Monday, January 25, 2016


Back in the day, a feature cartoon adapted from R. Crumb's randy comic, Fritz the Cat, bore the tagline: "He's X-rated—and animated!"

The publicity is not quite so sensational for the new stop-motion animated feature, Anomalisa; the themes are just as adult in nature, and the storyline remarkably frank, but the handling of the material is both more muted, and yet even more surreal.

And we'd expect no less from the latest experiment in cinematic arts and craft from the febrile imagination of scriptwriter-turned-director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

Remember, in the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovich, when the hapless protagonist attempts to stage the tragedy of Abélard and Heloise as a puppet show?

In Anomalisa, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson grapple with the malaise of modern humanity—the emptiness and alienation we've all felt sometimes—using stop-motion puppets.

Michael and Lisa: Everyone is special to someone.
 It's a brilliant idea, in concept, and the choices made by the filmmakers to spin their yarn are often wildly inventive. Still, for all its deeply human themes, the story never quite touches the heart.

Front and center is Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), a middle-aged self-help guru who can't seem to help himself. To express the boring sameness of Michael's everyday life, the filmmakers cleverly have one actor (the versatile Tom Noonan) providing voices for everyone else he encounters—male or female, adult or child.

Until Michael meets Lisa. Her voice—warm, funny, girlish at times—is done by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael nicknames her "Anomalisa" because her individuality is so unexpected. He can't articulate why he finds mousy Lisa so special, but who can explain the mysteries of love and attraction?

In the film's most persuasive scene, they go to bed, with all the awkwardness, humor, and tenderness of a real-life encounter.

There are some truly marvelous moments. When Michael turns on the TV, the filmmakers lovingly recreate a scene from the classic '30s screwball comedy, My Man Godfrey—in black-and-white—with Noonan (of course) supplying voices for both William Powell and Carole Lombard.

But other sections don't come off as well, like a long suite of opening scenes no less tedious for being staged with puppets. As admirable as Anomalisa is in so many ways, by the end, I wanted to be more moved. (Read complete review in this week's Good Times)

Monday, January 18, 2016


Theron: just one of the guys.
What were they thinking with this year's Oscar nominations?

It's pretty much business as usual over at Boys Town (aka: the Motion Picture Academy), with most of the kudos going to movies whose casts, filmmakers and subject matter are—how can I put this?—white and male.

Male ensemble casts are the E-ticket rides this year—The Revenant, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, The Martian. At least Spotlight has a token woman reporter (Rachel McAdams) in the newsroom.

But while Mad Max: Fury Road, prominently features a grundged-out Charlize Theron in its plot and ads, it only reminds us that tough guys are still the gold standard—even for women.

The Big Short: men in suits.

The highest-profile female-oriented movie of the year, Todd Haynes' Carol,  got shut out of the Best Picture competition (although its stars got nominated).

The lovely female coming-of-age drama, Brooklyn, actually is in the running for Best Picture, but without a corresponding nomination for its director, its chances are slim.

The only other nominee with a female protagonist, Room, scored noms for both picture and director Lenny Abrahamson. (But not, curiously, for 9-year-old co-star Jacob Tremblay, the movie's centerpiece.)

The Revenant: men in distress.
And while star Brie Larson is poised to win the Best Actress category, what are the chances of this intimate movie prevailing against the turbo-charged, star-driven big boys?

Speaking of acting, diversity watchdogs are complaining that this is the second year in a row when not one person of color was nominated in any of Oscar's acting categories.

You have to go back to 2013 and 2014, when 12 Years A Slave and The Help garnered multiple nominations (including two winners) for their actors. (And maybe in some Utopian future, actors of color will get nominated for playing something other than slaves and housekeepers.)

No gold for La Mirren this year.
There are some other weird choices among the acting noms. Cate Blanchett is nominated for Best Actress in Carol, and co-star Rooney Mara for Supporting Actress, although, arguably, Mara's character is the protagonist through whose viewpoint most of the story plays out.

Ditto Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl, who, amazingly, is nominated in the Supporting Actress category. I thought her character was the heart of the movie, a woman coming to terms with the husband she loves transgendering into a woman—in the 1920s, when nobody had ever heard of such a thing.

How about a nod to Helen Mirren in Woman In Gold? Or a Supporting nom for Mirren as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo? What about Trumbo? And how is it that Aaron Sorkin, fresh from winning a Golden Globe for his smart, literate script for Steve Jobs, didn't even score a nomination?

Surf on over to IMDb to see the full list of nominations. Read 'em and weep...

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Very sorry today to hear of the passing of Alan Rickman, an actor of extreme talent and terrific wit, with one of the Best. Voices. Ever.

Yes, we all know and love Snape (Snape! Snape!). Every syllable was an event in a Rickman performance, particularly as (spoiler alert!) the presumed villain and tragically misunderstood Potions master at Hogwarts, Severus Snape.

Rickman could pack more oily unction into a single word than most actors can manage in an entire career. Sure, Snape was Harry Potter's nemesis, but he was also one of the most beloved components of the franchise.

But if you'll be streaming your own private Rickman Festival, don't forget these magic moments:

ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES  I'm serious: Rickman's rampaging Sheriff of Nottingham is reason enough to see this Kevin Costner version. Rickman delivers a performance of uncharacteristic bluster, and has a high old time doing it.

He's the real thief here, stealing the movie from Costner—until the very end, when director Kevin Reynolds figured out what was going on, and turned the Sheriff into an eye-rolling cartoon.

GALAXY QUEST Rickman is hilarious as a classically-trained British thespian playing an alien under pounds of latex in a Star Trek-like  TV series that refuses to die.

The show has been off the air for years, but the actor finds himself stuck eternally recreating the role at sci-fi conventions for generations of fanboys.

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY Emma Thompson wrote the script for this Jane Austen adaptation, and directior Ang Lee had the sense to cast Rickman as courtly, brooding Colonel Brandon, the older suitor who doggedly proves his worth to Kate Winslet's romance-obsessed Marianne.

TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY I think the first time I ever saw Rickman onscreen was in this wonderfully romantic and warmly witty supernatural love story.

 He plays a recently deceased concert cellist whose spirit returns to his lover (Juliet Stevenson) to encourage her to get on with her life. A winsome romance with a droll sense of humor.  Rickman at his best.

LOVE, ACTUALLY Rickman reteams with Thompson in this entertaining holiday ensemble comedy in which they play a married couple going through a rocky patch. His attempt to stray by buying an expensive gift for another woman crashes head-on into persnickety sales clerk Rowan Atkinson.

A LITTLE CHAOS Rickman directed himself as Louis XIV, the Sun King, in the process of building his palace at Versailles, in last year's charming historical confection.

Did I mention he also delivers the Word of God as a cranky herald angel in Kevin Smith's DOGMA?

The acting profession has lost one of its most accomplished and reliable practitioners. The movies won't be nearly as much fun without him.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


So, what have I been doing so far in the New Year instead of posting to this blog?

This—staring at the screen, immersed in a massive line edit on my next book, Beast: A Love Story.

I've already done plenty of whining about this process (and wining too, as you can see in this pic, taken at the end of a long workday one evening last week).

But, for those of you keeping score at home, I've been working on this edit since NOVEMBER 7!!!!

Not constantly; I did get unshackled from the keyboard a few times for Christmas and New Year's.

But here's the good news: I've finally finished!

Well, this particular line edit, anyway. My editor at Candlewick Press hints that there may be one more, just to make sure we're all on the same virtual page, but we are still on track to go into the next phase of production—copyediting—at the end of the month.

After that, we get into the fun stuff—cover design!

Stay tuned...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


The inimitable Iris: no expiration date
Fact-based tales top my fave films of 2015

Fact trumped fiction at the movies in 2015—at least in the majority of my favorite films. There's often more truthiness than strict historical fact in anything calling itself a "true story" onscreen, but a lot of entries in my Top Ten had a least a nodding acquaintance with historical reality. Stream these for a happy new year!

TRUMBO Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, with edgy, raging wit, in Jay Roach's entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s.

A movie for anyone interested in backstage Hollywood stories, the craft and business of screenwriting, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering.

Cranston as Trumbo: type-cast

SONG OF THE SEA Anyone who loves seals, ancient Celtic folklore, or mythology will be charmed by Tomm Moore's ravishing, hand-drawn, Irish animated feature, combining traditional selkie tales with a stunning visual palette, and an endearing tale of a young girl and her destiny.

COMING HOME Oceans of feeling roil beneath the surface in Zhang Yimou's spare, resonant story whose characters will break your heart. At the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a schoolteacher and her teenage daughter await the return of her husband from a labor camp, but when he arrives, his amnesiac wife no longer recognizes him. A chamber piece for three voices, full of small, exquisite notes to be savored.

IRIS A fixture on the New York City design scene for over sixty years, 93-year-old Iris Apfel proves that fashion has no expiration date. With her wry wit, and easy laugh, she's a beguiling subject for this lively doc by legendary Albert Maysles.

Song of the Sea: ravishing

DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL A 15-year-old girl navigates the tightrope between child and adult in Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel. It's a fresh, poignant female coming-of-age drama set in 1976 San Francisco, a liberating, yet dangerous world of almost no taboos. Star Bel Powley makes an impressive debut.

LOVE & MERCY Paul Dano is terrific as Beach Boys founder Brian Wilson in the 1960s, at the height of his creative genius, in Bill Pohlad's generally absorbing fiction film. John Cusack is effective as the '80s-model Brian, and it's all connected by a fabulous, gluttonous feast of Wilson music, from surf tunes to Smile.

INSIDE OUT In the mission control center of the brain, where five key emotions constantly jockey for position, a foul-up in the control booth temporarily disconnects an 11-year-old from her personality. A trek through the adolescent brain is needed to set things right—a journey both hilarious and moving in Peter Docter's smart, animated Pixar movie.
Good vibe: Dano as Wilson, Love & Mercy

THE DANISH GIRL In the 1920s, real-life Danish painter Einar Wegener was one of the first people to have sexual reassignment surgery, transitioning into a woman, Lili Elbe. Tom Hooper tells the larger story of the evolving relationship between Wegener and his wife. Nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander highlight this compassionate portrait of love and identity.

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH Vera Brittain's WWI memoir inspires James Kent's searing, heartfelt drama. Maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the encroachment of war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a broad canvas in delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.

Vikander in Youth: Woman of the Year
STEVE JOBS Leave it to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin to come up with a punchy way to distill the complex story of the visionary who invented Apple computers. Sorkin's sharp script, and the propulsive energy of Danny Boyle's direction makes for an entertaining biographical drama. This was probably the most unfairly maligned movie of the year, so don't believe what you've heard and go check it out!


THE BIG SHORT (which I didn't see before writing this article)

Most Egregious Misfire: Pan Oh, please.

The Force Awakens: a girl and her droid

Guilty Pleasure: A Little Chaos Snape (Alan Rickman, who also directs) as Louis XIV. Kate Winslet as a female landscape designer at Versailles. Plausible? Not remotely, but still loads of fun.

Comeback Kid: The Star Wars franchise. J. J. Abrams' The Force Awakens recaptures the spirit of the 1977 original—by replicating all the original elements: desert planet, lost droid, cantina scene, Storm Troopers, space pilots, ominous father-son relations. With a few fun twists, like a female protagonist, and a chance to see our favorite characters 30+ years on.

Woman of the Year: Alicia Vikander in three great movies: Ex Machina, Testament of Youth, and The Danish Girl.