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, January 11, 2013

The Changing Scene

Once upon a time I used to take a free weekend afternoon and do a grand circuit of Manhattan bookstores, up 2nd Ave. maybe stopping at Black Orchid mystery store if it was open, two Barnes & Nobles on E. 86th St., thru Central Park, 2 B&Ns on Broadway on the Upper West Side, then the Borders on Columbus Circle and the Borders on Park Ave.

That was a long time ago!

Now, it's been months and months and months since I've been to the mega-B&N on E. 86th that replaced two smaller and inadequate locations.  But I needed to buy three books by a couple published authors who are talking to us, I decided to buy them the old-fashioned way, the B&N was supposed to have all three.

So up 2nd Avenue I went, for the first time in ages.

Sadly, the United Artists Gemini at 2nd Ave. and 64th St. closed quietly in the fall, there's a "for lease" sign touting the "unique footprint" for retail.  According to Cinema Treasures, the theatre opened as the Columbia in 1971, doesn't say exactly when it got the name of the Gemini, which is much more appropriate for a twin theatre.  It had two auditoriums, an upstairs with stadium seating in the rear section and a downstairs, both with around 400 seats and pretty good-size screens.  More important, unlike some other theatres of that vintage like the Coronet, which had stiff high-back seats and no leg room and was torture to sit in, the Gemini had luxurious seating rich with leg room.  It was a very comfortable place to see a movie.

I first went to the Gemini in February 1986.  Looking at the release date of the movie FX and thinking on the timing, I think there's a very good chance that I went there following one of my interviews at Scott Meredith during my job hunt after college, I don't think it was a stop after work in my early days on the job.  So there's some sentimentality just on that account.  But it wasn't the only movie I saw at the Gemini over the years.  Dirty Dancing was probably the favorite movie that I saw there, others include The End of the Affair, Total Recall, The End of the Affair, Adaptation, Closer, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and more.

The theatre was in a stand-alone building.  The air rights were sold, and as part of the deal for building atop of the theatre, a small 3rd screen was added upstairs.  The Gemini wasn't a good name for a three-screen theatre, but shall we say that going from The Gemini to the UA 64th and 2nd is not change for the better?  What an awful name for a movie theatre.

With changing times, this neighborhood house that often had sell-out shows became very quiet, even though the Upper East Side is horribly underscreened.  I hardly went to the theatre at all in recent years, even though it was close by.  There was almost always a nicer place to go to see a movie in Manhattan, even though the Gemini was nice, there were nicer.  Also, Regal charges a Manhattan surcharge when using their discount tickets, AMC does not, so it would cost more to go to the Gemini.

The last movie I saw at the Gemini was Rock of Ages.

I keep track in my head of movie screens that remain intact from when I moved to NYC in 1986, with the loss of the 2 original screens at the Gemini, we're down 2.  (I think the others are 84th St. 6; Ziegfeld, original 3 at Lincoln Plaza, the Quad, IFC Ctr/Waverly #1, Cinema Village #1, the DW Griffith/Big Cinemas, Cinema 2, the Paris, the NY Twin/Beekman, the 57th St. Playhouse/DGA, or 22 in all.)

Moving onward, 2nd Avenue is a mess.  As they build the 2nd Ave. subway, around half the blocks from 60th St. to 86th St. have pits for building the tunnel and stations.  Businesses have closed in abundance where the construction blocks them from view.  Progress!

I went in to the Upper East Side Fairway for the first time.  This is where one of the two B&Ns used to be, in shared retail space with a Circuit City.  Fairway has taken over both spaces, is using the ground floor and basement, and the upstairs space that the B&N used to fill is backroom space for the grocery store.

The B&N, well of course it had only two of the three books it was supposed to have, 2 copies of the 3rd book supposedly came in back in July but are nowhere to be found.  It was very retro, checking a variety of wrong sections that the book might have been mis-shelved in before giving up on the idea of finding it.  In the early days of JABberwocky when I visited bookstores often and it was truer than now that I make my money a nickel or quarter at a time when people buy a book, I used to fixate on missing copies like these a lot more than I do now.  The joy of going to a Borders on Opening Day, and finding the two books of 70 of mine that were put in the horror or mystery section when they were supposed to be in SF.  Sadly, I may end up having to buy an e-book for book #3.

They had a book group event in the store with 10 people, yet B&N won't offer Manhattan signings for major sf/f authors like Peter Brett because they claim they won't get crowds.  I'm reasonably sure Peter Brett could get way more than 10 people to an event on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

It's interesting to ponder how the me of 10 years will think back on the me of today, the way the me of today thinks back on those Sunday afternoon bookstore tours of the Upper East and West Sides, and if in 20 years the movie theatres I go to all the time now will have fallen out of fashion the way the Gemini did.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Little Sit


Films don't need to be over two hours to be long sits, nor under two hours to fly by in the blink of an eye.

An example of the short but long sit:  The Deep Blue Sea, which I skipped when it opened in theatres, it didn't sound like a movie for me, but Moving Image was doing a screening and the film has gotten some award attention -- the lead actress Rachel Weisz won the NY Film Critics prize -- so why not?

It's too conscientiously arty.

I can't fault Weisz, she has previously gotten attention in The Constant Gardener and other films.  But her role here is thankless.  London, a few years after WWII, still fresh in mind, there's a reminiscence of she and her husband hanging out being serenaded in the Aldwych tube station during one of the bombing runs.  Not really her husband now, he left her after finding out she is having an affair.  The other man had forgotten her birthday which inspires a suicide attempt, the film takes place over the next 24 hours with abundant flashbacks like the tube scene to stretch it out.  Alas, the time is being stretched with characters that are hard to spend time with.  She doesn't have much self awareness, too much of the movie you wonder what she's thinking, why she's doing things. As much as we don't like her, we also don't feel for her cuckolded husband, he seems harsh and judgmental, and there's a good scene of her visiting his mother's, and the mother-in-law is icy and quick with a gentle civilized dagger thrust in words. The boyfriend, we don't get a good idea what he one saw in her or what she ever saw of him, this question came up in the Q&A with Weisz afterwards and the suggestion was maybe they were having good sex, but there isn't any visible passion in the film.  So you get flashbacks, a long dream sequence at the beginning, swells of a Samuel Barber concerto in the score.

The palate is very dark and dreary until she opens the window on a bright new day at the end.  The first question in the Q&A is about the criticism from some critics that she doesn't die at the end (maybe not the decision of writer/director Terrence Davies, as the film is based on a play by Terence Ratigan), and I think it's a legitimate criticism.  The character's decision to act like she can put the past behind and welcome a new dawn isn't true to this character.  It doesn't mean, as Rachel Weisz's response to the question implied, that critics think any woman who tries too hard for uplift should end tragically.  The tragic end fits this woman in this movie.

There's a lot of craft and care in the film, it's artistic in its way, but it's shame for all the art to be in the service of such an unpleasant bunch of people to be around.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

guns and butter

OK, let's wade into this debate, and let's say pretty bluntly, anyone who agrees with "best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun" post-Newton argument doesn't have the right end of this argument.  Reasonable gun control is perfectly reasonable, and we should have a whole lot more of it.

And I'm not the crazy one for saying this.

And FYI, I grew up in a small town in rural New York State, first day of hunting season kids would take off from school, the highway would be full of people doing the hunting thing, full of police doing spot checks that cars didn't have more dead deer than the allocation.  Wasn't my scene, but I'm not without familiarity with a culture of sport hunting.

However:

The common sense way to keep bad things from happening, the way that we keep any other bad thing from happening that you can possibly think of, is to make it more difficult for that thing to happen.  You want less speeding, you add speed bumps or other traffic calming measures, you have and enforce a speed limit that's lower in front of a schoolyard, you don't say that the solution to speeding is to soup up cop cars.  In fact, police departments usually have regulations on when cops can engage in hot pursuit.  You want less bank robberies, you add dye packs and glass partitions and security cameras, the NYPD has even gotten on some banks that they think make their banks too easy to rob in the name of customer service.

And you want less dead hunters, you get real strict on the idea that people went out to the woods in hunting attire.  You want people to take only as many deer as they are supposed to, you spot check on the highway on the first day of hunting season.

Since common sense is on my side, I think the people who want to argue that gun violence is the one bad thing that can be reduced by having more guns with more people in more places have the onus of explaining why gun violence is the exception to the common sense idea that you make things more difficult if you want them to happen less.

One person I know tweeted after last summer's movie massacre that the solution was clearly to have more concealed carry holders in the theatre.  What about friendly fire? Which the best-trained best-equipped US military still has happen every now and again.

So if you're going to seriously argue that the solution is that we have more people with more guns in more places -- well, we won't give all of them military training, but what kind of licensing or training requirements are you going to require of these people so that we can at least go some distance toward having friendly fire incidents in movie theatres that won't be too much worse than what the best military in the world might have.

Because let's say you've got multiple people with guns in that movie theatre?  The other people are going to be stampeding for the exits, they're not going to be ducking for cover and acting like a trained soldier who's just come under ambush. A second person starts shooting, are they taking aim at shooter #1 or are they part of a plot with shooter #1?  There are a lot of quick decisions to be made that should be given at least the attention that I got in a driver's ed simulator in high school.  IPDE -- identify prepare decide execute -- trained enough I can still tell you about it long after I stopped driving a car regularly.

But of course, most people who want more people with more guns in more places want it 100% on the honor system that the people will take gun classes and be trained and keep their guns securely protected when they aren't being used.  I'm sure they'll all do that, just like we all have 16-character passwords for our websites that are different and include a symbol, a number, and an upper-case.

There's also the fact that a successful functioning state is one where the state has a monopoly on the use of force.  Failed states are ones where lots of people have guns and group into their own militias and can act independently of the state.  We worry about a country like Libya becoming a failed state if the state doesn't gain control of the militias.  We worry about states like Somalia that are essentially failed because everyone has guns but the state  Yet, in the US, where we have a right to bear arms based on this language "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" the current thought is that second amendment rights mean not only that we should have guns independent of any "well-regulated" or "militia" or "well-regulated militia."  We're told we have "second amendment remedies" to Obama or Obamacare? That doesn't sound like it goes along with "necessary to the security of a free state."

It's also suggested that the problem isn't our guns but our culture of violent movies and video games.  These violent games and movies are among our most successful exports to the rest of the world, yet the US has a uniquely high rate of gun violence.  There's a lot of searching to find excuses for our high rate of gun violence that don't come down to "we have more people with more guns in more places."

There are always counterfactuals.  The person who wasn't wearing a seat belt, so the person was thrown free of a crash and otherwise would have been killed.  But good public policy should be based on usual outcomes, on the better odds.

So why is limiting gun purchases to one a month crazy?  I think of growing up, I think of families having a gun -- a, as in one person -- and maybe passing one down like a family heirloom, not of having arsenals.  Cameras at gun stores don't strike me as more of an issue than cameras at the bank, both would film thousands of people doing things they are entitled to do and likely never capture a criminal but why is one worse than the other?  If we could spot check for killing too many deer, can't we stop thinking of silly reasons why fingerprinting guns or ammo or gunpowder is a miserable way to back-trace someone who actually does kill too many people?

Maybe I am crazy, I look at concentrations of policeman and say "what kind of dangerous thing is happening or about to happen here where I need all these policemen to protect me" and feel less safe in that kind of environment.

This post isn't full of links to this study or that study, this or that statistic.  I don't think I need them.  You want less of something to happen you make it more difficult for that thing to happen.  You want to say more guns are the solution, you need to tell me how you're going to train all those gun owners to make good decisions in the crunch.  I don't know if George Zimmerman was right or wrong under Florida law to take aim at Trayvon Martin, but don't you think it's strange to have the state of Florida giving him more or a right to shoot his gun than the police or a GI??

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Irony at the Cash Register

So it's not all that long ago that we were told what a big mistake it was for Borders not to have invested more in the e-book reader business.

Now, after a confused holiday season where Publishers Weekly was running articles right after Black Friday telling us how wonderful the indies were doing with the Kobo and now runs an article to say "oops never mind" and where Barnes & Noble was touting its Black Friday success with the Nook and now blaming a drop in holiday sales on a huge drop in sales for the Nook, can we still say that the problem at Borders was failure to invest in an e-reader?  Barnes & Noble doesn't have much to show yet but a lot of red ink or maybe saying that things would even be worse for the retail stores if it wasn't for the Nook, and it's hard to know if there's any way to monetize the business.  Maybe e-readers aren't dead, but tablets are so much better and are now available at prices comparable to the earliest e-readers, not so much for the iPad but certainly tablets by other players that have a lot more resources to pour into the business than Barnes & Noble.  Are e-readers any good these days?  When I had a Kindle, it was better in the principle than in the actual experience.  I've never looked back since getting an iPad.  If the e-reader business becomes a commodity business of selling below $50 in order to compete with tablets, it's not a great business to be in.

I don't know if there's a direct connection between this and the investments in the Nook, but when it comes to physical books Barnes & Noble is now plagued by the same inconsistent selection as Borders was, even in its prime.  Will a store have a partial selection of Nightside, Secret Histories and Ghost Finders books by Simon Green, or will it have all the Nightside, all the Secret Histories, all the Ghost Finders, a few of the Deathstalker books??  Will it have a core title like Elizabeth Moon's Deed of Paksenarrion that is in its third decade and outselling a lot of today's hot young things?  Three Tanya Huff books or eight of them?  It beats the hell out of me. It doesn't encourage people to go and buy books at their local Barnes & Noble instead of buying electronically.  I don't buy the argument that since the physical bookstore chain can never compete with the wide selection of e-books it shouldn't even bother to try.

It was also a big mistake for Borders to have so many stores with such long leases, but that was always a bit deceptive.  If Borders were doing better, having long leases on good locations would be a good thing.  Barnes & Noble now has a different problem.  By keeping a tighter leash on its real estate portfolio, it has a risk of losing too many of its best locations and not having a good way to replace them.  Plenty of stores like the one in Union Station in DC or by Lincoln Center in Manhattan or in Reston VA or in University Village in Seattle that I'm reasonably sure were good locations and profitable ones that B&N would prefer to be in.  But you can't pay top-line rents selling books.

For all of these reasons, I'm not bullish on Barnes & Noble right now.  It's not going away tomorrow, or even in five years, I don't think.  But it just seems to be on that path.

However, my biggest concern about the business is that the infrastructure for selling physical books will evaporate way sooner than the actual demand for physical books, and that this is by far the biggest threat to traditional publishing than the change to buying e-books.

I wrote this post on Sunday for later scheduling, and then Monday we saw a retweet from Tobias Buckell to this post by the co-publisher of Melville House, similar in theme but a little more passionate, I get hurt indirectly when the big chains screw up, he feels it first degree.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The World From Here

One topic which I covered in my 2012 review which I think deserves a little more attention is that of the global market for English language books.

As a quick primer, there are three basic kinds of publishing deals, most all deals fall into one or the three categories:

North American.  You give the publisher the right to publish the book in English in the US and Canada.  You keep rights to the British Commonwealth (Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, different definitions after that which can range from a couple dozen to several dozen countries).  The world outside of North America and the British Commonwealth is something called the "Open Market" where everyone can distribute a book on a non-exclusive basis, mostly countries where English isn't a first language, like continental Europe or Brazil or Russia.

World English:  You give the publisher the right to sell the book everywhere throughout the world in English, the publisher can either license Commonwealth rights to a British publisher or distribute its own edition.  You keep the right to sell the book in translation.

World:  Your publisher can sell the book everywhere in any language, either in its own editions or in licensed editions.

This post talks about World English and North American deals.

To put things into historical perspective, some of today's largest publishing companies have roots that go back well before the first flight by the Wright Brothers.  If we look at HarperCollins, the earliest ancestor company founded by the Harper Bros. in the US was founded in 1817, and William Collins was founded in 1819.  Bertelsmann was founded in 1835, the main Random House it owns in the US was founded in 1925, around the same time as Simon & Schuster.  If you go back all that way, it is easy to understand the clear business rational for having separate publishers.  Books had to go by boat.  The British still had extensive colonies with preferred trading arrangements.

As the years have gone by, the world has become smaller.

And certainly, for many decades, the distinctive US and UK markets have been a bit leaky.  Under legal concepts like the "first sale doctrine," if I buy something I get to do with it as I please, so there's always been a so-called gray market, not just for books but for everything from toothpaste to high tech gizmos, where I can buy a product in the US or UK or Kenya or Thailand and then re-sell it where I please.  Many companies may have contracts with their distributors that limit these rights under first sale doctrine, governments may put some restrictions on, but things will leak.  In Australia, a British publisher can't claim the market exclusively if it fails to make its edition available in Australia within a couple months of first publication, and that takes precedence over a pubishing agreement.  In publishing as in most copyright businesses, the trade is one way, the US sends a lot more of its books into the UK than the UK sends to us.

Because there was, is and always will be leakage. publishers in the US and UK on both ends of a split rights situation, publishers have always had to have a certain realpolitik in approaching violations of territorial exclusivity.  Other than for really really big books we generally look the other way.  I don't come back from a trip to London with a long list of US editions that are on sale at Forbidden Planet in London even though the US publisher doesn't have rights to sell in the UK.

But the world keeps getting smaller, and every so often, tension flares up between publishers that feel that the best solution to the shrinking world is to obtain World English rights at minimum and sell their books globally, and between authors and agents who would still prefer to have the ability to do separate licenses.  Several years ago, there was a short-lived kerfuffle that didn't amount to much, as most of these things don't usually amount to much, when the European trading market became an open one, so someone could buy the US edition legally in Germany and not have legal restrictions on sending that US edition into the UK.

The world continues to shrink.  The e-book as an example isn't as easily respectful of national borders.

And there is an interplay between all of these things.

As an example, once upon a time if a British publisher wanted to protect its British market, it could ask local British booksellers not to import the US edition and expect to have this respected.   Now, Amazon is a bit more likely to push back on the idea that it can buy a US book for its subsidiary in Luxembourg where it hides all its European profits for lower tax rates, and that is is perfectly able to sell that book in the UK thanks to the European free trade zone.

And readers with their e-gadgets can have this expectation that they should be able to buy an e-book whenever and wherever they please, and can quickly e-mail their displeasure when they are kept from their zen.

And most of the major publishers are divisions of UK, German or French publishing conglomerates that have major operations in many parts of the English speaking world.

So once again there is this sense that the global imperative is to buy World English rights to things.

I'm still not fond of the idea.  I've kicked the tires on it, and I still don't think it's the best thing for the author.

The publishers are right about one thing, that there are lost sales in the global e-book market when the US publisher doesn't have rights to sell an e-book in however many dozens of countries its contract defines as the British Commonwealth.  And it's much easier for readers to go on the internet and e-mail publishers and authors and do blog posts and tweet and etc. etc. their immense dissatisfaction that they are not able to buy some book they would very much like to buy.

Of course if the author is able to also sell the book to a UK publisher, then there' s somebody pretty much everywhere to sell an English language e-book.  But the UK market is much smaller than the US market, there's never a place or way that every book published in the US can find a UK publisher.

And even without a UK publisher, the author now has the ability to publish an e-book edition, it's just a question of uploading a file and checking off the right country boxes.  However, you can't use the US cover art, necessarily.  You need to have the final copy-edited file.  There are obstacles like that, and since the UK market is so much smaller, if you aren't pretty certain you'll actually sell your book in quantity outside of North America, it might not be worthwhile.  Your US publisher has the electronic file, has rights to the cover art, it can sell the e-book globally more easily.

But...

To the extent that there will be "gray market" distribution or leakage of your book, most of that will happen whether or not you've sold anyone British rights.  i.e., even if you don't sell UK rights to your US publisher, Forbidden Planet and Amazon and Waterstones will still all import your book if they are inclined to do so, actively distributing US books into the UK isn't usually something that the US publishers work on, you aren't likely to lose many print sales because you've chosen not to sell World English rights and haven't then found a UK publisher.  E-book sales yes, print no, you might hear from some people who feel they have a constitutional right to buy and e-book instead of a print sale but won't from the people who just quietly go and buy the print edition which is easy enough to buy when they see it's not available as an e-book.

In the UK, major retail outlets like WH Smiths, which operates in almost every airplane and train station and also has larger stores on the "High Street" in local towns, doesn't really carry US editions, the mass marketers like the supermarkets don't, Waterstones carries fewer imports than it once did.  If you want to really cover the UK market you kind of still need a UK publisher to places sales calls on all of these UK accounts.

It's the same in Australia, even when there's no legal restriction on importing the US edition the major retailers still take their lead from what the British publishers can supply.

And even in this day and age of the internet, a lot of sales are still driven by local promotion and publicity.  Yes, there are websites and blogs that can sell lots and lots of copies, more than the NY Times Book Review ever could do, but not everyone in the world reads every website.  So a book like Myke Cole's CONTROL POINT has a lot more reviews in the UK because it has a UK publisher Headline behind it, and sold a lot more copies in part because Headline arranged for the book to have decent carriage at WH Smiths.  On balance, I believe there is still enough of an upside to Myke Cole to have an actual UK publisher that it makes up for some other client we have who is losing some UK e-book sales because there isn't a UK publisher.

(The above may come as a surprise to some UK publishers, who are often resistant to buying books for the UK after their US publication because they are so entirely sure that all of the UK readers who might want will have purchased the imported edition from the US.  No matter how many hundreds of thousands of imported copies have sold, the UK publishers can for most books squeeze out far more sales than that if they apply themselves to it.)

The example above might suggest that an author is better off not risking that they will be the author who loses e-book sales so that Myke Cole can sell extra copies.  This is a conflict that agents like to ignore but which is very real, sometimes agents have to ask clients to "take one for the team," and do things that may hurt them but which are of overall benefit to published authors as a class.

However, in this case there are other factors that an author has to consider.  As an example, if you sell World English rights, is the publisher offering a higher copies sold or dollars earned threshold for determining if a book is in print than when it buys just North American rights?  Will you have a more difficult time ever getting a reversion of rights in either territory or both because you have sold World English?  Do you have an assurance that you will get a full UK royalty on copies sold in the UK market, or will the publisher claim a UK publication by an affiliated company is a license?  If the UK copies sold are to be sold under an export royalty that is generally less than full royalty, will there be any sleight of hand in the price paid from the UK publisher to the US publisher?

And what about packaging and marketing and promotion and publicity, where there are still differences (Myke Cole has different covers) and still some benefit to the local touch in the local markets.

Considering that many US books will sell only several hundred copies in the UK, you have to be convinced that the UK e-book market is a lot more significant than it often will be in order to justify the risks inherent in doing World English rights against the rewards.

To take this one step further, if we are agreed that it is still important to have separate publishers in the US and the UK, the question becomes "will I, my agent, or my US publisher have the best chance of finding a UK publisher for my book."  If you believe that the US publisher has the best chance of doing this, then by all means, sell the publisher World English or even World rights.  An agent that isn't trying very hard to sell these rights isn't helping anyone by keeping those rights for you/the agent to sell.

It may not surprise you to know that I think, in general, that I will be more dedicated over time in campaigning to sell UK rights than the publisher will be.

I have tried my best to consider in an objective manner if it's time to reconsider my reluctance to do World English deals because of the ways the world has changed.   I'm not unaware of those changes, not unaware of the difficulty in separating out the UK and US markets as the world gets smaller and the e-book market develops.  But I don't think the world has changed, at least not yet. to where we'd all be better off selling World English rights to things.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Three by Three

My big sit two weeks ago really can't compare to seeing Django Unchained, Les Miz and Zero Dark Thirty back-to-back-to-back.  The good news, I guess, is that I saw all three in different theatres so I got some fresh air in-between.

Django Unchained was kind of frustrating to me.  The writer/director Quentin Tarantino is an auteur, a student of cinema, a craftsman.  He does films that won't be confused with anyone else's.  This one is, as many of his often are, a bit wacko in the descriptions.  A German bounty hunter in the pre-Civil War south decides to buy a slave, teach him to assist in his job, the slave proves to be a natural with a gun, and then agrees to go to buy the slave's wife.  The slave is played by Jamie Foxx, the German by Christoph Waltz who was a deserving Oscar winner for Supporting Actor in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the plantation owner who has Foxx's wife by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Quite a cast.  Kerry Washington is the wife, and a house slave on the plantation is played by Samuel L. Jackson.  There are also a gazillion cameos from Jonah Hill, Don Johnson, Tarantino himself, and more.  It's not only a good cast, but it's well taken care of by the director.  Everyone is good or very good, except maybe Tarantino himself, but to me the stand-out is Samuel L.  Jackson.  There's no Samuel L. Jackson in him this time around, he's been doing films for ten or twenty years now by being Samuel L. Jackson, and here he's completely his character and not himself at all.

Technically, the film is brilliant, rich with allusion to cinematic history and yet entirely its own.  Music couldn't be used more perfectly, Django has his own theme song that hearkens back to classic Western cinema, the kind of theme song parodies by the F Troop song but here done most subtly.  There are spectacular individual shots, one of the family gathered under a large tree for a funeral leaps off the screen.  There is rich choreographed pageantry, especially as Waltz and Foxx enter on to a plantation, the parade of their horses or the looks of the slaves.  One moment you can be reminded of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, the next of Kubrick, maybe some John Ford or some Scorcese mixed in.

If you're going to see the film, do yourself a favor and see it now in theatres, it's the kind of movie that deserves that.  And when you're at the theatre, if you have a choice of screens why not be sure to go to the auditorium with the biggest screen.  This is a movie that fills the screen, it wants to grow and expand to fill every square meter the way sea monkeys want to grow when you've poured hot water on them.  You could probably teach a film class using just this film and it's direct ancestors as the text.

But alas, all that is good about the film is ultimately being used toward one goal, which is to get us to another Quentin Tarantino gore-fest, it's like a tasting menu with lots of little violent morsels along the way as the odd-numbered courses and bits of cinematic brilliance for the even-numbered courses, and then the dessert is some massive thing, a molten chocolate cake that bleeds blood covered by blood-colored ice cream with bullet sprinkles and hot blood topping and pistol barrels taking the place of the bananas.  I haven't even seen every movie written or directed by Tarantino, and I've already seen this in True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Grindhouse, here, Inglourious Basterds, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk till Dawn.

Other great directors like Kubrick and Scorcese have applied their skills to lots of different kinds of movies, some more successful than others, but they've gotten around.  I could forgive Tarantino his complete disinterest in moving beyond the bloodbath if he had some niche he was amazingly good at, kind of like the way a James Burrows or a Jay Sandrich could direct a sitcom like nobody's business, but Tarantino is every bit as inconsistent as Scorcese without any compensating ambition.

It's possible to interpret this as Tarantino using his violent ends as a way of sugaring thematic medicine. Django Unchained is a great romance, or it's the first film in decades to look at slavery from the black point of view.  Please.  In Django Unchained, there's this question DiCaprio asks of why slaves haven't killed their masters, it's a good question wondering about the motivations of the Samuel L. Jackson character to care more for the plantation master than the slave.  The film answers this question by having DiCaprio bring a skull out to the dinner table and launch into a discussion of phrenology that would fit right at home in DePalma's Untouchables.  But it doesn't give a serious answer to the question, it doesn't for a moment think seriously about that question or any other question related to slavery.

And it is indulgent.  Much as I admired the film, beats and scenes could often have been shortened, I didn't need to be sitting in a theatre for three hours (inclusive of coming attractions) for this movie.

Les Miz has gotten a lot of attention for stylistic reasons as well.  Most musicals pre-record the songs then have the cast lip sync to their recordings while doing their actual performances.  Here, director Tom Hooper (King's Speech, Oscar winner) uses small mikes to record performances actually being filmed, the mics then removed digitally in post-production.  He also films most of the numbers in tight close-up.  Charles Isherwood, a theatre critic for the NY Times, isn't kidding when he says he had the map of Eddie Redmayne's freckles memorized by the end of the move.  Also, he isn't kidding when he says he had to go to the movie twice because he dozed off the first time.  I'm just not that big into Les Miz, I saw the musical near the end of its can and can hardly remember a thing about it.  The movie, in turn, isn't bad, it's probably a very good adaptation of the musical, but it doesn't elevate it from what it is/was on the stage.  The drama's a bit of a mess, there are songs that are memorable for the duration of the show but that disappear very quickly once removed.  I didn't care as much for Anne Hathaway's performance as the rest of the world does, in fact it was toward the end of her Dreamed a Dream big solo number that I started my brief slumber during the film.  I was most taken in the case with Eddie Redmayne's performance, I was taken with him in Marilyn as well.  And Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit is very good as a fellow revolutionary with Redmayne, overall I felt that the cast of young schoolboy revolutionaries was the highlight of the film, but I'm biased.  Still and all, Russell Crowe can't sing that well, Hugh Jackman doesn't seem as engaging here as when hosting an award show or even in some of the X-Men movies.  The stylistic choices by Tom Hooper work sometimes and not in others.  Certainly better choices than the ones in Anna Karenina.  The close-ups aren't vertiginous, which some reviews have suggested, they are held for a long time and the film is so consistently in close-up that I never felt like I was zooming in and out, in and out.  In the last fifteen or twenty minutes the choice actually pays off quite nicely, and I ended the film much more effected by the closing moments than I would have expected.  The main problem I have is that even the best stylistic choice sometimes needs to be used selectively.  There are things that you can do on stage that you can't as easily do on film, as an example have multiple characters on stage singing a duet in tandem on different sets.  The close-ups work really well when they need to, but in a climactic section when you've got everyone singing right before the barricades are going up and the final battle close to hand you don't get a real sense of that at all.  There isn't a lot in the big production number category, which Les Miz should have more of.  At least as long movies go, this one needed to be, you can't really take a three hour Broadway musical and make a two hour movie out of it.

Finally, Zero Dark Thirty.  This is a film about the killing of Osama bin Laden, with threads that the film might date from early "enhanced interrogation" soon after 9/11 to the actual killing in 2011.  I'm not going to use this as an entry point into the torture debate.  I'll state quite flatly that I am opposed to torture, that we shouldn't have done it, and I would feel that way whether or not some piece of intel gained from a torture session was helpful to catching bin Laden.  Simply put, turn the tables, ask how we would feel if our soldiers were being tortured.  But my personal opinion about torture shouldn't cover the appropriateness of its inclusion in this film.  It happened.  It has to be part of this story, especially since we can't tease out whether or not we needed it to get bin Laden.  Even if every last videotape of every last interrogation sentence, enhanced or not, were in the public record, I doubt we'd have crystal clarity.  And aside from whether or not torture should be part of it, this just isn't a great film.  It's a decent one, but not close to great.  As virtues, you get a solid sense of some of the tradecraft, the bits and pieces of taking information and analyzing and inferring, the difficulty of finding bin Laden's courier.  The musical score by Alexandre Deplat is one of the years best. But the acting is haphazard.  The CIA execs don't have the personality that Bryan Cranston gives in his role in Argo, the only one who comes close is James Gandolfini and even he seems very constrained.  A very good actor like Kyle Chandler seems neutered here.  Jessica Chastaine as the CIA analyst whose eyes we look through for most of the movie is so single-handedly focused on this one thing that she's ultimately boring, she has that vacant-eyed look of the marine recruits getting haircuts in the early montage in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.  The only person with any personality that comes thru in the script or direction (by the Hurt Locker team of Mark Boals and Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker was a much better film than this) is the male CIA interrogator who reveals some sense of an internal life within a role that doesn't always allow it.

You don't want to have an Obama impersonator, but if someone wants to tell me that the film does play politics with torture by only choosing to show Obama in a clip decrying and ending the use of torture by the US, which the film strongly implies is a stupid decision, I can't argue.  Obama had a role here.  The role of invigorating the search for Al Qaeda activists to kill is handed off to some CIA guy who does a fly-by dress-down at the US embassy in Pakistan and Obama doesn't have a role there.  The implication of the movie is clearly that the only proper and right decision was to go in and get Osama the way we went in to get him, but that isn't a decision that everyone would have made, and so the film again subtly denies Obama any credit for something that happened on his watch.  So, OK, I'm avoiding the torture debate, but I'm arguing with the film's politics anyway.

Finally, this film is too long, and is too indulgent.  The movie skips a lot of interesting stuff about the search for bin Laden, it doesn't delve much at all into the planning for the mission to get him, the decisions on what kind of mission to wage, on the training for the mission, we don't even really know that there was a training mock-up.  Rather, it detours from its main mission to give us a Forrest Gump kind of history lesson.  We see the attacks on the London transit system and other major attacks subsequent to 9-11, though in a bit of historical bias we don't get anything on the Madrid rail bombings.  Our lead character is inserted into the bombing of the Pakistan Marriott, the bombing itself has a better argument to be referenced than some to the extent that some of the intelligence gathering might be HQed in the US embassy in Islamabad, but having our lead character in the hotel at the time is a dramatic invention since our lead is a composite, a Hollywood invention.  And we spend several long minutes getting to know another character in the embassy just to add emotional resonance to a reenactment of the suicide bombing that took out several CIA agents, including some experts, who were so excited to have a powerful defector that they dropped security procedures at the meeting.  This, again, has an argument for inclusion, it shows the foolhardiness of desperation.  But coming at the end of a long string of unnecessary diversions into the terrorist timeline, I didn't have any patience for it.

Just as an idle note, I saw Les Miz at the Ziegfeld almost 30 years to the date after going there for the first time, to see Gandhi.  A good crowd, half full or more, 30 years ago the place could routinely sell out for an epic movie, these days half full is impressive.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

How I Spent My Winter Vacation

It's been a nice last past couple of weeks!

My niece was graduating college, which turned into a whole week away from the office.  I could have rushed back to put in an appearance on Dec. 21, but I'm not that dumb, so I hung out in the DC area for a few days. I saw plays and movies, I had dinner with Justin Landon of Staffer's Musings, and another dinner with a young writer I met at WorldCon whom I think has some potential.  I walked, at least 80 miles over the week away from the office, including my first ever walk along the Custis Trail that parallels I-66 and the Orange Line in suburban Virginia.  I visited the Hole in the Wall bookstore for the first time in many many years, a wonderful little used book store in Falls Church, and discovered that when I used to go there more often I had been taking a walking route from the Metro that was half again as long as it needed to be.  I had lunch with a high school friend in Baltimore on the way down, on the way back I stopped in Philadelphia to buy a ridiculous amount of yummy stuff from Chocolates by Mueller in the Reading Terminal Market and had lunch across the hall at Down Home Diner with my first full-time employee Steve Mancino.  I wasn't sure with all the busy-ness and walking if I'd hold to my Christmas Eve ritual of visiting the Unos and Barnes & Noble in Bayside, then walking thru Bayside admiring Christmas lights, but I didn't know what else to do on Christmas Eve, so that's what I did.  And I got nice Christmas Eve treats of little cake balls from a bakery in Bayside and Italian pastries at D'Aquila.  I don't actually like Italian pastries all that much, but it's become part of the tradition that the one time during the year I'll buy a cannoli will be at D'Aquila on Christmas Eve.  You can see the changes in New York City, though, both D'Aquila and Durso's pasta shop that I walk by on the way to the Unos don't do the business they did five or ten years ago on the holiday, and I think that's because a lot of their customers have moved away.  The other thing I did that weekend was read an actual book for pleasure, a non-fiction title called Three and Out, about the icky three years that Rich Rodriguez spent as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines football team.  It was very even-handed to everyone, but I didn't like the idea of hiring a Michigan outsider when Rodriguez came on board, and at the end of the day the book doesn't do anything to make it seem like it was ever a very good idea.  Maybe not his fault for taking the job, but it was an icky three years. 

The three days in the office between Christmas and New Year's weren't especially fun.  A lot of bookkeeping and year-end tidying up, and there's more of that to do the balance of this week so we can get information to the accountant to prep our 1099 forms.

I ended up cocooning for New Year's weekend.  After a too-late night at the office Friday I went to the synagogue just to say hi to people even though I knew I'd be getting there after the service itself.  Saturday I just kind of bopped around the neighborhood, visited the gym and this and that, but it wasn't a really good day because the neighbor on one side of me got home drunk at 2:40 in the morning and decided he was going to have a wee hours dance rave in his apartment.  And then when he was done, the neighbor on the other side was playing music. Not that loud, really, it's no louder than the sound of the cars driving by on the street outside, and a lot of times even if it will wake me up when he starts I can get back to bed, but not after I was up since 2:40 in the morning with two hours of sleep because of the dance rave party next door.  I just wasn't up to very much on Saturday, strangely enough.  In the real world, zombies don't have much energy.

And I didn't do much on Sunday, either.  It was just that kind of weekend.  I read two manuscripts for work and I played too much Carcassonne and Boggle on my iPad, and I started in on the new Vorkosigan novel by Lois McMaster Bujold.  I decided to write blog posts, instead of thinking about blog posts I really would like to write.  After admiring the huge box of Ghirardelli chocolate brownie mix which other people have made and which are tasty, I decided to buy a box for myself and made a batch on Sunday to bring to my New Year's Eve party Monday night.  I watched In the Kitchen with Dave on QVC. 

Monday I finally roused myself to go into Manhattan for New Year's Eve.  I headed to a movie theatre at around 6 where everything I wanted to see was sold out, so I went to the gym, which was closing at 8, then I walked downtown to a New Year's party hosted by a friend from the synagogue.  I'm usually the youngest person at the party by around ten years, but I enjoy the company of most of the people who usually attend.  I left at around 11:30 and the timing of my walk was just off, I got to 40th St. and 5th Ave at midnight when my hope had been to be at 42nd St.  Still, close enough to feel like I was part of the revelry without being there.

Tuesday, New Year's, the Outback Bowl, Michigan Wolverines vs. South Carolina Gamecocks.

The three years under Rich Rodriquez were really dismal.  Losing to teams Michigan should beat, not just the good teams.  Promising starts against bad early season gimme teams followed by awful finishes against real competition.  2011 was the first under Brady Hoke and Michigan did surprisingly well.  This year Michigan was 8-4 going into its bowl.  Alabama blew Michigan off the field, only halfway into the season was it clear that losing to Notre Dame wasn't a disgrace, nor losing to Nebraska except that Wisconsin clobbered Nebraska in the Big Ten championship.  Losing to Ohio State always hurts.  And just to say, I'm not morally relative, things are good or bad and bad things aren't made good because your guy does them, so forget about all the other rivalry stuff but considering the NCAA violations Jim Tressel oversaw during his tenure at OSU, I don't think honoring him during the game and the fans giving him a hero's welcome is the right message to send.  But the main thing this year was that Michigan pretty much beat all the teams it should beat and which it wasn't when Rodriguez was coaching, and most of the losses were to top teams in the country.  Michigan should beat the top teams in the country, that's what we expect and are accustomed to, but still and all the football program is in a way better place now than three years ago.  And this was kind of borne out by the Outback Bowl.  We lost, which we shouldn't have, but we played way better against the Gamecocks than a lot of people might have expected, the play-calling by Brady Hoke was aggressive, if there'd just been one big play less by the Gamecocks or if there hadn't been that one fumble.  I feel OK here, if you're losing a lot of very close games where the margin is one play that could have gone some different way, it doesn't take that much change in fortune to be winning those games.  

After the game I headed into Manhattan, got some help at Bloomingdale's to find the perfect shirt and tie to go with the nice suit I'd treated myself to.  I hadn't shopped at Bloomingdale's in years, but I think I'll visit more often if I decide I need more suit-type substances any time soon.  They had helpful staff, and good selection, and things not as cramped as at Saks.  But I don't buy suits very often.  Then I put in more time at the gym, and then went to Whym to celebrate the New Year with a Smoreswich, a signature desert of theirs.

You might notice I keep talking about going to the gym.  Sadly, I'm at that age where it's harder and harder to keep from gaining weight, and I don't think I'm blowing up but I feel like I'm all to close to where I might start to.  20 years ago I could eat an entire Entenmann's cake with no ill effects, now if I tried that sort of thing without putting in a lot of effort the waistline would show it.

And then Wednesday, the real world returns.  I did do a Costco run with Peter Brett and his vehicle, so I could get some heavier things.  And I just baked more brownies to serve at my next games night, I may have to try and stay awake a while longer yet while they cool so I can cut them and put them into a good container to stay fresh.  Then again, I have work to do, and it's always a good idea to get a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Funny Book Round-Up - Holiday Edition


The weekend of The Big Sit, I also managed to make my way through a few weeks of accumulated comic books, so let's do a quick check in...

Batwing was one of the best debut issues in the New 52, but it seemed to be fading, almost as if Judd Winick had been surprised that the book was successful and didn't have a lot of scripts mapped out, or as if he was ordered to tie in to the main Batman continuity in ways that were at odds with his own vision for the series, making for some awkward issues trying to meld the corporate mandate with his vision.  So maybe it wasn't such a bad thing that Winick left the series, and I am encouraged by issue #15 with new writer Fabian Nicieza.  Nicieza's first issue isn't great, but it is a reasonably self-contained story that begins things back to basics a little, focusing on the things Winick was doing in the earliest issues of the series that made Batwing interesting to read, his mythology instead of Batman's.  The art by Fabrizio Fiorentino gets the job done.  We'll see, but at least I'm willing to see, whereas I think if Winick had remained on the series I might not have remained with Batwing.

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have been doing some interesting work reviving old characters into the DC Universe and are doing it again with Human Bomb #1. They get a lot of press for their Jonah Hex, which I've never liked as much as the classic Hex tales I was reading 25 years ago, I think their work on titles like and The Ray isn't getting the attention it deserves.  Who is Human Bomb?  It's hard to know, and that's part of the fun of the series, that it's asking questions about the character that I'm eager to know answers to.  In this series, they are getting great support from Jerry Ordway is the perfect artist. The script plays to his strengths, and he plays back -- I think this is some of the best work I've seen from him, dating back almost 30 years to when he was working on All Star Squadron and co-creating Infinity Inc.  Like All-Star Squadron, there's a period feel and a military ex-mil milieu, the sort of thing he does This plays to his strengths, and he nails it with clean lines and impeccable storytelling.

The Simpsons Winter Wingding #7 was a rare dud from Bongo.  One story that kind of gave me a smile.  But Bongo redeems itself with a solid Simpsons #197, wherein Homer creates a bacon-filled hamburger creation that becomes all the rage at Krusty Burger, only to have his new-found success fall apart around him when he feels sorry for Lisa and decides to make it into a veggie burger instead.  In classic Simpsons tradition, there's more going on.  Worth reading.  Very curious to see how they will handle the 200th issue of this consistently entertaining all-ages title.

Dan Didio and Brent Anderson take lead as writer and penciller for Phantom Stranger #3.   Doctor 13 is in this issue.  This is an intriguing new series, not sure entirely where it's going, but I continue to like having a mainline DC title that's giving a little room to some of the less familiar but interesting occult characters in the DC Universe.

Animal Man and SwampThing #15. Rotworld.  This crossover seemed like a good idea at the time, and it started off interestingly, but it's degenerating into long fight scenes spread over multiple titles with no human or character interest from me.  I currently expect that I will resume reading these titles, both of which had been excellent parts of the New 52, only after conclusion of this ever more dreary crossover.

If Rotworld has been disappointing, the Joker's return to the Batman titles in the Death of the Family crossover has been everything a crossover should be.  Even though it's spread across multiple titles, the writers and editors have done a reasonably good job of keeping stories that can be read within a particular series without having to go picking up titles you don't want in order to enjoy those you do (in all fairness, they've tried this also with Rotworld, they haven't executed as well).  While I could stick with just the books I've been reading, the overall strength of the crossover is such that I've been picking up Batman and Robin and Rod Hood and the Outlaws, which I hadn't been reading.  This particular batch of titles included issue #15 of those two titles as well as Batman, Batgirl and Nightwing.  The main Batman title written by Scott Snyder is excellent, especially considering that it's mostly an info-dump, a lull in the action designed to put this series into its overall context within the historical continuity of Batman.  If you want one way to tell a good fantasy novel from a not-so-good, look at how the writer handles a necessary flashback scene that is intended to reveal vital back story that you've been anticipating or which is absolutely crucial, the best writers can always nail those scenes and make them centerpieces of a novel, lesser writers less so.  Scott Snyder shows here why he is generally one of the best writers at DC right now, why I will forgive him and Jeff Lemire that Rotworld is disappointing.  Batman and Robin and Batgirl both focus directly on the Joker's plots against the individual characters, and with good story and art do an excellent job of bringing the intensity of the series, the crazed brilliance of the Joker's scheme, directly to the reader.  Jobs well done.  For a more detailed review of these two titles, I'd suggest clicking over to the AV Club.  Nightwing was trying to do the same, but doesn't quite achieve.  The character Joker's using to get at Nightwing isn't a character that's all that interesting or integral, I didn't care as much here as I did when Joker was using Batgirl's mother as bait, or taking direct aim at Robin.  Red Hood and the Outlaws was the weak link, the Outlaws team is such a random assortment of characters without a particular connection to the Bat universe, Red Hood not as interesting as he should be considering the efforts made to give him some texture and back story in a Red Hood: Lost Days mini-series by Judd Winick in 2010, which I quite enjoyed.  Catwoman #15 is not part of the Death of the Family crossover, I keep thinking I should be reading this book but too often when I try it disappoints.

From the Superman side of things:  Superman #15 is a disappointing revamp of the Mr. Mxyzptlk character by Grant Morrison.  Superboy is part of the H'El on Earth crossover, which is midway between Rotworld and Death of the Family, good enough to keep me reading titles I've been reading but not so good that I want to read others.  That said, Superboy #15 was solid, more than, putting Superman into the Superboy series, and perhaps good enough that I'll take a whack at the next Supergirl.  Or not.

And on the distaff side:  Sword of Sorcerty Featuring Amethyst #3.  This new series is just good enough to make me keep reading, in part out of fond memories of the original series, but leaves me unsatisfied.  This series should be better.  All of the characters look the same, too much shared gene pool in the different Gemworld houses perhaps.  The series needs to do more to find a way to differentiate them, that's something I wish the writer Christy Marx or her editor Rachel Gluckstern had picked up on.  There are some high stakes in the battle for control of the Gemworld but not a tight enough focus on them.  I decided to take a look at Wonder Woman, in part because it's introducing the New Gods into the New 52, and also, the art seemed a little more accessible to me than when I had looked at the book previously.  I'm not entirely sure I understood everything that was going on, but the issue was good enough that I'll come back and give #16 a try.

Finally, I'm not entirely sure I understand everything that's going on in Saucer Country, but it's consistent, mostly enjoyable, and issue #10 was solid.  The series had a great start, it hasn't held at quite as great a level as the start promised, but it's holding.

The Comic Book Revolution website has a series of posts on sales figures for the New 52, in various categories from All-Star to Death Watch.    Obviously a lot of the books aren't selling a year out the way they did in the fervor of the New 52 launch.  And for a lot of these books like Firestorm or Teen Titans, I hope DC realizes some of the steepest sales drops are reflective of inconsistent quality, books that had intriguing starts that got away from the over-long fight or the over-done crossover, but where it was abundantly clear that little attention had been paid to what was going to happen in Issue #4, and everyone sat around and let things regress to being just like they were before the New 52.  Firestorm was a mess, endless pointless battles with Firestorms of other nations, something that in the 1970s might have been done as three six-page sections in a 21-page story, and here it was four entire issues.  A ton of books were losing two-thirds of their readership over the course of a year.  And why did a book like Nightwing lose a much smaller percentage of readers?  Well, because Nightwing has been consistently entertaining.  In some instances, DC has used the #0 issues in September to try for a re-boot, and maybe in some cases they will succeed.  And on the whole, I'm still reading more DCU titles now by a huge measure than 18 months ago, it's my gut instinct that the New 52 as as whole has been more successful than the impression of it that's given by these charts and their analyses.  Still, there are too many books like Flash or Teen Titans that have had fading sales because the creative end was fading within six or eight issues of launch.

And just to say, this is something that I pay a lot of attention to at JABberwocky.  First, no series sells better in its 5th book than in its 1st, people are always surprised when I tell them this because you'll find over the course of a series that it builds a core loyal following that can grow in intensity, more people want the new book right when it comes out so issue #5 might sell faster out of the gate.  But it doesn't actually sell better, which is logical enough that some percentage of people who sample pretty much anything will decide they don't like it.  But after you get to the third in a series, do you pretty much keep what you have through book #5 or book #8?  Does a series fall to where you hold 60% of the readers or 40% of them?  The top-selling authors at JABberwocky like Charlaine Harris or Brandon Sanderson are that way because an exceptionally strong percentage of readers who sample (because of a True Blood, a collaboration with Robert Jordan, or good word of mouth) come back for a second issue, and an exceptionally strong percentage of people who get to book #3 with the author are then fans for life.  The New 52 has way too many books that have lost two-thirds of their readers, and that isn't pre-ordained.  It's bad planning and/or bad creative execution.   The interesting thing when they talk about the Bat books, there was a lot of sampling as a result of the Court of the Owls crossovers, and none of the books were able to hold audience from that sampling.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Holiday Films

Some quick reviews of other films recently seen:

Lincoln.  This is good, I'm not sure it's that good.  Daniel Day Lewis is amazing as Lincoln, and there are other good performances to be had.  But the second half of the movie was way more interesting.  The first half, there's a lot of political arm-twisting taking place but it's a very prosaic kind of arm-twisting, partronage jobs for votes.  Boring, nod off.  In the second half, the deadlines are approaching, the stakes are clearer, things are more fraught and more taut, the arm-twisting is more subtle and much more strong-armed, the morality of everything is more clearly heightened.  John Williams isn't just for superhero movies, he delivers a score here that is good in an almost invisible kind of way.

The Impossible:  Kind of like Lincoln, parts of it that are very good and parts of it that are much more prosaic.  Not yet in wide release but being touted for Academy Award attention, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are the parents of three children who are caught up in a devastating tsunami in Thailand.  The film is kind of true, the events mostly happened but the actual family was from Spain.  The tsunami and its aftermath are some of the best pure filmmaking and acting you are likely to see on the screen this year.  Naomi Watts and her eldest son, played by Tom Holland, are washed inland.  She's injured.  The two of them have to make their way to safety, detouring to save a toddler they hear crying, climbing a tree in case there's another after-wave.  It's excruciating to watch in a good way, you feel every grimace as Naomi Watts tries to walk and climb in spite of her injuries.  There's thespian acting in a not-Master-Thespian way between Watts and Holland.  The photography, the production design, the special effects of the wave, the acting, it's all there.  It keeps at that level as the three or them are rescued by a Thai family and taken to a hospital which is like a dreary scene out of The English Patient or Atonement only more engaging because the characters are so involving and the filmmaking more passionate.  Eventually, the film has to cut back to the father.  He and the two younger children also survived the wave, but managed to hold on to things at the hotel.  Neither group has any way of knowing the other is alive.  He leaves his two children to look for his wife and his other child.  Ewan McGregor isn't bad, there's one especially powerful scene when he borrows someone's cell phone to call the family in England to let them know he's alive and his wife's fate unknown.  But on balance, this story is a weak second to hers.  In the same way that the true story in Argo is done up with Hollywood business at the end, close calls and narrow escapes, the reunion is delayed with all sorts of scenes where Tom Holland and Ewan McGregor are this close to seeing one another but don't.  This bothered me more in The Impossible than in Argo.  Tom Holland deserves special praise.  He's 16.  His acting career was launched when he was found in a dance school and recruited to the initial cast as a Billy Elliot in the UK musical.  He gives an excellent performance here, matching or bettering the rest of the cast.  There are some criticisms of the movie for political reasons, for changing the nationality of the family or for focusing on a tourist family when most of those devastated by the tsunami were the locals.  The bigger problem, the main reason to see the movie is for brilliant scenes that do a brilliant job of making you squirm in your seat, the good kind of squirm to be sure of watching unpleasantness pleasantly depicted.

Not Fade Away:  David Chase, the mastermind of The Sopranos, about one of the '60s bands that didn't make it.  Other than for James Gandolfini's performance as the family patriarch, I'm not sure there's enough to carry this as a movie.  The teenager who becomes lead of the band gives a good performance as well, the music is good, there's nothing really wrong with the movie.   But it needs something more.

There are a few Christmas releases I need to see, Les Miz, Django, Zero Dark Thirty.  Then we can start to think about our year's best...