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, March 31, 2010

Saved!

I haven't had near enough opportunity to see movies at the grandest of the LA movie theatres. It's about the one thing I've envied about Angelenos, that while we in New York have pretty much no place left to see a movie in grand traditional style, LA still had movie palaces showing first run movies. But since I don't live in LA, it's hard to take advantage.

So I was really happy in 2008 when the Season 1 premiere for True Blood was held in the Cinerama Dome. But the Chinese? Not yet. The Egyptian? Not yet.

Last summer, I had a chance to walk around the outside of the Village and the Bruin, 2 theatres in Westwood that have hosted many premieres, and the Village in particular was wonderful just to walk around. They are also near a really good donut store, a Whole Foods, and it turns out not a long bus ride down Wilshire from Beverly Hills. I have really been looking forward to someday finding the right movie to see.

So I got really antsy in recent months when I read that the operator of the two theatres wasn't planning to renew its leases, and hence the news in Variety this week was a pleasant surprise. Another chain, a small CA chain named Regency, is going to pick up the lease. Now, I just have to hope next time I'm in LA that the theatres are having movies I want to see (even if it requires extra credit because of the venue), which I haven't seen, at times when I can go and see them.

The lease on the Chinese is up as well, however, so it's possible if that situation is still unsettled that I'll have to try and see something there with the belief that the Westwood theatres are a little more secure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Comedy Not

Busy times ahead, so I tried to get in two movies tonight before the crunch time hits and really wish I hadn't. AMC Loews Lincoln Square, two movies on two of their biggest screens (#2, The Kings; and #1, the Loews), on Tuesday 30 March.

Noah Baumbach did a great film several years ago called The Squid and the Whale. Wonderful performances by Jeff Daniels, Jesse Eisenberg, Laura Linney. Incisive, knowing, brutal. Saw it twice and it held up. He followed that up with the dreary Margot at the Wedding, which got much worse reviews and deservedly so. His new movie Greenberg with Ben Stiller got much better reviews. Not deservedly. Many of the reviews made it sound like the movie was some kind of quintessential LA movie. Not. Any of you see LA Story? Much better. This could have been set anywhere where there are pools, and people who spend lots of money on pets. Which is to say anywhere. Ben Stiller is kind of interesting, there's something going on with his eyes where you kind of get the sense that he's marching to the beat of his own drummer in a way that's very appropriate for the character. But it's the same look for the whole movie, to where you wonder if it's a real performance or a low-key stunt trying to be Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man without the funny edge to it. Yes, it's better than Margot at the Wedding. That doesn't make it good. Shopgirl. That was overrated, too. This is Ben Stiller's Shopgirl.

Then I popped in and walked out of Hot Tub Time Machine. The reviews for this were all over the map, some people saying it was cheap and chintzy and bad, and some saying it was better than Hangover. I left around halfway through, so you can guess whose side I'm taking on that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Required Viewing

I just finished catching up on the last two weeks of The Simpsons. This season is shaping up to be a very good one. Earlier in the season, there was "I was one Uday who didn't need a Qusay." This past Sunday, Homer pays a visit to Israel, and the episode is wonderful. There's Homer ordering a falafel with extra cheese, being asked to say that latkes are better than American pancakes in order to enter the country, a teaching opportunity if you watch with your family to tell your children what a tagine is, and more. Some of it, I assure you, is in quite bad taste. The week before that, there was an extended sequence called Koyani-Scratchy, which is classic Simpsons. If you're at all familiar with the movie Koyaanisqatsi it's hilarious on one level, and if you are 14 and can't tell the difference between Glass, Philip and Glass Plus -- well, it is Itchy and Scratchy and works on another level entirely. That episode also has a montage of great kiss scenes from various film and TV shows, how many of these can you identify? You've got to hulu or fox.com and watch these episodes.

Let me also say a brief word about 24. I'm glad this season will be the show's last, but at the same time, I'm not glad to see the show go. I've watched almost every single episode. And yes, some seasons have been better than others and some episodes just plain silly. Some things keep happening season after season which is why it's good they need not happen again in 2011. Moles in CTU. Prisoners lost in custody. CTU being bombed. If it's happened once, it's happened eight times, and every so often this season I've gotten a little tired of seeing the same thing happen yet again. But for all that, it's been a well-crafted show, well-made and most importantly of all well cast. Really well cast. And that makes all the difference. This season, the cast includes Anil Kapoor, who was the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire in Slumdog Millionaire. Cherry Jones is back again as the President. She's a veteran actor who's done lots and lots of roles in theatre, with two Tony Awards to her credit. Her chief of staff is played by Bob Gunton, who was on Broadway in Evita and Sweeney Todd and has two Tony nominations. Mkelti Williamson is giving a slightly different spin to his role as the head of CTU. These are all real actors, and they fill their roles with real authority, real conviction, real talent, and this year is the rule, not the exception. OK, Freddie Prinze Jr. isn't in Bob Gunton's league. But more often than not it works. I've spent this season waiting in the best Star Trek tradition for the demise of the young CTU agent who we know will get his by the final reel just like the young Lt. who Kirk sees in the first five minutes in the Enterprise hallway, but while we wait for that to happen, and for all of the other things we know will happen because they've always happened, we get to watch some of the consistently best acting in TV. So thank you, for sparing me the need to watch a 9th season, but don't think I'm that happy about it.

behind closed doors

So Borders has a big loan coming due this week, as Publishers Weekly pointed out in their e-mail newsletter today. And they also point out, which I'd noticed as well, that they were getting well along without announcing the timing of their earnings report for 2010. Will there be news before the end of the week on all manner of things?

There are a couple other things that I have noticed. I think Borders got a little tighter in their initial orders early in the year. Their orders for Peter V. Brett and for the Simon Green books coming out in June are a little lower than I might have expected, while there were some other books earlier in the year on the higher end of expectations. It's kind of like they went back to the very conservative ordering that was in place for several months following the September 2008 Lehman/economy taking thing.

That's the kind of thing I don't want to read too much into, because B&N and Borders can both go through phases when the're being conservative or aggresive and relying more or less on reorders vs. initials.

Early in March, Borders was slower than usual getting the new issue of RT Book Reviews, which I was eager to lay hands on since it had a very good review of Peter Brett's Desert Spear, and I ended up giving my $4.99 for that to Barnes & Noble. I was out on Long Island for I-Con this past weekend and on my way home from the convention on Saturday, I did some bookstore visits. The Borders in Syosset and Westbury were very light on magazines. Not quite as glaring when I went to the Columbus Circle store in Manhattan on Sunday, but even there, the magazine racks weren't as thick with periodicals as usual. There's clearly a major reduction in their inventory spend on magazines right now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Sneak Previews

After 35 years, At the Movies nee Ebert & Roeper nee Siskel & Ebert nee Sneak Previews has been cancelled and will air its final episode in mid-August.

Way back then, my parents and I might often watch together on PBS, which was where the show started. It was a clever idea, to take two critics from rival newspapers in Chicago, and have them hash out the new film releases on air. The opening with Siskel and Ebert picking up their rival papers freshly delivered at a newsstand is a relic of a day when newspapers were a lot more relevant than they are now, and when you still had a lot of two newspaper cities where the whole idea of rival papers resonated.

And this is the show that introduced (or at least in a big way) the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down idea to the world.

After around ten years Siskel and Ebert decided to make real money doing the show and it moved to syndication under the Disney auspices. Gene Siskel passed away, and after trying out an awful lot of people he was replaced with Richard Roeper, a Chicago Sun Times columnist. Ebert got cancer which effected his speaking. He still goes strong writing excellent film reviews but gave up the show, and then Roeper did the tryout thing settling on reviewer Michael Phillips. Then Disney decided to modernize the show and the 2008-09 season was unwatchable. Realizing their mistake they reverted to form with Phillips and NY Times critic AO Scott this year, and it's at least been a good final season. Because of intellectual property issues with Siskel and Ebert and their trademark for the Two Thumbs Up thing, it will leave with a See It/Skip It/Rent It kind of thing going on.

As the show moved around on the dial, it got harder and harder sometimes to find where it went when a syndication contract with Channel 11 would end and off it would go Channel 7. In its most recent years on Channel 5 is was subject to delays and preemption from Fox football and basketball games. So it isn't something I watched faithfully every week, but other than the one Bad Year in 2008-09 it's something I've always enjoyed, and I'll miss it.

Roger Ebert is planning some new show of similar like, and we'll see if/how that comes together.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday

On Tuesday, I accompanied Peter V. Brett on shelf stock signing of his debut fantasy The Warded Man.

It was a good day. Counting every small hobbit cave book location in Penn Station we visited 20 stores. Peter signed over 100 books. We had 100%ish compliance at Borders on putting the book on the FOS (front of store) mass market table except that the copies due in to Columbus Circle may have been cross-shipped to another store. The FOS placement at B&N doesn't start for a couple weeks, but all of their stores had the book out, on a shelving cart, or poised to come out of the back room. We made very good time, better I think than last year when we did this for the hardcover. After we'd done our work for the day, we had a nice celebratory dinner in Brooklyn, and then I decided to visit the Forest Hills B&N since I had a one-day Metrocard pass, and was pleased to see they had sold a copy of the book very quickly.

Two sad notes on the day. The Uno Chicago Grill at 6th Ave. and 8th St. in Greenwich Village is gone. This was a 6th Ave. mainstay for 25 years, and where I celebrated the weekend I moved out of my parents house and to New York City, I think it would have been only the 2nd Unos I ate at. Manhattan still has 3 Unos, Queens 3, the Bronx and Brooklyn 1 each, but the Greenwich Village location is a special one in my heart.

And I detoured off of our bookstore itinerary one block to check in with doorman at a friend's apartment building since he hadn't shown up for Scrabble. He had a tumor operated on, I found out, and was in rehab. Some people have pride issues and don't like to be seen at their best, so do you not visit if somebody might not want visitors even though it seems the righter thing to do than to not be there for someone? This is one of those awkward things where nothing you do seems right, either doing or doing nothing.

And another sad thing today, that Robert Culp passed away. I remember him from Greatest American Hero, which was a lot of fun for five or six episodes and a theme song much much better than that. Robert Culp is "walking on air."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lunacon

Blog posts may be shorter and less frequent over the next several weeks, because it's a very busy time for both the business and for me.

This past weekend, I was off at Lunacon, along with Jabberwocky VP Eddie Schneider and two of our clients, the Author Guest of Honor Tanya Huff and fantasy author Peter V. Brett.

There's history to Lunacon, which like most of the major sf conventions in the Northeast has been held for fifty or sixty years, with roots dating back to the dawn of sf fandom. The convention has been held in Westchester in recent years. It has a decent attendance, a decent dealer's room, maybe too many program tracks. It didn't seem this year to have a lot of aspiring authors. Neither Eddie nor I passed out many business cards. Old-fashioned authors can sometimes get lost in the cross-platform Long Island convention I-Con that is upcoming this weekend where the media guests are more central, but that's also a much larger convention that does seem to have more people with interest in JABberwocky wares. I've historically gone to I-Con which is further away but an easy one-seat ride on the LIRR. So that's ahead this weekend, and we'll see how the two compare.

As to Lunacon, I was on six panels. I added at the con to one on financial planning for writers and creative professionals, did a panel on contracts that was good experience for an upcoming workshop I'll be doing at Dallas Ft. Worth Writer's Conference, Tanya and I spoke on the author/agent relationship, something on Marvel/comics in a post-Disney age, romance and sf, and a Blood Ties/vampire panel. Attendance ranged from a handful of people to 35 people for the vampire panel.

The hotel is a little desolately located in corporate Westchester, though you can get to downtown Port Chester in a few minutes by car or a half hour walk. It's called the Escher hotel not entirely inaccurately because the various wings from various add-ons join in some interesting ways. I hate eating hotel meals, and not much choice at this con. There was a $24 dinner buffet that wasn't bad, interesting that on Friday when likely to have fewer people than on Saturday there were some creative maybe not so cheap dishes like a lamb stew and coconut rice with pigeon peas, then Saturday's it's very cafeteria chicken, mac 'n' cheese etc. Tasted OK, but you can tell they're keeping an eye out for the profit margin.

Friday, March 19, 2010

writing short stories

OK, I'm going to respond to some of the comments on my post of a few days ago where I referenced the Jim Hines survey, and its insights into how people got their starts...

First, Maria: When you say "writing a few doesn't hurt," I have to disagree a little. Basically, writing short stories is an art form that overlaps with but is still separate and distinct from writing novels. There are some authors, lots of them in fact, who can do both. But there are authors like Michael Burstein who are much better at writing short fiction that novels. There are clients of mine like Charlaine Harris and Brandon Sanderson who didn't write short fiction until many years into their careers. Simon Green wrote some short fiction, then turned almost exclusively to novels for many years, and it's only in the past two or three years that he's started to come into his own as a short story writer. If a writer doesn't have the knack for writing short fiction and spends years getting frustrated trying to do them, not actually turning to book-length work that might work because it's not possible to get through the short story apprenticeship, there IS real harm and real hurt to that author to writing short fiction.

Myke says if you don't write short fiction, you lose out on the networking. But people who don't have short story sales still have the ability to network. Go to writer's conferences. Go to World Fantasy or WorldCon. Befriend other writers via writer's groups or meeting at a convention. Some of the mentoring of new writers by established ones may now be easier because social networking allows us to meet in new and different ways. Since the JABberwocky list has as many people with short story sales as without, I don't shut the door to talking to authors who haven't written short fiction.

There's now also a Part 2 on the Hines Survey, click and enjoy here!

I'll disagree just a smidgen with my client here, solely because he puts a big "Busted" tag on the idea that you have to know someone. Just a smidgen. 25% of the authors went out and found someone to publisher a book without a networking connection. So, no, you don't need to know somebody, but when it's a 3-to-1 knowing and not, vs. a 50/50 split on the JABberwocky list for knowing v. not, it's clear that there's enough of a benefit to knowing someone that I wouldn't say "Busted." You don't need to, it doesn't change the odds like if only 10% of the people did it without any networking benefit, but you can clearly better the odds.

But the comments I got from my first post prove why I despair of ever wiping out this "must write short fiction" school of thought. It may reflect some of the insecurity that writers sometimes have. If the writer succeeds via The Path of Short Fiction, it must be because they took The Path, not because of their own skills and talents, and so they really want very much for everyone else to take The Path. And the fully half of all writers who don't take The Path, even they sometimes believe it was in spite of that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Three Sons

To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, I visited Borders #40 in Bohemia, Long Island.

Well, no, that would be crazy. Really, I celebrated St. Patrick's Day by travelling out to Long Island for the Grand Opening of the Whole Foods Market in Lake Grove, NY. Not as crazy, right! And the Borders was on the way. Like, go to a totally different line on the Long Island Rail Road and have a two-mile walk to the Borders but then the Suffolk County bus goes from directly in front of the Borders pretty much right to the Whole Foods along the way, not crazy at all.

I took this picture as I approached the Borders because you're looking at a little piece of American corporate history that I don't think you can see too many other places right now. In fact, this may be just about the only place in the country where you can see it.

For in the early 1990s, K-Mart decided that the future was in diversification. It acquired Sports Authority, it acquired Office Max, it acquired Borders to pair with the Waldenbooks chain it had owned since 1984. And then almost immediately thereafter, the decision was made that the future was in focusing on the K-Mart stores, and it spun off all three chains. But for a period of two or three years in the early 1990s, K-Mart owned Borders, it owned Office Max, it owned Sports Authority, and it did real estate deals that combined K-Mart stores with an Office Max, a Borders, a Sports Authority, in various combinations. And here we have K-Mart and its three sons, thus the title of this blog post, all lined up in a neat little row, in a plaza built in the early 1990s (my first visit to this Borders was circa 1993), all still in business.

And you just don't see that very often. K-Mart went bankrupt, closed lots of stores. OfficeMax closed lots of stores in the early 2000s. Sports Authority closed stores. Borders has probably closed the fewest stores of all of these chains, let's hope it doesn't catch up in a hurry, but it occurred to me that of the dozens or scores of real estate deals K-Mart did for itself and its progeny, there are only so many of them that included all four brands, and of those the odds are pretty good that one or more of the stores is something else by now, 15 or 18 years later.

Where else but here are you going to get an illustrated piece of corporate Americana like this.

As I enjoyed my ride on the Suffolk bus out the back way into this little slice of Americana, it looked as if they might have patched up some of the potholes. Maybe next time Peter Brett can enjoy the sightseeing a little bit more.

The Whole Foods in Lake Grove was doing the brisk opening day business one might expect, and is the 102nd that I've been to. It has a pickle bar, which is something I haven't seen before, I don't think. Their Indian bar had a squash puree that I hadn't seen at other Whole Foods, though the sign that says their Indian food is from Zaika is a little bit deceptive because Zaika turns out to be part of the same Cafe Spice outfit that provides Indian food to most of the Whole Foods in the region. They had a good gelato brand.

This Whole Foods is pretty much across the street from Borders #79 in Stony Brook, which was also a K-Mart real estate deal. My three sons are all still there, but the K-Mart is now a Lowe's. I also popped over to the relatively new B&N in Stony Brook, which was added around two years ago when the Smith Haven Mall added a "lifestyle center" outdoor extension, the Borders in Commack, and the B&N in Commack. Most of the stores had around 70 non-Charlaine Harris JABberwocky titles. The Borders in Commack has always been an underperformer and had only 50. So why is the Borders in Commack the only Borders on LI that still opens at 9AM? Do they have some super-brisk business at the Seattle's Best? This was my first visit to this B&N in Commack. They had a store catercorner that closed. This newer store is part of the Huntington Square mall where it looks like they pretty much demolished all of what was a small, old, decaying little mall, save for the Sears, and rebuilt it with the B&N taking up most of the space. I don't think the B&N does much better for sf/fantasy than the Borders does. The best current barometer is to see if a B&N has the Deathstalker books by Simon Green and/or the Blood books and some others from Tanya Huff, since those are titles that are found at the better stores in genre but not at the lesser locations.

I used to celebrate my birthday by visiting all of these various bookstores, Bohemia then bus to Stony Brook then bus to Commack then maybe on toward Huntington and maybe down to Farmingdale. It's gotten harder in recent years to take the time off for this, so I was glad the Whole Foods opening gave me an excuse to visit some of these old haunts.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

E-book pricing

As publishers gain more control over pricing of their e-book product via the new "agency model," how creative will they get in figuring out how to maximize revenue?

A real world example: Simon Green's Hawk & Fisher books are available for Kindle in a $9.99 3-in-1 omnibus edition, price is $3.33 per book. An individual Nightside book sells for as little as $5.20, as much as $6.40. The Hawk & Fisher books sell fewer Kindle copies by far than the Nightside books. Which on the one hand, makes sense because the Nightside books are newer and ongoing while the Hawk & Fisher books are backlist items, published a while ago and not ongoing. But on the other hand, the books themselves are very similar, and my instinct is that there's a bigger gap in sales than there should be considering the unit price per book.

Is it possible that there are price-sensitive people who are so focused on price that they refuse to buy the Hawk & Fisher omnibus at $9.99, because that's 80% or 50% more than a Nightside book, without realizing that they're actually getting a Hawk & Fisher novel for half the price?

What would happen if Penguin stopped offering the omnibus edition of the Hawk & Fisher books at all, and just sold them where they'd sell for the same $6.40 as Hex and the City?

What would happen if they followed the Baen Webscription model, where you can buy seven John Hemry books for $5 each or seven in a $30 bundle? In my experience, Baen manages to drive a lot of purchasers toward the high-priced bundle because the discount suddenly becomes visible. Hardly anyone buys one book for $5 when they can save $5 by spending an extra $25.

My gut feeling tells me that the current pricing for the Hawk & Fisher books is the worst of all possible words, losing revenue to the price sensitive customer and to the less price sensitive cover by offering a discount that isn't clearly visible. I think if you had only single books you'd have some people who'd be upset they couldn't buy the same omnibus for an e-book that they could for the physical, but still end up making more money. The Webscription program suggests the best thing to do is offer both the single and the bundle even if you don't sell any singles. I know it would be a good idea for the publishers to start getting very creative and scientific in looking at these things when they have the control and ability to do so.

Will they?

after the Ides

Some little tidbits today.

Our client Jim Hines has been surveying authors on how they sold their first novels, and he's put out his first set of results here. There are two main takeaways. First, the odds of your novel being the next Eragon are not very big. Self-publishing your way to a major publishing house is far and away the least likely route to success. This is one of those myth paths that will never go away because we'll always hear about the Eragon story, but we hear about them because they do't happen very often so it's newsworthy-ish the rare times it does happen. Jim also says "totally busted" on the idea that you have to sell short fiction before selling a novel, which I've known and said for 20 years. The split is 50/50 or so on the JABberwocky client list. But this myth will never die. It will be alive and well in some back corner of the room at the meal after my funeral. But I'll say it again: if you want to write a novel, write a novel. If you want to write a short story, write a short story. Do not feel in any way, shape, manner, or form that writing short stories is some kind of necessary apprenticeship to writing and selling a novel.

VOYA and Teaching Librarian are the latest old-line review publications to change hands.

On the e-reader front, the Alex Reader from Spring Design, which is similar enough to the Nook that Spring Design, which had consulted with B&N and then sued B&N, is now taking advance orders. The Plastic Logic Que reader announced this week that it would be delayed in getting to market. One stays, the other goes...

We at JABberwocky met this week with Steve Saffel, an experienced hand in sf/fantasy (w/ Del Rey) and graphic (w/Marvel) publishing who is now working for Titan, a British company with operations in both areas which seems like an excellent fit. Steve is very excited about the e-book thing. He feels it gives us the opportunity to sell way more books to casual, infrequent, maybe even heretofore nonexistent, book buyers, especially because of the ability for people to buy a book instantly when it comes to them virally. i.e., your friend says "you've got to try this," and you can try it in a minute from wherever you are in the world, you're a lot more likely to try it. I don't know if he's right or wrong, only time will tell us that. I do know publishing is inherently gloomy in its prognostication. I've been in the business 25 years, it's been dying for that entire time, and it's many years ago that I started telling people that if that's what it was really doing it would need to have actually died by now. It's therefore unusual enough to here his optimism on e-books that I thought it would be nice to offer a tiding of joy to tide you over from the Ides of March to St. Patrick's Day.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Funny Book Round-Up

The latest installment of my highly occasional round-up of things on the comic book front, and I'll refer now and again to my last from June 2009.

I purchased the first issue of Joe the Barbarian from Vertigo since it cost only $1, and I liked it. One thing about it was that it had one of those not atypical Grant Morrison endings where everything you just read turns out to be a prologue to something entirely different and unexpected. And the problem with that is... well, I'm reading the second issue, and I realize I can't remember anything about the first, because most of the first issue was something kind of entirely different. To me, this is bad in the same way as when you pick up a novel after a week or two away and realize you don't remember anything. I can tell intellectually that this is certainly a creative and different and unique and special something. And I don't have the foggiest idea what's going on. This may work better when it comes out in a collected edition of all 8 issues of the mini-series, but I won't come back for the next issue of the comic book.

DMZ is another Vertigo series that's stepping off in some different directions and going big into reversals. It continues to be a consistent entertainment, just like I said in my last full round-up 9 months ago, but I'd never have predicted we'd be where we are now. A seeming good guy has just detonated an a-bomb in an effort to show who's boss, and while the fallout's blowing a little north our lead character Matt is in a kind of deep blue funk wandering the lost world of Manhattan. Where there's a lot of death and dying, as always set against some nice artwork that looks exactly like Manhattan might look like if this wasn't just a comic book. Panel 1 on page 6 is the quintessential DMZ panel. When this series started out 4 years ago we were rooting for Matt, and the series has long since taken some detour from having a lead character we like. He's more like a camera lens for us to see through. As such, my attachment to the comic has now become more intellectual than emotional, which keeps me from being as much in love with it as maybe I should be for a comic I've been reading thru 51 issues now. But there is an attachment.

Ex Machina is also doing the DMZ thing. This excellent series is said to be in the homestretch, and the last arc is going off in some strange and bloody directions. Somewhere down the line I'm going to need an annotated version to explain all of the little hints and subtle connections that make this concluding arc of a piece with all that have gone before. Mitchell Hundred has been a much more emotionally involving lead character than DMZ's Matt. There's something about his pose in a bathroom stall in the last panel of this issue that suggests he might know more about what's going on than we the readers do. I'm awfully curious to see where this all leads in the last two issues. I'm not into Lost, but waiting for the final reveals in Ex Machina I think I can understand how Lost fans feel about the final episodes. Nine months ago, I was worried that this comic might drift to a close the way Y The Last Man did, and I needn't have worried. This last arc is hurtling toward something special at the close.

The non-DC comics this weekend were the latest issues of Bart Simpson (#52) and The Simpsons (#163), and both were good. Bart Simpson can be inconsistent, but this issue starts out with a charming, fun, creative story in which Comic Book Guy asks Bart to create a comic book sound effects glossary in barter for a rare issue of Radioactive Man. Sergio Aragones contributes a two-pager, and then there's another fun story where Homer becomes a chick magnet. Aragones does a full-length story for The Simpson's which is a mash-up of all of the classic Simpsons themes that's very much like a TV episode written into comic book form.

I'm glad Aragones is doing some good work for The Simpsons. I don't have an issue of the new Groo mini-series at hand, but it's been a deep disappointment. I've purchased pretty much every Groo issue at every publisher for close to 30 years, and I'm not sure I'm willing to buy the concluding issue of the Hogs of Horder 4-book arc. The ingredients are all there, but there's something totally off about the combination this time around. What's missing? Usually there's some underlying Groo wants/Groo needs element underpinning the story, even if it's the same thing Groo's wanted 28 times before. This arc is attempting to satirize some aspects of modern capitalism, like the race to the bottom with wages via free trade or the use of marketing to create demand for things nobody needs, but it doesn't hang. Groo is in each issue and doing all of the usual Groo things, but he also seems like a bystander to events that don't need Groo. And the satire itself seems a little more obvious than usual. There's a whiff of Lethal Weapon 4 about Hogs of Horder, that same sense of going through the motions with all of the usual jokes.

Human Target 2 is the 2nd of six issues scheduled to coincide with the new TV series. The top story by co-creator Len Wein is fun. Unlike with Joe the Barbarian, it took one little reference to the first issue I'd read several weeks ago for it all to come back to me and click into place and get me into the second installment. The Human Target is helping a mobster to reveal all he knows, only all he knows is secreted in locations throughout Europe that will have to be infiltrated. The back-up story I'm not so fond of, but I'd be surprised not to continue with this for the full 6 issues for some good basic fun.

Blackest Night #7 is the penultimate issue of the latest DC mega crossover project. I hate to sound old and crotchety with everything better in the good old days, but I'd like to think Crisis on Infinite Earths was better than this. I liked the first few issues of Blackest Night which I read in one sitting in the fall, but the series has become one giant fight scene without any character development which is leaving me cold. A friend of mine thinks it will read better when it's all combined into one issue. Maybe. It started out well enough that I'm disappointed not to be liking it more.

Nine months ago, talking about the current Superman arc, I said I'd probably keep going because it was straight up superhero stuff but that it would all end badly. I was right on the first part. I've continued to read most of the Superman books over the past nine months. I was wrong on the second part. Maybe it will all end badly, but I've actually come to appreciate the series more and more as it's gone along at a consistent good level, and it's now building to a climax in a little bit. That being said, the thing I didn't like about it nine months ago, I still don't entirely like. To fully enjoy all of the Superman books, you need to be up not only on your Superman history but on your Mon-El history, your Nightwing and Flamebird history, and your Legion of Superheros history, among other things. The issue with the #32 triangle doesn't actually have much of anything to do with the issues with the #31 or the #33 that will come out this week, and I'm not entirely thrilled that they're cross-numbering everything. On the other hand, you never quite know when all of a sudden the Supergirl issues will start to connect up again and the Action or Adventure issues will start to drift away. Adventure is drifting back into the main line of the story, and issue #8 (or #511) is surprisingly good. I liked three of the four stories in this prologue to the main denoument that starts to arrive in Superman: Last Stand of New Krypton #1. That being said, even though I've been reading most of the Superman comics, I'm not exactly sure when this final battle with Brainiac began. But it began somewhere! So OK, I'm not head over heels in love with the Superman books. But it's the only big crossover arc for one of the major or mini-major DC characters that's been accessible to someone such as myself who hasn't been fan-boying over the entire DC line for the last 12 years, and that is a major accomplishment on its own terms that I heartily cheer. So long as I don't accidentally miss an issue of importance when Action is again important in triangle #41 while I'm still reading Adventure which isn't any more with triangle #41 I should be OK.

Finally, I picked up issue #1 of Nemesis: The Imposters. It wasn't bad, but it also suffers as so many of the DC books do these days because it just doesn't cohere if you haven't read some other comic book that came in before this one. This may end up becoming something where I'll buy issue #2 if it comes out in a light week when I'm buying only one other book, and not bother if there are four or five other books I'm buying.

DC Comics recently announced that Dan Didio, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee are going to become the creative triumvurate in charge of things. Blackest Night is so typical of a Geoff Johns book to me, in that he'll start out something that seems really fun and interesting, and then strangle it in crossovers and continuity. And since Didio has been the Executive Editor, he's been the one who happily lets this happen time and again because he's totally big into the big crossover event where something major has to be happening at all times, or at least be always close at hand. If more of them were like the Superman books that are at least marginally accessible, or if they could come up with more things that would represent the good start of a Geoff Johns run instead of the hullabaloo of the 8th issue... Just as well that they don't, since it keeps me from getting back into my once upon a time days of reading 25 or 40 comic books a month whch I don't have the time for and which would start to add up $$ wise. Some of these comics have a sneak preview of a new Flash series written by Geoff Johns. Which looks really good. And I'm sure I'll buy and enjoy the first issue. But will I still be reading it a year later? That's an area where the Vertigo books I'm loyal to have been much more successful these past several years than the DCU.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Green Zone

When I re-committed to the blog three months ago after a post-less fall 2009, one of the things I said I'd try and do was limit the length of my posts, and on balance I think I've done that. There goes that goal. There's too much going on in Green Zone (see Wednesday evening March 10, 2010 at the Universal Screening Room) to keep it short.

The movie can be reviewed as a Bourne-like action movie. Green Zone star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass teamed on Bourne #2 and Bourne #3. And it can be reviewed as a polemic, yet another Iraq polemic after movies of highly variable success from Stop Loss as a very good and underrated one to In the Valley of Elah as a less successful one, or Rendition and De Palma's Redacted (watched one on HBO on Demand, didn't see the other) and etc. etc. And let us not forget Hurt Locker, which was photographed by Green Zone cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, who worked with Greengrass previously on United 93.

I should probably start by talking about the film from the thriller standpoint, that being the more successful part of the movie. But I'm not. Let's talk politics.

In the lead-up to the Iraq war in late 2002 and early 2003, I was very ambivalent about the whole affair. I was fairly certain that Iraq did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Just a gut feeling, really. We were looking so hard for them, so very very very very hard, and we weren't coming up with anything, not even the Colin Powell address at the UN, that was looking very convincing to me. Seemed to me if they were there that all of our money and effort and searching would have come up with something. Maybe not a smoking gun, maybe just a smoldering soap sculpture thereof. But something.

At the same time, I didn't feel as if the war was necessarily a bad idea. Saddam Hussein was a very bad actor. We were enforcing sanctions on his regime with the weight of a six-figure troop deployment without much of a helping hand from anyone else. Either we were going to have to get some help in enforcing sanctions, we were going to have to give up on the idea because it was unsustainable to continue to enforce them unilaterally, or we were going to have to charge forward. Now, given those choices, which in the real world are we going to choose?

So I didn't dislike the rush to war, per se. I did feel as if we were being lied into a war when we didn't need to be, and that to me was a bad idea.

I recall at the time that the left-wing serious UK newspaper The Guardian did a major series exploring the question of whether or not Iraq had WMD. That kind of reporting was pretty much absent from the major US newspapers. The press defenders will find this exception or that, but the Guardian articles were long, major, front-page, well-researched, pro-and-con heavily reported articles. I don't think anyone can seriously point to a series in the Washington Post, NY Times, or Wall Street Journal, the three biggest opinion leaders in US journalism, that matched. Compare, let's say, how much ink the NY Times has given in recent months to errors in radiation treatment at US hospitals, and you'd have to look awfully hard to find something like that in 2002 or 2003 on the WMD question. No, the major newspapers were highly credulous. The poster child for this has become a former NY Times reporter Judith Miller who was a go-to conduit for planting the official US line on the WMD question.

And Green Zone is coming from a very similar place.

Matt Damon is playing a Chief Warrant Officer (itself a bit of a surprise, we don't have too many movies with Warrant Officers at the center, Andy Gudgel will like this!) who is tasked with searching potential WMD sites in the months after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. We come in as he's doing his third such search, and for the third time coming up empty. He doesn't like risking men to come up empty. He starts asking where the WMD are, where the intelligence is coming from, other questions that don't have answers. He's in such a high dudgeon about this that he ends up going off res to do his own side ops, ultimately trying to take in a possible source of the misinformation. He runs up against a buzzsaw of an obstacle played by Greg Kinnear, a Paul Bremer stand-in (for those of you who don't remember, Bremer was Dubya's appointee to pretty much run Iraq as head of the Coalition authority) who doesn't like people looking very closely at the sourcing for the WMD intelligence. The climactic scene of the movie is Damon going to take in source chased by special forces units tasked by Kinnear with getting the source before Damon does, and with doing to Damon whatever needs to be done.

The ideological climax of the movie is a confrontation between Damon and Kinnear after where Damon says words very much to my liking, that the reasons why we go to war matter.

But while the movie climaxes with a confrontation between its two leads that very much warms my heart, the movie has to hit too many wrong notes in order to hit the right ones. It isn't likely that the Damon character would self-generate so many of his own orders. There are more successful paranoid conspiracy films that might get us to believe the Special Forces unit would kill Damon in the climax if it came to that, but I couldn't buy into it here. That they might tussle with Damon to get a little black book, yes, that they might kill him, no.

I always felt that we could have been led into war in 2003 for better reasons than the WMD, but the movie doesn't have that ambivalency. That one reason wasn't a right reason, and the war must therefore have been wrong. There's no sense that the war might still have been a right one to wage for other reasons.

There's even the question of whether those who were lying us into war were lying about it, in the sense of purposely and knowingly giving us false information, and I'm not sure I'd go that far in every instance. The war was oversold, and some of the people who did that should take ownership of their lies and mistakes (greeted as liberators, y'all remember that?), but this is an area with more grey than black and white.

But I can't fault the movie too much for that, either. Fiction films don't do very well with greys. You don't put Matt Damon in this role in order to have him Hamlet-ized with inner conflict. I'm not sure what the right or better approach would be. God knows there isn't going to be much of an audience for an even-handed documentary that attempts to show the world the "truth" about the lead-up to the war. The sub-conscious reason of needing to go to war to escape the sanctions enforcement conundrum hasn't been aired very much at all, that's for sure. We don't have an All the President's Men that can serve as a way in to the story. We don't have the consensus we did 25 years ago that allowed All the President's Men to be seen as a genuine good vs evil story.

I will fault the movie because I think its efforts to bring in the "whole" story about the WMD lie result in some of its worst offenses as filmmaking. We have a Judith Miller stand-in. Here she's a reporter for the Wall St. Journal who pretty much printed the press releases from her government sources about the source named "Magellan" who was pointing us to WMD, and implied is the same source for the bum steers Damon's being given. She's not a very good character in the script, or not well depicted by Amy Ryan. She radiates oily journalism, and not much else. And then Matt Damon's guided from within the government by an old CIA hand who doesn't like these politicos like the Greg Kinnear character. This is a lesser performance by usually reliable character actor Brendan Gleeson, who performs here like he wandered in accidentally off the set of The Third Man or The Quiet American. Gleeson may not be entirely to blame. The script comes up short in explaining who this character is, what the does, and how he relates to the other characters. I had a hard time figuring it out for the entire duration of the movie.

All that being said, there are lots of things in Green Zone that are well worth praise.

Let's start with Matt Damon.

It's around twelve years and twelve weeks since I took a note to self that Damon could act, when I saw him, the week before Titanic opened, in The Rainmaker at the Loews Astor Plaza and in Good Will Hunting on the Loews Lincoln Square Imax screen. [As an entirely irrelevant aside, I saw Rainmaker with my old SMLA colleague Mark, who also joined me for Green Zone.] I'm tempted to say he was born to play the lead role in Green Zone, only problem with that is he's so talented that he was born to play an awful lot of things. His prior two films are Invictus and The Informant, he's every bit as good in those as he is in Green Zone, and the three roles are as alike as snow flakes.

Every note he hits in Green Zone, he hits it right. Physically, he walks around in the movie like he was born in the US Army, went to kindergarten at the Warrant Officer school. He utterly inhabits the role. The role as written is filled with implausibility, but the role as acted has none. You never question that he'd start to follow his own orders and that his reports would follow. Some credit to the script that not all of them follow unquestionably.

Paul Greengrass is capable of doing different things in his work. United 93 and Bloody Sunday are two different varieties of verite. This movie is in the fast-paced, fast-cut, vertigo-inducing hand-held camera style we found in the first two Bourne movies. It's brilliantly crafted, in a mirror opposite way to the surprising leisure of Inglorious Basterds.

I don't know what inspired me to do this, but in the climactic scene of Green Zone, I decided to count the number of cuts, and there were upwards of 200 of them in these few minutes when Damon is chasing the Iraqi he wants to bring in and being chased in turn by the evil Special Forces unit. Upwards of 200! Yet Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse make it cohere. One of the things I noticed was that you never lost even a fraction of a second picking up the action after a cut. The central human figure at the beginning of one shot is always to be found in the same place as at the end of the shot before, usually going in a direction that was followable. Because many of the characters were in uniform, and because some shot sequences would cut from a character being chased shot from the back in uniform to the character who was chasing shot from the back in uniform down the same alley way, it wasn't easy to count all of the cuts because you almost didn't realize you were with a different character. Sometimes this gives more of a general sense of chaos than of the exact specifics of the action. But when you needed to know the exacts, you knew the exact, and when it was sufficient to be caught up in the overall chaos of the scene, you were caught up in that.

This kind of thing doesn't happen without a lot of work and a lot of planning. You can't do this in the editing room without having the right shots on film. There needs to be a stunning level of coordination on set between the director and the cinematographer and pretty much everyone else in order to make all of these shots line up when it gets to the cutting room.

When Michael Bay cuts around like this in Armageddon, or when some other Jerry Bruckheimer acolytye does this fast-paced whirlybird editing, the word we usually use for it is "incoherent." Alas, I just don't have the stomach to go back and watch Armageddon to see if I can come up with the precise reason why their incoherence is Greengrass' brilliance, but I think I can guess that you won't see the same kind of exact placement of action from shot to shot that we see in Green Zone.

Should you see Green Zone? This is one of the reasons why I decided to do away with toad ratings for the movies I blogged about. As full-throttle military action, you can't do much better than Green Zone. All of the people complaining in the Hurt Locker backlash/whisper campaign how it had the wrong uniforms won't have anything to complain about here. Many of those same people will probably be more upset than I am with what the movie has to say about the underpinnings and politics of the Iraq war than I.

I got to see an advance screening of this, courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, in the Universal Screening Room. The studio's Manhattan outpost is located in a historic publishing location, 666 Fifth Avenue. This building housed Bantam Books for many many years, and the flagship location of B. Dalton was on street level. As can be expected for a screening room, it wasn't particularly big. But it had very comfortable seats, sufficient ceiling height to all for a full theatre-sized screen, and an excellent sound system. The one problem was that there isn't much of a rake to the auditorium, so you have to hope nobody tall is sitting directly in front of you.

Friday, March 12, 2010

News of the day

So a few things to comment upon from Thursday's Wall St. Journal. I'm not going to provide links since so much of their content is behind a pay wall that I may not be able to access the articles, who knows about you.

First, Walter Mossberg reviews another entrant in the e-book reader wars, the Irex. He wasn't thrilled with it. I wouldn't be since it doesn't have a note-taking feature. The one aspect of it which really intrigued me was that it's tied in with Newspaper Direct, which offers facsimile editions of tons of newspapers from all over. Talk about love! That's the kind of site where I wonder if I had an iPad to access a facsimile subscription to the Washington Post just how close to heaven that might be.

Second, there's a little article about an arrangement in Norway to arrange electronic copying of all of the books in the national library. All of the publishers are signed on, all of the author's groups, if you're a Norwegian author you are included, though you can opt out. This sounds like --- The Google Settlement !!! I'll continue to advocate for that to go through in some form, with the continued caveat that I wish Google would supply authors with a digitized copies of their scanned books. In the US, we're terribly unlikely to get a non-profit government arranged thing like was worked out in Norway, but we need something like this.

A couple other publishing news items. Books a Million had a 1.3% drop in sales for last year but increased profits by $700K thru tight inventory management. And bookstore sales in January were up 2% according to the Census Bureau statistics. Both of these were reported in the Publishers Weekly news daily, and you can enjoy the Books a Million conference call by clicking here. You can't find a better way to spend ten minutes. The 4th quarter was worse than the year as a whole, which they blame in part because of tough comparisons against the Twilight books a year ago.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brooklyn's Finest

I saw Brooklyn's Finest on Monday evening March 8, 2010 at the AMC Empire, Aud. #14.

This is not the best reviewed film of the year, to say the least. Not the worst reviewed film either, but Peter Travers in Rolling Stone gave it zero stars. Zero! How bad does a film have to be to get zero stars?

Well, in this case, an awful lot worse than it actually is. In fact, I kind of liked Brooklyn's Finest.

If nothing else, Peter Travers ought to give it at least a half star just on account of the cinematography. It's by a young Mexican DP named Patrick Murguia, from IMDB this may be his first US film, it's gorgeous to look at it, and this person is a DP to watch. Especially in the final two reels, there's some wonderful work on the NY streets.

And this isn't an "if nothing else." Brooklyn's Finest has the same corrupt cop ingredients as any number of other movies, from Serpico to Prince of the City to Pride & Glory to Training Day (also from Brooklyn's Finest director Antoine Fuqua) to Street Kings and on and on. Yet somehow or other, I felt the characters here were better sketched by the writing and/or the performances than a lot of those other movies. Ethan Hawke is a cop with a growing family who needs a bigger house, but he doesn't always do what characters always do in movies like these. Don Cheadle plays an undercover cop who might be getting too involved with the baddies he's hanging out with, and there's a wonderful scene between him and his police handler played by Will Patton, who urges Cheadle to take back his life. The character Patton plays isn't such a nice guy, but there's some real resonance to the truth of this remark. Ellen Barkin steals her scenes. She was in Sea of Love with Al Pacino some 20 years back (another "I feel old" moment to realize it's 20 years now) so is it a happy or planned coincidence that we hear Sea of Love on the soundtrack at one point? Richard Gere has a world weariness in every crease on his face. Speaking of which, Gere, man, gets to have wrinkles. Ellen Barkin, woman, clearly has had some work done. Classic Hollywood double standard.

And who else do we have in the cast... Wesley Snipes. Vincent D'Onofrio. Brian F. O'Byrne. Lili Taylor. There are a lot of good people on screen in this movie.

I run the risk of reacting to some of the critical excesses on the down side -- no stars from Peter Travers, jeez -- by overselling the movie. Which I should definitely not do. It's not great. But it's a solid entertainment, well-crafted, well-acted, certainly worth renting and plenty of movies out there right now you'll do far worse by than this.

Print Media

So I haven't done a post on the newspaper business in a while...

Two things in Tuesday's NY Times that got me to wanting to climb on the soapbox.

First, there's an actual bona fide full-color full-page ad for The Hurt Locker in the arts section. Years ago, right after the Golden Globes you could see the difference between the early edition and late edition NY Times, as all the film studios took out placeholder ads for all of their movies, and then would quickly swap in something more appropriate for the late edition to tout their winners. Same thing after Oscar nominations were announced, or after the Oscars themselves. Film ads in the Times have been steadily declining for years and years now, to the point where it's an actual surprising thing to see studios actually taking ads in size or quantity. And in fact, that rather "wow, what's that doing here" ad for The Hurt Locker today was the only film ad in the NY Times for any of the Oscar-winning movies. The total balance of the film ads was less than one third of a page.

And then there's the very sad news that Variety has given the heave-ho to its chief film critic Todd McCarthy and to its chief theater critic, David Rooney. It's all about the money, of course. The advertising in Variety is as sparse as it is in other print media, and the amount of award-related advertising was a tenth that I can remember seeing not all that many years ago. But this move by Variety is in my opinion a major bush league mistake. McCarthy was an excellent and learned film critic. He gave major reviews to the major releases of the last 31 years. He was rarely wildly off target in his reviews. He was himself a filmmaker whose documentary Visions of Light is an excellent film about cinematography. This where I'll cede the microphone a bit to Roger Ebert, who says far more and better in this blog post about Todd McCarthy than I really could.

Having been at Variety for 31 years, and with the title of Chief Film Critic, no doubt McCarthy did not come cheap on the salary front. And as noted above, Variety isn't rolling in the dough right now. But Roger Ebert ends his post by saying "if Variety no longer requires its chief film critic, it no longer requires me as a reader." And on that sentiment, I entirely agree. I've been reading Variety fairly regularly for a good 30 years right now. In my teenage years, after I first discovered the charms of Variety for myself, if I went to New York City for some reason, I put down my dollar. If my parents were going to NYC, they knew there was a standing order for them to please come back with that week's issue. When I started my own business and could then write off the cost of a subscription, going from buying the NY Times and Variety to subscribing were among the first checks on the JABberwocky accounts. And I read Variety in no small part for its serious reviews, for the belief when I read a Todd McCarthy review that I'm becoming part of a serious industry discussion. In dumping a Todd McCarthy, Variety is, to me, saying that it no longer cares to be a serious part of the industry discussion. And if Variety doesn't want to be a serious part of the industry discussion -- no, we don't need Variety.

And it ain't cheap to subscribe to Variety, for a thinning paper that takes less and less time to read and has migrated more and more of its content to the internet where it's vastly less pleasant to read.

One of McCarthy's last reviews is for this week's opener Remember Me. This is likely one of the longest and most serious reviews you'll find for a teen romantic comedy with Robert Pattinson. I don't know if McCarthy is "right" in his review or not, but I know that he gave this kind of serious critical attention to every film he reviewed.

I can't raise quite the same passion for David Rooney. Rooney had very big shoes to fill when his predecessor Charles Isherwood was lured away by the NY Times as part of a major upgrade in its arts coverage several years back. Isherwood is a great critic, and I was upset because he's the #2 theatre critic at the Times and thus reviewing fewer of the major Broadway shows than he did at Variety. Rooney is no Charles Isherwood. But it's the same basic thing. Covering theatre has been an important part of the Variety DNA since the paper was founded, and how exactly do you cover theatre when you don't have a dedicated solid critical voice you can count on.

How long does Variety have to live? This week's news is like watching someone with a termina disease who's been managing to cover it up, compensate, bring the belt in a little tighter or something, and all of a sudden it's progressed too far to keep it hidden, and you look at the wan face and thinning waist and wispier voice and suddenly realize the end is really coming.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Night 2010

So, three hours and thirty-seven minutes. Not a bad length for an Oscar telecast. I don't think it was a great telecast. Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin didn't do badly, but no great moments from them either. And by and large the show didn't seem to be very snappily written in those parts of it where the writing makes a difference. I'd have almost preferred more horribly bad moments in the show, if there weren't going to be any really good ones. Perhaps worst to me might have been to have Tom Hanks come on after the Best Director prize and rush to give out Best Picture. No summarization of the nominees, no real break between that and the Director acceptance speech, Tom and Kathryn almost stumble into one another. Outcome wise, most of the rewards were won by deserved winners. I hate most the years when there's some movie that does a sweep which includes winning smaller awards it doesn't really deserve. Hurt Locker did kind of sweep this year, taking 6 awards, but by and large the minor awards that came in its Best Picture wake were awards it earned. And if you weren't sure what way the winds were blowing, I wondered in the post on the Sound awards if there were any tea leaves in the fact that Hurt Locker won both of those when Avatar could certainly have taken and deserved one or even both of the two. And yes, there were tea leaves in that. I think I'll try to find time over the next week to see Hurt Locker again. It is playing still at a theatre or three in the New York area. I do wish Up in the Air had won something. The grasshopper was very good, as was the german chocolate cake. Not enough appetite for the rice pudding, will save for another day.

12:02 AM EST March 8: Well, what a great ten minutes! My blog readers know how badly I wanted Hurt Locker to win Best Picture, and it has, entering the history books as the lowest-grossing film ever to win in this category. Well-deserved, hooray! If you were wondering what Kathryn Bigelow's award for Best Director meant, you needed only to see the drop of tears in Mark Boal's eyes, the way Barbra Streisand was kind of breaking down a bit in the background as Bigelow gave her acceptance speech. I'm a little surprised myself when I look at Bigelow's filmography that I've been pulling for her tonight. The director of Blue Steel. Of Strange Days. Of Near Dark. None of these really films that are thought very much of, no matter how well they may have been received at the time. And things like Blue Steel were. So at 12:07, the show ends, this entry ends.

11:53: Getting Streisand to present the award for Best Director is, as they say, "a good get."

11:48: Sandra Bullock. No complaints. She's managed to build herself her own career to a certain extent, "or did I just wear you all down" she says. Well, if she did, good for her!

11:42: Michael Sheen. Let me plug once again the video release of The Damned United, where Sheen is wonderful.

11:36: As has been written, Crazy Heart came very close to going direct to video, and it took some footwork to get it turned around by Paramount and released by Fox. It's a shame here that four great actors had to lose, but Bridges is as deserving as any of the others. And there's no denying that director Scott Cooper coaxed a lot of good performances out of his cast.

11:33: Jeremy Renner is wearing a really nice tie. Will Jeff Bridges get more than 45 seconds?

11:28: The new producers of this year's Oscar show are keeping this very nice format for presentation of the acting awards that was one of the nicest features introduced on last year's show. This award will go to Bridges, but it is one of the deepest and best crops of acting nominees that can be imagined. Every single one of the performances honored with a nomination for Best Actor this year is a highly deserving honoree.

11:23: Hey -- today's Washington Post had IHOP coupons. Woohoo!

11:17: I haven't seen a single prediction that the Argentine film The Secret In Their Eyes would win in this category. I'm speechless, having seen only two of the five nominees, and one of those not liking at all!

11:07: And it's Hurt Locker. Which is very well edited.

11:06: Editing. Hurt Locker? Avatar? I wouldn't complain if Inglorious Basterds snuck in here because of the very taut long scenes that were central to the film. Same can be said of Hurt Locker, of course.

10:57: Clever Oscar night ad from Hyundai, using a song from The Sound of Music.

10:55: Avatar wins for Best Visual Effects. No surprise. And as I turn to the final page of the Outlook section and see the list of books scheduled for reviews in the Washington Post during the week ahead, we see that Blackout by Connie Willis will be reviewed in Thursday's paper. The cover for Blackout is fantastic. I haven't read the book; back when I had time to read more for pleasure, I can say Connie Willis was an author I often enjoyed quite a bit. Blued Moon. Blued Moon.

10:52: May the best score win! Giacchino takes his first Oscar, he deserves it, it won't be his last. He's part of the future of movie music. Alexandre Desplat is also doing some nice work. But this deserved to be Giacchino's year. He also did a great job on Star Trek.

10:50: The Up score is so darned good. I said in my review that it's the best thing in the movie, channeling the best Randy Newman, let me say is again now. Michael Giacchino did a great job for Up, a great, great, great job.

10:46: This production number for the Original Score is the kind of thing that gives the Oscar telecast a bad name. Can I finish the Washington Post Outlook section before they get around to giving the award? Which I'd like Michael Giacchino to win, for Up.

10:45: Did this Washington Post reviewer of Karl Rove's new memoir read the same book as this Washington Post columnist?

10:41. They took too long putting the screen full-screen in the In Memoriam sequence, so it was hard to tell that Patrick Swayze led off. I find to my surprise that I'm missing a feature of this feature from past years, which was to show an Academy Award winner accepting his/her Academy Award as part of the tribute clips. This is the Oscars, so why not see which of the people we're remembering tonight took home one of the golden boys?

10:35: I didn't like the movie, but there's an argument that White Ribbon is the most deserving winner for Cinematography, but it goes to Avatar.

10:32: Here's an article from the Outlook section of today's Washington Post that's worth reading. My crowning achievement in college was a paper on how the US press fawned over foreign elections going back many many decades, and this article can be seen as a kind of updated version of that. I think my paper was better, this article says "we've been in love with foreign elections for two decades now," which is wrong by around five or eight decades. But it's worth a look.

10:26. And another win for Hurt Locker in Sound Mixing. Good, I think. Any tea leaves that these two awards weren't split between the top contenders? Certainly we're not seeing an Avatar sweep, whatever else happens Hurt Locker will have a lot of Oscar wins to tout when the DVD packaging goes back to press.

10:25: Sound Mixing goes for Hurt Locker. Good. The sound was a very important part of the best scenes in this movie, much more integral in my book than in Avatar. Let's see what happens for the Sound Mixing...

10:22 Tarantino looks happier after the horror movie tribute.

10:18. The hotel video with Baldwin and Martin is another writing misfire.

10:14: Next up, the second iPad ad of the evening. If I live blog the Oscars next year will I be doing it on an iPad? Which I could more easily sit with in the recliner instead of having to sit at a desk watching the show. Well, let's check back in a year and see how the first 11 months of the iPad have changed the world, or not.

10:12: I'm not fond of how the Best Picture candidates are being presented. It's too long a shot on the person doing the intro, so we're not getting much facial language on them. The screen with the name of the movie and the producers is so far in back and direct behind the intro person so we can hardly see that. It's just very awkward staging.

10:06: You know who else was in Eyewitness? Supporting Actor nominee this year, Christopher Plummer. And Best Actor nominee Morgan Freeman. Wow, who knew! Hurt and Weaver I remember, that the movie had two of this year's acting nominees, wow, no recollection of that until I IMDB'ed. If memory serves, Eyewitness was seen at the sloped floor multiplex in the Pyramid Mall in Ithaca. The director Peter Yates and screenwriter Steve Tesich are better known for their Breaking Away, from two years before. Back on topic, can't be surprised that Avatar wins for Art Direction. Now they're on to Costume Design, which is going to The Young Victoria.

10:05: I feel old. It's 29 years since Sigourney Weaver came to my attention in the nifty thriller Eyewitness, with William Hurt as well.

9:59. The buzz is right, Mo'Nique,

9:55: Supporting Actress. This may be a 2nd Precious win for Mo'Nique. I was wowed, to my pleasant surprise, by Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.

9:50: Instead it goes to one of the two multiply nominated movies (Serious Man) that I couldn't bring myself to see. The screenplay category is often used as a consolation prize for the one movie that the voters most want to see winning something which isn't going to win too much else, so it's in keeping with long tradition for this heavily nominated movie to pick up the win, and in that historical category I'll have to say it's a deserving win.

9:48: I'm pulling for Up in the Air in the adopted screenplay category.

9:39: This is an embarrassment to rival Rob Lowe's duet with Snow White. Maybe The Tennis Channel has a replay of today's dead rubber I can turn to.

9:38: Ben Stiller's blue face looks even worse than Robert Downey Jr's blue tie.

9:35. I always think it's a little sad to hear the music play before someone's done speaking, but if you're nominated for one of the short feature categories you better just figure out how to say what you need to say in 45 seconds. You ain't getting more.

9:23: A very nice tribute to John Hughes. I've got to tell you his movies don't resonate for me the way they do for some other people, but I totally respect the effect they do have on other people. Am I five years too old? Did I need to be in high school when Breakfast Club came out instead of in the latter half of my college years? Did the producers really want to introduce the alumnae of his movies to "Don't You Forget About Me," considering that a lot of the John Hughes troupe have kind of been forgotten? No, he wasn't muse; Jeffrey Jones for me will be the Emperor in Amadeus and not the principal in Ferris Bueller. But much respect.

9:15: Tarantino doesn't look thrilled that Mark Boal won for Hurt Locker.

9:14. I have a hard time picking a personal original screenplay candidate between Hurt Locker and Inglorious Basterds.

9:12: Robert Downey's tie is godawful, but should I give him some credit for at least looking different than all of the other men? The spiel he and Tina Fey are reading is pretty dreadful.

9:03 Nice to be reminded of how good Colin Farrell was in Crazy Heart.

8:59: I thought Up was overrated, but it's not like there's anything in the category I was hoping for more.

8:57: While I watch this very disposable section on the animated films -- is there something else I can watch at 9? -- let me link you to an excellent column in today's Washington Post on the movie The Art of the Steal.

8:48: And Waltz it is.

8:45: But this isn't to say that Damon wasn't good in Invictus, and Woody Harrelson in The Messenger. Tucci I didn't see, Plummer is more of an overdue career achievement nod.

8:44: And it should

8:44: This is almost certain to go to Christoph Waltz.

8:39: Woody Harrelson has my hair line!!!!

8:38: In our first movies, we were both born a poor black child. Good line.

8:34: THere's a real retro feel to the set, with the band on the risers like some old MGM musical.

8:34: Doogie Howser, good. The writing of his production number bad.

8:31: Showing off the star power? I don't understand this parade of actor and actress nominees.

8:25: Meryl Streep. Reminds me I should link to this NY Times appreciation by A. O. Scott, which ran two weeks ago. It's one of the best I read, and I think it gets very well at why I appreciate Streep so much more now than I did 25 years ago.

8:13: Half of the ten best picture nominees from 1943 when last ten were nominated have kind of been lost to the sands of time. No biennial visits to Film Forum for them. Which of this year's pictures will anyone still ponder upon in 67 years?

8:08: I'll try and finish up today's Washington Post during the commercial breaks when not stuffing my face with dessert. Currently reading the John Feinstein college basketball column.

8:06 PM: Sandra Bullock wants to eat a burger and fries after all of this, and a milkshake. She should have some Junior's. Zac Efron looks different. Good, but different. Like he's trying to become a college student.

8:03 PM EST: Penelope Cruz and Vera Farmigia look very red. Very very red.

8:00 PM EST -- I am armed for the evening with a can of Whole Foods root beer, a slice of german chocolate cake from Junior's, a grasshopper cupcake from Crumbs, and some rice pudding from Mangol, a local Turkish restaurant.

7:50 PM EST -- We're Fired Up and Ready to Go for the Academy Awards, watching some red carpet stuff, waiting for the official pre-half hour on the carpet in around ten minutes.

Ghost Writer

This review will have plenty of spoilers, so don't read on if you think you're likely to see Ghost Writer, which I saw Saturday March 6 2009 at Clearview's Chelsea, Aud. #2.

This is the newest film from Roman Polanski, the director of Tess and Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby. And the fugitive from justice.

Ewan McGregor is a ghost writer, hired to assist a former British Prime Minister played by Pierce Brosnan after the original writer dies, apparently by accidental drowning or suicide in a ferry accident. Off Ewan goes from London to Martha's Vineyard (or an analog thereto) where the manuscript is holed up in the publisher's house with the PM. No surprise if you've seen the coming attraction that it wasn't an accident or a suicide, and of course Ewan McGregor's character will be coming in for the same before two hours are over.

I was primed to like the movie from the start. There's a certain puckish charm to Ewan McGregor's performance that we haven't seen from him often enough in recent years, certainly not in the Star Wars movies. It's the second nice score I've heard from Alexandre Desplat over the past week; he also did the music for A Prophet. There's a sheen to the movie, a lot of craft. The opening scene of the ghost writer being interviewed for the job at the publisher's office --they got the publisher's office right.

Alas, good movies are not made from bad scripts, and this script by Polanski and novelist Robert Harris, on whose novel "The Ghost" the film is based, is not good.

There's a subplot torn from yesterday's headlines and today's that doesn't have much to do with the movie. The British PM is accused by a former cabinet minister of his of being complicit in torture. This tracks somewhat but not entirely with the allegations against Tony Blair by Claire Short and other such things. However, all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the spy thriller. You could totally remove every bit of business related to these allegations and have a very similar movie.

The reveal -- and here's the big-time spoiler -- is that it looks like the British PM might actually be a CIA agent, recruited by a professor in the early 1970s. But again, this doesn't hold up to a lot of scrutiny. All it takes is a few quick Google searches for this to get figured out. If it was figured out, would anyone believe it? Could it really be proven? I don't buy that it could or would. Would it do lasting damage to UK/US relationships even if it were proven? I'm just not sure it's worth killing anyone over.

If it is worth killing someone over... well, on the way to the Google searches, McGregor is able to retrace his predecessor's footsteps by following the GPS on the guest car that was being driven night of the murder. I figured out "hey, maybe he can check the past destinations in the GPS" the moment Ewan starts driving the car and finds out that it has one built-in. Ewan doesn't figure it out, rather he lucks into it, has the GPS hand him the big clue on a silver platter. Now, maybe in the wake of the surveillance photos of the assassination in Dubai of a Hamas leader I should have less confidence in the abilities of the bad guys. But this is a movie. Top CIA people. Nobody could figure out to wipe the GPS? And on this trip, another reviewer pointed out that they get the ticket buying wrong, that on a ferry in Martha's Vineyard in the United States you'd buy a one way or round trip ticket, while here he's given the Brit-style option of a single or return.

The ultimate big reveal...

Well, you know those anacrostic puzzles in the paper, where the first letters of each clue spell out the author's name and source of the quote? This sort of thing has lots of antecedents, as an example there are a number of prayers in Jewish liturgy where the first letters spell out the alphabet or the name of the composer or such as that. Well, that's where the ultimate big clue is hiding here, in the beginning words of chapters of the manuscript left behind by the original ghost writer. This I find to be one of the stranger places to hide your big secret.

And -- the big secret is that it wasn't the PM who was recruited by the CIA, but rather his wife.

But if it isn't even the PM who was the agent but his wife, then it's yet one more big step away from the possible direct harm in discovering that the British PM was a CIA agent, which means it's one more big step away from requiring the ghost writers to be murdered.

The ending of the movie is torn straight from the ending of Kubrick's The Killing. It's trying for irony, but there's been too much silly stuff en route for this to be ironic instead of one more silly thing.

Instead of seeing this, I'd suggest renting Polanski's 1988 Frantic, starring Harrison Ford.

And a quick demerit to the management of Clearview's Chelsea. Ghost Writer was playing and selling out on the relatively small screen #2. Shutter Island was playing on 2 larger screens upstairs, and no way could it have been doing twice the business this was in its 3rd weekend. The theatre management should have swapped screens and had Ghost Writer playing in a larger auditorium. No excuses for this.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Countdown to Oscar!

I am planning to live-blog the Oscars this year, so have a Brillig time of it on Sunday night.

I'd like to talk briefly about one more nominated film that I've snared ahead of the telecast, the French film A Prophet, which is a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. I was a few blocks away from the Angelika for Tobias Buckell's NYRSF reading on Tuesday night March 2, so I headed over and saw the 9:10 show on Aud. #3.

I've been wary of well-reviewed French movies for close to a quarter century now. The first one I can remember was "Le Grand Chemin," a 1987 movie about a boy on his summer vacation, which wasn't exactly bad but which seemed awfully low key to me for so much praise, and which I thought would never have been reviewed as favorably were it in English. So here comes The Prophet, a prize winner at Cannes last year, all kinds of good reviews. I'm thinking I should see it, but then in the back of my mind there's the fact that the director's last movie was something called The Beat That My Heart Skipped, from 2005, and Quintessential Example #89 of the overrated French film.

I am delighted to report that A Prophet, Un Prophete in the native tongue, is a highly praised French film that actually deserves the praise. I have a deserving movie to root for over category favorite White Ribbon, which is grotesquely overpraised.

For writers everywhere reading this post, let it be said that A Prophet is a good example of the fact that you can tell a familiar story and make it work well if you do, in fact, tell the story well. This movie is about a young man who goes to prison, gets taken under the wing of the secret boss powers of the prison, here the Corsican mob, and before you know it he's every bit the kind-hearted warm soul that we see Al Pacino become over the course of The Godfather saga.

Let me also say that I'm a little frustrated, because I know I liked the movie a lot but at the same time can't quite say why with the kind of detail I could use to describe why I enjoyed Inglorious Basterds. I don't know that I found the acting great, and yet I found the lead to be very watchable and likeable even as he's doing not very likeable things. Maybe that's a trait running around the Hollywood water because the same can be said of Christoph Waltz in Inglorious. There aren't specific things I picked up on in the direction of the movie, but yet it's clearly directed with energy. The script doesn't hit any new notes, and if I say "well, it hits them in French!" that's saying exactly what I don't think should ever be said. I will say, certainly, that there's some nice stuff going on with the music. Even if you don't speak French and can't understand a word of the closing credit crawl, it's hard to leave the version of Mack the Knife that's playing over.

So A Prophet is well worth seeing.

Another foreign language nominee Ajami is playing now. I'm not sure if I should try and see it. It's gotten lots of good reviews. But on the other hand, in only its second week at the Kew Gardens Cinemas it's already down to only two shows a day, so clearly there aren't lines forming for it. My sister just sent me an e-mail with a subject header Ajami=bad, though the body of the e-mail was just a message I'd sent earlier. Still, the subject line suggests she did not like it, and I'm more likely to not like a film my sister does than to love something she hates. And other than the Kew Gardens, the film is playing at theatres in Manhattan that aren't so wonderful to visit. Well, I guess we'll see.

I did make my way to the Ziegfeld this week (Wed., Mar. 3), wanting to see Shutter Island on the only large single screen theatre left in Manhattan before Alice in Wonderland (no interest in seeing this at all, do not look for a Brillig review) moved in on Friday. When I'm reading a manuscript, the worst ones are the perfectly mediocre ones that are just good enough you kind of hate to bail out but just bad enough that you never gain momentum. Like, Tim Akers' Horns of Ruin, that's a good manuscript because I was around a third of the way through on Thursday night, and then on Friday I'm deciding I'll read the Friday newspaper on Saturday because Job One will be getting to the end of Tim's book because I'm enjoying and want to find out how it ends and I just need to march onward. That never happens with the mediocre ones. Shutter Island is the film equivalent of a mediocre manuscript. It wasn't so good that it kept me awake, and at the same time it wasn't so bad that I was willing to just give in and have a nice hour's nap. It didn't really look all that good to me from the coming attraction, and the coming attraction was right. Sadly, I was up for the last half hour when the movie was explained, and I realized I hadn't really missed anything even in the parts I'd dozed off in, and maybe I really should have tried dozing more. And the seats at the Ziegfeld aren't the most comfortable, either. Maybe if I'd just gone off and seen it at the cruddy UA Kaufman Astoria Stadium 14, and at least there I'd have had a much more comfortable seat.

Um, when I'm using Shutter Island to review theatre seats, it's time to stop that conversation.

So maybe Ajami, definitely Ghost Writer. Not sure about Brooklyn's Finest. But I consider Oscar day to be a kind of holiday, and it's important to see a movie or two over the next 43 hours to whet my appetite for Sunday's main event.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

News of the day

B&N says it wants to talk with publishers about doing print/e-book bundles (PW report here), where a customer buying a printed book brick-and-mortar could then buy the e-book at a reduced price to be discussed with the publisher. It's an interesting idea, not unheard of, and some BlueRay DVDs now come bundled with an old-fashioned DVD as well. At the same time, I'm not falling head over heels in love with the idea, perhaps because I'm not sure if they're exploring the opposite approach as well, where somebody buys the e-book and then gets a discount on the print edition.

That's one of those ideas that sounds weird, because you're letting the cheaper product kick in a discount on the more expensive product. Yet it's done, as when Tor sells a $4.99 Mistborn with a coupon for the more expensive hardcover. And it all ends up in the same place at the end, with the same products sold for the same revenue. Or approximately the same, depending on royalty rates or marginal factors like that doing it one way vs. the other. In this case, I clearly think the opposite approach is the better. If you buy and actively use an e-book reader, doesn't that become your default? So the idea should be to encourage people who buy the e-book to think more actively on the discounted title at getting hard copy as the keepsake for the living room bookcase. That seems a bigger catch than somebody who buys a print edition and then goes "oh, wouldn't it be nice to be able to read this anywhere," because duh you can already do that with your printed book.

The Financial Times Debtwire is reporting that Borders has asked for an extension on its loan payments, and they've managed to put the most negative possible impression on what I see as an entirely neutral act. A few months ago this same service came out with a major non-story that didn't go anywhere about some band of small publishers ganging up with a bankruptcy attorney. It's no secret that Borders has been struggling, no secret that the company announced a cash crunch two years ago. So it's a total "duh" that they'd try and get some cooperation on extending a loan, it's the kind of routine thing that companies do all the time, and isn't it better to talk to people and work your way out of the jam? To FT, it's just making news like your local newscast over-touting a snowstorm. But to me -- and to most of the people who'd read this blog -- Borders is an important thing to have around, and I get peeved by this piling on.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Encomiums

I mentioned last week how fulsome Barnes & Noble was in praising itself in their quarterly earnings conference call.

People rarely do things without a reason, and it's occured to me to mention why I think B&N was so unusually self-congratulatory. The Nook is great, we have the best real estate portfolio, the best web site, the best everything...

Well, B&N is in the midst of a corporate struggle. They put in a poison pill last year to make it harder for the company to be taken over. A billionaire investor Ronald Burkle with a large chunk of B&N stock wants to have even more, which would trigger the provisions of the poison pill, and B&N has refused to dump the pill to accommodate Burkle.

So in the midst of this, the incumbent management at B&N wants to get out the message We Are the Champions, We Are the Champions, We Are the Champions and is signaling to various and sundry listening to the call that if the battle heats up and it comes to a proxy vote between Burkle and B&N management that you better not vote for Burkle. Because B&N has the best e-reader. The best real estate portfolio. The best web site. The best of everything.

Going solo

There's an announcement today that Reed Business Information is selling off Library Journal and School Library Journal to the company that owns Hornbook and Junior Library Guild.

This may not be a good thing for Publishers Weekly, also owned by Reed Business and not part of this transaction.

In an earlier round of restructure, PW had been consolidated for certain purposes with LJ and SLJ, as an example a consolidated website situation where one user had access to all sites, and with some management positions consolidated for the three publications. Considering the decline in print advertising for PW over recent years, this ability to put overhead costs over multiple magazines was no doubt very helpful to the PW bottom line. Now, PW has to have its own publisher all to itself, it can't cross-sell internet ads with the other magazines, it'll be more on its own. LJ and SLJ may have held up a tad better with their tighter focus on library markets. PW has always suffered from being a little bit of everything to a lot of different constituencies in the publishing business and not always vital to any of them, that even before the on-line migration and the economic challenges of the past couple of years. More challenges ahead...