Tuesday, November 14, 2017

NOISES OFF

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

SUCH A DEAL


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

PRE-HOLIDAY CHEER

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

NORSING AROUND

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

ONE STEP CLOSER!

OMG!

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!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

WAR and POOH

Trauma begets kidlit classic in lovely Goodbye Christopher Robin

A few weeks ago, I was ranting about biographical movies that commit a sin of admission —unable to be selective about the facts of a person's real life, they let the point of the movie drown in too many details.

But, in telling a story about A. A. Milne, author of the beloved Winnie the Pooh children's books, director Simon Curtis gets it right.

He chooses one aspect of Milne's life and career to focus on, and follows through to its conclusion. A larger picture of Milne and his era emerges along the way, but it never distracts from the emotional core of Curtis' very poignant film.

Curtis has impressive credentials for translating real-life stories to film (My Week With Marilyn; Woman In Gold). Working from a thoughtful script by veteran Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Curtis crafts a gentle-spirited movie around a serious theme: how Milne's harrowing experiences in the First World War drove him to create the healing fantasy of Winnie the Pooh, inspired by his little son and his toy animals. Serious too is the minor theme: the effect of worldwide fame on a 6-year-old boy.

Gleeson, Tilston, and furry friends: imagination heals
In Jazz Age London, Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is a writer of frothy stage comedies who's finding it hard to adjust to his old life after a tour of duty in the trenches of France. He keeps having devastating flashbacks to the battlefield — whenever a champagne cork pops, for instance, or a car backfires.

After enduring the birth of their son, Christopher Robin, is social-butterfly wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), is eager to resume their usual round of parties and opening nights.

But Alan finds London too disturbing, and shocks his wife by moving the family, along with Olive (the always endearing Kelly Macdonald), the young nanny who has raised the boy, to a country house in Sussex, where he hopes to start writing again.

The real-life Milne, Christopher Robin, and Pooh Bear
When Alan is left alone for a few days with 5-year-old Christopher, whom everyone calls Billy (the disarmingly dimpled Will Tilston), wandering the benign, sunlit wood on their property, the two begin to bond.

Although he longs to produce a work that will convince people to abolish war, as they once abolished slavery, Alan gets drawn into the imaginative world Billy creates for his stuffed animals, which jump-starts Alan's own creativity. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet are born.

These lovely scenes between Tilston and Gleeson (reserved at first, then playfully loosening up) are the heart of the movie. The publication and immediate global mania for the Pooh books and poems go by in a fleet montage. (Director Curtis is smart enough to realize that's the part of the story we already know.)

But their father-son relationship is damaged. It's heartbreaking that they can never again regain that golden time when the stories were just for the two of them, before the whole world was watching. (Read more)






How big a global sensation was Winnie the Pooh? Winnie ille Pu was a Latin translation my parents gave me as a high school freshman studying Latin in the '60s — almost 50 years after Milne's book was published. The Tao of Pooh came out in 1982. Needless to say, Pooh, in his original and various spinoff versions, is still in print!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

ORDER UP II

Hey kids!

Guess what? Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is available for pre-order from Barnes & Noble as we speak! AND at an insane pre-release discount! (And, yes, that's for the hardcover first edition!)

Check it out!

True, the book will not actually be released until July 10, 2018. But this is one way to be the first kid on your block to get your paws on it on Day One. Okay, it may not be faster than a speeding kindle on release day, but the tactile pleasures of a real ink-and-paper book are their own reward.

Beast is also  now available (again) for pre-order on Amazon, but at the retail price. I expect they will soon offer a pre-order discount as well — but plucky B&N had SO beat them to the punch!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE TAO OF THE SPLAT

So, what separates a big, red, fresh tomato from a squashed green splat over at Rotten Tomatoes?

Now that I'm an officially Tomatometer-approved RT critic myself, I am gaining some insight.

I recently got an email from an RT editor, after the site had been posting my reviews for a few weeks. He thanked me for joining the team, but he had a question about one of my recent reviews.

I'd given the movie 2 1/2 stars out of 4 (according to my official Jensen-o-meter, long in use on the Good Times website). He said the staff had read that as "slightly negative," but they wanted to check with me before assigning a (dreaded) splat to my review of the movie.

I told him 2 1/2 stars was right, smack in the middle: the movie had merits, which I cited, but the narrative drawbacks — for me — slightly outweighed them. On the other hand, it wasn't a terrible movie. So I asked, can we give it, like, half a tomato?

But there is no grey area at Rotten Tomatoes, no ambiguity. It's either a "fresh," or a splat.

Still, I was glad the editor invited me to weigh in, in the interest of fairness. Re-reading my review, I had to admit it read as slightly negative, so I had to stand by my opinion: I authorized the splat.

And while I regret that the nuance of critical thinking might get lost in a strictly pass-fail system, readers are always encouraged to click the reviewer's link next to the Tomatometer icon the get the whole story.


(On the other hand, some reviews are completely unambiguous! The movie in question here is the disaster that was Pan.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

9 - AND COUNTING

The countdown continues!


In 9 months, my Beast will be born! Yes, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge hits bookstores on July 10, 2019.


In the meantime, feast your eyes on my Beast of the Month in this gorgeous illustration of Beauty and the Beast by contemporary artist Toshiaki Kato.


Kato does not apparently have a website of his own, but you can see more of his beauteous illustrations here.


His work is featured in an item called Genshin/Japanese Anime Art Book, which is mostly available on eBay. I have no other information about him.

But Holy Moly, what a cool image!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

BEING HUMAN

Life still mysterious is thoughtful sequel Blade Runner 2049

You don't need an encyclopedic knowledge of the original to enjoy this 30-years-later sequel to Ridley Scott's groundbreaking sci-fi epic.

The new movie tells its own story, with a (mostly) new cast of characters, although the main plot thrust was launched in the original.

But there's enough context to make sense to latecomers, while longtime fans will have lots of new fodder for speculation in how it all plays out.

Incoming director Denis Villeneuve (in close collaboration with exec-producer Scott), sticks to the original theme of the first film and the Philip K. Dick story that inspired it: an existential question of the meaning of life when a breed of super-strong, machine-made androids, called "replicants," have been created to serve the master race of humans.

Ir-replicantable: Rutger Hauer in the original
The movie's two-hours and 43-minutes allow plenty of time to brood over the issue of what constitutes "real" life, and it's worth pondering. Yet, respect for the miracle of life itself, expressed with such aching eloquence in the original film, never feels quite as profound here.

We never feel that urgent sense of loss the renegade replicants felt in the first film, battling for their sense of human identity in the face of extinction.

Still, the movie resonates in its own way as its central mystery evolves — especially when LAPD blade runner Ryan Gosling unearths startling evidence that a replicant has given birth.

And it's great to see Harrison Ford revisiting one of his best signature roles. His testy, cynical ex-blade runner, Deckard, plays well against Gosling's smooth aplomb as they become unexpected allies in pursuit of the truth.
(Read more)