April 26, 2015

Movie Review: The Age of Adeline **

The Age of Adeline begins with a voice-over giving us a pseudo-scientific explanation for why Adeline hasn't aged in 80 years. The explanation is laughable, but all during this this time we are watching Blake Lively on screen and she is luminous (I mean, really...LOOK AT HER) so you think, "Okay, I can buy this - it's a fairy tale." And it would be great if you only had to watch the lovely Ms. Lively, but you also have to listen to her breathy voice and watch her lack of emotion/personality.
Yes, she's beautiful, but at some point you want more than that, and her haughtiness and superior attitude wears thin.
And how did she afford that apartment on the salary of a librarian? Oh, wait...there's a scene from many years earlier where she buys Xerox stock before it's Xerox.
And the dialogue...oh my god.
"Tell me something I can hold on to and never let go," she tells her love interest.
"Let go," he says.
Yawn.
Harrison Ford's character tells his son the reason she left him: "She's not capable of ...change," and then the music swells dramatically.
Zzzzzzzzz.
Good performances by Ford and Ellen Burstyn, and especially Michiel Huisman, who plays the love interest. He's really cute...AND has personality. But what does he see in her? Well, she wears spiffy clothes and has great hair. Too bad there's no chemistry between them.
Some people clapped when it ended but I wasn't sure if it was because they really liked it or because they were glad it was over.
Two out of five stars for The Age of Adeline.

April 24, 2015

Can't Cook? Yes...You Can, I Promise!

If you think you can't cook I've got great news: YOU CAN!
Don't even think of this as cooking - it's just throwing things in a slow-cooker. Only three ingredients (THREE!) and you can make a rock-star meal.
If you don't have a slow-cooker get one now. It's the only kitchen gadget you need.
This is the one I have: Best $60 you'll ever spend (I'm not getting commission on this, although I should). You can even find one cheaper on eBay.
And Hamilton Beach is awesome - I had mine for 6 or 7 years and it was doing something funky...I can't even remember what, but I called HB to see what to do and they just sent me a new one, no questions asked. Free.
Anyway, back to your rock-star meal:
Here's what a pork butt looks
like - not mine, cuz I forgot to
take a 'before' picture - but close
enough.
Get a 3 lb. (more or less - more is always better) pork butt. If you don't know what that is, just go to the store, go to the meat counter and ask the meat counter person. I got one yesterday on sale for $1.69 a pound. I know...crazy cheap, right?
Then go to the spice aisle and pick up some kind of rub. Yes, it'll just say 'rub' on it and it has a combination of yummy spices in it (or you can make your own - here's a link to how to do that). And then get a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's Honey Barbecue Sauce, or any other barbeque sauce that you like (there's no such thing as bad barbeque sauce).
Then, when you get home, sprinkle that rub all over that pork butt, on all sides, and rub it in (it is a rub, after all) and then plop that big hunk of meat into your slow cooker.
Then pour most of that bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's in the bottom of the pot all around the pork. Then put on the lid (this has taken you about three minutes), set it on high for 4 hours and go watch a few episodes of Game of Thrones, and in about 3 hours your house will smell like a Texas barbecue.
When you smell that, walk to the slow-cooker (you will be salivating, but that's okay), and turn the meat over so it gets that barbecue goodness all over it. It's going to fall apart when you try to do that but that's okay. That's the point.
You don't have to let it go another hour, and you may not be able to, but the longer it cooks the better it gets.
After 4 hours, take the lid off and pull the butt apart, which means get some tongs and touch it - it will melt like butter into pieces. And then just stick your fork in there and eat. Or get a plate.
Oh. My. God.
And YOU COOKED IT.
You're welcome.




April 19, 2015

Catching up on Movie Reviews - Three ****1/2 Films

Too many movies, too little time. Here's what I've seen in the past few weeks:

Danny Collins****1/2
I've grown up with Al Pacino so when I see him on screen now he seems so familiar, as if her were part of my family, that it makes me nostalgic. Weird, I know.
So, I'd be hard-pressed not to love anything he's in. But even if I didn't feel that way I think I'd still love Danny Collins, the story of an aged rock star who learns that John Lennon wrote him a letter when he was a young, rising star. Oh my god. How would you feel if your idol wrote to you and you never knew it? How would his life have been different?
So many wonderful relationships in this film. Bobby Carnivale is his estranged son. I love him. Jennifer Garner plays his daughter-in-law. I love her. Annette Bening is the love interest. I lover her.
I I love this film.
Four and a half stars out of five for Danny Collins.


While We're Young****1/2
Great performances in this film. Ben Stiller has never been one of my favorites, but as he gets older, and chooses less goofy roles, I have to admit he's an excellent actor.
This is an engaging story of Josh (Ben Stiller) who's fast approaching middle-age and who has never lived up to  expectations - his own or those of others.
He's a documentarian, and has been working on his latest film for a decade. His wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), is supportive but their marriage is on the ho-hum side. Her father is a famous documentary filmmaker, amping up the stakes for Josh, adding to his angst, setting a bar he's sure not to reach.
They meet a young couple who energize them and their marriage, but all isn't as it seems.
Interesting character studies. Engaging film.
Four and a half out of five stars for While We're Young.


Woman in Gold****1/2
Michael Phillips, the movie critic of the Chicago Tribune begins his review of Woman in Gold this way:
In "Woman in Gold," a paint-by-numbers account of a gorgeous Klimt and its tortured history of ownership, there's really no other word for what Helen Mirren is doing in certain reaction shots, out of subtle interpretive desperation: mugging. She's mugging. She is a sublimely talented performer, and this is material with fascinating implications, and I doubt there's a moviegoer in the world who doesn't like Helen Mirren. But even the best actors need a director to tell them to tone it down.
He gives this film two out of four stars.
I couldn't disagree more.
There's a little whimsy in Mirren's performance but I see it as the character's personality, and it's not over-done. Who knows if she was really like that (this is based on a true story) but the humor adds an element of lightness to an otherwise difficult story with the holocaust at its core.
Woman in Gold is the story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirrin) who escaped Austria in 1945 and who now wants to retrieve artwork that was seized from her family by the Nazis, particularly a piece with great sentimental value, Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, which was considered the Mona Lisa of Austria.
The story flashes back to her childhood and then adulthood as the Nazis occupy Austria, and those are heart-wrnching segments.
Ryan Reynolds is Randy Schoenberg, the attorney who helps her in her fight for justice (Michael Phillips doesn't like his performance either) who is sweet and appealing as her champion and the chemistry between them feels authentic.
I loved Woman in Gold and give it four and a half out of five stars. Go see it and let me know if you agree with me or Michael Phillips.


April 17, 2015

What I Wish I Knew

1979. I was 30 years old, living in Los Angeles in a tiny apartment just north of the Sunset Strip, which sounds so fabulous but actually wasn’t. My first divorce was already under my belt (there will be two more over the years) and then I got fired from my job. Oh well. I’d had enough of that job anyway and enough of Los Angeles. And enough of the boss I’d slept with.
I’m sure that wasn’t the reason I was fired but regardless, sexual harassment hadn’t been invented yet so it never occurred to me to file a lawsuit. So I filed for unemployment instead. And anyway it’s not as if it hadn’t been consensual.
That boss was pretty cute.
So, when I told my dad back in Toledo that I’d gotten fired he said, “Oh, don’t say you were fired. Just say you were laid off.”
Yeah, I thought, laid being the operative word here.  
“Whatever,” I said.
I didn’t think anything would be served by telling him what a slut his little girl was.
“So I’m sick of L.A.,” I told him.
“Are you coming home?” he asked hopefully.
“No, I’m moving to Chicago.”
“Chicago. Why Chicago?”
I didn’t tell him it was because I was still reeling from that divorce and that I was miserable; that my promiscuity hadn’t assuage my loneliness; that I needed a fresh start in a new place. I didn’t let my dad into my life back then. He’d think he could fix me with his wisdom, which at that time I didn’t find all that wise. I needed him to believe I was strong and capable.
“Just seems like a good place,” I said. “The movers are coming in two weeks. And then I’ll drive across the country.”
 “You’re not doing that alone, are you?” he asked.  “I’ll fly out and drive with you.”
Oh no you won’t, I thought. My dad was not my friend at that time in my life, and I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do less than be captive in a car for 30 hours with my father. That was a torture I couldn’t imagine.
What the hell would we talk about?
So I said, “No, you don’t have to do that.”
“I know I don’t have to. I want to. I’ve always wanted to drive across country. It’ll be fun.”
Fun? With my dad? No way.
“No,” I said, “Karin’s gonna do it with me.” Even though I hadn’t asked Karin. Hadn’t even thought about it.
“Oh,” he said, and I could hear the disappointment in his voice.
Was my relationship with my father so different from a lot of girls? Probably not. Mine was a common journey, I think; I adored him when I was little, he was my hero. And then I got to those awful teenage years. What the hell happens then? I don’t know, but I had no use for him, and that phase lasted longer than I’d like to admit – well past my 30s.
He didn’t understand me, he didn’t approve of me, he thought he knew what was best for me. I hated that, and I had no desire to try to understand it. I didn’t know then that when he tried to fix me it was because it pained him so to see me unhappy.
###
1999. I was 50 years old, still living in Chicago, my second divorce under my belt. But I was happy, had a good job, a sweet little bungalow in Jefferson Park. And I didn’t sleep with my boss.
My dad was nearly 89 then but still vital and healthy, still in Toledo, and I went to visit him every month because at some point I had come out on the other side of those hormones and my dad had magically turned back into my hero; my biggest fan, my greatest supporter. I felt something from him that I’ve never felt from another human being; unconditional love. It’s hard to compete with that. I’m sure those three ex-husbands would agree. 
When I lived in L.A., instead of writing letters, my dad and I recorded tapes and sent them to each other, little cassette tapes – remember those (probably half of you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about)?
I still have some of those recordings and the sound of his voice never fails to bring me a sense of peace, and fill me with warmth. On one of the tapes he sent me he was concerned about a trip I was taking; I was traveling alone and he didn’t like that. He said, “I worry about you, it’s my job, you’re my daughter. My favorite daughter.” I had that tape transferred to a CD, and labeled it I’m the Favorite Daughter, and someday when my sister really pisses me off I’m going to play that for her and say, “See? Dad did like me best.”
Anyway, so I was in Toledo on one of my monthly trips, visiting my dad and one morning when I got to his apartment I found him still sitting on the bed even though it was late morning. He was agitated, which wasn’t like him at all. He said some men had come in during the night and had written all over the walls.
“Look at the mess they made,” he said, pointing up near the ceiling, in the corners of the room.
“Where, Dad?” I said and he became impatient with me.
“There! Look!”
Oh my god, I thought, he’s had a stroke.
“Daddy,” I said gently,fear running through me. “There’s no writing up there.”
He looked at me, puzzled. “But I see it. Don’t you see it?”
“I think something’s wrong,” I said. “I need to take you to the emergency room.”
“Well, okay, honey,” he said. “If you think that’s best.”
I got him checked in and waited by his side for the doctor. He sat on a gurney
facing a long pale-green hallway and we watched medical personnel moving about. Suddenly my dad laughed delightedly and said, “Oh, look at him go!”
I looked.
“Who, Dad?”
“That little boy on the tricycle,” he said, pointing at nothing. “Don’t you see him?”
I took his hand and ran my finger over his silky skin, and played connect the dots with the age spots there.
“Daddy,” I said. His hair was perfectly white; thin and silky. “Do you know how much I love you?”
He smiled, and his blue eyes glistened. He studied me for a moment; his face serene, happy. He said, “However much that is, honey, I love you a hundred times more.”
My father died not long after that, shortly after his 90th birthday. I know I was lucky to have had him for so long and mostly so healthy, but I couldn’t fathom a world without him in it.
I wish I’d known when I was thirty how much I’d miss him. I wish I’d known back then how many questions there still were to ask him, how much there was to talk about.
I wish I’d let him come out and drive across the country with me. I can’t think of anything I
would rather do more than be captive in a car for 30 hours with my father.

April 8, 2015

Neil Simon, my Hero


Neil Simon is one of my literary heroes. I love his work; his characters who are so human; his dialogue that's poignant and witty. I'm in awe of his talent.
After I read his first autobiography I wrote him a letter because I loved it so much. Some time later I received a personal note from him, typewrittten (remember typewriters?) on blue personalized stationery. He said, "I just wanted to thank you for your very nice letter. I'm glad you enjoyed "Rewrites" so much. That book has meant a lot to me." He ended with, "I appreciated your writing to me," and he hand-wrote his signature. That was in 1997.
Some years later I went to a book signing for the 2nd autobiography and when he signed my book I told him that I had written to him and was thrilled beyond words when he answered me. He looked up, surprised, and said, "That must have been some letter. I hardly ever respond personally to fan mail."
Do you know the definition of kvelling?
I want to make a promise: if anyone writes me a fan letter (yes, email counts) I promise to respond. I think there's nothing better than hearing from people who relate to, or are touched by, your work. Maybe it gets old when you become famous and have millions of fans but somehow I can't picture getting tired of it.
When Neil Simon was being interviewed by James Lipton he said, "Every time I write a play it’s the beginning of a new life for me. Today as I listen to you read excerpts from these plays and talk about them, it makes me feel nostalgic about how wonderful those days were—but I’m enjoying these days of writing, even though I see that the sun is setting."
Let's hope it doesn't set for a long while.
Read the entire interview in The Paris Review.

April 1, 2015

9 COMMON MISTAKES IN WRITING FICTION by Susan Breen

Susan Breen wrote one of my favorite books, The Fiction Class - appropriate because she teaches fiction. 'Write what you know' is common writing advice. But don't get hung up on the facts - be willing to make things up, Susan says, for the sake of the story. Isn't that the beauty of fiction? You can write about your life but then you can change how things turn out (kinda like I did in What More Could You Wish For).
My only problem with Susan is that she teaches in New York and I'm in Chicago, so I was happy to find this article that has some great advice. If you're working on a novel, or even a short story, read it. Now. Before you write any more.


9 COMMON MISTAKES IN WRITING FICTION by Susan Breen
For more than a decade, I’ve taught fiction writing classes in New York City. A surprising variety of people have walked through my classroom doors, ranging from Broadway actors to retired English teachers to a few people unclassifiable. But oddly enough, although the students vary widely, as does the writing, the problems people run into stay remarkably the same. Nine writing mistakes crop up again and again.
1. Beginning the story too early.
Many writers start their stories before the interesting part. Way before. So instead of beginning with something intriguing, the author wallows for a few paragraphs or chapters, which causes the story to slow down. This is a particularly damaging mistake when you’re planning to send out material for publication. Anything that causes an editor’s attention to wilt is a bad thing.
Say you are writing a story about Cinderella. Here you have a vulnerable young woman whose step-family mistreats her. She longs for love, escape or a good time, depending on how you want to write the story. What should your opening paragraph say? Where are you going to begin?
You might decide to start with a bang and have the fairy godmother arrive in the opening paragraph.
“Who is that beautiful creature!” Cinderella cried out. She stared in awe at the vision in front of her.
This sort of opening paragraph is the literary equivalent of shouting to the reader that she’s about to read an interesting story. Later in the story you’ll explain who Cinderella is and why we should care. For now, in this type of opening paragraph, you’re just grabbing attention.
You might prefer to start the story a little earlier in Cinderella’s day, before the fairy godmother gets there.  Perhaps when Cinderella is going about her chores.
Cinderella winced as she scrubbed the floor for the fiftieth time.
This sort of opening paragraph intrigues the reader with Cinderella’s character. Why does she have so much work? What sort of person is she that she’s not complaining? The reader suspects, from reading an opening like this, that something is going to happen that will disrupt Cinderella’s day.
Where writers go wrong is in starting the story much, much earlier in Cinderella’s day, around the time Cinderella wakes up.
Cinderella opened her eyes. She listened to the birds. She got out of bed and brushed her teeth. She hoped it would be a good day. She flossed.
This isn’t terrible, but it isn’t intriguing either. I don’t have a hint of what the plot’s going to be. Since waking up is something I do every day, so far, I’m not that excited that Cinderella’s doing it. Worst of all is that because so many writers start with someone waking up, it becomes just another waking up story to me. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule. Proust comes to mind. But if your story starts with someone waking up in bed, try cutting out the first three paragraphs. See how the story reads then. It almost always improves the story to chop out the beginning. 
2. Leaving out the plot. Have you ever run up to a friend and said, “I have the most amazing story to tell you. Nothing just happened!” 
Probably not.

Finish the article 9 Common Mistakes in Writing Fiction

March 26, 2015

Movie Review: Cinderella ****

Cinderella is the fairy tale I grew up with - the Disney, animated Cinderella. I loved it; loved her, loved her dress, loved Prince Charming, and loved that he searched the kingdom far and wide looking his true love, against all odds. And then he found her and they lived happily ever after and I loved that, too.
I grew up thinking that was how life would go for me.
Hah!
None of that happened.
Well, that's not quite true - I did marry Prince Charming. On three separate occasions. Divorced them all.
I still love the fantasy, and this modern, live-action film of Cinderella is beautiful and engaging and creative.
Cate Blanchett is fabulous as the evil stepmother and Lily James is lovely as our heroine. And then there's that handsome prince.
The story, of course, is sweet, and you can just sit back and enjoy; live the fantasy for a couple of hours.
And then, back to reality. Which bears no resemblance.