Tuesday, December 29, 2009
I've been waiting for the good crop of '09 films. They always wait until the very last minute.
And this year, a lot of them seem to involve George Clooney.
Fantastic Mr. Fox - with Clooney voicing said Mr. Fox- was, well, fantastic. But it was Wes Anderson directing stop motion animation, which is a better combination than I could have dreamt of in my philosophies, Horatio. That is to say, the interminably quirky (and my biggest cinematic crush) Anderson seems designed for an odd ball medium like stop motion. He writes and directs from the perspective of a brilliant but wimpy fourteen year old boy, and whatever a kid like that would think is totally cool. Mr. Fox looks exactly like an Anderson movie, just with puppets. And this in the same year as Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. I mean, who did I please to get this? And how do I do it again? Kids are so spoiled these days. I had The Rainbow Bright Movie, and my kid gets to watch WTWTA and Fantastic Mr. Fox in the same year? Not Fair.
The only thing better than a Wes Anderson animated feature based on a Rohl Dahl book (I'm going to faint) was that my little son was in love with it from the first preview. Sitting in the shopping cart in the middle of the produce section of the grocery store a few weeks ago, he looks up and asks me, "Mom, who directed Fantastic Mr. Fox?" followed by who directed WTWTA, Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.
Yes, he is my son. (He's working on his own movie, titled Race Car Fight. His imaginary son is slated to be the DP)
Then, we went to see Up in the Air the day after Christmas. (Just Mr. Cate, my cousin and me. We didn't bring the five year old)
Another Clooney Movie. This one directed by Jason Reitman, who is on his way to collecting that little gold guy. Probably not this year, but some day, if he doesn't Michael Cimino himself in the foot.
Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a man who has made his life a shrine to efficiency and independence, to the extent that he needs nothing he can't fit in his carry on luggage, and no one other than his boss, via cell phone. Within the first three minutes you see why- Bingham's job is to fire people, all day everyday, all over the country, for companies who are afraid to do the dirty work themselves. He sits at a desk, in a suit and tie, and faces people at the moment when they feel they have lost everything- their purpose, their stability, their sense of self, and everything they have worked for for years, or in some cases, their whole lives. He sees people who have compromised every aspect of their lives for an anticipated payoff that turned out to be a swift kick in the ass.
Ryan protects himself from this miserable fate by traveling light, and staying in the air as much as possible. He doesn't fear loss because he has nothing to loose. His life is not tied up in material things- possessions, a home, even people. His success is measured in frequent flyer miles. Literally.
He has set a goal of ten million miles, and he would be only the seventh person to do it, which saves his place in posterity.
And this is a fine existence for him. Ryan is perfectly happy and fulfilled in his work and with his plans until he is grounded- again literally- and forced to come back down to earth and start dealing with people on an emotional level, which quickly becomes messy and complicated.
From here, this film could have easily strayed into cliche territory of the goal driven suit who stops to take a look around and realizes what he has been missing.
Instead, Up in the Air remains brutally honest about the realities of relationships, families, and getting involved in other people's business. There's a lot more to the story after the kiss at the altar, grand romantic gestures don't work out so well in real life, and getting involved often means getting hurt yourself, even when you did nothing wrong. People are frustratingly, confoundingly uncontrollable. They change, they make unreasonable demands, they have expectations. They can disappoint. Ten Million Frequent Flyer miles, however, are forever.
By the end, Ryan has of course been given the chance to reassess his situation, and reevaluate his goals, and decide if he has really been on the right path. And at that point, Up in the Air remains not very optimistic but still painfully sincere.
Jason Bateman has found an niche playing the Generic Inoffensive Corporate Drone lately, and his deadpan performance here as Bingham's boss is perfect. He plays a smart straight man to Clooney's fit-throwing hotshot. Vera Farminga (Scorcese's new infatuation) is elegant as the female version of Bingham, complete with her own ulterior motives for cultivating a relationship with the thinnest of connections, and reveals some of Bingham's surprising naivete towards the end.
And the soundtrack is phenomenal. Right on par with a good Wes Anderson film.
I might actually go see this one again.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
After five days of total chaos, things are quiet and relaxed around here today.
We're sitting cozy under a pile of big, fluffy snow with coffee, and new pajamas, and 4 solid hours of writing time this morning.
We all survived Christmas, mostly. The electronic hamsters showed up in the UPS truck on Christmas Eve, none of the cookies burned, and the streets didn't get as icy as predicted. Cate Junior is in the living room, writing a thank you card to Santa and Mrs. Claus, Mr. Cate is back to work today, and I have a black kitty cat sitting on my lap, happy that we're home for the first time in days.
There is also the strong possibility that I will actually get through the current draft of my YA by the end of the month. (Yippee!!!)
It's looking good, folks. My deadline was January 31 for readers to start ripping it apart.
Which is why I have decided that 2010 is going to be the Year of the Agent for me. Last year was Finish a Book Year, and it happened. I even wrote an additional one, to boot. I think I'm getting somewhere with this writing thing. I had enough interest in my last novel, the MG which I plan on revisiting when the YA gets out the door.
There are goals, finally, and ones I'm hitting with regularity. There are many new book outlines in the laptop, and piles of notes on my desk. I have a lot of work to do, which makes me insanely happy.
So here's a little cheers to finish out the year, and get us all off with a bang in the next one.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Also- as of today, I'm only 15k away from finishing my new first draft. Right on track!
How's everyone else doing on the mannys? Good? Bad? Ready to frame it or ready to burn it?
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Saturday, November 14, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Well, it's Revision Time around here, which means I'm trying to think clean, organized, well polished thoughts. Some artists and writers talk about the terror of the blank white page. I treasure it. A new, clean page is that much more room to work in.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Monday, September 28, 2009
Or, more importantly, decide what to focus on right now. There are just too many chunks in the stew. Artwork has been put inexcusably on hold for Writing. Now Writing is out in the world, being ripped apart in the agent query cattle call/cage match, and I realized that I haven't updated the artwork on my own actual website in months.
Not that I haven't been working, it was just little assignments. Not portfolio pieces. I think it's time for the final revision of a picture book dummy that has been languishing for too long now. Researching agents has led me to a surprising number of houses that rep author/illustrators. This is encouraging.
Also encouraging- we saw Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs last week. Very funny without being gross, very cute without being sappy, very hyper without becoming annoying. The 5 year old loved it. And the animation was gorgeous. The story was nothing like the classic storybook, aside from the giant food in the sky, but it was refreshingly well done. Just like in books, there is nothing that irritates me more than a movie that looks slapped together or sub-par because it's written for kids.
And I think we finally have a computer animation studio that can compete with Pixar on the quality level.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Anyway, onwards and upwards, to a topic near and dear to all of our hearts, big, smelly 'ol rejection. Yep. Turned down, escorted out, no date for the prom.
I've had some encouraging little ego boosts in regard to my writing (and most importantly improving my writing) lately, and so now is probably the time to write something smug and pithy about rejection, because it comes for all of us, like chicken pox used to when we were kids. If you don't get it early, you won't have immunity later, and it will really hurt and possibly make you sterile.
Does getting rejected mean your writing is no good? Or your book unpublishable? Not necessarily. Every time I'm in the bookstore, I have to play the exact same game as the agent facing that inbox o' slush. I don't have the money to buy every book I want. There are thousands to choose from. So the elimination process has to get pretty rigid. Books get taken out of the running immediately for being too short, too long, wrong genre, terrible cover art. Arbitrary, yes, but can I read every single one before I make my decision? No.
Then step two- actually pulling the book off the shelf and reading the back cover, or the first few pages. Think of how far that book has come, just getting selected off the shelf of two hundred others. Now more random disqualifiers; writing style, point of view, prologue, no prologue, realizing it's the first in a series of 20, and I have a thing about commitment... the "reasons" are endless. I just have to find a way to pick 4 books I really would like to read out of a pool of 100,000.
I'm just saying, when you get that "no" it doesn't really mean that you can't write, or that the agent/editor hates you, or it is the worst injustice of your life. It means you have to remember the 2 rules of being crazy enough to write for publication.
1. There is always, always room for improvement.
2. Everyone who has ever been published has heard more NOs than YESes.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Onward, then, to a whole bunch of stuff about me, and what I've been doing.
Mr. Cate and I went out to the woods to see Shakespeare, and eat scones and coffee and wine in a big, fluffy white hotel bed. In other words, a snobby adult weekend. ("adult" in this instance meaning "without juice box fights, whining about the bathroom, and kicking of the back of your seat the entire drive")
Don't feel bad for little Cate Junior. He went to the county fair, a pool party, and a Day Out With Thomas, so, he was covered.
The play was "The Winter's Tale", not the most loved Shakespeare, but I figured, when else are we going to get to see this one? It's not done that often. This one was fantastic, especially in the 4th and 5th acts, when the heavy royal Athenian pretext is generally dropped in favor of very Elizabethan comic characters. The three actors playing Autolycus, the Shepherd and the Clown were perfect. One of the actors also happened to be a guy I performed with in high school theater. Of course, he was great as well.
If you're into Shakespeare, or classic theater in general, try to hit APT at some point. Really. Mr. Cate isn't much of a theater guy, and by the end of the weekend, he was talking about getting season tickets for next year, and spending our anniversary watching Henry V.
We also got to see Inglorious Basterds this weekend. Nice little bookending, wasn't it? Some Tarantino to open, some Shakespeare to close. Actually, I might draw some parallels here. Both of them added wildly comic elements to what could have been strictly dark and gruesome stories. Both of them took tremendous liberties with known history, or in the Bard's case, a previous literary work. Both of them hit the mark about 60% of the time.
The only "problem" with Winter's Tale, is that it seems almost too airy and slight for such a heavy story- one of Othellolike suspicions and Oedipal level misunderstandings, although Shakespeare skirts the ickiest bits in favor of brilliant comic relief.
Tarantino, on the other hand, takes every scene and makes it at least a minute too long. The amount of tension by the end is almost unbearable. You know what's about to happen, and then there's 20 minutes of misdirection and stonewalling before the payoff. Then add the brutal, gory violence, which Tarantino glosses over with his own brilliant comic relief. (much the same way Oliver Stone was nailed to the wall for doing in Natural Born Killers all those years ago. But Tarantino's picture is set in wartime, so fair play, I suppose. If you want to get away with multiple closeups of guys getting scalped, set your story in WWII, not a coffee shop in Nevada)
And both of these stories have "happy" endings. Shakespeare's is weird and almost sappy, Tarantino's is shocking and absurd.
The end of my weekend? I bought three new books, so, score.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Thursday, July 23, 2009
But this movie was filmed in and around my hometown at the time, so I almost had to go, right? Just to point out all the local landmarks I recognized? "Hey, that's the bank my cousin got married in!"
Plus, Johnny Depp.
And Billy Crudup, looking oddly puffy about the neck and head as good 'ol J. Edgar.
So what did I think? It played a bit like a flashier version of the History Channel's Eighteen Months of Mayhem, hitting all the notable plot points- Dillinger's '33 jail break, his association with Babyface Nelson, various bank robberies, the shootout at Little Bohemia, etc. LOTS of gun fights, LOTS of gunshot wounds, LOTS of old-timey car chases, and at least 2 really great character dynamics that never got fully developed.
One, young J. Edgar Hoover trying to get a quirky little startup law enforcement agency called the FBI off the ground in the midst of the Depression and the country's greatest crime wave to date.
Second, the gangsters harboring and supporting Dillinger, who turned on him once they realized he was drawing too much interest in the escalation of criminal offense laws, which was bound to have an effect on all their illegal interstate commerce.
Both of those points were touched on and then sidelined in favor of the far less interesting John Dillinger/Billie Frechette romance, which in reality only lasted about 6 months, and seemed to be enhanced for the film to give John Dillinger a hidden, misunderstood heart of gold. Just overlook the fact that while Billie was arrested, beaten, and then incarcerated for aiding and abetting him, Dillinger was living in a brothel and taking prostitutes out on dates. That must just be part of the abusive Dillinger Charm that was strongly sold to the audience, but which I didn't really believe.
In fact, this film implies that Dillinger was so much of a folk hero in his day that his captor, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale in a fainter version of the Eliot Ness/ Al Capone dynamic of The Untouchables) is haunted for the rest of his days by his role in Dillinger's gruesome story.
In Public Enemies, Michael Mann seems to have tried to show a compassionate side to a very dark and violent individual, even implying that if only Dillinger hadn't been double crossed by a madam at the final turn, he would have made that last big score (in a bloodbath of a robbery, certainly) and he and Frechette would have lived out a blissful retirement somewhere in South America. Even in the film Dillinger himself doesn't seem to believe this scenario will play out, but he's pretty hopeful, for a cornered man with no other options.
More honestly, Dillinger was a thief and killer who captured the attention of desperate people in a desperate time, and suffered a deserved swift and brutal end for it. (Some strongly assert that Dillinger himself never killed anyone, or at least, he was never convicted of killing anyone, or that he killed one guy, and felt pretty bad about it, although this film never commits one way or the other on the issue, and he certainly shoots directly at a lot of people. Bad aim isn't analogous to a firm moral stance that shooting people is wrong.)
Also, in this alternate reality, the Depression seems to only be happening in one dilapidated farmhouse out in the pit of the Dust Bowl. The mostly deserted towns in Illinois and Wisconsin are full of architecturally stunning banks, dance halls and restaurants packed with patrons eating steak and wearing furs, and one or two homeless guys.
Many of the performances were outstanding, including Crudup as brash, cocky J. Edgar Hoover- I could have used more of that- Stephen Graham as the manic George "Babyface" Nelson, and Branka Katic as Anna Sage.
In the end it seems like that kind of movie that could have used just one more script revision. Pick a direction and go with it, because in film biographies, as in Harry Potter adaptations, you just can't tell the entire story in 3 hours or less.
If you want a historically accurate overview of Dillinger's crime spree, heavy on bullets and gore, then, three thumbs up. If you want a more insightful examining of an era, and how a handful of outlaws became cultural icons, then just pick up a good biography, or catch Eighteen Months of Mayham when it is replayed on cable.
Monday, July 20, 2009
And I use that term because, as a youngster, I was not allowed to watch it. To begin with, I was four when Ghostbusters was released theatrically, and although I had seen E.T. five times in the theater, by then my parents would be about where I am now- just not able to get out to the show every week of the year.
So, a few years later, when they got a hold of it on video, my dad and his siblings decided to watch it on one of the infamous "Night of a Thousand Cousins", during which my aunts and uncles gathered to hang out, and myself and my 10,000 cousins ran around terrorizing the neighborhood of whichever family member was brave enough to host us.
( I might be exaggerating. I probably only have about 8,500 cousins on Dad's side)
On that particular evening, still gun shy from the Creepshow on Cable freakout of the previous winter, my Dad wisely decided that maybe this Ghostbusters thing would be too scary for little kids, and so we were given our snacks, patted on the head, and sent upstairs to bed. (i.e., go play in your rooms and give us a break, already)
But we were already wise, you see. Someone had overheard the title "Ghostbusters" and, well, our curiosity was peeked. So, knowing that if we all herded downstairs we would be in trouble, we did what any enterprising young smart alecs would- we sent down a representative to spy for us.
He did a great job, too, coming back every few minutes with updates, which we were certain had to be embroidered, at least a little.
"The ghost flew right through the guy, and slimed him! He was all gross and gooey!"
"Eggs popped out and fried on the counter." and "the chair turned into a monster, and the fridge ate this lady!"
"The guys have these jet packs that shoot fireballs!"
But the coup de gras was, of course, the finale, at which point all of us littler cousins had huddled around the door like zoo animals at feeding time.
"There is this huge marshmallow guy walking through the city, and they blew him up with their jet packs, and marshmallow fell on everything, and everyone was covered in marshmallow!"
He had to be making that up. What he was describing was, quite possibly, the greatest movie since "The Chipmunks Big Adventure."
We spent the next day begging to watch it, which didn't happen, for some reason. I didn't actually get to watch the original movie for years, until well after the dippy afternoon cartoon version.
I was still impressed.
How can you not be? It's Ghostbusters, after all. It doesn't get any funnier or weirder than that.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Everyone has a backstory. Even peripheral characters. Even pets. I'm sure Runner Bean from the Charlie Bone books a story to tell.
This is a picture of two old souls with long stories.
They were both old when I met them; thoroughbreds retired from the racetrack to the show ring, and then retired from the show ring to the lesson barn, both at the end of their carriers. The gray was a huge old gelding named Dwight. I have no idea what his registered name was, although he had the tattooed upper lip that proved he was at one time a racehorse.
The chestnut mare was his best friend, Cheerios. At the time she was 29, still perky, with a little bit of grey on her nose. She still had a strong, straight back and sound legs. She gave lessons to the littlest beginners, five and six year old girls who were so excited to ride a real racehorse. She was the low mare on the totem pole out in the pasture, and she stuck very close to me when I brought her out in the evenings.
I last saw them about seven years ago. Cheerios, after decades of carrying riders over racetracks and jumps and trails, was finally beginning to slow down, and Dwight was developing back problems that would retire him from riding permanently.
Not long after, probably some time around her 30th birthday, Cheerios was finally put to sleep. Dwight might still be around, but I haven't heard from him in a while. He would be in his 20s, which is a good age for any horse.
They were a great old pair, always looking out for each other, always together out in the pasture. They must have had wild stories to tell. Each one could have been owned by dozens of people, traveled the country, carried hundreds of riders and won countless ribbons and rosettes. Someone somewhere has other photos of them, at shows, in other pastures, with other horses, with a jockey in the saddle.
Some horses have well documented lives. But the ones living at riding stables, or working as lesson horses, they have the colorful backstories.
Monday, April 6, 2009
I say minor because this is the type of movie you could still watch and enjoy even if you knew the entire plot. It's the opposite of High Concept- the Character Driven Story.
It might be suffering a bit from miss-marketing. What I got from the trailers was essentially a Superbadesque comedy by way of Diablo Cody, filtered through a Judd Apatow-ifier. Starring Kristen Stewart as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and a roadshow version of Michael Cera. Most of the reviews I read came down a little harshly that the third act didn't deliver as many laughs as the beginning. I wasn't that interested. But it was this, or Fast & Furious, so we went with Adventureland.
And I really liked it, with one complaint.
The acting was wonderful. Stewart needs to find another motion besides running her hands through her hair, but her character was far more complex and genuine than I expected. Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic. The supporting cast were pretty sincere as well, for being the typical comedic chorus of misfits.
For the way they were played up in the trailer, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader have very little screen time, which was great. While they were funny, they played such ridiculously over the top characters that cutting to them was jarring after watching the much more realistic acting from the rest of the cast. Wiig and Hader seem to be doing an S&L skit in the middle of an otherwise offbeat dramatic film. Their scenes were the only times the story went totally off the rails in search of a laugh.
The storyline, for the most part, was also very honest. The characters are well-written and complex, and even with a minimal amount of action, the scenes are full and engaging. Everyone (with the exception of Wiig and Hader) behaves believably, and in the "dull" third act, consequences are actually meted out, and choices have to be made. And for the most part, this sticks to the logic of the rest of the film.
And here's where my single complaint comes in. Also a possible spoiler, if it weren't so obvious.
The setting of this film is Pennsylvania. Most of the characters, being college aged, are in a transitional phase, still dreaming and ambitious about their futures. Some of them are a little stuck, but they all have "Plans" even Stewart- although I don't think we ever even find out what her major is.
She plays Eisenberg's love interest, as we all know from basic plot formula. She is alluring, and mysterious, and beautiful, of course, but what seals it for Eisenberg is when she reveals that she is a student at NYU. That's right, she's practically a New Yorker. Everyone else in the cast seems to project the same ambition- to get out of town, lest they end up like any one of the "adults" in the cast, trapped, money grubbing, pathetic, desperate and still dreaming of moving away to one of the two acceptable places for interesting people to live their interesting lives. New York, or L.A. Eisenberg wants to attend grad school in New York, Stewart is a student there, even Ryan Reynolds, as the theme park maintenance man and self made local legend seems to dream of going "out to L.A." even though that at the age of perhaps 34, he is far too old to still be holding out any hope for his future. He has a Wife, after all, so his life is over, as every other married man in the Adventureland universe is portrayed as the kind of sad, wimpy suburban drone that Tyler Durden and Lester Burns revolted against. The only way to escape this is to move to New York or L.A. There are no acceptable alternatives.
Even though Eisenberg's character discusses with naive zeal his desire to travel the world, for him, that journey can only begin in New York. Stewart even asks, at one point, "Why do you have to go to school for that?" which I thought might lead to a natural kind of conclusion by the end, but no, it went the predictable route, with Eisenberg finally winding up in NY, where the invigorating spirit of the city was enough of a lift to make him feel like he'd accomplished something.
Because New York in 1987 was paradise, after all.
But I can forgive this. It is about the characters, and that is what's true to them. As a writer, I have a hard time looking at films or books without dissecting them. Advetureland is a film with nearly all the elements working together, to make a comedy that is funny because it's characters are natural and a little bit vulnerable, not because hijinx ensued. There are plenty of ways to make working at a crappy 80s theme park zany and ridiculous, but this time, the filmmakers created more of a portrait than a caricature.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
5. The USB cord isn't the right color.
You might not have learned this, but the printer is very fashion conscious. It can tell the difference between the black cord, the grey cord, and the navy blue one. The navy one worked yesterday, you say? Well, swap it out with the grey one today. You can never be seen wearing the same thing two days in a row.
4. There is a Hot Wheel jammed in it.
Look for someone wandering around in footie pajamas, munching on cinamon toast. He and/or she can probably tell you what happened there. But they won't.
3. This is all a dream.
Don't worry. This isn't really happening. It's just printer-induced psychosis that's causing rampant night terrors. Spending too many hours a day battling with tempermental machinery is bound to cause you some internal termoil. The only solution here is to take a day off from trying to get anything done. Really, it's the only way. In the meantime, you're still asleep, so here's a beautiful meadow full of your favorite beautiful movie stars. Go have fun.
2. The printer is experiencing ennui.
The printer is contemplating life, and regretting some choices it made. It didn't want to print mapquest directions, and movie times for the rest of it's life. It wanted to be some kind of data processor on the space shuttle. What kind? I don't know. It just sounds really cool. But it's too late to join the Air Force now, and they wouldn't take him anyway, with all the Hot Wheels dents.
This is a temporary problem. The printer will start funcioning again when shown some of the beautiful copies it has made.
Sorry. This one's a head scratcher. Everything's hooked up right. It's got fresh ink. Paper feeds through just fine. Must be a problem on the computer's end. That one is a real piece of work. Maybe it's time for the two of them to try some couple's counseling. Someone needs to work out why they never seem to get along.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Admittedly, music is my weak area. I can talk books, and art, and movies, but I am pitifully unaware when it comes to music. I like this album, although VW does sound like they should be doing the soundtracks for film adaptations of Brett Easton Ellis novels. Must be that east coast texture.
Okay, I talked about music briefly, something I have almost no business doing. Now, on to my specialty, illustration.
So here's another illustrator on my list, Brian Lies. His work includes over a dozen books, many by other authors, and a few he penned himself, including Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library.
Beach is darling and funny, with the bats applying moontan lotion and roasting bug-mallows embedded with delicious insects. And Library, well, how could I not love a book about books? Lies includes a few spreads of the bats imagining themselves into classic stories.
Lies paintings are magnificent examples of using light well. Of course, he picks a subject that suggests dark colors and deep shadows. Night scenes require very sharp and precise light sources. In Lies's work in his Bats books, the lighting becomes absoluetly theatrical. Simply showing the ordinary settings of a beach or the library at night gives them a bit of a twist. Here's a chance for little guys to get a glimpse of that mysterious and intriguing gray area known as "after bedtime". What the heck goes on then, anyway?
As an author/illustrator, Lies has hit a nice harmony. An interesting subject illustrated with skill and creativity. This is the kind of work done well enough to make an insanely difficult job look easy.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Friday, January 9, 2009
It's a new year, and a new day, and I have decided, rather impulsively, to start another new project. Introuductions next? I am an artist and writer, specifically of children's lit. I also love snow. And look at that-we've got a few more inches in the yard this morning.
Time to go out and play.