Friday, February 24, 2017

THEN IS NOW

What reader hasn't wanted to live inside a book at some time or other? Joust with the Knights of the Round Table! Go to school a Hogwarts! Follow Alice down that rabbit hole! Wander the Highlands with Claire and Jamie *sigh*

But probably the one book nobody wants to actually live in is George Orwell's dystopian future classic 1984.  And yet, by some horrendous, impossible turn of events, that's the world we all find ourselves trapped in right now — especially in the last month.

Written in 1949,  Orwell's dark political satire was set in a totalitarian state of the future whose figurehead was Big Brother, but was really run by an elitist behind-the-scenes Party that was constantly rewriting history and reinventing language to conform with the party line.

From Orwell, we get the concept of "newspeak" (words rewritten to mean the opposite of their original intent), "thoughtcrimes" (individual thinking pursued and punished by the "Thought Police"), "doublethink" (unquestioning belief in two mutually exclusive ideas, also called "reality control"), and the "Ministry of Truth," whose entire function is to convince the people that lies are true.

It took a little longer than Orwell envisioned for his political prophecies to come true. But now that we're living in an Orwellian nightmare of "alternative facts," it all seems oh, so horribly relevant.

So relevant that the New York Times reports that sales of the novel have skyrocketed as of January of this year — and we all know what happened then.


But lucky Santa Cruzans won't have to go hunting down your dusty copies from sophomore English or trolling though used book shelves. Our very own Bookshop Santa Cruz is staging a reading of 1984, and you, the public, are invited.


Beginning at 10 am, Thursday, March 2, a rotating lineup of educators, activists, authors, and normal people from the community will read the novel aloud in 20-minute stretches. All of it. Cover to cover. Until the book is finished, whenever that may be.

Chairs will be set up in Bookshop's skylight room throughout the event; fall by and stay for a chapter or two, or stick around for the whole thing. It's up to you; this is a free country (so far).

While you're there, check out the table set up for people to write postcards with 1984 quotes to send to their elected officials.

This event is presented by Bookshop, the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, and Wallace Baine. It's also the opening salvo in Bookshop's new Words To Act On program, to promote community, inspiration, critical thinking, and activism through books.

And, yes, yours truly will be one of the readers. I'm slotted for an evening shift, between 7 and 8 pm Thursday night. But whenever you drop in, it's sure to be a lively crowd, on either side of the mic!

(Top: 1984 cover art through the ages. From designKULTUR online.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

CINEMA SCOPE

Variety, diversity highlight this year's Oscar race

The Oscars are almost upon us; time for my yearly attempt to pretend I know anything about what Hollywood is thinking.

After last year's #OscarsSoWhite kerfuffle, every acting category this year features at least one person of color, and four out of the nine Best Picture nominees revolve around non-white bread protagonists. Let's hope it's not a temporary reaction, but a genuine trend toward equality and diversity. (Not to mention resistance to the current political climate.)

Meanwhile, let's take a look at who may (or may not) go home with the gold:

BEST PICTURE La La Land. Damien Chazelle's reinvented musical comedy is the one to beat, having already cleaned up at the pre-Oscar awards. Process out the four nominees that didn't win nods for their directors, and it's a five-movie race, including, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Moonlight, and Manchester by the Sea. I'd be just as happy if either of these last two won, but I loved La La Land too.
And the nominees are . . .
BEST DIRECTOR Damien Chazelle, La La Land. He's already been anointed by the DGA, an almost sure-fire precursor to Oscar gold. If it were up to me, I'd split the award between Chazelle — for the sheer audacity of getting a movie musical made at all — and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) for such a smart and precise look at contemporary black lives told in such an original, unexpected way.

Affleck: haunted
BEST ACTOR Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. He doesn't say much, but he's the center of this haunting drama, and he's definitely got the buzz. Actors in comedies (much less musicals) are not taken as seriously as actors in dramas, so no gold for Ryan Gosling (La La Land) or the mighty Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic).

Perennial contender and SAG  winner Denzel Washington (Fences) already has two Oscars; Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) is the also-ran.

BEST ACTRESS Isabelle Huppert, Elle. Emma Stone (La La Land) may have some buzz, but she wasn't up against Huppert in any of the pre-season accolades she's won. (They split the Globes for Musical/Comedy and Drama).

Huppert: fearless
You don't find such gutsy roles for women of a certain age in US films, and Huppert's fearlessness onscreen and formidable career should sway Academy voters. (She'd get my vote.)

Natalie Portman (Jackie), Ruth Negga (Loving), and annual nominee Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) round out the category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. This may be the Academy's one chance to honor this much-nominated film, and Ali (my favorite) grounds the movie with his solid, charismatic presence. Upset candidate might be Dev Patel (so appealing in Lion), or maybe even the much-beloved Jeff Bridges (Hell Or High Water), over Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals).

Ali: presence

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Viola Davis, Fences. She's already won all other awards in this category, and she'll persist over a very strong field: Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures).

BEST SCRIPT (ORIGINAL) Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea. Lonergan so deserves it for his moving story, sophisticated storytelling, and unexpected humor. I think he'll edge out the scriptwriters for La La Land, 20th Century Women, Hell Or High Water, and The Lobster.

Washington and Davis: now it's HER turn

BEST SCRIPT (ADAPTED) Luke Davies, Lion. Just a hunch, but this is a popular movie based on an irresistible true story. It might just squeak by over the scripts for Moonlight, Arrival, Fences, and Hidden Figures.

MISC: While I don't perceive the popular La La Land as Oscar bait in the acting or script departments, I'd be very surprised if it didn't dance off with the gold in the music categories: Best Song (probably "City of Stars," because, Hollywood), and Best Original Score. (Although I'd give the latter to Nicholas Bitrell, for Moonlight — especially those edgy string interludes, as profound and immediate as a heartbeat.)

Also, look for La La Land to score for Production Design and Cinematography. But it might lose out in the Best Costume race to Madeline Fontaine's retro-chic  60s clothing in Jackie.

    The Academy Awards will be handed out Sunday, February 26. As usal, if my predictions don't pan out, I'll be available the following Monday to blame them on alternative facts.





Monday, February 20, 2017

LOOKING ROSY

What does it mean when a girl gets roses from her editor?

I like to think it means that my novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is hovering on the brink of production — at long last!

It's been a very lengthy gestation. My editor, Kaylan Adair, and I have always been on the same page. But that culprit, Unforeseen Circumstances kept cropping up, delaying production and sending me back tp the keyboard again and again.

But last week, after I sent in my January edit, I got a note back from Kaylan, that the new revision "absolutely SINGS!"

The next day, I came home from yoga to find these beautiful, blood-red roses, with a lovely note from Kaylan! Roses loom very large in Beast's story, of course, so these were very appropriate — as well as gorgeous!

There was still some minor tweaking to do, but I think Beast is one pawprint closer to a bookstore near you!

Stay tuned . . .

Monday, February 13, 2017

HER FATHER, HERSELF

Family relationships are complicated. Especially the one depicted in the Oscar-nominated German film, Toni Erdmann. On the surface, it seems like a mild comedy about a fun-loving, prankster dad who makes life impossible for his workaholic businesswoman daughter.

But there's a lot more going on beneath the surface in this offbeat meditation on family, aging, the passage of time, and the meaning of happiness.

This is the third movie directed by German filmmaker Maren Ade, and her first to get wide distribution in the States. The story revolves around Winfried Conradi (the wonderful Peter Simonischek), a retired schoolteacher who confounds a deliveryman at the door by pretending to be twin brothers, likes to fool around with a set of fake buck teeth, and puts on zombie make-up to lead a chorus of kids at a school musical recital.

Amicably divorced from his ex-wife, Winfried attends a birthday party for their grown daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller). Briefly home from Bucharest, where the German corporation she works for is setting up business interests in Romania, Ines spends most of her time on the phone with her boss.

Concerned that his daughter is trapped in a joyless life, Winfried "spontaneously" follows her back to Bucharest and shows up at her workplace. His antics drive her nuts, but we begin to understand all the ways that her life is disappointing her, just as her father fears.

Father knows best: Huller and Simonischek
 At two hours and 42 minutes, the movie feels very long; boring business meetings in particular seem to go on forever. But what better way for director Ade to make us feel the crushing airlessness of the business world? Or suggest the complexity of feeling that connects father and daughter?

It's length, accumulation of detail, and humor, that allows Ade to craft her story with such emotional richness.

PS: Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig are poised to star in the English-language remake. You heard it here first!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

BACKLASH: THE MUSICAL

They had singing and dancing chops then
Now that La La Land has cleaned up at the Golden Globes and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Awards), and director Damien Chazelle has been anointed with the DGA award, the inevitable backlash has begun — mostly by people saying, you know, it's not that great.

Much of the objections stem from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling not being as adept at song and dance as movie musical stars of yore.

I would remind these critics that the star systems that produced the Judy Garlands and Gene Kellys of the Golden Age of movie musicals (like the Arthur Freed unit at M-G-M) no longer exists. Hell, movie musicals as a genre no longer exists!

Kelly came to the movies from the Broadway hit, Pal Joey. But he still had to work his way up through the studio system in innocuous fluff like For Me and My Gal, and DuBarry Was a Lady (along with a string of wartime dramas in the '40s) before he got a chance to start crafting his own classics like An American in Paris, and Singin' in the Rain.
Chakiris 1954: uncredited

Garland toiled away for a decade in musical shorts and revues before somebody at M-G-M got the bright idea to cast her in The Wizard of Oz.

And look at George Chakiris, an uncredited chorus boy dancing behind Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas in 1954 — one of many musicals, from a variety of studios, that he hoofed his way through during the 1950s.

Chakiris 1961: Oscar bait
(Another one was Gentleman Prefer Blondes, dancing in the chorus behind Marilyn Monroe in the number, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend.")

In 1961, after a decade of paying his dues, he was cast in West Side Story — and won a Supporting Actor Oscar as Bernardo, leader of the Sharks.

Sure, there are zillions of talented musical theatre performers out there at the regional theatre level, or even on Broadway. But they don't have the brand-name recognition by Hollywood standards that could get a crazed idea for a movie like La La Land financed these days.

Chazelle made the compromises he had to to get his movie made. But the result is something unexpectedly wonderful!

I admit, he had me at the opening dance number on the freeway! Seriously, haven't you always wanted to do this in the middle of an LA traffic jam?


Sunday, February 5, 2017

NINE IS ENOUGH

Only nine movies made it onto my "Top Ten" list of favorite movies this year. I don't think this means I'm getting any crankier (who, moi?), or even that the movies overall are getting any worse.

The problem is I only see about half the number of movies per year that I used to. This is largely due to space constraints in the paper, but also because the complicated technology of digital movies has pretty much ended the practice of advance film screenings for regional press.

All of which means there are less chances for me to discover those offbeat, unexpected gems (like, say, The Fall) that used to lead off my Top Ten lists.

Of the movies I did see this year, however, these are the most list-worthy!

How about you? Any unexpected gems you'd like to share?

LA LA LAND It takes a lot of audacity to mount an old-fashioned Hollywood musical in these cynical times. But Damien Chazelle's virtuoso production makes the movie musical sing again. And dance. And how! As dubious as you might find the idea of a modern musical starring actors — Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone — not previously known for their singing or dancing, this is one glorious joyride from start to finish.

Did I mention several scenes are shot in my home town of Hermosa Beach? Shots inside the venerable Lighthouse jazz club (top, left) were especially nostalgic!


THE EAGLE HUNTRESS The best girl-power stories are true. Aisholpan Nurgaiv, the 13-year-old heroine of this stunningly beautiful documentary, is a daughter of Mongolian nomads who defies tradition to master the ancient art of hunting with eagles. Directed by Otto Bell, and shot by Simon Niblett, with great sensitivity to the severe beauty of the vast, craggy steppes of the Kazakh region of Mongolia, and for the folkways of its people.

MOONLIGHT Black lives matter in filmmaker Barry Jenkins' eloquent coming-of-age drama that explores issues of race, culture, and love in unexpected ways. Three terrific actors play the lead character as child, teen, and adult, and Mahershala Ali (left) is wonderfully charismatic as the boy's surrogate father figure. A slice of cinematic poetry with a vision all its own.


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan brings his playwright's instincts to this intimate story of love, loss, and family in a close-knit fishing community on the Massachusetts coast. These rugged folks don't articulate their feelings, but those feelings run deep, and Lonergan finds continually inventive ways to express them in this quietly moving film.

THE HANDMAIDEN It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London. But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. It's a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation.
Cristina Pato, Spanish bagpiper, The Music of Strangers


THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE This beguiling and bittersweet documentary chronicles the efforts of the renowned cellist to found a performing group of international musicians from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, whose existence is dedicated to cultural diversity, and common humanity. Filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) knows a great music doc needs to feature not only wonderful music, but dynamic personalities to perform it, and this one is incredibly rich in both.

EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT The journey is the destination in Ciro Guerra's haunting meditation on culture, colonialism, and loss, shot in captivating black-and-white, on location in the remote jungles along the Amazon River. An indigenous shaman guides two separate scientific explorers down the Amazon, decades apart in the 20th Century; through his eyes, we see the disruptions of tribal culture before, during, and after exposure to the outsiders. Guerra's dreamlike pacing and sensuous imagery make this an absorbing piece of filmmaking with the power of myth in every frame.

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS I was completely entranced by the sophisticated storytelling of Derek Cianfrance's film adaptation on the M. L. Stedman novel. Michael Fassbender is terrific as a stoic WWI vet who takes a job as lighthouse keeper on a lonely rock off the Australian coast. Alicia Vikander is remarkable as a local woman who eases past his defenses and changes his life plan. This is movie-making for grown-ups, thoughtfully conceived and beautifully shot.

THE VVITCH Set in early colonial America, and meticulously researched by rookie writer-director Robert Eggers, this is not the cheesy horror movie you might expect, but an often squirmingly intense psychological drama of hysteria and religious fanaticism. Sure, it's still plenty scary (or at least creepy), but it's fearful anticipation that propels the narrative, not in-your-face violence.

Friday, February 3, 2017

BACK to the BEAST

Miss Havisham writes!
Did'ja miss me?

Here are 10 things I didn't have time to do while I was hammering out my last revision of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge during the entire month of January:

Update this blog. (Duh!)

Update my other social media/book pages.

Clean up my house and my workspace.

Get my hair cut.

Prune my roses.

Weed my yard. (Okay, the constant rain had a lot to do with that one.)

March against the Dictator-in-Chief.

Bake cookies. (Always necessary in desperate times.)

Start reading the book(s) I got from Santa.

Go back to work writing my own next book!

My Beast: SO ready for his close--up!
You known things are pretty dire when I'm looking forward to pulling weeds and housecleaning again! But that's how long I've been sitting at the keyboard, in full-on Miss Havisham mode — except in my case, I'm the one nearly covered in cobwebs (not a moldering wedding cake).

Three days a week, Art Boy unchained me from the keyboard and dragged me out for yoga (yay, yoga!), and once or twice a week (weather permitting) we walked in the harbor. Otherwise, here I sat, pounding away, until it was time to stumble downstairs for dinner, watch an hour of news for our daily dose of outrage, then stagger off to bed.

I've been working on Beast, one revision after another, since May of 2015. (A long story I'll tell you next time I see you, if you ply me with enough Merlot.) This end-of-January deadline was my last chance to get the book onto the Spring 2018 publication schedule, and I decided to kick out the jams and go for it!

I can't say it hasn't been a slog. But my Beast is worth it! I hope you'll think so too!