There are certain staples of fantasy writing that must certainly have been done to death by constant repetition, and dragons must certainly be among them. Yet just as you think dragon books have become too passé to be worth reading, something comes along to change your mind.
First there were James Maxey’s dragon novels, beginning with Greatshadow: Book One of the Dragon Apocalypse, in which dragons are part of a future world in which it is science, not magic, that puts these impossible creatures into the air.
Then I was introduced to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon, in which the Napoleonic Wars are conducted with fleets of Man-o’-War dragons in the air instead of ships on the sea. In effect, Novik set herself the fascinating task of rewriting the Horatio Hornblower series with dragons – echoing also Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders trilogy, starting with Ship of Magic, books that don’t seem to be about dragons at all … until all of a sudden they are.
But between Maxey, Novik, Hobb and the myriad other authors who have followed the dragon road, there can’t possibly be anything new to do with dragons in fiction. We can all agree on that, surely.
Except that I’m halfway through an extraordinarily entertaining and innovative treatment of dragons by Amy Beatty, whose novel Dragon Ascending carries with it the happy information that it is merely book 1 in the Vanir Dragon Series.
The first quarter of the book takes place in a prison, where several men are confined with iron bands around their necks, surrounded by iron in the walls and bars, in dungeon cells with low ceilings. Why? Because the iron and the lack of vertical space prevents them from ascending – taking their terrifyingly powerful dragon form and rising into the sky.
Their warden in this deepest dungeon is a fascinating young man named Mudge, who knows that he is flirting with his own death when at last the dragons persuade him to help them escape. Along the way to that decision the relationships among the characters are extraordinarily well developed, and because for that portion of the book we are all confined underground, the novel functions almost as a play.
Yet it is such a wide-ranging play, telling such a fine story – and when it opens up upon their escape into the wider world, we find that we have been prepared for all that now comes to us. I recommend this book highly, if only to prove that when it comes to dragons, we have seen much, but there is more to see.
He won’t be on our ballots where my wife and I vote in Greensboro, but my good friend Gabe Zeller is running as an Independent candidate for District Court in Rockingham County. A conservative who believes that judges are to seek justice under the law, Zeller has a law practice that has benefited people from all walks of life. I believe that if he is elected, he will be a notable judge who will serve the people of his district with honor.
Speaking of the coming election, my ballot will have three judicial races in which two Republicans face one Democrat. Since the Democratic Party has long shown contempt for the idea that judges administer the law rather than invent it, my disposition is to vote only for Republican judges. But in at least one of these races, only one of the Republicans is genuine; the other is a Democrat who changed parties and filed to run as a Republican solely to split the Republican vote and assure the election of the lone Democrat.
But is this what happened in the other two judicial races? In one case, at least, both Republicans seem to be genuine, and either one would be a good choice. But the fact that there was no primary election to sort out the one best candidate to run as a Republican means that again we’re likely to end up with the Democrat.
I’m hoping that our Hero Editor, John Hammer, will enlighten us about all three of the three-way judicial races so that those of us who want judges who serve the law can figure out where to invest our votes.
And while you’re at it, O Fearless Editor, can you please give us a bit of help in the Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor races? Given our two descents into water rationing since I’ve lived in Greensboro, this is a matter of some concern.
There are too many candidates, some of whom seem to have experience and expertise, and some of whom do not. It’s one of the last remaining non-partisan races on the ballot, and I’d really like to cast my vote using a better method than deciding whose name sounds best.
Of course, my sister-in-law used to compete with her husband and sports-mad sons in predicting outcomes in NFL football seasons. They were all experts on the teams and the players, but she made her picks based on how she liked the color combinations of their uniforms. She didn’t always win, but she was always in the running and came out better than some of them every year.
So maybe closing my eyes and pointing will accidentally give my vote to good candidates for Soil and Water Conservation. But I’d rather cast my vote based on actual information. Come on, Mr. Hammer! We count on you!
On the latest Graham Norton, Sally Field came on to promote her autobiography, In Pieces. She was charmingly oblivious – whenever any other guest on Graham Norton’s couch tried to tell a story, she would blurt out her guess about what their story was going to be, completely killing their chance to tell it.
And yet she was so charming about her complete rudeness that nobody seemed to be angry. They just wrapped up their story as if she hadn’t completely stepped on it, and all went well. I mean, she’s over 70 and has two Oscars.
The things she said about her own story made me want to read the book. So I bought it on Kindle and I’m about a third of the way through. I just got to where she’s about to transition from Gidget to The Flying Nun.
Surfing lessons were skipped over quite lightly – because Gidget had to surf – but I agonized for her when she had to shoot surfing scenes in November. California beaches are not warm even in the summer. The Alaska current is the opposite of the Gulf Stream, it keeps everything cold. That’s why you need sweaters in July in San Francisco.
But in November, she had to get out in the icy water and surf and catch a wave and ride it in, and she was so cold she couldn’t feel her legs. That was agonizing to imagine.
But it was also a relief, after some of the things she went through. Some of it is your normal teen angst, but some of it is very painful and sad. People she should have been able to trust abused her shamefully; yet even now, she writes about it in such a way as to explain the stories she told herself to make these things bearable.
Sally Field is a wonderful actress, though, and the most optimistic moments in the book so far have been the times when she began to discover her talent. It was almost a religious experience, an epiphany. Not because she was instantly brilliant – she had to learn skills like anybody else. But when she was able to be somebody else on the stage, she felt more like herself than she ever did in her real life.
It’s the trance of acting, and not every actor ever really feels it. But she knew that this would be her life. It would also be her salvation and her redemption. My heart broke for her again and again; and yet I shared her exhilaration at the high points of her early life.
Her mother and stepfather were both actors, but their careers were on a downhill trajectory when she started pulling in $500 a week doing Gidget in the ’60s. That was in a time when the median income of American families was under $7,000 a year, and so her wages were the salvation of her family.
Field’s writing – and I do believe it is her own writing – is at times trying to be a little too literary, but only in short bursts. By and large, she tells her story straightforwardly and clearly. It’s well worth reading, in my opinion.
The other actress-autobiography I’ve been reading is This Will Only Hurt a Little, by Busy Philipps.
Unlike Sally Field, Philipps has not yet had a reason to tell the Oscar audience, after her second award, “You like me. You really like me.” Nor did I know her from her work in Freaks and Geeks, a short-lived TV series that apparently had every actor of that generation in it. Basically James Franco and his friends. (Except that he emerges as kind of a jerk.) (Though not the worst jerk in the book.)
In fact, Busy Philipps is astonishingly candid about people she has worked with or met with, and since the people she mentions whom I’ve met or heard about from people who worked with them are exactly what I would have expected. I don’t think she’s making it up. Nor is she even catty. She takes them as they are, and either likes them or doesn’t. You know, like high school.
Philipps was also in Dawson’s Creek, joining the show in the fourth season, so I never saw her. In fact, she’s been far more visible than my own experience of her work would suggest.
Reading Philipps and Fields back to back was illuminating. They have too much in common, on their road into working and getting paid as actresses. It makes me sad.
But a lot about Philipps’s book also makes me happy, because the exuberance she showed onscreen in the one series I saw her in, Cougar Town, is present in this book. There’s a lot of emphasis in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS but it completely works to convey her personality.
However, it also hints that with her blog and her new late-night chat show (which started on Sunday, Oct. 28; I haven’t seen it yet), she may have a bit of a devil-may-care attitude about which Hollywood movers and shakers may refuse to work with her because of what she wrote. If her talk show is a hit, she’s immune to blowback.
But setting aside her acting work – and her use of rough language in the book – I think This Will Only Hurt a Little is a good thing for aspiring young actresses to read. If it doesn’t cure them of wanting to go out to Hollywood, then nothing will.
Here’s what made Busy Philipps able to survive in her early acting years: She actually loves to audition.
I know another gifted young actress who abandoned acting, despite extraordinary dollops of talent, because she hate-hate-hated auditioning. And she was right – because no matter how far along your career gets, you always have to audition, no matter how much they disguise it as an interview or meeting.
Philipps loved auditioning, she says, because it was a chance to perform, and she loved performing. Sure, she was up against other actresses reading for the same part, but so what? During the audition, she was there in the same room with people who really cared about finding the right person for the part, so they were going to have to pay attention to what she did. She had an audience.
I get that. In my acting days, I also enjoyed auditioning, but for a very different reason. I’m good at cold readings. In fact, I’m usually one of the front-runners in a cold-reading audition because I can read with meaning and feeling with zero preparation. It’s just something I’ve always been good at.
However, like many other actors, I have a devil of a time getting beyond that cold reading into anything like acting. Because, as a freshman in college, I learned that getting a part is way easier for me than being any good in the part once I get it.
Sally Field and Busy Philipps have both gone through very hard things. Field’s book is not self-pitying, but it’s scary, especially for anyone trying to be a good parent; I believe it would be encouraging to any young person who is trying to deal with not-so-good parents.
But Busy Philipps makes it clear that even though there were times where she cried pints, or maybe quarts, of tears, she also got through it with a zest for life that is contagious. She writes in such a way as to put that joie de vivre in your heart.
When our older daughter was but a slip of a girl, she fell in love with the book Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. I tried to read them, but they were not written for me.
Then it happened that in 1985, PBS aired a miniseries called Anne of Green Gables.
My wife and daughter watched it, and then watched it again, and then watched the sequels, and watched them again.
I was not in the room for any of this. It wasn’t until about a month ago that I sat down and watched the first installment with my wife and some of our granddaughters.
And, like them, I fell in love with Megan Follows, who plays Anne, and with Colleen Dewhurst, who plays Marilla Cuthbert, her adoptive mother.
Megan Follows’s TV career began at age 10, and she had many hours of screen time before filming Anne of Green Gables at about age 17. She has also worked steadily since – but it is not unfair to say that the part of Anne Shirley was her best-loved, best-remembered role, the pinnacle of her career (so far).
Speaking of actors, right now HBO is running a show called My Dinner with Hervé, starring Peter Dinklage as the small French actor who used to cry out, “Boss! De plane! De plane!”
He disappeared from the American consciousness when Fantasy Island went off the air, but he was still alive, and before he took his own life in 1993, at the age of 50, he happened to grant an interview to a reporter named Sacha Gervasi, who wrote that insanely memorable nightlong interview into the screenplay of this movie.
Gervasi’s role has been renamed Danny Tate, and it is played by Jamie Dornan, who has already recovered from his stint in the Shades of Grey movies. In fact, I watched this movie, not for Dinklage – though I’m a fan of his – but because of Jamie Dornan’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show. I came away from that show liking him and wanting him to succeed.
And in My Dinner with Hervé, he definitely succeeds. So does Peter Dinklage. Unlike Meryl Streep, when Dinklage does an accent he also continues to act well, and he is definitely the star of the movie. But the story is about how he dominates Danny Tate and, in a way, liberates and strengthens him.
The language is vile and so are many situations in the movie, so be warned that you don’t want to gather the kids around to watch it. But it’s a tour-de-force, and if only for a couple of hours, Peter Dinklage is not Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. He is a 50-year-old man whose life has been defined and painfully limited by his dwarfism; he is a star whose time has passed.
Now, we already saw Dinklage shed his Game of Thrones image in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but he was definitely not the star of that movie, though he had some wonderful moments in it.
In My Dinner with Hervé, Dinklage gets to rule the screen with an over-the-top performance that is exactly right for the character he’s playing.
How truthful or accurate was writer-director Sacha Gervasi in his depiction of Hervé Villechaize or, for that matter, himself? I believe he meant to be honest, at least about the overall story – I think he faithfully depicted what his evening with Hervé did for and to him.
For us, as an audience, the story at least might be true, and that makes it interesting indeed.
But it also makes it painful and deeply sad, because annoying as Hervé can be in this movie, we remember that there really was such a man, who lived such a life, and died as he died.
A quick note on a couple of British TV shows available now. First, and best, is Shetland, a police procedural set on the Shetland Islands, a small archipelago in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.
The actors, led by Douglas Henshall as Detective Inspector (DI) Jimmy Perez, are all superb. If you come in on the middle of a season, as I did, you can get lost among all the names of all the people in what amounts to a small village. But you eventually sort everybody out.
The entire population of the Shetland Islands is 22,000 people, with 7,500 concentrated in Shetland’s largest only town, Lerwick. Compare this with the 526,953 people in Guilford County as of 2017, and you might appreciate that this is not like a crime show set in Chicago or Miami or New York or Los Angeles.
If the Shetlands had as many corpses per season as, say, Chicago P.D. or NCIS: Los Angeles, there wouldn’t be anybody left by the end of season four. The survivors would all be in jail for killing everybody else.
This is a thoughtful series that makes us come to care about the suspects as well as the victims and witnesses, and the ending of the season I just finished was fully satisfying.
The accents are great fun, but I urge you to put on closed-captioning, because there are a lot of lines rendered unintelligible by the beautiful brogues the actors put on for the show.
Even if you don’t get all the lines, the scenery is amazing, both the natural terrain and the houses and buildings. None of the actors are glamorous, but they’re all extraordinarily talented.
And there are even moments of violent action, as if they thought they were on an American show.
The other British show I spotted this year, The Coroner, isn’t as good. But it’s good enough. The story follows a young solicitor (lawyer) who returns to the seaside town where she grew up, and takes the post of coroner.
In America, we think of this as a medical position, determining cause of death by scientific means. But in Britain, it’s a judicial position; the coroner decides whether to hold an inquest and presides over it when she does. (You’ll remember the coroner’s inquest in Rebecca, for instance.)
The one episode I’ve seen was powerful and surprising, with a cliffside ending that disturbed an old acrophobe like me. The scenery is wonderful to look at, but the story’s in control.
Unfortunately, rumor has it that the BBC has canceled the series. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still download it from Amazon, YouTube, Vudu or Google Play. I think you might enjoy it. And it’s way easier to understand their speech than the actors in Shetland.
The other day, watching old episodes of Elementary, I was reminded of what a superb actor Jonny Lee Miller is. As Sherlock Holmes, his clipped and clear speech is only the beginning – he walks, he gestures, he sits, he rests as Sherlock Holmes – and it dawned on me that it had been a long time since I last watched him in the only good film version of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Please don’t ever watch the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma. Neither she, nor the writer, nor the director even came close to understanding the character or the book. It is a botch in every scene.
But the BBC production that features Jonny Lee Miller as Knightley and the luminous Romola Garai in the title role, tells the tale across four episodes and makes this very difficult Jane Austen story completely clear. Every scene is exactly right. Writer Sandy Welch and director Jim O’Hanlon completely understand what Jane Austen was doing with both Emma and Knightley.
Reigning over all, however, is Jonny Lee Miller. The character of Knightley is the moral center of the story, and Miller creates him completely and perfectly.
At no moment is anything about Knightley the same as Sherlock Holmes in Elementary. He walks differently – he carries his authority and responsibility as lord of a manor even when he isn’t speaking; yet he never seems arrogant or aloof. Rather he seems concerned. He cares about the people around him.
We in the audience fall in love with Knightley long before Emma realizes she has feelings for him, because Jonny Lee Miller makes him a living human being. We wish we had someone like him in our lives.
Then, after Emma, you go back to Elementary and see this completely different human being who has only a superficial resemblance to Knightley, and you have to force yourself to understand how completely Miller transforms himself – and not with makeup tricks. He does it entirely with acting, with the careful use of the same body and voice and face to play both roles.
If you told me of a new series called The Phone Book, starring Jonny Lee Miller, I’m afraid I’d tune in at least for the first episode.
Right now, as the Hallmark Channel is already playing some of their new holiday movies, it’s time for us to consider Romantic Comedies. It is the hardest genre to do well, and even when romantic comedies are brilliant and popular, they don’t make money like hit comic book movies and thrillers.
But there is a steady audience for good romantic comedies … and even for merely adequate ones.
We just watched Christmas at Pemberley Manor on Hallmark, which is not a Pride and Prejudice sequel. Instead, it’s an update, and while the names of characters from the original Austen novel show up, often in odd places, the movie owes very little to Jane Austen.
Instead, it should be taken on its own terms.
For instance, the wealthy Darcy is preparing to sell Pemberley to be cut up into condominiums, even though the estate is the heart of the town. Jessica Lowndes is Elizabeth, an event planner with a needlessly selfish boss who is trying to save her job by helping her old friend George (Cole Gleason), the mayor, to put on a big Christmas event to help revive the sagging commerce of the town.
Of course they end up having to hold the event at Pemberley; of course Darcy (Michael Rady) falls in love with the event planner who is giving him more and more reasons to want to hold on to the estate.
In romantic comedies, there don’t have to be any major plot surprises. Yet Christmas at Pemberley Manor does manage, in its mere two hours, to give us a secondary romance between Darcy’s new assistant, Travis, delightfully played by Ben Estus, and the mayor’s hyper-organized assistant, Jane (Maddie McCormick), who seems to be capable of putting on the whole event herself. I hope to see both of them in many movies to come.
For a Hallmark Christmas movie, this is a pretty good one, even if they do succumb to the evil of having a magical Santa Claus figure (Steve Larkin) named Kristopher, who turns out to have been pulling a lot of strings to make things happen.
Come on, folks – even ersatz Jane Austen doesn’t need Santa Claus. But if you’re going to have Santa, then it would be hard to use him better than they do in this script, with this actor.
Hallmark movies are not budgeted for greatness, either with time or money.
So even though I burdened you with my list of Perfect Movies – which I already realize is incomplete – I want to put the whole Romantic Comedy genre in perspective by listing 18 of them that are truly great movies.
It is not unreasonable to expect that every serious Romantic Comedy aficionado has already seen the whole list; and if you haven’t, you could do far worse than to stream your way through the list.
It will give you an idea of the high standards that romantic comedies can aspire to.
I’m going to list the best of them by author – Jane Austen, Nora Ephron, Richard Curtis, Billy Wilder – and the rest by director, with writers in parentheses, which is pretty much how Hollywood thinks of them.
18 Great Romantic Comedies:
Emma (BBC, 2009, Jim O’Hanlon; screenplay Sandy Welch)
Pride & Prejudice (BBC, 1995, Simon Langton; screenplay Andrew Davies)
Sense and Sensibility (1995, Ang Lee; screenplay Emma Thompson)
You’ve Got Mail (1998; screenplay Nora and Delia Ephron)
Sleepless in Seattle (1993; screenplay Jeff Arch, Ephron, David S. Ward)
Love Actually (2003)
About Time (2013)
The Apartment (1960; screenplay Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond)
Sabrina (1954; screenplay Wilder, Samuel A. Taylor, Ernest Lehman)
Sabrina (1995; screenplay Barbara Benedek, David Rayfiel)
An Affair to Remember (1957; screenplay McCarey, Delmer Daves)
Say Anything … (1989)
Pretty Woman (1990; screenplay J.F. Lawton)
One Fine Day (1996; screenplay Terrel Seltzer, Ellen Simon)
My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997; screenplay Ronald Bass)
He’s Just Not That Into You (2009; screenplay Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein)
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011; screenplay Dan Fogelman)
Mr. Right (2015; screenplay Max Landis)
There are many other delightful or moving films with romantic comedy aspects — The African Queen, His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, Robin and Marian, Adam’s Rib, Born Yesterday, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Lion in Winter, The Rainmaker, Bringing Up Baby, Romancing the Stone, Harold and Maude, To Catch a Thief, My Man Godfrey (both versions), The Truth about Cats and Dogs, As Good As It Gets, The Shop around the Corner, The Fortune Cookie, How to Steal a Million, Rebecca, Charade, Deadpool, The Big Sick, About Last Night (1986), Gone with the Wind, Crazy Rich Asians.
If you notice people named Hepburn popping up rather often in these movies, that’s not a surprise. It’s just good casting.
But only few of that list can be classed as true romantic comedies; they’re mostly a different kind of movie with strong romantic elements within them.
Most films that do fit the category miss the highest standards, either slightly or in a huge way. While You Were Sleeping, 27 Dresses, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Proposal, Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally …, Green Card, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.
Then there are the teen and college comedies that are built around a love story — 10 Things I Hate about You, Clueless, The Breakfast Club, Dirty Dancing, Easy A, Pitch Perfect, Footloose, High School Musical, The Princess Diaries, Sixteen Candles, 17 Again, 13 Going on 30, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Blue Lagoon, Heathers.
I have listed only movies that I believe are worth watching, though the first 18 are the ones I love most.
May I suggest that you save these lists, and maybe you can make sure you see all of the first 18 by Christmas. It won’t make you stop enjoying Hallmark Christmas movies. Watching the masterworks will simply help you remember that the Hallmark movies are the midlist of a grand tradition.
In the years I’ve been watching them, the Hallmark movies have steadily improved in quality. Christmas at Pemberley Manor, for instance, has much better dialogue and acting than Hallmark used to settle for. These are real actors now, performing a real script, and who knows? Maybe by 2020 there’ll be a Hallmark Christmas movie that belongs on the list of great ones.