Thursday, June 22, 2017

WISE GUYS & GALS

Their Finest: dueling typewriters
The recent popularity of Their Finest got me thinking about how to make writers dynamic in the movies.

Writing a novel in isolation is hardly a spectator sport. Sure, there have been good movies about novelists, but the act of writing itself is pretty much a snooze-fest onscreen.

But other forms of writing can be made more cinematic because they involve action — and humor.

A pair (or team, or pool) of writers bouncing ideas off each other verbally while concocting a film or television script is an idea situation: the act of creation is achieved as the jokes fly.

Boy Meets Girl: sell that story
One of my favorites in this genre is the 1938 screwball comedy Boy Meets Girl, with fast-talking James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as studio screenwriters hatching an elaborate movie scenario in double-time.

A more updated version was that venerable TV sitcom of the 1960s,  Dick Van Dyke Show, where staff writers Rob, Buddy, and Sally traded non-stop wisecracks while cobbling together a weekly comedy script for their TV star boss.

Another reliably visual writing genre is journalism. You can't go wrong with reporters out there tracking down a story — especially if they're cracking wise the whole time, as in The Front Page (1931, and remade many times).

Or better still, the 1940 remake, His Girl Friday, recasting the second lead as a female newshound played by Rosalind Russell, following leads and cracking the case alongside star reporter Cary Grant.

Wax Museum, Glenda Farrel: girl meets typewriter
One of my personal favorites, less well-known today than the others, is The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Sure, it's a horror movie, but it also features Glenda Farrell as a gal reporter with plenty of moxie, flinging snappy patter in all directions.

When her roomie (Fay Wray) disappears, right around the time the city wax museum begins exhibiting a bunch of new figures of dubious provenance, Farrell convinces her skeptical, hard-boiled editor (Frank McHugh) to let her track down the story — and, boy, does she ever!

The genre inspired its own homage in Woody Allen's Scoop (2006). Ian McShane is great as a recently deceased reporter who haunts cub journalist Scarlet Johansson with clues to a crime, because he — being inconveniently dead — can no longer get the story.

As long as writers are producing the scripts, tales of the writing life will be told onscreen. (Write what you know, and all that.) Here are some of my other favorites.


Monday, June 12, 2017

BEAST OF THE MONTH (JUNE)

The countdown continues — s-l-o-w-l-y — to the publication date of my next novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.

Due date is March 6, 2018. Get in line now!

Okay, that's still 10 months away.

But in the meantime, I'm posting a Beast of the Month on this blog, sharing some of my favorite Beauty and the Beast images from the 260 intervening years since what we now think of as the classic version of the novel was published in France by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1757.

This month: feast your eyes on this gorgeous painting from contemporary African-American artist Thomas Blackshear!

This does not resemble my Beast, or my heroine, but I love, love, love the Klimt-like decorative element of the patterns and brushwork!

Seriously, could this be any more gorgeous?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

GOOD COMPANY

Okay, there's no ocean anywhere near Phoenix, Arizona. And yet, James Hook's voyage of world domination continues!

A friend directed my attention to this summer reading book display at a Barnes & Noble in the Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix.

Notice the prominent position of Alias Hook! The idea is, they are pairing up classic books and authors with their suggestions for "great modern" retellings or updates!

For my part, I'm thrilled to be sharing valuable tabletop space with such good company as Jane Austen and Alexander Dumas! (Along with J. M. Barrie, of course!)

And speaking of which, see the paperback of Peter Pan at the lower right, wedged in between the "Go" game and The Count of Monte Cristo? The cover image is by none other than Roy Best! It's the same image of Pan that's on the cover of that 1931 storybook that was gifted to me last week.

Anyway, I'm thrilled that my book keeps finding its way back into the public eye. Occupy Bookstores, that's my motto!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

CAPTAIN'S LOG

Russell Brand as Captain Hook, by Annie Leibovitz
Captain Hook continues to have legs!

(And, why not; it was only his hand that got cut off.)

What I mean is that readers over at the Republic of Goodreads keep discovering Alias Hook and posting enthusiastic reviews!

Many early readers assumed the book would be YA (Young Adult) because it's about Peter Pan (although they were quick to discover my book is really about James Hook). And some were disappointed that it was not. But now, some of this late-coming crop of Goodreaders are actually relieved that the book is not YA.

Their comments have been interesting:

This was a book for people just like me - adults who still love magic and the fairy tales from childhood, but don't want to read another book about teenagers (I'm pretty sure 97% of all books now are YA action romances :/ )

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, much more than I probably expected too, despite the interesting premise. I had sort of pegged it as a young adult fantasy with probably many of the same themes that seem to frequently recur in that genre, but this is most definitely a grown-up book, with an adult's perspective of Neverland.


It does sometimes seem there are more YA fantasy series than anything else in the marketplace. Of course, lots of adults read YA because, as a writer friend recently observed, "that's where the ideas are." But it's up to writers to resist the lure of formula that could so easily lead to stagnation within the genre (or any popular genre).

This is useful to think about, since my next two novels will be YA. Keeping the stories fresh and the writing fresh — for readers of all ages — that's the challenge!

(Meanwhile, it's great to know that my James Hook continues to win fans. Pardon me while I blush over this Alias Hook review posted last week on the You Tube book review channel Liene's Library! Thanks, Liene!)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

STORY(BOOK) TIME


So this happened this week:




A friend helping her mom move unearthed this vintage storybook edition of Peter Pan. For some strange reason, she thought of me!


It's an oversized volume called The Picture Story Book of Peter Pan, published in 1931, and illustrated in voluptuous watercolors by Roy Best.


Obsessed as I am with depictions of Captain Hook in all media (to see how they stack up with my James Hook in Alias Hook), I couldn't wait to dive in!


This Hook arrives in full comic-opera regalia, complete with luxuriant, long black Charles II curls. And the red coat, which is standard in Hook depictions probably as far back as the original stage play in 1904. (And immortalized in the 1953 Disney cartoon.)


I do approve of the elaborate headgear here; my James Hook has an absolute fetish for extravagant hats.



But while J. M. Barrie makes a big deal of Hook's icy blue eyes, I find it a little bizarre that illustrator Best tints Hook's entire eyeball (what we usually think of as the "white") a fetching shade of powder blue.


Meanwhile, Best's version of Pan is much younger and way more cherubic than mine. In these illustrations, he's practically a toddler.
Which I guess makes a kind of sense, since the Pan in my book, is going through an eternal case of the Terrible Twos.


But I do love Best's  va-va-voom Tinker Bell. Just look at her, so saucily perched on her little vase, scantily-clad, and vamping like a mini Jean Harlow! Or a chorus girl in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical.


It's plain to see why this artist was best known for his calendar girl pin-ups!


None of these images remotely resemble the characters as I see them in Alias Hook. But I'm such a sucker for vintage illustration, this one is definitely going on the "keeper" pile!

Monday, May 29, 2017

BEING HERE NOW

Astronomical Clock, Old Town Square, Prague
Yesterday, apropos of nothing in particular, Art Boy said that these are the halcyon days of our old age.

And I realized that's true: no matter what age we are now, there's some point in the future when we'll look back fondly on this moment in time, today, and think, Wow, those were the days!

So maybe it's time to unplug from the Borg for a minute, forget the %@#!!*$! news, and pay attention to where we are right now.

Yesterday at this time, I had just made a strawberry tart. (From our weekly box of strawberries from Grey Bears' Brown Bag Program!) All day, a hummingbird had been building her teensy nest in our apricot tree.

Art Boy was chopping peppers in the kitchen. We were having friends over for dinner.

In the immortal words of Steve Miller, time keeps on tickin', tickin,' tickin', into the future.

So we better be here now!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

AHA!

Having trouble dragging the first draft of your novel to the finish line?

Here's a tip from Stephen King: the first draft is always just for you. No one else will (or should) ever see it. This is how you tell yourself the story.

I don't know when, or where King ever said this. It's just one of those tiny infobites that occasionally pops up in the Random Shuffle that is my brain. But even though I've forgotten where I heard or read this nugget, the idea itself is so savvy and reassuring, it's stayed with me.

It's especially pertinent now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book. (The one coming out after Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.) This is the first time I'm working from a detailed proposal that includes the beginning, the (dreaded) middle, and the end of the story.

My previous book-writing method was to just plunge into an idea and flail around for the next couple of years, but I'm beginning to see the wisdom of actually making a plan first.

Things are, in fact, going more smoothly than usual. But here's the thing: at this stage, when you're still telling yourself the story, you haven't thought of every detail yet. There will be plenty of "aha!" moments in the course of the writing (and rewriting) — but now is not the time to sit around waiting for them!

The job now is to get a complete story onto the page, by fair means or foul, even if it means writing something stupid to connect scene A to scene B. Don't agonize over every word choice, and don't get hung up on details.

And whatever you do, don't stop!

There'll be plenty of time later to throw out the stupid stuff. (And a lot of stuff you think is great now; that's what editors are for.) Everything is going to change, anyway, but until you have something that at least vaguely looks and quacks like a duck on the page, you won't be able to proceed to the next step — revising. And believe me, that's where the real work begins!

That's when you get to those "aha!" moments too. But you have to get there first!

Monday, May 22, 2017

THE 'HOOD FIGHT

Activist resists callous city planners in Citizen Jane

Guess what? You can fight City Hall. With engagement, activism, and a keen sense of moral outrage, we, the people, can foil the best-laid plans of mice and politicians, however mighty they may think they are. Matt Tyrnauer's excellent documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, shows how it's done, a call to arms that could not be more timely in this chaotic political moment.

The city referred to in the movie's subtitle is New York City. The story begins in the late1950s, where the battle lines are drawn between Utopian post-war urban planning and the communities and concerns of real-life people.

Leading the charge is Robert Moses, an imperious, celebrated urban planning czar who callously decrees, "You have to move a lot of people out of the way," (mostly low-income residents) to make room for the so-called "Urban Renewal" he envisions. (Or, as James Baldwin calls it, in a vintage TV clip, "Negro Removal.")

In the opposing corner is journalist Jane Jacobs, who develops her "theory of opposition" to Moses' plans. A city resident since 1934, whose freelance stories on urban life earned her a position as Associate Editor at Architectural Forum magazine, Jacobs believes a city should be "a place with scope for all kinds of people."

Jane Jacobs: resistance in action
She believes that life lived out on the streets, on the stoops of old buildings and the sidewalks in front of them, creates community; even residents without a lot of money can create rich neighborhoods. Whereas Moses' solution is to tear down all the old buildings, eliminate sidewalk culture, and remove people to soulless highrise towers: i.e.: housing projects.

The welfare of the people involved, uprooted from their community life, is a matter of complete indifference to him. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he chuckles, in a TV clip.

Filmmaker Tyrnauer sets up Jacobs vs. Moses as a "battle for the soul of the city." He posits that Jacobs' influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is as defining a moment in 20th Century radical politics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1963).

Jacobs consistently fought for the lives and concerns of real people over insular, elitist goals and corporate greed. It's a fight we're still engaged in right now. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE INSPIRATION GAME

Matisse: Studio, Quai St. Michel. Seminal.
Okay, we're the last kids on the block to see the excellent exhibition on Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn up at SF MoMA.

But it's so worth seeing!

At first glance, you might not think that the prolific, French post-Impressionist genius, Matisse, has much in common with California mid-century modernist Diebenkorn.

But the whole point of this show is to demonstrate the connections between the two.

Diebenkorn was a lifelong admirer of Matisse. And through a judicious selection of paintings by both artists, this show suggest how Diebenkorn was inspired by the French master through different stages of his own career, during the process of finding his own voice.

Diebenkorn: Window (1967) I love this — so rich!
It's fascinating to see how that influence plays out — not necessarily in subject matter or theme, but certainly in color palette, shape, and the energy of the paint on canvas.

Both artists progress through stages of figurative and abstract work, and while connections between the works are not always obvious, we gradually come to realize how much even the abstract, color-blocked, expressionistic images for which Diebenkorn is best known pay subtle homage to Matisse — even the figurative and decorative Matisse.

In some cases, the curators attempt to show the direct effect of a certain Matisse over a subsequent Diebenkorn, but the influence is far more general and fluid than that.

The curators know this, too, and the connections are ours to discover.

Matisse: Blue Window (1913)
They wisely begin the exhibit with the Matisse painting above, "Studio, Quai St. Michel" (1916). As our docent tour guide pointed, out you could draw a direct connection between this seminal Matisse image and just about any Diebenkorn work in the entire show.

This exhibition got me thinking about inspiration vs. imitation. If you've spent any time at all in museums, you've probably seen some young student, or fledgling artist, with easel and paint box set up before some great painting, studiously rendering a copy.

The idea is not to replicate that painting exactly, like a forgery, but to teach yourself how and why that painting works through the process of painting it yourself.

This is a necessary step any creative artist has to go through —understanding something we love by making our own version of it — on the way to establishing our own, unique, creative voice.
Diebenkorn: Ocean Park #79 (1975)

The visual artist paints and paints and paints until he or she gets some idea of where their work is going. In the writing biz, we call this editing.

And you keep working over and over again until you get it right. The early, abstract Diebenkorns from his Urbana series (from his time as an art professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana) come first in the SF MoMA show. It's possible to glimpse the Matisse influence, but these paintings are a little chaotic for me; Diebenkorn is still finding himself.

But as the show continues, you can see Diebenkorn getting a grip on his art as he perfects the sophisticated distillation of color and line that owes so much to the spirit of Matisse, yet is so distinctly Diebenkorn.

Full disclosure — I didn't know anything about Diebenkorn, and most likely would never have sought out his work if he hadn't been paired up with the mighty Matisse in this show. I'm generally more of a figurative, narrative kind of art-lover.

Diebenkorn does Matisse!
But now, I'm a fan! His colors are extraordinary, and there's a kind of monumental serenity to his images that I find quietly profound.

My favorite piece in the show? Diebenkorn's "Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) (at left). From across the room, this looks like a Matisse, with that swirling, organic pattern on the left. Up close, it looks like a Matisse grafted onto a geometric, color-blocked Diebenkorn.

Turns out the painting was done after Diebenkorn viewed Matisse paintings at The Hermitage in Leningrad on a trip to Russia the year before. In one way, you get the sense of viewing a Matisse on a wall with another landscape outside, possibly seen through a window.

But in another sense, you see in this celebration of Matisse, the old master beginning to make way on the canvas for the mature Diebenkorn.

This show is up at SF MoMA for one more week. See it if you can, and be inspired!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

BEAST UPDATE

Hey folks, here's another update in the Beast saga!

This week, I received a hard copy version of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, straight from the copyeditor! So I was sharpening my quill pen to scrawl my "yea" or "nay" on suggested edits, supply alternate changes, if necessary, and seize my last opportunity to make any last-minute substantive alterations.

Fortunately not too many of those. Intrepid  Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair and I have already re-edited and revised this thing so many times, there weren't even any typos left for me to correct — only my persistent misspelling of one frequently-used word. And my always uncertain grasp on the realities of commas, and when to use them.

(For which, I apologize, retroactively, to anyone who has ever entrusted me to edit your manuscript. My approach to commas is creative and free-form, although not exactly correct— apparently!)

Anyway, shipped my shaggy Beast back to the publisher today. And I'm eagerly awaiting the next step on the road to my expected pub date, March 6, 2018.

Stay tuned!

Monday, May 15, 2017

IN THE BAG

Have you heard about the Brown Bag program? Once a week, the stalwart folks at Grey Bears provide a grocery sack full of fresh produce for qualified seniors county-wide. (Including home deliveries to hundreds of housebound seniors.)

But here's something I didn't know until a few weeks ago: you don't have to be in the low-income bracket to qualify. Anyone age 55 or over is eligible to receive a bag of goodies — every week! — for a ridiculously modest investment of only $30 a year!

For a long time, Art Boy and I never even considered participating in this program; we thought a weekly surprise package of produce we would be fun, but we didn't want to take food out of the mouths of people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

But then one night we had dinner with Grey Bears honcho Tim Brattan, who invited — no, implored us — to join the program. The organization has to provide brown bags for X number of participants in order to retain the crucial grant funding that keeps the program going. So anyone in the correct age bracket willing to spend as little as $30 per annum (or more, if you're so inclined) to support the program is welcome to sign up.

And just look at what you get! There's been a box of strawberries in our bag every week of the three weeks we've been part of the program! (Hey, that's practically worth the annual investment right there!)

There's usually a selection of root veggies — potatoes, yams, carrots, onions (one week there were parsnips, which I discovered I love!) — and an apple or an orange, or two. This week we got two big, fat portobello mushrooms! Some sort of bagged salad greens is also part of the deal, shredded coleslaw cabbage this week, but last week it was a bag of fresh spinach leaves — pre-rinsed!

And let's not forget the bread! The brown bag is stapled shut, so the contents are always a surprise, but you get to pick out a loaf or two of whatever you like from a mind-boggling variety of breads.

Food is locally donated, and a community of 75 Grey Bears volunteers put the bags together each week, to be trucked to various distribution points around town. When you sign up, you'll find out where the nearest drop-off is, and your name will go on a list at that location. You'll get an official membership card in a couple of weeks, but as soon as your name goes on that list, you can start reaping the bounty!

To sign up for the Brown Bag program, or find out more about this intrepid organization, visit the Grey Bears website.

Salut!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

ORDER UP

Hey, intrepid readers!

Just found out my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, is available for pre-order as we speak on Amazon!

Yes, it's still going to be a long wait; expected pub date is March 6, 2018. But if you're one of those ferociously organized types who hates to wait around until the last minute, now's your chance to go to the head of the line and avoid the rush later!

I have no idea when shipping will actually commence. I don't even have ARCs yet (PubSpeak for Advanced Reading Copies), although I have seen the cover — and it's pretty cool!

All of which will be revealed in due time, of course, right here. Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, May 11, 2017

BROODING BEAST

The countdown continues toward the pub date of my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, coming in Spring, 2018.

Meaning: it's time for my Beast of the Month!

This is from English illustrator Paul Woodroffe, from a 1905 edition of Beauty and the Beast. My version of Beast is not nearly as humanoid as this one. (Although I do love his elegant backswept horns!)

But his brooding posture, and the mysterious mood of this image feel just right.

I also adore the prominent candlestick, lighting the scene. A silver candlestick plays a very important role in my story!

Woodroffe was famed as an illustrator of fairy tales and other children's books, Bible stories, and Shakespeare. But he was also renowned as a stained-glass artist, as you can tell by the elaborate design of the panel (or possibly chair back) behind Beauty in this image.

My Beast borrows a lot in terms of mood and atmosphere from golden Age illustrators like Woodroffe. But I've shaken up the classic story too!

Pub date is currently planned for March 6, 2018. Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

MENAGE á DOG

Wife vs pet in funny JTC season closer Sylvia

If you share your space with a pet, chances are you talk to the little critter. (Oh, go on, admit it!) You're probably convinced your pet understands what you say (even if he chooses not to respond), and that you can tell what he's thinking.

But you never have an actual conversation with your pet, in which each of you speaks and responds to the other. Not unless you're in the play, Sylvia. In this 1995 comedy by prolific playwright A. R. Gurney about a man, a woman, and a dog, everybody talks to the dog — and the dog talks back.

A new production of Sylvia is the crowd-pleasing final offering of Jewel Theatre Company's 2016-17 season. The show is literally back by popular demand: it was a huge hit when it was first produced at JTC in 2009, and has been much-requested ever since. For this reprise edition, director Diana Torres Koss has assembled the original four-person cast, and they make the most of every syllable of Gurney's funny script.

Greg (Shaun Carroll), who works in the financial industry, comes home from the park one day with a stray dog called Sylvia (Julie James), an excitable, overly-affectionate lab-poodle mix — to the dismay of Greg's wife, Kate (Diahanna Davidson). 

James and Carroll: smitten
 With their children out of the nest, Greg and Kate have just relocated to an apartment in New York City from the suburbs. Kate is eager to pursue her new career teaching Shakespeare to inner-city kids. But Greg is facing a midlife crisis, fractious with his boss over a job he hates.

At this stage of her life, Kate doesn't want the responsibilities of a dog. But Greg gets unlimited support from Sylvia; they adore each other, and Kate starts to feel like the third wheel.

Sylvia is not meant to be a magically talking dog, like a canine Mr. Ed. It may be that we're simply witnessing the personality that Greg and/or Kate project onto her onstage, as their marriage is tested. But James has a high old time in the role emulating doggy behavior. She scratches, she sniffs, she leaps into Greg's arms shrieking "I love you!"

Grooming brings out her inner French Poodle
When nervous or excited, her "bark" is staccato cries of "Hey! Hey! Hey!" And when Sylvia spies a cat in the park and goes ballistic, James is hilarious, lunging and spewing verbal invective.

The more anthropomorphic the part becomes, the funnier James is, strutting like Kate Moss after her first trip to the groomer, or turning coy and trampy when Sylvia comes into heat. She's abetted in these transitions by B. Modern's sly costumes; she dresses Sylvia in overalls and high-tops when she's homeless in the park, with increasing use of black leather, lace, and heels, as the dog comes into her own.

Carroll and Davidson are great as the couple caught up in this unlikely ménage a trois. And J. T. Holstrom is  a riot in his three roles: a macho guy in the park giving Greg tips on canine psychology; a snooty female friend of Kate's who suffers the business end of Sylvia's curiosity; and an ineffectual marriage counselor of indeterminate gender.

I didn't actually buy it toward the end when Sylvia, the dog, lectures Kate about what love is. But I didn't care by then, since the show is so entertaining.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

SCRIPT MINING

Novice scribe joins morale-boosting film unit in sharp, funny Their Finest


Okay, I'm a sucker for movies about writers — not an easy subject to get right onscreen, since there's nothing cinematic about watching somebody tapping away at a keyboard.

But a canny filmmaker can make the spark of the creative process visual by showing a pool of writers pinging ideas off of each other, or escalate drama in a succession of ever more ridiculous demands imposed on the writers by whoever is in charge of their project. Oh, and a little romance never hurts.

Lone Scherfig is a very canny director. And she and scriptwriter Gaby Chiappe manage to craft a smart, entertaining femme-centric movie about writers and writing in Their Finest, using all of the above storytelling techniques.

Set in London in 1940, during the Blitz, the story concerns the efforts of a film crew to make a morale-boosting epic to help the war effort. The mood is witty, urbane, and irreverent, but it's not exactly a lighthearted romp, with the specter of death and destruction always just around the corner.

Claflin and Arterton: morale-boosting
Adapted from the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (which is a pretty funny title, right there), it's the story of young Welshwoman Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), who arrives in London with her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston).

The dismal canvases he paints are considered "too brutal" to be used in the war effort, so Catrin goes for a job interview at the Ministry of Information: Film Division, for what she thinks is a secretarial position.

But because she's done some advertising copywriting, she's assigned to the scriptwriting unit.

Her new boss, Swain (the ever-droll Richard E. Grant), produces films about the war at home, and they need somebody to inject the "female viewpoint" into their pictures. Of course, Catrin is told, "we can't pay you as much as the chaps" in the scriptwriting pool, but they need her to write what one of her new co-writers, Buckley, calls "the slop" — i.e. women's dialogue.


Arterton with Stirling: dry wit
Young and able-bodied, the acerbic Buckley (sharply caustic Sam Claflin) was called up to fight, but it was decided he'd be much more useful behind a typewriter than a gun; despite his own irreverence, he has an unerring gift for heart-tugging without bathos — leading to the required "morally clear, romantically satisfying" conclusion.

Scherfig's film percolates with acutely funny dialogue and situations. The wonderful Bill Nighy is on hand as an aging ex-matinee idol hoping for a comeback. Jeremy Irons has one funny scene as a Shakespeare-spouting Secretary of War.

Rachael Stirling is a standout as a production assistant in trousers calling herself "Phyl," with a dry wit equal to Buckley's. (No wonder she knows her way around a one-liner: Stirling's real-life mum is the beloved Diana Rigg.)

Like the fictional filmmakers it portrays, Their Finest may not be able to achieve all is conflicting objectives, as the bombs rain down around them. But Scherfig's film continues to engage and surprise us with its wit, skill, and heartfelt emotion.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

THE TAO OF HITCH

Here's some sage advice from the great Alfred Hitchcock, which crossed my desk last week:

"You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace."

Hitch was talking about constructing a movie, but his words are also very useful for writing the first draft of a novel — as I am now.

And a writer slogging away in isolation seizes on any good advice she can get!

With Beast (finally!) loping off to the copyeditors, I'm ready to dive back into my next book. I submitted a proposal to my editor, and last Monday, I got greenlighted to go for it.

So now it's back to the keyboard for me!

Oh, and the reason I found myself consulting the Tao of Hitch? Santa Cruz Shakespeare is launching its 2017 season this summer with a new stage adaptation of The 39 Steps — described as "a madcap adaptation of Hitchcock's 1935 thriller."

I was invited to participate in a panel discussion of the story — stage and film versions — that SCS will present in conjunction with their production. (Venue and details tba.)

Scurrying to my dog-eared copy of that classic movie resource book, Hitchcock/Truffaut, to read up on the film, I found that priceless quote above on how Hitch kept the action moving!

Meanwhile, over at the Republic of Goodreads, they're doing a promotion on the "Joys of Re-reading." Big thanks to all intrepid Goodreaders who have been listing Alias Hook as a book they are reading for the second (or even third) time!

You readers rock!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

THE FRENCH CONNECTION


Frantz is a haunting tone-poem on love, loss, absolution

Sadly, the First World War did not live up to its advertising as "the war to end all wars." Its consequences were devastating and prolonged, particularly within the European community where a generation of young men were lost, either dead or damaged, fighting their neighbors in the trenches.

French filmmaker Francois Ozon revisits that era in all its complexity in Frantz, a moody, mysterious, and utterly engrossing tone-poem on love, loss, and absolution.

The story is adapted from a 1932 stage play by Maurice Rostand, which Ernst Lubitsch made into the film, Broken Lullaby, the same year.

At that time, no one knew the world was on the brink of yet another Great War, which only proves how stubbornly the human species refuses to learn from its mistakes — a situation Ozon finds as disturbingly timely as ever today.

Protagonist Anna (poised, wistful Paula Beers) is a young German woman in a small town, whose fiancé, Frantz, was killed in the war.

It's 1919, and Anna has moved in with Frantz's parents, doctor Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stotzner), and homemaker Magda (Marie Gruber), to share their grief.

On one of Anna's daily visits to the cemetery, she finds a stranger, soft-spoken young Frenchman Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) leaving flowers on Frantz's grave.

Adrien tells them all he knew Frantz in Paris, where their Francophile son lived for a time before the war. Most of the townsfolk, Hans included, are suspicious of a Frenchman in their midst, but Magda warms up to Adrien; she calls him "shy and stormy" — like Frantz.

They are charmed that Adrien plays the violin, like their son. Anna too befriends Adrien, showing him around to places that held special meaning for Frantz, in exchange for Adrien's precious memories of her lost love.

The rest of the plot is best left to be discovered; the movie keeps changing direction, but never quite ends up where you might think it's going.

Ozon shoots in expressionistic black-and-white, evoking both the between-the-wars period, and the element of mystery at the heart of his story.

(Special kudos are due to costume designer Pascaline Chavanne, especially for Anna's simple, elegant period gowns.)

Both visually and in storytelling terms, Frantz is an immersive experience, drawing us into the characters and their world. Ozon's images are as haunting and steeped in emotion as the story deserves.

The compelling Niney has the expressive look and demeanor of a silent movie actor, with his dark-rimmed eyes and pencil moustache. He doesn't exaggerate, but you can read everything he's feeling on his face.

His Adrien desperately wants to do the right thing — by Frantz and his family, and by Anna — if only he could figure out how.

This is a beautifully crafted movie, full of substance and feeling. Don't miss it!

VIVA LA BETE

The countdown continues toward the pub date of my next book. (Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, for those of you who came in late. Due March 6, 2018, in a bookstore near you!)

Yes, it's a long time away. But to help pass the time, take a look at my Beast of the Month for April!

Behold this luscious image from Jean Cocteau's dreamy 1946 classic, La Belle et la Bete.

Sure, Disney's new Beauty and the Beast movie is getting all the buzz (a live-action remake of the studio's own 1991 cartoon feature). But Cocteau's sumptuous fairy tale, shot in glorious black-and-white, gets my vote as the Best.Version. Ever.

That's French heartthrob Jean Marais behind the fur, with Josette Day as the rightly smitten Beauty.

Marais was a handsome guy, but look at this soulful Beast!

It's said that when Greta Garbo saw the film, she cried out at the end, "Give me back my Beast!"

Who could blame her?

Friday, March 24, 2017

OH HAPPY DAY!

And speaking of Beasts, as I was last post, here's an update from my editor, the inexhaustible Kaylan Adair:

"WE ARE DONE my dear!" Meaning we have finally completed line-edits on Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, and are ready to sprint into production — at last!

My line edits are done! Drinks all around!

Next stop: copyediting, where those last few pesky typos will be rooted out from wherever they're lurking.

The gorgeous cover (soon to be revealed!) has already been designed, and typesetting and formatting will be going on over the next couple of months.

(Which reminds me, if you operate or know of a book-review blog that might be interested in a preview copy of Beast for review, let me know via thew Contact Info up there in the corner, or message me at my FB hangout Lisa Jensen Books.)

So thrilled to finally be back on track with my beloved Beast!


Here's a rare sight from earlier this week: entire pages of manuscript text in the (dreaded) Track Changes program — without editorial notations! (Usually there's a daunting zebra pattern of red/blue editorial comments in the margins.) That's Roma the Cat in charge of pet therapy!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

FURRY TALE

How does Disney's new Beauty and the Beast shape up?

So, I went to see Disney's new Beauty and the Beast movie. Full disclosure: Disney's 1991 cartoon version, along with the dreamy 1946 Jean Cocteau black-and-white La Belle et la Bete, inspired me to write my own alternative take on the tale.

(Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, due out March 6, 2018. But you knew that!)

When it was first announced that Disney was doing a live-action remake, my first reaction was: why? They'd gotten everything so right the first time.

The obvious answer is the studio wants to wrest another megazillion bucks in profits out of tried-and-true properties to which the studio already owns the rights. (See other recent live-action remakes like Cinderella and Maleficent.)

But, the more pertinent question is: have they built a better Beast?

Belle and Gaston: no way, lout
Lavish, enormously-budgeted, gorgeously-produced, and directed by Bill Condon as a color-saturated movie musical extravaganza, the new version is much longer than the cartoon.

Additions have been made to the original script by Linda Woolverton (who does not get a credit this time around) by screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.

There's some new backstory about the "Beauty" character, Belle (Emma Watson), her clockmaker father (Kevin Kline), and her absent mother. The pivotal moment when an insulted enchantress casts a spell to turn the spoiled, frivolous young prince into the fearsome Beast (Dan Stevens) is acted out as a prologue. And three new songs have been added to the Oscar-winning musical score by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman (new lyrics written by Tim Rice).

Otherwise, the story hews pretty closely to the (Disney) original. Belle is considered "odd" in her French country village because she reads books, dreams of adventure, and is in no hurry to get married — especially not to Gaston (Luke Evans), the narcissistic lout who means to make her his wife because "she's as pretty as me."

Beast and Belle: the way to a girl's heart
When her father is taken prisoner by a horrible Beast in a castle hidden in the woods, Belle demands to take her father's place. She doesn't know the fearsome Beast is a prince under a witch's curse. All his servants have been turned into household objects who befriend Belle, knowing that only a girl who falls in love with Beast and earns his love in return can break the curse on them all.

But there's a ticking clock: an enchanted rose preserved under a (ahem) bell jar. If Beast hasn't found love by the time the last petal drops, he and his people will be trapped in the curse for the rest of their lives.

Lumiere: candle power

Fractious with each other at first, Belle and Beast start to bond — especially when he invites her to visit his vast library. Meanwhile, the hateful Gaston makes plans to storm the castle, kill the beast, and "rescue" the girl.

There are many charming and funny interactions between Belle and the enchanted objects. I loved the staging of the song, "Be Our Guest," led by the irrepressible master-of-ceremonies, Lumiere, the candelabra (voice and motion-capture movements by Ewan McGregor), a show-stopping production number with its homages to Busby Berkeley-style overhead shots, and clever lyrics. ("No one's gloomy or complaining/When the flatware's entertaining").

I also found it rather touching toward the end when the enchanted objects gradually begin to lose the power to move and speak — ie: their human qualities —the more petals the rose drops.

Stevens aroar: don't mess with this Beast!
And this is a great-looking Beast, with his impressively long and upswept horns. (Although his mane looks a bit overly-groomed for my taste.) He's at his beastly best when he comes roaring out of the castle to fight off a pack of ravening wolves who attack Belle in the woods.

But it's hard to tell how much Stevens (late of Downton Abbey and currently on Legion) was able to contribute to the role. I experienced technical difficulties in some of his scenes with Belle. Long and medium shots, when the actors share the same physical space (Stevens in costume), are convincing enough. But at other times, Stevens doesn't get to use his own face to express the character's emotions because a decision was made to do Beast's face as a CGI effect.

Beast and Belle in the ballroom: sumptuous
Granted, it's a pretty amazing effect. But there are moments when Beast's expressions don't look as natural as Belle's when they are in close-up together. We sense a thin layer of physical and emotional disconnect between them — a problem when their relationship is meant to be the heart of the movie — so their romance never quite swept me up in its luscious grip, as it should have.

Another problem is that way to much of the story is devoted to the preening Gaston and his evil machinations. Don't get me wrong; I've loved Luke Evans ever since Tamara Drewe. But Gaston is a one-note character who sucks up too much precious screen time away from Belle and Beast — who could really use it to establish more rapport.

The showdown with Gaston in the finale is also a bit disappointing, with Beast leaping about like Spiderman from one castle spire to the next. Since when did his transformation into a beast come with web-slinging capabilities?

Still this is a sumptuous rendering of the classic fairy tale. But the essential question of why someone who falls in love with the noble Beast would be pleased when he suddenly turns into the standard-issue "handsome prince" in the end remains unresolved. What's so happily-ever-after about that?

This is the one thing that's always bugged me about this fairy tale. And it's an issue I'll be grappling with in my book!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

KIDS TUFF

Dark side of childhood explored with humor, charm, in 'Zucchini'

Childhood is not for sissies.

Not all children are lucky enough to be raised by a loving family in a safe home. But marginalized kids get their own story in the eloquent and affecting animated feature, My Life as a Zucchini.

Directed by Claude Barras, this Oscar-nominated feature is a gently told tale that faces the dark side of childhood, yet offers the possibility of redemption through humor, friendship, and love.

A Swiss-born animation filmmaker who works in France, Barras based his story on an adult novel about kids in crisis written by Gilles Paris. Barras makes it more family-friendly by focusing on the solidarity of children together in a group home after the worst of their individual crises has passed.

The protagonist is a 9-year-old boy who prefers to be called "Zucchini," the nickname bestowed by his mother. She's an embittered single mom who drinks too much beer and neglects him, when she's not threatening to thrash him.

But she's the devil he knows, so when she is suddenly out of the picture (a surprisingly sobering event that happens in the first ten minutes), Zucchini is full of dread to suddenly be on his own.

A soft-hearted policeman named Raymond takes an interest in the boy and delivers him to a group home for kids who have lost their families. Their parents are drug addicts, or prison inmates, or mentally ill, or otherwise too incapacitated to care for them. One boy's mom has been deported. As another boy explains to Zucchini, "There's no one left to love us.

Plot complications include the arrival of a new girl, Camille, whose family history has been particularly awful. Yet her response is to treat the other kids with extra empathy, so she is soon beloved by all — especially the smitten Zucchini.

Despite its serious subtext, the film has a playful, often joyous tone as the kids explore their world and search for their places in it. Zucchini likes to draw, and his crayon portraits of the other kids, and their activities add an extra layer of humor and charm.



Other visual elements in the film are more subtle, but just as rich. The headmistress has paintings by Joan Miro and Paul Klee on the wall behind her desk. And it makes perfect sense that Camille — all too ready to escape the cocoon of her past — is shown reading Kafka's Metamorphosis.

Barras' technique is a sophisticated update of classic stop-motion clay animation. Each character is originally modeled in clay and painted, then an articulated puppet is made of each character, and coated in silicon, which is rendered to approximate the surface and texture of clay on camera. But expressive details like lips, eyelids, and eyebrows, in various positions, are molded in clay and painstakingly applied to be shot the old-fashioned way: one frame at a time.

It's a laborious process — especially for a small, independent studio like Barras' with only ten staff animators. But the result is obviously a labor of love.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

BEAST(S) of the MONTH

In an alternate reality, my next novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, would have been available at a bookstore near you as of today —March 7, 2017.

I'd be turning virtual cartwheels, and quaffing (actual) champagne!

But things don't always go according to plan. And nobody is more disappointed than me that my book has been delayed by one more year. We were on track for the original release date as recently as last August. But Circumstances intervened that (rather suddenly) required fundamental changes.

And now that those have been addressed, my new publication date is March 6 — 2018.

Yes, it seems like an eternity from now. (Especially for me, since I'm so eager for everyone to read it!) But to pass the time, I'm reviving my Beast of the Month countdown: for the next 12 months, I'll post images of some of my favorite Beasts from art, literature and the movies!

They won't be my Beast, exactly, but I hope they'll help get you in the mood!

First up: feast your eyes on this utterly gorgeous cover illustration for a 2014 children's book edition of La Belle et la Bete by French graphic artist David Sala. Pretty great, non?

The colors are clean and bold, the patterns are vivid, and I love the soft, almost Klimt-like details of the roses and faces. But best of all — what an impressive Beast!

See more of David Sala's La Belle et la Bete illustrations at his website.

And watch this space for future Beast updates!

Monday, March 6, 2017

WHO'S YOUR DADDY?

Hugh Jackman has been trapped in the Wolverine character since his star-making debut in the first X-Men movie back in 2000. The franchise has had its ups and downs since then, so when Jackman announced last year that the next Wolverine movie would be his last in the role, who could blame him?

The question was, could the filmmakers come up with an exit strategy for their indestructible mutant hero that obeyed the "rules" of the X-Men mythos and gave Jackman a satisfying send-off?

The answer, in Logan,  is yes and no. Yes, the storyline is plausible enough (well, as plausible as anything ever is in the X-Men universe). But satisfying? Not so much.

Previous franchise films have explored racism, xenophobia, intolerance, and whether or not social outsiders would choose to be "normal" if they could.

But Logan is one interrupted chase melodrama from first to last, with an endless parade of faceless bad guys to be dispatched in endlessly gruesome ways. (This is the first X-Men movie to get an 'R' rating, and it's not only for the F-bombs.)

Keen and Jackman: blood relations
Jackman is as watchable as ever. But in a film almost entirely unburdened by humor or emotional connections — two attributes at which he excels in other movies — his uber-brooding Logan (aka Wolverine) has nowhere to grow.

The movie was directed and co-scripted by James Mangold, who delivered a shot of adamantium to revive the series with The Wolverine in 2013 (after the fiasco of X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

This time out, Mangold seems to think he's keeping the focus on Logan's tormented psyche and (often inconvenient) moral decency, by introducing a new little mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen) — grown from Logan's own DNA, right down to the claws — for him to look after.

Art imitates Art imitating Life
They are soon besieged by an army of evildoers out to nab Laura before Logan can drive her cross-country to join her friends at a sanctuary for new mutant kids in Canada. In an interesting, self-referential twist, the place may only exist in the pages of the X-Men comics the kids all read.

But the constant, vicious fighting, as Logan faces off against carjackers, a lynch mob, convoys of sinister government ops, and his own genetically engineered doppelganger, leaves little time for further character development.

It would be helpful, story-wise, if father and daughter found another way to bond besides shredding bad guys. A moment when they compare nightmares (Laura dreams that "people hurt me," Logan, that "I hurt people") is a step in the right direction — but then, the script delivers another platoon of nasty adversaries to be decimated by the family that slays together.

Jackman is up to the task, as usual. But he, the character, and the fans might have wished for the saga to go out with a little less bang, and a lot more heart.