Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Here's the thing: I'm a Charles Dickens geek. A Christmas Carol is probably my favorite novel, for both the economy of its storytelling, and the scope of its story. I have an insatiable appetite for the Carol, and I've seen every version, good, bad, and ugly — from Alistair Sim and Bill Murray to Mr. Magoo and The Muppets.

Still, glutton that I am for this Dickensian feast, you have to wonder how anyone could possibly find anything new to bring to the story.
The answer is The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful fantasia on the writing of A Christmas Carol at a pivotal moment in the life of its author. It's based on Les Standiford's non-fiction book on how Dickens, beset by financial and family worries, set out to write and publish a Christmas book in only six weeks.

But dry facts are transformed into delicious fiction by scriptwriter Susan Coyne, who combines Dickens' real life with the volatility of his active imagination — whose impudent characters keep overflowing into every other aspect of his life.

Dickens vs Scrooge: who's in charge of this story?
Directed by Bharat Nalluri, the movie begins in 1842, where Dickens (Dan Stevens) is treated like a rock star on a speaking tour of America. A year later, after three poor-selling "flops," he promises his anxious publishers he'll produce a Christmas story in time for the approaching holiday — although he hasn't an idea in his head.

With a new house to furnish and an ever-burgeoning family, Dickens roams the London streets in search of inspiration — an elderly waiter at the Garrick Club; beggars in the street.

But it's not until he overhears the young Irish nanny, Tara (winsome Anna Murphy), telling a spooky story to his children, that Dickens gets the idea for a ghost story set on Christmas Eve — as experienced by a greedy, covetous old sinner named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), who calls the season "Humbug!"

Marly may be dead as a doornail, but he keeps popping up.
As the story takes shape in his head, Dickens' characters come alive onscreen, haunting him like Scrooge's ghosts, occupying his study to egg him on, or criticize his story.

(They're like actors backstage, clamoring for their script.)

Meanwhile, in the real world, his publishers reject the first stave of his story; Dickens angrily returns their check, and pays to publish the installments and hire illustrator, Leech (Simon Callow), out of his own pocket — while desperately trying to finish the book.

The arrival of his perpetually impecunious father (Jonathan Pryce), the role-model for Mr. Micawber, further complicates things.   

Coyne is the ideal translator of this material, well-versed in acting, writing, and theater. (She created the hilarious, cult Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, about the tension between art and commerce in a modern Shakespearean theater company.)

Coyne as Anna, Slings and Arrows: harried
(She also co-starred as harried, but unfailingly efficient receptionist, Anna.)

Her scenes of Dickens at work ring especially true. Every writer has experienced that moment: the idea has come, you're just starting to commune with your characters, and boom! Somebody knocks on the door. The phone rings.

Your story dissolves and you're back in the real world.

Stevens is a master of the eye-rolling slow burn as Dickens, reacting to every interruption with teeth-gritting cordiality.

He's great as the physical embodiment of the writing process (which is generally not a spectator sport), stalking around his study, having animated conversations with characters only he (and we) can see.

But what's most interesting about Coyne's interpretation — and it sneaks up on you amid the fun and frivolity — is the way Dickens himself is shown to have a dark side that also informs his work.

Beneath his unfailingly polite and jovial exterior, he too has begun to forge a chain; it's not yet as long as Scrooge's, but redemption must be sought before he can move on.

You don't have to be an expert on the Carol, or Dickens' ouvre, to appreciate the sly gusto with which Coyne and company weave references to Dickens' world and his work into the fabric of their film.

Yet this is a highly original work of holiday cheer: witty, bracingly unsentimental (yet honestly moving), and hugely entertaining.

(Charles Dickens, painted by Daniel Maclise, 1839 (age 27). He was 31 when the events of this movie take place!)

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Teen yearns to spread her wings in wry, warm-hearted Lady Bird

Okay, I didn't have high hopes for Lady Bird. From the trailer, it looked like it was going to feature one of those indie heroines who's supposed to be adorably quirky, but is really just tiresome — the kind of character so often played by Greta Gerwig (in movies like Damsel In Distress, or Frances Ha).

Knowing that Gerwig wrote and directed this movie only intensified my dread.

But, surprise! With Lady Bird, Gerwig delivers a wry but warm-hearted portrait of family, home, and dreams in modern America. The family in question is not dysfunctional in any clichéd movie comedy way, but Gerwig captures the gulf of potential calamity in the fractious relationship between a high-school senior (Saoirse Ronan) and her loving, but harried mom (Laurie Metcalf).

As in most mother-daughter relationships, one false move or the wrong word might set either one of them off as they try to navigate the mine field of what they think or feel, and their ability (or not) to express it.

Ronan and Metcalf: Driving through the minefield
The movie begins with a quote from Joan Didion: "Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento."

Ronan plays Christine, who calls herself "Lady Bird," and is facing her senior year at a Catholic girls school in the suburbs of the state capital.

She has few scholastic ambitions, but she's eager to leave the nest and fledge, preferably to a college on the East Coast "where culture is." Unlike Sacramento, which she calls "the Midwest of California."

The plot is episodic as the school year scrolls by. But Gerwig's most trenchant observations concern issues as eternal a time itself — the elliptical orbits of friendship; separating the reality of sex from its romantic mythology; the often fraught, but fiercely devoted relations between parents and children.
(Read more)

Monday, November 20, 2017


Nothing curdles my pre-holiday spirit faster than the spectre of Black Friday.

I mean, seriously? When it comes to ushering in the Yuletide, the annual smackdown at the mall is a poor substitue for those angels we have heard on high.

It was bad enough when the season began on November 1st, when the pumpkins and ghosts were whisked off drugstore shelves to be replaced by Santas and snowmen. Then the fact that the Friday after Thanksgiving was (cue the echo chamber) The Biggest Shopping Day of the Year sort of morphed into its own holiday.

How long before we get Black Friday songs and TV specials?

(Note: that's a rhetorical question. If you know of any such crimes against humanity, please don't tell me.)

In recent years, the race to the line at the mall keeps starting earlier and earlier, from 8 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, to dawn, to 8 pm on Thanksgiving night itself. (Hey, nothing aids digestion better than a donnybrook at the electronics store an hour after dinner.)

Now, stores barely close for Thanksgiving at all. It's business as usual from about noon on, as retailers give thanks for your money.

Disembark from the Lemming Express!
But there's no actual law that says you have to march like a lemming into the marketing melee. Don't you have better things to do with your precious time?

Here's what I suggest:

Plan your baking. If, like me, your favorite food groups include sugar, carbs, and butter, there are probably Christmas cookies in your future.

This is a perfect chance to cull your favorite recipes, or even whip up a pound or two of dough to bake later.

Move! Treat yourself to a hike, a run, a bike ride, or an hour of yoga. Physical stimulation without the stress of shopping! Get those endorphins up and running — you're going to need them as the season unfurls.

Don't you have better ways to spend your time?
Write some holiday cards. Okay, you prefer to text, fine. But if you like to communicate the old-fashioned way — with actual words —use this quality time to send a note to far-flung loved ones. (With or without a card.)

Advocate. Bypass the mall and donate your time to a cause or a group you believe in — the environment, animal rescue,  a food bank, the arts.

You may not come home with a flat-screen TV at an insane discount, but you'll feel better. Trust me.

And finally, whatever you do this Friday, DO NOT BUY YOUR CHRISTMAS TREE!

It's still another month to Christmas, and by then it'll be as dead as Marley's Ghost.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Deafness and silent movies converge in lyrical Wonderstruck

Filmmaker Todd Haynes is a master visual stylist. Just look at his swoony period aesthetic in Far From Heaven, or Carol.

He has plenty to visualize and to style for the screen in his new movie, Wonderstruck.

With its parallel storylines set in the 1920s and the 1970s, child protagonists, and kids-eye-view of the world, this rare PG-rated experiment from Haynes may be less filling, plotwise, than his grown-up movies, but it still looks great.

It's adapted from his own novel by Brian Selznick, whose very first book was made into the rapturous movie Hugo.

Selznick's books are a genre unto themselves, combining a certain amount of prose storytelling with extravagantly detailed pencil illustrations that sprawl across the pages.
She loves New York: Millicent Simmonds in Wonderstruck

Presenting his stories in visual terms must come naturally to the author related through his grandfather to Hollywood Golden Age producer David O. Selznick.

So it's no wonder that Selznick's stories so often reference movie lore and history. The life and exuberantly eccentric work of silent movie pioneer Georges Melies was the inspiration for the book that became Hugo.

The silent movie era also figures in this plot: the industry facing the advent of sound film provides a counterpoint to the story of two deaf children on separate quests coping with a hearing world.

Cabinet of Curiosities: Selznick version

Oakes Fegley and the newcomer Millicent Simmonds (a wonderful young deaf actress making her feature debut) play the kids in search of family, love, and tolerance, whose stories finally converge in New York City.

The Museum of Natural History figures prominently in both stories. But the most interesting set, a 19th Century Cabinet of Curiosities preserved at the museum, is underused.

It's gorgeously rendered in an old book that Ben finds (an illustration straight out of Selznick's novel), but the big reveal of how it relates to the modern story lacks, well, a sense of wonder — and then we never see it again.

Still, Haynes rocks the scenes set in 1927, shooting in black-and-white, without dialogue (just as Simmonds' character perceives the world), like a silent movie.

But this movie is far from silent, percolating along with a marvelously inventive, often percussive score by Carter Burwell that informs and reflects the action in every frame.

Cabinet of Curiosities onscreen: Let's spend more time here!
In honor of the non-hearing community that inspires it, Wonderstruck features open-caption subtitles throughout.

It's a thoughtful touch for a lyrical movie whose message of family, friendship, and tolerance strikes a particular chord these days.
(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Monday, November 13, 2017


Oh, and did I happen to mention that Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is (finally!) available again at a decent pre-order discount on Amazon?

Take a look!

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Who's ready for a little pre-holiday spirit?

If your answer was a resounding "Gah!" stop reading right now. Otherwise, stick around.

Okay, full disclosure: I'm kind of a Charles Dickens geek.

His unparalleled view of Victorian-era England (London, especially) — upstairs and downstairs, comic and tragic, darkness and light, good, bad, ugly, and everything in between — is endlessly fascinating to me. I eat it up like a Christmas pudding.

So imagine my delight when this trailer appeared before the feature over at the Nick a couple of days ago. Coming this Thanksgiving weekend: The Man Who Invented Christmas. It stars Dan Stevens as you-know-who, caught in the act of creating one of his most beloved works, A Christmas Carol.

Whenever I'm asked to name my favorite book of all time, this is it. It's astonishing at how polished this simple-seeming tale is: it obeys the so-called "classical unities" of time, place, and action, occurring in the space of a single night, and yet it encompasses one man's entire lifetime, while painting an indelible portrait of an age and culture at its most human, and inhumane extremes.

All wrapped up in an eerie Gothic ghost story.

Really, it's a master class in how to write fiction!

As the screen went dark on the Dickens trailer, Art Boy whispered to me, "I know you're going to want to see that one!" And how. I wanted to stay sitting right there for the next two weeks until the movie itself came onscreen. He practically had to chisel me out of the seat!

This movie might well be silly. It might be trash. But my appetite is inexhaustible! Opening day is November 22, Thanksgiving Eve, at the Nick. We'll see you there!

Monday, November 6, 2017


Gods just wanna have fun in entertaining Thor: Ragnarok

Okay, so it's less about the gods of classical Norse Mythology than the Marvel Comics pantheon, but only a real killjoy would fail to get a kick out of this third installment of the Thor series, Thor: Ragnarok.

As Norse geeks know, Ragnarok is like Armageddon — the long-prophesied doom of Asgard, where the Norse gods live.

Yes, the destruction of the world is serious stuff, but what's most engaging about this episode is the way Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston continue to have way too much fun developing the prickly relationship between heroic Thor, God of Thunder, and sly, acerbic half-brother Loki, the Trickster God.

(Established with such brio in the last installment, Thor: The Dark World, my Guilty Pleasure of 2013.)

Hemsworth, Hiddleston: Wait, who's the straight man here?
 But — surprise! This time Hemsworth gets most of the laughs, beginning with the opening prologue, where, wrapped in chains and caged, he cheerily explains The Story So Far, to clue in both the viewer and the gigantic fire demon that thinks it's about to destroy him.

Who knew Thor could be funny?

It's all directed with a surprisingly droll, light touch by New Zealander Taika Waititi, who give his adroit cast plenty of room to maneuever.

Goldblum: priceless
Jeff Goldblum brings his priceless, eccentric delivery to the role of the Grandmaster, presiding over a gladiatorial combat arena in some distant world or other.

(In the Thor universe, gods and mortals rocket around the galaxies at will.)

That's Cate Blanchett in a black Vampyra wig as Hela, Goddess of Death (a previously undocumented lost daughter of Odin), whose evil schemes to conquer Asgard and unleash Ragnarok set everything off.

New to the series, Tessa Thompson struts around with brio as the last survivor of the Valkyrie sisterhood, nursing a grudge against Hela.

The ever-wonderful Idris Elba has more to do this time as Heimdall, keeper of the portal of Asgard, who becomes a leader of the resistance after Hela takes over.

Thompson: Happy Hulk Day
And Mark Ruffalo proves himself the best screen Hulk ever in the comic timidity he brings to brainy science nerd Bruce Banner before hulking out into his colossal alter-ego.

(He's also extra poignant in his CGI Hulk suit, when he's not bashing people about.) It's also pretty funny when spectators take to the streets in green masks to celebrate Hulk Day, in honor of their favorite combatant.

Benedict Cumberbatch pops up for one pretty cool scene as Dr. Strange. (I told you, these characters jet all over the place.)

And keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Matt Damon playing an actor playing the part of Loki in a recreation of the last scene of the last Thor movie onstage in Asgard.

But don't worry, fanboys, there's a whole lot of action, too, dire peril, shifty alliances, and ginormous special effects — including gladiatorial combat between Thor and the Hulk.

Of course, there's also another yawner of an aerial dogfight above Asgard. (Don't even ask.)

(And in one disturbing scene, a character goes on a two-fisted rampage, firing two automatic assault rifles into a crowd of Hela's army. Sure, his targets are inhuman demons with green glowing eyes, but it still looks like a serial killer-empowering moment.)

Thor also loses his mighty magic hammer in this one. (Although he mostly retains a tactical advantage, since he is, you know, a god.) More traumatizing to fangirls is the scene when he's shorn of his long blond locks. Loki too gets a new do, less limp and Snape-like, with a little bounce around the edges.

Hulk, Thor, Valkyrie and Loki: Let's get the band back together!
Oh, and that Ragnarok thing? Fear not — the post-credit teaser suggests this franchise, like the gods, is immortal.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017



My beloved Beast is in the Candlewick catalogue!

Imagine my delight today to open my mailbox and find the Spring-Summer catalogue 2018 from my new publisher, Candlewick.

Couldn't resist posting my Beast page, in all its gorgeouness!

Here's a screen-shot of the page from the online catalogue, including just enough of the plot outline to give you a little tease. Hope you're intrigued!

At long last, Beast is finally heading toward a bookstore near you! 

(Not right away, of course; pub date is still July 10, 2018.)

But he's on his way!