Follow awfulagent on Twitter

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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

My August Cinema

August has been a very busy month for me with very little blogging, and on the late August night that I'm composing this to publish a day or two later I've ended up making a choice to stay at home and watch some tennis and do some blogging instead of going to see a movie or two (Frozen River, Traitor) that I do want to see and hope I'll see sometime but at the same time am not thinking I'll have mental issues if I don't get around to it.

So a quick round-up of the other movies I did go to see during the month of August, along with the heroin double-bill that I saw on the 23rd. And when I say August was a busy month... I went three weeks between seeing a movie, from Tell No One on July 27 to the three movies I talk about below on August 17. That is a very very long time for me to go without seeing a movie, and I can promise you it's not at all by happy choice.

Man on Wire, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at Clearview's First & 62nd St. Cinema, auditorium #5. 1 Slithy Toad.

Swing Vote, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at AMC Loews 84th St., auditorium #1. 3 Slithy Toads.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorium #7. 2.5 Slithy Toads

Death Race, Seen Sunday August 24, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorim # 9. 2.5 Slithy Toads.

Pineapple Express, Seen Sunday August 24, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorium #4, 2.5 Slithy Toads.

Man on Wire was definitely the most disappointing of the films. It's a documentary about Philippe Petit, the highwire artist who in 1974 took a walk from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other. The very idea of it has such an immense charm, even without the memory we now have of 9-11. The movie was very favorably reviewed. But I found it boring, and in fact dozed off for chunks of it without feeling at all guilty like I was missing something. And I thought it had the least to say about the event that should have been at its center. For one, there's a lot of wonderful actual footage of Petit's earlier walk between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral in France, but the footage of the World Trade walk is just not as good. We rarely get the same sense of the majesty, of the daring, of the time he spent up there, of the back-and-forth (we're told 8 times going across) of the WTC walk. I guess you can say "but, well, it was much higher up, and you couldn't have the cameras on the ground, and it was much easier to film the walk at Notre Dame so there's more footage and they used what they could and you can't blame them for that." But then I would respond: film is a visual medium, and if they didn't have good footage of the WTC walk then maybe they should have opted against making a film about it, and if they did have better footage then they should have used a lot more of it. I at least would have enjoyed more watching a non-stop take of the walk across the towers with voice-over and maybe an occasional cutaway of how it came to pass than the film that was made. And on account of 9-11 and the sheer audacity of the idea there's an argument to be made that it's still better to have this flawed film to recount than no film at all, but then part of me likes the vague recollection of this taking place that I've always had in the back of my mind from my long-distant youth, to the recollection of dozing through this movie. The movie also falls apart in providing too little explanation of the technical aspects of the walk. The main wire needs to be supported with two cross-wires, and I still don't know how that was accomplished 1000+ feet up in the air, and if you're going to make this movie but can't really get that to come across clearly and completely then I just don't think you should bother.

The next four movies I started out giving a uniform rating of 2.5 toads and then decided I had to be a little kinder to Swing Vote. It's not entirely successful, but it's heart is in the right place and it's really trying to say something in the form of a genuinely popular entertainment, which we just don't see much these days. Movies that say something are supposed to be ghettoized in the art house, and this movie that tried to be mainstream ended up doing less business than some art house movies and was rather too dumped on by the critics and deserves a little better than it got. Like a lot of the actors in a lot of the movies I saw this August, Kevin Costner has had his ups and downs, but there's no denying he can be an actor of considerable charm as he's shown in Bull Durham and Tin Cup, and here he manages to charm me even while playing the lovable drunk character that I usually find repulsive. How does he do that? I mean, people who are druggies and drunks and make lives harder for the rest of us including their friends and their loved ones and their co-workers are not nice people but yet we don't go around jailing them or killing them or ostracizing them as much as I sometimes wish we should, and there must be a reason for that. Costner somehow manages to embody that part of some of these people that works, a kind of charm or likeability that makes you put up with it, while at the same time making it clear that he's really not such a nice guy; we see in his daughter that there's real harm done to real people, though in the real world I'm not sure the daughter would come out as well for wear as she does here. There's also a surprisingly audacious supporting turn for a mainstream movie by Mare Winningham as the mother who is even worse off than daddy is. The two fake ads in the movie, of a pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate (Dennis Hopper) on a playground full of disapperaing children to show his new-found belief in the sanctity of life, and of the Republican President (Kelsey Grammer) doing a similar turn to pander on behalf of gay rights, are as good in their way as the fake trailers at the start of Tropic Thunder. They're certainly on point. One critic I'd read on this movie says its a bit smarter than you'd expect without being quite as smart as you'd want, and I think that's an on point comment. And I wouldn't disagree with the capsule from The New Yorker that references Capra and John Ford. On its third weekend, the film was down to just a handful of shows at 2 theatres in Manhattan. The show I attended at the old sloped floor 84th St. mutliiplex had maybe two dozen people. The movie deserves better, and I hope it will do better on its video afterlife. And the sound and projector light cut out just as the end credits began, and I think I was the only person in the audience who complained to management instead of just bitching amongst themselves how awful this was.

So I took my pass for a free movie, walked down Broadway grabbing a quick bite at the Fairway buffet to nosh on the run, and made my way to the AMC Empire where I exchanged my freebie for...

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is the best film Woody Allen has done in many many many many years, perhaps since Crimes and Misdemeanors which I saw at the Loews Tower East (now the AMC Loews 72nd St. East) in 1989. The writing is very very smart in this one. I think I might have been won over by an early scene when the two young US ladies visiting Spain for the summer are having a first night dinner with their hosts, an older couple of US expats. The scene is sparklingly spot-on with the dialogue brisk and quick and exactly like what you might expect to hear or speak if you were living these lines for yourself. These two young ladies are quickly romanced by a suave Javier Bardem (much nicer watching him here than in the highly overrated No Country for Old Men), quickly bedding him in opposite order of likelihood, soon joined by a surprisingly good Penelope Cruz, and moving quickly along to a bittersweet end to their summer. A lot of critics have compared this to Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which I wouldn't do because I know saw Jules and Jim but I don't think liked it very much. A lot of the movie is advanced through narration which some people say is a good thing and some a bad thing, and I will say it's a good thing. As one of the pro critics pointed it, the narration allows the movie to move along since it can spend less time explaining things, and if I don't like voice over as a general rule this is one of those exceptions where it works. A lot of critics have compared the invigorating effect of filming in Barcelona with that of Woody's move to London for Match Point, but I liked this more than Match Point. Part of it is maybe that I go to London every year for London Book Fair so I didn't get a lot of voyeuristic pleasure out of that movie while I've never been to Barcelona or anywhere else in Spain for that matter and could totally enjoy the art candy. I'll just come back to that early on foursome at dinner that's so smartly written. We see movies and get used to accepting a kind of movie-speak that works for the medium, and here there's something real on the screen that works both as a movie and as an actual reproduction of the real. The movie is too small and modest for me to give it more than a modest recommendation, and there's been so much bad Woody Allen over the years that saying a movie is his best in a long time can be seen as damning with faint praise. But I don't mean it that way; this is a smart and pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, and I do recommend it. One of my brothers saw this as an anniversary movie and liked it rather less, but that's why you shouldn't pay any attention to him if he starts blogging about movies.

A week later I returned to the AMC Empire for Death Race and then Pineapple Express, and I'll deal a little bit more briefly on the subject of both since my time budget for this blog post is about to expire.

Death Race looked like its coming attraction like a perfectly pleasant piece of muscular action filmmaking with a little bit of a gloss on it, and that's about what it is. Big on cars, big on crashes, big on cliches, big on pleasure if you think you might like this sort of thing. And if you think you might like it, you probably will, and if you don't think it's your cup of tea I won't be dragging you into the theatre after me. A lot of movies from the Judd Apatow repertory company have turned me off totally, and I even walked out on 40 Year Old Virgin. I was prepared to give this 20 minutes and then go down the hall to Hamlet 2 if I wasn't liking it. That didn't happen. I had a pleasant time at this and again modestly recommend. On the strong plus side, James Franco does give a surprisingly strong performance as a marijuana dealer who lives life perpetually stoned, and pairs well with Seth Rogen. The humor isn't forcing itself the way these films sometimes do; 40 Year Old Virgin had this awful insistence that it was funny just to repeat curse words louder and longer, and that not so much the case here. The ending of this movie is pretty bad, loud and long and unpleasant in a way that Tropic Thunder maybe should have been but I didn't thing was. And the production values of the movie are cheap enough to be distracting, reminding me of a bad low-budget John Candy movie from long ago whose name I've put out of my mind.

As a final note, I saw Superman: The Movie in August as well at the Bryant Park Film Festival. It had the largest crowd for any movie I've ever seen at Bryant Park. I barely found a few square feet for my friend and I just a half hour after the lawn opened, and then more people kept asking if the square yard that we hadn't put a bag on was room enough for one which I'm sorry to say honestly it really wasn't. This was, is, always will be for me, the 4 Toad exemplar of what a superhero movie should be. I love this movie on so many levels, and it was wonderful to love it again for a night with a few thousand people al fresco in the heart of New York City.

Will I see Frozen River, having blown it off? Or Traitor? If I don't, I can only hope that reading these comments gives many hours of pleasure to Lisa and Armand and whomever else actually reads this blog.

Heroin for a Night!

Tropic Thunder. Seen Saturday Night August 23, 2008 at Clearview's Ziegfeld. 4 Slithy Toads.

Transsiberan. Seen Saturday Night August 23, 2008 at the Paris Theatre. 1.5 Slithy Toads.

These 2 films offer an important message about the international trafficking in heroin, and it is particularly apt that I saw them both on the same night.

Tropic Thunder, the first of these films, is hilarious. I was laughing loud and hard for good chunks of the movie, I can't honestly remember when I've laughed as loud or as long or as heartily in a movie, and I am giving it my highest rating.

You're probably read a lot about this movie in lots of other places, so I don't need to say too much about it synopsis wise, I don't think. Starts out with 3 wonderful fake film trailers. If you're interested in Satan's Alley, then you might want to read some real novels, the Vampire Victor books VAMPIRE VOW, VAMPIRE THRALL and VAMPIRE TRANSGRESSION by Michael Schiefelbein. Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., who star, have all been in their share of movies both very good and very bad, and can be very annoying to spend time with and great company for two hours. They're all on their best behavior here, and doing some of their best work. Nick Nolte is at his most grizzled wonderful best. Matthew McConaughey is another actor who's had a lot of up and down in his career, and recently been way down in a series of increasingly dismal romantic comedies, but here he shows all his charm and charisma in a brilliant performance as Ben Stiller's agent, though part of me wishes in homage to Jerry Maguire that Jay Mohr had been doing the agent thing. Tom Cruise, whom I almost always like or even love on screen (repeat, on screen), is doing the opposite of McConaughey, kind of submerging some of his charisma but yet at the same time letting it ooze out. The two play off of one another wonderfully in their scenes together.

Much like Jerry Springer The Opera, Tropic Thunder may not be for everyone. It is loud. It is raunchy. It is politically incorret, and not just because it dares talk about going "the full retard" when Robert Downey, Jr. quite nicely explains why you never go "the full retard." It is profane. But it is hilarious. It's one of those movies that offers plenty of room for favorite moments discussions, that will be perfect companionship on TV for many years and decades to come.

I can't say the same about Transsiberian, in which Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer (who was in the play Parlour Song) become involved with drug traffickers while taking a train ride across Asia from Beijing to Moscow. This is not a spoiler. The first scene of the movie shows us Ben Kingsley as a cop investigating the murder of a drug dealer, so we can safely assume that this is not in the movie accidentally. Because we can likely assume that Woody Harrelson is probably not himself a drug dealer in this particular movie and that his wife probably isn't either, we know from the moment they appear on screen that the young couple played by Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara that join the nice Americans on the train do have some involvement with drug dealers, and if asked to pick we will probably pick the dark-haired and very rakish character played by Mr. Noriega over his much more charming wife.

If I were evaluating this as a manuscript, it would get quick demerits on the "bad prologue" front. If it weren't for the prologue, which forces us to realize that the nice American tourists will come to harm from the rakish backpacker, there would be no tension and no interest at all in the first half or two-thirds of the movie. Occasionally, rarely, a little bit maybe, some manuscript might find some way to compensate for that instant disqualifying flaw. The movie is able to do so a little bit more easily because Woody Harrelson tends to be likeable and to hold the screen no matter what he's in, and he's often been in movies that have little more going for them than that, and because you can get the gorgeous shots of the eponymous train traveling across Siberia with gorgeous sightseeing stops along the way. Considering how heavily the movie relies on that kind of old-fashioned charm, I think it's a serious turn-off to have it veer into showing the most sordid and violent aspects of the drug trade late in the game. Does the crowd that wants to see the choo choo train steaming across, the kind of crowd for whom Murder on the Orient Express was filmed 30 years ago, want to see this? The movie also (and I guess this may be a spoiler) creates considerable suspense by having the Woody Harrelson character disappear for a time right after showing the rakish bad guy walking in Harrelson's direction with a big piece of pipe, but having done so it owes us more and better in the way of an explanation than it actually provides.

I admire the movie for its attempt to recapture some of the old-fashioned charm of Orient Express or Death on the Nile, and I toyed with giving it a neutral 2 toad ranking, but ultimately I felt I had to come down a little bit more harshly on it than that. It comes down to the prologue thing; it relies so much on artifice that it almost certainly would be turned down quickly if it came to me in my professional life, so how kind should I be to it in my personal?

August, Osage County

Seen Tuesday evening August 26, 2008, 7:30 PM at the Music Box Theatre. 1.5 slithy toads.

This play won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Variety loved it

The NY Times loved it with the current cast. And with the old cast.



Do they have a category for Best Dysfunctional Family Drama?

I think the best thing about the play might be the set. It's a three-story house, living room and dining room and den at the front of the bottom floor, marked off by pieces of furniture, with a kitchen lurking in the background and the driveway and front door and porch hinted at off to one side. A flight of stairs leads up to a 2nd floor with a couple of bedrooms, and then another staircase to a third floor with another bedroom tucked under the gables. It's a very very big house, and a very very tall house. Most of the time a play might have a really big living room and not much else going on, and maybe there's a turntable or some other scenery trick to give other rooms, but it's not often the case that you see a house with such immense verticality to it.

My admiration for the set does not extend to the lighting design. There were times when I couldn't figure out how the light we were seeing beyond the third floor windows was matching with what time of day it was supposed to be and the variety of light playing on the exterior of this very big very tall house. Was the house so tall that the third floor was in a different time zone than the bottom floor?

In a good play, maybe I wouldn't have time to ponder so much on the lighting design, but this is not a good play.

The play, which is named for the county in Oklahoma in which it is set, starts out with the patriarch interviewing a 20-something Cherokee college-age type for some kind of job with the family. I'm not entirely sure what her job was. If it was clearly defined during the interview, I didn't catch it between the patriarch's meditations on Tennessee Williams, or it got lost because the lady had her back turned to me making it harder to hear her soft-spoken dialogue. Nor could you really tell what her job was by watching the rest of the play. She isn't seen much. She hangs out in her room on the third floor reading.

Right after this, the patriarch disappears and goes missing, and his wife calls the police. The wife is one of those pill-popping dysfunctional matriarchs, and of course the sheriff has history with the family, in this case a prom date with one of the daughters. When patriarch is found dead the whole family returns, and we meet more daughters, their husbands, an attractive male cousin who is having a thing with one of the daughters that shouldn't trouble us (doesn't trouble the characters) because she had a hysterectomy so they can't do the kinds of things that lead to taboos against first cousins being too close with one another. The primary daughter has an estranged husband who shows up. There's a granddaughter around. There are plenty of dark secrets hanging around, darker even than that first cousin thing. The first act sets the stage. The second act has people preparing for a big dinner followed by the dinner itself at which some secrets will start to reveal. And then the final act will have more secrets come tumbling out followed by the ramifications thereof.

But there's one major problem with the play, which is that none of these characters are very likeable. I'm giving the play only a moderately low rating because it's well enough written that I wasn't looking at my watch all that often, other than in the first half of the third act, and it's got a bit of humor and some actual zing, but when I don't care about anyone on stage I'm not sure why I want to spend three hours with them. And the dysfunction seems forced. When I'm evaluating a novel by one of my clients, I'm often willing to give my most generous suspension of disbelief with regard to the starting points of the characters, and then those points being accepted will go where the characters themselves feel the need to go. But in August, I kept seeing the playwright Tracy Letts reaching down from on high (from very high on high, considering how tall the house is) to add a new revelation or a new twist or a new bit of nastiness. Hence, I liked the lead-up to the big dinner at the end of Act 2, because it was set against the background of doing what characters would do in these circumstances. But the dinner scene itself left me flat, because it becomes a canvas on which to paint people doing things that people won't do. The third act wore out its welcome at the start because it builds on that dinner scene, which means it put more odd-looking bricks on top of a foundation of odd-looking bricks. There's some real drama in the final stretch of the third act as the characters confront look at these bricks and react to them, but I still think of the bricks and not the people looking at them.

At the very end, the denoument of August Osage County is not dissimilar to the ending of the film Hud, a classic directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman which I finally caught up with al fresco in Bryant Park. That had an ending which was tragic on many levels for several of the characters, but the only tragedy at the end of this was that I felt "goodbye and good riddance" to all of the characters as they made their sorry way off the stage. I've had far drearier evenings at the theatre than this; I can't emphasize enough how nice it was to have a 3-hour-plus play that entailed only minimum looking at watch. But I can't recommend this.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tennis, anyone? Pt. 4

The final day of qualifying at the US Open tennis was Friday, August 21, and my assistant Eddie joined me for the day.

After getting a mint ice from the Lemon Ice King of Corona, I headed over to Court 8. I did do some quick research to try and select my first match of the day because there wasn't a player going from the day before on my wannasee list for that one, and Court 8 had an 18-year old Lithuanian, Ricardas Berankis, going against the German journeyman Bjorn Phau. Phau was of little interest to me, but maybe the 18-year old was a rising star worth catching. No such luck. The match was so boring that I suggested midway thru the first set that we move from the bleachers at one side of Court 8 to the lower seating on the other side between Court 8 and 9 so we could watch Gianluca Naso and Robert Smeets at the same time. Why was Phau/Berankis boring? Well, neither player hit with a lot of pace. Neither was playing very well, with more of the points being won by errors than by winners. Phau ended up winning in three sets, but I wasn't sure the better player had won, since they were close to equal from the back of the court but Berankis had a slightly fuller game with occasional net approaches. Still, Ryan Harrison at 16 would have it over Berankis, I think. Smeets/Naso was a little bit better, with Smeets actually doing serve-and-volley (i.e., coming in right away to play from the net instead of from the back of the court) on a pretty consistent basis and won 6-4 and 7-6, with a tight 10-8 tiebreak in the second and deciding set.

Next off to Court 15 to watch the Portuguese player Rui Machado against Italy's Flavio Cipolla, whom I'd seen the day before. This was a distinctly better match than the first two which was won by Machado, a 24-year old with a peak ranking of #200, in two sets, the first 7-6 (7-5 in the tiebreak) 6-3. It seemed to me that both players were hitting with a little more pace, showing a little more variety and a little more of an all-court game. I told Eddie that I felt Machado had the best chance to advance in the tournament of the players we saw, though of course this is always somewhat dependent on the luck of the draw.

My next match was a journeyman German Philipp Petzschner against a journeyman Brazilian Thiago Alves which was most distinctive for the German losing the 2nd set tie-break 7-0 to lose the match. And he fought really really hard and really really gallantly to get the 2nd set to a tie-break, too.

The day concluded with Gilles Muller defeating my guy Tobias Kamke of Germany in 3 sets, 6-3 4-6 6-2. Darn! Experience does often win out in these circumstances.

So this wasn't the best year I've had at the qualies, no player I saw whom I'm expecting great stuff for in the main draw, but I am intrigiued by Ryan Harrison, by Chase Buchanan, by Franco Skugor for future years. And I'll endeavor to do a post to keep you abreast of how my qualifiers did fare in the tournament itself.

I did some bookstore research afterwards, walking thru Flushing Meadows Park and then up Jewel Ave. and down Union Turnpike to the Fresh Meadows Barnes & Noble, then the Q31 bus and a walk down Bell Blvd. to the B&N in Bayside. One of my top authors is being horrendously under-ordered and mis-ordered at B&N, and it's very frustrating. The Fresh Meadows store has an automatic replenishment for the first book in the series, but is expecting a 0 copy initial order of book #3, which I think could sell 2500 or 3000 copies its first week and make the extended NY Times list. Of course, it will have a hard time selling that many copies when one in five B&N stores is getting 0 copies to start with. Then at Bayside, they do not have any copies of the first book in the series and do not have any automatic replenishment in place for it, but they are getting 2 copies of the 3rd book. I have around 40 books that sell worse than this which are automatically replenished at (virtually) every B&N, but here they are going to try and sell the 3rd book at a store where nobody can buy the first, while at the other store the series is important enough to be sure the first book is on hand but not so important they'll allocate a copy of the third on. There's always a first time, and in 20 years in the business this is the first time I've seen B&N so totally blowing it on a book and author so certain to be very very Big. & yes, this has been discussed at length with the publisher, and the publisher tells me they've discussed at length with B&N. And I could go on at great length to discuss why B&N is behind the curve on this, and why it's so difficult to get it changed, but this is one of those cases where some of the good stuff has to be left out of public view. If I'm ever in your neck of the woods, and you're able to give me a ride to a Whole Foods or a bookstore or something...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

tennis, anyone? Pt. 3

After some surprisingly good matches in the latter half of the first round on Wednesday, the second round matches I saw on Thursday August 21 proved to be something of a disappointment.

After getting "dessert ices" the days prior, I fortified myself with a tangerine ice from the Lemon Ice King of Corona. Since it is fruit-flavored, much more healthy I am sure.

I decided to choose the 2nd round match of Tobias Kamke to start the day, and my German rooting interest beat Samuel Groth of Australia rather routinely, 6-4 7-5 on Court #10. Much as I like the endzone seating on Courts #10, 11 and 13, I am beginning to wish the seats weren't a darker blue. For a science experiment, sit in those seats on a sunny summer day. Put your hand on the lighter colored metal that is used for the flooring and everything else except for the top of the seats. Feel the extreme heat difference. No matter what the metal will bake a bit on a hot summer day, and maybe it won't make a difference if all the seats are full of people so no sun shines down, but lighter shades please, lighter shades. What if blacktop weren't black, and if dark red wasn't the most common brick color?

Over to court #7, Hugo Armando US vs Gianluca Naso Italy. Why? Because it was about to start, and I have to watch something. I know I don't want to watch Armando, whose name has adorned the qualifying draw for years. He is in fact 30, and he peaked at #100 in 2001. Naso is 21, though, and ranked 231. Armando has the home field advantage and wins the first set 6-4 but Naso wins in three sets taking the second 7-5 and then the third in a tie-break 7-6 (7-4). It's not bad tennis. Naso does blow a chance to serve for the first set but shows some grit in coming back to take the match. But it's not great tennis either. I wouldn't avoid Naso, but I wouldn't seek him out.

Then it's off to court 12. Jan Hernych of the Czech Republic, one of the journeyman players, 29 years old who peaked three years ago at #60 in the rankings. A lesser version of Gilles Muller. He is playing Ricardo Hocevar, the Brazilian who beat the beautifully named Chase Buchanan on Tuesday. This is a well-contested match that goes to Hernych but not without a fight, 6-3 6-7 (5-7) and 6-4. But it's not like Hernych is exciting, nor like Hocevar is so exciting in defeat that I'll expect great things from him. Next door on Court 11, I'm listening to the scores in the background as Tuesday's boy wonder Michael Yani is playing another Czech journeyman Tomas Zib, who must have had a bitter rivalry in 2005 with Hernych when Hernych peaked at #60 and Zib at #51. Zib is 32 years old, and he's facing no magic from Michael Yani today. I'm able to watch the last game or so after the end of the Court #12 match, and it's no fun really. Yani was making every shot he hit two days ago but today the final game of his defeat ends with him making four unforced errors to go very very quietly.

I notice that I've stumbled across the literary aisle. I am reading the New Yorker. There's a tennis player taking a break and reading a German language edition of a Forgotten Realms novel. Someone else is immersed in The Ambler Something by Robert Ludlum, another person in Max Barry. Maybe it's the trees between court 11 and 12 that make it an oasis for following other literary pursuits besides the tennis.

I then turn back to court 12 and get so bored watching Edouard Roger-Vasselin of France play Rik De Voest of South Africa that I decide anything else will be better and head to court 14 to watch Lukas Lacko of Slovakia playing Flavio Cipolla of Italy. Cipolla is very short for tennis these days, only 5'8", 25, peak ranking of 110, while Lacko is 20 and 213. The match goes to the Italian, 2-6 6-4 6-1. Again, nothing memorable. On the next court over, Paul Capdeville, a Chilean journeyman (25, peak ranking #99), starts out against the Spaniard Daniel Munoz de la Nava, who won against the American protege Ryan Harrison the day before. I'm able to watch the final games of Capdeville's victory, the second set in a tie-break.

I guess it's my day for watching Czech tennis, since I next watch Jan Minar beat Victor Estrella of the Dominican Republic, 3-6 6-2 6-2 on Court #13. I then watch the final set of a match between Thierry Ascione of France, another journeyman (27, peak at 81) against a 20 year old Croatian Franco Skugor, who at 20 is just starting his journey into pro tennis. I am rooting for the young gun in the first set tie-break, but he does not win, and then he disappears 6-1 in the 2nd set.

Seeing the younger player win that match would have brightened a day full of too much tennis from too many journeymen with too little excitement, but it isn't to be. I'll add Skugor to my list of players to watch for next year, maybe.

I go the road less taken on the way home, heading along Corona Ave. to Queens Blvd. in Elmhurst. I haven't been to Bahar, an Afghan restaurant in a while, a long long while, and decide to give it a try again. I wouldn't get my appetizer again, but the veggie combo of okra, spinach and eggplant I get for my main course is quite tasty, and the mango lassi a little better than the Jackson Diner version from the night before.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

tennis, anyone? Pt. 2

So it's always nice to head off to watch the qualies with a 0% chance of precipitation and the high forecasted for not much more than 80 degrees!

Wednesday was tennis weather, and some of the tennis was pretty darned good, too!

Match #1, Court #13, Sergiy Stackhovsky (Ukraine) vs. Stefano Galvani (Italy)
Why? Sergiy is the #1 seed in the qualies, and thus almost certain to be in the main draw. Even if he loses in the qualifying, at least 1 of the players above him will withdraw, and his ranking will entitle him to take that spot. In fact, since Lleyton Hewitt is out on account of shoulder surgery, it's a lock just about.
Why Not? Galvani I do know, as being a journeyman who has been around for years and years, and not the kind of player I usually want to spend time with during the qualifying.

& in fact it looks like the 22-year old from the Ukraine will win in a runaway after 2 games. He holds served and breaks Galvani in a heartbeat to go up 2 games to 0. But then Galvani breaks back instantly, and then sneaks out a break in the final game of the set to win the first 7-5. The tennis is solid, and often more than that. Galvani's crowd support shows there may be more Italians in NYC than Ukranians. He does a better job playing to the crowd. Everyone holds serve deep into the 2nd set when another exchange of breaks takes place, and then Stackhovsky sneaks out a break to win 7-5. The third set starts out with some excitement, with Galvani calling a trainer and rubbing his eyes as if he's lost a contact or something, and he disappears off court twice for bathroom breaks or who knows what. Does that lead to his being a bit more lackluster in the final set, which is a smoother ultimate conquest for Stackhovsky who wins 6-3.

So I've seen the #1 seed and he is good. Not exceptional, but good.

Match #2, USA Michael Yani vs. Columbian Santiago Giraldo, the #30 seed, on court #11.
Why: The match is just starting, it has a seed, it has an American I'm not familiar with. Giraldo is only 20 and ranked in the mid 150s. Yani is 27, born in Singapore, played for Duke, hasn't even turned pro? Giraldo is a pretty good player, but somehow or other Yani is playing like he's Federer or Sampras of the qualies, hitting all kinds of shots from all over, and winning 6-4 6-2 in the blink of an eye. Who is this guy? He's won four Futures events, for players at the very bottom rung of the tour hoping to get enough points in the rankings to play Challengers that are more the Triple A league, and he plays like this? Is he a late bloomer destined to make his mark at this year's US Open, or a flash in the pan with a good match in him today who'll lose horribly tomorrow? And I like what I see of Giraldo, but the match is over so quickly I don't see much. I barely finish the Times crossword puzzle (it's a Wednesday, it doesn't take long; the puzzles get harder Mon-Sat and can be very very difficult to impossible on Fri/Sat, then the Sunday puzzle because of the larger audience is dialed back a bit to a Thursday level, and then Monday starts off easy) and the first set whizzed by.

Match #3, 2 Germans, Andreas Beck, #10 seed, and Benedikt Dorsch. Court #5
Match #4, Brit Alexander Slabinsky vs. American KJ Hippensteel. Court #4
Why? The Beck match is just starting up, with a relatively high seed playing. I miss maybe the first few games, and then that one is ending on one court as the oher is underway on the next so I can slide right over.
Why Not? To be honest, neither of these matches is very good, and and if the Beck match had gone to a 3rd set I'd have gone someplace else. Beck is a 22-year-old hanging around the low 100s in the rankings, Dorsch a journeyman of 27 whos never been in the top 150. Neither is going anywhere. Hippensteel is an American Dorsch, a month or two older and also never in the top 150, playing a 22-year old Brit. One match the younger (Beck) beats the older, the other it's the other way around. I doze off for a point or two in the Slabinsky match.

Match #5, Ryan Harrison (US) vs. Daniel Munoz-de la Nava (Spain). Court #5
Why? Daniel was watching a match with me the day before, with his credential hanging down his back so I could read the name, which for first round qualies is as good a reason as most any to choose a match. And it directly follows Match #4 on the same court so I know I have time to attend to myself for a few minutes and get back for the start.

Why I should have watched this match: Harrison is an American phenom, only 16 years old, who made the semi-finals in the Australian Open juniors, is only the 10th player to win an ATP tour match before turning 16, and the 3rd youngest player to do so since 1990. He's #700 with a bullet in the ATP rankings, a wild card entrant. The Spaniard is a 26-year old who's been around for a long time.

As the first set progresses I am feeling very sorry for the Spaniard. It's looking a lot like when I visit my family in Connecticut and my 13-year old nephew beats me at Scrabble, or the 12-year old at some SP2 game with way too many buttons for my ossified adult mind that wants to deal with a joystick for Yar's Revenge and a paddle for Circus Atari. Harrison wins the set rather handily, 6-3. In part, this is because Munoz de la Nava is making a lot of what tennis people call "unforced errors," shots where you probably have the time and the opportunity to hit the ball back but end up botching it, which if you do often enough your opponent can kind of play it nice and easy and so long as he hits the ball in, you will hit it out. Or to put it another way, Harrison is playing well enough to win this set, but if his opponent stops botching it it, what then? The answer to that is revealed in the next two sets. Munoz de la Nava plays more cleanly, and wins the next two sets to win the match. So Harrison loses, but he shows poise on the court, the occasional ability to ace his way out of trouble with good first serves that can't be returned by his opponent, some decent shotmaking with power and pace and spin, and looks fairly comfortable at the net winning some points with excellent volleying which is not usual for a 16-year old or even for some 26-year olds. He hasn't lucked his way into his early success. But he also shows some flaws. He's not the classic tennis build and looks a tad stocky. You don't usually see this in the pro game for a reason: it's hard to win when you're running back and forth on a hot summer day with five or ten pounds you don't need. This may contribute to the back problem that requires Harrison to seek the trainer out, and at the end of the 3rd set he's carrying all of his 16 years looking either very tired or very much in back pain, and I am tempted to say a little bit of both. A couple times when Munoz de la Nava hits a lob, a shot that is designed to go overhead and fall in the back of the court while you are in the front, Harrison holds his ground and flails as the ball scoots by overhead instead of trying to race the ball back to the court and get in position to try and hit some kind of return shot back, which he does do the third time around. So maybe he's learning.

I read my 3rd Variety, finished a solid issue of Rolling Stone, start in on a National Geographic, do the NY Times. Vanilla chip ice at the Lemon Ice King. Dinner at the Jackson Diner. Classic NYC story, an Indian restaurant that kept the name when it took over a small-ish storefront diner 20 or 25 years ago, served great food, had cheap prices, long lines. Moved to a bigger space, part of a former Woolworth's when that chain went under, prices go up and the quality of the food starts to go down. Good news that they haven't raised prices this year like so many other restaurants, but the bowl of rice with my main was awfully small; two big spoonfuls or maybe three. And the main course was not very good at all. I may not go back except for the lunch buffet, though the restaurant will no doubt thrive for years on its past glories. I've slowly trended to splurging on Indian at Manhattan restaurants, because the Jackson Diner is long past the days of being as good or better for much less and now is cheaper in all ways.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

tennis, anyone? Pt. 1

Yeah, it's been way too long between posts, and I probably shouldn't post now, but it is usually my custom to bore people with reports on the qualifying for the US Open tennis, and now that I have a blog I no longer need to limit the boredom to my immediate family.

As a quick explanation for those who follow tennis more casually than I...

at each tennis tournament most of the spots in the draw are given to people based on their standings in the tennis rankings. For the US Open, there are 128 spots in the singles tournament for both men and women, and 96 of those spots go to the top 96 people wishing to enter on whatever the cutoff day is, usuallly in mid-July a week or two after Wimbledon is over. 8 slots are given to what are called "wild cards," which are slots that the tournament directors can fill however they wish. Maybe a good local player, or some star whose ranking has fallen due to injury but who may stilll have crowd appeal. And then for the US open, 16 slots are open to qualifiers, people below the top 96 who enter a mini-tournament, with the winners getting to move into the main draw. So you've got 128 men and 128 women, whose ranks get thinned to 64 and then 32 and then 16 winners into the main draw over a three-round qualifying tournament. This tournament will include most of the players ranked between 96 and 200 and then other players ranked lower than that. Old players off their peak days, journeymen who hang around in the third tier for five or twelve years, and young players on the rise who haven't yet earned ranking points enough to be in the top 96.

The US Open is kind enough to offer free admission for the qualifying tournament. Since I got seriously hooked on tennis as a result of sampling the "qualies" as they are called, it's not a bad idea. And now unless WorldCon or something is going on the same week, I spend most of my time two weeks before Labor Day watching.

The first two days with first round matches are often not the best; #96 vs. #396 is often not a good match, or an old wily pro against an upstart. But the matches you see in the first round help write the stories for the next two rounds and make them that much richer. Some years the qualies may be full of players I saw in a prior year whom I still want to follow, or a player who had some summer results after the cut-off or other good recent results that aren't yet good enough or known names on the comeback trail. Not too many of those this year, so what to watch on day #1...

Match #1: Mikhail Ledovskikh (Russia) vs. Robert Smeets (Australia) #31 seed.
Why? Court 10 has nice "end zone" seats to watch the match from, and it's as good a choice as any, so let's go with the nice viewing.
The Australian wins, 2 sets to 0.
Not an exciting match.
Both are 22, Smeets ranked in the mid 100s, the Russian in the low 200s. I think he has better slightly deeper and more potent ground strokes, but Smeets has a more rounded game and comes to the net more. Ledovskikh loses the tie-break in the first set, gets off to a decent start in the first game of the second set but then lets it drifts away, gets broken (i.e., loses a game in which he is serving) and then fades away.

Oh -- I often don't know much about the players in the first round. I'm getting home and then checking them on the US Open web site, so some of this knowledge is after the fact.

Match #2, Court 6, American Chase Buchanan vs. Brazilian Ricardo Hocevar.
Why? Doesn't "Chase" sound like just the perfect preppy tennis name -- Chase Buchanan no less. & Chase is a sponsor of the US Open. It just seems right.
This is a very interesting match. As I am now finding out, Chase is only 17 years old and got a wild card into the qualifying as one of the top men's juniors in the US. His pro rank is in the 700s. Hocevar is 22, ranked around #200. Hocevar is entirely out of it in the first set, doesn't even win a game until the very end, but then seems to be playing himself into the match even though the first set score is 6-1 in Buchanan's favor. And at the start of the 2nd set Hocevar has the trainer out to work on his arm some. Hocevar then wins the 2nd set 6-3, but the third set is tight and goes to a tiebreak before Hocevar wins 8-6 in the tie break to take the match 3 sets to 2. Neither player was great, but it was enjoyable enough, and now that I know the Chase Buchanan story, I'll have him in my list of players to watch out for next year. It's an impressive show for a 17-year old, though a very experienced 17-year old to be sure.

Match #3, Court 11, Ryan Sweeting (US) vs. Prakash Amritraj (India)
Why? This is about as close to a marquees match as you'll maybe get. I know I've heard of Sweeting. Sweeting, 21, won the juniors tournament in 2005, Armritraj is an Indian journeyman who did make it to the main draw once or twice. Both of these are better players than in the first two matches, though Armritraj is still a step or two below the really good Indian journeyman like Laender Paes who play lots of doubles and have lots of flair and panache and shotmaking from all over the court even if they don't go anywhere in singles. It's a routine win for Sweeting, 6-3 6-3 but if the test of a first round match is the extent of my interest in watching the player in the next round I can't say I'm a member of the Ryan Sweeting fan club.

Match #4, Court 6, Gilles Muller of Luxembourg against Lamine Ouahab of Algeria.
Why? I do know Muller's name. 25, he's been ranked as high as #59. He's advances to the 2nd round of several grand slams and once to the 3rd round of Wimbledon, so his name has been on the results section of the newspaper often enough. Ouahab I know nothing about, so if he beats Muller that will be exciting, and if not I will at least have seen the #15 seed in the qualifying and somebody with one of the higher career high ranks from among those in the qualifying. Ouahab is ranked in the 250s now, peaked at 170, but I haven't seen too many Algerians over the years.
It's three very tight sets, the first two being split in tie-breaks before Muller wins in a tight third set 7-5. I'm not sure the better player has won. Ouahab did have an awful game serving 5-4 for the first set after looking very composed, but held his composure a bit better in the first set tie-break. But over the next two sets the better player is just a tad bit better. Ouahab is also one of those players with a decent drop shot (when you try and hit the ball so that it just goes over the net, drops down and in, and then dies before the other player can race in from the back of the court to hit it) who turns it into a liability by using it too often at the wrong time.

Match #5. It is now getting late in the day, some courts have stopped play, I make my way at the end of the first set to Court #9, where it looks like Tobias Kamke (Germany) and Ilia Bozoljac (Serbia, #29 seed in qualifying) are about to go to a tie-break. I'd made note of this late match at the start of the day because I wasn't familiar with either player (and I like to discover people) and one is a seed. It turns out to be the best match of the day. Kamke is 22, and his rank is much like Ouahab's, 170ish peak, 230s on the current year and 180s on a 52-week basis. His Serbian opponent is 23, overall higher in the rankings, but I find myself drawn to Kamke, who wins in the first set, drifts away in the 2nd which he loses 6-3, and then to my happiness wins in the 3rd set. My instinct tells me Kamke is not yet reaching his potential, and I will be wanting to keep an eye on him in the 2nd round. I do find his serve motion to be a little odd, since his foot is nudging the service line at the start of the motion. He doesn't foot fault, but I'd hate to start out so close to the edge of doing so.

That's one of several matches that end at around 8:35 or 8:40, leaving one women's match going on, and when I drift back to it it's 4-4 in the final set, and around 8:45. It takes another half hour or so to play the final five games full of long boring rallies before a winner is crowned. I don't like to watch women's qualifying matches very much. 30 boring minutes to play 5 games is kind of why.

The weather was gorgeous. A threat of rain as a cold front passes through, but it comes by with no drops and no threats even. Some clouds in mid-afternoon, but a nice sky and gorgeous sunset.

I try to visit the Lemon Ice King of Corona coming and/or going, and stop on the way in the morning and get a mint chocolate chip ice. With the cooler weather in the evening I decide not to do one on the way out. As is kind of tradition on the first day of qualies, I walk up 108th St. to Forest Hills from the Tennis Center and Flushing Meadows Park and visit the Barnes & Noble in Forest Hills and do Pizzeria Uno in Forest Hills for dinner. By the time I get home from that it's kind of late, I should probably not be doing a blog post, but I am, and now I'm going to finish, and go to bed, and wake up in time to head over for day #2. During changeovers and between matches and at dinner etc. I read the NY Times for Monday and Tuesday, do the Tuesday crossword, read the July 28 and August 4 issues of Variety, so I'm halfway to being caught up on that.

I am being a lazy-ish blog poster, because if I were a better person, and a better blogger, and had more time, I would do links to all the individual player profiles at the US Open site. But I'm not, so you'll have to add some extra clicks if you want to check out some of these players yourself.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

this 'n' that

It's another of those busy months, but let's try and comment on a variety of sundry matters.

First, a movie:

Tell No One: seen Sunday July 27 at Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema, auditorium #6 3.5 slithy toads.

This is such a really nifty movie that it's almost hard to believe it's French! (See my movie post from a few weeks ago.) Based on a Harlan Coben novel. Starts out with a man and his wife going for a romantic night at a country lake. She goes to get something, we hear noises, he goes to hunt the noises down, we seem him bashed with a shovel, black out, cut to eight years later. Two bodies have been found at the lake, which rouses old suspicions the police have that he may have murdered his wife. He starts to get e-mail which links to a surveillance camera picture that suggests his wife is still alive. He has to go on the run when police suspect him in the new murder of one of his wife's friends, and secrets slowly start to cascade out. It's been hard to find a bad review of this movie. No surprise. It's very well acted. It's taut and fraught; the scene where he jumps out his office window commencing an extended escape chase from the police who are out to arrest him is great movie-making on every level. It gets an almost top rating from me, with a half star deducted because the bad guy is just so clearly from another movie in the depictions during the film that you kind of wonder why this character is in the movie at all, and it's thus no surprise when we get the reveal. Some other nice surprises to be found in the ending, but I can't totally forgive this one awkwardness. I saw this on the same DC trip where I saw Jerry Springer, making for a nice weekend escape that I kind of needed, especially since it was on one of the big screens at the Bethesda Row, which is well above the usual art house grade. I wish they had one just like it in NYC, but it puts anything in NYC art house to shame, including Landmark's own Sunshine Cinema.

Speaking of Jerry Springer the Washington Post gave it a rave. I've been kind of bad in my past few posts on account of time and/or posting on the road to do the usual link set-ups, but if I don't get around to doing a round of linking later maybe seek out?

Right now I'm in Portland OR for the Willamette Writers Conference. I've added two more Whole Foods to my list, but I didn't do as good a job on pre-planning as I should have and missed a B&N around the corner from one of them. On the other hand, I did get to the Powell's in Beaverton OR where several of my clients have done signings. I met the very pleasant events coordinator and liked this Powell's even better than the main store downtown. It had a slightly bigger selection of new book copies than the downtown store, and unlike the quirky old downtown store which is a rabbit warren of rooms of different colors in different buildings, up stairs and down stairs and thru secret doors, the Beaverton store is in a big modern box with wide aisles and bright lights and all on one level. Some people will say it's uncivilized not to like the rabbit warren. Tough! And it's only a half mile or so from the Borders in Beaverton. Portland is a very literate city where you see lots of people reading books on the light rail, and where many of my authors are selling lots and lots of copies, so it's just been fun doing the bookstore rounds. Even the grocery stores get into the act. The Fred Meyer (owned by Kroger) in the Alphabet District had four Charlaine Harris, a GOBLIN WAR and a MISTBORN 2, and the Fred Meyer in Vancouver six Charlaine, and a LOST FLEET: VALIANT.

Alas, the last light rail train out to the airport and thus to the airport Sheraton still leaves downtown at the too-early time of 10:45; no 9:00 movies at the Lloyd Center Regal if you don't want to risk taking a taxi back. You still have to cut thru tumbleweeds to get from the hotel to the Mt. Hood stop. Though the new Cascades Center and adjacent light rail stop does mean a nice walking opportunity if I just miss a train at Mt. Hood and decide to walk ahead one station. I had this idea of going to the Ikea at Cascades to finally see an Ikea and try the swedish meatballs, but instead found a nice young writer at the conference who was willing to take me to bookstores in Vancouver in exchange for a bit of an education in the retail side of things, and then I noticed a Sweet Tomatoes on Mill Plain and new I'd found my dinner. I have this itty-bitty regret at losing my best chance at finally trying the swedish meatballs, emphasis on the itty-bitty. It was a fun evening.

Getting back to another topic I've talked about a few times... after several months in operation the main thing that's happening as a result of the changes at Borders, 4reducing titles both to have more face-out and to reduce inventory levels on account of their financial woes, is that it's killing the bottom 10% of 20% of my list while leaving the rest of it pretty much intact. It used to be there'd be books selling a few copies a week that Borders would stock at their very best stores in the category that helped to make those stores truly truly great bookstores. The Borders in Columbia MD, the one in Gresham OR. Now they're mercilessly cutting books early on that are doing OK but maybe no more than that, one book of mine that came out in April and which hasn't done badly but maybe hasn't sold fantastically as we've gone into July is now being cut at every Borders. A year ago it might not have been cut at hardly any and certainly not at the top sf/fantasy stores, and now it's just gone. At the best stores, the extended selection is a thing of the past and I can no longer go and find a particularly bigger selection. No really good store for horror that has five or eight Hot Blood anthologies. On the one hand, this isn't killing anyone short term. If a book is selling 10 copies a week in 2006 and now since it's no longer at 100 of the best Borders is selling only 5, the fact is that it isn't a big loss to my bottom line. But how well will book #2 in a series do when Borders is being so quicker with its hook on book #1? Would Jim Hines' Goblin books have done any business at B&N if GOBLIN QUEST had been treated the same way as this April 2008 book of mine?

Comic book scribe Kurt Busiek lives in Vancouver, and I know him from our distant pasts at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. I'll tell you what I told him when we got caught up on Thursday: his Trinity series for DC is growing on me. You'll know from my occasional funny book round up that I liked the first couple of issues enough to keep going and was still on board after a month. I read issues 7/8/9 on the plane out, and the series is finding its stride on many levels. It's a superhero book that isn't drowning itself in continuity. A lot of comic books are very monochromatic in tone while this one is showing some variety. The backup feature often a little different in tone from the foreground, and issue to issue showing some variation. Try this one. One sad thing: Kurt does not plan to give Mazing Man a cameo appearance like I was so happy to see him having in issue #1 of the new Ambush Bug series.

And now a rant: the next time you are asked for a photo ID when you check in to a hotel, make a fuss and try not to show it to them. This is the kind of stuff that offends my occasional mild libertarian streak on so many levels. The hotel will say this is something the credit card company requires, but it does not. Many hotel chains are experimenting with having lobby kiosks that allow you to check in without stopping at front desk, so it's bull for a hotel to say at same time as this is going on that they need to see your photo ID. Or the hotel will say that it's for credit card security. OK, so I make a room reservation weeks before my stay, I guarantee it with my credit card, and then arrive and give the hotel that same credit card. So what they think is the credit card was stolen by someone ten weeks ago, the theft was never noticed, the thief treasured the credit card to save for staying at this fine hotel, when he could have tried to like, fill up his shopping cart at WalMart with things he could actually use. Or the hotel will say it's because there's somebody who travels the country pretending to be me? I do think Tanya Huff once several years ago had a pretend Tanya Huff going to a convention or two or something, but is this really the kind of thing which we all know has happened to someone so often that we need to show our papers to check in to a hotel. I don't like this. I don't like to stay at hotels that act like their arriving guests are criminals, I don't like to have to show ID for things that don't require them, I don't like this one additional little step toward a police state like commmunist Russia where you need to show your papers to move about the country. And you know, the hotel doesn't usually say in your reservation confirmation that a photo ID is required to stay at the hotel, which at least when you make a plane reservation even if you did just emerge from a cave with that guy who didn't know Japan lost World War II they tell you when you book that you'll need to show a photo ID. Resist, resist, resist, and maybe if enough of us do it we can check into a hotel like we live in a free country.

Hard to know when I'll next post with Worldcon soon to keep me busy, but we'll see... this at least should give all three of my loyal readers something to complain about.