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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Movies of Octoberone

August and September were very busy months for me; I managed to squeeze in several movies in August but September I saw only 2, which is amazingly low for me.  Many years ago when I had more leisure I saw around 120 movies a year, and even now I still average close to 2 per week.  2 per month, though, yikes!  And those I went to because I was able to see free screenings courtesy of Variety Screening Series and Museum of the Moving Image.  And of those 2, I wish I hadn't wasted my time at Blindness.  Sadly, Frozen River and Traitor are two movies I wish I'd seen that came and went before I could get to see.  But as I've slowly dug out from underneath I've been able to balance movies and work and some forward progress in my reading pile for work with several movies.

Ghost Town, seen at the Regal Kaufman Astoria, aud. #8, 1 slithy toad.
Eagle Eye, also at the Kaufman, #4, 3 slithy toads.
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist at the AMC Empire, aud #18, 1 toad.
Religulous @ the Empire #19, 2.5 toads
Lakeview Terrace at the AMC Loews 34th St., #11, 2.5 toads
Appaloosa at the 34th St. #5, 1.5 toads
Towelhead at the City Cinemas Angelika, #5, 1 toad, or 3 toads, or 2 toads, or I don't know how many
Office Space at the AFI Silver #1, 2.5 toads
Burn After Reading at the Landmark Bethesda Row #3, 2 slithy toads
The Pool at the Landmark E St. Cinemas #6, 1.5 toads

From worst to best...

Ghost Town and Nick and Norah both share the same flaw, that they're so flat and so essentially dull that I decided to take a nap during each.  While the reviews on both were mixed, both did have their share of positive notices, and I just can't figure out why.  The kinds of screwball comedies Ghost Town tries to channel were fleet and fast and sophisticated.  This movie thinks sophistication requires no more than Greg Kinnear in a tux.  Ricky Gervais is like a 45 playing as a 33.  During the moments I was awake, I kept wondering why none of the ghosts had died in their PJs.  Don't many people die in their sleep, yet all of them died at work or home.  Or did they get a change of clothes on their way to Ghost Town?  Why did Andrew Wheeler like Ghost Town?  Were the parts I slept through that much better?  Nick and Norah tries to channel something like Scorcese's After Hours only done by way of teen romantic comedy, only there's no chemistry between Michael Cera and Kat Denning, whose smile seems torturously forced throughout.  They try kind of so hard to be NYC hip and film in NYC but the ending makes no sense because the 5th Avenue address would be some upscale apartment building where I'm positive Where's Fluffy will not be found.  They discriminate against bookstores by filming at the corner of 8th St. and Avenue of the Americas but away from the B&N where Brandon Sanderson will be signing and only toward the Gray's Papaya.  

Appaloosa gets 1.5 toads.  I'd kind of like to give it at least 2 because the cast has so many people worth seeing, but at the end of of the day and as amiable as it is there's just no point to it, and I have to be a little harsh.  There's also voice-over narration at the beginning and end, and the lines at the end I hated.  They insist on declaiming what any reasonably intelligent watcher of the movie should be able to get from the film itself, which reflects either a lack of confidence by the filmmaker or a lack of respect for the audience's intelligence.  The Pool also gets 1.5 toads.  My sister really liked it, so I decided I could see it while I was down in DC before my train back, and then I read her second e-mail "remember we have different tastes in movies and you won't like this," and she was right about that.  Set in India.  Nice teenager working at a hotel doing maid work and handyman work and etc.  Friends with a slightly younger boy who works at a restaurant.  There's a pool house next to the hotel, older boy falls for the daughter of the family that visits from a bigger city for the summer.  They have adventures with and without the younger kid who may be somewhat jealous, summer ends and lives have changed.  There's some nice cultural stuff going on, but I feel as if this same movie if done as Amerindie cinema wouldn't go anywhere and that the people who like it including not only my sister but also Stephen Holden in the NY Times are giving it extra credit because it's shot in India and thus exotic.  For my part I think 1 toad might be more like it, but out of respect for my sister's opinion I've given it a half-toad raise.

Burn After Reading is worth seeing and worth not seeing, hence 2 toads.  Considering I don't like the Coen Brothers all that much, this counts as a rave.  Basically, the cast is really good, with George Clooney and Brad Pitt and John Malkovich and Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton and JK Simmons, so it's fun to watch on that account.  The critics have lambasted it in some instances (and certainly by comparison to their usual unadulterated encomiums of praise for the Coen Bros) because they say it's not likeable, but that's more often a problem in the movies the critics like than in this one which they liked less.  It's very hard not to like a Brad Pitt or George Clooney, and none of the cast are working overtime at being unloveable in this movie.  More accurate to say that the movie drifts along until it reaches a random ending after a lot of random plot events.

Religulous and Lakeview Terrace are both a tad above average on my toad scale.  Lakeview Terrace is directed by Neil LaBute, whose plays I've often loved (The Shape of Things, Fat Pig) but who is less consistently successful on stage.  The script is co-written by playwright Howard Korder whose 1988 drama Boys' Life has just been revived in NYC.  It has elements of cheesier landlord/tenant horror thrillers like Pacific Heights but overall does I think hold to a slightly higher plane in putting within the context of race relations and parenting and other more issue-related angles.  Another movie  that gets points for having good cast members; Samuel L. Jackson is a plus in even the most negative-filled movie.

I'm not sure why I'm not giving Religulous a higher rating.  Though I attend Sabbath service more often than not over the course of the year I am very wary of the extremes in pretty much any and every religion which can meet on the left and right in some very scary places, which is ultimately Maher's point.  His interview at a company that specializes in making "shomer shabbas" products for Jews resonates very deeply with me.  Under Jewish law there are lots of specific things you can't do on the sabbath, but because some of these can be very inconvenient even many very religious Jews can find many ways to try and circumvent.  When if ever can you go so far to try and circumvent the rule as to in fact be breaking it?  When if ever can you go so far as to make a mockery of the self-righteousness that some very observant Jews have toward those who are less so?  These can be real issues in my family where there are five siblings who received very similar backgrounds in Judaism but who go thru life now at every point on the scale from agnosticism/atheism to orthodoxy.  One example to me is a concept known as an "eruv."  You can't carry things outside your home on Shabbat, but there is this idea that if you put a very big string around something you can define it as your home.  The Jewish summer camp I went to had this eruv strung up around its whole grounds and it would be checked every Friday afternoon to be sure it was intact, and in that context it seemed not an unreasonable thing, but it does strike me as unreasonable to have an eruv around the entire island of Manhattan.  So some rabbis say the whole idea is ridiculous, some say if you can have an eruv you can have one as big as you please, I'm in the middle, and we're all reading the same source material.  In the Religulous section, the company shows off a phone with a special Shabbas phone that dials all the numbers constantly, so when you hit a number you stop the phone from dialing which somehow makes the number dial which somehow makes it OK.  My religion isn't the only one that presents questions like these.  How do you buy a house if your religion forbids mortgage interest?  The Washington Post has had some articles on this topic which I'd link to except they're buried in a pay-to-access archive.  I love the topic, watching Real Time With Bill Maher is one of the nice side benefits of needing HBO for True Blood, and I like the movie, but I just don't love it.

I feel awkward to give Eagle Eye the same rating as Rachel Getting Married because they're so different and one is like so clearly an entry in the good movie sweepstakes.  But Eagle Eye succeeds every bit as admirably in its efforts as Rachel Getting Married, and I enjoyed both quite a bit.  Eagle Eye does borrow from a zillion other fllms ranging from Enemy of the State to 2001 to multiple Alfred Hitchcock to Wanted (well, it couldn't have borrowed from that since it wasn't released).  Unlike the movie Stargate, which borrows from 12 other movies in a boring kind of a way, Eagle Eye does it in a lively and energetic way.  It has Shia LaBeouf who really does deserve to be the next big thing that he's becoming.  I've liked him so much where I have seen him that I've come to regret not seeing Holes.  There's real chemistry between him and Michelle Monaghan, unlike what we find in Nick and Norah.  It's all very ludicrous but I was entertained entirely throughout, and it gives value more money.

I think I may do a full separate post on Towelhead, which is a little too interesting to get a quick paragraph at the bottom here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Seen Monday evening September 29, 2008 at the Landmark Sunshine, Auditorium #1, 3 Slithy Toads

I was so quick to post negatively about the first film I saw in this year's Variety Screening Series that I should have been much quicker to enthuse about Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married."  But better late than never.

Jonathan Demme's had a very uneven career as a director, from the excellent and energetic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and film adaptation of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia, on to Married to the Mob and Something Wild (not bad, though others love more than I), continuing to The Silence of the Lambs and the excellent Philadelphia to The Truth About Charlie remake (which I love more than others) to a remake of The Manchurian Candidate (which needed better tighter editing; even scene seemed to last a beat too long making it rather a chore) and now to Rachel Getting Married, which I think might be up there with Philadelphia as his best narrative motion picture.

Much like Philadelphia is and will always be known for the excellent central performance of Tom Hanks, Rachel Getting Married will be known for the excellent central performance of Anne Hathaway.  Sadly so, almost, because just as Philadelphia boasts a slew of excellent supporting performances, like Mary Steenburgen's delicious performance as the evil attorney, Hathaway's star turn will likely overshadow the excellence of the cast up and down the line here.

But goodness is Anne Hathaway good!  She plays Kym, the sister of the eponymous Rachel, whose wedding weekend it is.  We know from the conversation in the car ride up to the wedding in ritzy Stamford CT with her father that there's something a little awry with Kim, which we'll soon enough find out is her drug dependency.  All of the other reviews I've read mention that she's on a weekend furlough for the wedding, but this seems to be the kind of thing you pick up from the press kit that isn't so well described in the film itself.  There's another secret about Kym that's a little more important and a little better hidden that's revealed slowly and gently, a line of dialogue here and a photo there and a plate in yonder kitchen cabinet.  And is it Kym's fault that her mother and father have split up, the mother ephereally and ephemerally played by Debra Winger in a nice supporting turn that (to continue with my comparison) isn't unlike the late-career glimpse of Joanne Woodward as Tom Hanks' mother in Philadelphia.  The father's played by Bill Irwin, who is perhaps better known to we  New Yorkers for some of his Broadway clowning.  He uses every bit of his expressiveness to convey the uncertainties of his own balancing act on the wedding weekend, and Rosemarie DeWitt's Rachel is similarly expert showing sometimes with raised voice but often with her face just what's it like to have to deal with Kym on a weekend that ought to be about her.  Both also have to ac with a lot of delicacy, because we're going to look at things they do before we find out Kym's other little secret and ask just how well they fit.

Films like this can sometimes be difficult for me, because I'm not fond of addictive personalities, and I don't enjoy seeing what people can do when they're drugged up or drunk.  I'm a little more tolerant of varieties of drugged up because I've seen less of that in my own life, so thank heavens it's drugs here and not drunks which in high school and elsewhere I've had my fill of.  Furthermore, there's nothing very glorious about Anne  Hathaway, other than that she's absolutely and totally magnetic to watch even as she does and says the darnedest and damnedest things on occasion.  And it's just a magnificent performance, definitely an Oscar contender.  She's hurt and hurtful, cuddly and hateful and hateable all at the same time.

The centerpiece of the movie might be a rehearsal dinner capped by a toast by Kym. We were told in the post-film Q&A that all of the script (by Jenny Lumet, the daughter of the noted director Sydney Lumet) is in the movie and that 90% of the movie is in the script but a good chunk of the 10% that's improvisation is contained in this long section.  Kym's toast is a cringe-worthy moment in the best possible way, because we're not sure where Kym is going or what she's going to say, and it's early enough with enough left unsaid about Kym to this point that what she does say can be looked at a lot of different ways and then maybe in six more when you talk about the movie afterward.  It's selfishly gracious, or is it graciously selfish?  Later on, with all cards on the table, there's a scene between Debra Winger and Anne Hathaway that's also devastatingly well done. 

This isn't a perfect film.  The stuff about Kym that's better found in the press notes than the movie is one small reason for that.  A bigger one that results in the deduction of half a toad is the very self-indulgent wedding reception.  Demme likes his music, so the film is filled with music and musicians (in fact, all the music in the film is sourced, on a radio or there live or such instead of scored), and they're all at the wedding reception.  And since they're all there, they must be shown.  Even though the dramatic climax of the film has already been reached, and we've had our wedding, and we're hungry for the epilogue.  And this just drags on.  And on.  And on.  And on.  And on some more.  

Perfect, no.  But very very good.  Often in ways that American films simply aren't good at being good at any more, and at the same time mostly without falling prey to some of the cliches of Amerindie cinema.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

True Blood, True Life

One of my pet peeves in movies and TV shows has to do with funeral scenes.  I don't have a "funeral suit" in my closet, some black suit with a black tie and a white shirt that I can drag out on a day's notice in the unfortunate and unwanted event that I need to mark someone's passing. Do you?  Yet it's this awful cliche in Hollywood that the real world is full of people young and old who either have that special suit in their closet or run out and buy.  You look at a group of mourners, and they're all there in a funeral suit.  I'm not going to go to a funeral in my gaudiest ensemble, but nor am I going to go in a black suit with a white shirt and a black tie.

So three cheers for Episode #6 of True Blood.  There's a funeral in this episode, and the characters are dressed like actual real people at most of the actual funerals of real people I've attended in my life.  One of the relatives is in a suit, but it's a blue suit with a loose tie.  A friend of the family is in an ensemble that looks like the kind of thing the character might actually have had in his closet.  Some of the people aren't wearing ties at all.  They're dressed respectfully,appropriately, but not like a lazy falsified version of the real world.  

And I'm a little bit biased about True Blood, obviously .

As an aside, and in response to a commenter from last week, yes, Borders does have an endcap for Charlaine Harris now, running thru the end of November, and has ordered lots and lots of books and even put in lots and lots of reorders as books sold over the first few days of the promotion; Barnes & Noble stores have gotten six-packs of the backlist and some may have a floor riser, but for a lot of these stores that might be only a one-week supply and after that I'm not so sure.  A Sookie box set will be out for the holidays!

Biased, but easy enough just to blog about other things and ignore if not for the fact that I'm really liking the show.  Charlaine had gotten a DVD of the first five episodes and told me the show got better with each one, and ya know, she's right.  Episode #4 had some squirmy funny business going on with Jason that I couldn't bare to watch and yet couldn't avoid enjoying.  Episode #5 was a tight rope act with some scenes that were really funny mixed with some scenes that had very strong emotional pull to them and the balance was just right.  Episode #6 was more tightly focused on the immediate ramifications of the death that cliff-hung at the end of the prior episode, but suffice to say that the funeral dress is far from the only thing worth praising.  We're seeing more and more of Jason's darker side so I'm loving him less than I was at the start, but that's a reflection of the approach to the character.  Anna Paquin has been superlative and continues to be spot-on.  Bill is growing on me.  

Six more episodes to go, the season finale slated for Nov. 23, and if things continue on this level I'll have a lot to give thanks for come Nov. 27.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Notes & Comments

The e-book revolution is finally starting to arrive, this time legitimately for real.  The royalties I received from Penguin at the start of October were around 15% attributable to e-book sales, and several books had sold hundreds of e-book copies, a good deal of which are attributable to the Kindle. Compared to a mass market paperback, e-book royalty rates are higher and the e-book dollars are disproportionate to the actual number of copies sold.  However, if the e-book revolution eventually leads to $10 e-books selling instead of $25 hardcovers it will lead to a loss in revenue to the Author.  The Sony Reader is coming out in a new and improved edition, which will still retain its Mac-unfriendliness but allow annotations and note-taking as currently on the Kindle.  There have also been glimpses of a 2nd-generation Kindle which may arrive in early 2009.  

The NY Times reports that consumer spending is down.  Bookstores are not immune to this, alas.  Looking over the Nielsen Bookscan numbers for JABberwocky over the past couple weeks, a lot of backlist titles seem to have fallen to record low sales weeks.  This is not a good thing.

At least here, we are able to enjoy the Charlaine Harris phenomenon.  7 Sookie Stackhouse books on the NY Times list this week, 7 again next week.  The odd thing is that this is happening even though the books can be hard to find in stores.  It looks like this will begin to settle down in the next week or two; Borders as an example is putting huge reorders in to stock an endcap that will last thru November, and I'm told B&N has floor displays to come.  Still, it's been an odd thing the past month to have so many books on the bestseller list without having the visual component of seeing them in large glorious quantity on shelves.