mother-daughter relationship, which scored a Best Actress /Comedy nod for star Saoirse Ronan, and Best Picture in the Musical-or-Comedy category — ensuring a trip to the podium for producer Greta Gerwig, who also wrote and directed.

Not that this is quite yet a juggernaut, but it is interesting that the recently announced Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards include first-timer Gerwig on its hallowed list of nominees. It's rare enough for a woman to get nominated, and a coup in itself — suggesting how many folks in the industry have taken the small, wry, femme-o-centric Lady Bird to their hearts.

But she shouldn't start clearing a place on her mantel just yet. She'll still have to go up against Guillermo del Toro for the DGA prize, who's already won both the Globe and Critic's Choice awards for his masterful The Shape of Water.

(The Oscars nominations will be announced January 23. The ceremony will be later than usual this year, broadcast March 4)