Sunday, April 30, 2017


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


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


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!


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?