Monday, June 27, 2005

Cinderella Man

Ron Howard's Cinderella Man is, to use a cliche, one of those films they don't make anymore. The story of boxer James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) could easily have been picked up fifty years ago by a director like Frank Capra. Howard has pulled back and made the film with less realism and grit than he could have, but Braddock's story is what's important and Howard delivers it well. Sure, not all of the scenes work – a couple of the scenes with Renee Zellweger are sappy, and some of the fight banter is contrived, but I can overlook that stuff. Braddock comes across as a good guy (even if Crowe isn't) that you want to root for.

Cinderella Man might even be considered an Oscar contender if not for its release date. It's likely no one connected with the Academy will remember it six months from now and that's too bad.

Cinderella Man is not a great film, but it's very good. I've always believed that Ron Howard doesn't get enough credit, but more and more I read critics bashing his films. I mean, come on, he's already being slammed for The Da Vinci Code and it won't be released for almost another year! Howard has been accused of everything from poor craftsmanship to selling out. Sorry, I don't buy it.

Howard isn't my favorite director and I don't care for some of his films, but that's an issue of taste; he's not incompetent. As a director, he's hired to produce films that will be entertaining to a large audience. For quite a lot of the movie-going public, his films are entertaining. Splash, Coccoon, Backdraft, Apollo 13, Far and Away, A Beautiful Mind and many others attest to the fact that Howard knows how to make an entertaining film. That's his job.

Everyone's tastes are different. You might not like Cinderella Man, you might not think what Howard produces is art, and you might think he's too Capra-ish in light of Scorcese, Tarrantino, etc. That's fine. But he's not incompetent. Learn how to separate taste from craft. They're two different things.

Now Playing = The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Science Fiction: The Best of 2004/The Things They Carried/New Story

Just finished the Haber/Strahan anthology Science Fiction The Best of 2004 which includes 13 stories from last year. I've already mentioned the Stephen Baxter story, which I enjoyed quite a bit, but some of the others that I thought were very good:

"The Best Christmas Ever" a touching story by James Patrick Kelly, whose work I've really enjoyed discovering.

"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe. Some of my Clarion 2004 buddies and I have talked about this one at length. Nominated for a Nebula, it was one of the most intriguing stories I read this year. It's one of those stories that you have to read multiple times, but it's so good you don't mind.

Any Nancy Kress story is bound to be excellent and "My Mother Dancing" is no exception. "The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid" by Walter Jon Williams is loaded with fun and certainly doesn't seem like it's fifty-seven pages long.

But the story I am most anxious to reread is M. John Harrison's "Tourists," a fascinating setting with fascinating characters in a story that walks a fine line between depression and redemption, especially in it's depiction of the relationships between men and women. It's a story that I wanted more of and I think if I read Harrison's novel Light, I'll get more.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried just knocked me down and held an Army-issued boot over my face. Wonderfully written, sometimes hard to stomach, sometimes so uplifting you'll think O'Brien's writing might have the ability to heal just about any wound this world can deliver. His vision of life, death, friendship and love in Vietnam is beyond gripping. You just can't turn away because if you do, you might miss something that no other writer is capable of sharing with you. Outstanding.

I'm about 1,000 words into a new story that takes place entirely at a press conference sometime in the 70's. I like the start, but I can see that it could go in several directions. I have to let the story tell me which direction it should go. Sent out two stores this week bringing my total "stories in circulation" number to five.

Now Playing: The Otis Redding Anthology

Monday, June 20, 2005

Forgotten Films of the 70's: The China Syndrome

"She'll do anything we tell her to do." That's one of the first lines of The China Syndrome, the film that literally shook the world in 1979. The line is delivered by decision-making men in a television news control room while watching Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda), a redheaded LA TV news reporter. Kimberly covers mostly fluff human interest stories, but she really wants a chance to report hard news, even though she seems to know the big stories are probably beyond her. Her boss even admits to her that she wasn't hired for her intellectual capabilities.

On a routine assignment to a nuclear power plant, Kimberly and her cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) witness an accident, only the plant officials aren't calling it an accident, downplaying the event as a "technical glitch." One of the senior workers at the plant (Jack Lemmon) suspects that the "glitch" belies a deeper, more serious problem. Much more serious.

The China Syndrome is remembered primary as a historic film landmark. The film's warning to reconsider nuclear power and its potential dangers turned strangely prophetic: only twelve days after The China Syndrome's release, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania suffered an accident mirrored by the one in the film, sending people to the theatres in droves.

But The China Syndrome should not be relegated to the status of an interesting footnote in film history. The film received four Oscar nominations, a fact largely forgotten today. It's interesting that Jane Fonda would choose to play a character whom at the beginning of the film is little more than a pretty face and by the end of the film has to face some harsh realities. She doesn't overplay; her performance is restrained and believable. With the red hair and the close-ups that she's maybe not the sexpot of the 60's anymore, she's vulnerable. People who wouldn't walk across the street (or the protest line, as the case may have been) to see a Fonda picture just a few years earlier eagerly watched The China Syndrome. And some of them even decided that Jane was a pretty good actor.

Jack Lemmon never gave a bad performance, never. I know I'm biased; I'm a huge Lemmon fan, but the man elevated every film he touched. Just watch Lemmon's body language throughout the film. No one could match him in non-verbal (and often verbal) communication.

The film does have weaknesses. The pacing slows in the middle and although the screenplay does not assume the audience is ignorant, sometimes too much is explained. (Maybe we needed a little more explained in 1979 – nuclear power was something millions of people really didn't understand.)

A couple of the supporting roles are played by actors who worked mostly in television and those roles stand out as either wooden or overplayed. The gap between TV actors and the three stars is widened even further by the performances of Fonda, Lemmon and Douglas.

Last week I saw another "Forgotten Film from the 70's," Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, which has been largely forgotten in the light of The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now. The 70's (My favorite film decade after the 40's) produced so many films covering such a broad range of genres it's easy to overlook great and good ones that fell through the cracks. The China Syndrome is still a good film; The Conversation, great.

Now Playing: The Older Stuff – Michael Nesmith

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson

Dylan and Willie at Prince George's Stadium, Bowie, Maryland, June 14, 2005: I have never lived closer to a Dylan concert site (7 miles) or taken more time to get there (an hour and a half due to an accident less than a quarter mile from the venue). When everything was said and done, I walked into the stadium just in time to hear Willie start in on his opener "Whiskey River."

Maybe Willie's been hanging around Dylan too long; he started his signature tune with a half-talking/half-singing style similar to Bob's and kept it going for the entire night. The black cowboy hat and black t-shirt sure looked like Willie, but I'd never heard his voice this weary. He dropped phrases like they were memos from the IRS.

But it was still fun. And the man can still play guitar like nobody's business.

I saw Dylan in 1995 the day after the O.J. Simpson verdict and in 2005 the day after the Michael Jackson verdict. On both occasions Dylan opened with "Drifter's Escape," which I thought was hilarious.

Dylan had his five-piece band decked out in white and black western shirts and black pants while the "Columbia recording artist" wore black with red stripes down the pants-leg and red pocket stitching. And a black hat. I was a little disappointed that Dylan never left the keyboard except for a couple of times to step out and play harmonica. I've seen Dylan for nearly twenty years and I've always thought he performs his best when it's just him and his guitar.

But he really kicked the doors in last night. I never would have figured I'd hear so many different styles done so well.

"Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)" featured a vocal that almost pleaded with resigned desperation as Dylan ended most of the phrases with withdrawn octave leaps, something I'd never heard him even attempt before. "Lonesome Day Blues" showed that Bob can deliver, yes, a pronounced yet authentic blues vocal. "Shooting Star" was downright lyrical, easily topping the studio version.

Starting with "Highway 61," Dylan showcased his excellent band. These guys soared with blistering solos and stunning interludes, extending the typical running time of most of the remaining songs by at least a couple of minutes. "Stuck Inside of Mobile" reached back to the Nashville Skyline days, proving these guys can honk out some serious country. I've seen a lot of Dylan shows, but I've never heard any greater energy than I did when he drove "Summer Days" through the night like a rocket.

"This Wheel's on Fire," "John Brown," and "Chimes of Freedom" were all great. Only with "Bye and Bye" did Dylan miss the mark, sounding a bit tentative and out-of-place.

(Bob had a little fun with the crowd, plunking out "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the keyboard. What can you say? The man's a riot.)

The first encore "Masters of War" was full of grit and raw power and when it was over I think we all wished the stadium was a little closer to Pennsylvania Avenue. The evening ended with "Like a Rolling Stone," and if you had any doubts about whether Bob can still deliver at age 64, all you had to do was listen to him sneer "how does it feel."

After the show, waiting for the traffic to move, a teenage kid ran through the cars, waving his arms, yelling "Dylan! Dylan! Dylan!"

Yeah, I'd say Bob can still deliver.

Now Playing = Highway 61 Revisited (What else?)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Clarion One Year Ago/Stephen Baxter

It's hard to believe that it's been a year since Clarion. I think about that experience and those people every single day, but I think the thing I learned most was what I didn't know. I realized quickly that I hadn't read enough of the genre. I've been working to correct that, reading not only sf/f but also lit, mostly short fiction. Things are beginning to focus more clearly in my writing as I see good writing in the work of others. My ratio of reading to writing is probably 3 to 1 right now and that's okay. For now.

Read Stephen Baxter's "PeriAndry's Quest" from Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan's Best of 2004. I haven't read much Baxter, only one other short story from the same anthology in 2003, which was a hard sf space opera (which I enjoyed). "PeriAndry's Quest" was a real surprise. I expected straight-ahead hard sf, but the story contains really little hard sf elements. (What's there is crucial to the story, but it's very reader-friendly for a science idiot like me.)

I guess what surprised me is the humanity and emotion of the story. It's very touching, almost fairy-tale like in it's manner. Baxter avoids making his characters one-dimensional fairy-tale clones by creating just enough of a sf backdrop: love between two beings separated by time distortion. And the ending is not what you would expect from a fairy-tale. Enjoyed it.

Now Playing: One Endless Night - Jimmie Dale Gilmore (not nearly as good as The Flatlanders' More a Legend Than a Band)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

It's Been Three Months???

Wow, time does get away...

Finished two books (reading, not writing) this week - Train by Pete Dexter and Blood Is the Sky, a mystery by Steve Hamilton. Dexter draws some very interesting characters while showing (not telling) how violence, racism, and just trying to do the right thing can really screw up things. Blood Is the Sky was a nice read; Hamilton knows how to keep the pages turning as well as anybody.

Lately I've been reading more lit. short stories than sf/f, T.C. Boyle in particular.

I guess for the last few months I've read more than I've written. For where I am now, I think that's the smart thing to do. All the reading has helped me identify not just "bad" writing in my work and others, but also how events progress, how character is developed, how initial promises between author and reader are kept or broken.

So here we are one year after Clarion and the writing output is slow; very slow. I finished a story a couple of weeks ago that literally took six months. It was like pulling teeth...or just brushing my greyhound's teeth. This one is coming easier, but I'm still in the learning process. I have to keep telling myself that I'm still working on fundamental matters. And that's okay. For now...

More on the one-year anniversary of Clarion later.

Now Playing: Rubber Soul - Beatles