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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.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Happening

Seen Saturday evening June 28 at the Regal Kaufman Astoria 14, auditorium #13. 2 slithy toads? Or 0? Or 4?

So getting back to what I said about French films in my last post, here we have a movie from a genuine American auteur that's been totally dumped on and disrespected.

Is it a good film? Not sure that it is, or why anyone should see it. Is it a bad film? In an ocean of movies without craft or ambition this has plenty of both. Like A.I., it's a failed movie which no true student of American cinema should miss. It makes it very hard to know how many toads to give it.

So let's try and give this some of the serious (& spoiler-filled) analysis that too few of the reviews have had.

A. This is a clear departure for the auteur, M. Knight Shyamalan, whose Lady in the Water I have missed but whose work I've otherwise seen from Sixth Sense forward. There are no secrets at the end, no sudden reveals. The plants are doing it. It's a thing of nature. It can't entirely be explained. We're no more than a third of the way through and maybe even much less because all of this is made abundantly clear.

B. It isn't a horror movie, or is at least as much a horror movie as Kubrick's The Shining is a horror movie, only with even less blood. Kubrick bathes his masterpiece in the red stuff, while Shyamalan might even be too sparing with his. One reviewer I read commented on a line in the first few minutes "I think those people are clawing themselves," and hopped on the show v tell thing. Um, does this reviewer not notice that Shyamalan spends the entire movie showing less blood than he could? People kill themselves off the top of the frame or off-screen entirely. When it's established in one scene that the suiciders will pick up any gun at hand, all we get in the next scene similar is the sound of the gunshots. We can fill in the rest.

C. So as much as anything, it's a mood piece or a tone poem.

D. There's an entire other level of subtext beyond what everyone is noticing. On the main level, it's the plants. Humanity is getting to be too much for the plants, and they decide to do something about it, emitting something into the air that interferes with our self-destruction taboos. But... In the schoolroom scene in Mark Wahlberg's class, he harps on some matinee idol in the class. He's told to pay more attention in class because the nose will keep growing, the ears will keep growing, he might look perfect at 15, but what's he going to look like at 20? Is he sure he wants to just rely on his good lucks. This line is delivered by a totally deglamorized Mark Wahlberg. You know, Mark Wahlberg, aka Marky Mark, aka the guy in the Calvin Klein ads. Those were a long time ago, and he ain't gonna be that guy again, but does he have to look quite as common as he does here? The hair, the clothes, the hint of Rain Man. Wahlberg immediately hooks up with another teacher played by John Leguizamo, who was not too long ago a hot young Latino. Not here. It's like in Rocky, if Rocky had told Adrian to bun up her hair and put her glasses back on and reverse Pygmalioned her. Awful looking glasses, kind of like the ones Myke Cole told me I should stop wearing. And he spends pretty much the entire movie with his face all scrunched up as if he's trying to age himself even more than the attire. And then completing the triumvurate, Zooey Deschanel is a hot young actress who is totally not hot, who's also wearing less than flattering clothes with an expression that does indeed suggest "stilted." As do many of the line readings and actions of all of these people. This can't all be an accident. This 90 minute movie doesn't spend several minutes on the appearance issue for the heck of it. It doesn't take glamor men like Wahlberg and Leguizamo and totally deglamorize and have them sounding stilted and false like this was a high school play and the first five choices for the lead all got suspended for smoking pot in the principal's office. But for goodness sake, what? What! What is the connection between this appeance thing and the Plants Attack! centerpiece? I could probably think of lots of interesting suggestions, but I consider Shyamalan's failure to find a good tie between Thing 1 and Thing 2 to be the movie's biggest failing. Anyone have any ideas?

E. The Betty Buckley character is another something that I don't think is working quite the way it's supposed to. There are some connections I can see between her and the rest of the movie. When she slaps at Jess' hand for taking what isn't hers and then offers here a cookie a minute later, can the Mother Nature parallel be any more obvious? Mother Nature gives us all kinds of things, but we get a little greedy and the whole movie is in macrocosm what that slap on Jess' hand is in microcosm. But where do we go from there? Is Mother Nature as crazy as the Betty Buckley character? Was there a rewrite at the end, because I'd swear when Buckley goes out and talks to the plants in her garden that we were around eight seconds away from being told that this crazy bat had spoken to the plants and ordered them to attack, and then somebody said "no no no no NO, you can't do another one of those silly twist endings" and so the movie went off in some other different direction that really doesn't make sense.

F. And the movie doesn't make sense. We need to find out more about the attack. How many people are immune? There's the CNN lady who's doing news from NYC after the attack has started, so is she immune or just not infected yet? There are lots of hints that not everyone would be taken under by this. And does the attack really go down so far as to be on groups of only one? If not, the Buckley ending makes no sense. If, then the "off to school" ending makes no sense. Because who is going to live in any of these cities in the Northeast after everything that's happened, where every park bench and every street and every swath of sidewalk is a killing ground.

G. So it's a failure, but one that deserves a lot more serious attention than it is getting. It's a movie I expect to be thinking about for rather a long time to come, and most of the movies I see you can't say that.

H. & 3 Cheers to Shyamalan and James Newton Howard. As with Indiana Jones, this is a movie that relies on instrumental scoring entirely. It's not as good as the score for The Village with its haunting violin solos by Hilary Hahn, but it's a companion piece to it with some wonderful solo work on cello by Maya Beiser.

I. & seeing this movie on the last Saturday in June 2008 can't help but turn me back a little teary-eyed to that last Friday in July when I saw The Village on the final opening night at my beloved Loews Astor Plaza. A lot of people didn't like The Village; I liked it quite a bit and not just (I don't think) because of the circumstances of my seeing it. But that being said, I don't think there was ever a movie I saw at the Astor Plaza that didn't become a little bit better for being seen there. Shyamalan's Unbreakable was also the last movie to play the UA Syosset; I made a special trip out to Long Island to see the movie there because I liked to do that every once in a while, and didn't know at the time that it was the Last Picture Show for that modern movie palace. I only wish that The Happening were the last movie I'd see at the godawful miserably designed execrescence of a movie theatre called the Kaufman Astoria 14. But we're four weeks and a few days shy of four years that the Loews Astor Plaza left my life, and I still miss it terribly. James Newton Howard and Hilary Hahn let its tweeters and woofers go out with style.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Freedom Films with English Subtitles

Roman De Gare (2.5 Slithy Toads) and The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier) (1.5 Slithy Toads). Both seen Sunday afternoon June 22, 2008 at Cinema Village, aud. #3 and #1.

I have this thing with French (ooops, Freedom ) films. I tend to find many of them are overrated because they're in French, that things critics wouldn't put up with in an American film suddenly become acceptable when in a foreign tongue, the French tongue especially. Amorphous plotlessness, cloying sentimentality, other things. This isn't limited only to French films, though I think it infects the critical response to them more than to others. This may be a legacy of the fact that the French critical establishment and directors in its spell were especially crucial to the development of the "New Wave" 40 years ago. Or maybe it's all Benjamin Franklin's fault. There's also a certain bias critics have toward certain directors in the US that might not withstand an emperor's new clothes scenario.

I wasn't particularly eager to see Roman de Gare, but it was holding on at the box office, and my sister told me that it was actually pretty good by overrated French film standards. By and large, I think she is correct. The Grocer's Son had opened while I was in Toronto for Bloody Words and fell below my radar (though I'm not sure I'd have noticed even if I'd been in NY; it doesn't even look like all of the NYC papers reviewed the movie though the NY Times reviewed it quite lavishly and the VIllage Voice has a recommended asterisk next to it as well), but it also seemed to be getting good word of mouth and had times that matched up nicely at the same theatre, so I decided to do both.

I won't argue too much with my sister. Roman de Gare isn't at all bad, but it's also a triumph of filmmaking over a weak, weak script. For those who don't know, Roman is the word for "novel" in French (I take credit for selling many Romans into slavery in France), and Google's translation program says that a Roman de Gare is a pulp novel. In this particular instance, about a famous writer of thrillers whose "secretary" may in fact be writing them, and who may or may not have killed the ghost when he decides it is time to get credit for his work. Most of the novel is spent with an odd stretch when the ghost hooks up with a woman who's just gotten dumped by her fiancee at a service station, then (why, exactly) agrees to impersonate him on a familiy visit before hooking up with his employer for a cruise from Cannes to Elba, where he is thought to have fallen overboard on the return voyage. The movie starts with a brief scene of the writer being interrogated in his murder investigation. The director Claude Lelouch is an old French hand though this may be the first of his films I've seen, and via the use of music and all the other items in a director's arsenal he's able to generate a lot of suspense and atmosphere. There are some nice scenery shots of the Alps (I think?) outside of the village where the girl's family lives. A fishing expedition with him and her daughter (her daughter?) turns into a major intrigue. But none of it makes much sense. If not for the prologue we would have no reason to give a murderous interpretation to the writer's actions. That's one of many gaping plot holes, and there are just too many for me to give this more than a grudging tilt on the positive side of the scale, though it might be worth studying as a primer on the director's craft. An American movie that I'd think of similar is Backdraft, which Ron Howard manages to make almost good thru directorial skill in spite of a flawed script.

I don't know if The Grocer's Son is bad, but it's the quintessential example of an overrated French film. Very simple scenario: patriarch has heart attack, black sheep son returns reluctantly to his bedside, father insists not only that his grocery store must be open but that the traveling van that provide groceries to rural communities must go on the road as well, son reluctantly agrees, and (would you belive, stunning shock ahead, spoiler of all spoilers) he grows to like it so much that he's still running the grocery van when the credits role. If this were an American indie with a comparable scenario the rote routine hackneyed nature of the entire movie would be royally derided. Um, son returns home and takes over father's meals-on-wheels route? The film is gorgeous to look at. Lots of pretty mountain scenes maybe on the opposite side of France from the Alps (??) I viewed in the earlier film, maybe more in the Pyrenees? The lead actor is attractive, though not enough so i wanted to stay awake just to look at him, or at the scenery. Anyone with the modest intelligence to know this fine blog is worth reading could probably write the rest of the movie after watching the first reel. But the photography is reallly nice! Did I tell you that the photography is nice? The reviews I linked above both talk about the nice little touches and how well-observed the movie is, but haven't we stopped settling for that in Amerindie cinema? Why would anyone still consider it to be enough if the mountains border Spain and France instead of Pennsylvania and Ohio?

And if you haven't clicked the Cinema Village link about, click it here. I'm so glad their new discounts for Moving Image members make me more inclined to traipse down to it, because it is one of NY's treasures. The main screen where I saw Grocer's Son is really nice by art theatre standards. Screen #3 was carved out of the basement and is as good as any screen at the Quad or most at the Lincoln Plaza. Screen #2 I don't like so much, but it was carved out of the mezzanine level of screen #1 which was hardly ever needed customer-count wise, and the renovation to add the extra screens made the complex more viable while keeping the bulk of the main screen intact.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

So I'm buying Yodels at Pathmark tonight because they're on sale for $1.99 for the "family pack." And I notice it has this extra logo on it, that the package now says "Drakes ... by Hostess," with a note on the back to tell me "Since 1998, Drakes and Hostess have had more in common than bakery-fresh taste. They've both made by the same company. You can taste this dedication to quality in everything we make, from our famous Twinkie and Devil Dog snack cakes..."

For the many of you who do not know, a Drake is (in this context) not a duck but a regional brand of snack cakes (though one with a duck as its mascot), mostly in the Northeast, and as explained at length in the Wikipedia article on the subject without much long-term success when trying to branch out. Interestingly, Drake's was once owned by Borden, which also owned the NE-localized Wise chips brand. A Yodel is their version of a swiss roll, chocolate cake and cream rolled up and wrapped in chocolate frosting. I have always had a soft spot for Yodels, kind of like the timbit thing I was talking about earlier. My older brother has a soft spot for Funny Bones, the article for which has been deleted from the Wiki. Shows him. Devil Dogs were another family favorite. Yankee Doodles and Sunny Doodles were always very blah. Ring Dings were good. My younger brother was just telling me he still thinks highly of the Drake's coffee cake.

To those who do know what a Drake or Yodel is without being told, this double-branding is not good news. It almost has to be seen as the first step toward doing away with the Drake's name entirely, and perhaps selling some of their products under the Hostess name. I guess this wouldn't be a surprise. The ten years since Interstate Baking purchased the Drake's name have not been good for business. The company has been in financial trouble. Brands like this have felt pressure from improved grocery store bakery departments. Now prices of flour and other ingredients are going up. I used to hold out for $1.49 Yodels, and now I have to give in at the rare $1.99 sale, and I cannot conceive that anyone would pay $3.99 for a pack of Yodels.

Even if the rest of the world might not care, Drake's cakes have a warm spot in the heart of those of us who live in the Northeast. As is explained in the Wikipedia article, Drakes cakes were and are kosher, and while some Hostess cakes are now kosher in some bakeries, the pack of Hostess cupcakes I looked at today had pork something or other in the ingredients and would not be safe to take as a hebrew school snack. We did not keep Kosher when I was growing up, and I still don't, but it's always nice to know there's some treat I can bring to the synagogue... I believe Entenmann's has benefited over the years from this same virtue.

If the brands to merge, a HoHo is a lot like a Yodel. Will a Yodel still have a place, or will it have a place only for a while as the Drake's cakes languish and eventually disappear.

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but I just can't conceive that they're changing the Yodels box to put the Hostess logo on because the people at Interstate Baking are having warm loving thoughts for the Drake's name. I had no idea until I started this post that the Drake's heritage dates back to 1888. Will the Drake's logo be around for the 125th or the 130th?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Body Awareness

Seen at the Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, Sunday afternoon June 15, 2008. 4 Slithy Toads.

Following on its rather dismal main stage productions of Parlour Song and Port Authority, the Atlantic Theater redeems its season with this thoroughly delightful production on its second stage.

This may not be the best play I've ever seen, but it might be one of the first that's left me wanting to see a sequel. If anyone was going to try and write a revival of the TV show Soap (one of my all-time favorite shows, along with Party of Five, The Simpsons and Friday Night Lights) I'd say it could be this young playwright Annie Baker, who shows in these 90 minutes a real gift for taking the odd parts of real life and making them very very real, very very funny and very very poignant, which was what Susan Harris managed to do in the very best episodes of Soap (Carol leaving Jody at the alter, a classic example).

The odd parts of real life. The four characters in this play are: Jared, a 21-year-old who may have Asperger's Syndrome, may be in denial about it, definitely works at McDonald's, and definitely deals with nervousness by running his electric toothbrush around his gums; hiis mother, Joyce, is a lesbian teacher who is no longer with the boy's mother and instead is two years into a relationship with; Phyllis, a university professor who spends the entire play wearing a kind of grunge layered lesbian chic look while tending to Body Awareness week at the local college. It was supposed to be eating disorder week, but that wasn't really good enough for her, so she broadened the topic and has turned it into an arts festival that defines the very worst in academic overkill, with puppet theatre and ethnic music and -- much to her dismay -- an exhibition of photographs of nude females taken by the final character, Greek photographer Frank Bonitatibus who happens to be enjoying home hospitality at the home of the other three characters.

You read the above paragraph and it sounds like a twisted weird group, but as written each of the characters is a very real person. Don't we all know somewhere the 21-year-old who isn't ready for prime time? Don't we all know the artist who is totally sincere in doing things that are totally outlandish, or the academic so totally immersed in the world of academia she's incapable of stepping outside the frame to see some of the intrinsic folly of the milieu, or the mother who's struggling to deal with loss and challenge? Each is so well drawn that you'd have to look really really hard to find the hint of exaggeration that helps make the play work as theatre.

Each is played brilliantly. The one person in the cast you're most likely to have heard of is Jobeth Williams, who 25ish years ago played the mother in Poltergeist among many other credits. Phylllis is played by Mary McCann, a founding member of the Atlantic whom I've seen in many productions in my years as a subscriber and often found lacking (I was quite glad her role was recast when Spring Awakening moved to Broadway, as an example), but she inhabits this role totally and wonderfully. Frank is played by Peter Friedman, a veteran of both stage and screen who once played some additional Muppets on the Muppet Show. Jared is played by Jonathan Clem, fresh-out-of-school (NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and the Atlantic's own acting school) talent making his off-Broadway debut and impressing instantly.

When I saw a preview screening of the pretty dreary Feast of Love, director Robert Benton said in a post-film Q&A that one of the joys of working with Morgan Freeman was his ability to listen, that great acting was as much about that as it was about the talking. This production is a vivid example. Unlike the Atlantic's production of Port Authority, where the actors have to busy themselves conspicuously ignoring the other characters in a series of switch-off solo performance monologues, good chunks of this play are set at the dinner table or in other circumstances where the characters are in fact involved in the same play. I frequently found my attention drifting away from the person who was talking, not because that performance was bad but because you could see so much in the faces of the other characters while somebody else was talking. It was in her quiet moments of listening that you could see the frustrations and the anxieties and the sweet concerns of Joyce emerging on Jobeth Williams' face. The nature of the Asperger's that Jared may or may not have is such that he isn't always supposed to be on the ball during social interaction, and yet within a narrow palatte Jonathan Clem manages to sketch an infinity of shades when the other characters are talking about him.

Have I told you that this is a comedy? Because it very, very, very much is. It's full of delicious lines arising naturally out of the situations, and there's a line for everyone in the audience. I got this look from a man a row ahead and a few seats over when I was giving the biggest laugh in the audience to one line, as if I was taking way too much joy in it, and I couldn't help but notice twenty minutes later when it was his turn to be taking special enjoyment from one of the lines.

Every aspect of the production is meant to be seen and savored. We are intended to see that the Welch's grape juice that's used for wine during the sabbath-on-Tuesday scene is organic, because that's the kind of detail that defines Joyce and Phyllis. It's exacty write that we hear Phyllis decree her love of puppet theatre to the academics gathered for that part of the assembly without any irony at all and no sense that adults unaccompanied by five-year-old children shouldn't take pleasure in puppet theatre, and that night in their bedroom to tell Joyce "you missed the puppet theatre!" I commented at top on the perfect costume design for Joyce's character.

I'm not sure if I've raved as much about anything so far in my blog, and I could go on for so much longer about the delights of this play and its pitch-perfect production. And as I said, I want to see more. I want to find out if Jared will in fact find love, and Joyce as well for that matter. In fact, the one thing of the play that bothered me just a tad was the insistence on the ending of tying some loose ends off when I would happily (and oddly for me, I've got to say) seen them unresolved. I wanted to know just a little bit less, to have this feeling that my family for the 95 minutes of Body Awareness was going to go off into a future that was, like my own family's, yet to be written, instead of one that had already been mapped out by the playwright. The growing expense of theatre in NY and the busy-ness of my day job means I'm not seeing as many movies or plays as I once did, and I'm glad today of having at least the one Atlantic Theater subscription to drag me out for a pleasant surprise. More than makes up for the last two dreary plays. And for the Moving Image membership, even if it means I'm dragging to a screening of Mongol that I might otherwise have happily missed. I like to live a very well-planned life, and every once in while it's nice to be dragged to something good or bad where somebody else makes the choice for you.

Other reviews of the play can be found here from Variety and here from the NY Times. Most of the others I've quickly googled are similarly positive, but here's a dissenting note from The Hollywood Reporter.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Newspapers, Again...

At least based on the comment counts, my blog readers don't really care so much if the newspaper industry withers away to a Sunday coupon delivery vehicle and a few articles on the Dillon Panthers during the football season. But I'll keep hacking away at the topic because it's one I care about.

A brief recap: newspaper advertising is under attack, as the internet gobbles up more and more of it. Newspaper circulation is under attack since more people go online for their news, and younger people especially see newspapers as less important. Even online migration to newspaper web sites helps only so much since the ads there generate less revenue than the print ads. The economy doesn't help. Recessions are bad for ads. You need fuel to drive trucks to deliver newspapers. I don't have any good solutions to this, but the newspaper industry has most often tried to cut its way to success. Fewer reporters, fewer bureaus, fewer pages of smaller size, etc.

Now, the owner of the Tribune Co., Samuel Zell, is taking this to new levels, as explained in this NY Times article and in many others. He has decreed that his newspapers should have a one-to-one ratio of advertising to news content. Many newspapers and magazines have a ratio of some sort. But 1-1 is pretty bad. The New Yorker would certainly be a lot thinner that way. As the article describes, the LA Times would lose 82 pages a week, that's almost 12 a day. That's an entire section gone, or two pages out of sports, two out of business, 2 here, 2 there. The Calendar section is rich with film advertising, so will that hold stable and every other section lose out? Some sections can shrink only so far because even Sam Zell will need to cover both the Dodgers and Angels, and the Kings, and the Bruins, and etc. He's also done page counts and has determined that journalists at the Hartford Courant produce 300 pages a year while those at the LA Times do only 50, and this just cannot be allowed to stand, either. And the market research says people want more charts, more graphs.

Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson sums up my thoughts on June 11. People at the Hartford Courant can produce lots of pages because they don't have a choice (they have maybe 200 people in the newsroom) and cover things only locally, and the paper's gone from being decent on the weekdays and a coupon vehicle on Sundays to having very little in it at all. You want to run around and cover the local school board and the police blotter you can fill up lots of pages. But some serious journalism requires lots and lots of time and effort over long periods of time. Like the discussion-changing Washington Post coverage of Walter Reed, which Myerson refers to.

I used to look forward to going to LA and buying the LA Times, but when I'm in LA in September for the premiere of True Blood I'm not sure I'll buy at all unless I really like the funnies assortment. Because why read a paper with nothing in it?

I don't know what the solution is, but it can't be this. I used to eagerly and happily buy at least one newspaper a day, something with funnies and gossip and such to go along with my daily dose of the NY Times. Now, I look at the funnies online or just don't bother because it isn't worth fifty cents or more a day just for that. The Baltimore Sun now costs 80 cents with tax and doesn't even have such a good funnies section. That's a Samuel Zell/Tribune/once-Times Mirror paper like the LA Times, and when I left Balticon on Memorial Day Monday, I said "well, let's not buy the shitty Baltimore Sun, because when I get to Penn Station in NY, I can find the Newark Star Ledger for fifty cents and it has a bigger better funnies section and it's not as if the rest of the paper will be any worse" Now, I go around the country, and I think I'll maybe buy the NY Times in print or in my Kindle, and I've got my monthly Washington Post and WSJ subscriptions for my Kindle, and do I really need to buy yet another local paper that has hardly any news hole left, that relies entirely on AP or the Post or the Times for its miserly column inches on the world outside the city I'm in, and has as its biggest virtue that there's a Doonesbury on page C7.

No industry can save itself by alienating its biggest customers. I don't care what the market research says. The people who say they want this chart and that graph still won't pick up the paper. Maybe I'm wrong on that. There is that great debate in sf/fantasy over whether to be Solaris and try and sell sf/fantasy to people who like sf/fantasy or like Orbit and try and reach out to the occasional reader, and maybe I should just consider the newspaper industry debate to be similar. But Orbit and Solaris are at least both trying to sell books to people who like books, while the Samuel Zells of the world have given up on selling a newspaper to people who like newspapers.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

World's Bakka-est Bookstore

So I'm just back from Toronto, where I was a guest agent at Bloody Words. Toronto is my kind of place. Urban. Walkable. Good mass transit. TImbits on every corner, chocolate glazed and cherry and original and apple fritter and duchie timbits and more timbits when you've finished those. Timbits, timbits, timbits!

But I digress, for this post is supposed to talk about two of the best Toronto treats, known respectively as The World's Biggest Bookstore and Bakka Phoenix Books.

The World's Biggest Bookstore is not actually the world's biggest by square footage, though it is very big, and when it first opened almost 30 years ago may even have been. Regardless, the name is I believe trademarked by the current owners, the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo.

But the important thing to me is that for many many years it has clearly been the case that the World's Biggest Bookstore does indeed have the biggest selection of new books of any bookstore I've been in. It is sometimes a struggle because it is part of a big chain and does kind of have to fight upstream against what the chain is supposed to be doing, but it's given just enough support to keep its reputation intact, in part because of the excellent staff it has. Morticia (a "stage name," if retailers can have) is now part-time but has been working the sf/fantasy section for years and years and years. The past several years it's always been a treat to see Jessica Strider when I visit the store. She's the full-timer in charge of keeping the selection and the endcaps in good shape. She's moonlighting with her own scififanletter blog, and if you read my blog I encourage you to check out hers and show her blog some comments and love because she's the kind of bookseller every author dreams of finding in every bookstore.

I gave Jessica a bit of a hard time on this visit. Over the course of 2008, I think it's possible the very best book superstores in the US may somewhat routinely start to have around 100 JABberwocky titles on the shelves, but it's still not entirely uncommon to find closer to 65 than 105. Last year, World's Biggest had around 115, so I was expecting to see more this year, and after a quick visit to check if there were any Evil Librarians or a Wolf Pack lurking in the kids section upstairs I returned downstairs to check out the mystery section with my title count over 120 and every confidence of getting to 130. But for some reason the Charlaine Harris section was sadly lacking. Well, I told Jessica in no uncertain terms that it wasn't acceptable for her store to have only 50% more of my title than good US superstore. No, not acceptable at all! Well, talk about quick action. I went back two days later with Violette Malan, a reorder had come in, and the World's Biggest count was up in the range of 140 titles. Almost twice the typical US superstore, 50% more than the next best Indigo outlet I visited (the store at Eglinton & Yonge Sts., with an amazing 90) and three times the worst of the Indigo stores I happened upon (Yorkdale, around 45). The only bookstore in the US that consistently comes close to ballparking the selection at World's Biggest is the main branch of the University Bookstore in Seattle (thanks, Duane!), though I confess there are some specialty shops like Borderlands in San Francisco which maybe I would give credit to were I able to visit them more. It truly is the World's Biggest. It's located very close to downtown, just north of the Eaton Centre mall. I worry a bit that its building is low density in an area that is becoming more and more high density. There's a used bookstore with an excellent sf section next door, with lots of older/op JABberwocky books, making it a bibliophile's paradise.

But Toronto doesn't have just one amazing place to buy books. Just off the intersection of Queen St. W. and Bathhurst, one finds Bakka Phoenix Books. Which had been on Queen St. W. a little less west, then on Yonge St. a klick north of World's Biggest, and now back on Queen St. W. in a neighborhood on the verge of getting a Starbucks and a Home Depot.

This is the kind of sf specialty shop that hardly does exist any more. It's got a loving staff who are thrilled to hand-sell and also do right by authors. In fact, a great many sf/fantasy authors have worked at Bakka at one time or another, including Rob Sawyer, Tanya Huff and Michelle West, who's still part-time on occasion. Ben the owner and Kris the manager are great people to talk sf with. New books, used books, shelf-talkers, signings, everything. I spent so much time talking that I didn't have the time to do a title count, but it would have been big. There were plentiful copies of the new Brandon Sanderson and the new Tanya Huff and the new Tobias Buckell, and Jim Hines aplenty from his visit to Toronto a few months ago (as also the case at World's Biggest). It was especially gratifying to see the hold shelf behind the registers, since just about everyone with a hold pile seemed to be eager for Tanya's Heart of Valor in paperback. The store has a Live Journal blog.

I was very happy for Bakka when I saw them prominently mentioned in a recent NY Times travel article about Toronto. Maybe Bakka won't be so much our secret, but the more customers they have the happier I will be.

No trip to Toronto can be considered complete for the sf/fantasy fan if you haven't visited both. World's Biggest may have a better selection but it is a chain bookstore with long hours and you may not find Jessica to talk to all the time. Bakka has both new and used, you're almost certain to find someone to talk sf/fantasy with whenever the store is open, and for an author that the chains haven't totally caught on to yet Bakka is going to be your better bet.

Of course, all that time I can spend talking to booksellers when I'm in Toronto does keep me away from my timbits.

One final bookselling note in Toronto: There is a Chapters in Runnymede just steps from the west entrance to the Runnymeded stop on the Bloor/Danforth line. It's in a gorgeous old theatre building with much of its ornamentation intact, the children's department in the balcony and magazines on the stage. It's weak in sf/fantasy, but I love going just to admire the building.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mongol Raiders

Mongol. Seen Tuesday evening June 3, 2008 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Aud. #9 (the Majestic). 1 Slithy Toad.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Seen Tuesday evening June 3, 2008 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, Aud., #2 (The Kings). 2.5 Slithy Toads.

So to do the obscure movie first... Mongol is a Russian movie depicting the Adventures of Genghis Khan as a Young (and Not so Young) Boy, ending after he has united the Mongol empire but before he has conquered the world. It blames everything on the fact that Genghis lost his sled Rosebud (excuse me, his father) when he was a young boy. I hate not to like it because I got to see a preview screening via the Museum of the Moving Image, and the direct Sergei Bodrov was there and did a Q&A afterward, but I don't think it's very good. That being said, give the movie an extra toad if you liked Lawrence of Arabia. This movie is a real wonder to look at, filmed on exotic locations all over the world and picturesque in virtually every frame If you like watching camels ride across the dessert, how can you not like watching horses roam across the steppe? And give the movie another extra toad if you liked the abysmal 300. This movie too has the nicest digital specks of blood flowing during the many battle scenes. If you liked both Lawrence of Arabia and 300, you'd probably love this movie with every fiber of your being.

Why didn't I? Well, it has that generic historical movie music with male chorus. All Mongols look alike (at least a lot of the ones n the movie), so it was hard to tell who was who, and this was exacerbated by the jumps in time which meant you were just getting used to one look of the young Genghis when all of a sudden it was six years later and he looked six years older. It really does seem facile to try and explain away Khan on account of youthful trauma, and having him lose his sled probably would have made just as much sense. And you still can't root for the guy so much. There's also a farcicial romance which we are supposed to find deeply moving even though it mostly consists of very brief visits between captures or campaigns full of sweet words that don't mean much and one silhoutted sex scene that maybe we're supposed to find funny.

This is one of the last releases from Picturehouse, an indie-ish imprint of Time Warner that's just been killed. I will try and remember Picturehouse for the wonderful King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, and not for this.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a good example of one difference between making a movie and writing a book. Books, you want to grab the reader quickly. Sample chapters are read on line, opening pages read in the bookstore, agents like me may read only a few lines or paragraphs before rejecting something. Movies, if you want to have one half of a good movie why not make it the second half so people will leave the theatre with fond memories. Once someone has gone to a theatre, paid to see a movie, sat in a comfy rocking chair, there's a reluctance to walk out, so if you're willing to take your chances that the audience will still be awake, have 'em leave happy.

Crystal Skull is OK in its first half, but comes to life in its second when Karen Allen makes her return to the series. More wit, more fun, more to the relationship between Mutt and Jones. There's a wonderful scene with cars racing along the edge of a cliff that manages, much to my surprise, to work. It's artificial but done just well enough to avoid the sfx overkill that marred the Narnia movie or Peter Jackson's King Kong. In fact, any critic who bemoaned the artificiality of this Indy movie while praising the Jackson Kong should be excluded from the critics circle. It was only in the closing scenes that I felt this movie went a little bit too far in showing off the technology. I'm not quite sure what little Ewoks were doing in this movie, or why they the extended capuchin relatives of the monkey from the first movie? Did Indy get in trouble for passing thru Cuba on his way to Peru? Or was this taking place before the embargo?

I'd like to give special praise to John Williams, and I would urge anyone who sees this movie to stay thru to the last notes at the end of the credits. We're nearing the end of a special time and era of film music that was best practiced by Jerry Goldsmith, who has departed, and John Williams, who is in his 70s and not working so much any more, and occasionally a Randy Newman or other composer. Movies that had instrumental music with powerful themes, hummable melodies, recurring motifs. In the best of these movies, the end credit score was a work of art unto itself, and Williams may be the best practitioner of all times. Yeah, the Williams end credit was and is somewhat of a formula in its place. Usually leading out of some kind of triumphant moment, reprising all the main themes and motifs, a bit of a quiet stretch in the middle with the softer stuff, and then building exuberantly near the end. One of the things I might like most about the Superman score is that it has more of a fade-out in the closing moments, the gorgeous music drifting away in the ear just as the Warner logo appears at the end. It's been almost four years to the day since I last heard a great John Williams finale, over the excellent final credit sequence of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakan, which was one of the final movies to play my beloved Loews Astor Plaza. Just long enough to have forgotten how good John Williams can be. Overall, I don't think this is one of his better scores, but those final five minutes are up there in any and every way. I guess you can experience it on DVD, but you can't experience it on TV any more with the end credits of a movie rushed and crunched and hidden behind ads, and music like this might do well on good home theatre but does way more than that in the large experience digital sound of your local theatre. I don't see anyone coming along who can do what Williams does.

I'd also seen Temple of Doom and Last Crusade at the Astor Plaza. My first experience with Raiders was at the Sack Cinema 57 in Boston. Bottom line on Crystal Skull ils that it's no more or less forgettable than Doom and Crusade were, and thanks to Karen Allen maybe a tad better. Seeing the original Raiders for the first time, which any of us can only do once, will always be the best Indy experience.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Conceptually Speaking

So on Saturday May 31, I finally got to explore the new Borders concept store for myself. The Southbury, CT store had opened for business the week before, but I was unable to go up for the soft opening. I had to settle for going up for the official grand opening weekend festivities, which just isn't the same.

On one level, when you walk in the door it looks a lot like you're walking into a Borders. There's the same sign hanging down from the ceiling to tell you where the mystery/thrillers are, the same red shelf tags at front of store for the new hardcovers, there's a magazine section off to the right, and if you close your eyes and walk straight when you go in the door you'll bump into a table full of new books which the publisher feels are important enough to pay handsomely to put on a table that you'll have an easy time bumping into blindfolded when you walk in the front door.

But this table is round, while the tables at the first 600 Borders to open have all been square. This disappointed me. When you look at the pictures of concept store #1 in the Borders Media Room, you see this nice long curved table, and I was kind of looking forward to that because as I thought on those pictures on the bus ride up to Southbury I did envision being drawn along the curve and into the store. And I was thinking how nice it would be to see curves welcomed back into Border world. The remodels over the past several years had pretty much taken diagonals and curves and weird design stuff out of the Borders repertoire. You couldn't walk into the Borders in Pentagon City VA and just kind of find yourself in the history section because of some weird quirk of how the shelves were set up. Some people found that too confusing and weird and it was all straight lines and rows. Maybe a curved front of store table would bring back some of the serendipity?

Not in Southbury. There was a curved main FOS (front of store) table maybe a tad bigger than the square one, and then a central aisle that was surrounded by two wiggly tables that looked just like what I remember from high school biology my villi are supposed to look like if you really wanted to. New hardcovers on one side, the buy one get on 50% off paperbacks on the other with some other display tables in the middle, but without the drawing power of the curved table in that Media Room picture. The new hardcover table did have Charlaine Harris' FROM DEAD TO WORSE, which was the one JABberwocky title to be FOS.

The magazine section was typical, neither big nor small. No Baseball America, bad but not a surprise. But the literary section had Asimovs and Analog, and Hitchock's and EQMM, and Realms of Fantasy and F&SF, good.

Venturing into the genre fiction section, the mystery section had a full complement of Charlaine Harris. But my heart sank when I got to Simon Green in sf/fantasy. Only 3 copies of his new hardcover, DAEMONS ARE FOREVER. This was a bad thing. making the rounds of Chicagoland Borders in November, I had found store after store in this not-so-good market for sf/fantasy that had only gotten 3 copies of Brandon Sanderson's WELL OF ASCENSION when I had this idea in my head that the minimum order for the FOS placement arrangement was 4. Well, not exactly. You got 3 in the bad sf/fantasy stores, so I took a look at DAEMONS and knew I was in a new store that had been designated as likely to be bad in sf/fantasy. As I wandered about the sf/fantasy section and asked after some of the new or forthcoming JABberwocky books it was a litany of disappointment. No OMEGA SOL by Scott Mackay, no copies expected of RAGAMUFFIN by Tobias Buckell or or the UNDERGROUND hardcover by Kat Richardson. None of Simon Green's Deathstalker books. None of Tanya Huff's Keeper books. Bah, humbug. And in fact, it looks as if the store had sold no more than half a dozen JABberwocky books in its first ten days. The only pleasant surprises were that the store was carrying GOBLIN QUEST and GOBLIN HERO by Jim HInes, but not the new book GOBLIN WAR, and VAMPIRE TRANSGRESSION and BODY AND BLOOD by Michael Schiefelbein. But by and large many disappointments for each pleasant surprise, and unless the store develops much more of an sf/fantasy following than the research (including sales at the Waldenbooks that had been in the same mall and still loomed spectrally but vacantly across the parking lot) suggests, this store will not be putting bread on the JABberwocky table. All told, around 86 JABberwocky titles on the shelf, which isn't bad but ain't great, had been around 100 at the Warrington, PA store I'd visited on day #2 in November. One book that had sold, WELL OF ASCENSION by Brandon Sanderson, a title or two that hadn't arrived yet, and several books that had been marked for a delete between being ordered for the store and the store actually opening which will disappear when the store settles down and the employees focus on the returns list instead of the grand opening.

But enough about me.

The store is attractive. Functional shelving, but with a nice wood veneer at the end caps and on the uprights. A decent balance between attractive and cheap. The sections that were intended to be destinations within the store all looked pretty solid. The graphic novel and manga section did look really nice, with plentiful shelving and spaces where it was possible to mix media, so that you might have for some series a video or a doll (excuse me, action figure, or collectible character artwork, or whatever we're supposed to call them because grown men don't play with dolls) available near the books. There were lots and lots of Borders Search stations, which will be doubly functional when they integrate the new Borders website with the in-store terminals. In the health section, you had special wellness stations with videos and whatnot. The children's section was big and spacious with lots of stroller parking and lots of space for budding toddlers to build up a head of steam so they can crash into the shelves, fall down and start crying about their booboo. It's actually bigger than it seems in proportion to the store because the intermediate reader section is now outside of the children's section, so it's kind of the same size as an older store with the IR in the kids area except all that space is now for the younger kid books.

There's one truly major change that I didn't even realize until I stumbled across two new mass market stand-up racks in the aisle by the manga and between the sf and romance. This is the first Borders I've been to in 184 stores over 26 years that doesn't have a new mass market table FOS. The 96-title mass market table with tree in the middle is not to be found in the new concept store. You've got these two stands, 72 titles total (18 on each side of the two stands) lingering in the genre section.

It was kind of hard to notice the fewer-title more face-out policy in the genre fiction section, in part because a new store tends to be ordered pretty close to shelf capacity. It's more evident at the moment in the Park Ave. store in Manhattan that has face-outs all over the sf/fantasy section, and we'll see if that's still the case as the inventory builds ahead of the holiday season later in the year. And hard to judge in a bad-in-genre store where it's more difficult to decide what's missing on account of the store vs. what's missing on account of the philosophy.

I'd gotten a sneak preview of the new digital offerings when Brandon Sanderson and I stumbled across a test store in Monroeville, PA in December, very late at night right before closing at a time when the store would otherwise have been closed if not for the extended pre-holiday hours. Here, it's totally integrated, full of customers, full of helpful-looking young men seemingly very eager to help the customers burn their own CDs. In fact, my older brother burned one for himself while I was doing my exploration. (In fact, my older brother thought the idea of the concept store was dummying down when I told him what was in store for his new local Borders several months ago, but has seemingly grown fond of the place in its first ten days of actuality).) It's a nice selection of offerings otherwise, Sony Reader. Solar Charger. MP3 player. Self publication by Lulu. Make your own photo album. Research your ancestry. Some of it makes a lot of sense. The much-reduced music section has shelf talkers to direct people to the tracks after tracks available to do it yourself. Which may along with the lulu kits foretell the days when a Borders does actively sell e-books as a go-along with an abridged print selection. I'm not sure how the photo album or the ancestry fits in, but as it's all put together in the digital circle it does seem to work as a whole.

The store was bustling with people on a Saturday afternoon on Grand Opening weekend and doing business by the bushel. WIll it be doing that in a month? You never quite know how the grand opening crowds will settle.

But all in all, I'll vote aye. It would be interesting if Borders could get its supply chain running a bit tighter, because for better or worse they are experimenting while B&N sticks to the knitting of printed books. Which may not be a great idea. The future is changing now before my eyes. I have a Kindle. A guy on the Amtrak train to Philly has a Sony Reader. Penguin reports selling more e-books YTD in 2008 than in all of 2007. I've recommended to a client not to do a book deal with a 5% e-book royalty when I'm used to seeing 15% because I don't think it's a good idea to take too much of a discount on the e-book sales. No, I don't think the book industry is going to go the way of the music industry, but it's heading somewhere new now, finally, ten or twelve years after the e-book revolution was first predicted.

Three cheers to the sort team. I think every JABberwocky book was in its right place. Its very rare for me to go to a new Borders and not find at least one title in the wrong section. In fact, I noticed while casing out the sf only one non-sf books that jumped out as having been mis-sorted. My brother found a sports/reference book in the racquet sports section. The staff seemed friendly.

The store has an actual "coffee table books" section, which is not usual to my recollection.

The person next to me on the bus ride up was reading an Ian Douglas novel from Eos. When he got off the bus at Danbury, I gave him a business card with the suggestion written down that he try the Lost Fleet books.

This was my 184th Borders visited. How will I get to 200 before the end of the year? I had to skip BEA where I might have caught up on a couple, El Segundo and Century City certainly, which I missed on my last LA trip, or some of the stores near Costa Mesa. How many can I get to in Denver? I think the Tigard store in OR relocated, but will somebody at Willamette Writers get me there? Is there someone in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area who would love to spend a day driving a literary agent to bookstores? I could pick up a lot there since I've never been to any in the area. Michigan? I've only visited stores in the Ann Arbor area and the Detroit suburbs have lots to choose from? Maybe George L. Jones can take me around when I've gotten to 195 or so, we can close the day at the Lohr Road new concept store for #200, and then have cake at HQ. I'd hoped to have made more progress toward the 200 mark than I have so far this year.