Friday, January 31, 2014


The Invisible Woman a splendid tribute to Dickens and his era

If Ken Russell had ever made one of his notorious creative-genius biopics about Charles Dickens, and the famous, middle-aged Victorian novelist's secret love affair with teenage actress Nelly Ternan, one can only imagine the bombastic sturm und drang that would ensue.

Fortunately, Ralph Fiennes—in addition to being a marvelously subtle actor—is a filmmaker of much different mettle than Russell. In his second outing as a director, The Invisible Woman, in which he also stars as the charismatic Dickens, Fiennes does not give us the expected hothouse tale of illicit passion.

Instead, his film is a shrewdly observed portrait not only of the relationship between Dickens and Ternan, but between the artist and his public, and the larger milieu in which their story plays out.

Fiennes plays Dickens as a man of almost maniacal energy and bubbling bonhommie. At the height of his considerable artistic powers, he's an indefatigable actor in a play of his friend and colleague, Wilkie Collins (an irascible Tom Hollander, right, with Fiennes), as well as a popular orator whose readings of dramatic scenes from his own novels leaves audiences spellbound.

He's also a devoted family man who delights in his ten children. Yet he's increasingly unhappy in his longtime marriage to Catherine (Joanna Scanlan), a well-meaning but conventional woman who, he feels, can never be his equal in energy, intellect or sensibilities.

Ellen (Nelly) Ternan (Felicity Jones) is a dewy 18-year-old who, along with her mother, Frances (Kristin Scott Thomas), and two sisters, are engaged for roles in the Collins play. The Ternan women are a family of actresses, but Frances realizes that Nelly's "talent lies elsewhere."
Felicity Jones and Kristin Scott Thomas

Nelly is a great fan of Dickens' novels, and converses with him avidly about them. When Frances notes that the novelist is, in turn, attracted to her youngest daughter, she encourages an attachment that might provide a better living for her daughter than the stage.

Thanks to a savvy script by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), based on the non-fiction book by Claire Tomalin, the story proceeds from the viewpoint of Ternan, it's protagonist, heroine, and occasional victim.

While Fiennes' Dickens lights up the screen with his warmth and creative pizzazz, it's Nelly's story that touches us as she (and we) face the ever-narrowing circle of options open to a single woman of that era with but a precarious means of earning a living and without male financial and social protection.

Meanwhile, director Fiennes pays loving hommage to the era that spawned Dickens and his work. Besides the Collins melodrama, staged with all the panache of a Vincent Crummels production, there's an eerie night ramble through the streets of London teeming with the impoverished and outcast, as well as a Fezziwig-worthy party of dancing, music, and magic tricks.
As in so many of Dickens' novels, the characters in The Invisible Woman are highly flawed, yet compelling in their unvarnished humanity. The film is a lovely gift to Dickens and his fans on the occasion (next week, February 7) of his 202nd birthday.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Welcome to the intricate and amazing mechanical found junk sculptures of Belgian artist Stephane Halleux.

Are they not way cool?

There I was, previewing the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts program over the weekend, when I was beguiled by French filmmaker Laurent Witz's Mr. Hublot.

It's a delirious steampunk fantasy in which Halleux's wacky world of stitched leather cars, mechanical insects, toaster dogs, keypad clothing and serenely winged humanoids comes to life onscreen.

When I looked up Halleux online, I was delighted by the variety and sheer ingenuity of his work. The time it would take just to assemble all these gears, springs, sprockets, rotary blades, clockface dials, bits of pipe, random handles, and grilles is daunting enough.

Then consider the unfettered imagination required to put them all together in such weird and wonderful ways!

Some exhibition sites refer to Halleux's work as "toys," and there is certainly an element of that in their 3D solidity. Maybe it's my misspent past as a doll collector and dollmaker (mine were scrap fabric dolls) that makes me so responsive to these little guys.

Who could resist the urge to pose them and play with them? Let alone the urge to make up stories about them! (Although that might be strictly a writer's thing...)

Now imagine them animated and moving around in an entire retro-urban, slightly crumbling mechanical landscape inspired by the Halleux aesthetic. That's Mr. Hublot.

The Oscar Nominated Shorts programs (one live-action, one animated) opens Friday. (Read my Good Times review here.) But in the meantime, feast your eyes on Halleux's work!

Visit his website (Luddite Alert: it's tricky, so remember to hit every tiny blank square on the Home page to see a selection of work).

Or just Google his name and hit Images.

Prepare to be amazed!

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Durable Clancy hero back in diverting reboot 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'

Jack Ryan has more lives than Morris the Cat. The brilliant CIA analyst-turned-op, fictional hero of some dozen spy thriller novels by Tom Clancy, has also been featured in several high-profile spy movies of the '90s.

Now the folks at Paramount have decided to give the character a face-lift (or should I say a youth potion) and trot him out anew for the next generation of audiences in the sleek, efficient thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

Scripted by Adam Cozad and David Koepp, this is an origin story that borrows elements from the well-known Jack Ryan canon, but updates and reassembles them for the modern world. The first bright idea was to cast Chris Pine in the role, an appealing young actor whose nifty balance of humor and intensity has already served him well playing the young Captain Kirk in the recently rebooted Star Trek franchise.

But the producers' smartest decision was to hire Kenneth Branagh to direct; his epic sense of drama and full-bore theatricality keeps the story percolating along.

The story begins in London, where visiting Yank, Jack (Pine) is doing graduate work at the London School of Economics when he's politicized by the events of 9-11. After he joins the Marines and volunteers for combat duty, an injury nearly cripples him for life and ends his active service career, but his stint in rehab not only nets him a new girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), a doctor-in-training, it puts Jack on the radar of Navy commander Harper (Kevin Costner) of the CIA.

Director Branagh casts himself in the juicy role of Cherevin, a sinister Russian mastermind with a Napoleon complex who's plotting to destroy the U. S. by crashing its economy. (Although we wonder why he doesn't just sit back and let Wall Street do it on its own.)

The action is fast and complicated, and the metaphorical blooding of Jack Ryan, from whiz-kid to activated field op, resonates throughout the film. (Read more)

Thursday, January 23, 2014


The Alias Hook saga continues! In our last thrilling episode, I was fooling around with cover ideas.

This week, I received this manuscript in the mail. It's the hard copy from the US edition coming out this summer from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, all typeset and formatted—cool fonts, and all!

In the publishing biz, they call this a first pass, although, technically, it's my last chance to excise all those embarrassing typos, misspellings, and gratuitous punctuations that will haunt me the rest of my life if they appear in print. The second pass is being performed by a proofreader at TDB as we speak.

This is NOT the time to rewrite a chapter, rename a character, or introduce a clever new plot twist that changes everything that happens in the last four chapters. That time is definitely past!

So far, I haven't discovered anything too dire that can't be fixed in a few swift strokes. The story reads pretty well too!

Why Hook? Why now? For those of you who came in late, read up on my fascination with Captain Hook here. If you're wondering what on earth was I thinking when I started this whole project, find out here.

My new pub date is July 8, 2014. In hardcover, yet! Watch this space for further details!

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Loot gleaned at the 2014 Fest—I ate all the rest of the chocolate!
Ladies, start your engines. If you haven't yet attended the annual Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival, presented by the UCSC Women's Club, now's the time to plan for next year's event. For those of you who came in late, here's how it works.

While I'm still sucking chocolate out from under my nails after this year's Fest, here are my notes on what's trendy and tasty this year. Salty Caramel, the poster flavor two years ago, and various combination of chocolate and chilis are still popular, but this year, my intrepid tasting buddy, Marta, and I noticed an upsurge of toffee varieties.

Best of show for me were the toffee samples at Goose's Goodies. We got two hefty, brittle-like toffee samples per tasting ticket, and while the Mexican Chocolate Chile and Pepitas was good, the Dark Chocolate, Orange Peel and Cashew toffee combo was a religious experience! A perfect combination of dark, dark chocolate (my favorite) and crunch. Of everything I tasted, this was the goodie I most wanted to take home, but, quel horreur! When we returned to the booth, they had run out of that flavor! Next year, get there early and buy immediately!

(Goose's Goodies are local, but they have no storefront; at the moment, their only contact info is their Etsy shop online.)

We also loved the pudding-rich dark hot chocolate from Harwell Hot Chocolate in Freedom. (We didn't even bother sampling the Milk Chocolate variety—we have our standards!) And we discovered a gorgeous Dark Chocolate Cabernet Truffle from Lula's in Monterey (above). Not much of a Cabernet flavor on the tongue, but you could sense the presence of the wine in an impossibly smooth and sophisticated chocolate mouthful. Yum!

A returning favorite was Theo Chocolate from Seattle. They advocate for sustainably produced chocolate items (their dark chocolate is now GMO free), and while I was seduced by their combustible Pili Pili Chili variety last year (it burned so good!), this year I discovered a very tasty 70% Dark Chocolate and Ginger bar with a nice candy crunch inside.

Also popular this year was Mission Hill Creamery, serving up a nicely complex Lime Cardamom Yogurt dipped in (what else?) dark chocolate. Marta had hers rolled in nuts too, but I took mine straight!

Marich Confectionary from Hollister had a novel set-up. One ticket bought you a small paper cup, into which you could scoop as many of their chocolate-covered treats as you could cram in from deep, fishbowl-like display jars. We sampled, chocolate covered blueberries, strawberries, cherries, curry cashew, and, of course, toffee.

For the terminally sugared out, there was David Jackman from Chocolate dishing out Chicken Mole, and Joe Schultze from India Joze doling out savory Chocolate Pork. Several local wineries were pouring as well (a tasting glass costs $5 in addition to the $15 entrance fee, which buys you six tastings), but, hey, we were there for the chocolate!

The event is a fundraiser for Re-Entry Student Scholarships at  UCSC. So make plans for next year, and taste away with a clear conscience—it's for a good cause!

Saturday, January 18, 2014


It seems like such a crack-brained idea—adapting Sherlock Holmes to the modern era. Arthur Conan Doyle's eminent, erudite High Victorian consulting detective stranded in the frantic modern world of bullet trains, Tweeting (not to mention twerking), and Reality TV? Oh, please.

But the PBS series Sherlock made a believer out of me. Only three episodes are produced per season, but each episode is a complete 90-minute feature film, and, boy, are they fun! After a long hiatus, the third season begins this Sunday night (January 19) on PBS. Since I just caught up with the first two seasons last month, I am primed and ready!

The principal key to the show's success is, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (his naturally fair hair dyed brown, and curled, because, seriously, update, reboot, or no, you can't have a blond Sherlock Holmes). Touchingly naive at times (mostly involving "normal" social concourse), with an intellect so restless, it's exhausting, the marvelous Cumberbatch plays Sherlock with every ounce of the character's famous wit, eccentricity, and ego intact, but it's all refracted in the prism of 21st Century life and culture.
Fancier toys: Sherlock's kitchen chem lab

And it all works. It's wicked, scary good how well it works!

This energetic, thoroughly modern Sherlock still resides at 221B Baker Street, with a motherly landlady downstairs called Mrs. Hudson. ("I am not your housekeeper!" she keeps reminding him.)

His keen interest in forensic science remains; he just has fancier toys to play with in the age of digital information. But it still takes his superior brain to assemble all the factoids, readouts and graphic imaging into a coherent deduction.
Vintage Holmes at work

Martin Freeman co-stars as Dr. John Watson, Holmes' friend and biographer, rescuing the character from the dufferdom rampant in so many past Holmes adaptations. A military man just back from the Afghanistan and in need of lodgings, Watson is as awed by Sherlock's brilliant mind as he is appalled by his manners. In the first episode, he appears with a cane and a limp, but he quickly loses both, revitalized by the dangerous adventures Sherlock leads him on.

(And, of course, in the digital age, Watson's stories about Holmes' cases aren't published in anything so fusty as a magazine; he posts them online on his blog.)

As roommates and co-investigators out about town together on a case, Watson has to keep calmly, but determinedly, deflecting assumptions that they are a gay couple. Watson enjoys women and is often surreptitiously lining up dates in the course of their adventures, but such assumptions roll right off Sherlock's back. As does the opinion (voiced by someone or other every couple of episodes) that he may be a virgin. Sherlock does not protest, one way or the other; idle speculation about his sex life simply does not register among the subjects that interest him.
Not that kind of couple
The filmmakers have fun with the Holmes canon. Every episode is named after a famous Conan Doyle story, with a twist. (A Study in Scarlet becomes A Study in Pink, featuring a pink cell phone as a key piece of evidence.)
Cumberbatch and Pulver: scandalous

 A Scandal in Belgravia (not Bohemia) introduces the formidable Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), but in this version, she's not a stage actress, but a high-priced dominatrix with an exclusive client list.

(Last season ended with Sherlock's spectacular, apparently fatal plunge off a high building—and yes, Reichenbach Falls are referenced—in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. But even though we (if not Watson) know Sherlock is not dead, the question of how the heck they'll explain it remains.)

The ever-harried Inspector Lestrade, the slippery Mycroft Holmes, the nefarious criminal mastermind, Moriarty (an unexpectedly boyish Andrew Scott, who's won two BAFTA Awards in the role), they're all here and waiting to be rediscovered by an eager public. (That's you!)

Showtime is 10 pm (after Downton Abbey) for the next three Sunday nights. You know where I'll be!

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Spirit of the '60s alive in Stockton's entertaining 'Are We There Yet?'

They say if you remember the '60s, you weren't there. But don't say it to Richard Stockton.

The longtime stand-up comic, monologist, and chief perpetrator of the Planet Cruz live comedy revues not only remembers the 1960s (and the postwar decade that spawned them), he traces the influence of that era on the popular and political culture of today in his entertaining one-man comedy extravaganza, Are We There Yet? at the Broadway Playhouse.

Three years in the making (not counting the lifetime of experience distilled into the show), Are We There Yet? is a multi-media celebration of the Baby Boom generation. While the show is mostly storytelling, Stockton has also composed a handful of songs to highlight certain themes (like the title tune, which metaphorically refers to the Boomers' progress through life, and "Things We Had Then We Don't Have Now"), which he sings con brio, accompanying himself on guitar or banjo. He also employs a video projector which sets the tone with newsreels, pop culture montages from the era, and a reel of vintage TV commercials.
The resulting show is a sort of Boomer Hit Parade of cultural touchpoints from the '50s, '60s, and into the '70s. And even as the Boomers age (Stockton salutes our generation's collective passage "from Hi-Fi to WiFi...from Jonathan Livingston Seagull to crow's feet"), he traces the ways that the seeds sown in our youth have borne fruit in the socio-political landscape of today. There's plenty to resonate with people of a certain age; on opening night, audience members were shouting responses like "Amens" in a Baptist church. (Read more)


Man behind myth explored in 'Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom'

Due to the usual nutty holiday deadlines at this paper, it's taken me this long to catch up with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The good news is this biographical drama from Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) is in many ways as thoughtful and imposing as both its subject, the formidable Nelson Mandela, and its impressive star, Idris Elba.

The real-life Mandela passed away this past December, at the age of 95, lauded and eulogized the world over as an icon of peace, humility, forgiveness and cooperation. But Mandela was far more complicated than the stoic, sagacious, grandfatherly peacemaker so beloved by the world in his later years.

 Chadwick's film (based on Mandela's own autobiography) is a manful attempt to explore the currents of deeply ingrained racism, political injustice, and corrupted human nature that turned an ordinary South African child into a lawyer, activist, and uncompromising fighter for social justice and racial equality—at any cost.

The story touches all the known incidents of Mandela's political life: his trial for conspiracy (and his famous speech professing himself "prepared to die" for the ideal of equality), his 27 years in prison, mostly spent in one tiny cell. (Where black inmates suffer such petty indignities as being made to wear short pants.) 

But the film is most effective in showing the toll Mandela's activism takes on his personal life.

Driven off not only by his dangerous politics, but by Mandela's extramarital affairs, his first wife leaves him and whisks away the children he rarely sees again. After he marries vivacious Winnie Madikizela (a vibrant Naomie Harris), she bears two daughters, but they're still small children when Mandela goes to prison.

Elba's presence centers the story as his Mandela evolves and matures. And the film succeeds in portraying both Mandela and Winnie with human faults intact on their respective long walks to their destinies. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Fey and Poehler: not sick of 'em yet
OK, it was less uproarious than last year's show. But Sunday night's Golden Globes telecast, the annual doling out of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's movie and TV awards—it's like a dress rehearsal for the Oscars, with alcohol—still provided its share of refreshing irreverence, thanks to returning co-hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

(Because, as Fey pointed out, "In Hollywood, if something works, you just do it over and over again until everybody's sick of it.")

The industry and its denizens were the ripest targets for stealth zingers. That perennial nominee Meryl Streep was in the running again proved, according to Fey, that there are still "great parts for Meryl Streeps over 60" in Hollywood. Poehler 's take on Gravity was that "George Clooney would rather float away in space and die than spend another minute with a woman his own age."
Cate Blanchett: extraordinary year

To play an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club, Fey noted that Matthew McConaughey "lost 45 pounds. Or what actresses call 'being in a movie.'" (Okay, clumsily worded, but point taken about how much harder women have to work to be considered camera-ready.)

Accepting her Best Actress (Drama) award for Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett opined "It's been an extraordinary year—the last ten years, really—for women in the movies."

But you wouldn't know it from the dearth of females nominated for anything in the non-actress categories. I counted a grand total of three, two of whom—one of them Taylor Swift—received co-credit for writing two of the nominated songs.

At least the third, Jennifer Lee, who won with Chris Buck for co-directing the Best Animated Feature, Frozen, got a chance to come up onstage and claim her honor. Unlike Brenda Chapman, creator of last year's Disney Princess movie, Brave, who never even got invited to the party after she was removed from the directors chair halfway through the project.
Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Fey and Poehler's traditional halftime costume change, with cocktails, was pre-empted this year by Emma Thompson (looking fabulous in a gold burnout top and platinum hair). She arrived onstage to present the Best Screenplay award clutching her high heels in one hand and a martini in the other. As an actor, she said, "I appreciate a good script. And as a writer, I know how hard to is to get one." (Thompson won an Oscar awhile back for adapting Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.)

Diane Keaton was her relaxed, wonderful self accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award on behalf of Woody Allen. The Allen clip reel was a highlight of the show, and La Keaton even sang a sweet little Annie Hall-style song commemorating their 45-year friendship.
Emma Thompson: shoeless

Matthew McConaughey, accepting his Best Actor (Drama) award for Dallas Buyers Club, gave a shout-out to his mother, who never let her kids absorb too much TV or other media. "She said, don't watch somebody doin' something, go out and do it yourself!"

The technical glitches were kept to a minimum this year. The only weird thing was that the section for television nominees was about three zip codes away from the stage, which made for some long, long marches to collect awards.

But otherwise, a fairly brisk and breezy show. And with Globes divided up between American Hustle (Actress (Comedy) and Supporting Actress; Best Comedy/Musical), Dallas Buyers Club (Actor and Supporting Actor), The Wolf of Wall Street (Actor, Comedy/Musical), Gravity (Director), and 12 Years A Slave (Best Picture, Drama), looks like it's anything goes (again) at the upcoming Oscars.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


New musical, 'Lunch,' launches at Cabrillo Stage

You can't get much further off-Broadway than Cabrillo Stage, at least geographically. Yet CS may be instrumental in launching a new musical on the road with its spirited production of Lunch. Instead of its usual year-end holiday production, CS opted this season for a new year's show, a modern urban fable about life, love, answered prayers, and second chances—a subject the authors know something about.

With a book by Emmy-winning TV writer Rick Hawkins, and songs by award-winning composer Steve Dorff and lyricist John Bettis, Lunch was first produced in 1994, when it went on a five-city national tour. Its collaborators moved on to other things until a series of serendipitous events—including a request from CS Artistic Director Jon Nordgren—led them all to reconvene in 2013 to revamp the show. This CS production of Lunch has a rewritten and updated book, ten new songs, and a hard-working cast directed with verve and chutzpah by CS veteran Andrew Ceglio.

When conductor Nordgren raises his baton in the pit, we hear not the expected musical overture, but a montage of city sounds—footsteps, bits of conversation, traffic, a hot dog vendor, screeching brakes. The curtain rises on a scrim of heavenly clouds and an ornate gate which admits a confused Mackenzie Richards (the affable and reliable Max Bennett-Parker) into a reception area presided over by chain-smoking, unflappable Mona (a very funny Samantha Pistoresi).

Mackenzie, who's just met his untimely demise via hot dog cart, finds himself knocking on Heaven's door, but given his line of work as a Wall Street player, he'll be fast-tracked straight to Hell unless he can prove himself worthy. He has one hour, from noon to 1 p.m. (the "Lunch Shift"), to answer the prayers of four random people in downtown Manhattan. (Read more)

I confess, I had some problems with the book. The "prayers" were often so nebulous and unformed, I wasn't always sure how or if they were being answered. Since this is the central premise of the show, some clarification is in order. But this is a great cast featuring such CS stalwarts as the scene-stealing Nicholas Ceglio and Ashley Rae Little, with her big, powerhouse voice. They give Lunch a hearty and heartfelt lift-off.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Happy 2014 to all!

Out with the old year, and on with the show!

While we've been enjoying our holiday revels, the merry elves at Thomas Dunne Books are busily cooking away on the forthcoming US edition of Alias Hook.

While it would probably be illegal, immoral, and fattening to reveal the cool new cover art they've devised for the book at this early date, I can show you some of the sketches I sent in when they flattered me by asking if I had any cover ideas.

(As I told the brain trust at TDB, try to imagine these as rendered by a professional designer who actually knows what she's doing.)

This is my attempt at being graphic (above). That's a swatch of fairy dust curling across the sky, along with a Red Moon that figures prominently in the plot. At this point, there was talk of changing the title, so I didn't include any verbiage on this image.

I notice the actual TDB cover art is similar in color scheme to this sketch, except much more graphic and interesting!

And here's another idea I submitted, going for mood and narrative this time, instead of a clean design. I'm so partial to this one—I managed to sneak in a mermaid and a fairy!

And since my editor wants potential readers to know the book is female-friendly, I put my heroine's face on prominent display to suggest that the book is, in fact, a love story. In general, I'm not a fan of characters' faces plastered on the cover, for fear of interfering with the reader's imagination. (Unless the book is, you know, The Girl With the Pearl Earring.)

But, happily, the design team at TDB came up with a way to suggest a feminine presence in the cover design without resorting to a conventional portrait. How did they do it? Stay tuned.

Oh, those clever elves!