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.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Knight who Played with Day

On the evening of Sunday July 10 I made my way to the AMC Empire and saw Knight and Day (aud #25) and The Girl Who Played With Fire (aud #18). And enjoyed both.

Knight and Day took a critical reaming, but it seems to be getting some decent word of mouth and holding pretty decently at the box office, and deservedly so. No, it's not great art, but it's a lot of fun and a perfectly pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. There's totally nothing wrong with that. I've generally been happy as a clam the past 25 years to spend a little bit of time with Tom Cruise, and here he's on Cruise Control. Nothing serious about this, no Magnolia thing or Born on the 4th of July thing, totally Cocktail Tom here. He has me at "hello." And there's good chemistry between him and Cameron Diaz. A lot of the critics have made out as if this was some cheapo thing like The Bucket List where you could tell in every shot that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson weren't travelling the world to make the movie. Did they see the same movie I did? Did some flack in the marketing office totally schmuck up the press kit and say something about the effects there that nobody would have noticed otherwise? To me, this looked like James Bond lite on the location side. I didn't actually believe that Tom and Cameron were filmed live in the middle of a bullfight but I did believe they were actually in Europe, there were some stunts that from the camera angles really did look like Cruise doing his own. On balance, the effects in this seemed a lot more real to me than some of the much more lavish and expensive things we've seen in the 2nd Narnia movie or in King Kong or in Transformers. Good, fun stuff here. See it, rent it, enjoy it. Totally one of those movies which makes me wonder if I'd become a film reviewer if I'd still review the movie the way I'm reviewing it or I'd have taken the Kool Aid with all the other critics and dumped on this.

The critical reception to The Girl Who Played With Fire has been good, but generally saying this second in the trilogy isn't as good as the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based on the trilogy by Stieg Larsson and the film version of Hornet's Nest already out in Sweden and coming here soon. I liked the second movie at least as much as the first, maybe even more, and perhaps for the very reason that some of the critics have been going the other way. Both are mysteries, but the lines of this one were a little more classical. Some computer stuff, hard not to have a mystery these days that doesn't have some of that, but also some more old-fashioned legwork. The villain in the first movie was a little Hannibal Lecter/serial killer-ish, while the story in this one has some more classical revenge motives. The bad guys aren't nice, but they're monstrous in a way where they aren't so much monsters in the what and why of things. The two lead characters don't get much together time in this movie. The girl is on the run from the police because she's been framed for a murder so she has to communicate remotely with the crusading journalist who is co-lead in the series. But, hey, people, why is this a problem? You might remember in Empire Strikes Back that Han and Luke spend most of the movie away from one another. And it's still very thoroughly the best of the Star Wars movies. We find ourselves wanting them to get back together, wishing hoping and thinking and chewing our nails on the edges of our collective seats. I haven't read the underlying books, but if they're as good as the movies I can understand why so many people have. I can promise you I'll be making tracks for the third movie immediately upon its release.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Another rant on homeland "security"

Sadly two Hungarian touriststs died in a duck tour accident in Philadelphia this week. That is two more people than have died from succesful islamic terrorism attacks in the in the US in the past 8 years. Yet we live our lives under constant assault from the security state that has developed in the US. I can enter a major league baseball stadium with a factory-sealed water bottle but not with the same bottle in its entirely empty state. I must wait on line and present photo ID to enter midtown office buildings filled with people and companies nobody in the world cares about. Airport security theatre.. Bag checks for the Bryant Park FIlm Festival. I'm not linking to all of my earlier posts, click the Homeland "security" tag to find more.

And as it turns out, going on a duck tour in Philadelphia is more dangerous.

OK, I'm being a little tiny bit flip here. If or even when there's a successful suicide bomb attack in the NYC subways, that will be a very bad thing on a level of awfulness far beyond two Hungarian tourists dying in the Delaware. And in fact, I think the random bag checks the NYPD does in the NYC subways are some of the few instances in which there's a balance struck between privacy issues, a tax on time and resources that hurts our economy and ourselves in many subtle ways, and the need to keep the western world functioning without choking on security bullshit.

But will the country ever wake up and realize that our civil liberties aren't just what the NRA decides is meant by the Second Amendment. That there is something very wrong when we go around passing laws that make it easier for all of us to have guns but make it a sin to bring in a factory-sealed 16oz bottle of Diet Coke to a Mets game vs. a factory-sealed water bottle? When I have to carry my papers to visit my accountant in his office building.

And what scares me even more is that there's a generation of people, as it's nine years now after 9/11, that's growing up to consider all of this bullshit normal. I remember when we didn't have to do these things, and I'd like for the government to say that our goal is to stop doing things like this, and not to stop when our war on terrorism is over. Because that war is never going to end, and the new normal isn't something we should be willing to accept. Where is the Tea Party to rebel against government control when it comes to the "security" policies of Major League Baseball.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pop Culture

Shortly after my last funny book roundup I sat down with Wonder Woman 700 and the latest issue of Simpsons Super Spectacular. I would've gotten more pleasure flushing myoney down the toilet. Wonder Woman was a disaster. It wasn't that I couldn't finish any of the three stories. No, they were so bad I couldn't start them. When that happens with the fiction in The New Yorker -- well, tastes differ. But in Wonder Woman? I missed Batman 700 the week it came out, leafed through at the store, and after my experiences with WW600 and Superman 700 decided to leave on the shelf. Simpsons Super Spectacular is the weak link in the Bongo line. Like an all-star film comedy whose creativity stops with the casting this book often thinks the very idea of it is so fun that there's no need to take it further. But this issue is bad on an entirely different level. I keep buying the book because I like the idea, but I think after this issue it might seriously be time to do The Simpsons, Bart Simpson and Futurama (the comic book consistently better than what I remember of the original run of the TV show) and leave Simpsons Super Spectacular behind. But will I remember I said I was going to do this when the next issue comes out.

Friday Night Lights got lots of Emmy nominations including for its overlooked lead actors Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton and it's third season deserves all of them.

But the 4th season airing now on NBC after being on Direct TV in the fall is a letdown. Biggest problem is the loss of Minka Kelly's Lyla Garrity, a well-acted female character with lots of interesting stuff going on. She hasn't been replaced. Yes, they have new female cast members but not as well acted and with no interior life. I don't care about the characters, don't know where they came from, don't care what they do with the guys. As to the guys Taylor Kitsch's character is back but it must be for his looks because the writers have no idea this year what the character is doing. So he does lots and none of it is interesting and John Geilgud couldn't play the role.

This Washington Post opinion pieceby Lonnae O'Neal Parker compares the new Karate Kid movie as a portrayal of black youth with a recent episode of Friday Night Lights. Karate Kid, real black person. Friday Night Lights the worst cliches about black people. Half right. There are black communities where the dysfunction we see in Friday Night Lights is all too real. But insofar as pop culture exists they're very boring stereotypes. Like the world has never seen a John Singleton movie. It would be more rewarding to watch Boyz N the Hood from 1991 than the entire collection of scenes of black football player with great potential hanging out with homey hood friends from this season of Friday Night Lights. The actor playing said role, Michael B. Jordan, is bringing some subtlety and texture in his performance that I'd look hard to find in the script, but I'd like for this entire plot to disappear. Also, where was this entire black ghetto district in Dillon, TX during the first three seasons of the show?

I've used the word interesting a lot. The first three seasons of the show had interesting actors doing interesting performances of characters with interesting backstories and personalities. The new characters to replace the graduating seniors are not interesting in any of these ways.

There is still enough good in the show and enough accumulated good will that I'm not bailing yet. But it's a shame anyone turning to the show on account of the Emmy attention will find a season well beneath the quality of the first three.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The retail front

So let's see what's happening this week in the world of e-books and retailing.

Borders officially launched its e-book store today and has new low prices on the Sony Reader in their e-reader department, which is also charging forward and looking toward the opening of in-store AreaE sections in stores next month where people can play with the Sony, Kobo and Alutek devices, promises of more to come. Their goal, expressed in this news release, is to gain a 17% market share in e-books.

And now here's an article from Publishers Weekly, reporting on a Barnes & Noble investor conference presentation. An article in the print edition of PW this week further elaborates, saying B&N claims a 20% share of the e-book market currently compared to a 17% share of print books, that they now sell 80% of their Nooks in retail stores vs. internet, and that currently print retail accounts for 90% of book sales but will drop to under 70% by 2014. Even though they see brick and mortar sales diminishing, the current economic situation is allowing them to renew leases at lower rents, so they don't expect to close more than 35ish stores over the next few years.

They also think e-books will be great, opening up sales of more books to more people just like mass market paperbacks did 50 and 60 years ago. I'd like to think they're correct, but as I discussed a bit back B&N is very optimistic about a lot of things right now because management is trying to preserve itself against a corporate raider.

And the other bit of news from Publishers Weekly is that Books a Million has quietly started its e-book store.

Well, it's all very exciting and interesting to watch.

And in closing here is a review of the Kobo from the wonderful Jessica Strider, who helps make World's Biggest Bookstore a must on any trip to Toronto, and made me very jealous with her recent vacation reports.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In - Out In - Out

So there's this great debate right now over whether the federal government should be spending more money or should be focusing overtime on deficit reduction.

I find myself surprisingly ambivalent about how that question gets answered.

I am liberal by nature and tend to think the government can spend lots of money toward very good ends. I get embarrassed walking around the streets of New York City, which is a very rich city, and seeing how many potholed awful streets we have, as if we can't afford to take good care of them. I see way more panhandlers and homeless people in New York than I do in London, which embarrases me. We need to invest more in infrastructure, start pouring some dollars into high speed rail and better mass transit and better highways as well. Update that electric grid. SIngle payer health care. I can think of all kinds of things I'd like the government to spend money on.

And certainly, not extending unemployment benefits in the current situation strikes me as cruel beyond belief.

Yet, I don't find myself near as passionate that we need the federal government to spend spend spend right now. My hatred day-in day-out of our security state bothers me far more than the people who are saying we need to work on the deficit.

Because, ya know, most politicians love to spend money. They also love to collect campaign dollars and phone banks from public employee unions. It's very difficult to get them to stop giving away the store. There's this balance between taking good care of the people who work for the public good and taking too good care of them that too often works better for the employee than the taxpayer. And it's not like the public employee unions are the biggest problem, because big corporations have the money to invest in campaign contributions to protect their giveaways. And they get a very good return on their investment, which is why they keep spending the money.

So there's this part of me that gets upset with the tax-cutter rational that we need to cut taxes when we're running deficits because we need to grow the economy and then cut taxes when we're running surplus because it's The Public's Money and doesn't like the idea that there's no season that isn't the right season for cutting taxes. And then I think the flip side is that there can't only be the right season for raising government spending.

Case in point: the federal government supports mass transit with capitol funds but not with operating funds. Transit workers want that to be temporarily changed so that there's money to run transit systems. Conveniently, this means that there is then more money for them to show to the arbitrator to get raises at a time like this. So the major big city transit systems are pleading with the feds not to let the capitol money go to operations, but at the same time there are so many transit systems that are facing huge cutbacks because they don't have operating money, and some smaller systems where personnel costs aren't as big as for NYC's MTA are pleading to have more flexibility to keep the day-to-day function intact.

But then I still find myself wanting the government to throw money at the economy right now. Because at the end of the day, when the government cuts it probably cuts money and services from people who can really use it while the moneyed interests still get their special subsidies and tax breaks and what-not. And of course, so many of the politicians who are now crying Deficit weren't crying deficit when we gave away our surpluses to the Bush tax cuts, which were hidden behind silly fig leaves like the 10-year sunset provisions or the estate tax that went away and then comes back, which were a necessary fig leaf to hide the true cost of the tax cuts to get them to go through. And because I have fairly good historical reason to believe that the tax and spend Democrats will just give way to the borrow and spend Republicans, I kind of think that it's no good having a Democratic administration that won't make the argument for spending, and spend lots of money, wisely and well and let people see the government can do some good for people. But then again, it's always tax and spend or borrow and spend and the emphasic in both cases is always on the spend, and you can't go through life when you always spend and spend and spend.

So I feel muddled and conflicted. If I could get all those blue dog democrats to swear blood oaths and they'd all die instantly if they violated them that they'd still be such deficit hawks when they're feeling the borrow and spend pressure that helped to put through the Bush tax cuts then I'd say "OK, we'll cut the deficit now when we should be stimulating the economy in a good Keynesian way." But if they're going to sign up for the next round of tax cuts we can't afford, then I'm kind of wishing they'd just shut up and let the other Democrats spend money like crazy today.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hot & Cold

I spent part of the 4th of July at my younger brother's. My younger brother is my closest friend in all the world, I love spending time with him, but he and his family do all the little things to use more energy than we should need to. Saturday in the Northeast it was certainly warm, temperature got up into the 80s, but it was very low humidity, and really the kind of beautiful summer day that we'd all like to have lots more of. Unless you're out working really hard in the heat of the day in the sun, it's just not that uncomfortable. Quite the contrary, really. Yet, my brother's house is air-conditioned to 72ยบ for the entire day. He's out for little league practice, he's swimming at a neighbor's pool, he's bbqing at the neighbor's for dinner and the ac is going. I was hanging around the house but can assure you I didn't need the ac, but it's also not my place to go turning it off. And then there are the lights that are left on, including the lights in the kitchen that don't even give much useful light but do generate a ton of heat. There's the TV my nephew left on when he headed out to go swimming.

As I discussed here, I'm not without my own energy-wasting foibles, like not flying in coach if I can avoid it. I don't think we'd suddenly stop needing Saudi oil if my brother didn't leave his AC on all day when it arguably wasn't needed at all. But there's so much damned low-lying energy fruit in this country, and Saturday was a prime example of it. And it's not sustainable, it's just not, to keep going as a society without working on even the lowest-lying fruit. And we have to start that from within ourselves.