Saturday, October 17, 2015


Profile in courage: Malala Yousafzai in He Named Me Malala
Teen's courage profiled in powerful doc 'He Named Me Malala'

The word "inspirational" is highly overused. It's come to denote an entire sub-genre of books and movies, mostly devoted to Christian themes or underdog sports stories.

But for real-life inspiration of jaw-dropping proportions, look no further than Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl who spoke out for the rights of girls to be educated, nearly paid with her life when she was shot in the face by the Taliban, and survived, to continue her work on behalf of women's rights around the globe.

In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace—at age seventeen.

The amazing story-so-far of this incredibly poised young woman and her family is told in the moving, informative documentary, He Named Me Malala. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) chooses this title for a good reason: the "He" refers to Malala's father, schoolteacher and activist Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is revealed to be an influence and inspiration for his daughter. But as Malala points out in the film, "He named me Malala, but he didn't make me Malala." Guggenheim's film is the fascinating story of Malala inventing herself.

Let's start with that name. In a voice-over, accompanied by lovely, animated pastel images (which are used throughout the film), Malala tells the story of her namesake, a legendary 19th Century heroine from Afghanistan called Malalai. When the Afghani troops were in flight from invading British forces, Malalai climbed a hill above the battlefield and rallied the troops, crying "It's better to live one day as a lion than spend the rest of your life as a slave." (Read more)

Now an international advocate for girls' rights to an education, we see Malala in Kenya, talking to schoolgirls in a remote village classroom. When she asks what they are studying toward, every student says she wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. Malala's battlefield is the classroom, and this is how she wins her war—one girl at a time.

Monday, October 12, 2015


A cool images from "Pan," but it comes at the very end
All flash, no fun, in shipwrecked 'Pan'

Full disclosure: I went to see Pan with extreme prejudice. As someone who has cheerfully adulterated J. M. Barrie's classic for her own devices, I'm leery of anyone else trying to do the same. And I'm very possessive of the way "my" characters (let alone Barrie's) are portrayed onscreen.

I wish I could say I was pleasantly surprised by Pan. But it's even worse than I imagined, in every way that matters: a story that makes any kind of sense on its own terms, characters we're invested in who share a sense of camaraderie, fresh dialogue, and, you know, fun. Pan comes up goose eggs in every department, opting instead for insanely huge and irrelevant CGI effects that pummel the fun right out of it.

Director Joe Wright can do literary adaptations (the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice; Atonement). But Jason Fuchs' script is an ill-conceived origin story that makes hash out of the original's time frame and sensibility. Not that Barrie's world of perverse feral children isn't ripe for a little tweaking, but Fuchs' revision is a clumsy, derivative mashup that steals from other, better sources, like Oliver Twist and Star Wars.

Neverland tribes: don't call them native Americans
12-year-old Peter (wide-eyed newcomer Levi Miller) grows up in a London orphanage run by ferocious nuns. One night, during World War II, while the Nazis are bombing the city, Peter and some other boys are snatched up into a flying pirate ship that whisks them away to Neverland. There, they join the ranks of captive child slave laborers mining the caverns for "pixium" (ie: pixie dust), which pirate captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) has been using to rejuvenate himself for the past 220 years.

It's not much of a life for a pirate—no women, no plunder, and nothing to spend it on, so why he wants to sustain it eternally is just one of the many things that doesn't add up. Tipping on a precipice one day, Peter astounds everyone, including himself, by flying across the gorge; turns out there's a prophecy that Blackbeard will be defeated by a boy who can fly. This is big news to the native tribes that live in the lush greenbelt over the hill from the mine, who need to stop the pirates before they despoil the entire island.

Indiana Hook and the kid. Before it all went wrong
There was much ado in the media when Rooney Mara was cast as native princess Tiger Lily. But it's clear in the film that the tribes are not Native Americans, just a bunch of mixed-race exotics speaking in vaguely British accents.

Not so James Hook (Garrett Hedlund); in this version, Barrie's well-spoken Etonian is a blond American  laboring in the mine, spouting a line of trite, patently "cocky" dialogue that would make Han Solo cringe. He befriends Peter (Hook calls him "kid"), and they steal an extra pirate ship that happens to be floating around and fly off to join the princess in her fight against oppression.

Did I mention there's an entire flotilla of flying pirate ships hovering above the island? Why do they fly? Who knows, but evidently that's not what they're using the pixie dust for. But if every ship is airborne anyway, what's the big deal that Peter can fly?

Jackman: Darth Blackbeard
 The story of Peter's birth might have had some resonance, but it's told in a confusing underwater animation sequence that's too murky to understand. And the only reason for bumping up the time frame to the 1940s (from the turn-of-the-century original) is so one of the flying pirate ships can have a dogfight with the Luftwaffe. No, I'm not kidding.

You know a movie is in trouble when not even Hugh Jackman, stomping around in black leather as a sort of steampunk Darth Blackbeard, can liven things up. He cruises around in a flying ship whose figurehead is a massive sculpture of his own head in its pompadour wig, which is a funny image for a couple of frames, but the script never gives Jackman—or anyone else—an actual character to play.

Who is this movie is aimed at? Wright says he made it for his son, but it's hardly magical enough to enthrall kids (and it's way creepy when the pirate ships blast through the Fairy Kingdom with flamethrowers), while adults will feel bored and/or bludgeoned (often at the same time). The wheezy plot won't interest young hipsters—not even (especially) in 3D. It's a shipwrecked extravaganza for an audience that doesn't exist.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is the master of emotional nuance. In haunting, deeply textured films like Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, he suggests oceans of feeling roiling beneath the surface of the slightest glance or gesture. His new film Coming Home, is a spare, simple-seeming, deeply resonant story whose life-sized characters will break your heart.

Scripted by Jingzhi Zhou (from a novel by Yan Geling), the film tells a moving story of love, loss, and attempted reconciliation beginning in the final years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As in most of Zhang’s work, the ongoing political turmoil of 20th-century China is a huge factor in the lives of ordinary people just trying to scrape by and survive. This film makes cataclysmic political events personal by exploring their impact on individual lives.

Lovely Gong Li (Zhang’s longtime muse) stars as Yu, a teacher, whose husband has been in a labor camp for so long, her 13-year-old ballet dancer daughter, Dandan (the excellent Zhang Huiwen) doesn't even remember him. When the Cultural Revolution is declared over, prisoners are released.

But the happy homecoming Yu's husband, Lu (the wonderful Chen Daoming) yearns for is shattered when he finds Yu suffering from a  form of amnesia and doesn’t recognize him.

To make things more poignant for Lu, his wife knows that her beloved husband is coming home and goes every day to the train station to meet him, but she’s unable to see in Lu the man she loves.

Zhang plays the material as a chamber piece for three voices, full of small, resonant notes to be savored. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Happy news on the book front: my agents have just made their first sale of foreign-language rights for Beast: A Love Story to Poland!

This is a big deal to me. Foreign rights have not been sold to any of my books since my very first novel, The Witch From the Sea, came out in a gorgeous, hardcover German-language edition (as Die Heimliche Piratin)—three years before it was published in the US.

It's so typical of my backwards career that foreign rights sold way before the book ever came out in a language I could actually read! Beast—so far, at least—seems to be following a more traditional publishing path.

No word yet on a date that Beast will be available from HarperCollins Polska. But I'll keep you posted on this, and any future foreign editions!

Saturday, October 3, 2015


Art Boy welcomes you to his 25th Open Studio!
Hey, kids, what time is it?

Ten points for Gryffindor if you said Open Studios time!

Artists all over Santa Cruz County are standing ready, as we speak, to throw open their doors to you, The Public, for the next three weekends. And it all begins today.

For those of you who came in late, here's the deal: participating artists countywide are divided geographically. North County artists (basically from the Yacht Harbor to Davenport) open their studios this weekend. South County artists (between the Yacht Harbor and Watsonville) will be open next weekend, October 10-11.

The following weekend, October 17-18, is Encore Weekend, meaning artists from both sides of the county can be open for one last hurrah. If they want to. It's not mandatory to do a second weekend, so if you're putting off visiting your favorite artist until Encore, check the catalogue first to make sure he/she will be open.

(A word top the wise: North County ceramicist, painter, and jewelry-maker Beth Allison Gripenstraw, a favorite here on the blog, will only be open this weekend. Beth doesn't just show art, she creates entire environments—including, in recent years, Alice's Mad Tea Party, an African safari, and Paris in the 1920s. This year' she's promising a voyage down the Amazon—without the bugs. Or, if there are bugs, they'll probably be made of papier mache! Or perched on a vase, like these froggies!)

Speaking of the catalogue, it's now a slick, glossy magazine format, with much larger images of each artist's work. And this week only, it's free, free, free inside the Good Times! Otherwise, you can pick one up at any of the usual outlets around town for the ridiculously cheap price of $5! (I suggest you get one at the Art League and stop in to see the show featuring one piece of artwork from each of this year's participating OS artists.)

And to get in the mood: look who's the lead story in the Arts & Entertainment section of GT this week! Yes, it's Art Boy (aka: James Aschbacher, above), juggling paint cans and ideas with equal dexterity, in this great photo by Chip Scheuer. Click here to read the profile by the one and only Christina Waters.

Then grab a catalogue and an art buddy, and chart your personal art adventure!

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Fischer vs. Spassky in Cold War chess thriller 'Pawn Sacrifice'

The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was waged on many fronts. One of the most intense and memorable confrontations took place not on a battlefield, or in a congressional hearing room, but in an indoor sports arena in Reykjavik, Iceland.

At this venue in 1972, the temperamental American chess phenom, Bobby Fischer, duked it out with defending Russian champion Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship, an event publicized at the time (and still thought of) as the Match of the Century.

There's a lot of drama here—Fischer's eccentricity, political agendas, the "big game" motif—most of which is used to good effect in the fiction film Pawn Sacrifice. While the plot revolves around the famous 1972 match, through canny use of select flashbacks (along with a harrowing glimpse into the future via newsreel footage at the very end), the film provides a long view into the unorthodox life and times of Fischer, forever teetering on the crumbling border between genius and madness.

Scripted by Steven Knight, the film is thoughtfully directed by Edward Zwick, veteran of TV's Thirtysomething and many other screen credits. In the starring role, Tobey Maguire has to ratchet down his innate likability to play Fischer in all his abrasive, paranoid complexity. Nobody (including the filmmakers) understands Fischer any better at film's end, but Zwick and company successfully reconstruct the context within which he rose to fame. (Read more)