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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

triage

One of the other pieces of news from Borders was that an additional # of stores would be closing besides the 16ish that had been announced and which have been having their clearance sales in recent weeks. Borders spokesman told Publishers Lunch those numbers would not be commented on, publisher sources say another 10-17.

If you are a retailer, and you are in a cash bind, the very first and most important person you need to pay is your landlord. Your landlord is the one person in the world who can change your locks. And if the landlord changes the locks, you lose access to all of the assets including inventory and fixtures that might have liquidation or sales value for you. The second person, the electric company, because you need the lights on and the cash registers working. Publishers, employees, all of those people need to get paid after you pay the landlord.

If I'm a publisher or possible lendor, a question I might ask is "so how many stores with a lease up from July 2010 to July 2011, did you renew?" It is possible just by random dumb luck chance that indeed there were 25 leases up this year, and none worth renewing. Westwood CA was too big. Chestnut Hill MA in a rare mall where I think the landlord could get a new tenant for considerably more rent. Portland OR downtown seemed even many years ago like a flagship store without quite flagship sales, has to be worse than that now. Especially considering the size and type of box Borders was building 15 years ago for books, music and movies, it is possible good real estate choices were hard to find in this renewal crop.

Getting a good straight answer to that question is crucial, though, because it helps to suggest if there's some chance that Borders can economically renew a superstore lease next year or the year after that, or if even Borders thinks its hard to keep paying the landlord.

I humbly suggest that at none of these closed stores did Borders get any ROI on their rounds of remodels.

The Cold Equations

I'm going to follow up yesterday's Borders post mortem with some numbers.

For the year ending Jan. 30 2010, Borders had 508 superstores at year-end, with average sales of 4.5M at each of those superstores. Jan 2008, same # of stores, average sales more like $5.6M. B&N thru early May 2010, average store $6M in sales, more like $6.5 three years earlier. So, Borders had a 20% loss in average per store sales over two years, and dropping from being 15% off your average competitor's average store to being 25% off the pace of the competition. We go back far enough, we will find a day when sales Borders vs B&N were near parity for the average superstore.

To achieve this, Borders has invested considerable sums in remodels. I have been in some that have gone through each of these three rounds:.

1. 2000/2001, the ones where the diagonal lines were taken out and Kohls-like central "racetrack" aisles added to make the stores more shoppable. Not a big expense, mostly moving stuff around.

2. 2005. It was August 13, 2004 when Borders announced it would start to rebrand its coffee shops in 2005 to sell Seattle's Best. A lot of these were the major remodels where they pretty much took out everything in the center of the store, did away with the old-style shelving, often took down the partitions between the books and the music/movie sections. These had to cost some real money, can we say $500K/store? And these remodels ended up being done to almost all of the pre-existing store base, easily 200+ stores.

3. 2009 was a busy and expensive time as Borders spent lots of money to get rid of the music department and try and make stores look attractive with 20% of the square footage uprooted and gone.

If you spend $500K remodeling your typical store that does $6.5M in business, how long a time frame are you going to have to pay off that spend? Considering that music sales have been on the decline for the past decade and book sales kind of flat, a good result for those remodels might have been flat sales. a 5% sales increase amazing. Where's the sense in spending so much money on that? And to me, I can only say that each new round of remodels made the stores less interesting. We can say it's just me, but when you look at those sales results, I'm not sure we should.

Some of the remodel money needed to be spent. Music and movies had to be reduced in size. The Seattle's Best remodels I think did pay off reasonably. B&N was selling Starbucks and Cheesecake Factory, Borders was selling "Borders Cafe Espresso."

And how much does inventory cost?

If you took the crappiest Borders like Commack NY with very bad selection and just put in 10,000 more mass markets to window dress, $7.99x.55x10K is $44K in extra inventory sitting in the store. Forget about all that talk about their slow supply chain and slow reorder cycles, just go back in time and spend an extra $10M in inventory investment across the chain, that's so little vs. what they spent on remodels make it $20M even. Borders would be way, way healthier today. And because that is so much less money than was actually spent on remodels, maybe could have made the supply chain more efficient, invested in web site or other digital initiatives, done other things more productive than spending money so you could have the hardcovers and the mass markets on the same shelves in the sf and mystery sections.

Well, that's not what happened.

I hope for a turnaround. Maybe there's some ray of hope hiding in the holiday sales numbers to justify major publishers extending payment terms, maybe Jeff Bezos is doing that "Steve Jobs thing" where "nobody reads anymore" means "iBooks coming soon," and will want 300 good Borders stores cheap.

I hope. I have felt that the people who've been at the Borders helm since George L. Jones was belatedly fired in late 2008 have been doing some good things within the cash-poor constraints they've had, and I will say again that on balance both this holiday season and last I've preferred the Borders offerings of JABberwocky fare to those at B&N. But the customers haven't been coming back yet, may not have a chance to. It's hard when you look at how hard Borders has fallen in recent years to see where the silver lining will be found.

To compare with another company I like... Whole Foods made mistakes. Built some stores that were too big, too fancy, had a bad value image going into the economic meltdown. But they reacted quickly and sanely. That sit-down cafe space in the Fairfax store was too much, close it off. Talk value, value, value as much as you can. And remodel in sane ways. Just in DC, they poured money into huge remodel efforts. Upper Georgetown, Arlington, Tenleytown, P Street. Whole Foods has poured money into these stores, some of them not even all that old. The difference is that those remodels have always made Joshua Bilmes happier to walk in, given him more ways to spend money in good ways for Whole Foods. I don't know what the payoff period is, these remodels have to cost a fortune. But I can see all the time how it's money well spent. But other than bribing me with Borders Reward coupons, Borders hasn't done much for all of its money and decisions to make the stores clearly and inarguably better places to spend my money. B&N hasn't either, for that matter. Wake me up when they finally realize how icky a fixture the "octagon" is. But B&N hasn't spent money at the store level doing frivolous things. Borders has. For years. In quantity.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Borders, Post-Mortem

At this point, it's hard to see that Borders isn't on the verge of a bankruptcy filing, the best case scenario would be a Chapter 11 that would reorganize into a much smaller company that might have a go if focusing on stores that actually make money, but even that, I can't be real optimistic because same store sales are dropping so fast that a store which makes money today might not in two years. Though we live in a country that does allow companies to spend lots of time going bankrupt and doing it on multiple occasions, witness the airline industry.

So what happened?

OK, mid 1980s, Borders is one of the best stores around and starting to spread out in Michigan a little and lend out its inventory system. It's a good system. It lets stock sell down, then reorders. One day you might have 0 copies of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers on the shelf, the next day they'll get 3 in. So everytime you go to Borders, even if it's once a week, you might see a slightly different but always excellent selection. It encourages you to keep going back. And again, it's a really good system, and stores that use the system generally prosper.

Late 1980s, early 1990s. As Borders starts to slowly spread across the country, and in fact does so before Barnes & Noble starts to open superstores, each new opening is a major occasion. The stores have well tailored massive inventory, they are architecturally distinct, they have book people who have to pass a book test working in them, they are wonderful places to go to. Eventually K-Mart buys Borders, merges it into Waldenbooks, the mall stores generate cash to fund the superstore expansion, and in the early years of Borders as a publicly held company we are told that it is selling much better per square foot than the competition, i.e. B&N. And they have this great inventory system, that carefully tailors a large selection to each individual store on a constant ongoing basis. It isn't uncommon for a Borders to be voted the best bookstore in those local newspaper year's bests, and I would say much more common for that honor to go to a Borders than to a B&N.

Mid to late 1990s. B&N invests in a major improvement in their inventory systems. For new books, the store-specific Borders inventory system was pretty much unique through 1995, I first noticed in 1996 when The Kiss was published that B&N was starting to do the same. B&N also develops a quick replenishment system, so if a store is supposed to carry a book and sells it, another copy will be on hand in a week or ten days in most instances.

Late 1990s. Against a more competitive B&N, the creaks in the vaunted Borders inventory system become apparent.

Problem #1: that sell-down and reorder thing from 1985 doesn't work so well now. Borders will order Pocket backlist once every x weeks, and for some books that don't sell as well maybe reorder them once every y cycles. And once ordered, books take much longer to move from the publisher to the Borders warehouse to the Borders store than to move through the supply chain at B&N. If a Borders and a B&N are both supposed to carry Deathstalker, as an example of a typical must-have JABberwocky book in 1998, and both sell on the same day, the B&N will have a new copy ten days later, the Borders might be back in stock six weeks later.

Problem #2: especially in genre fiction, you need to invest in inventory because it's very hard to sell book #4 in a series when you can't find the first three books, or to sell #1 to somebody who notices #4 when it comes out and says "hey, let me try this series out." The Borders inventory system can't cope with this. By focusing on performance at each individual store, it would delete an earlier book in a series that maybe hadn't sold in a year, and then that store would have trouble as the series progressed because it would have all sorts of strange inventory gaps. That wasn't a problem when you had only 28 really fantastic locations, it gets to be a problem when you have 82 locations and some don't do well in sf/fantasy. B&N on the other hand would keep books on hand for core series at most all stores even if some particular stores weren't sellling them. I could go to the Evanston IL Borders, see all these books they should have but didn't, then go to the B&N across the way and see them. They were yellowed copies from sitting on the shelf and a printing behind because they hadn't reordered in a year, but they were there.

Which brings us to Problem #3, lack of brand consistency. At any large chain whether its Home Depot or Express or Costco you have bigger stores and smaller stores with varying selection. But at Borders, the computer would happily reorder lots of older titles forever and ever at the best stores that sold one or two copies a year at those very best stores while cutting even core titles by reasonably important authors at inferior stores. The wonderful store #89 in Columbia, MD was really like a completely different store than the quiet #179 in Commack, NY. One could have twice as many items as the other, 35 vs. 80, let's say, circa 2000. A B&N might be 45 vs. 65, not that there wasn't a gap but it wasn't near as big in percentage terms, and the B&N was more likely to have the core backlist titles like all the Deathstalker books by Simon Green or all the Blood books by Tanya Huff.

These problems were apparent for a long, long time.

But whatever problems the heads of Borders would solve, it wasn't these.

Maybe it was a real problem that all of that strange quirky store architecture with all kinds of weird diagonally places shelving lines was hard to navigate. And one CEO said this was so, and remodeled all the character out of all of the old stores and made all the lines nice and straight.

Some other CEO from supermarkets, he felt Borders needed category management like in supermarkets where the big supermarket chain would partner with a marketshare leader like Procter & Gamble to plan how the detergent aisle would look.

Or, now that Borders was a national chain, we need to function like a national chain selling our display space in the front of the store and getting our managers to put their endcaps up when they are supposed to instead of still acting like it's 1992 and you actually have local color.

Then we got more remodeling, replacing those character-filled shelves where the hardcovers and mass markets were shelved separate in the genre categories and huge amounts of excess mass markets could squeeze in right behind (sometimes books could get lost back there, I loved going through the entire on-shelf backstock and finding them) with unified hardcover and mass market shelving. This was a disaster. The remodels were very disruptive to the stores, and the new shelves were less efficient, so stores would run out of space and return books at their whim which would then not be replenished for several weeks which would exacerbate the whole out-of-stock thing.

One of the things you might notice is that the charm of Borders in its best days at its best stores was that it had carefully tailored inventory unique to each store, and each store felt like it was in and of its community instead of being just another Borders. Many of the changes made in the first decade of this century slowly took away bits and pieces of the best characteristics of the best Borders.

You may notice that none of the changes all these CEOs were doing sped up the supply chain. Even after Borders put in a reorder for a backlist book, it would still take two to four times as long for that book to make its way back to the store shelf. It could still be weeks after a book sold before the reorder was even placed. There were some efforts made by the sf/fantasy buyer in 2006 to rationalize the sf/f section so that A stores had a full A range selection thus doing away with some of the weird gaps that had developed over the years, but this didn't help much at the D or E store range to reduce the overall inconsistency of the brand.

Sometime when Borders tried to solve a problem, like getting a new inventory system for its mall stores in the mid 2000s, it managed to fail. Now, really, all the inventory management software that has to exist in 2005, and Borders manages to buy something that doesn't work? How, how, how, could they manage to do that?

And then somehow or other, everyone at Borders failed to notice that the mall store business was no longer generating cash and had become an albatross. George Jones was the CEO when the company first announced it had cash issues in the first half of 2008, which was just about the same time that the company unveiled his pet project of a new store concept. As I have blogged about, this is the one unforgivable thing, to either not notice the company is running out of cash because you're fiddling with your new concept or to still fiddle while you run out of cash. And what happened after was more unforgivable still. He cut back title counts. So all those books, the Hot Blood anthologies in their Kensington reissues a good example, that were on sale at the best Borders and not too many other places, were cut. Well, people noticed. The best Borders were no longer appreciably better than the best B&Ns, the worst Borders were still worse. They did try and remedy this some in Fall 2009.

The odd thing is that the new concept store George Jones fiddled with in 2008 was focused on digital initiatives. What if Borders had gone out to an all-out embrace of the Sony Reader then, and not fallen behind so miserably on e-readers? Christ, what if Borders had realized it needed a website, instead of being a hopeless third, then ceding to Amazon, then investing a fortune to try and regain all that lost ground.

I can forgive Borders some of its recent transgressions. The feeble Area E attempt at selling eReaders is justified when you are losing same store sales quickly, don't have cash, can't afford to have dedicated staff standing at the front of the store. I was upset, but I can forgive that. But I can't forgive idiots who think it's OK to go ten years taking eight weeks to replenish a book that your closest competitor can replenish in eight days. That's dumb-ass, and it was allowed to perpetuate under many CEOs for many years.

And I did write letters to Borders CEOs over the years to discuss some of these things.

Let me be clear, I want Borders to survive. As I've explained, we need more than one big chain. This week's case study: Brandon Sanderson's THE WAY OF KINGS was the #7 fantasy hardcover on Nielsen Bookscan last week, a major impressive showing four months after publication. As of a few days before Christmas, B&N put this title on to "No Replenishment" and has sent out the call to all their locations to return all of their copies. Now, do I want the fate of every one of my clients tied in brick-and-mortar to what B&N is doing? God, no, please, anything but. Poor Jig, in a B&N world, Jig is dead. Hard to even know if Jig's creator would have had a chance if Jig had been relying on only one major chain.

But if you're wondering why it seems very likely that Borders will be seeking court protection in the weeks or months to come, I think this post is as good an explanation as you will find, anyplace.

It's hard to even know whether to encourage people to shop at Borders when they need the business but maybe will never be able to pay the publisher or reorder a copy if they can't get credit arranged, or to just throw in the towel. I've been shopping at Borders for almost 30 years, 225 of their superstores, and it's a damn shame.

Funny Book Round-up

I was surprised just how much I enjoyed DCU Legacies #8. This one dealt with some crazy things I'd tried to forget, like the aftermath of Superman's death at the hands of Doomsday when the Superman books split up to show 4 different of them doing their thing. Maybe I'd forgotten because we're starting to get into comics from 1994 and 1995 when my post-JABberwocky hiatus from reading comic books began due to time constraints. Even now, I read only a third or a quarter of the # of books I was reading in 1993, so the forthcoming issues of the series will cover a lot of stuff that I've skipped over these past many years. Like the whole Hal Jordan not being Green Lantern thing. After covering the death of Batman (he died then, too, wow!), we get into Parallax, introed from 1994, all new to me. I know Len Wein is doing good scripts, and Jerry Ordway and Dan Jurgens excellent art for this issue, but will this all be more or less interesting as we move forward?

Teen Titans: Cold Case wasn't a bad one-shot, I read all of it with mild interest even based on the script by Mark Sable. But no great shakes, either. Do we need this, did I need to spend my $4.99? Doesn't help that the art by Sean Murphy is inconsistent. Look at the top of page 6 (or don't if you would have to buy the book in order to do so), and there's Robin from profile, and apparently he has a very small mouth since you can't see the lips from the side view. A very very very small mouth. Then panels five and six of Robin getting dressed are actually quite good, looks like somebody took good notes during his anatomy classes in drawing school. But then move four pages past the center staples and there are panels of Robin in costume that don't look very good at all.

The lead story in Bart Simpson #57 is a delightful tale by indie comic person Carol Lay. Not unlike the Homemade Heroes contest by Peter V. Brett, Lisa decides to take her Malibu Stacy and make her Egyptian for a school project, only Mattel gets wind of it and comes out with their own Egyptian version. Come judging day, all the girls are going to school with projects that look just like Lisa's, and it's up to Bart to provide the moral. The story comes complete with a mini two-page Itchy and Scratchy in ancient Egypt. The back half not worth talking about so much, happily the Carol Lay story is alone worth the price of admission.

My final comic of the year, DC Comics Presents THUNDER Agents, which I was curious to see after reading (well, part-reading) the first issue of the revival. These comics are from 1966 and clearly influenced by James Bond and his ilk. The evil Warlord plots against the THUNDER agents. It's hard to critique these the way you might a modern comic, no on-story art credits to say who wrote or drew what. It's not a superhero team book like we know it today. The agents do act together, but they're as likely to be in a story where the focus is entirely or primarily on one agent instead of on the team. One actually dies, and even stayed dead. The idea being played up in new revival that the powers can kill the heroes is not a big thing here, one of the heroes has a belt that can't be used for too long without repercussions, which is a very different concept. Final analysis, these were old-fashioned fun. In some ways not as "good" as modern comic books are, but on the other hand, I was able to read every page of this and couldn't finish the first issue of the new revival.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Time Stands Still

Yesterday I spoke about my Next to Normal trip on Sunday. Now to talk about the 2nd part of my theatre day.

With the blizzard on hand, the offerings at the TKTS discount booth were more robust for the Sunday evening shows than might be expected, but I stuck to my game plan and got a seat for the play Time Stands Still, in part because I didn't think it fair to ask another musical to compete with my fresh memories of Next to Normal. 

Time Stands Still is a drama with a strong pedigree. Playwright Donald Margulies has a half dozen Tony and Drama Desk nominations, I recollect him best for Collected Stories, an All About Eve protege drama set in the publishing world. Director Daniel Sullivan has been directing high gloss dramas for a long time, my first of his I'm Not Rappaport with Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles, Tony for Pippin) and Taxi's Judd Hirsch some 25 years ago. It had opened in a limited engagement on Broadway earlier in the year, closed, they decided it was so good and Laura Linney so amazing in her performance that they should give people a second chance to see, and it will end up with around four months playing at the Cort when it closes at the end of January.

So of course this show reflects high quality gloss. The lead is played by Laura Linney, who is a three-time Academy Award nominee, a three-time Emmy winner, a Tony nominee. She plays a war photographer badly injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan who is coming home and starting her recovery, her face and limbs shrapnelled, her leg in a major cast, her arm in a sling. She's assisted by her partner and fellow photographer played by Brian D'Arcy James, who coincidentally enough moved into this from having previously played the role of the father in Next to Normal. He's been nominated multiple times for every award Broadway can provide. The photo editor at the magazine they work for most often is played by Eric Bogosian, a winner of multiple Obie Awards and a Drama Desk. And his new gf/fiancee is played by Christina Ricci, whom most of us will know and love from the Addams Family movies. High quality gloss, in great abundance.

And more gloss still, a typically gorgeous set by John Lee Beatty, thirteen times a Tony nominee and twice winning. He tends to be very realistic, and here he's created a dream of a Manhattan loft space.

Now, this glossy go-to director of great plays with a set from the go-to guy for these kinds of sets, all of this acting talent, it isn't being wasted on empty words. No, Daniel Margulies is an impeccable craftsman, and especially in the first act the script is note-perfect, just that mix of helplessness and determination as you'd expect from someone with her job who doesn't like her current circumstances. Christina Ricci's role is wonderfully written. She isn't aware that there was a movie named Brazil and is momentarily confused when the conversation turns to the topic of Brazil. So she gets out a notebook and jots down the movie, and you just know she's probably going to actually rent it or at least read up on it in the way of the person we all know who diligently studies the word of the day on the word a day calendar in the belief this constitutes self-improvement. It skirts perilously close to caricature but never becomes, and Ricci fills the part quite well. Even when the obligations of the script require people to leave the stage at convenient times, it's done without strain. The "who's going to go and get ice cream" ritual is enacted exactly like it would happen if it were happening in real life, as opposed to dramatic purposes. The bathroom visits are perfectly timed. The script is dealing with extreme circumstances but real ones, and doing so in a way that seems utterly real.

I wish the whole play could be as good as the first half hour, but eventually it has to become a play, with complications, where the script is still comfortably better than your run-of-the-mill but starts to show the creakiness. The first creak comes when we find out that Linney and James hadn't both been in Afghanistan when she was injured, he had things he needed to deal with. You know then that if you just wait a bit there's going to be some kind of emotional explosion on stage when we find out what those issues are, though this being a good play I will confess there was a second part of that revelation that I didn't see coming, but which once arrived does play out in the exact ways we would expect. When there's a wedding, you know quite correctly that we won't be seeing a later scene set on the couple's fifth anniversary.

Perfect script, no, but let's be clear that a Jez Butterworth from Mojo could learn some things by studying a consummate professional like Donald Margulies.

Laura Linney deserves her Tony nomination. She hits every line, gets every note, is always emotionally true to what she's saying both when the script is pitch perfect and when it's starting to creak under the mechanics of the play. It's the kind of performance that carries you over and beyond the rough spots in the script. Ricci as I said is perfect in her role. When the second act requires her character to start showing a little more edge, she manages to put that over as well, and you believe the character really has grown or has actually been hiding something beyond that slightly goofball veneer. Eric Bogosian, if you've seen the play or the film of Talk Radio, you'll know he can be a very very strong personality, and I was kind of worried going in that he might overpower. Not at all. In fact, during the quieter moments of the script it's almost like he's set to become the second coming of Tony Roberts, who's always been very successful in Woody Allen movies and in several plays as the guy who's kind of quietly there. But when it's time for Bogosian's character to explode a bit, suffice to say Bogosian explodes, quite convincingly. Brian D'Arcy James was to me the weak link of the foursome. When the writing was at its best, he was, but when the writing requires him to do functional things, he doesn't show the same ability as the other cast members to cover up.

Sadly, it's very difficult for plays like this to succeed without stars in today's Broadway. It's even hard with a good musical like Next to Normal or for a budding young talent like Kyle Dean Massey to have a kind of development system, where you'll write a role for the young star or look forward to a new Tom Kitt the way you once anticipated the new Sondheim. But every once in a while, they manage to come along.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Next to Normal

I ventured into Manhattan on a blizzardy day to see some Broadway shows that are closing in the coming weeks. January is always full of closings as shows attempt to cash in on the big Christmas week crowds and then get out of Dodge before the winter doldrums. 

I quite liked the number from Next to Normal on the June 2009 Tony Awards show and decided I needed to see, it took only 18 months and a closing notice to get around to do it. In the end, instructive to see in the same week a show that won a Pulitzer Prize and lasted 700 performances with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which lasted maybe 17 weeks. There are reasons. 

For one, an emotional component. Next to Normal is about a family trying to deal with a mother's mental illness. She can't let go of the memories of a son who died young, to the extent that she has a hard time dealing with her daughter. The daughter is struggling to have a relationship with a boy she met at school within the context of a crazy mother who isn't there for her in the ways mothers of teen-age girls are supposed to be, and the father is struggling to keep things in the house on an even keel. Lots of emotional meat.

And more even than that. The mother's vision of the son is himself a character, and a very likable character at that. If the mother becomes "normal," she'll lose this presence in her life. The son is a temptress, a hunky male version of Lola from Damned Yankees, trying to cling to its/his existence by getting the mom to give him what he wants.

Better songs.  Not hummable, but I feel like some Sondheim that I could start to find some that last with another go or two at the score via the cast album or repeat visit. Is it good or bad that I could sometimes see the rhyme coming? On the one hand, suggest this isn't quite as clever as the very best lyrics could be, on the other hand in mass entertainment there is something comforting about the familiar. 

Given this good material, the cast knocks it out of the park.  This isn't even the original cast, which won the Tony for the female lead. An actual husband and wife team of Marin Mazzie (maybe first saw her in Sondheim's Passion) and Jason Danieley have genuine chemistry on stage, not always a given (see Tom and Nicole in Far and Away). 

But the revelation is Kyle Dean Massey as the son. I haven't seen as magnetic a stage performance as this in a few years, since watching Matthew Morrison command the Atlantic Theatre stage in 10 Million Miles. Morrison went on to take the lead role in Glee, I wonder what is in store for Massey...  He's what every mother would want their son to be. Great looking, plays jazz band before school and football after. His performance is a work of art. A high wire act of the vulnerability in knowing that he disappears whenever the mother decides to let go of him, but also a cockiness that he'll never go anywhere. Just watch the way he pulls at his jacket, almost Travolta like, in one scene. But all the layers are there. He sings with passion and brio, in wonderful duets and triplets. I wanted him to go so badly because it wasn't good for mom to have this guy around, I wanted him on stage every minute. 

One of the great things about the musical is that it satisfies all of this in the end, manages to send everyone home happy, but without being trite or saccharine in the process.

Benjamin Walker is good in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but the star in the making should be Kyle Dean Massey. 

Next to Normal closes on the 16th January. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey are the main creatives, and the production is directed by Michael Greif, whose many other credits include Rent. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

2010 Theatre, Pt 2

The most recent shows I saw were Mojo, a play from the late 1990s finally getting a full DC production at the Studio's 2nd Stage, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, an unsuccessful transfer from LA's Center Stage/Kirk Douglas and NYC's Public, which closes this weekend.

Mojo was an energetic and well-acted production of a play that isn't so hot, you ask me. Some seedy club, some two-bit singer who might be signing with another club, a dead body of one of the club owners. Important unanswered questions hang over the stage. Lime, how will staying in the club overnight and not reporting the body help the current manager to keep the club Why is this two-bit singer important? All ending on a very strange note of drift. Well, it's worlds better than the inert Parlour Song, also written by Jez Butterworth, but still not good. Butterworth also co-wrote with his brother the rather more successful script for the movie Fair Game, and a newer play of his Jerusalem opens on Broadway in 2011 after an acclaimed run in London. By and large, I don't yet see why Butterworth is considered quite the big thing,but maybe Jerusalem will surprise by being good as it is supposed to be instead of being Enron, which I shall talk on below...

But first Andrew Jackson, which got lots of good reviews during it's run at the Public and which I certainly enjoyed, but at the same time very easy to see why it couldn't cut it on Broadway. Essentially, it's a 100 minutes Schoolouse Rock on President Jackson, only the songs aren't as catchy as Conjunction Junction. We learn lots of good things to know about Jackson, with lots of spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down. As an example, a lot of information about Jackson is relayed by a narrator who rolls on stage in one of those scooters used by disabled people. She gets annoying, so Jackson shoots here, but she isn't actually dead and comes back a bit later, then Jackson goes after her again and she returns, and she may actually be dead the final time she comes on stage, and in the midst of summarizing historians' reactions to Jackson, not as favorable as Jackson might have wished, tells him "you can't shoot history in the neck.". If you have to dump info this is the way to do it! Broadway, so the action is good, Benjamin Walker especially so in the lead role. The set design stretches into and engulfs the audience, though I could have done without the concert style lights directed into the audience that go off way too often and only serve to temporarily blind the audience and keep us from looking at the stage which we have paid even at discount a decent Broadway price to see. Propulsive and energetic rocking songs.

So why didn't this have the decent run of an earlier youth-oriented transfer, the Tony winning Spring Awakening? I think Spring Awakening had heart, while Andrew Jackson is more about history. And Andrew Jackson has rock style music, while Spring Awakening has music that just totally rocks. Kind of like Sondheim, in that you maybe can't sing entire songs, but at least rich songs that stand repeat viewing and I can hum a few bars. Te songs in Andrew Jackson, they're lively and good and fun, the update of Ten Little Indians is a nice one. But I can only hum the concept of the song, and not the song itself, which exits the mind about as quick as it enters. Not totally successful, but I am intrigued by the idea that Alex Timbers (writer) and Michael Friedman (music & lyrics) might do 40 of these to cover all the Presidents. Because I did learn a lot, and was entertained doing it. Doesn't replace a full biography, but as a good entry level survey that raises questions for further study...

A quick word on Enron. What were the British thinking? This was quite the rage in the UK. It had some clever concepts like giant on-stage raptors in honor of Enron's special purpose entities of the same name, and a good visualization of how they were able to nest little ownership stakes inside of little ownership stakes to mask things, but it just wasn't very good. Closed almost immediately upon opening on Broadway.

The other show I saw in London this year was Jersey Boys. That is fantastic. The first act is full of music with enough background along the way to make the slightly more plot heavy second act succeed. The music is great, of course, one classic song after another. I liked the show so much that I was kind of ready to go out, buy tickets, and come back for the next performance. What I need is for some client to come to New York with a desperate urge to see, so I can have an excuse to go again.

But not Wicked, which I saw in Sydney. It was by no means as bad as I feared it could be, I could even admire it professionally as it does a good job of filling in the background of the fantasy world, which is something real fantasy writers need to do when they write their prequels. But it wasn't my cup of tea. At least with this I could kind of figure why some do find it their cup of tea. But Enron? What were the British thinking.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

2010 theatre Pt 1

Haven't spoken about theatre much on the blog, other than discussing Pinter a week or so ago. 

And have to say, a good play seems much harder to fund than a good book, a good movie, a good comic book. 

There was A Life in the Theatre, an old David Mamet play revived as a vehicle for the wonderful Patrick Stewart (sf community knows him best as Captain Picard of STTNG) and TR Knight of Grey's Anatomy who is not familiar to me. Yikes!  What was this doing on Broadway?  The two play an old actor and a younger doing rep theatre in a small way in a backwards place, no surprise that the younger actor will end up overtaking the older. It is very small. The bad theatre jokes -- think props that don't work or flash back to Miss Piggy in Veterinarian's Hospital -- are wan. It's beneath great acting. Its limited Broadway run ended early as audiences steered clear. No surprise there, that some critics gave mixed or even favorable reviews does. 

Mamet's newer and better play Race also had a star-studded cast, with Richard Thomas of the Waltons and Denmis Haysbert of 24 and Allstate commercials in the cast when I saw. This was better. Law office takes on a possible sexual assault case with racial overtones, which intertwines with the possibility that a young attorney in the office was hired on because of her race. There are some interesting questions about race in society, but it doesn't cohere as completely as Mamet's best work sometimes can. 

Sondheim on Sondheim is a tribute show to one of the great talents of Amerian musical theater mixing biographical pics and info on Sondheim with some of his songs. If you like Sondheim, and I do, this was the cat's meow.  At the same time, it reminds of Sondheim's weakness, which is the vast quantity of great music that Sondheim has put in the service of shows that just aren't as good. Bad concepts, difficult concepts, bad "books," as the speaking parts of a musical are known. And then blessed with brilliant songs that aren't hummable. In The Sound of Music or Annie, you can go away humming almost the entire score, and sometimes sing entire songs from heart. Sondheim, you can hum a few bars from the best songs and cherish listening to them on the cast album for years and decades afterward. While equally virtuous in different ways, only one of those two options provides compensatory pleasures while actually sitting in the theatre. Anything less than a brilliant production and Follies is torture to sit through. Sweeney Todd and Assassins are among the best Sondheim shows and work brilliantly on many levels but one is about people who kill cats for meat pies and the other people who kill US Presidents.  Company has one of Sondheim's most intricate and delightful scores for the long haul in a show about a very cerebral exploration of marriage in a certain upper class kind of milieu. Sondheim wasn't entirely delighted with his experience providing lyrics only for West Side Story, but it's a more thoroughly successful experience than most of what Sondheim did when more fully in control. Called Sondheim on Sondheim because the musical numbers are interspersed with videotaped recollections and reminiscences by Sondheim and archival photos and the like. Its a fascinating glimpse into the man, full of great songs. But it does have this bittersweet aspect. As I said at the top, great theatre is hard work, maybe because it does require so much collaboration unlike the more solitary act of composing a great book or great song..

Dusk Rings a Bell at the Atlantic Stage 2 by Stephen Belber is a play I can hardly remember a few months out. During the parts of it I was awake for, I was more interested in wondering what was on the t-shirt the female lead was wearing undeneath her top than anything else. You know it has to be something because there is a costume designer so the shirt isn't being thrown on, but why then have a top over it? This mystery was solved by the end of the play, and for all my wondering during the solution has faded like most of the rest ot the play.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is out on video this week. Saw it, never reviewed, honestly how much energy does one want to spend on it? Michael Douglas is good, but if he gets an Academy Award nomination this year it should be for the underseen Solitary Man, where he gives one of his very best performances. To be sure, he is surrounded in WSMNS by lots of good acting from the likes of Josh Brolin and Frank Langella and Shia LaBeouf and Susan Sarandon, who's also in Solitary Man. From a dinner scene in the gorgeous interior of Shun Lee West to a fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum the movie has a genuinely right Wall Street/NYC feel to it. But it doesn't have the same quality of screenplay as the first movie. It's a story about whether a leopard can change its spots, and a tad prosaic and unsurprising in ticking off the beats, some of which require the characters to do things that just seem a little bit off. And so even though it has Wall Street characters doing Wall Street things, it isn't a movie for it's time the way the first one was. Too busy watching the leopards and their spots to notice the sharks and the tigers in the financial world. Do me a favor, if you're thinking of getting this on video, take a look at Solitary Man instead which is available now on DVD and on demand. I confess WSMNS is the more entertaining in some ways because of it's gloss and sheen and likeability but Solitary Man has Douglas and Sarandon and DeVito and Jesse Eisenberg and is grittier without being medicinal. WSMNS is empty calories.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Funny Book Roundup

You know you're in trouble with a DCU Holiday Special when the best story in it is the Jonah Hex Hanukkah story. The problem here is that even within the confines of holiday themes there ought to be more room to maneuver than to decree that every story has to be some sappy attempt at jerking tears from the holiday season. And is it an improvement or not that now we get to have sappy stories for multiple denominations, not just Christmas and not just Hanukkah but the Spectre in a Persian New Year story. The Spectre in a Persian New Year story?? And Anthro in a non-denominational solstice story. Anthro? The weird juxtaposition of holiday sentiment and Jonah Hex worked for me, and the Superman story -- well, Superman lends himself to this kind of stuff and the art was nice. But let's just say this was as quick read.

I wasn't sure from a quick scan that Detective Comics Annual #12 would be for me, but I hadn't read a Batman book in so long that I decided to give it a try. Mistake. The lead story had potential. Except I don't like this Batman Incorporated thing of which this is a part. It's Batman only not entirely. So if Batman as Batman had gone to France because he had to protect a diplomat from an assassination attempt, that's a Batman story. Having Brue Wayne there but also a local franchisee of Batman Inc. I'm not sure who I'm reading about any more, so just doesn't work. The other two stories I liked less.

But I think I'm in love with the new Superboy. Issue #2 by writer Jeff Lemire and artist Pier Gallo is another delight. Sometimes Superboy is the worst looking part of the art, bit there continue to be panels that have a deceiving simplicity that makes me keep looking for more. The script has great characterization, great blend of quiet and action, an entire story in one volume with elements that Mort Weisinger would be proud of but enough foreshadowing of other things to come to provide texture for a modern comic book readership. It has been several years since a new series has had me as excited two issues in a long time

Brightest Day #16 was back to having some Firestorm, so I was happy. And the Aquaman stuff is also more interesting than some of the other character arcs in this series.

I am now officially getting upset with DMZ. Hoped after the Collective Punishment arc that we were heading into the homestretch, issue #60 is instead the first of a two-part arc set mostly near Minot AFB, Which is about as far from the DMZ as you can get without going over. Maybe it's the origin story of Paco's. bomb? Enough. I might skip the next issue just on general principle since this 72 issue run looks like it should have been 70 tops. I guess this is better assuming the purpose of these arcs is to give series co-creator Rick Burchielli time on the final run, and I guess commercially better to have an issue than to have a 6-month gap, but still...

Simpsons #173 is an OK issue where Bart becomes a one-man boy band.

Superman #706 is the second interlude, I.e. planned fill-in, in only six issues of the J. Michael Strazynski story arc, but these are at least as good as the arc itself and legitimately adding to the main story. They seem, in other words, less disposable than the time-wasting last half year of DMZ. This one, art by Amilcar Pinna from script by G. Willow Wilson, is set back in Metropolis where Perry White is struggling to keep the Daily Planet afloat while a local media muckraking blog is taking aim at the Planet. I didn't like how the artist drew Perry, and the depiction of Perry as a dinosaur man out of time who can't tell a blog from a blob is too overdone for credibility. The ending is too pat. But ya know, warts and all I liked this. It was fun, and there's nothing wrong with a little plain simple fun.

Somewhat similar in that regard was a green Lantern-Plastic Man one-shot written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Brent Anderson. Here it was Plastic Man whose depiction was a bit too over the top for my tastes, but Wolfman gave an explanation at the end that didn't entirely work but at least gave some motive for the approach that was taken. Even on those terms, the script may have relied too much on having Plastic Man as a buffoon but I can respect the attempt.

Someone was singing praises of the artwork, by Eduardo Risso, in Jonah Hex #62, so I sampled this series form the first time in several years. Enh. I liked classic Jonah Hex, and this won't have me racing back for more of the ciurrent series written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti. There's something a little off, a little flat, about the scripts. They need the acrid smell of gunsmoke. That said, I have to respect the fact that these writers have kept this new Hex series going for 62 issues and counting. My over/under would have bee. 35 issues ago. It might not be working for me, but it's working for somebody.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy is... well, it's interesting. Kind of like I'd say the first movie was interesting. There's something about it which endures even though I saw it decades and decades ago and never looked back at it.

Certainly the thing of interest here is the look and feel of it. Not terribly original. Borrows from the first film, obviously. But well beyond that. There are lots of things that look like clear references to 2001, like the white room where Jeff Bridges holes up, or that long thing ship of the mind that's a clearly updated version of the Discovery. Other ships wouldn't be out of place subbing for Tie Fighters in a Star Wars movie. However all of the borrowing is presented through a prism that is so clearly Tron that the look of the film is entirely on it's own. It's those glow-in-the-dark lines and the shimmering colors. 2001 has this hardware fixation going, metal as beauty object, Star Wars like a grown up version of a kid playing with his model kit spaceship, and then there's Tron with a look all distinctively it's own. This is also one movie where overdone effects that look like a video game are actually supposed to, unlike a Transformers or 2nd Narnia movie or the Peter Jackson King Kong

Considering the ancestry you would also hope for ths film to take maximum advantage of the 3D, and it does. Most movies are 2D sorts of things no matter how many dimensions they're screened in, the 3D is used to exaggerate some of the back and forth, but there isn't anything really different from the flatness of 2D. Here, things move in layers with more of a sinuous grace,

Alas, the script is in two dimensions, like the five cent head that goes with Nuke LaLoosh's million dollar arm. There's this kid who does things impetuously which makes things worse. But his dad forgives him and he comes through in the end. The only original lines are the ones that uniquely reference Tron mythology. We did the "kid laced up in spacesuit" thing with The Last Starfighter.

Sadly, the acting is as dull as the script, and we need to blame the director some for that. Jeff Bridges needed to bring his inner Ricardo Montalban from Wrath of Khan go bear on lines where he's talking about having his zen thing ruined. These are lines that should work but end up flat as a bad joke in a late nite monologue. When it's an actor like Bridges who could bring brio and isn't, not the actor who forgot. Especially when all the other acting is as lifeless. Garrett Hedlund? Is he this stiff because he can't act or because everyone was told to be stiff, to carry that video game motif to it's sad 1980s conclusion that PacMan and the Berzerk robots didn't act and neither does anyone in Tron. There's only one exception. David Bowie was maybe asked to be in the first movie and said "no" so as revenge the British actor Michael Sheen gets to do some kind of David Bowie impersonation that looks like it came from some other movie and should have stayed in some other movie.

And yet for all my fault-finding the film held my interest most of the time, kept me awake. Which is more than I could say for Avatar.

Final note on the score by Daft Punk. This is excellent. It's intended to and does have the musical palette of a video game from 1980 +/- a few but manages to do amazing things within that limited palette. It always reminds you of but never sounds like that thing from three decades ago.

I saw this at the wonderful Uptown in DC. This may be the first film to be shown in modern 3D on it's big curved screen. There were some aspect ratio problems as a result, sections at the edges where the 3D image doesn't fully fill each inch of the curved screen maybe because the 3D needs to be flatter, but it was mostly a big crisp image and happily the 3D didn't diminish the grandeur of the view from the balcony.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blake Edwards

And now, Blake Edwards. I would say Edwards had a career somewhat like Scorcese's. Big ups, big downs, all sorts of things in between. I didn't like Breakfast at Tiffany's but it's enduring. Several mid-range masterpieces. Some outright duds, many of them even. I think his legacy isn't in any one or two films the way Scorcese's would rest on Raging Bull and Goodfellas but rather in the way Edwards defined film comedy for a generation or two with the Pink Panther movies, 10, and Victor/Victoria. 

I would say VV is my own favorite because it blends the best elements of Edwards' work. 

Take farce. There is a lot of classic farce in the Pink Panther movies. However, the earlier ones are a little too quiet and debonair for someone of my age and certainly younger who grew up in a louder age. My introduction to Edwards was in the Dyan Cannon Pink Panther movie, and I think if I saw that today I wouldn't like it as much as an adult because it is mostly about the Pink Panther schtick, though I think I would still find some of the funny parts to be genuinely funny. 

But VV...  set in France so it has to be sophisticated and certainly the Julie Andrews character considers herself that. And the songs by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse have a sparkle, wit, sophistication to them.  Even on a first viewing I could appreciate the quality of the filmmaking, the way the camera cuts to the outside of a diner for the final act of a scene instead of keeping us in the thick of it. And in the midst of all of this sophistication it has all the elements of classic farce rendered with impeccable timing. Mistaken identity, banging doors, frenzied mayhem, people sent to hide on the ledge. 

SOB isn't that good, but it has Richard Mulligan. Mulligan was one of the stars of the classic TV comedy Soap and could do amazing things with his body and his timing and his presence, an amazing actor nobody knows much about. SOB may be the only film he was in that was worthy of his presence. 

I wasn't a big fan of The Party, a late in life reteam of Edwards and Peter Sellers, but you can read an appreciation of it by JABberwocky client Bryce Moore. 

I'm not saying all that could be said on Edwards. His best films were done before I was in college, he hasn't been a presence for 15 years and was hardly one for ten years before that. But at his best, he did define film comedy. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Morning Glory

Forgot to mention Morning Glory. This is certainly a better movie than Burlesque, and pleasant enough way to spend the time. Very good chance will be at second run theatres over Xmas!  Yet I don't know if I enjoyed it as much as Burlesque. 

Certainly this is better cast. Harrison Ford can still chew on a line and does plenty of it. Diane Keaton, I wouldn't say she chews, but whatever she does she usually does well. And Rachel McAdams is pleasantly right for her role as a fired TV producer who talks her way to a gig running the distant 4th morning network show and sets out to save it by putting a no-way-do-I-want-to-be-here Ford with an I-don't-need-this Keaton together as anchors. Jeff Goldblum is also on hand as the network exec who gives her the job and isn't so sure of the call. All good in their roles, though Harrison Ford has been directed to sound so gruff in some scenes you'd think he either had a tracheotomy right before going on or throat cancer. 

Lots of good local color. A scene at Elaine's with Elaine (who passed away right -around the time of the film's release), Ford having a drink with Chris Matthews and Morley Safer, the network is based in that curved wall building across from Bryant Park where the characters hang out. 

But less than the sum of all its parts. For the movie to work the Rachel McAdams character has to be inept and inspired as convenient. The morning show concept is probably enough for a movie but not enough for this one, which has a romantic comedy subplot with McAdam and Patrick Wilson that I just found to be the most boring thing. McAdam's love is with her TV show. This isn't one of those May December romance movies that would drive my sister crazy, but the climax of the movie is Harrison Ford saying a platonic yes to the show/McAdams, not Patrick Wilson, in fact one of the good NY color things is the handling of the traditional race against no that every romantic comedy has to have, so why hae Patrick Thomas at all. 

Ultimately, acceptably entertaining in acceptable ways while Burlesque is fascinating. Weird, but fascinating. I can rent or watch on TV at least twenty movies that would entertain me similarly. Not Burlesque, definitely not that. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is certainly one of the leading contenders in the Oscar sweepstakes, and it's a very very good movie. At the same time, it should be recognized for being what it is, which is essentially a kind of high brow sports movie. Rocky for the literati. Underdog with trainer struggling against the odds with help of a trainer to get ready for the big bout. In this case the underdog is named Bertie, which is the family's name for Prince Albert, the Duke of York, the stammerer who is going to become King George VI when his brother Edward abdicates on the eve of WWII, and who can't by any means deliver a rousing speech without sounding like me when I was a teenager in front of a crowd, not unless an uncredentialled Aussie emigre speech therapist named Lionel Logue can cure him. 

To be elevated, a movie like this needs good acting, which we have here in spades. Colin Firth shows remarkable range from last year's deserved Oscar nomination for A Single Man. Very solid, very royal, very contained, whenever in public his humiliation and anger and fear show only in the lines of his face. His wife is played by Helena Bonham Carter, who can too easily feel prey to Merchant Ivory syndrome and get as strait-laced as her corsets when playing in costume. Not here. She has life, energy, bounce, was fun to watch which isn't what I expect from her. Geoffrey Rush is having fun playing Logue as well. He gives a quiet strength to his performance that's necessary for him to go head to toe with Prince Albert, but not hiding his own insecurities over his roots. The two make a great match in their performances, the film is sometimes as much buddy movie as sports drama, and wouldn't work near as well as it does without central performances as yin and yang as Firth and Rush provide here.  Very good scene when the two let lose and have at it in a park.  Guy Pearce is showing the same range as Firth, compare him here to his role in Animal Kingdom earlier in the year (do rent this; Jacki Weaver gives the motherly performance here that Melissa Leo doesn't approach in The Fighter, one of many virtues to this fine film) but too ofte acts like he stole Helena Bonham Carter's stuffiness. Michael Gambon, the Dumbledore of the later Harry Potter movies, is pleasantly on hand, Timothy Spall of Damned United, Harry Potter and much more is a less pleasant negative revelation doing a grotesquerie of Churchill. If there are some ups and downs in the cast, there are none where it counts, the leads are excellence, defined and in abundance. 

All the other princely virtues as well. Alexandre Desplat has his second fine score of the season, after Deathly Hallow. The stammering is handled delicately, enough to give a fully sufficient flavor of it, not enough to make anyone squirm. 

And underneath it all, a script with all the right beats, the ups and downs and the struggles and the doubters.  

I prefer The Social Network, but if King's Speech conquers all at least the Oscar goes to a movie with all the classic Oscar ingredients, well blended, not too stodgy, and certainly recommendable. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Burlesque

This didn't look so good from the coming attraction, and I kind of sat down and said if it wasn't good I would leave. And the odd thing was, I didn't think it was very good, and I couldn't get up out of my chair because there was a certain fascination to watching it unfold.

Christina Aguilera plays some hick from Oklahoma or something whom we're shown for a moment or two at the beginning leaving for the big city. She ends up at Club Burlesque, with Cher and Stanley Tucci running the place kind of like you had Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci running the magazine in The Devil Wore Prada, or doing Julia Child. A real estate developer wants to buy the club from Cher and Peter Gallagher. Cher has a mortgage not due she has no hope of paying, but won't sell. There's this bartender played by Cam Gigandet, and Christina Aguilera ends up on his couch, but he's engaged to an actress conveniently doing a play on the East Coast.

Can you write this script? You can probably write it better than the actual script. You can guess, and you'd be right, that Christina and Cam will end up sleeping together, that the wife on the East coast will be on the West coast just in time to walk in on the two of them. You can guess that Christina will be tempted by the dark side but will ultimately save the club for Cher. You might even be able to write the script coherently which the actual script most assuredly does not.

I mean, if you wanted Cher to have a solo number, you might find an actual way in the script to give her a solo number. Here, she walks out of a meeting, somebody says "finally, I've been waiting twelve hours for you to come out to practice this number" and Cher goes "oh, OK, let's do it." And I'm sitting there, looking at this, and it's so false.

But then I say, "oh, they needed to give Cher a solo number. Well, if you have Cher in the movie shouldn't she have a solo number. Well, of course you should. So bring on the show!"

Cam Gigandet, when I started this blog years and years ago I said in a not admiring way that he looked post collegiate in the movie Never Back Down that was supposed to deal with high schoolers. He hasn't gotten any younger. He's 28 years old, big and beefy and made up to look like the emcee in Cabaret so he looks even older. What's he doing hanging out with Christina Aguilera here. But this is the kind of glorious wreck that, why, if you're going to have Cam Gigandet look like Joel Grey in Cabaret, then you also have Alan Cumming, the British actor of note who looks like Joel Grey in Cabaret because he played that role on a Broadway revival.

So I just sat and watched. I reveled in every delightful line reading by Cher and Stanley Tucci. I reveled in the silliness and the artificiality and it was all so garish and overdone and ludicrous that eventually you come to the point where the fact that it's a bad script and not even a good bad script at that (writer/director is Steve Antin) doesn't even seem to matter any longer.

After the Amerindie flatness of a Blue Valentine, Burlesque is the perfect cure. It's not good. It's not as bad as a train wreck. But there's something glorious and wonderful about it nonetheless that you have to kind of see at least in the right mood to understand. I wonder if this will have afterlife in five years that Showgirls has had...

And it's really nice to see Cher back on screen. Really really nice. and Stanley Tucci plays off the Chers and the Meryl Streeps of the world so wonderfully.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Passion Plays

Blue Valentine won a screenplay award in 2006, and the director Derek Cianfrance who also collaborated on the script has been trying with the support of his leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to get the film made for several years of course. It will be released at the end of the month, and I was able to see at the largest screen #7 at Clearview's Chelsea as part of the Variety Screening Series. I'm not its biggest fan. It's one of those back-and-forth in time films showing the rise and fall of a marriage, not the first time this has been done. In his generous review in Variety, Todd McCarthy mentions "it's difficult to pinpoint what went wrong or if there were roads not taken that could have prevented the sorry outcome," and that to me is the problem. It doesn't seem like there's an arc to the movie, the early in time seems a lot to me like the later in time. When we get to the end, suddenly the marriage isn't working any more and I can't figure out why. There are classic Amerindie film parts of the movie that I like, like how Ryan Gosling works at a real Queens moving company and there's some verisimilitude with that, but at the same time the movie also reeks of the classic Amerindie flatness of form and flatness of life. This is a subject that should reek of passion, but instead it never really erupts until the end. When it does, it erupts brilliantly. There's a kitchen scene between Gosling and Williams where the marriage reaches its end that's full of fireworks and emotion and brilliant acting. Maybe that end only works because of every necessary minute of what came around before that in the film. Williams was an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain. I haven't seen her in enough to have an opinion, but I'm not in love with her the way I am with an Amy Adams or Anne Hathaway among other young actresses. Ryan Gosling has talent, and I've liked him in various things, but I think he's squandering his career. He's at his best when he's in a Hollywood movie where he's forced to be radiant and good-looking and a screen star (The Notebook, Fracture, not the best movies but Gosling is always watchable in them), but he can't shake his indie roots in The Believer or The Slaughter Rule. Which weren't bad, I've fond memories of seeing Slaughter Rule at the now-gone Two Boots Pioneer Theatre in the East Village especially. But now when he's in an indie film, especially one like this which is so aggressively indie in its tone and approach and its everything, he becomes a black hole. He collapses in himself until there's nothing there. He has a Golden Globe nomination for his troubles, so does Williams, but I see these sorts of roles as a dead end. There are 152 other actors who could probably have done this role, and he should've been doing something else instead. Maybe he could be a star, maybe it's just wishful thinking, but too many more movies like this and he'll be doing them the rest of his life.

Frankie and Alice is a passion play for Halle Berry, who tried for ten years to make this film about a real-life multiple personality story set in 1970s LA and reeking of the time and place. We're very purposely shown a theatre marquees playing The Sting, and the cars and the clothes and everything are all totally there. The film is named for two of the multiple personalities Berry plays, quite excellently. Stellan Skarsgard is in his best Good Will Hunting mode giving the primary support as the doctor who treats her. This is a rental, an HBO movie, something like that. Berry's performance is excellent (she too is a Golden Globe nominee), the film is well made, but it strikes a lot of familiar notes and doesn't have quite enough big screen oomph to it. It has a 2009 copyright date on it, and it's been on the shelf for a year for a reason. This was screened at the Crosby St. Hotel which has as wonderful 85 seat theatre with a decent size screen, better than a lot of the art houses in New York City. If I ever decide to host a screening I shall have to keep it in mind.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Acquired Tastes

I don't get Harold Pinter. And I don't get Mike Leigh.

With Pinter, I'm not sure there's anything to get. Long long ago I remember sitting through every miserable minute of the film version of Betrayal, and I've never come across anything to make me think I'm missing anything. My most recent experience was with a twin-bill at the Atlantic Theater (playing at Classic Stage Company) of his The Collection & A Kind of Alaska. The Collection is a play about a tryst that may or may not have taken place. The costume design was wonderful. The characters were non-entities, so who really cares if there was an affair, or if that one was cuckolded or if this one was cheating. The only drama comes from the fact that it's Pinter, so that the characters are all speaking in a most stentorian way full of portent and meaning. But there is no meaning. A Kind of Alaska is inspired by the work of Oliver Sachs. Someone wakes up after being out of it for 29 years with sleeping sickness. There's a wonderful performance here by Lisa Emery, as the bed-ridden lady. You watch her get out of bed, trying to use those leg muscles she hasn't used in 29 years, and it's a work of art. Can't say enough nice things about it. But I couldn't help but think that it would have been much easier for her to deal with this sudden emergence into a changed world if the people telling her about what had happened had been talking to her like real people, instead of like Harold Pinter people. This isn't a new theme, science fiction novels about time travel or people emerging from cryogenics deal with stuff like this all the time. Somehow or other the manage to get the point across instead of hiding it behind dramatic pauses. If I ever wake up from sleeping sickness or after being in a coma for 18 months and have a Harold Pinter acolyte telling me what happened, I'm going back to sleep.

Mike Leigh is a little different. His new film Another Year which opens soon was a free Variety Screening Series event, and I was willing to see for free what I knew I'd never pay for because at least with Leigh, I can see that there are qualities in what he does that are worth appreciating. Maybe not for me, but if someone really appreciates the stuff that's there kind of like I can really appreciate the fired-agent stuff in Jerry Maguire a lot more than most other people, who am I to complain. This is one of those four seasons plays, spring summer autumn winter sections that range from 20 to 40 minutes, a little over two hours in total. It's about a married couple on in years who like to garden (they have a plot in a community garden), one we meet doing some geology stuff for a pipeline type thingie, the other in her job in a doctor's office dealing with a woman who can't sleep and would prefer just to have a good pill than to route out the underlying cause. She's friends at work with a somewhat flighty and occasionally tipsy receptionist, Mary, who has a thing for their son and is not at all happy when he finds true love elsewhere. In the autumn segment, his very quiet brother dies.

Leigh's style is to work closely with his casts during an improvisational rehearsal period and to write his script based on what the characters find. The leads here, the reliable Jim Broadbent (I loved him on stage in The Pillowman, he plays Horace Slughorn in recent Harry Potter films) and Ruth Sheen, have worked with Leigh's process a lot, and they are fantastic. In fact, the acting is pretty stunning throughout the entire film. And the script is danged good as well. Even though I don't really like Leigh much, I'd have to say this is a good film. You look at the long set piece segments that there are here, the outdoor barbecue during the summer sequence where Mary finds out that Joe has her eyes on someone else and that her crush will go unrequited, or the dinner party when Mary's shown up unexpectedly and is trying to find an equilibrium or the spring scene where we meet the Ruth Sheen character at the office with the character who can't sleep, and they're all really good. Good enough that the film is really quiet but I didn't doze during it at all. Good enough that this opening scene, you'd think it came straight from a Wiseman documentary being filmed at the workplace. It's good true-to-life writing, good true-to-life acting, well-crafted with good camerawork, music, editing. But at the same time you get to the end of it and I couldn't really figure out what the point of it all was. Do I really need to spend two hours watching these characters just to see how or if Mary can deal with her heartbreak in the context of her drinking, or if she can do with it? In spite of all its virtues, you have to admire the craft above all to admire Leigh, not as much as with a Pinter where the craft is truly the be-all and end-all of the discussion, but there really isn't a plot to speak of. The risk in this to my eyes is when you have a script that isn't this good or actors that aren't quite as in tune with it, because when this kind of thing doesn't work on the levels it needs to work on -- well, it really really doesn't work.

Thinking on it, I might be liking Christian Bale's performance in The Fighter more than some of the reviews I've read because he's finding from his Master Thespian Acting approach to his cracked-out character a lot of the same notes that Lesley Manville finds playing the tipsy or worse Mary via the very naturalistic writing style that is found in the Mike Leigh movie. There's this scene at the end of the barbecue when Mary's going to try and drive people back to King's Cross to catch the trains home, and I'm not sure it would be much different if you had Bale's Dicky Eklund character showing up at the barbecue to offer the ride to King's Cross. It's interesting to see how two people can act their way to such similar places from such utterly different directions.

And while I get to the final shot and find myself deflated by the pointlessness of watching for two hours, it is an awfully good final shot. The studio is waging a major campaign to get an Oscar nomination for Lesley Manville, and just as I wouldn't complain to see Christian Bale garnering one for The Fighter, my general lack of excitement for Mike Leigh movies in general shouldn't keep me from saying Manville's performance is worthy of an Oscar nod, as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Fighter

Quick Note #1: With I Love You Phillip Morris now opening in the US and playing in select cities, you can find my earlier review from the spring when I saw during its UK release here.

Quick Note #2: Have reviewed around 50 movies on Brillig this year, 45 or so current releases. That leaves at least a couple dozen I didn't get to, and if I can I'm going to try and mention all even if briefly by the end of the year.

Quick Note #3: I saw The Social Network for a second time a few weeks ago. Just the fact that I decided to see again makes it one of my lead choice favorites for a Best Picture nomination, and perhaps even for the win. That said, while I enjoyed it the second time, I don't see it becoming one of those movies like The Shining or The Muppet Movie, Stepmom or Jerry Maguire, The Empire Strikes Back or Goodfellas, that I might happily see again and again and again. A very good movie, just not going to enter my pantheon.

So on Friday I was a somewhat bad boy. I had meetings in Manhattan at 10AM and 11AM and at 5PM. The 11 didn't break until 12:35, I hadn't even visited the Barnes & Noble the meeting was scheduled to be near to, and I decided to just stay in Manhattan instead of making a 2.5 hour token appearance in the office. Quite happily, when I realized I could just dash down to the AMC Loews Lincoln Center and see the 1:25 of The Fighter if it was on a decent size screen, it proved to be on their biggest, the balconied Loews auditorium.

This is a passion film for Mark Wahlberg, an actor whom I have long been a fan of, and I'm going to review a few other big passion movies for people in the days to come. It's not a passion we share, however. Not a big boxing fan, and I went into the movie with no idea of who this Micky Ward person is. I'm reading reviews that discuss how his big fights with Arturo Gatti, my reaction is "huh, what big fights, never heard of the guy." But it's Wahlberg, which is good. His director is David O. Russell, whose Flirting With Disaster from many years ago I recall as being quite hilarious, whose Three Kings (also with Wahlberg) was OK, and who's done only one other film, I Heart Huckabees, in the eleven years since Three Kings arrived. There's decent pedigree in the rest of the cast, with Christian Bale (an entire episode of Sneak Previews could be devoted to his weird-ass career), Amy Adams (very good) and Melissa Leo (caught everyone's' eye deservedly with Frozen River).

And ultimately, the movie ends up being pretty good, but nowhere near great. I'd hate to see it copping a Best Picture nomination, I certainly think it can get an acting award or two, it's a mix of good creative decisions and bad creative decisions.

There's quite a contrast in acting styles. Wahlberg works for me by always being very quietly good in his work. Part of it with Wahlberg is that he's nice to look at, but it's not that he just coasts along on his good looks like maybe you could say of an Ashton Kutcher. And that's exactly what Wahlberg is here. So quiet you hardly notice he's in the movie at all, even though he's the center of it, and especially because he's playing against two other actors who are totally acting. In the case of Christian Bale, it works for me. I've read a few reviews of the movie that criticize his performance for essentially being over-acting Academy Award bait, and maybe they're right but I say give it to him. He's done the "lose weight" thing before, he's done the character immersion stuff to a hilt, it's kind of like his schtick almost so I don't hold it against him the way I might somebody else that his crack addict character here of Micky Ward's brother is gaunt in a totally gaunt way and strung out in a totally strung out way. And there's something about how he manages to turn on a dime in a strung out kind of way to not be entirely strung out when he realizes he's three hours late for an appointment that works for me. Some of the best scenes emotionally at the end of the movie when Micky is insisting on having his crack addict brother work for him again after a stay at jail work because of the contrast with the more strung out version of Christian Bale earlier in the film.

What doesn't work for me is Melissa Leo as the mother of the two. She's clearly been instructed by the director to be a harridan on an incredibly grand scale, leading this group of harpies that are Micky Ward's sisters. All with big hair that should probably be outlawed outside of Texas, all of it so incredibly godawful blonde that I could hardly look at the screen for fear it would be like staring directly at the sun, all overly made up, all indistinguishable from one another. Maybe that's what they were like in real life, but hear you've got this nice quiet Mark Wahlberg guy the film is supposed to be about and there you've got this thing, this blob, this scourge of sisterhood that you can't bare to watch. When I'm talking about bad creative decisions in the movie, this first and foremost among them. The strange thing is that you read the articles and reviews on the movie and find out how hard they worked to do justice to the fights in the fight scenes, using the actual commentary from the HBO coverage of the matches and seeking out old matching cameras so that they would match the exact look of what an HBO boxing match would have looked like back then with all the same graphics. Which has some cost to the movie dramatically, you can't emphasize the drama of the fights the way a Rocky movie might by going slo-mo or showing nice extra digital droplets of blood that were left over from 300, because you're purposely trying to work off the same canvas here as then. So you ratchet up the spectacle of Ward's family in such a garish and over the top kind of way? There's one person I've come across in life who kind of sounds like the mother sometimes, so we can't say there are no people like this.

Amy Adams I do like, from first stumbling across her in Junebug a few years ago through Ella Enchanted and on to here. She has range, she has skill, and her quietly forceful romantic interest (later wife) for Micky Ward plays perfectly to what Wahlberg is doing. Her style isn't exactly like Wahlberg's. Wahlberg always seems to be Wahlberg no matter who he's playing, while Amy Adams is doing one of those "oh, that's Amy Adams" performances because she's deep enough in you don't recognize her at first. But the two just play really really well off of one another.

In the film, Micky Ward breaks his hand when he tries to save his brother from being arrested, and a bad guy cop goes after Ward's hand with a nightstick. According to Wikipedia, Ward had been having trouble with his right hand during some of the fights during his first go-round, and then had surgery during his retirement years before getting back into the sport where bones from the pelvis were fused into the bones on the hand to strengthen them. Here, I prefer the real life version to what the script presents. The script has to show the brother's complete dark descent to this awful moment when bad brother leads to hand being broken, so that there's then this nice complete rise up to to triumph. I was dozing off during the slow mid-section of the movie that's devoted to showing us that the brother whom we already know full well is a crack addict is going downward downward downward, and if this 114 minute movie had been a 105 minute movie without or a 114 minute movie dealing with the actual events, I think I'd have liked more. In real life, the brother didn't break his crack addiction, either. Whether it was at a lesser point during those big fights with Gatti that aren't covered in this film or whether it was working in spite of, that we don't know.

Because of the decision to keep the boxing real and the brother Bale, the movie ended up working for me most powerfully as a family saga, and it works well enough as both. I'm not going to push people to the theatre to see, but I'm reasonably certain you'll more than like if you end up going. And this might be the best work from Christian Bale that I've seen, which is no small thing in and of itself.

Quick Note #4: I might have been a little unfair to Anne Hathaway in my review of Love & Other Drugs. Thinking on her work in Rachel Getting Married, she does have the same range as Amy Adams, she may be choosing not to go in that direction.

Monday, December 13, 2010

thinking aloud, the contract

Two major agency efforts that reached fruition last week. The first I discussed here, was getting on line with our first e-book publication. The second was hammering out new boilerplate with Macmillan, the German-owned publishing conglomerate that owns Farrar Straus, Tor, St. Martin's, Holt and various other US publishing operations.

Historically, Macmillan had kept separate publishing contracts for each of its many imprints, though certain corporate paragraphs were over time implanted into the separate agreements. In Fall 2009, they announced to the world that they had decided to have one contract form for everyone, which was politely attached to the e-mail. I gave thanks that all of our Macmillan authors (Tobias Buckell and Brandon Sanderson at Tor, Jeri Westerson at St. Martin's Minotaur) were under contracts that had a book or two or four to go, said "tomorrow is another day," filed away the attachment, and was content to let others be the guinea pig.

Because there are few things I dread quite as much as having to contend with new boilerplate. You can reasonably expect to find at least two dozen things you want to talk about. Things will never resolve in one round, because publishers tend to have things they'll give only if you've asked twice and made clear that you weren't joking in asking for them the first time around. And if I hate the words "new boilerplate," I feel even more for the author who has that first contract which needs to be negotiated with the new boilerplate, because they'll be in for a wait. The third or fourth author, it's like you get the new piece of paper, check it has the proper deal terms, and often as not you're good to go. The new boilerplate author has to sit around and chill while you go back and forth on multiple rounds of negotiation.

So tomorrow arrived in April, when Eddie had multiple publishers interested in a YA called Skipped, a first novel by Janci Patterson. Christy Ottaviano, who has an imprint at Henry Holt, decided she wanted the book very very badly, and started e-mailing from a vacation in Disney World to make a preemptive offer to lock the book up, and Eddie was contacting me with the exciting news while I was in Dallas for the DFW Writers Conference. Even worse than being the guinea pig is having to be the guinea pig on your first novel, because there are always extra added butterflies not quite believing you've sold a first novel until you've actually signed the contract and gotten the on-signing check.

And here, well, let's just say Macmillan had done quite the job on their new boilerplate. We couldn't exactly understand why the contracts department was so backed up that we were waiting a few months just to get the first cut on the contract from Macmillan until we had actually gotten it, and sat down, and read the whole thing through. The overall impression it gave was that the drafting process included a session where everyone around the table got to talk about their every bad experience when Macmillan had been left to dry on account of some aspect of the contract, and then they went to work coming up with wording to address that concern, often very very tortured wording. We all sat down with this contract -- Eddie, Jessie, myself -- and when we were done instead of the expected 25 or 35 points to go back on, we have a list of over 70 things in the contract that we weren't entirely happy about.

As an example, and with fond recollection of the "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is" day of Bill Clinton's impeachment, the contract has a long tortured paragraph with a long tortured sentence that ends up referencing "those copies", only it depends on what the meaning of the word 'those' is because it isn't really very clear whether it means a lot of copies or only a small subset of copies depending on what you interpret the pronoun antecedent as being.

There are all kinds of "if" clauses. This is a single-book contract, but Macmillan is taking very seriously the idea that there should be only one contract, so they like "if this contract is for more than one book" clauses even when the contract at hand is just for a single book.

There are places where we can reasonably expect that Macmillan doesn't expect to keep the wording they've suggested if we ask for it to be changed, but where they are going to make sure people ask. There are things we know publishers hate to give in contracts, some of which we find utterly baffling like whether or not the author gets a copy of their e-book the same way they get a copy of their paperback, but we figure we'll try really really hard with the new boilerplate to see if Macmillan will maybe pleasantly surprise us. The answer was almost invariably no, that we would not have any pleasant surprises.

We never consider it to be a problem when a publisher says "no" to something the first time because we know there are things they'll only agree to when you ask twice. We were surprised, however, by the number of things that were still not where we wanted them to be after the second round. We were starting to understand why the contracts department was so backed up, because if they were fighting out some of these things into a third round with scores, maybe even hundreds of agents, over the past year, that gets to be a lot of back-and-forth. So then we have to talk with the author about some of the lingering sticky issues, and with new boilerplate some of those sticky things will be things that have absolutely nothing to do with this book or author but which are important in the big picture of the relationship between the agency and the publisher.

Slowly things get whittled down. There are things the publisher finally consents to. There are things we decide we'll have to give up on. Since the contract is trying to cover so many different contingencies, sometimes multiple in one extremely long and convoluted thicket of language, there are places where we try to see if there's a way to separate out which of the three things the paragraph might deal with the publisher is really concerned about, or try to explain to them which of the five things we're really concerned about, so we can try and make the language even wordier and more convoluted to carve out the one kind of thing from the other kind of thing. Sometimes it looks like the publisher is finally deciding after we've asked for something four times to give us language that they've probably reluctantly agreed to give after the sixth round with another agent 4 months ago. Sometimes there's language that maybe we're getting from them for the first time in our sixth round that maybe they'll now agree to give to somebody else in the third round. In one instance, the contracts person reaches back to his experience with another publishing company he worked for a few years ago and suggests language from that publisher's boilerplate, which more ignores than addresses the particular problem we have in this contract but which we will have to agree to because (a) kind of like an annoying relative at Thanksgiving whom you don't want to think about but at least goes off to the den to watch the Thanksgiving football games so you can chat away in the dining room and pretend the annoying relative isn't around we can ignore what isn't specifically stated and (b) there's no way to not accept the language when the contracts person knows full well we have accepted it.

So finally, a round or two after we figured out what the word "those" is, we figured out what the word "series" is, and we didn't need to deal here with what the meaning of the word "is" is, and we were able to declare victory. Happily Eddie looked at the contract closely with all the many rounds of negotiation to find the three things buried in the second part of the third round that had been overlooked in the final redraft, and over eight months after Janci Patterson has a deal for her first novel, she finally has a contract for it as well.

This was one of those things that I couldn't entirely escape responsibility for and delegate, because the boilerplate is something you need to look at really carefully. Nonetheless the biggest burden fell on Eddie, whose deal it was and who had to draft multiple long response e-mails, going back and forth to the contract files to look for good comparisons, occasionally with dictation from his boss, sometimes with his boss doing that "you know what I mean" hand wave sort of thing where neither he nor anyone else could actually expect to know what the hand wave meant, and coming up with the final compromise language for the final paragraph under discussion. I was very glad not to have to do the whole thing by myself.

And you know, for all the 70+ points we started out with, it wouldn't surprise me if Macmillan's dealt with at least that many points from other authors, agents and attorneys that didn't cross our minds to think of. And as good a job as we think we did, if the boilerplate's in use for long enough we'll find over the years where we fell short somewhere or another along the way. And even though we have boilerplate, there will still be situations where a particular author is concerned deeply about something that doesn't concern us or our other clients so much, and we'll have to hammer out some special something here or there to deal with that.

I'm told HarperCollins may have done new boilerplate at some point in the past year or so.

And as to SKIPPED, it will probably be out sometime in 2012, it's already sold in Germany in a very nice deal, and I hope you'll keep your eyes open for it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

risk vs. reward

Here's a Washington Post article from this Saturday where Attorney General Eric Holder is defending the legality of sting operations that are finding terrorist plots emanating from radicalized Muslims in the United States.

It's a difficult question. My client Tobias Buckell mentioned another Washington Post article describing how one informant the FBI was using so upset a lot of the people in a mosque that they called the FBI to report him. You read enough of these stories, and it's very clear that the people the FBI is arresting are radicalized, do have intentions on harming us. And at the same time, a lot of their particular plots might not have advanced if the FBI didn't find and encourage and help them. From the legal definition of entrapment, I don't think the entrapment defense works because the intention is there with or without the FBI.

At the same time, I don't know if we're doing ourselves a service by having the FBI informers essentially run the bad guys in their missions. Another approach is to try and surveil and monitor the suspects and see whom they might come across if we let them play out the string a little bit. Now, there's a real risk to this. The guy in Portland, maybe he'd have ended up with real explosives in his car instead of fake explosives supplied by the FBI. But there's a gain to this as well. Two, actually. From the FBI perspective, there's less room for debate. And at least for some people, maybe we're better off if it doesn't keep looking like the FBI is arresting people for plots that, entrapment or not, wouldn't look like they exist only because the FBI was enabling. Bigger gain, if the plot advances with somebody else's help, maybe we're going to end up catching a bigger fish, kind of like the same thing where you have to try and balance jailing the foot soldiers in the drug war against jailing the kingpins.

Alas, our government has no interest in trying to talk us through real risk scenarios. Our government prefers for us all to pretend that there's no airplane security risk because we all get body scans and patdowns. Better that we give up our 4th amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. So that's not a government that's going to take any risk that they'd let some plot advance too far before making the arrests, because it would require having an adult discussion about the risk/reward of the chosen course if things go wrong.

In law enforcement and in life, like with your IRA, there's always that balance between risk and reward.

thinking aloud, on the Borders

Two things not entirely unrelated.

I don't spend as much time in bookstores as I did five years ago, but I still spend a good chunk, and am well aware of which chains are carrying which books at which proportion of their stores. I've long thought it would be a good idea to put this information on the website, so that if somebody wants to buy Elizabeth Moon's Heris Serrano they don't go dashing off to the local B&N that is guaranteed not to have, and vice versa doesn't go dashing off to the local Borders for Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Succession, which only B&N stocks. This is finally done, and you can find here, just in time for your last minute holiday shopping. Let us know if you think it's a good idea, please. We'll also check the page view stats over time. But we need to decide if we keep and update the page, maybe snazzy it up a bit, or if eventually it will go the way of the dodo. There are some things on the website that we keep because the idea of them is right and good even if we don't have lots of views, then things like a cover gallery that we had when Steve Mancino was around and which were looked at, but which we haven't kept because none of us now really felt like updating the page. Ever. This page may stay up regardless because we can now say "JABberwocky e-book" with some titles and have a link to the sales page, but I am curious what people think of having this on the web site.

Also this week, Borders released an earnings report that was yet again pretty dismal looking. Same store sales were down by over 12%, a 10% bigger drop than at B&N. The sales drop could have them in trouble with their lenders again. Since some categories like e-reader sales increased with the arrival of Area E in early September, which is reflected for two of three months in this earnings quarter, book sales would have been off even more.

And this scares me. When I put together my buying guide, it makes all the more clear to me that on balance (and this has pretty much been the case for a while now) the typical Borders is better situated for buying JABberwocky books. This comes with a lot of caveats, of course. Because Borders is still slower to replenish inventory, the gap between theory and practice is wider. If you want to buy Violette Malan you need to go to B&N and if you need to buy Jim Hines Goblin books you need to go to Borders. Stores aren't typical. If you're in the Westfarms Mall area the Borders on one side of the street is way way better than the B&N on the other, and someplace else a bad Borders is across from a really good B&N. But where it counts the most, for the authors like Simon Green and Tanya Huff and Elizabeth Moon who have large loyal audiences in the genre, the odds are much better if you walk into a Borders that you're going to find the book you want. Tanya Huff's Blood Books, an entire set of Blue Moon Rising, Swords of Haven and Guards of Haven. The odds are better. When Borders made the mistake some three years ago now of reacting to its cash crunch by reducing the title selection at their best stores, which back then were incredible book palaces, there are multiple JABberwocky books that were killed by this. Obviously not the biggest books, but books that were selling hundreds of copies a year that dropped to 0 copies. If Borders goes, it will kill off some more. It's a fact.

Borders has real problems, no point to sugarcoating. I said here that their Area E looked pretty feeble, and it is. And because they are in a struggle, a lot of other things they talk about I fear will be similarly day late and dollar short in concept and in execution. Yet I also don't like seeing the piling on that happens when things aren't going well. As an example, the Publishers Lunch report on the results mentions the good news that half a million people have paid for a Borders Rewards Plus membership bringing in $11M in fee revenue, but then asks how much it will cost them moving forward. It's a fair question, but on the other hand this paid tier of membership is something B&N has had for years and Amazon as well. So that's where I think we go from being honest about a bad situation to piling on. And when there's something they do that's actually good, I do think their web site redesign makes for a very clean and easy shopping experience compared to bn.com or Amazon, it's hard to get any credit. Because nobody cares. Maybe nobody should. But I do. I pray for some sign that Borders is going to stabilize. And if you can find a way to give them some business this holiday season, it will be a good thing.