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.
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.

March 24, 2015

Movie Review: McFarland, USA ****

Did you love Rudy? Do you love that genre?

Then you'll love McFarland, USA.

What makes us love this genre, even though it's formulaic, entirely predictable and has cliched characters? Maybe it's because we can relate to the underdog who, against all odds, perseveres and comes out on top. And it makes us feel good.
Kevin Costner is beautifully understated as the grumpy coach who's been fired from too many jobs to count, and who finds his passion with the sad group of hard-working kids who want to make their mark.
It's a sweet film and you can't help but love all those familiar characters, even if we've seen them before.
The acting and the heart are the standouts of McFarland. And kudos to Niki Caro, who directs with subtlety.
Who can resist cheering for the underdog?
Four of five stars for McFarland, USA.

March 21, 2015

Writing Tip: Make the Unbelievable Believable

We all know that truth is stranger than fiction. How many times have you heard someone say, "If I didn't know for a fact that was true I wouldn't believe it"? How many books have you read where something happens and you say, "Oh, come on!"?
As a fiction writer you have a special responsibility to make the strangeness believable, even if it happened in real life precisely as you wrote it. The pressure is on to make fiction more believable than fact.
I've been in numerous writing workshops over the years and there's always someone who writes about an incident in their life and when someone comments that the story isn't believable the writer says, "But it's true. It happened exactly like that."
Doesn't matter. We can verify real life incidents but if you're testing your reader's limits in your fiction and they don't buy it they will leave you high and dry, fact or not. If the way you tell the story makes it seem doubtful it will pull the reader right out of the story, maybe enough so that they will stop reading altogether.
So, true or not, here are some tips to help make the unbelievable believable:
1. One of your characters can ask the same questions the reader might be asking. If a character expresses doubts about how something could have happened the reader will relax, knowing the questions will be answered, and it will keep them reading to find out.
2. There are exceptions to every rule but don't use the exceptions in your fiction unless you can back them up. We all know people who've reacted oddly in some situations. If a character's parent is dying, for example, and they trot off to the Bahamas for the weekend the reader's not going to believe it. We're going to expect the character to be by his parent's side. Maybe you know someone who's done that but in fiction there must be something in the character's personality, or the relationship, that will explain the odd behavior.
3. Use scientific facts. An example: Gravity - do you think that situation could happen in real life? I'm skeptical. But they used enough scientific space-lingo that I bought it. It also helped that I wanted to, because I was invested in the characters.
4. Coincidences are fun and fabulous in real life but they're fiction-suicide, boring to the reader. We want to see your protagonist win by doing something, not just through sheer luck. Lay the foundation early in your story so when the event happens later it's not a coincidence, it's logical.
5. Make your characters reliable. Make sure the actions they take are in character throughout the entire novel. Don't use a pacifist character to kill the bad guy just because you need someone to do it. If you need the pacifist to do it you must have a solid (believable) reason for the change in behavior.
Happy writing!

March 13, 2015

Movie Review: Maps to the Stars ****

Maps to the Stars is not an easy film to watch. It's very dark. The story is sleazy and creepy, and parts of it made me cringe, but I never looked at my watch and it's a film I've been thinking about since I saw it several days ago.
Even though Julianne Moore is not one of my favorite actors - I thought her performance in Still Alice was good but not great - her performance in this film is the more Oscar-worthy.
Mia Wasikowska is a favorite of mine since I first saw her in the HBO series In Treatment, and she's fantastic here. All of the performances - John Cusack as a smarmy self-help guru, Evan Bird as an arrogant, mean-spirited teen star - are riveting.
If you're in the mood for something light and fluffy go see The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but if you want something surprising and sinister, where everyone has a secret, and something you'll talk about for a long while afterward, go see Maps to the Stars.
Four out of five stars for Maps to the Stars.

March 10, 2015

Movie Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel **1/2

Not many sequels live up to the original (see my review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). The
Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel wants to, but like most sequels it misses the mark. It just doesn't have the same heart. Regardless, it's a joy watching Dev Patel, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, et al, and with the added bonus of Richard Gere and David Stathairn you'd think it would be a sure thing.
The biggest problem is that it's not sure what it wants to be about so it tells a story about every character and ends up without focus. Some of the stories are mildly interesting, some are sort of heart-warming, most are contrived. Still, it's not that it's bad. It's entertaining. Mostly. I only fell asleep for a few minutes.
If you've seen the trailer you've seen the best of it.
The most I can say for it is you won't hate it.
And actually, I'd love for you to see it so you can tell me why the David Strathairn character shows up at the end, or what the hell happens to the Maggie Smith character in the end.
Two and a half out of five stars for The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

February 18, 2015

Writing Tip: Show, Don't Tell - Trite or True?

The number one rule in fiction writing: show, don't tell. Trite? Maybe. But it's action that draws the reader into your story; the characters, the setting, the details, and action. Narrative keeps us distant.
So when I started reading Anne Tyler's latest (and supposedly her last) book, A Spool of Blue Thread, I was struck when at 8% (according to my Kindle, which would be approximately 30 pages if I were reading the hard cover version), nothing had happened. There was some dialogue, introduction of a number of characters, but no scenes.
The story begins in 1994 with a phone call from a son to his father, announcing that he's gay. That grabbed my interest. But the thread ends there. It goes nowhere. I'm now at 18% and I have no idea if the kid is gay. If he's not, why did he tell his parents that? No clue. And at 18% of the way through the book it's suddenly 2012 (we're moving at the speed of light here!) and the kid's been married (twice, I think) and has a kid of his own. But I don't know much more about him.
I usually give a book 50 pages. If I'm not engaged by then I move on to the next. But I'm beyond the 50 now and haven't given up. Because it's Anne Tyler. This is her 20th book and I have loved so many of them. This isn't one, and that makes me sad. I so wanted to love this.
I can't help but wonder if this book would have gotten published if it wasn't Anne Tyler. And I can't help but wonder why her editor didn't say something. Because it's Anne Tyler, I suppose, and people will buy this book just because her name is on it. Just like I did. And isn't that too bad? If I were an author of Tyler's reputation and caliber and I had made an announcement that this was my last book I'd want it to be my best.
It's premature, I know, but I doubt if she's going to be able to say that.

February 15, 2015

Movie Review: Nightcrawler ****

Jake Gyllenhaal is gaunt as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, and suitably creepy as a sort of autistic, idiot savant who happens upon a new career path as a news videographer, and takes it to new levels.
He's a fast learner, he's fond of telling people, and he is, reciting research robot-like off the Internet, and learning his new craft as if he's gone through the Evelyn Woods School of Videography.
Rene Russo is the director of the lowest-rated news show on TV and when Bloom brings her some particularly gory footage she knows this is the key to her contract that's coming up for renewal, though it's going to cost more than she expects.
The movie amps up and amps up, and toward the end my stomach churned as I waited to see what icky thing would happen next.
Nightcrawler is sleazy and sordid, and great fun to watch.
Four out of five stars for Nightcrawler.