When my wife and I were both delighted by the performance of Lily James in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, we had no choice but to look her up, because I had no memory of seeing her before, in anything.
But we did. One of my favorite movies of last year was Baby Driver, and she had the female lead in that. Her performance was excellent. But of course it could not have been the same actress because they looked nothing alike.
She also played the young typist in Darkest Hour, in which she did a brilliant job of being noticeably good in the shadow of Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. However, she looked nothing like the actresses in those other two movies, so how could this information be correct?
She was in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but we can't hold such things against the actors. Maybe she was a ray of light in such a dismal landscape of perfidy and corruption. Anyway, she got a payday, and for actors who are not yet A-list, if a substantial role is offered -- either an excellent one or one with a lot of screen time -- you take it. Period.
In case you didn't notice, there is zero chance that I will ever watch Pride and Prejudice and Zombies longer than it takes to identify it and switch to another channel.
There were two other Lily James movies that we had never seen, but wanted to. One was Disney's live-action Cinderella, in which Lily James played the title role.
I thought the idea of trying to remake the charming Disney animated Cinderella with live actors seemed a loony idea; but after seeing Christopher Robin, I realized that these new Disney live-action remakes were delicately designed. We were reminded of the original, but in no sense was it a shot for shot or scene for scene remake. There were vital differences in the story. So maybe the live-action Cinderella would be similarly gentle with the original material: respectful but creative.
And it would have Lily James.
It was better than we hoped. Cate Blanchett was brilliant as the stepmother, especially because the writer, Chris Weitz (About a Boy), gave her something to work with. In fact, Weitz made her something of a tragic figure. She knew her own daughters were stupid, but she loved them, and she needed to provide a genteel life for them, which -- for them as for her -- meant a good marriage.
When she married Cinderella's father, it soon became clear that he loved his late wife more than he would ever love her; and he loved Cinderella more than anybody. Nobody intended things that way, but the stepmother felt it like a declaration of her own worthlessness, and Cinderella became a rival.
Sophie McShera as Drisella and Holliday Grainger as Anastasia were superb as well. For the first time, you could tell the stepsisters apart, and their bickering was superbly realistic. I wish I could say I didn't know people like them, but I do; they said out loud what well-bred people think but do not say.
And their mother realized that with Cinderella as competition, Drisella and Anastasia would always look like rather awkward furniture. Of course Cinderella could not be allowed to go to the ball; of course the stepmother had no particular need to be kind. The sooner Cinderella lost her cheerfulness, the sooner her dazzling smile went away, then the sooner she would fade so that Drisella and Anastasia could thrive.
The movie went further. Richard Madden as the prince became a human being. He and Cinderella had chances to get to know each other; we believed that what they felt for each other wasn't infatuation based on his lofty position or her physical beauty. It was a love that had depth and meaning; they deserved each other.
More miraculous than lifting the lovers out of their stereotypes was making the prince's relationship with his father sweet and real. Derek Jacobi was perfectly cast as the king, and when he died, we grieved.
Helena Bonham Carter narrated the movie in her role as the Fairy Godmother. She was quite wonderful in the part, with only one false note. When she first came to Cinderella, she was an old beggar woman, asking for food and drink. Of course Cinderella treats her kindly and generously, and then the Fairy Godmother does a few pirouettes and voila, she's gorgeous. And she is -- I could see again the lustrous young woman who first came to my view in 1986, playing the title role in Lady Jane. That was more than thirty years ago, but she could still be winsome.
However, the false note was when she was the beggar woman. Someone with no understanding of screen makeup gave her an "age" makeup that would only have looked good if you were sitting fifty feet back in a stage production. With the camera right in her face, the age lines were hideously awkward. They didn't suggest age, as they were meant to; they suggested that a high school student was interning on the movie and was assigned to do Helena Bonham Carter's makeup.
The music: The animated Cinderella had all kinds of songs; none of them were in the live action movie. If the score echoed the old songs, I never caught it -- and I was listening for it. However, Lily James's lovely voice was used to sing several country songs -- the kind of thing that Cinderella herself might have sung.
The mice were delightful. They never talked, though Cinderella constantly talked to them, as humans often talk to animals. However, these mice were clearly smarter than the norm, and while they don't actually sew the first dress, they do play a key role in helping the Prince discover that Cinderella is in the house, by opening a window while she was singing.
The animals who become the footmen and driver of her carriage are amazingly conceived and acted -- for though they have human speech now, they remember very well that they were lizards and a goose.
And in this version, unlike the rather nasty ending to Drew Barrymore's version, Ever After (1998), Cinderella remains true to her character -- and to her father's legacy, which was the credo: Have courage, and be kind.
Thus the stepmother and her daughters are allowed to simply leave the kingdom along with the Grand Duke, with whom she had conspired to keep the Prince away from Cinderella. Perhaps they would find happiness; perhaps not. But Cinderella and the Prince would do nothing to make their lives any harder.
The movie is truly a love story -- about love of parents for children, of kind people for the animals in their care, the love of children for parents they've lost and for parents they still have. One of the sweetest moments in the movie is when Cinderella assures the King of how much his son the Prince loves him. The scene wasn't maudlin; Derek Jacobi showed no apparent reaction. And yet it was clear (because he's such a brilliant, honest actor) how much those words reassured him as he faced his coming death.
So it turns out that these Disney live-action remakes are, so far, wonderfully well written and brilliantly directed and performed. This reassures me about the upcoming live action Dumbo.
Meanwhile, though there was a marvelous supporting cast, everything in Cinderella depended on Lily James giving us a character we could believe in, care about, and love. Wonderful as she was in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, she was the heart and soul of Cinderella, and did her work superbly.
The other Lily James movie that lured us was one my wife and I already wanted to watch before we knew she was in it. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society sounds, from the title, as if it were just another whimsical and somewhat comic treatment of smalltown ladies who get together and discuss books.
That is not at all what this beautiful movie is. It breaks my heart that this film never had a theatrical release, because that makes it ineligible for Oscars and for the kind of publicity that brings it to public attention in a big way.
Instead, you can only get it from Netflix. But you know what? It was still gorgeous, funny sometimes, but also painful, tragic, deep.
The movie takes place in the aftermath of World War II. Lily James plays Juliet Ashton, a successful writer of nonfiction books and articles. Her biography of Anne Brontë sold fewer than a hundred copies -- worldwide. But her publisher (and good friend), Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode) believes in her. He tries to get her to visit all sorts of bookstores and important literary societies to promote her newest book
In the midst of this, she gets a letter from a pig farmer on the island of Guernsey, asking for her help in finding a book by Charles Lamb. The island of Guernsey lies in the English Channel, west of Normandy and much nearer to France than to Britain. But it has long been a part of the United Kingdom.
During the war, the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans -- there was no way that the UK could spare the vast amount of materiel and personnel that defending the islands would have required. Most children and many adults were evacuated from the island before the Germans arrived, but many were there during the occupation.
The title society was created on the spur of the moment, when the participants in an illegal pig roast were caught by a German patrol as they were walking home. To be a group that was out after curfew was a serious and dangerous offense, but under the dazzling flashlights and threatening weapons of the German soldiers, they claim to be coming home from a meeting of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society.
Now, please don't imagine that potato peel pie is a real thing. Only under the scanty rations of German occupation would anybody try to make a pie whose only ingredients were potatoes and potato peels. But since the old postmaster, Even Ramsey (Tom Courtenay), had nothing else to provide, that's all he could come up with in the way of dessert.
It was dreadful. But they were so hungry that they ate a good part of it; and he carried the leftovers home with him.
But that's only the inception. There are really two stories being told in this movie. The first is the story of Juliet Ashton, who becomes caught up in the story of the members of the society, who were deeply damaged by tragedy during the occupation.
The society was brought together by Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay), who is foolishly defiant of the occupying Germans, and yet falls in love with a German soldier (Nicolo Pasetti) who is also good friends with the pig farmer, Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman).
For various reasons, two child actors figure importantly in this movie, and both of them are excellent. Gregory Mann plays the grandson of the postmaster, who has joined the literary society and is beloved by all. And Florence Keen plays the daughter of Elizabeth, who is being reared by Dawsey Adams because Elizabeth has not yet returned from Germany, where she was taken near the end of the war.
Elizabeth's mother, Amelia Maugery (Penelope Wilton, known from Downton Abbey, the 2005 Pride and Prejudice (no Zombies), and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel), is strangely hostile to the idea of Juliet writing about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in the Times of London, but Juliet vows to respect her request.
Yet Juliet is consumed by the need not only to write about these wonderful people but also to find out the ending of the story and help them learn what they can about what happened to Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Juliet finds herself drawn to Dawsey, the pig farmer who first wrote to her asking her help in locating a book for him in London. However, she is also trying to be faithful to her fiancé, a rich American (Glen Powell) who wants to lead with her a life of fun and excitement.
The first blow to their relationship is the over-the-top diamond ring he gave Juliet just as she was leaving on the ferry to Guernsey. Seeing the poverty of the people in Guernsey, still recovering from the occupation, the gaudy ring seems too tasteless to be worn. She eventually shows it to the closest friend she makes on the island, Isola Pribby (Katherine Parkinson), the free spirit who helps Juliet understand the relationships among the members of the society.
Though there are many delightful moments, the weight of loss and grief shapes the lives of everyone there. Juliet, too, suffered loss during the war -- her parents were killed in the London Blitz. At times, for me as an audience member, the love and grief of the characters was almost too much to bear. But what made it bearable was the thing that always illuminates and lifts the best stories: Good people doing good.
In fact, the mantra of the people of this movie could easily be the same one as Cinderella's father: Have courage, and be kind.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the best movie I've seen this year. My life is better because these stories are in my memory.
And the brilliance and power of this movie come in large part from the exquisite performance of Lily James.
The odd thing is that if I hadn't seen these two most recent movies because Lily James was in them, I might not have realized that the same actress was in both of them -- and Darkest Hour, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Baby Driver, and 21 episodes of Downton Abbey.
She becomes a different person for each film. I get lost each time in the person she's playing this time. But I will be trying to keep track of what movies she's in, from now on -- because she is luminous and moving in everything.
After all, any actress who can share the screen with Cate Blanchett, without disappearing, is already remarkable!
Before I leave Guernsey behind, I must point out that the reason my wife wanted to see the movie was because she and her book group read the historical novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008.
Blessed are those novelists, because their book received a superb adaptation by Don Roos (Marley & Me), Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane), and Thomas Bezucha (The Family Stone). Whether these writers worked together or each made a draft, the combination of their work is one of the finest adaptations I've ever seen -- not least because so much of the novel is told in the form of letters.
Hard to Kill is a strange and amazing television show. It's definitely reality TV, but it isn't a contest. It's more like a combination of documentary and demonstration.
Tim Kennedy, the host, star, and risk-taker of this Discovery Channel series is "an active, Ranger qualified, Green Beret, Special Forces sniper." He served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places. He has also been an MMA fighter.
So he has jumped out of a lot of planes, taken a lot of blows, fired a lot of weapons, and been under enemy fire. So naturally he's a good choice to do insane things, week after week.
In the first episode we saw, Tim Kennedy took on the perilous world of test pilots. I had never thought about it, but of course every new airplane -- or concept for an airplane -- needs to be tested before it can go into production and general use.
And if you're going to take a new plane aloft and test its limits, you're going to run a great risk of discovering what the plane can't do. Things can go south pretty quickly.
For instance, really fast jets, like those our Air Force and Navy pilots fly all the time, require pilots who can withstand incredible G-forces. When you're up to 6 or 7 Gs, your body draws all your blood to the core of your body -- so you can lose the ability to move your bloodless limbs. Not to mention the fact that your head is drained of blood.
The result is that at such G-forces, you can black out. And if you black out, or can't reach up to use the plane's controls, you can lose complete control of the aircraft.
So test pilots -- and our fighter pilots -- have to be trained to counteract the effects of G-forces. My first thought was, How can you possibly counter the combination of gravity and centrifugal force?
But the answer sounds fairly simple. In order to keep your brain functioning, you have to clench muscles all over your body to squeeze as much blood as possible up into your head, so you can think ... and see.
The largest muscles are in your buttocks and thighs, so you have to clench all those lower muscles, then your abdominal and chest and back muscles, and also your arms -- though you will need your arms and hands in order to control the plane.
As my wife and I listened to this, we both realized that all the symptoms of succumbing to G-forces also happen to her when she's about to faint. She's been a fainter all her life -- she once demonstrated to a know-it-all nurse that yes, indeed, you can faint while lying down.
Now, over the years she's learned to recognize the earliest symptoms of a faint coming on. She seeks a low position -- a couch, the floor -- so she won't hurt herself falling. But now, in addition, she can try these anti-G-force techniques, because she'd much rather not faint at all, if she can avoid it.
Tim Kennedy was taken up into a supersonic jet and, in the copilot position, he experienced nearly 7 Gs -- and didn't faint, though he realized that if he had been the pilot, he wouldn't have been able to lift his arms, so he would quite probably have died.
Our military fighter pilots routinely experience up to 9 Gs -- so they really have to take their G-force training seriously. It takes time and effort to acquire those skills to such a degree that you can continue to think and act sensibly during combat.
But that's not all that test pilots (and various others) have to train themselves to do. Basically, what makes sense is to practice dealing with all the crazy, fatal things that can happen when you're flying at the boundaries of a plane's capabilities.
Since aviation began, pilots have dreaded the deadly spin -- the death spiral, the flat spin, and other ways of plummeting toward earth without any control over the plane.
Test pilots are trained to get out of a spin. The most important thing is to train themselves to keep their eyes on the horizon -- rather the way a dancer in a pirouette has to "spot" -- keep their eyes returning to the same stable point so they don't get dizzy and lose balance. For the pilot in a spin, the horizon is their "spot."
The camera work in the plane was amazing. These were mostly pre-planted cameras, since there isn't room in the cockpit for a camera operator. Other cameras -- tiny ones, I assume -- are mounted at the wingtips. And there is at least one follow craft on some of the stunts.
Tim Kennedy is definitely the dude in the hot seat. Though a pilot is there to keep the plane from going down violently, the spins and loops and rolls they go through are real. The pilot is a veteran of more than 200 flights in combat -- an incredible record, compared to the number of sorties that were considered to be the maximum for pilots in World War II.
And we get some of the experience of a spin. Some susceptible viewers might get some motion sickness during the spin sequences.
Another technique that test pilots have to learn is how to survive having the plane fall apart at high altitude. Of course, the breaking of a plane in extreme conditions can kill you on the spot; you can't rehearse that with trainee pilots.
But what you can rehearse is going out into the atmosphere at 15 miles up.
That's nearly three times the altitude of Mt. Everest. Let's say you ejected from your plane in time. Now you have to deal with your helmet fogging and freezing in 50-degree-below-zero temperatures, so you have no visibility. Meaning that you can't read your altimeter to find out how far you've fallen, or how close the ground is..
You reach terminal velocity pretty quickly -- the maximum speed that an object can achieve, between air resistance and gravity. You don't keep accelerating infinitely.
But that's not much comfort when you realize that for the first while, you can't breathe the air. Well, you can, but it doesn't give you much oxygen. Deprived of oxygen, your brain gets drunk and stupid -- the show also demonstrates this! -- and it's quite possible you'll lose consciousness, with no guarantee that you'll recover quickly enough in the lower, breathable atmosphere, to release your parachute.
Tim Kennedy, who is an experienced jumper, had to try something new on a jump with two other skydivers. To simulate the conditions of a freefall after ejection from a plane, he deliberately put himself -- his own body -- into an uncontrolled spin, and then -- with zero visibility -- had to right himself and return to controlled descent.
But then, to simulate the messy process of detaching himself from an ejection seat, he planned to put himself back into a chaotic fall and recover equilibrium again in time to open his chute at a safe distance from the ground.
The targets were, if memory serves, to come out of the first chaotic, blind spin by about 15,000 feet. Then, he would come out of the second spin by 5,000 feet, and release his parachute.
That's not how it worked out. He was considerably lower than the first target altitude when he got control the first time, and he didn't come out of the second spin until he was at 3,000 feet. Still enough room for him to open his chute and land normally.
But Tim Kennedy is the kind of guy who will put himself in conditions that could easily kill him. He already knew how to do a "safe" dive; this time, for the cameras, he put himself into the kind of fall that can be fatal.
Oh, but that wasn't all. Because another danger for test pilots is that when you have a rough landing (i.e., you kind of crash), one third of the time the plane will burst into flames.
Airplane fuel is so flammable that you have about twenty or thirty seconds to get the cockpit open, unstrap yourself, and climb out into the flames so you can get away from the airplane.
Tim Kennedy was placed in a tiny airplane that was already on the ground. He strapped in, closed the lid, and then some dudes covered the plane with fuel and lit it on fire.
There were guys there with equipment to put the fire out. But by the time they knew they had to do that, there was a serious danger of Tim Kennedy dying from smoke inhalation or catching fire inside the cockpit.
The cockpit jammed when he tried to slide it open. That was when we saw Tim Kennedy's resourcefulness. He couldn't slide the cockpit back of the jam, so instead we watched him push the cockpit in ways it was not designed to go -- until he finally erupted upward, tearing the cockpit out of his way with his back. He's a really strong guy.
The worst thing, he reported after, was the smoke. It's a toxic mix of all the stuff that's on fire, and opening the window doesn't give you any more breathable air.
And when the fire was out, he discovered that the reason why he only saw one of his shoulder straps release was that the other one had melted. Yeah, that's how much heat was inside the cockpit.
I don't even want to be as brave as Tim Kennedy is, on purpose, in order to instruct and entertain us. But I felt like I had learned an awful lot from this one-hour show.
With any luck, I will never have to use any of these techniques myself. But as a writer, I will be able to do a much better job of writing dangerous action. And as a reader and watcher of books and movies, I'll be in a far better position to judge what seems real and what is simply wrong.
The next episode, which we've already recorded, is about rodeo clowns -- or, to put it plainly, bullfighters.
Spectators at rodeos usually watch the bullrider -- how long he can stay on the bull, and then how he gets away from the bull once he flies off, so he doesn't get gored or tossed.
But the moment he comes off the bull, the bullfighters go into action, deliberately drawing the bull's ire toward themselves and their own fragile human bodies.
So while the audience is worried about the dismounted bullrider, he's actually the safest guy in that arena. It's the bullfighters who are in dire peril until everybody can get out of the arena.
I don't know yet, but I imagine that Tim Kennedy will get some training and then go into that arena, not as a bullrider, but as a bullfighter.
Because I recently read Mary Renault's The King Must Die, I've been immersed in reading about how the bulldancers of ancient Crete may have, must have worked with bulls, in order to stay alive as long as possible. (In Crete, deaths in the bull ring were regarded as sacrifices to the god, so if the bull dancers didn't help each other, nobody else was going to.)
So I'm both dreading and looking forward to seeing that and other future episodes of this remarkable series. Tim Kennedy has my respect, for his prior service to our country and for his present courage in teaching us about dangerous professions by taking part in them.
Hard to Kill airs on the Discovery Channel -- and back episodes can also be streamed if you know the log-in and other information for your cable server. From my own experience, I know that whatever information and log-in you need to stream things from the Discovery Channel, I will not have it. The username and password I think I know will not be the right ones.
So I get my TiVo to watch for it and record it. Because I don't want to spend the time it would take to learn and list all the different log-ins required to access all the streaming services we have available. My wife, braver and cleverer than me, knows several of them -- that's how we were able to watch the two Lily James movies we watched this past week. Left to myself, I wouldn't have seen either.
On So You Think You Can Dance, Nigel Lythgoe has said more than once that this year's series has the best top-ten dancers in the history of the show.
I think he's right. Two of that brilliant top ten are already gone, and the agonizing thing is that they're all so good you don't want any of them to be dropped.
The whole top ten will come together again for the concert tour, but meanwhile, it's hard to see excellent dancers perform brilliantly and still get fewer votes than the other contestants.
The audience voting determines who the bottom four dancers are; then the panel of judges chooses which two of those four will go home, and which will stay.
There are only a few weeks left of this season of the greatest dance show in the history of television. Monday nights on Fox.
The frustrating thing is that even though the show gets better and better, with only a few glitches, the ratings last year were less than a quarter of what they were during the early years of the show. As a result, the show gets fewer hours on the schedule than ever -- fewer weeks, and only one show a week instead of a separate results show.
Maybe this is because all the dancers start out with such a high degree of excellence that the competitive aspect of the show has lost its appeal. All the dancers who make it onto the live shows are amazing, and what we end up voting on is more about the choreography than the performers.
If you get stuck with an unpopular genre of dance, it can wipe you out in the competition. And if you get Travis Wall as your choreographer, you're almost certainly going to make it through to the next week.
If you love watching excellent dancing in many genres, then devote some time to the last few shows of this season. I promise you'll see performances that blow you away. And while there are always difficult stunts, the choreographers make sure it's always about the art of dance rather than gymnastics.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
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