Monday, February 20, 2017
I like to think it means that my novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is hovering on the brink of production — at long last!
It's been a very lengthy gestation. My editor, Kaylan Adair, and I have always been on the same page. But that culprit, Unforeseen Circumstances kept cropping up, delaying production and sending me back tp the keyboard again and again.
But last week, after I sent in my January edit, I got a note back from Kaylan, that the new revision "absolutely SINGS!"
The next day, I came home from yoga to find these beautiful, blood-red roses, with a lovely note from Kaylan! Roses loom very large in Beast's story, of course, so these were very appropriate — as well as gorgeous!
There was still some minor tweaking to do, but I think Beast is one pawprint closer to a bookstore near you!
Stay tuned . . .
Monday, February 13, 2017
But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface in this offbeat meditation on family, aging, the passage of time, and the meaning of happiness.
This is the third movie directed by German filmmaker Maren Ade, and her first to get wide distribution in the States. The story revolves around Winfried Conradi (the wonderful Peter Simonischek), a retired schoolteacher who confounds a deliveryman at the door by pretending to be twin brothers, likes to fool around with a set of fake buck teeth, and puts on zombie make-up to lead a chorus of kids at a school musical recital.
Amicably divorced from his ex-wife, Winfried attends a birthday party for their grown daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). Briefly home from Bucharest, where the German corporation she works for is setting up business interests in Romania, Ines spends most of her time on the phone with her boss.
Concerned that his daughter is trapped in a joyless life, Winfried "spontaneously" follows her back to Bucharest and shows up at her workplace. His antics drive her nuts, but we begin to understand all the ways that her life is disappointing her, just as her father fears.
|Father knows best: Huller and Simonischek|
It's length, accumulation of detail, and humor, that allows Ade to craft her story with such emotional richness.
PS: Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig are poised to star in the English-language remake. You heard it here first!
Sunday, February 12, 2017
|They had singing and dancing chops then|
Much of the objections stem from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling not being as adept at song and dance as movie musical stars of yore.
I would remind these critics that the star systems that produced the Judy Garlands and Gene Kellys of the Golden Age of movie musicals (like the Arthur Freed unit at M-G-M) no longer exists. Hell, movie musicals as a genre no longer exists!
Kelly came to the movies from the Broadway hit, Pal Joey. But he still had to work his way up through the studio system in innocuous fluff like For Me and My Gal, and DuBarry Was a Lady (along with a string of wartime dramas in the '40s) before he got a chance to start crafting his own classics like An American in Paris, and Singin' in the Rain.
|Chakiris 1954: uncredited|
Garland toiled away for a decade in musical shorts and revues before somebody at M-G-M got the bright idea to cast her in The Wizard of Oz.
And look at George Chakiris, an uncredited chorus boy dancing behind Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas in 1954 — one of many musicals, from a variety of studios, that he hoofed his way through during the 1950s.
|Chakiris 1961: Oscar bait|
In 1961, after a decade of paying his dues, he was cast in West Side Story — and won a Supporting Actor Oscar as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.
Sure, there are zillions of talented musical theatre performers out there at the regional theatre level, or even on Broadway. But they don't have the brand-name recognition by Hollywood standards that could get a crazed idea for a movie like La La Land financed these days.
Chazelle made the compromises he had to to get his movie made. But the result is something unexpectedly wonderful!
I admit, he had me at the opening dance number on the freeway! Seriously, haven't you always wanted to do this in the middle of an LA traffic jam?
Sunday, February 5, 2017
The problem is I only see about half the number of movies per year that I used to. This is largely due to space constraints in the paper, but also because the complicated technology of digital movies has pretty much ended the practice of advance film screenings for regional press.
All of which means there are less chances for me to discover those offbeat, unexpected gems (like, say, The Fall) that used to lead off my Top Ten lists.
Of the movies I did see this year, however, these are the most list-worthy!
How about you? Any unexpected gems you'd like to share?
LA LA LAND It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. But Damien Chazelle's virtuoso production makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.
Did I mention several scenes are shot in my home town of Hermosa Beach? Shots inside the venerable Lighthouse jazz club (top, left) were especially nostalgic!
THE EAGLE HUNTRESS The best girl-power stories are true. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of this stunningly beautiful documentary, is a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles. Directed by Otto Bell, and shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people.
MOONLIGHT Black lives matter in filmmaker Barry Jenkins' eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways. Three terrific actors play the lead character as child, teen, and adult, and Mahershala Ali (left) is wonderfully charismatic as the boy's surrogate father figure. A slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast. These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.
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 Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. It's a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.
|Cristina Pato, Spanish bagpiper, The Music of Strangers|
THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE This beguiling and bittersweet documentary chronicles the efforts of the renowned cellist to found a performing group of international musicians from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, whose existence is dedicated to cultural diversity, and common humanity. Filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) knows a great music doc needs to feature not only wonderful music, but dynamic personalities to perform it, and this one is incredibly rich in both.
EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT The journey is the destination in Ciro Guerra's haunting meditation on culture, colonialism, and loss, shot in captivating black-and-white, on location in the remote jungles along the Amazon River. An indigenous shaman guides two separate scientific explorers down the Amazon, decades apart in the 20th Century; through his eyes, we see the disruptions of tribal culture before, during, and after exposure to the outsiders. Guerra's dreamlike pacing and sensuous imagery make this an absorbing piece of filmmaking with the power of myth in every frame.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS I was completely entranced by the sophisticated storytelling of Derek Cianfrance's film adaptation on the M. L. Stedman novel. Michael Fassbender is terrific as a stoic WWI vet who takes a job as lighthouse keeper on a lonely rock off the Australian coast. Alicia Vikander is remarkable as a local woman who eases past his defenses and changes his life plan. This is movie-making for grown-ups, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully shot.
THE VVITCH Set in early colonial America, and meticulously researched by rookie writer-director Robert Eggers, this is not the cheesy horror movie you might expect, but an often squirmingly intense psychological drama of hysteria and religious fanaticism. Sure, it's still plenty scary (or at least creepy), but it's fearful anticipation that propels the narrative, not in-your-face violence.
Friday, February 3, 2017
|Miss Havisham writes!|
Here are 10 things I didn't have time to do while I was hammering out my last revision of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge during the entire month of January:
Update this blog. (Duh!)
Update my other social media/book pages.
Clean up my house and my workspace.
Get my hair cut.
Prune my roses.
Weed my yard. (Okay, the constant rain had a lot to do with that one.)
March against the Dictator-in-Chief.
Bake cookies. (Always necessary in desperate times.)
Start reading the book(s) I got from Santa.
Go back to work writing my own next book!
|My Beast: SO ready for his close--up!|
Three days a week, Art Boy unchained me from the keyboard and dragged me out for yoga (yay, yoga!), and once or twice a week (weather permitting) we walked in the harbor. Otherwise, here I sat, pounding away, until it was time to stumble downstairs for dinner, watch an hour of news for our daily dose of outrage, then stagger off to bed.
I've been working on Beast, one revision after another, since May of 2015. (A long story I'll tell you next time I see you, if you ply me with enough Merlot.) This end-of-January deadline was my last chance to get the book onto the Spring 2018 publication schedule, and I decided to kick out the jams and go for it!
I can't say it hasn't been a slog. But my Beast is worth it! I hope you'll think so too!
Friday, December 30, 2016
We think of the movies as a medium of action and image. So it's kind of audacious that most of the drama is internal in Manchester by the Sea. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast.
These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.
Lonergan is best known for You Can Count On Me, another look at uneasy, but fierce family dynamics. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), the taciturn protagonist in Manchester by the Sea has no means of expressing his inner demons, not even to himself.
But Lonergan tells his story through judicious use of flashbacks, and in the ways he interacts with people around him, whether fighting, swearing, or joking around. (Indeed, for a movie whose plot turns on so many tragic elements, the dialogue can be surprisingly funny.)
|Affleck and Hedges: new reality|
But when his older brother, Joe, dies suddenly, Lee has to return to his home town of Manchester by the Sea, on Cape Ann. Joe (Kyle Chandler, in flashbacks) was a divorced commercial fisherman raising a son, Patrick, on his own.
|Casey Affleck: stuck in Purgatory|
As Lee and Patrick cope, Lee's memories play an ever more crucial role in the storytelling. The story of how Lee got stuck in his own haunted purgatory is revealed in small, heartbreaking increments, in counterpoint to the larger story of Lee and Patrick learning to navigate their strange new reality.
Affleck offers up shading in the smallest of gestures. His scenes with Hedges give the film its backbone. Michelle Williams provides fire and grace in her few scenes.
This is a life-sized story about recognizably human characters whose dilemmas stay with us.
Friday, December 23, 2016
The first is unabashedly holiday-oriented, and because I'm such an easy mark, I always tear up. An old guy in shabby clothes with an aura of Frankenstein's monster about him shuffles into a village square populated by holiday revelers.
It's nighttime, and he pulls out two light bulbs, one red, one green, and screws them into the bolts in his neck.
But then, one of the bulbs goes out, and he flounders to a halt with embarrassment.
Until — a small, delicate, utterly adorable little girl, a live-action Cindy Lou Who, stretches up to screw the errant bulb back in, and then sings the second line of the song. Then the entire square full of people join in to complete the verse.
That they not only "let" him participate, but join in with such warmth and gusto sends a very affecting message — especially in these dark and cold political times. The tagline is "Open your heart to everyone."
The sponsor is the Apple iPhone, of course. But what they're really selling is a narrative about community and inclusiveness.
The other spot begins well, with an image of hats viewed from above. In the middle, a yellow beret with a black puff ball tilts up to reveal the face of the woman wearing it. She sings one note and lowers her face again; other hats tilt up to reveal other faces singing more notes in an intricate, a cappella pattern.
The image gradually expands into a phone-shaped rectangle, which tilts up on end, with the Google logo below it. Who's the sponsor? The Google Pixel phone. What are they singing? "Just The Two Of Us."
Wait, what? Although the tagline reads "Together by you." ("Phone by Google"), what they really seem to be selling is isolation and exclusiveness. Me and my phone, just the two of us. Who needs real-life interaction? It's us against the world.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. Once a genre unto itself, usually a romantic story expressed in song and dance numbers ("All singing! All dancing!" the ads used to scream), the movie musical has been devalued in the age of irony.
Audiences who readily lap up zombies, vampires, and skyscraper-sized aliens are unable to suspend their disbelief for people breaking into song in the middle of their daily lives.
Only in Disney Princess cartoons do characters sing their hearts out onscreen (which is okay, because they're not, you know, real), or in the occasional film set in a musical milieu, like Once, where the characters bond through performing together.
|Stone, Gosling: twilight|
But Damien Chazelle's masterful La La Land makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing chops, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.
The stars are capable and appealing, the locations all around greater Los Angeles County (including my home town of Hermosa Beach) look as magical as any film set, and Chazelle finds exciting new ways to reinvent the genre at every turn.
|Gosling: piano man|
Appropriately enough, for a movie set in LA, the story begins on a freeway during a traffic jam. As horns blare, and traffic slows to a halt, the overhead camera zeroes in on one woman driver who starts singing. She emerges from her car and starts dancing, with other motorists of all ages, shapes, and colors (just like the population of LA) climbing out of their cars and join in.
It's a massive production number ("Another Day of Sun") that not only makes brilliant use of the freeway structure and immobilized cars as dancing props, it shows us just how much fun this movie is going to be.
When traffic starts up again Mia (Stone) has a fleeting, rude encounter with Sebastian (Gosling). She's an aspiring actress on her way to work at a coffeeshop on a movie studio backlot, where she can be close to the auditions she's always running off to. She shares an apartment with three other hopeful actresses in an old Art Deco building; after they drag her off to a party, she's on her way home when she wanders into a piano bar where Seb is playing.
|Dancing with the stars: Griffith Observatory|
Now the movie switches over to Sebastian's story after the freeway incident. He's a jazz musician reduced to playing Christmas carols in the bar (it's winter, when the story begins) to fund his dream of opening his own jazz club one day. (J. K. Simmons — co-star of Chazelle's last film, Whiplash —cameos as Seb's deadpan boss.)
Mia is drawn to a particularly hypnotic refrain Seb is playing, that echoes throughout the story. But even though their second encounter does not go well, they begin circling into each other's orbits and their relationship blossoms.
The rest of the story is best left to the viewer to experience. The themes are universal—pursuing dreams; staying true to oneself — but the storytelling is fresh. Mandy Moore's choreography is outstanding, from that huge freeway number to Mia and Seb's lovely tap duet as they start to fall in love, on a ridge overlooking LA at twilight. In a fabulous fantasy duet, they rise up into the starmap of the interior dome of Griffith Park Observatory — literally dancing with the stars.
|Stone and Gosling: to the Lighthouse|
Using iconic LA landmarks and neighborhoods —the venerable Lighthouse jazz club in Hermosa (and the beachfront and pier); Watts Towers; The Grand Cenral Market; the vintage Rialto Theatre, the Angel's Flight cable car — Chazelle creates a visual reverie on the City of Dreams, an LA that may only exist in the imagination.
And while he stays true in spirit to classic musicals, Chazelle's wistful, and poignant finale gives the movie an unexpected edge. La La Land is a virtuoso production that gives us all something to sing (and dance) about.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
The best girl-power stories are true. Fiction can inspire, but what better validation can there be for girls in the audience than a young woman who beats the odds in real life to excel at some traditionally male-dominated activity that she loves?
Someone like Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of the stunningly beautiful documentary The Eagle Huntress, a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles.
Directed by first-timer Otto Bell, the film was shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people. Nomadic families move out into the grasslands with their yurts to graze their sheep during the warm weather, but band together in their village of stone bunkers when winter comes.
Aisholpan's father is distinguished among the villagers as an eagle hunter, a skill learned from his own father. Indeed, the men in their family have been eagle hunters for twelve generations.
|Like father, like daughter|
It's always been a skill handed down from father to son, but Aisholpan has been fascinated by her father's birds from a very young age. He's taught her to feed and handle the bird, and to wear the forearm cuff on which the eagle perches.
Eagle hunting is "a calling," he says, "it has to be in your blood." So when his daughter wants to train to be an eagle hunter, he encourages her — and the filmmakers are there every step of the way.
|Aisholpan and her eagle: bonded|
Aisholpan is the youngest and the first-ever female to compete at a festival for eagle hunters from around the region. But the real test comes when she and her father take their shaggy ponies and their birds out into the mountains in deep winter to hunt for real.
The movie came about after Niblett heard about an eagle hunter teaching his craft to his daughter and took a series of still photographs of them. Director Bell signed on to make their story into a film, with Niblett as cinematographer, and when they showed their early footage to Star Wars franchise heroine Daisy Ridley, she begged to be involved, as both narrator and co-producer.
Aisholpan's story in this soaring film inspires that kind of devotion.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
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|
Bursting with color, music, beautiful seagoing vistas, and the mythology and folkways of the Pacific Islands, Moana is guaranteed to cure your winter blahs.