Sunday, June 28, 2015


Female gardener helps build Versailles in fun, if uneven 'A Little Chaos'

Alan Rickman is capable of so much more than his sublimely unctuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. Still, the chance to see Snape as King Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France, in the period piece, A Little Chaos, is just about irresistible.

It's a surprisingly good fit: both characters are imperious, uncompromising, and suffer fools not at all. And Rickman layers each character with an unexpected shading of sympathy.

Rickman also directs the film, and you can see why he was  eager to cast himself in such a plummy role. It's also the kind of popular reimagined history in which a plucky woman defies convention to make her way in a male-dominated society.

Rickman as Louis XIV: extreme unction
 Co-written by Rickman (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan), this romantic historical drama concerns a genteel widow eking out a precarious living as a gardener who receives a commission to design a garden at Versailles.

It's a charming concept with a great cast, and a splendid showcase for star Kate Winslet, even if it doesn't quite all come together.

Sabine De Barra (Winslet) is a young widow in 1682 Paris, supporting herself as a gardener. King Louis (Rickman) is building himself the magnificent new palace of Versailles in the countryside. Sabine dares to submit her plans for one of the royal gardens to the king's legendary landscape architect, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in Far From the Madding Crowd).

She's treated as a joke by the other (male) garden designers vying for a commission—and by Le Notre himself, at first—but her plans intrigue Le Notre, who grants her a commission to plant a garden and build a waterfall for an outdoor ballroom at Versailles.
Winslet and Schoenaerts: big plans

While Le Notre favors "order," and Sabine appreciates a little "chaos" in design, they earn each others' respect amid the pomp and petty rivalries within Louis' circle. (Among the film's pleasures is Stanley Tucci as the Duc d'Orleans, Louis' droll royal brother, whose humor consistently livens up the action.)

Winslet is wonderful, as unaffected, sensible Sabine, working in the mud alongside her construction crew, and speaking with refreshing candor to Louis himself in a nice moment when she mistakes him for one of the king's gardeners.

Another intriguing scene occurs at court, when Louis' new favorite, Madame de Montespan (a lovely Jennifer Ehle) befriends Sabine and introduces her to the sisterhood of court ladies—mistresses, former favorites, dowagers—all of whom, like Sabine, have lost children, or husbands, or both. And all of whom are fascinated to meet a woman who actually does something in her life. These women deserve more screen time.

First Wives Club, 17th Century-style
Schoenaerts' Le Notre is perhaps too restrained and stoic, even for someone cautiously navigating court society. He never gets angry at his scheming wife (he seethes quietly, but never yells), nor quite loses himself in passion with Sabine. This is partly the fault of the script, in which his character fades into the background, partnering Winslet with gallant deference, the way the prince in a ballet steps out of the spotlight while the ballerina dances her solo.
Portrait of the real-life Andre Le Notre

Not that they don't have some sexy and affectionate scenes together. (When Le Notre and Sabine take a break at the job site and share an impromptu meal of rustic bread and home-made pâté, it's memorable as one of the first—and few—times that the guarded Le Notre actually smiles.) But Schoenaerts is such a compelling actor with so much presence, and Winslet is so vibrant, we wish their characters were taking more joy in each other.

(By all accounts, the real-life Le Notre was a wit, whose droll humor earned him Louis' fickle friendship throughout his life. In real life, Le Notre was also 25 years older than Louis, but why ruin a good story with dreary facts?)

Sadly, there is no historical evidence that anyone like Sabine existed, or helped build Versailles. But so what? The whole point of imagining such a scenario in a historical context is to encourage women to push boundaries in their own lives, to promote what Carolyn Heilbrun in her seminal book, "Writing A Woman's Life," refers to as "...the alternate life (the writer) wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination." In that respect, for all its flaws, A Little Chaos succeeds beautifully.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


It takes a village for me to edit a book.

I never have any less than about three or four docs of plot, character motivations, Notes to Self, and, oh, yes, the ms doc itself, open at any given time on my trusty iMac. I'd need an IMAX-sized screen to accommodate all the docs I could be using!

(Notice, I even have random notes stuck in the clay mug off to the left, sheesh!)

Then I need a print-out of the ms, as in actual paper, to scribble on. (# 2 1/2 pencil: my weapon of choice.) This also helps me to actually see all the typos. I know they're in there, I can hear 'em breathing, but it's much easier for me to see them in print, instead of on a screen.

The final element to a productive work day? All the images I can find for inspiration!

This is my Pinterest page for the book I'm editing now, Beast: A Love Story. Yes, it's a fantasy, a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, but it's rooted in a specific historical period (rural Burgundy, France, ca. 1600). And anything I happen upon while cruising the Interwebs—dress, architecture, various objets, the French countryside, or potential character studies—goes into the file for future reference.

I am presently deep into the edit suggested by my terrific new editor, Kaylan Adair, chugging away toward my upcoming July 15 deadline.

All systems are go for me and my village!

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Buckle your sword belts, folks. It's that time of year that Game of Thrones fans fear above all others—the end of the season. Which means the dreaded season finale is almost upon us. (Tonight, to be exact.)

Never in the history of the cathode ray tube has a popular TV series so relentlessly abused its loyal fans as GoT. Based on the mammoth series of books by George R. R. Martin, still being penned as we speak (five volumes and counting), this is a series that ended its first season with the decapitation of the guy everyone assumed was the hero.

It was as if Don Draper got run over by a cab after one season, or Walter White blew himself up in a meth lab. Talk about the element of surprise! 

Since then, dedicated Thronies understand that their favorite characters are on shaky ground with each new episode. No one is safe, however high up in the narrative food chain they appear to be. "Trust No One," as they used to say on The X-Files, and the ones we don't trust the most are the GoT writers.

Dinklage as Tyrion: don't call him a hero
And Martin gives them plenty of opportunity to wreak mayhem. His books are set in a fantasy world not unlike the Late Middle Ages in Europe; transport is via horseback, ship or on foot, weapons are forged steel, and combat is hand-to-hand.

And there's plenty of it, with some 10 to a dozen royal houses and various upstart factions (I tend to lose count after about seven or eight), from an increasingly broad spectrum of neighboring and foreign lands, all vying for the Iron Throne, whose king or queen rules all. (Nominally, at least.)

Daenerys and her alpha dragon: timely reappearance
Fortunately, as the GoT universe expands, there are plenty of heroes to go around—along with anti-heroes, would-be heroes, and characters who occasionally blunder into heroism by sheer accident, not to mention antagonists and outright villains. Lots and lots of the latter, villains for whose demise we avidly root for.

Sadly, villains in the GRRM universe seem to have a much longer shelf life than the good guys. But when they do meet their just deserts, oh boy, look out!

Like last year's Season 4 finale (SPOILER ALERT if you're still catching up with it on Netflix), when Tyrion Lannister finally put an end to the evil schemes of his reprehensible Daddy Dearest. Thronies were screaming like demented World Cup fanatics.

Harrington: Snowblind
Tyrion, the witty, roguish dwarf played to acerbic precision by the great Peter Dinklage, continues to be the best reason to watch the show. This year, Season 5, has fulfilled the promise of its teaser poster by sending Tyrion on a fateful (and not entirely voluntary) voyage to the Eastern realm of dragon girl Daenerys (Emilia Clarke); one of the baby dragons she helped to hatch in the first season made a timely reappearance—all grown up now, thanks very much—in last week's episode.

Fans have been waiting a long time for Tyrion and Daenerys to join forces, since they are two of the very few characters we consistently root for. A third is Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), bastard son of initial hero Ned Stark (now deceased). Jon Snow always tries to do the right thing; exiled to the monk-like brotherhood of the Night's Watch, he's been elected their commander—just in time to lead a desperate campaign against the undead armies of the demonic White Walkers.

All three of these characters were in extremely dire straits as of last week. The suspense is killing me.

(But, sshhhh, don't call them heroes! We know what happens to them.)

Btw, if you fear GoT withdrawals after the imminent end of Season 5, get ready for: Game of Thrones: The Muscal! No, not really, but that's the premise of this very funny video in which Chris Martin of Coldplay envisions just such a horrible hybrid—to the dismay of several cast members. 12 minutes, complete with songs—check it out!

Also, if you needs further proof that Time Marches On, here's a fabulous fun pic of the kids of GoT back in 2009, when they were first cast. (The series debuted on HBO in 2011.) That's little Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) in front, Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), and, yes, that's Kit Harrington (Jon Snow).

Thursday, June 11, 2015


Davidson, Carroll: head-smacked.
JTC closes season with bittersweet comedy 'Woman In Mind'

Santa Cruz's Jewel Theatre Company is the little company that could. Artistic Director Julie James, works miracles with limited resources, mounting ambitious, professional theatre in tiny local spaces like Center Stage (where JTC has been the resident company for the last five years). James' eagerness to tackle everything from Beckett to Sondheim to Athol Fugard, from musicals to West Coast and World premieres, makes her company consistently worth watching.

For the finale of JTC's Tenth Anniversary season, James presents Woman In Mind, a bittersweet comedy of disillusion by popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. First produced in 1985, the play starts off as a jaunty comedy about a midlife suburban woman confusing her fantasy of perfect family life with the far more mundane reality. Ayckbourn's play quietly evolves into something much more poignant, and this production, directed by James herself, strikes both its sad and funny highlights with effective precision.

The story begins with protagonist, Susan (Diahanna Davidson), prone in her modest garden with a strange man kneeling over her, spouting gibberish. Turns out she has just performed the classic slapstick comedy maneuver, stepped on a garden rake and smacked herself in the head, a short trip to oblivion from which she is just now waking up. The man is a medical doctor, Bill Windsor (Shaun Carroll), who's just summoned an ambulance, his nonsense words finally resolving into ordinary English that Susan was mishearing in her delirious state.

A perfect English garden of the mind.
It's daring to start off with a scene so disorienting to the audience, and Ayckbourn wisely sticks to Susan's increasingly suspect and fractured perspective for the rest of the play. As soon as Bill goes back in the house, the drab brick wall of Susan's yard becomes a gateway to an extravagant English garden, full of mazes and hedgerows. (Kudos to Set Designer Kent Dorsey and Lighting Designer Mark Hopkins.)

Through this gateway pour Susan's doting husband, Andy (David Arrow), adoring daughter, Lucy (Danielle Crook), and devoted younger brother, Tony (Jimmy Allan). They seem to have wandered in out of a 1930s Noel Coward play, in their sporty white outfits (costumes by the great B. Modern), wielding tennis racquets and glasses of vintage "champers." The giddy Susan assures them all that she's perfectly fine.
Davies, Torres-Koss: too true to be perfect.

Except that she's not quite. We know something is up as soon as the somewhat bumbling, but good-hearted Bill comes back out and makes reference to family members Susan at first doesn't acknowledge. Her real-life family, as we soon learn, led by stodgy husband, Gerald (Chad Davies), an Anglican clergyman who neglects her for the book he's writing about the history of the parish since 1386.

Then there's frazzled Muriel (the ever-stalwart Diana Torres-Koss), the widowed sister to whom Gerald is devoted, whose culinary attempts have everyone quaking in fear. Aimless son, Rick (Nat Robinson), has joined a cult that forbids him to speak to his parents.

Fantasy family: too perfect to be true.
There are plenty of laughs as these two worlds begin to collide (including a comic Q&A expertly lobbed by Davidson and Carroll, with the recurring punchline "since 1386," including how long Gerald has been working on his book). Arrow, Allan, and Crook are all hilariously suave and arch as the fantasy family, and Davies maintains a vague, melancholy dignity as poor, plodding Gerald.

But this production doesn't really get going until the second act, coming together at last, even as its heroine unravels.

It's not simply that Susan retreats into idle romantic nonsense; the process by which she's become disengaged with her life has been involuntary and devastating. Once content as a wife and mother, she feels abandoned now that no one needs her any more. In her prickly conversation with son Rick, we see how they wound and infuriate each other, despite their best intentions. Finally, even her perfect alternate family starts to get on her nerves.

Davidson's Susan is onstage throughout, and her sharp, yet aching performance helps JTC end is tenth season on a high note of dramatic complexity. (This show plays through June 28.)

(Photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Hey kids, remember when the future used to be fun? We were going to colonize the Moon, zip around in hover cars like, the Jetsons, and voyage to the stars in the Starship Enterprise. Labor would be robotic, clothes would be space-age and really cool, and peace would be intergalactic.

But somewhere along the way, our dreams of the future got tarnished. It occurred to some cynics that humankind as a species was no more likely to create Utopias on other worlds than they had on this one, and our visions of the future became more and more bleak—like the present.

Think of the dripping, steaming perpetual night of Blade Runner. The burnt-out, post-apocalyptic survivalism of the road-raging Mad Max series. The repressive dystopian future of a thousand YA novels made into movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent series.
So bright, he has to wear shades.

So Tomorrowland is a breath of fresh air, harking back, as it does, to the good old days when the future still seemed shades-worthy. Yes, it's a Disney movie, and, yes, it began as a blatant attempt to cash in on another Disneyland attraction revamped for the screen (a la Pirates of the Caribbean).

 But the good news is the movie works on its own terms, largely thanks to the crisp direction and splendid sensibilities of Brad Bird (beloved by this blog as the director of the most soulful animated robot movie ever made, The Iron Giant). Among many other assets, this cheery adventure makes an effective case for engagement with the future, and considering how actions we take (or fail to take) in the present may serve it—or destroy it.

The story begins at the 1964 New York City World's Fair. On the soundtrack we hear "It's A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow," jaunty theme song from the onetime Disneyland attraction, Carousel of Progress. (On its revolving stage, "audio-animatronic" (ie: robotic) figures from several different eras—Victorian through the 1950s—in their various period rooms, extolled the virtues of futuristic devices like automobiles, washing machines, telephones, and vacuum cleaners.)

Eight-year-old Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) comes to the fair with a futuristic device of his own—a personal jet pack he's cobbled together from spare parts out of his dad's garage—hoping to win a contest presided over by a man named Nix (Hugh Laurie). Frank's invention doesn't actually work, but the principle is sound enough so that Athena (the poised and enchanting Raffey Cassidy), a girl he takes for Nix's daughter, slips him a special badge.

Just Imagine, 1930: Retro future.

 Frank follows them into a boat inside Disney's It's A Small World ride (yes, it debuted at the 1964 World's Fair), and finds himself transported into a parallel universe, a sparkling clean, fabulously sculpted chrome and steel high rise cityscape called Tomorrowland.

Cut to the present day. Teenage Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), daughter of a NASA engineer, is committing midnight acts of sabotage to try to stop the authorities from shutting down a NASA research site. She's something of an engineering whiz herself, and through the agency of the weirdly unchanged Athena, scrappy Casey is teamed up with the grown-up Frank (George Clooney), now a brilliant, cynical recluse hiding out in a booby-trapped house out in the middle of nowhere.

Their mission? Well, I forget, but they have to outwit a sinister band of robothugs and get back to pristine Tomorrowland to try to persuade Nix (the governor of the place) not to abandon Earth to the fatal ravages of environmental disaster.

This involves escape from Frank's fortress in a jet-propelled bathtub, and a trip to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, where, in the movie's most delicious sequence, they blast into space in a steampunk clockwork rocket designed by Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Gustave Eiffel.
Just Imagine, 1930: The future is wow.

Trust me, it makes sense enough (more or less) while you're watching. And Laurie gets to deliver a hilariously acerbic screed (as only he can) on how no amount of scientific reason, evidence, and proof can persuade willfully ignorant humanity from lifting a finger to save themselves and their planet before it's too late. 

In the meantime, we get to feast our eyes on gorgeously rendered visions of  the unpolluted waterways, unclogged aerial freeways, and clean energy of the future as it ought to be.

All of which reminded me of an odd little movies from 1930—barely a talkie—called Just Imagine. This weird little production (I think it's a musical) has a pretty silly, Sleeper-like plot about some schmoe from that era transported "50 years into the Future!" (ie: 1980.)

Okay, the state he discovers is a tad conformist and controlled. But it looks clean and beautiful! The film's production design is outstanding, some images from which I'm posting here, as a point of comparison. (Check out the complete movie on You Tube.)

Tomorrowland: the future as it ought to be.
Too bad that whenever we just imagine a really cool future, it's only a movie.