Monday, May 13, 2019

CROWD PLEASING

Okay, here's the thing about Game of Thrones: George R. R. Martin has not even finished writing the sixth and last book of the series yet.


Everything that's happened on the TV adaptation for the last season and a half has been cobbled together by the showrunners and their scriptwriters.

Granted, Martin is their chief consultant and guru on the show. We assume he is shaping the narrative to some degree as the show thunders toward its grand finale next week, giving his team the general idea of where the story is headed.

But how closely does it have to hew to the book Martin is actually writing?

Think about it: If Martin is like most writers with a publication date looming, he's still tinkering with plot details and narrative choices. He may think he knows where he's going, but still deciding the best way to get there.

Martin's ouvre has taken on a life of its own.
Then along comes the TV adaptation, wending its way through Martin's first five A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which becomes a freakin' global phenomenon and earns Martin an audience of untold gazillions — every single one of whom develops very particular ideas about how their favorite character or storyline should go.

What's an author to do?

You know what they say about pleasing all of the people all of the time. So, for the sake of sanity, most authors try to write for the only audience that matters — themselves. (Or a least their inner editors.)

But with an audience as massive as Martin's now is, ready to scrutinize every semi-colon, he's got to be feeling the pressure. Meanwhile, the TV series gallops along at it's own breakneck pace.

But it could work to Martin's advantage. He now has a worldwide supply of beta-readers (okay, beta-watchers) eager to point their thumbs up or down over each new revelation that flickers across their screens. Social media explodes like dragon fire the minute after each new episode is aired.

George R. R. Martin: who's writing this thing anyway?
So Martin is in a unique position to gauge how his narrative choices are playing out before he actually commits them to a published book.

Not that he will necessarily adapt his novel-in-progress according to what plays on social media — nor should he.  Anyone who cheerfully kills off his nominal hero at the end of the first book in a six-book series doesn't exactly fall into the crowd-pleaser category.


But with public outcry (not to say outrage) reaching fever pitch at each new plot twist revealed on the show, he now he faces the kind of integrity test that has so often challenged his characters over the last eight seasons.

Will he do the right thing, according to his own perverse instincts? Or will he strive — for once — to give the people what they demand?

Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 12, 2019

RING MASTER

Fantasy author's formative years, obsessions, explored in Tolkien

When movies are made about real people — especially creative artists — it's always interesting to see what aspect of a life the filmmakers choose to spotlight. Will the focus be on a singular event in the subject's life to build a story around? Or will the movie try to suggest in dramatic terms what inspired the subject's work?

In the atmospheric Tolkien, a movie about the celebrated fantasy author who gave us The Hobbit, and The Lord Of the Rings, these two approaches are the same thing. The movie begins in the horrific trenches of The Somme, in France, during World War I, a setting to which it keeps returning throughout the film.

The devastation of warfare was certainly the most singular event in J. R. R. Tolkien's life as a young man, but it also inspired him to create the epic battle between good and evil that occupies the Rings trilogy.

Directed by Dome Karukoski, from a script by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, Tolkien tries hard to elide the author's experiences as a schoolboy, an Oxford student, and a soldier into the larger themes of quests, courage and fellowship that would dominate his later work. The filmmakers are largely successful at this; their workmanlike approach doesn't always create a lot of deep resonance, but it's a satisfying look at the gestation of the creative process.

J. R. R. Tolkien's dust jacket design for The Hobbit, 1937
This is not a portrait of the artist writing in a fever of inspiration. Instead, Tolkien (played as an adult by Nichols Hoult) is depicted as a man of very methodical, intersecting obsessions, writing stories, and developing complex language systems for his own amusement. He also sketches almost constantly: fantasy landscapes, menacing figures emerging out of the shadows, dragons. (Tolkien himself provided watercolor paintings for the dust jackets and endpapers of many early editions of his work.)

The director's thoughtful approach may drag a little in the midsection, but his themes line up with Tolkien's stated purpose to explore "the journeys we take to prove ourselves."
(Read more)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

HOLDING CLOSE / LETTING GO

I wouldn’t exactly call it an anniversary; that suggests something to be celebrated. But I passed a milestone this last week — one year to the day since I lost my Sweetie.

Lost. Passed away. Joined the Heavenly Choir. Shuffled off this mortal coil. Whatever euphemism you like, as long as it doesn’t involve the ‘D’ word.

Funny, a year ago, I thought (in those fleeting moments back then when I was capable of thinking) that I’d have it all figured out by now. I would miraculously know what to do with the car I can no longer drive, this house, still so crammed with his stuff (not to mention my stuff!), this life with him no longer in it.

But so far that miracle hasn’t happened. I find myself just as overwhelmed as ever, paralyzed by the prospect of going on without him. I understand the necessity of plunging forward — instead of crab-crawling sideways like I’ve been doing. But the question is, when is it all right for those left behind to survive?

James is already physically gone, an impossible reality I grapple with every minute of every day. I desperately want to hoard his memory, like I’m holding on to his stuff, afraid that if I change anything, I might inadvertently slip one of the tethers still holding his spirit in place here with me. So I cling by my claws like Sylvester the Cat to every item that was so much a part of him, and every insistent memory of the life we shared together.

But no matter how ferociously I try to hold on, I can feel part of him beginning to slip away from me. Whether I like it or not, my life is slowly beginning to regroup around his loss, the way tidewater patiently diverts itself around, but ultimately engulfs an obstacle in the sand.

The tide will keep coming in and going out again. I can’t stay in one place, just surviving from one crisis to the next. Somehow, I have to dig in and take a stand, or the tide of life will erode me.

Of course, some stubborn part of me doesn’t want to make any new memories without him. That would feel like a betrayal. But as horrible, as hideous a thought as it is, I need to go forward, or be stuck here in this precarious limbo forever.

I have to let him go.

But how?

Then I remembered a scene in my first novel, The Witch From the Sea. My heroine, Tory, the daughter of a Native American mother, learns that her friend and fellow pirate, Jack, has suffered a terrible loss in the past. She tries to comfort him with a Mohawk prayer for the dead — and the survivors. 

“They say to the dead: We release you on your journey. Let nothing of this world hinder you, let no friends or relations trouble you. Forget the sadness of this world and go in peace.

They say to the survivors: The journey of the dead will be yours one day. If you love them let them go in peace. Do not trouble them with your sadness. Do not be idle with grief. Do not lose hope.”

The next step, she tells him, is to abstain from wickedness for a year, although Jack points out, it’s a little late for that in his case. “If you can’t be good for a year for the sake of ceremony,” says Tory, “you must take the time to mourn out of respect.”

I’ve had a year to mourn, a process that’s not going to end anytime soon. But it’s time to get out from under the yoke of grief, to stop using my sorrow as an excuse not to take responsibility for the rest of my life. And, somehow, I have to re-commit to hope.

In this at least I have an ally in James, the most positive person on the planet; he never lost hope about anything, no matter how daunting, and his enthusiasm for life was unbridled.

That’s the part of his spirit I must never let go of. Never, ever.

(Top: Cosmic Connection, by James Aschbacher)
(Above: New Release Party, by James Aschbacher)

Monday, April 22, 2019

GLAD TIDINGS


 Happy Spring Rebirth to all, whether you celebrate Easter, Passover, or the pagan fertility goddess Eostara!

This is how James Aschbacher and I spent every Easter Sunday for the 10 years he was painting murals with the 4th and 5th-graders at elementary schools across the county.


While they were off home for the holiday weekend, hunting for eggs and going into sugar shock, we were in the schoolyard, prepping the wall and transferring the kids’ designs to be ready for them to start painting as soon as they came back.

This was his very first school mural, Bay View Elementary, at Bay and Mission, in the Spring of 2005.

Here’s how it worked. First, he visited the classrooms and got each student to make a drawing in keeping with the theme (in this case, the ocean).


Then he stretched a long roll of paper across our floor at home and arranged their drawings into a composition. Over the holiday weekend, armed with carbon paper and markers, he and I would trace those images onto the school wall he had prepped with his spray-painted background.

Then, over the next two or three weeks, the kids came out of class, two at a time, to paint their images.


James centered this particular mural with his image of dolphins circling the sun. But all other creatures in the mural were dreamed up and painted by the kids themselves — and James always loved to see what they came up with!

They got to choose their own colors to paint with, too, and in the pic of the finished mural (with my Art Boy standing proudly beside it), you can see they mostly favored bright, neon hues. Which really makes the mural stand out at that busy intersection!


The kids also got to "sign" their work. See those hand prints all around the border? Instead of the usual runic glyphs James carved around the borders of his smaller paintings, he let every participating student slather the color of their choice across their palms and slap their hand print up on the wall!

This not only created a festive border, it allowed the kids to, literally, leave their mark on the school. It was their favorite part of the process!

So no baskets of chocolate bunnies for us, all those years. But, boy, was it worth it!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

GAME (BACK) ON


Hey, Thronies!

It’s that time of year again: the eighth and final season has finally begun for Game of Thrones, the most notorious perpetrator of fan abuse in the history of entertainment. Not only does the show routinely kill off its seemingly most important, fan-favorite characters, it’s been 20 months since the last episode of Season 7 aired.

Yes, it’s been a long dry spell, but now the Internet is burning up with commentary, predictions, crackpot theories and wild-ass speculation. And since you can already read tons of that stuff online, you don’t need to hear it from me. But here’s the thing: whatever show runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss do with the plot, devoted fans deserve a rip-roaring finale that stays true to the characters so painstakingly crafted over the previous seven seasons.

Jon Snow and Daenerys: compatible story arcs
Patience has thus far been rewarded for viewers who have picked up on characters with the most interesting story arcs since the beginning. Like Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the girl who talks to dragons, bartered bride-turned-queen of a massive army of freed slaves.

Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), long assumed to be the bastard son of Ned Stark (the show’s nominal hero, until he was ruthlessly exterminated at the end of Season 1), has been testing his mettle and honing his conscience up in the frozen North for most of the series. (Hint: building a wall against your perceived enemies is always a stupid idea.)

Jon is honest to a fault — a fault the size of the San Andreas. He’s incapable of not telling the whole truth, even when a little minor dissembling might get better results. Remember at the end of last season, when he led a delegation of leaders to the odious Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) to secure her help in fighting off the encroaching White Walker zombie menace?  When Cersei demanded his loyalty, he just couldn’t bring himself not to mention that his first allegiance was to fellow delegate (and lover-to-be) Daenerys.

Cersei and Jaime: shocked, shocked, to learn his sister lied
He should learn to borrow a page from Cersei’s own playbook. After pretending to join the alliance, the cold-blooded vixen revealed her true plan to her brother (and lover; it’s complicated), Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who was shocked . . . shocked, to learn that, despite her promise, she would not send her army to the fight, hoping the zombies and all her rivals would kill each other off so she could rule whatever's left of the realm unchallenged.

Then there’s Tyrion Lannister, Cersei and Jaime’s wily, outcast dwarf brother, one of the few other characters in the show with a consistently functioning moral compass. As played by the inimitable Peter Dinklage, Tyrion’s dry wit and sense of justice have propelled the series through many a rough patch. Statisticians who follow these things report that ratings go up even higher for episodes featuring Tyrion.
Tyrion: on the lookout for an exit strategy

Who doesn’t want to see Dinklage earn another Emmy? We didn’t see much of him in the season 8 opener, but there’ll be all kinds of hell to pay if the writers haven’t dreamed up a magnificent exit strategy for Tyrion by season’s end.

Okay, it’s weird that the last two seasons are no longer based on the novels in George R. R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice and Fire series, the books that spawned the show. As consultant and godfather to the show (he’s gotten a script credit on all 73 episodes so far), Martin simply hasn’t had time to finish the next (possibly final) book in the series. Which means Benioff and Weiss (supposedly with input from Martin) are now making up the end of the story as they go along.

So, even when the curtain rings down on Season 8, it still might not be the end. The show runners may or may not be sticking to Martin’s vision, or they might be concocting an alternative story of their own. It could all be “what if . . . ?” speculation, entirely different from whatever we find in Martin’s next novel when it finally hits the bookshelves (if it ever does), inviting fans to choose sides behind their favorite version. Ensuring that the GoT legend just goes on and on.

Oh, consider the possibilities!

PS: Forget about who will sit on the Iron Throne. The mystery I want solved is, what happened to Jon Snow’s loyal white direwolf, Ghost?

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

RADICAL HISTORY TOUR

Julius Thomas III (C, L), Simon Longnight (C, R), inHamilton

Hamilton in SF: I was in the room where it happened!

Back when I was trying to market my very first historical fiction novel, I did a lot of research into the genre. Certain historical eras, I discovered, were trendy among editors and publishers: The Tudors. Ancient Greece (or Rome, or Egypt). The Civil War.

But the one period agents cautioned writers away from was the American Revolution. It was perceived by editors and publishes as a bunch of old white guys in powdered wigs haranguing each other about politics. Readers weren’t interested. It wasn’t sexy, youthful, or exciting.

Tell that to Lin-Manuel Miranda. When his blockbuster Hamilton hit Broadway like a tsunami in 2015, all the rules flew out the window. Miranda reframed the dry, dusty story of our Founding Fathers into a startlingly relevant, immediate, hip, and entertaining show; along the way, he reinvented both how history is retold, and the entire genre of musical theater.

All of which is on vivid display in the production of Hamilton currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.

This is the third official U.S. touring company, featuring many performers who have appeared in previous productions of the show, on Broadway and on tour. (This is the troupe Miranda took with him to his home turf of Puerto Rico for a three-week engagement earlier this year.) And, boy, do they know their stuff!

Not a traditional play with musical numbers, Hamilton is more of an uninterrupted song cycle (like Tommy). There is hardly any book (i.e. spoken dialogue), but the show’s musical and lyrical themes build and weave in and out of each other as the story progresses.

And what music! It’s an irresistible mashup of hip-hop and Broadway, with traces of reggae, jazz, and boogie-woogie, along with haunting ballads and big show tunes. And all of it is performed by a multicultural cast, with people of color in all the major roles — including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton himself.

The show repurposes these figures from the mundane engraved portraits on our paper currency into the hot-blooded young radicals they once were, talking sedition and revolution in taverns while hatching their plan to resist the far-off, woefully out-of-step King of England and his ruinous taxes, and jumpstart a revolution to claim their freedom as an independent nation.

Filling in for Miranda in the title role at the Orpheum is Julius Thomas III, whose presence and strong singing give the show its center. Also impressive is Donald Webber Jr as Hamilton’s lifelong adversary, Aaron Burr, (and, ultimately, the victor in the duel that took Hamilton’s life), whose wry narration gives the show a wistful tone as he reflects on the part he is destined to play in shaping Hamilton’s legacy.

Harriman, Sloan, Castillo: rock on
The three women playing the pivotal Schuyler sisters sing beautifully, especially Julia K. Harriman as Eliza, who becomes Hamilton’s wife. Sabrina Sloan is smart and sassy as alpha sister, Angelica, who submerges her own feelings for kindred spirit Alexander and engineers his relationship with Eliza because she realizes her duty as the eldest is to marry rich. Darilyn Castillo plays kid sister Peggy; their soaring trios rock the room.

Simon Longnight has a blast in the showcase dual role of the Marquis de Lafayette (delivered in a buttery French accent) and a flamboyant Jefferson. Isaiah Johnson plays General Washington (the designated grown-up in the room) with tremendous fortitude, and Rick Negron steals the show in his three brief (but hilarious) appearances as King George.

In a recent article in the SF Chronicle, author and activist Ishmael Reed denounces the show as “bad history” for (ahem) whitewashing Hamilton as an abolitionist who fought against slavery. You can Google a plethora of opinions on whether Hamilton himself actually owned slaves (Jefferson and Washington certainly did), although Hamilton bought and sold slaves as property in his early career at an import/export firm, and on behalf of his Schuyler in-laws.

Thomas (Hamilton), Johnson (Washington): write, not fight
But this show makes no pretense to serving up a strictly factual biography of Hamilton or his era. After all, the Founding Fathers were not men of color, debating in vigorous hip-hop rhymes. The point of the show is to make the spirit of revolution accessible to a contemporary audience in our own era of resistance.

The multicultural casting of Hamilton and his allies identifies them visually and spiritually as scrappy outsiders on the fringe of the mainstream, determined to shape a better world.

Along with its pro-diversity and pro-immigration sentiments (in colonial America, with no national identity of its own yet, everybody except the native tribes had migrated from somewhere else), the show delivers a resounding rejection of slavery and celebrates equality for all. And that’s the take-away here. No matter to what degree the real-life Hamilton earned his abolitionist cred, the powerful message of this show is unmistakable. 

But don’t go for the message alone; go for a rousing three hours of live theater!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

TALKING BOOKS


Big thanks to Beth Svee and her hard-working staff for the warm welcome given me yesterday at Porter Memorial Library!

I was invited to come talk books as part of their monthly Meet the Author Series, and it couldn't have been any more fun.


I spoke, I signed, and I sent multiple copies of all three of my books out into the hands of eager new readers. 

The Beast went on, Alias Hook continued his voyage of conquest, and The Witch From the Sea set sail for adventure!

Thanks to all the book-loving patrons who showed up on such a blessedly sunny day. Especially those of you who lined up to get your books signed and chat with me afterwards. It was delightful to meet you all!

Now I can’t wait to write another book, so we can do it again!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

AND THE WINNER WAS . . .

Funny how time flies!

The Academy Awards were two weeks ago, already, and I have yet to inflict upon you . . . oops, I mean, share my annual Oscar Barbies post! You know, my crack-brained tradition of dressing up dolls from my misfit Barbie collection as the Best Actress nominees.

Well, you couldn't expect your luck to hold out forever. So, here she is (ta-da): Olivia Colman in The Favourite!

Okay, I only had the time and energy to do one nominee this year. But I picked the right one, as Colman went on to win the gold. (Beating out poor Glenn Close, in like her 49th nomination. Most movie fans are astonished to learn that Close has never actually won the Oscar!)

But if the highly peculiar The Favourite had to win anything (and that's a debatable point), I'm glad it was for Colman's fearless performance. Of course, Barbie is a lot more glam than Colman's sad-sack Queen Anne — but at least I got the bunnies right!

An old hippie earring of mine, planted upside-down in her copious hair, makes the perfect crown!

Maybe next year, I'll have time to do them all.

You've been warned!

Friday, March 8, 2019

MEET THE AUTHOR!

I stumbled upon this somewhere — maybe it came from the Porter Memorial Library newsletter? — in advance of my book talk there next Wednesday.

As I posted last time, I'm thrilled to be the next designated speaker in their Meet the Author series!

If you’ve never been to this little jewel of a library, at 3050 Porter St. in  Soquel, check out their website or their Facebook page!

And, yes, I’ll be bringing copies of all three of my novels: Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge (in stores now!), Alias Hook, still winning fans since launching his voyage of conquest in 2014, and even my very first novel from 2001, The Witch From the Sea, now (ahem) a rare collector’s item!

I’ll be talking about the genesis of each novel, reading (mercifully brief) excerpts, signing books, and answering all your questions about the arcane mysteries of the writing life.

(But then I’ll have to kill you . . . oh, just kidding!)

So do please plan to come out on Wednesday, March 13, 10:30 in the morning. Hang out with me and swap stories, check out my books, and discover the little library that could!

Friday, March 1, 2019

COMING SOON!





Save the date, friends and readers!


I’ll be discussing all my books — from The Witch to Alias Hook to the Beast — at Porter Memorial Library, the tiny little treasure of Soquel Village, on Wednesday, March 13.

Rare vintage copies of my early books (okay, they’re out-of-print) will be available at special, extreme library discounts! I’ll be reading excerpts, signing books, and revealing secrets of the writing life.

Showtime is 10:30 am, in picturesque Soquel.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

DUELING DIVAS: IT'S A WRAP!

My dialogue with Christina Waters over this year's Oscar nominees continues!

CW: Best Original Screenplay - well here again I didn't see one of the nominees, First Reformed, but based on the films I did screen I'd say that Vice was the sassiest, The Favourite was the most eccentric, and Green Book the most appealing.

BUT, I'm thinking that Roma will take it based upon the care with which Alfonso Cuaron's memory revealed the many tiers of the class structure and family realities in Mexico City in the 60s. This may be where Roma was at its best.

LJ: And I'm at a disadvantage for not having seen Vice. I did see First Reformed, which unspooled as a taut, tightly-wound tirade against modern disconnection, as only veteran Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver; Raging Bull) can deliver. The Academy might go for it, in honor of Schrader's sheer, stubborn longevity.

Not CGI: Bale as Cheney in Vice
I don't think Roma's greatest strength is in its scriptwriting, as much as in the scope of its storytelling, but if it wins Best Picture it will likely win this prize too. By the way, of the Adapted Screenplay nominees, I only saw is Can You Ever Forgive Me, so I don't feel qualified to weigh in on that category.

CW:Makeup and Hair: Well it HAS to be Vice for its miraculous transformation of some fine actors—especially Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell—into some of the highest profile politicos in the 20th century.

LJ: Agreed! Transforming Christian Bale into Dick Cheney seems more like a job for the CGI department, but they pulled it off with cosmetic wizardry alone!

CW:Costume Design: Wish I'd seen Black Panther because I have a strong feeling that Ruth E. Carter's costumes were bravura. But since I didn't, I'll take the foppish decadent crowd of 18th century dandies brilliantly costumed by Sandy Powell for The Favourite.

Black Panther: Tribal Meets Techno
LJ: Black Panther all the way for me. The rich Tribal-Meets-Techno vibe created by Ruth E. Carter was eye-popping, fun, and so smart! Whereas, The Favourite costumes looked slightly fake to me, like costumes you make for the Renaissance Faire with store-bought materials like rick-rack instead of elaborate period embroidery. But, intentionally fake, like everyone in the movie was in on a big joke, and they were all sniggering behind their fans at the absurdity of it all.

CW: Sound, there are actually two sound awards, one for editing—and here I'll take Bohemian Rhapsody, although I was intrigued by the sound in Roma; And there's Sound Mixing. Ditto Bohemian Rhapsody. Seriously, the Freddie Mercury & Queen rockumentary offered up a lavish tsunami of prime ripping, peeling, screaming rock'n'roll. The sound was one of the most potent characters in the film and moved us in, out and upwards through the mercurial (sorry) journey of this tragic rock icon.

LJ: I'm with you on Bohemian Rhapsody for Sound Mixing: getting all that iconic music to blend so perfectly in and out of the narrative was quite a feat. But let me play devil's advocate in the Sound Editing category, where one of the nominees is A Quiet Place — a vaguely futuristic, dystopian thriller in which a family must learn to hide in silence when stalked by deadly creatures with acute hearing. No, I didn't see it (or hear it), but it sounds like the kind of risky stunt movie Academy voters might take note of.

(The Academy Awards will be broadcast live, Sunday, February 24, beginning at 5 pm, on ABC. Tune in and see how we did!)

Friday, February 15, 2019

DUELING DIVAS DISH OSCAR (PART DEUX)

Best shot: Stone, Weisz aim for gold in The Favourite
CW: Best Supporting Actress.Is it just me, or is Amy Adams just not much of anything? I have never been able to figure out why she is even in movies. Anything she can do, Julianne Moore or Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts can do much better. So she's out. Emma Stone, who was wonderful and Rachel Weisz, who can do no wrong, cancelled each other out in the sense that they were both spot on in The Favourite, in roles that literally supported the fabulous Olivia Coleman's Queen Anne.

My money's on the memorable Marina de Tavira, who helped give depth and emotional shape to Roma.

LJ: I haven't seen If Beale Steet Could Talk, or Vice yet, so I can't comment on Regina King or Amy Adams' chances. I don't necessarily think Stone and Weiss cancel each other out because they're both nominated for the same movie, but they both have recently won Oscars (Stone for La La Land, just two years ago), so probably will not be seen as due for another one so soon. I agree, Maria de Tavira has the inside track here, especially if Roma cleans up in other categories.

Ave Maria (de Tavira) in Roma
CW: Best Supporting Actor Sam Rockwell is a sly fox and he was a great George W. Bush in Vice. But again, I felt it was more impersonation. He gave us an original character in Three Billboards. And since I can't comment on Adam Driver, Sam Elliott, or Richard E Grant, I'll go with the elegant Mahershala Ali, who made the perfect foil for Viggo, and vice versa. Those two had chemistry to burn.

LJ: Sam Rockell is probably out, only because he won in this category last year in Three Billboards. Mahershala Ali won two years ago (and deservedly so) in Moonlight.

It's funny that Adam Driver is nominated in the supporting category when his co-star, John David Washington  (who played the black Klansman of the title) was passed over for a Best Actor nomination.

Richard E. Grant: caustic fun
The Academy has been trying to honor the ever-durable Sam Elliott since 2015, when he popped back into the public consciousness with a showcase role in I'll See You In My Dreams. One of the most reliable character actors in the biz — with perhaps the most distinctive voice — Elliott is overdue for an accolade, and the high-profile A Star Is Born could be his E ticket.

On the other hand, Richard E. Grant was great, caustic, slinky fun in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I don't think his co-star, Melissa McCarthy will win for Best Actress (she's de-glamorized in every movie she's in), but the movie's insider's look at literary shenanigans might have enough partisans to tip the gold to Grant.

Roma: scope
CW: Best Cinematography I admit I was mesmerized by the art direction in The Favourite and while engaged by the camerawork I was too aware of the use of fisheye lenses and other tricks. All of these visual devices worked to move the film's story forward but not without making their presence known.

 Roma's cinematic scope will very likely make it the winner in this category, but having said that I have to question the softness of imagery and lack of contrast.

Instead of crisp blacks and whites, Cuarón gives us fifty shades of grey. The film appeared murky, which might be a metaphor for the occluded skies of Mexico City (pollution). But as my friend and writer Rita Bottoms suggested, it might also be that the Mexico portrayed is seen through the eyes of the eldest son of the family (Cuarón as a child), and hence be murky or dim or somehow visually unclarified, as through a child's eyes. Interesting theory.

Cold War: intoxicating
LJ: I love that two of the nominated films are in black-and-white. The technique doesn't have to be crisp, for my money, only evocative, which Roma definitely is. Think of it as moody and pearlescent, not grey! And besides the chiaroscuro effect of black-and-white, Cuaron's compositions are enthralling, even if it's just water washing over a tile floor. If the Academy wants to give Spike Lee the directing nod, this award could be Cuaron's "consolation prize."

CW: I'll grant you Lisa, that opening of the water on the tiles, and the plane flying overhead reflected in the water—was enthralling. As good as Bergman. But chiaroscuro Roma wasn't. Very mise en scene, keeping the camera in one place and having life move in and out of it—that can work if there's some authentic emotional urgency, rather than bombarding us with a string of embarrassing and/or unpleasant incidents. Just didn't do it for me.

LJ: Well, for my money, the most evocative cinematography of the year — also in gorgeous black-and-white — is in Pawel Pawlikowski's Polish drama, Cold War. Shot by Lukasz Zal, it's dark, intoxicating, and complex — just like the tale it tells.

Bohemian Rhapsody: seamless movement
 CW: Best Film Editing I'd have to go with Bohemian Rhapsody on this. Seamless movement through time, space, and emotional volume as the camera shifted perfectly from Mercury's anxieties to edgy rehearsals and up onto the stage itself, offering us the strutting Highness of Queen, as well as the adoring audiences responding. Fabulous immersion into Mercury's ascent, decline, and legacy.

LJ: Um, I never actually notice film editing, unless it's so clunky, it stops the action cold. As long as the picture keeps moving, I'm happy!

*     *     *

NOTE: It's beyond weird, not to say reprehensible, that the Academy, has decided this year to hand out the awards for Cinematography and Editing during commercial breaks — that is, unseen by the viewing audience watching at home.

Excuse me, but despite my snarky comment above, Editing and Cinematography are what make movies movies: the motion and the pictures. Relegating these key awards to the not-ready-for-prime-time slot, in hopes of shortening the TV broadcast, is a crime against cinema. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ought to know better.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

DUELING DIVAS

Thousands cheer Bohemian Rhapsody. Could it win Best Pic?
For, oh, about 1000 years now, my pal and colleague, Christina Waters, and I have been talking movies. Once upon a time, we thought about mounting our own movie review program — Dueling Divas — but inertia always set in. But today's technology enables to finally realize our dream — no TV studio required! So here goes! Feel free to listen in:

CW: Hey there Lisa - well I have to say of this list of 8 nominees for Best Picture this year, I have seen only 5 (five).

Bohemian Rhapsody—kickass music and attitude; Roma—languid, real-time memoir; The Favourite—visceral history lesson with three powerful dames; Green Book—crisp storytelling with appealing characters; and Vice—gritty and ugly underbelly of politics.

Didn't see: Black Panther, A Star is Born, or BlacKkKlansman, all three of which left town before I had a chance to check them out.

So I'm going to be clueless about Spike Lee's long overdue Oscar nomination, as well as the Marvel Comics saga, and whether or not Lady Gaga is the star that was born.

Any comments about this lineup of nominees?

Black Panther and his team: Wakanda Forever!
 LJ: Black Panther was a helluva lot of fun (although my favorite Straight Outta Oakland movie of the year was the exceptional Blindspotting). (Actually, it's my favorite movie of the year, period.) I think the main thing you can see from this list is that Academy voters were trying to support diversity of themes, cultures, and styles in their nominees. Only A Star Is Born is the kind of old-fashioned mainstream melodrama that Hollywood always used to recognize with Oscar nominations —pretty much to the exclusion of any other kind of movie.

(Alhough I have to admit, I skipped this one, having aready seen the previous four versions. We're heading for a new Oscar category: Best Revival of a Stone-Dead Property We've Already Seen a Million Times.)

I too missed BlacKkKlansman, but if it has an iota of the wit and audacity of Lee's best (Do The Right Thing or She's Gotta Have It), it'll be a worthy contender.

Roma: the discovery of slowness
I loved Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen nut that I am, but I'm surprised it's getting so much year-end awards attention. (But not displeased.) It's probably my favorite movie on this list. Despite — or possibly because of — its slow beginning, Roma really touched me as a mood piece about stillness and observation and being present in the journey of life. Green Book was highly entertaining, thanks to well-matched co-stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, and I'll bet Vice is a riot, in its own weird way, although I haven't caught up with it yet.

The Favourite is the only nominee I question on the list. All three lead actresses were terrific, but I don't understand why Yorgos Lanthimos has a career, or what he's trying to do with it.

Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne, The Favourite: imperious vulnerability

CW: As I watched the very stylish, postmodern, and over-the-top The Favourite I realized quickly that I was watching Olivia Coleman win the Best Actress Oscar. Her daring, generous, and courageous performance, throwing herself into the least flattering situations and camera angles, all the while moving with lightening speed from despair to delight, was a tour de force. And while I agree with you that Lanthimos' filmography is beyond weird, the performances definitely held my attention. No holds barred as far as the three female characters/actors went.

LJ: I agree about Olivia Coleman; she was absolutely fearless in staying true to her cranky, sad-sack character, no matter how awful she looked onscreen — and that's the kind of anti-glam riskiness that wins Oscar votes. (Just ask Charlize Theron or Nicole Kidman.) She was also brilliant in creating the only character in this very mannered and peculiar movie viewers could possibly care about, in all her imperious vulnerability.

But let's not count out Glenn Close. After a high-profile career full of nominations, she has yet to be the bride. Whatever might be said about The Wife, it might simply be Close's turn.

CW: Yes, it's high time Close won, and her recent SAG award tends to point her toward an Oscar.

LJ: Also, pay attention to Yalitza Aparicio, who is living the Star-Is-Born dream in real life as an unknown getting the lead in Roma. If the multi-nominated Roma shows signs of sweeping, her chances are excellent.

CW: Can't agree with you about this performance. The director seemed to insist that we be impressed, and often with Roma I felt manipulated.

The Best Actor category seems more closely matched. Viggo Mortensen was fantastic as the loud, crude, decent blue collar driver—he embedded himself in this role and clearly had a great time with it. Showed Viggo's oft-overlooked depth as a resourceful actor. Willem Dafoe was obviously acting, and while I love him (or perhaps I should say I love looking at him, all teeth, and jaw, and wild eyes), he didn't convince me. Christian Bale was spot on as Dick Cheney, but I felt as though I were watching a reenactment rather than a creative interpretation, whereas Rami Malek, as Freddie Mercury seemed to illuminate the man, the insecure boy looking for love, and ultimately the consummate rock star.

Malek as Mercury: the year of the Killer Queens!
So Rami Malek gets my vote as winner. And there seems to be much momentum in his favor.

LJ: Rami Malek was outstanding; he inhabited Freddie Mercury right down to the prosthetic overbite! He will, he will rock me if he wins!

I love Willem Dafoe too, but the despairing angst with which he was encouraged to chew his way through the horribly misbegotten At Eternity's Gate will probably not be mistaken for a great performance by Academy voters. (Although, they gave Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar for two hours of grunting and panting in The Revenant, so who knows?) Besides, only 12 people in the world saw the movie, including you and me, and we're not voting. Meanwhile, Mortensen could cruise to gold as a genial, blue-collar shmo who disovers, and then rises above, his own racism in Green Book. (He also packed on 40 pounds for the role, the male equivalent of an actress deglamorizing herself, by Oscar standards.)

But I can't help but think that Academy voters might go for Christian Bale, a chameleon who physically remakes himself for every role. The politics of Vice allign with a large percentage of Hollywood and its Oscar voters. And who could resist Bale's acceptance speech at the Globes, where he thanked Satan for giving him the inspiration to play Dick Cheney?

Surprise nominee?
CW: Best Director: I realize there will be some serious momentum for Spike Lee for what is incredibly only his first nomination. Unfortunately he's up against auteur Alfonso Cuarón, whose Roma was a poetic memoir of his own childhood. The Academy loves that kind of stuff. He wrote, produced, photographed, and directed this black and white elegy, but I didn't love the film. Something missing, that something that kindles rather than insists upon my empathy. The film did not touch me. But I absolutely appreciate the scope of his ambition here. And I think he will take the Oscar.

LJ: I'm just tickled that two of the five directors are nominated for foreign-language films — unusual in Oscar history (if one is not named Fellini). Cuaron already has an impressive Hollywood track record (from Y Tu Mama Tambien to the third Harry Potter movie, to Children Of Men). So he might have an edge here, even though he already has a directing Oscar for Gravity.

Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski is a surprise nominee — but maybe not so surprising, if his Cold War (which I am jonesing to see; it just opened in Santa Cruz) is anything like his brilliant Ida of a few years ago.

Lee's chances are excellent in his first-ever directing nomination — far better than Adam McKay's for Vice, making an irreverent comedy out of the Bush/Cheney moment in American politics. And I continue to be mystified by the Svengali-like hold that Yorgos Lanthimos exerts over the moviegoing public, especially critics. I passionately hated his breakout movie, The Lobster, for its mean-spirited cruelty in the name of satire, and the smug, farcical, slapstick tone of The Favourite just eludes me. I don't get it.

(Next time we’ll look at the undercard — including Supporting Actors, Screenplay, and Cinematography. Stay tuned!)

Saturday, January 26, 2019

FANTASY PIONEER

Found this interesting link by prolific science-fiction author, historian, and translator Brian Stableford on Mme. de Villeneuve, the French author who first set down the Beauty and the Beast story in print in 1740. Stableford celebrates Villeneuve (Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot) as a pioneer of sci-fi/fantasy, citing her La Belle et la Bete as " the eighteenth-century work that most closely resembles modern generic fantasy novels."

However, it's the heavily abridged and altered rewrite of the tale published in 1756 by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that has become the standard version of the tale —  even though Stableford calls it  "a conscious and corrupt plagiarism of a far more innovative and interesting original." He praises the largely forgotten Villeneuve as "a far more complicated and more sophisticated writer than a superficial reading of the Beauty/Beast motif implies," and cites "the nature and intensity of her imagination."

I was aware of these dueling versions of the tale (but not in so much interesting detail!) when I wove both authors' names into Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge. In my book, the Beaumonts have more or less eclipsed the power and prestige of their Villeneuve cousins, claiming the Villeneuve reputation, like Beast's disputed chateau, for their own — as Mme. Beaumont claimed the Beauty/Beast story for her own, all but eclipsing the stalwart efforts of Mme. Villeneuve.

Obviously, Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont had a much more deft hand at self-promotion, judging by this fanciful portrait by contemporary illustrator Binette Schroeder for a 1986 edition of the tale! Did La Beaumont really keep a cheetah on a leash? Or is it all just metaphor?

Saturday, January 19, 2019

RANDOM GLITCH

Navigating Life's Obstacles, by James Aschbacher
Fate does not like to be tempted. Just when you dare to think you’ve got it all under control, she’s ready to smack you with some new, unforeseen obstacle. So it’s wise to never indulge in platitudes like, “Well, at least the worst is over.”

Remember the trash compactor scene in Star Wars? It can always get worse.

I thought the worst thing that could ever happen to me was losing my Art Boy. And that’s still number one at the top of the list, edging out the Trump administration and the zombie apocalypse. (Wait, aren’t those last two the same thing?)

But that doesn’t mean that Fate is done with me. She still has a few nasty tricks up her sleeve, as I discovered about two weeks ago when I woke up in the middle of the night and I couldn’t stand up. Now, diagnosed with MS about 4 years ago, I’ve been getting accustomed to mobility issues — mostly in walking distances, or standing up for too long. But to stand up at bedside, only to sink immediately to the floor and have to start crawling around? That’s new.

True, my flavor of MS is called Progressive, but I expected the progress to be a little more gradual than overnight!

Thus began my 51/2 day sojourn at Dominican. I confess, for months, I’ve been hoping for some kind of time-out, to to take a break from bill-paying, and banking, and taxes, and, you know, sorrow. I longed for time to just be still, take a few deep yoga breaths, and get a grip. But lying prone on a hospital bed was not what I had in mind.

Truth be told, there were many times in the dark days after losing James that I was ready to go too. In the old ’70s sitcom, Sanford and Son, when things didn’t go right for the rascally widower played by Redd Foxx, he’d grasp his heart and cry to the heavens, “I’m comin’ Elizabeth!” There were moments at Dominican when I started to feel like that. Is it my turn next?

Who doesn't crave a little time-out? Just say yes.
And for the first two days, overnight in ER and then in a room upstairs the next day, when I mostly slept, I was okay with that.

My best friend was feeding my cat, and texting me daily updates. (“Here’s a picture of Bella just before she hissed at me!”) And all the post-James business piling up on my actual desktop at home, most of it requiring my immediate attention, like, yesterday? I was ready to let it all go. My brain had left the building.

But, dimly, I began to perceive that nothing makes a person feel more helpless than an extended stay in a hospital. No matter how doting and caring and attentive the staff is — and the staff at Dominican was great — or perhaps because of all that doting attention, it becomes too easy to let that secret part of you that just wants to be taken care of all the time take over. To lie there and just say yes — to everything.

So at some point, I began to rally. Maybe it was when I was able to get in and out of bed unassisted, or when I discovered a bathroom around the corner in my room (who knew?) that I could use like a grown-up. Maybe it was when I asked them to bring a chair into my room so I could eat meals sitting up, not reclining on the bed like some kind of debauched Roman senator.
 
An urgent message from my Spirit Guide!
Maybe it was when one of the physical therapists brought me a walker (and unplugged my IV unit from the wall) so I could start navigating around the corridors outside my room, visit the nurses’ station to recycle a pile of newspapers brought by my friends, and get to the shower room where I could — finally!!! — wash my hair!

But mostly, it was James, my Spirit Guide, giving me a stern talking-to. He would have battled like a Klingon to hold onto this life, if only he’d had the chance. “Don’t even think about letting go!” he warned me. I shuddered at the amount of ’splaining I’d have to do if I opted for the easy way out, the path of least resistance.

Heartbroken is one thing. But losing heart is a choice I decided not to make.

The upshot is, they couldn’t find anything wrong with me to explain what happened. After a CT scan, EKGs, ultrasound, two days of MRIs, and monitoring my vitals every 2.8 seconds, their collective best guess was a random MS episode. A glitch.

They intended to keep trying until they found something. Another four days in acute rehab was recommended, but I’m with Amy Winehouse on that one. Home is the best place to remember how to be me again.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

MOVING ON

"Moving On," by James Aschbacher




I recently found this lovely tribute on James Aschbacher’s memorial page online:

“Reading about James, I see this whimsical art came from his soul. Although I didn't know him, I love him through his art. I know he is creating beautiful art on the Other Side.”

That’s how I like to think of him. In fact, in my original idea for this year’s Christmas card, James was cheerfully painting a mural on the Pearly Gates.

(But I abandoned that idea because it was too conceptual, and too complicated to draw. )

Besides, not sure if I go along with the whole Heavenly Father/Pearly Gates mythology, anyway.

At the end of the Harry Potter movies I was binge-watching over the holidays, Harry, temporarily dead, encounters his deceased mentor, Professor Dumbledore, in a tunnel of bright white light. (It looks suspiciously like King’s Cross Station, as Harry says, “only cleaner. And without the trains.”)

While Harry opts to return to life and sort things out, Dumbledore says he himself must go.

“Where?” asks Harry.

“On,” Dumbledore replies.

That’s the concept I like: mysterious and unconfined by any specific rules or belief systems. Just “on.”

Or, as the late, very much-lamented Mr. Earl, master spinner of vintage rock ’n’ roll platters for the late, lamented KUSP, used to sign off, “Catch you on the Flip Side!”

But I agree with tribute-writer Claire Norman that James’ art was the expression of his soul.

In this 2011 piece of his, “Act of Creation,” I see James as the central figure, firmly rooted to the earth, but with little batons of bright ideas swirling around inside him, while the fruits of his imagination rise up like stars!

Wherever my Art Boy has gone on to, those stars must be just as bright.