About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Stop Loss

Seen at Clearview's Chelsea Cinema, Auditorium #4, Saturday afternoon March 29, 2008. 3.5 Slithy Toads.

This is the best movie of the year so far.

Unfortunately, it has been difficult to read a review, good or bad, that reviews the movie on its own terms, divorced from its place in history following a string of (generally inferior) movies dealing with the Iraq war that have been box office disappointments.

And also unfortunately, it seems to arrive at the moment when many critics have decided to drop grading these Iraq movies on a curve, giving plentiful extra points for worthy intentions, or even just for the bare bones of the subject matter, to things like In The Valley of Elah, which certainly had its share of negative reviews but also quite inexplicably managed to appear on many Top 10 lists.

It's a double whammy, in which this really good movie is being victimized on multiple levels by the Critical Consensus, getting worse reviews than it deserves to compensate for films that got better, and reviewed in such a way that audiences are given permission in advance for skipping it because it is now to be expected that they should.

In case you're not familiar with the term or haven't read another review of this movie, or seen a coming attraction. "stop loss" is the name given to a provision in US military enlistment agreements that allows the military to hold a soldier past the contractual end date of the enlistment. And in a nutshell, Stop Loss the movie is the story of an Army sergeant who returns home to Texas as a hero, goes ballistic at finding himself stop-lossed, goes AWOL, goes on a road trip, and leaves a friend and fellow GI to deal with some of the mess of post-conflict adjustments that the unit is dealing with.

In big ways and small, the movie reminds of other war movies. The lines in the title lettering are reminiscent of the titling used for the TV series M.A.S.H. I was reminded on many levels of the excellent film Born on the 4th of July, which to my puzzlement I haven't seen referenced in other reviews I've read of Stop-Loss. The welcoming parade for the troops has the same sensibility as the 4th of July parades in the Oliver Stone movie, complete with a John Lewis trumpet solo in the score that hearkens back to the masterful John Williams score for 4th of July. The whole tone of the movie is as if Ron Kovac's parents had gotten the happy return of their son that never was theirs, only to find it twisted into a nightmare of an entirely different sort. I hope Stop Loss will have a better long-term fate than 4th of July, which hasn't entered the mainstream movie consciousness as it should.

Sgt. King is played by Ryan Phillippe, an actor whom I've long admired beginning especially with Cruel Intentions (which wasn't the first movie of his I'd seen, but certainly the first to make an impression). His performance is a knock-out. He adjusts smoothly to every line in a delicately wrinkled role that has to take him from the very definition of the guy you want at your side to somebody far more complex as he meets his limits at the stop-loss and then tries to find just where his new boundaries lie when removed of every anchor, every mooring, he thought was his. Channing Tatum as King's bud Sgt. Shriver keeps up with Phillippe in every scene they share, and no more need be said in praise of his performance. The other stand-out was Victor Rasuk, a member of King's unit who is badly wounded. He's come into his own since the interesting if not entirely good indiepic Raising Victor Vargas. Ever since Witness, I've always been happy to see Josef Sommer in pretty much anything. But the best movie of the year so far doesn't get my top 4 Slithy Toad ranking in part because of some of the weaker links. What is Ciarin Hinds doing, cast as Ryan Phillippe's father? Joseph Gordon-Levitt was very good in The Lookout, but here I think he's been a tad overpraised and doesn't do much with a role that is admittedly less well written than those for Phillippe and Tatum. In his scenes with either, I found he was just a little off their excellence. And Timothy Olyphant as the CO for King and Shriver struck me as a constant off note.

On the big questions of story and direction, I was with the movie pretty much every step of the way where a lot of other critics have been quibbling. The opening scenes in Tikrit, Iraq are one of the best war sequences I've seen. I was a little bit bothered by just how beautiful every soldier in the squad was, but it is an MTV Films movie, so what should I expect. But this scene had some shades of Full Metal Jacket, it was more realistic than the overblown and similar finale in The Kingdom, and I felt it worked. When we get to Texas, King is deftly sketched as every bit the company man who does his job thoroughly and well and to the admiration of all, which is exactly why his decision to go AWOL worked for me. It takes a lot of energy to fill that role, to be that employee, to be the go-to guy, and most of us don't have that to give in unlimited quantity. It worked for me on every level when he snapped, when he looked at what he'd done, and what he was expecting to do, and what he was now going to be doing instead, and decided he was empty, had nothing to give, and wasn't going to give what he did not have. As I said, Phillippe gives an amazing performance. Some have criticized the road movie aspect. Huh? He stops to visit the parents of one of the soldiers killed in Tikrit. Tom Cruise did that in Born on the 4th of July. It's one of the things you do. He goes to visit a soldier who was badly injured in Tikrit. Even after he's gone AWOL, he somehow can't leave the job he's abandoned, and that contradiction works. With everything we've seen sequentially, the ending can't be anything else, anything other, than exactly what it is. Emotionally, I didn't like the ending. I wish it could have been something else. Except it couldn't have been. The character we saw in the post-return scenes in Texas, the character we saw visiting the parents or his injured comrade, there are places this person can't go.

There's one scene in the movie that I didn't like at all, which is so blatantly there to announce the imminent arrival of a bad thing which we so blatantly and artificially don't see on screen that there's no surprise at all when The Call comes to tell Sgt. King that which the experienced film viewer has already deduced. But that bad scene leads into a climactic scene between the King and Shriver characters that works on every level and held me rapt. So I'll forgive the one bad.

This is the second movie directed by Kimberly Peirce, who also co-wrote with Mark Richard, after the excellent Boys Don't Cry, which won an Oscar for Hilary Swank. It's way too early in the year to say Ryan Phillippe should be nominated for this, but not too early to say that Peirce has directed another excellent film with another excellent lead performance that deserves to be seen.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Supply-Side Agenting

So as we continue with the never-ending presidential election in the United States, the issue of tax cuts is certainly going to be one of those that's on the table. Do you soak the rich? Do you reduce taxes to increase revenue? An article in the NY Times on this subject a couple days ago, more to come I'm sure. Let us look at some of these questions through the prism of the profession of literary agent.

Agents such as myself used to be called ten-percenters, because we took a 10% commission on the income we earned for our clients. That is no longer the case. In the book business, agents are now fifteen-percenters. The move toward a 15% commission started in the early 1990s. The move was not without its logic. It is safe to say that major bestselling authors are now paid far more than they were in the 1960s. Same in publishing as in movies or TV or sports or any profession. It is equally safe to say that the same cannot be said at the bottom end of the scale. Unlike sports, where minimum salaries for professional players are much larger than they were decades ago, the typical advance for a first novel has not increased much at all. Most authors start at the bottom. But if postage keeps going up, and rent, and starting salaries for the assistant, and you still have 75% of your deals in an advance structure that hasn't changed in 40 years...

But I think it is also safe to say that the move to higher commissions would never have gotten off the ground if a lot of authors had said "well, I like my agent fine, but if I like some other agent only 10% less but would be paying 33% less commission, this is a trade-off I can and should make..." it would have been very difficult for the increased commission to stick. But authors did not do that. They did not, one-by-one through the actions of a significant few, reverse the increase or scale it back to 12.5% or anything of the sort. Over the next ten years, the 15% commission became the established norm. People do not do things solely for the money. It does not follow as the night the day that if tax rates are lower that people will work harder to take advantage of those lower tax rates. If it were that simple, agency commissions would not have increased by 50%. A caveat: that 50% increase in agent commissions is only a 5.555% reduction in earnings to the author who makes 85 cents on the dollar instead of 90 cents. Hence, the argument could be made that the increase stuck because it was only a 5.555% increase. So if you want to take a supply-side approach to taxation, you need to lower taxes by well more than 5.555% to see the benefits flow. Statistics are such interesting things.

So be it; commissions are at 15%. What would happen to revenue at JABberwocky if I followed a kind of supply-side approach and lowered my commission. The evidence on that is crystal clear: my revenue would drop. I was one of the last agents in the world to raise my commission to 15%; I had decided not to raise when I left a bigger company to start my own agency in the mid-1990s, when there were still a significant # of agents who had not yet gone up. It seemed risky, and I was going to have a low-overhead me-in-my-apartment operation. It was hard to detect any competitive advantage as the years progressed from having a lower commission than anyone else. Thus, it seems unlikely that I would gain an advantage today if I decided to reverse course and again be the low-cost literary agent.

But let's say it were otherwise. Let's say that I could raise revenue if I dropped my commission to 12.5%. Maybe I would have paved the way, even, by getting some or another major author to whisper in my ear "hey, you do that, and I'm yours." What if that went so well that I lowered my commission to 10%. And then to 7.5%. And then to 5%.

Well, at some point, I would have lowered my commission so much that it would be impossible to keep raising my income by lowering my commission rate. There is no way -- NO WAY -- that I could have a 2.5% commission rate, and a much larger client list, and be making more money. All those extra clients would start to put pressure on my overhead. Just like, in the real world, rising population in the US puts pressure on overhead. More people need more schools and more roads and more fire trucks, more clients at JABberwocky mean more staff and more postage. I could pare some costs by "driving out waste" and "making JABberwocky more efficient." And I would have a 2.5% commission rate but have a lot of "user fees." I would scour the business for chargeable events: $5 for sending a check to you, $25 for sending out a manuscript, and more. And again, in the real world lowered taxes do not always mean you pay less to the government. You end up paying more to renew your drivers license or to part at the state park or to get a copy of your birth certificate or to buy a pack of cigarettes. The airline industry is also moving to a low base with lots of extra charges. So here, my question for any strict supply-sider is to explain to me when on the path from charging a 15% commission to a 2.5% commission I would in fact start to lose money. The tax cut crowd would probably say that's a ludicrous question when applied to taxes because they are so high right now, So Very Very High, that we are not possibly close to cutting them to a point where that question would have any meaning.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Never Back Down

Seen Easter Sunday March 23, 2008 @ the AMC Empire 25, auditorium #5. 3 Slithy Toads

A surprisingly good teen sports film in the mold of the Karate Kid, with a likable cast and a smarter-than-average script that digs a little more deeply than the typical film of this ilk.

It's the story of Jake Tyler, who is forced to leave his football stardom in Iowa behind when his younger brother gets a scholarship to an Orlando tennis academy. He can't leave behind the memories of his father, who died in a drunk driving accident which Jake survived in the passenger side. Why did he let his father drive? His sensitivity on this issue leads him to start a brawl during one of his football games, and internet footage of this brings him to to the attention of the mixed martial arts crowd at his new school. They want to fight him whether he wants to or not, leading up to a climatic brawl by way of the MMA gym operated by Djimon Hounsou.

Jake is played by Sean Faris, who looks like Tom Cruise and has a lot of charisma, but probably isn't going to have Tom Cruise's career. Sean is 26, and this is the highlight of his filmography. Tom Cruise had already done Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, and Rain Man and Born on the 4th of July not far away. And yet Faris seems to have a little more going for him than good looks alone. That 26 thing is an issue, though. I hate to criticize the casting, which is co-credited to the niece of somebody who I go to synagogue with, but this is a particularly bad example of over-age casting. Faris can barely get by as a high school student, but you can't even say that about most of the "high-schoolers" that surround him. His chief nemesis Cam Gigandet looks post-collegiate. On the other side, Hounsou does an excellent job of filling the Morgan Freeman "Oscar-nominee-doing-good-work-and-not-looking-down-on-material" role. Leslie Hope (Teri Bauer in the first season of 24) does well and adds something to the often thankless mother role.

But let's talk about the script some, because this one is definitely a cut above. Jake's younger brother is a scholarship kid, and the film doesn't let us forget that. Differences of class between Jake and the other much richer children he meets up with at his new school are handled with unusual dexterity. He lives in a middle-class apartment complex and his mother has some job that requires her to use a uniform, and he goes to see people in big mansions with large pools. Yeah, we've been there. What we haven't so much: Jake takes the bus to the party he's invited to, and I'm thinking "um, if Orlando's like a lot of other places, that bus ain't gonna be running when he leaves the party," and I keep wondering if the script will remember this. Oddly enough, it does. Jake gets a ride home from the party in less than ideal circumstances. And he continues to take the bus. In fact, it becomes a kind of running gag. This isn't a treatise on race and class, and its ideal of mixing through mixed martial arts is probably not realistic, but Chris Hauty's script is nonetheless doing more, more realistically, than I would have expected.

Another instance of some script-smarts: one of Jake's friends is lured away to bait Jake into the big fight he's trying to avoid. Everyone in the audience certainly knows what's going on, and you want to give the usual "stupid character" demerits and lump this in with every standard-issue teen slasher flick and anything else scripted on their level. But. A scene or two before we saw Jake persuade his friend to join him at the lunch table by saying how this girl at the table's totally been keeping her eye on friend. It sets up the friend's desire to be accepted, and it makes it more plausible when he hops in that car two scenes later. Credit to the screenwriter for putting this in, and to the director for not trimming the earlier scene. This is a good takeaway for somebody who might want to become my client: maybe the characters in your novel will need to do stupid things on occasion, but that doesn't mean you have to write stupidly.

There's also just a little more intellectual depth to Jake's decisions on when to fight and when not to than you might expect to see in a movie of this sort. Toward the beginning of the movie, there's a scene where Jake shows off his smarts about the Iliad on first day at his new school. Bad movie of this sort, that scene is nothing more than that. It gives some vague excuse for the bad guy to decide to take on Jake. Here, we revisit that scene toward the end of the movie. Jake goes off to the big battle because he's like that character in the book; he's fighting now so he doesn't have to fight again. Which in turn makes Never Back Down an excuse to ponder on other more important decisions in the world about when and why we fight. It manages to raise those questions naturally in the course of the movie, and even as you resist the idea of any film like this having anything to say about questions like that, you have to credit the naturalness with which they're introduced into this particular movie.

In a genre like this, it's the willingness to sweat some of these small details that makes the film stand out. It's easy enough to grind out the product. The makers of Never Back Down show a pretty consistent interest in beating the low-end expectations.

Friday, March 21, 2008

When Pershing Square Knocks, Hide in the Cellar

Somewhat related to my last post, Pershing Square Capital is one of these big money firms that likes to come in with its wonderful ideas to enhance shareholder value. Sadly for me, they've decided to help ruin two companies where I've had a tiny bit of stock, Borders being one of them. If you own stock in a Pershing target, sell while you still have the chance.

I'm generally suspicious of these "enhance shareholder value" ideas, which too often can be short-term fixes to boost the stock price with little regard for real long-term prospects.

Certainly, loaning money to Borders at 12.5% interest is very helpful to Pershing Capital, but not to the rest of us. Where have they been while this cash crunch developed?

At Wendy's, one of their great ideas to enhance shareholder value was for the company to spin off Tim Hortons to concentrate on the core business. Many of you in the US may not have heard of Tim's, but it is to Canada what McDonald's is to the US. It is everywhere. It sells coffee and baked goods and soups and sandwiches, most of it of high quality (I love timbits). It's heavily saturated in the Canadian market which limits growth, but they have the ability to conquer the entire United States, an endeavor which may not be easy because of entrenched competitors like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme, and in fact Tim's acquisition of the bankrupt Bess Eaton donut chain in New England has led to a difficult uphill struggle against Dunkin Donuts.

But that being said, Wendy's is the #3 fast food burger chain in the US. It was able to gain a little momentum when McDonalds had a bad spell a few years ago, but when McDonalds is run better as it is now, it's as difficult for the #3 burger chain to gain momentum as it would be for Borders as the #3 on-line book retailer.

But Pershing comes in and says it would be better for Wendy's to concentrate on its core business -- i.e., the burger chain that is #3 in the market going up against two strong competitors -- and spin off Tim Hortons -- i.e., the company that is #1 in its space with some potential to grow. I sold off 18 shares of Wendy's to buy more Tim's than I would have gotten in the spin-off and am glad I did. My remaining few Wendy's shares I've decided to give up on as well. And my few dozen Borders shares, it's not even worth selling right now. There's honestly no significant difference at this point to having $300 or having $0 if the company goes bankrupt tomorrow. I may as well retain the right to go to the annual meeting and make a fuss.

Thanks, Pershing Capital! Thanks, Bill Ackman! The best day to sell is the day they buy.

Hey Hey Ho Ho George L. Jones Has Got to Go!

So somehow or other Borders has managed to get itself into a deep cash crunch, is pursuing "strategic alternatives," which is Wall Street speak for praying for rescue, has seen its share price drop toward $5ish a share. It'll never happen until it's too late, but it's time for the board to admit it made a mistake in hiring George L. Jones to run the company, and to put him out on the street.

I've been very ambivalent about George L. Jones for a long time. Big picture, he's seemed to have some good ideas. Chief among them: he stopped pouring money into wasteful store remodels; he did what needed to be done at Waldenbooks which had gone from being a cash generator 10 years ago to a cash drain; the new concept store idea was intriguing. Some ideas had potential but carried a lot of uncertainly, in particular the benefits of having your own web site instead of tying in with Amazon to allow better integration with the stores and the Borders Rewards program, but that up against the risks of having a lot of capital invested in launching what would clearly be no better than the #3 internet retail site for books because of the sheer impossibility of going after B&N and Amazon.

And I don't know if George L. Jones is responsible for this, but I do think the current buyer for sf/fantasy is the best person Borders has had in that position in my entire professional career.

But small picture, the company has been a mess. The employees at the Evanston, IL store know that the picture on the BordersStores web site is of the old location, which they relocated from five years ago, I've written to point this out, the employees have tried to get it changed, and it doesn't happen. The Paramus store moved nine months ago, and that picture hasn't been updated. It's a small thing, but the store relocation manual should have as step 6.A.2 "update picture on web site," and the district manager should see that it is done. They sent out a press release to announce the opening day of their Santa Monica store just a few days before, changed the web site on that day to say "Now Open," and Brandon Sanderson get there and the store is days away still from opening, and there's no excuse for that. That happened multiple times. Stores would change hours and the web site wouldn't be updated, and again, isn't that step 2.B.1 on the "changing hours" manual? Barnes & Noble does better. He's complained about the inefficiency of returns, but does nothing about the stores that have extremely high rates of store-generated returns like Columbus Circle, Manhattan because of space issues, which sees the store shipping back 2 copies of Brandon Sanderson's WELL OF ASCENSION one day so that the central office can reorder them the next and ship 2 right back. This is a problem that can be solved, by building taller shelves or segregating the hardcovers and trades as all Borders once did to maximize efficiency or by shelving more creatively. There isn't a complaint in this paragraph that I haven't written to Borders about. Why in one instance did it take me two letters to get them to update incorrect store hours on the web site, when one should have sufficed, and none have been necessary?

And I'd keep thinking in the back of my mind that I didn't really think I or the board or anyone should be too trusting in the CEO of a major company who didn't care about doing the little things right, consistently.

On their last quarterly earnings call, George L. Jones took great credit for his initiative in being sure the endcaps ran on time. He had gone into some markets, got the message across from the top down that every store had to be doing its store promotions consistently and correctly and etc., and gotten great results. But where's the passion for all the other little things?

And if he was so happy to take the credit there, will he take the "credit" for steering the company to the precipice of a cliff?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Funny-book round-up

I used to have a serious comic book habit. When I started my own business in 1994, time suddenly got a lot scarcer and it became hard to keep up. It was even harder to give up the idea of it, and I accumulated huge stacks of comics with the certainty I would read them some day, and then finally went cold turkey. I never read those stacks. Several years ago, around the time "Y" started with Vertigo, I decided I was missing my comic books too much, and I decided to pick up the habit again, the the conditions that I would average no more than a few comics a week, that I would read them all, and that I wouldn't read things out of force of habit if I wasn't liking them. I've done a pretty good job of sticking to it. With the exception of the meandering last year of "Y," I've rarely been patient for two bad issues in a row of anything. And though the books might get stacked up 4-6 weeks sometimes, I do read them. I buy the monthlies, because the compilations or trades would be too big, and I would never be able to make the time for them. So herewith, the first in a sometimes round-up of what one finds on my shelf:

Infinity Inc #7. This is the kind of comic I once read all the time, but my current age and interests and habits leave me little interest in books that endlessly crossover here and there with this book and that book and some company-wide catastrophic civil crisis. It looked like there was a bit of a break in the crossing over here, so I decided to give this a try on a slow week. This is the 2nd issue I've read, and it's solid. 3.5 slithy toads, and I'll probably stick with until the next crossover, and then drop it.

The Exterminators #27: This is the kind of comic that once never existed and which now forms the core of my reading. A surprisingly good Vertigo series that I've enjoyed from its inception. A Mayan cockroach infestation threatens to conquer Los Angeles, and along the way to stopping it the eponymous exterminators manage to find much that is interesting. Here, a little sidetrip into the world of the cantaloupe bomber. 4.5 slithy toads.

The Un-Men #8: Another interesting Vertigo series, if perhaps a step down, 4.0 slithy toads, from the line's best. A carnival city of mutant freak show acts, a PI, action, sex, all kinds of stuff thrown in. I kind of figured out the Aidan bit an awful long time before the lead, but OK.

The Simpsons #139: Bongo does a great job, and The Simpsons has always held true good and bad to the TV series. Homer orders an ostrich farm off of an infomercial and the merriment begins! 4 slithy toads. & FYI, my client John Zakour will be doing a Simpsons script or two. I can't wait to see his name in Bongos. John will be upset if I mention his name without also mentioning his entries at Zuda comics.

DMZ #29: Manhattan is the war-ravaged zone between the US and the Free States, an intrepid reporter goes in to cover the story and ends up becoming part of it. In this start to a new six-parter, he's covering peace talks and a cease fire in the offing, and the flash-forward at the start tells us things may not go as well as one would hope. Like a lot of Vertigo books, this is worthwhile for being a bit off the beaten track, and it easily lets you think it's more intellectual than it is because you can maybe pretend NYC is a stand-in for Baghdad, though I'm having a harder and harder time buying it, and this 6-part epic I kind of feel could maybe be done as 4, kind of like the last multi-parter could have been an issue or three shorter, and I'm not sure where it's going but know it's doing it slowly. I liked this issue more before the blogging forced me to really put it up against the other books I'm reading. 3.5 slithy toads, and I'm not in danger of giving it up. Yet. If it slips any, though...

DC Special Raven #1: Yuck! You can't go home again. I found with a lot of the recent First Comics revivals (Badger came back, Nexus came back, Grimjack came back, Sable came back) that I wasn't liking them the way I had loved them when First was in its prime, and certainly not loving them so much to pay $3.99 when the rest of my comics were $2.99. Well, heavens knows I have a real super soft spot in my heart for Marv Wolfman and the New Teen Titans. So I picked this up because it's Wolfman, because it's Raven, and in spite of the fact that the art looks so godawful bad that I can't comprehend what fandom sees in the guy, except there must be something. 0 toads, dude!

Young Liars #1: Another new Vertigo series. This one had decent art and looked literate so I decided t add the first issue to my bag. David Lapham, the creator, is apparently known for something called Stray Bullets. Not familiar with it. This first issue introduces us to a guy's guy named Danny Noonan who's moved to the big city, gotten himself involved with a slightly crazy lady who has a bullet in her brain that will kill her if the craziness it induces doesn't kill her first. Her father's crazy without the excuse of a bullet in his brain. There's something about Danny that has me at "hello," as the sane core of a crazed existence. But does the title hint at something about Danny that I may not like to find out? 4.5 slithy toads as a first issue that has me eager for more...

Arthur C. Clarke

Once upon a a time there were the Big Three: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein. Andrew Wheeler, a much better blogger than I, offered some reflections on a look back in the NY Times Book Review at a week that saw two of them on the list. And now there are none. Those halcyon days of my youth when science fiction writers appeared on the list have been replaced by days in which fantasy writers appear. The sf writers that do, like William Gibson, often get that way with the help of a critical establishment that claims they no longer write sf, which was a very hard thing to do with the Big Three.

Of the three, Clarke was the one I knew the least. I read lots of Asimov; the Foundation Trilogy was one of my first purchasers as a new member of the SF Book Club some 28 years ago. I read lots of Heinlein. Rather less, much less even, of Arthur C. Clarke. But his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey leaves me enough in his debt all by itself, and those 2001 royalties helped pay for my salary at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency when I was but a wee lad of a newbie to the field.

And then there were none...

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Bank Job

Seen at Regal's Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14, auditorium #6, Monday evening March 17, 2008, 3.5 Slithy Toads, at least

Edited and possibly over-edited to within an inch of its life, this caper film is based on the true story of a bank robbery in London in which a group of thieves tunneled into a safe deposit vault and escaped with several million dollars of loot. The film ties this in to dirty pictures of Prince Margaret, a Tunisian black power activist, the uprooting of many Scotland Yard cops bribed by a porn kingpin, and more As with many movies based on true stories, my curiosity regarding the extent to which any of it is true battles with my desire to enjoy the movie as a movie and ignore any and all questions of its veracity.

It's definitely a movie that grows as it goes. The beginning was too me a little too brisk, a little too flashy, a little too much work honestly, as it introduces all of the many players bang bang bang. And there are many, many players. Half a dozen robbers, MI5 or MI6 types, politicians, cops, and more. Even worse, and this perhaps may be the movie's biggest flaw, it introduces all of these people and makes hardly any of them interesting. They're all pretty much just there. And the actors have all kinds of weird face shapes and weird voices and sometimes a lack of much charisma. I watched them all in the first 20 or 30 minutes and felt as if this movie had been created as a British Film Board employment project, to provide jobs to the second tier Brits who somehow hadn't yet found employment in a Harry Potter or Narnia movie.

However, it's energetic enough that it carries along in spite of the hollow center. The complications after the robbery, true or untrue as the case may be, when the robbers find out just who it is they robbed, are intriguing enough. And if you don't really care about the Jason Statham character or any of the others all that much, there's still a kind of literary Stockholm Syndrome at work. You're there in the theater for two hours or so, you've invested enough in the characters, there's that human gene that makes us want to listen to and tell stories, and you end up identifying with the lead characters because you don't have strength enough to resist and withhold. I know this doesn't sound like much of a rave, but I read enough books and see enough movies which fade as they go along, where the creative talent doesn't even have enough core strength to benefit from this effect, that I do mean these remarks as a positive. Not the biggest positive, but when it all comes together at 11AM at Paddington Station, I was rooting for the good guys.

The porn king is played by David Suchet. A little bit of a sidetrack to direct your attention to a movie he was in ten years back called Sunday. This is an interesting thing that's most notable for being one of the relatively few films to be filmed in my neck of the Queens woods, or at least filmed in my neck of the Queens woods for something or anything more than the waterfront view of Manhattan. It's a quirky and odd beast, and I wonder if I saw it again now if I would find it an ode to Queens past because the area sure ain't what it was ten years ago.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paranoid Park

Seen at Clearview's Chelsea Cinema; auditorium #1, Sunday March 16, 2008; 2 Slithy Toads, maybe

So I should have listened to Stanley Kauffmann on this one. Over the years, this long-time film critic for The New Republic has been my compadre; the one critic more than any other who speaks to my own tastes in movies. It was bitter solace when I was writing film reviews for The Michigan Daily in college, ran up in my final semester against an editor who did not appreciate me, and saw Stanley Kauffmann pick up on some of the same things in his review of Compromising Positions that I had mentioned in a spiked review of the movie. Which as I recall was replaced with one that ended with a line about seltzer in pants. And Stanley Kauffmann gave a thumbs-down on Paranoid Park.

But..., the reviews were all over the map, I kind of liked the coming attraction, the release broadened from theatres where I didn't have discount tickets to one where I did, there haven't been a lot of movies opening so The Bank Job (which I hope to see shortly) was the only other one on my list, theatre wasn't too far from the electronics drop-off day in Union Square where I was able to give up my old Epson ink jet.

I should have listened to Stanley.

The plot here is pretty simple. Kid goes joy-riding on train in Portland, OR. Security guard tries to club him off the train. Guard falls, gets sliced in half by another train, police think a skateboarder may have done it, kid isn't sure what to do. You can make great art from just about anything, but you've really got to beat those eggs something fierce to get this modest souffle to rise. Which it doesn't.

I haven't read the book, so I don't know if the big bad movie flare #1 is coming from the book or the screenplay by director Gus Van Sant, but the time sequence in the movie is nicely jumbled up. There are sometimes movies (Memento, anyone?) where this kind of gimmick is intrinsic and important, but a lot of times the main advantage of mixing up the time sequence is that it takes a very thin gruel and makes it seem thicker. If you told this story chronologically and without long languorous shots of skateboarding in Paranoid Park or of the lead character dressing it wouldn't stretch toward 90 minutes. Maybe he could have made the movie ten minutes shorter and padded it by double-spacing the end credits, like they did in Red Eye.

Maybe it's time to put Van Sant on my do not see list. I have to credit him for Good Will Hunting, but that was a long time ago now. Vaguely irrelevant aside: I saw Matt Damon in The Rainmaker and in Good Will Hunting in the same week in 1997. The Rainmaker I saw with my friend Mark, and I told him after I'd seen the other movie later in the week "this kid can act," and that's for danged sure. The Rainmaker was playing my beloved and much-missed Loews Astor Plaza before Titanic, and I saw Good Will Hunting (in 35mm but) on the Imax Screen at the Loews Lincoln Square at a very late show on a Thursday night so I could see it on a big screen before Titanic sailed on to all of them. It was a good week for seeing movies.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

To Blog, or not to Blog,That is the Question

Peter V. Brett linked me up with this. Robin Hobb makes a very good point, which is that you can lose many hours to doing different stuffs, blogging among them, on the internet from the comfort of your own home while other possible things you can do (working/writing/movie/stroll/visit-w-friends etc.) don't get done. But wasn't it always thus? You can watch Survivor and see people every season on some beach with nothing to do, and who still manage to find things to do other than the necessary nothing. That's the point which I think Robin Hobb is missing.

Some people, Brandon Sanderson or John Scalzi or others might big-time, will talk about how blogging helps to knit a close community with them and their readers. Maybe it does.

I have a day job; I haven't posted in a few days because the day job has kept me busy. There are other people in the world who would have let the day job slide so they could post and comment and monitor comments and whatever. I don't know if I'll blog forever because I have to let the day job come first, but with blogging as in most things, everything in moderation. Except, of course, for buying books my my clients!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Follow-on

One of the responses to the Borders post makes me ask: where an author knows that a particular book or series is much more likely to be found at a particular chain, should they maybe say so on their web site? Save gas, support the stores that are supporting them, that kind of thing? May not always be one-sided in favor of one chain over the other; Elizabeth Moon can direct people to Borders for the Deed of Paksenarrion trade paperback, to B&N for The Speed of Dark trade paperback, and to both for the Speed of Dark mass market. But do you all know that the new Borders web site which will soon be replacing their Amazon arrangement, allows you to check in-store availability of any book? And that the B&N web site does the same? At B&N, there is a "Check Store Availability" box right on the search results page. At Borders, one click further since you need (at least right now) to select the title, and can then find the Store Search feature. Ed could have reserved a copy of GOBLIN WAR at his local Borders, or found another Borders that had all three, and discovered that no B&N in 100 miles had either of the first two books...

Three cheers to Michael Feingold in The Village Voice who says of Parlour Song "drably overworked material" and "another pointlessly accumulated antique" in this week's issue.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Great Experiment...

Borders has announced the first major change to result from the opening of its first new concept store in Ann Arbor a few weeks ago. One part of their revamped approach was to stock fewer titles, allowing a higher percentage of those fewer titles to be displayed. And now today's Wall Street Journal reports that this experiment was so immediately successful in increasing the # of books they actually sold that they're in this for the long haul. All of their stores will start to have fewer titles, with more of them faced out, with title count reductions in the 5-10% range, with the genre fiction section perhaps seeing a smaller reduction than some of the non-fiction categories.

What does this mean?

Is it possible to separate your reaction to this from your reaction to the new concept store approach in general? Where you go to a bookstore to find fewer books, but can research your ancestry and make photo albums and download a book to your Sony Reader, but find fewer books. You can either see this as the complete dumbing down of the bookstore, or as salvation as somebody attempts to think out of the box and do something new in a bookstore for the first time in decades. I want to reserve judgment until I see the thing for myself, which may not be until one opens in Southbury CT in May. But my own instinctive feel is to say that somebody has to do something. When I started in the business 22 years ago, you couldn't buy a book at Amazon. You couldn't play Warcraft with 28,285 of your closest friends on the internet, which you couldn't surf. Maybe it's not such a bad idea if you try and integrate some of that new stuff into a bookstore, and give more reasons to enter a store. Do you like that your bookstore sells chocolate, greeting cards, board games?

One major point that needs to be made: the superstore hasn't been a boon for the typical author's backlist. Even though there are more superstores with bigger selections and fewer mall stores with smaller, the bar for backlist success hasn't gotten bigger. I hate to say it's gotten tougher to sell backlist; you can fall into the trap of remembering how in the 1980s you had these three authors who did way huge backlist business while forgetting all of the authors who didn't sell in the "good old days" either, kind of like how we forget that the last half hour of Saturday Night Live has always been filled with bad sketches. But if it's gotten any easier, that has a lot more to do with the internet than it does with the physical bookstore. If having all of those books doesn't really do much to increase the sales of the ones at the very bottom end of the range, how big a hurt will it be for the retailer to stop selling them? The CEO of Borders says in the article how there are a lot of books selling but one copy a year in the stores that are carrying them.

In order to stay in print, a book needs to sell at least 25-30 copies a week on Bookscan, maybe 1500-2000 copies a year total, which may support a ship rate of 150-200 copies a month. Even though the technology may exist, most big publishers don't want to print 500 mass market paperbacks at a time. They want to print 2000 and not have them cluttering up the warehouse for three years. Do the math; 1500 copies a year total in a country that has around 1300 Borders/B&N superstores. How many copies is the average store going to sell?

For a $7.99 paperback, with a royalty of 6% or 8%, that's $1300 in royalty income tops to the author. $3K maybe in gross revenue to a big chain that sells 750 copies. Less than that for the publisher.

So if Borders stops selling some of those books...

Will I & my clients lose out as these $1300s zero out? Or become $1000s, or $500s? Will my less-successful clients lose out while my even marginally more successful ones benefit a bit and the top ones maybe even more? If you're the only author in the sf section, guess what sf author people will buy!

Will people download them at the Sony Reader station? Will POD terminals make their way into Borders? Will people go to Amazon and buy a print or Kindle copy? Will they go to the local B&N instead? Will the Borders buyers be more attentive to which backlist they need to carry when?

Will the publishers end up seeing more books go OP as some of these titles drop from a marginal 150 copies a week to a hugely iffy 100 copies? Will they decide to become more interested in doing short runs of 1000 or 1500 copies to keep books in print, taking better advantage of advances in printing and POD printing technology? Orbit in the UK is doing runs like this; the smaller British market might be forcing them to be a harbinger of this development.

Will Borders see a short-term benefit but a long-term loss if people start to buy these less successful books on-line or at B&N and decide they like that experience as much or more? Or will Borders be able to get a younger crowd into stores that will like these digital offerings?

Lots of questions. I do know that the cover is one of the most important things to selling a book, so the idea that you could sell more by showing more covers isn't a crazy one. I do know that anything can be done well or done poorly. Real-world example: Simon Green's DEATHSTALKER LEGACY/RETURN/CODA sold much better at B&N In hardcover than at Borders, and I think a big reason was that the earlier five books in the series had remained core titles with consistent availability at B&N while some of them had drifted off-shelf at Borders in the several years gap during which sales had slowed as they inevitably will when no new book is on offing. The new approach at Borders increases the chances of things like that happening, but good buying can minimize those risks, to say "I know we weren't carrying those old Deathstalker books 3 months ago, but now with the new book on the way..." This week, Borders may be selling more GOBLIN WAR by Jim Hines, because those books have at least been on the shelf at some Borders, while the older ones aren't to be found at B&N, but what if this new approach means the Hines books had a harder time staying on at Borders, too. You can see that the questions here are real, and many. Like the new idea at Borders, don't like it, just be happy we have two major book retailers so the mistakes can even out.

I'm going to be very curious over the next several weeks to see just which JABberwocky books if any will be getting the heave-ho at the Borders in NYC...

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Married Life

Seen at the Museum of the Moving Image, Riklis Theatre, at a preview screening on Thursday March 6, 2008. 3.5 Slithy Toads

I hadn't heard much about this movie before the screening invitation arrived, and I don't think I knew anything about the director at all, but with a very reliable cast that includes Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdam, how bad could it be? And the night was open on my calendar, and the price (free) was right. More than worth it; it's not a great movie but it's more than passable.

SInce this is an indie release that may not get everywhere, a quickie synopsis. It's set in 1949, in Seattle but could be pretty much any place, and Chris Cooper is a salaryman who'd like to leave his wife (Clarkson) for the alluring McAdam. He shares this news with his friend Pierce Brosnan, who narrates, and Brosnan tells us that he quickly has his eyes set on getting McAdam for himself. Cooper decides it would be kinder to poison his wife than to leave her, and she turns out to be having an affair of her own. It's a bit of a roundelay, with some tension, some laughs, some sex. And it's entertaining throughout.

What keeps me from liking it more is what I wouldn't have expected, which is the very reliable cast that isn't always here. It's hard to know how much of it is the fault of the direction and how much the fault of the actors, but there are too many off notess. Rachel McAdam in particular looks like she's playing dress-up in her role of the ingenue, and strikes off notes left and right. Chris Cooper seems ill at ease at times. There are moments when he's as powerful and solid as you would expect him to be, but others when he too seems to be playing dress-up. And it's a period piece, but Pierce Brosnan seems to be in a period all his own. Not in the time of the movie, not quite the contemporary Brosnan of, let's say, The Matador, but stuck in a kind of limbo state. I felt as if there were times when the script or direction wanted to drag Patricia Clarkson into a limbo state of her own, but she ends up being the most successful at finding a note and tone that sustains her performance consistently.

For all its flaws, I liked the playfulness of this movie much more than the stolid earnestness of the somewhat similarly intentioned Far From Heaven.

The Great Divide

Can anyone explain why there seems to be such a big gap in the use of computer technology between US and UK businesses, even when they're owned by the same conglomerate?

In my business, this is most notable with regard to royalty statements. For many years now, most US publishers have been producing royalty statements that are quite detailed. Almost everyone gives you the important information: how many copies the publisher shipped, how many copies were returned by bookstores, and how many of the copies that are left "in the field" are being held as a reserve against possible future returns. In some instances, the publishers almost seem to have this gleeful "you want information, you've got information" approach, and manage to provide this information over three or five pages of stunningly incomprehensible statements. It's a dozen years or more with some publishers that this information has been provided. And somehow, the British publishers are still stuck in the dark ages, or giving a number of copies sold but without any information on how they got there. Since books are returnable, the percentage of copies that are returned is crucial in determining how successful a book is, and from the UK, I'm still waiting... Why can't the technology be transplanted?

Nielsen, the TV ratings people, also provide weekly book sales information in both the US and UK. Again, the information you can get in the US is much more detailed, much more helpful, and much more easily found than in the UK. Again, why can't this company use the same good technology on both sides of the Atlantic?

And the same again if you're planning to attend Book Expo America vs. London Book Fair. BEA just radiates this sense of technological achievement in registering and paying that seems to elude LBF, even though both are run by Reed Exhibitions.

This doesn't make sense. At JABberwocky Literary Agency, I confess the technology at one end of the office isn't the exact same as at the other end; his Mac ran 10.3, mine 8.6; then I ran 10.4 vs. 10.3, now his is 10.5 and I'm still 10.4. But shouldn't these big global conglomerates be a little better at spreading best IT practices than a little literary agency?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Passages

This week saw the death of Leonard Rosenman, who won an Academy Award for his work adapting the musical score for Stanley Kubrick's classic Barry Lyndon, among many other film score credits. Most of Rosenman's movies were, as the saying goes, before my time, and before the age of film music by Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams and John Barry that I consider classic, but there's no denying the power of his cv. He was a major influence on films and film music. And Barry Lyndon is an utter masterpiece, one of the Kubrick movies that I simply need to see in a theatre every three or five years to re-make my acquaintance. Music is an important part of its power.

The screening I saw of the new movie Married Life (post to come) was the final program at the Riklis Theatre of the Museum of the Moving Image, which is embarking on a major expansion and renovation that will see the Riklis demolished. I won't miss it a bit. It was designed and built in the mid-to-late 1980s, and has all the joys of many sloped floor multiplexes of that era. The raking wasn't that good, so it wasn't pleasant to have the seats ahead of you occupied. Low ceiling, small screen size, chairs that don't rock or recline. It was a museum theatre, and has been tended to pretty much the entire time by an excellent projection staff, and it had a very good sound system that was not necessarily common to the '80s-era multiplex. But it will be so much nicer in two years to see movies in a new stadium-seating theatre at the Museum, and I shan't complain if the smaller screening room that will also be part of the expansion is just that, a smaller screening room. I saw a lot of movies at the Riklis, so it has a fond memory or two attached, but good bye, and good riddance!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Parlour Song

Seen at the Atlantic Theatre at the 3PM Matinee, Sunday March 2, 2008. No Slithy Toads


This is the newest play from the British dramatist Jez Butterworth, and of special interest to JABberwockonians, one of the three actors in it is Chris Bauer, who will have a recurring role as Andy Bellefleur in "True Blood," the Alan Ball - HBO TV series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by my client Charlaine Harris.  I can't shed much light on how that will work out.  True Blood:  Southern police detective.  Parlour Song:  British blower-upper.  The accents are, like, totally different.


I like to see plays during the end of previews, during the time the press might be taking a look to have their reviews ready to go at the official opening.  So when the review of Parlour Song appeared in The New York Times on Thursday, I knew what I was reading about.  I was rather dumbfounded to find out that Ben Brantley actually liked the play, but then reading on in the review it becomes a textbook case in picking up the little and big signs that tell you a reviewer is coming from a totally different place than you.

Brantley says the "considerable satisfactions are not unlike those of a type of short story The New Yorker has been publishing since at least the 1950s." Only problem with this statement is that most of the fiction in The New Yorker is unreadable. I try every week, and if I get as far as the second column of any short story in The New Yorker it is a bit of a miracle. Don't people realize this? Of course most of the people who can stomach the fiction in The New Yorker would probably find the pleasures of a Sookie Stackhouse novel or Brandon Sanderson's Elantris to elude them, every bit as much as The New Yorker eludes me. There must be some kind of genetic component to tastes in reading, and some people have genes which they think entitle them to look down on me. But that's a detour; the important thing here is that you can tell right away that Ben Brantley is coming at Parlour Song from a very very very different place than I.

Next, Brantley says "watching this, you're more likely to think of the creepy, devouring shadows that lap at the edges of Harold Pinter plays." Well, would you believe that Harold Pinter is every bit the same acquired taste as the fiction in The New Yorker? That this is an acquired taste that more eludes me than not. Pinter's done some OK stuff, but he's done so much overrated literary drama that just doesn't deserve its acclaim. And then Brantley continues "or the way Michael Frayn translates dangerously irreconcilable viewpoints into seemingly commonplace dialogue." I don't think Brantley is thinking of Michael Frayn's classic farce Noises Off (sardines, sardines, sardines) when he makes this comparison. Noises Off is one of the most inspired pieces of comedic writing ever given the theatre, and I think Michael Frayn for it. But no, Brantley is almost certainly comparing this to Frayn plays like Democracy (slept thru the whole thing; don't think I missed much) or Copenhagen (should've slept thru it, wouldn't have missed much), which like short stories in The New Yorker, like Pinter, are an acquired taste that I don't think people should bother acquiring. Does it matter what Brantley has to say next?

As it turns out, Brantley goes on to say "Parlour Song is occasionally too literary for its own good. Metaphors are bound to be thick on the ground..." Well, that I can finally agree with. Parlour Song is drowning in metaphors, and it's boring, and it's not worth it, and I felt it was a good example in the live stage of the kind of thing you can get away with for your 5th play that you would never get away with for your first. There are exercise metaphors and demolition metaphors and stolen thing metaphors. The stolen things reveal themselves toward the end in a Big Reveal that left me unmoved. The acting is fine; I think I was most taken with Jonathan Cake. But at the end of the day, I'm just left baffled that people take any of this seriously. Walking down the street after, I overheard a man telling his wife that he was sure it was a great play he'd seen that he was just too dumb to comprehend. The difference between him and me is that I am utterly confident in my own intelligence, and I don't think I saw a great play.

Marilyn Stasio in Variety gives the play lots of credit for its aspirations, but notices that "the piece sinks into its own symbolism."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James

Seen on DVD, on my HUGE screen (20") on Tuesday March 4. No Slithy Toads

I didn't quite know what to do with this when it had its theatrical release. I like Brad Pitt, it was very serious minded, it certainly seemed Worthy of Being Seen. But it was a long movie. The reviews were all over the map from "there be dragons" to you must must must see it. I ended up not seeing it in the theatres, but I felt guilty about it in a way I very rarely and hardly ever do. So I did something I do hardly ever, and I promised myself I'd look at the DVD. Thank you, Queens Borough Public Library.

And I am SO glad I didn't pay for this in the theatre. To be sure, you never know how something might play differently in a big theatre vs. a TV at home; there are movies I've loved more than I should have because I saw them at the Loews Astor Plaza. But I can't see this as one of them. Nothing happens. Lots of pretty scenery to look at. But NOTHING HAPPENS. I decided I'd rather be working out at the gym than watching a movie from the comfort of my recliner. That is not a recommendation.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Band's Visit

Seen Sunday March 2, 2008 @ the Reading/City Cinemas Angelika Film Center, Aud. #5, 30-35 people, 2 Slithy Toads.

My sister made me do it, and I wish she hadn't. The coming attraction for this movie looked very flat to me, and the reviews hadn't overcome my reservations, but my sister said nice things, and the 2nd week box-office suggested it was getting some nice word of mouth. Well, not from me. In Hebrew, Arabic and English with subtitles. Egyptian police band octet comes to Israel for concert in Petah Tikvah, ends up in Beit Hatikva instead, spends the night, they sleep, I fall asleep 3/4 of the way through. Next.

The Counterfeiters

Seen Sunday March 2, 2008 @ the Reading/City Cinemas Angelika Film Center, Aud. #2, 200+ people, 4.5 Slithy Toads

This was a movie that hadn't been on my radar at all until I started to read the overall excellent reviews in the NYC papers when it opened a couple of weeks ago, and then totally got on my radar after winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It's worthy. In Austrian with sub-titles, the film is about a group of Nazi prisoners with special skills who are assigned the task of first counterfeiting the British pound and subsequently the US dollar during the closing year of World War II in order to help the faltering German war effort. We've all seen Holocaust movies before, ranging from the sublimely good (Schindler's List, which this is similar to in some ways) to the entirely superfluous (The Pianist). This one has a fresh story to tell, and it does it very very well. Should the counterfeiters help the Nazis to help themselves? Should they hinder the Nazi efforts? I'd never want to confront questions like these for myself in circumstances like this, and the movie's willingness to deal with these moral ambiguities was to me its biggest selling point. The characters don't always do the easiest thing, or the same thing, or the most heartwarming thing, or the most heartbreaking thing. They make real choices in their individual circumstances, the kinds of choices that you can spend a lot of time talking about. It doesn't pack the emotional wallop that Schindler's List did, but it's willingness to tug at the gray matter instead of the heartstrings gives it a different kind of power.

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Seen Sunday March 2, 2008 @ the AMC Loews 34th St. 14, screen #14, 15-20 people. 3 Slithy Toads

This hadn't been on my list to see, but my younger brother said he and my nephews had liked, and so why not... with AMC's AMCinema program it's only $6. I haven't read the books, can't say I even want to. You've got most of the basic ingredients of a kids fantasy, with a likable family with family problems that can be solved over the course of 90 minutes, and basic if uninspired fantasy elements. The family moving into mysterious house is a fixture of kids fantasies and also of many horror novels. You've got some big negatives. The kids occasionally go too far in the direction of doing idiotic things because the plot requres but which go beyond even the usual level of stupid things that kids will do. The ending has some total off moments; why bother bringing Lucy back to the house as an 86-year-old looking like Rose returning to the Titanic if you're just going to have her become a 6-year-old two seconds later? It's got one super-huge plus. Freddie Highmore's performance is so good, and the digital technology so excellent, that I almost couldn't believe he had played two roles in the movie. It's not like the old days, like Burt and alien Burt on opposite sides of the screen in season 2 of Soap. Take the kids; you can do better, you can do worse.