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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.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

funny book roundup

It seemed possible with issue #703 that the J Michael Straczynski run of Superman might be getting interesting. No such luck. After a good single issue fill-in the story goes nowhere in #705. The thread of provocative thought -- that the populace is at risk when Superman decides to slum with the people because the villains will be where Superman is -- from the prior issue is picked up and dropped so that Superman can intervene to save a kid and his mother with an abusive father. Serious issue, yes, but should Superman #705 be the place for it?  It is also completely at odds with the theme introduced in the prior issue. It is sloppy. Look at the final four panels and you can't see how/when Superman gets from inside to outside or who the final lines of the issue are being addressed to. 

Red Hood doesn't have the aspirations of the Superman run, but it does a good job of being what it is, and the final issue of the six issue miniseries was perfectly and pleasantly in line with the first five. 

I started back in on Brightest Day because Firestorm was taking a major role in the series. Alas, there is no Firestorm in #13 and #14. The first of the two had a Hawkman story that I couldn't understand. The second of the two had a Deadman story that was rather better and might have worked for somebody with no previous familiarity with the character at all. Should I buy a next issue without a Firestorm in it?

The DC Universe Legacies series, which is providing an overview of DC history, moves into the mid and late 1980s with a Crisis aftermath issue with some nice art by Ordway and Perez and an OK but unmemorable script by Len Wein in issue #6 and then a better script with better material, the Bane and Doomsday eras in Batman and Superman, with the usual soloed art for the series here by Jurgens and Ordway. All of which serves to remind that there is no point getting too attached to Brightest Day. The Bane and Doomsday stories led to the respective apparent deaths of two of DC's major heroes with all sorts of ramifications and absence explorations and grand returns and blah blah blah -- does any of this sound familiar -- and here we are 25 years later and really how much has changed. Maybe Bruce Wayne really won't be Batman in ten years, more changes have stuck with deaths and changes in Robin and other side characters in the Batman saga than in the Superman line.  But when all is said and done even the really truly dead like Barry Allen Flash in Crisis, have this tendency not to stay dead.  We know what Barnum said, and I reckon the business will never be without these shocking worlds-will-change and people-will-die promotable crossover events.  But Legacies makes me realize why I would rather see the business return to a focus on good characters and good stories and good art month in and out. But I am an old and jaded fogey and the business isn't so much about me

Links, no sausage

Updated twice, final 4:07 EST.

The New York Times Week in Review section reprinted this Pat Bagley cartoon from the Salt Lake Tribune, which is one of the few comparisons in the TSA debate that I don't find utterly false. In fact, I find it rather funny.

In the midst of all of its columnists telling us to take our pats and shut up, their Sunday Outlook section has a column by Jeffrey Rosen that dares to flat-out call the current regime unconstitutional. And Rosen is not a hypocritical Republican, he's not some immature person for Ruth Marcus to yell at, he's a long-time legal affairs writer, a professor at George Washington School of Law, legal affairs editor for The New Republic, often published in the Times as well, check out his GW bio here.

Click here to find the 2nd quarter earnings release from Barnes & Noble. Same store sales were down a relatively modest 3.3%, loss was $12.6M, with the expectation that the lion and lamb will lie next to one another and sing songs together and join a book group together and make a perfect world as the company starts to realize sales first of the Nook Color itself and then from all of the ebooks that people will buy for their Nook Color. As initial evidence that this will indeed come to pass, they say after-quarter-end sales for the Fri/Sat/Sun after Thanksgiving doubled at and increased by an impressive 17.2% at stores.

Two articles I really enjoyed in the weekend newspapers.

The first is an article from the Sunday NY Times Business section about an etailer who thinks the more you can get your customers to complain about you, the more you can attract the love of the Google search algorithms.

And the second is from the A section of Sunday's Washington Post, which describes the efforts made to treat patients wounded in Afghanistan as they are moved from the front to Germany.

And also in the Sunday Times, Ariel Kaminer subjected herself to multiple patdowns over the course of her day. Her conclusion: "It’s amazing how quickly the pat-down evolves from shocking indignity to banal hassle, just like padding around barefoot while your pants fall down and your toothpaste tube gets the third degree, something airline travelers have been experiencing for years now. The inconvenience is worth it, of course, if it works — if it uncovers potential dangers before they board a plane. That’s what a spokesman for the T.S.A. informed me, afterward, the officers’ job was: to assess whether I posed a threat to aviation. He would not comment on whether that should have included checking out the objects hidden in my pocket. All I know is I went through the line eight times, and not a single inspector noticed them."

And last but certainly not least, The Washington Post has an ode to The Settlers of Catan, which is one of those board games I really would like to have somebody to play with someday. Boskone? Next Balticon??

Monday, November 29, 2010

fall funny book firsts

On Thanksgiving weekend I gave thanks for the excellent first issue of the new Superboy ongoing series by Jeff Lemire and Pier Gallo. Lemire first came on to my radar with his recent work on Atom in both a special and an Action Comics backup feature.  There is much to like here. Some sentiment in the whole small town Smallville thing, a kid wearing a cape with dreams of flight, the Ma Kent thing.  But for modern times; when Phantom Stranger comes on the scene,Superboy treats him the way a good adolescent should treat Phantom Stranger. Something for the traditionalists with a classic Superman villain, Parasite, providing the fireworks. Good pacing. Quiet in parts, but when Conner Kent finds out someone knows his secret identity hardly a moment to enjoy before the battle with Parasite is underway. Krypton is well used and that ain't easy. The fight involves both brains and brawn. Not sure I like the idea of bringing Poison Ivy in, but since we seem in very good hands I will trust in where Lemire will be taking us.  And the art by Pier Gallo is awfully good. Not in the least flashy. But when we are having a quiet moment on the streets of Smallville I want to linger and look at Gallo's streetscape. When we are in a fight scene, the art is helping me to progress smoothly.  I hope there is a market for quietly excellent work such as this.

Essentially a first issue as it introduces a new team and newish era I  decided to give Teen Titans #88 a try, since I haven't read an issue in a while and have fond memories of the series from thirty years ago. I will keep going with it, certainly good enough for that.  JT Krul's script does a good job of introducing the cast and setting the team up, and there's a small-scale menace introduced. The art is OK. Nothing really great here, but solid all the way around. But with anything like this at DC -- especially for something like this that is solid but without much of a margin, I am never sure it will last long before being taken into some mega-event or other form of overcomplication that I won't want to get involved with and which will send me fleeing for the hills in short order.

Another actual first issue is Thunder Agents #1.  Which I doubt will have me back for more. There's this complicated intelligence operation that the characters in the comic have trouble understanding, let alone me. The lead characters to judge from the first issue are the sales people who sell people on the idea of taking superpowers that will end up killing them.   Do we meet any of those actual heroes?  Points for trying something different, bit the Trevor von Eeden series Thriller from many years ago ("has seven seconds to save the world" tag line in ads we found out meant seconds as in the seconds who help you in a duel instead of the implied meaning of unit of time) reminds us that it isn't always wise. The art?  Well, it illustrates the script very well but certainly doesn't provide clarity with the pictures beyond the purposely little in the script.  Nick Spencer wrote, Cafu and Bit provided the pencils and inks.

my favorite rant, for after the holidays

My client Jim C. Hines has a new post on TSA policies and procedures here

which I highly recommend.

It has links to an ACLU petition, to the e-mail address to contact the TSA with your thoughts, links to a round-up of approving "shut up and take your body scan" editorials, and much, much more.

I'm getting more involved with this than with just about anything else. I've dashed off letters to the NY Times, which suggested in an editorial last week that profiling was a civil liberties issue that was to be avoided by subjecting all of us to full body screening. Um, isn't that a civil liberties issue as well? I've been very clear that I don't consider profiling to be a solution because terrorists are adaptive. Please see the film The Battle for Algiers, if you want to advocate profiling.

I've dashed off an e-mail to Ruth Marcus, who suggested in a Washington Post op-ed column that it was immature of people to not just happily get patted down. I pointed out one clear factual error, that she seems to think if you agree to the full-body scanner you can't also get a patdown, while in fact the TSA can still select you randomly or on account of an anomaly. More important, I thought I was immature when I was two years old or six years old and had to do things my parents wanted to "because I said so." I think there's nothing at all immature about saying that the 4th amendment entitles us to be secure both in our homes and against unreasonable search and seizure.

And an e-mail to Dana Milbank at the Post, who suggests that Republicans are now making noises about TSA procedures out of the same general obstructionism that motives their anti-START message. I usually like Republicans much less than Dana Milbank, but not here. Libertarianism has deep roots in the Republican party. Full body scans of everyone buying an airplane ticket are not so deeply rooted in American history, while Republican presidents and cabinet secretaries have supported treaties with Russia for several decades.

I find myself contemplating civil disobedience more strongly than ever before in my life.

I lived through 9/11. I woke up on the morning of 9/11 with plans to cut out of work maybe an hour early and stroll down over the Williamsburg Bridge to visit the Borders at the World Trade Center. I am more frightened by what the government and private sector ask me to do now, on a day-in day-out basis to protect my security, than I was taking the subway back on the 12th from a memorial service at my synagogue. I was antsy, I'm human after all. I was antsy for three or four weeks to the point where the puckish side of my sense of humor was nowhere to be found. But now I get to spend the rest of my life being antsy about patdowns at the airport, patdowns at the ballgame, Rudin Management scanning my drivers license entering an office building (what is a real estate company doing with thousands of scanned photo IDs?).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Bongo Hits (and misses)

Comic Book Guy seemed to be a miniseries with great promise, and the first issue with it's multitude of covers and the story inside kind of lived up to it.  But things faded fast. The 4th of 5 issues wasn't funny, wasn't understandable, whatever it was supposed to spoof was hard to find.  At least with the fifth issue things rebounded some. The grand reveal didn't make any sense but it wasn't supposed to, and I had a smile on my face while reading it instead of a look of utter mystification.  Bongo does better with Futurama #51, which is a typically amusing issue that takes us from the Donner party to Vegemite in entertaining fashion. 

Bongo is much more successful with the delightful laugh-filled joyful holiday romp in issue #172. The script is from a not-obvious source, the longtime writer Mike W Barr, whom I associate with various DC heroes over the years or with his own Maze Agency "fair play" mystery comics. This issue of The Simpsons so thoroughly captures the tone and humor of the best episodes of the TV show that I think he should be writing for it. From a Krusty Kuisine TV dinner with a "treif magnifique" on the box to the true meaning of Xmas Comics or the disease named XMAAS, from Rush Limbaugh to a threat like "you will sing like the cast of a Bollywood musical ... unless you wish to sample the joys of cheese ichor" this is a gleeful issue.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

movies down under

I saw five movies while I was in Australia in September.

Four Lions is a British black satire about Islamic terrorism, very droll and very sardonic, in the tradition of but much better than last year's In the Loop.  I saw this at a classic art multiplex, four small sloped floor screens at the Palace Kino on the eastern edge of Collins St. in downtown Melbourne, and in that bad time during the mid-afternoon when the body can want to be in siesta mode. I wasn't able to resist the siren call of the siesta but liked what I did see enough to wish I had been awake for more of it, yet not so much that I wanted to see again when it opened in New York in November. In part because I could see the same thing happening again.  It's just awfully hard to make droll work for ninety minutes. And can you really stretch a joke about inept terrorists for this long. And it is one joke, slowly building to a planned suicide bomb attack on a London marathon by men dressed in animal suits. Which, if you think sounds at all funny,might be occasion enough to rent.

The next evening I went to the Greater Union Russell Street 6 to see Going the Distance.  Appealing cast but mediocre movie, hardly worth talking about. The theatre is quite nice, a teardown and rebuild where even the small screens are nice and two larger screens very nice indeed, and very creative in it's use of space. That there is such a huge screen hiding above the lobby and another one in the basement.  However, on the night I was there, there was no sound out of the left surround speakers and sitting on the left side of the theater this was very distracting.

But there are few theaters of any sort to compare to the Astor, where I saw Grindhouse the next night. This is a beautiful huge old theatre about to celebrate it's 75th birthday. With a massive screen.  A lobby with three different lounge areas.  A major league balcony. A modern and powerful sound system. And different movies six nights a week, sometimes even a double feature. And with the original coming attractions for some of the forthcoming films. . My one night to go they were showing Grindhouse in the roadshow version with both parts and an intermission.  The movie isn't very good, and I stayed for only the first of the two parts, but even if I didn't like the movie much I loved the experience of seeing it.  Words can't describe the size of the screen. If you are in Melbourne, I suggest this as a must see. Look at the schedule for any week, and it's reason enough to move to Melbourne.  

In Adelaide, I visited the Greater Union Arndale for Despicable Me and had another negative experience with them. Huge single line for both tickets and concessions, and two people plus manager chipping in to handle all the ticket sales and all the concessions. So even though we got to the theatre with a few minutes to spare we barely made it to our movie before the trailers ended.  But it was another nice theatre, modern stadium seating with even the smallest auditoriums having nice sized screens. The movie was good. It had a little more heart and a little less wisecrackery than a lot of other current animated movies. We saw it in 3D and that was a waste. The movie would have been just as good in 2D. 

The final movie was something called Boy that I saw at the Hoyts Paris in the Entertainment Quarter. This is an area southeast of downtown Sydney adjacent to the Fox studios that has a huge Hoyts multiplex with the smaller Paris around the quarter for art films, and then an assortment of uninteresting eateries. It was pretty close to dead on a Wednesday evening. And the movie was a plotless bore that I happily slept through.     

Thursday, November 25, 2010

the retail scene

Family business often brings me to the Hartford area, where the bookstores are longtime friends of a sort. 

First and foremost is the Borders in Farmington, store #55. Got to see it from when it was a construction site, when it was exciting to have a Borders move in during the dawn of the superstore era. It was the first of it's kind in the area, and it still does a decent business. And had a very decent selection of close to 90 non-Charlaine JABberwocky titles on the shelf. Like many Borders, not the business it did ten years ago. And like the Westwood store, which is of similar vintage, the box is too big. Back where the music used to be in the car rear corner, they have couches and chairs set up. But the space overhang isn't as bad as Westwood, the rent no doubt cheaper. I still like this store very much since it is big, full of endcaps and displays, lots and lots of books.  First in the wild sighting of Horns of Ruin by Tim Akers. 

Across the street, literally across the street, is a Barnes and Noble. It always seems dead. No customers. It had just over half the titles of the Borders, and some of those because they haven't sold in years but they're selling down to zero instead of returning to zero, so they just sit and sit and sit.  I cannot understand how this store stays in business. 

Just down the street is the Westfarms mall. In the days when malls had bookstores this had at least two, I a B Dalton and a Waldenbooks.  And the Corbins Corner strip mall across the street also had a Waldenbooks  And then several years ago and even a few years after the Corbins Corner store closed, Borders put a Walden/Borders Express back into the mall. It never seems to have any customers in it but must make some money because it still exists when 80-90% of the mall stores known to exist in the US have closed. Earlier in the year Borders put the mall stores on the same inventory system as the superstores, so now the books have inventory stickers which I can read. But how does the store make money?  Really cheap rent?? The landlord supports as a public service because rich people in West Hartford want a bookstore in their mall?

Once upon a time the Bishops Corner area of West Hartford on the other side of town had one of the earliest Barnes and Noble superstores, but that was one of the mistake stores from when they didn't know superstores had to be larger and more atmospheric than being larger versions of small bookstores. It closed years ago. And then BN decided to put a store in a new downtown shopping destination called Blue Back Square.  This is like many bookstores in rich suburban areas and doesn't sell much sf/ fantasy and also had around 50 non-Charlaine JABberwocky titles.  First in the wild sighting of Alcatraz vs the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson.  Downtown West Hartford has a small indie I don't even bother visiting since it has a very small sf/fantasy section that isn't well curated.

On the other side of Hartford in Manchester the Buckland Hills mall approach has a Borders, #60, from about the same era as Farmington. Both part of the KMart triplets era, Farmington still with a Sports Authority in same shopping center, Manchester with an Office Max next door that is now an Office Depot and a Sports Authority around the bend.  Atop the hill in the mall proper there used to be a Waldenbooks that doldrums lots of books from a very small space, until the mall gave a secondary anchor spot to Barnes and Noble.

That B&N is now one of five test stores for an educational games section that has taken over the music and movies area. All the Lego you could want, lots and lots of Lego.  It looks nice, I would even go to B&N over a Toys R Us to buy Duplos. It can't do worse than the shrinking music and movies section. Since these items are bigger than shiny disks the section doesn't need a separate security system and register and dedicated employee to keep shrink to a reasonable level, which could save upwards of $3M in personnel costs over the course of a year. It is more open to the rest of the store. Would maybe like e section even more if I were part of the target audience for educational games.  

The Borders always seemed dimly lit to me, and over the years started to look dingy. It was very late to being renovated three or four years ago, maybe they had a fifteen year lease from 1992 or 1993 and held off pending a renewal?  Add to that the overall woes at Borders and it is no surprise that business has slowed. It has gone from being a quietly respectably strong store to being more 40th percentile, if I had to guess. But to judge from the amount of the science fiction section in upstock (I climbed the ladder hoping nobody would notice to bring down 2 Trading in Danger, 3 Way of Kings, a Warded Man, a Poltergeist and a Moon Flights), this is one of the stronger sections for the store. Also, the store was always smaller and has a mid-range music and movies selection, so it doesn't have the empty space issues of Westwood or Farmington and other larger Borders boxes of this era.  Bottom line is that the Borders still has a larger selection of JABberwocky titles, around 80 vs 70, but the BN is new and shiny. But at least the Borders seems to have settled into a stable if smaller business, even if not the business of 10 years ago.  

Borders has been trying very hard to have a good holiday season. In stock guarantee, price guarantee, returns thru January 30. Lots of couponing including a Black Friday insert in 28 markets. Years past they had lists of books, DVDs and CDs at huge discount prices, this year you could an item of your choice at 50% off. Which is crazy, selling an item below cost, but at the same time less crazy than allowing people to buy 8 items at below cost and nonetheless more alluring because you get to choose. 

The list of Borders stores closing in coming days also includes downtown Portland OR (#65), Farmington Hills MI (#77) and Chestnut Hill MA (#17).

Portland was a major flagship downtown location which always struck me even several years ago as having not quite flagship sales, and I am sure was at the end of its lease and not worth renewing.  There is a wonderful Borders in Gresham in the Portland suburbs that did more business with I am sure less rent.  The flagship Powells is .6 miles from the Borders. Should downtown Portland have only one bookstore or is there an opportunity for Powells to open a satellite in another part of downtown or for another bookstore with a lower rent to make a go of it?

Chestnut Hill was one of the oldest Borders stores, maybe at one time a books only location that expanded into a neighboring space to add a music section. Like West Hartford in a rich suburban area that was absolutely a dead zone for sf/fantasy, an absolute absolute dead zone, and I am not sure how well it did in other areas. It is in a very tony mall. I have a feeling it had a decent rent from when it was first leased in the early 1990s and maybe not so decent a rent to renew in this upscale rich suburban mall.  So it will close. I kind of liked it once upon a time because Borders #17 did have a certain character to it, but over the years Borders spent lots of money to remodel the character out, Cheesecake Factory opened in downtown Boston, and not worth the schlep to travel out to a store that didn't sell any sf/fantasy. There is a BN down the street that also doesn't do much business in sf/f, so the people of Chestnut Hill will not starve for books.              

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

other holiday movies

Also playing for Thanksgiving, three films inspired at some or another level by real life...

127 Hours is a specialty release that's been slowly broadening and will be in a screen or two in most major cities for the holidays. It's another book-to-film, this one based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston. Ralston is a hiker who was forced to cut off his own arm to escape when a boulder trapped him inside a Utah canyon, and this real life story has been adapted by Danny Boyle, the director of Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire and many other movies including Trainspotting, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, The Beach, etc. And Boyle throws his all into making an energetic lively adaptation of the story. The movie starts out with a rush of energy, from the photography and editing and lighting and the music by A. R. Rahman, who also did the fantastic score and songs for Slumdog. There's just one problem. Once Ralston is stuck in the canyon unable to move, there's not much you can do to move the movie along, either. Flashbacks, visions, dream sequences, fancy editing, nifty dissolves. Boyle does all he can. But he can't overcome the fact that this just isn't a good thing to try and turn into a movie, and I got very sleepy-eyed as it progressed. Lots of good reviews for this one, but I can't recommend it.

Unstoppable, I can recommend wholeheartedly. That's gotten surprisingly good reviews, and it's because the movie is surprisingly good. With director Tony Scott, you never know what you're getting. I'd like to see True Romance again very very very much. Top Gun is a delightful guilty pleasure. Taking of Pelham remake was awful, Man on Fire was a wonderfully reprehensible movie. Here he's showing his A game, and as several times before has the inevitably wonderful Denzel Washington at his service, side-by-side with Chris Pine who put himself on my radar quite nicely playing Kirk in the Star Trek reboot. I didn't like Pine as much here, he seemed a little too dialed back and his face too hidden behind stubble, but Denzel was good as pretty much always, and nice supporting work especially by Rosario Dawson. She plays a chief dispatcher for the railroad that employs Denzel and Chris. The movie's about this big giant huge train that leaves the yard without an engineer and promises to go over on a big curve in a heavily populated city with tens of thousands of lives at risk. I can find fault with the cliches that the script trots out, which grow kind of tiresome. But as train rides go, this one can't be topped. When the serious fun begins with Denzel and Chris trying to back up to the speeding train, hook on, and slow it down with the clock ticking big-time, it's just one big non-stop sit-back don't-breath, enjoy-the-ride thrillfest in every best and good sense of what that means. Tony Scott's flair for the dramatic and the lively here fits his story quite well. It's hard to imagine a train set being as much macho fun as moving all those jet planes in Top Gun, but guess what it is. Just a lot of fun, once it gets going. There was an actual rogue train several years ago, but the movie doesn't resemble in anything other than a vague way.

Then there's Fair Game, which I was thrilled to see at the wonderful single screen AMC Loews Uptown on my last trip to DC. This is a cerebral version of Unstoppable. It's a movie about the case of Valerie Plame, whose cover as a CIA agent was blown by the Bush administration in a fit of pique when her husband cast doubt on claims being made by the administration about Saddam's WMD in Iraq. Doug Liman (first Bourne movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) directs, with Naomi Watts playing Plame and Sean Penn her husband. The experience of watching this is a lot like that of Unstoppable, with an OK first half followed by a much better second half. But it also means that the movie is better as a domestic drama depicting the aftermath of Plame's outing on the couple's marriage, than as political drama. I saw some of myself in Joe Wilson, as he stubbornly or heroically or tragically holds to his belief that he was right to speak truth to power even as it causes his marriage to crumble because the biggest collateral damage is to his own wife. Penn and Watts are both fantastic in their roles. But taken on their own terms, I would say Unstoppable is the better movie. The biggest problem I had with Fair Game was that iti isn't content to be about the Plames and diverts to show us the aftermath in Iraq of having her network rolled up when her cover is. Better to have kept the focus on him and her, because I didn't care about the Iraqi scientists in the context of this story. A movie that wants to be about politics ends up succeeding as something else. Unstoppable wants tomb what it succeeds at being. Fair Gane is worthier of being seen; I can recommend. But I can recommend Unstoppable more, um, unstoppably.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Takers on The Town

New York City might be one of the best cities in the world, but not on account of its movie theatres. So when I stopped over in LA on the way to Australia, I was happy to find time to see Takers at the Regency Bruin Theatre in Westwood Village. The Bruin was built in 1937, and it's distinctive outside but not so much so currently on the interior, where I'm told there were interior murals that have been painted over in the 700 seat auditorium, which is very similar in dimension to the front section of the Ziegfeld in New York. Not the nicest single screen theatre, but nice enough. If I want great in Westwood, clearly I'll need to get to the Village theatre that's across the street from the Bruin, and which goes twice as many paces across the back screen end of the theatre, bigger even I think than the main screen of the RKO Stanley Warner Rt 4 Paramus Quad. Cinema Treasures stats say The Village seats twice as many people as The Bruin.

In any event, of the 700 seats in the Bruin for my showing of Takers, there were 3 that were occupied. One had me in it, and my backpack was draped over two more. Yes, it was a private screening, exclusive, all for me, my very special individualized moment to see Takers. I sure hope they do better business on the weekends than on a Monday afternoon.

I'd love to find out just how Takers got the green light, because the script's a mess. The movie that results is way less of a mess than the script. The cast is nice to watch, Matt Dillon playing the adult with a bunch of younger actors like Paul Walker (Fast & Furious) and Gaius Charles (Friday Night Lights) and Jay Hernandez (Crazy Beautiful, The Rookie), Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker, Shattered Glass) who are at least solid more often than not and always pleasant to look at. There are some great action sequences directed with verve, energy and most especially clarity by John Luessenhop. There's a great extended chase scene in downtown LA that takes us in and out of buildings and up and down and all around and just fantastic filmmaking, with the one caveat that maybe if I knew LA I'd realize the geography of it was ludicrous. Or maybe not, maybe it's not only energetic and full of verve and geographically nailed to a "t." But the action sequence starts with an attempted heist that doesn't make any sense, it's just way too complicated and not in the acceptably fun way that the opening heist is. I can't figure out who I'm supposed to root for. It's like the odd-numbered reels are from a movie where we root for one or another of the bad guys as an anti-hero lead, the even-numbered leads where we root for Matt Dillon as a straight on good guy, the prime-numbeer reels where Matt Dillon's partner is a conflicted cop whom we're still supposed to love. Nor does it help that I can't see much of a difference between a Paul Walker and a Hayden Christensen, so I wasn't always entirely sure which gang member was which. It's very difficult to make a good movie from a bad script, and Takers isn't. But I could definitely recommend giving it a rent when it comes out on video in January. If you think it's the kind of movie you might like, there's a good chance you'll get reasonable enjoyment out of it. And it's January, usually not many good movies opening in theatres then so what a perfect time to enjoy an energetic if imperfect movie with at least one extended action scene that will probably become a film course staple in five or fifteen years.

I did not have a private screening for the somewhat better The Town, which I enjoyed at the AMC Loews 34th St. here in New York City. Script-wise, The Town certainly has its good guys and bad guys down. It's an anti-hero movie, so the good guy's a bad guy. And the bad guy's the cop, but a good cop who's a bad guy just because he wants to get at our anti-hero. The Town borrows from a better class of movie cliches. Plenty of movies about cops and robbers and anti-hero Boston good guys have been made, and the strange thing is how many of them are actually kind of good. The Town appeals to more of what the Hollywood marketing types call "quadrants," meaning here that there's a juicy enough role for Rebecca Hall as the love interest that the movie can attract women and men. I don't think Takers is much of a chick flick at all. The Town has a much better cast. Ben Affleck vs. Matt Dillon isn't David vs. Goliath, but when you get below that... The Town has Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite, both character actors of real distinction, filling in important roles in the supporting cast. Jeremy Renner, an Oscar nominee for Hurt Locker, is on board. puts the budgets at 37M vs. 20M, so there's more money to give more sheen and luster to all of it. With this and Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck is showing some genuine directing chops. And after a few years wandering the acting desert making some bad choices to do things like Daredevil, he's starting to find his groove again picking good roles that are well-suited to his talents. And to look at the differences another way that ends up similarly, there's that big extended wonderful LA chase scene in Takers that's all about the adrenaline rush and the action, while the similar good extended scene in The Town is for a heist scene at Fenway Park that has antecedents going back to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and almost certainly further back than that.

Probably safe to say both these movies did a little better than expectations at the box office, and both ending up with domestic box office proportionate to the budgets, so everyone can be happy in relative terms. Both movies deliver reasonably well for their target audiences.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Love & Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs is a definite cut above most of the other dreary formulaic romantic comedies that have graced our screens in recent years. This one is striving to attain Jerry Maguire territory instead of Wedding Planner territory. If it doesn't ultimately achieve Jerry Maguire, it still has considerable virtues on display.

Let us start in the virtue department with the acting. I have always liked Jake Gyllenhal, but the opening scene here is revelatory because he looks for the first time like an actual adult in an adult role. This transition isn't an inevitable one; McCauley Culkin anyone? And there is energy and brio to the performance as well, vs the hangdog Donnie Darko thing he often defaults to. He is actually a leading man, and if he can hold on to that moving forward Incan anticipate some nice nights at the movies. His love interest is played by Anne Hathaway, and she too is making a nice transition which we have steadily seen in the years since Princess Diaries. However she may be topping out as this decade's Andie McDowell. Amy Adams may be higher ceiling.

However... the film started out as an adaptation of a memoir, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Riedy. And then they took that story and pretty much grafted on the entire romance angle. And the two stories don't have much to do with one another. The film Jamie Riedy could be in any occupation and still have the romance with the Anne Hathaway character. In Jerry Maguire, Jerry is an imperfect vessel for his ideas about sports representation, but at the heart of the movie he ends up almost by default living the "fewer clients" mantra that gets him fired. His relationship with Dorothy is driven by what's happening in his business life. He grows in multiple ways. In Love & Other Drugs, Jamie ends up in a different place at the end than at the beginning, but not in any integral way, or at least in an integral way that goes beyond the amount of change necessary to get the girl and have a happy ending. And I believed he wanted the girl, but didn't believe the career choice that he makes.

But ya know, all that being said if I held every movie up to the standard of whether or not it was another Jerry Maguire, there wouldn't be many movies worth liking.

So that aside, let's focus on the fact that we have two really good lead performances. We have some nice supporting work by Oliver Platt as Jamie's mentor on the Pfizer job (I wasn't thrilled with the quality of the casting up and down the list, though). We have a reasonably truthful look at what the drug sales business is about. We have a reasonably truthful look at what it's like to deal with Parkinson's. Anne Hathaway's dealing with it is a little more cutting to the core than let's say Susan Sarandon coughing and glowing in Stepmom, and there's a very good scene and some very harsh real-world advice given Jamie during set at an alternate convention for Parkinson's sufferers across the street from a drug sales megablast convention.

No, Love & Other Drugs doesn't live up to the depths of its aspirations. However, if every romantic comedy was as good as this one, I'd certainly go see a lot more of them, and two-thirds of the other movies playing at the multiplex this holiday weekend will likely be worse.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harry Potter 6.5. or 7.3?

The Harry Potter movies are on the one hand much better than perhaps they need to be, and yet at the same time never particularly good, either.

The essential problem I have with all of them is that they've rarely wanted to try making them into good films that would actually stand as good films apart from the experience of the books. The first film in the series had absolutely no dramatic life to it apart from the memories of the books that walked into movie theatres with the paying customers. The second film was better, it had some interior life to it apart from the book. The third film was and to my eyes probably always will be the best of the series. It's the only one I happily saw twice, and I'd happily go and see it again tomorrow. And since then...

OK, you can't say that Warner Bros. has ever shorted a Harry Potter movie by a single nail on the set. That's what I mean when I say that the movies are much better than perhaps they need to be, because I'm sure they could give a reasonably good Harry Potter The Movie Experience kind of experience for 80% of what they're actually spending to do it, and people might notice a little but not so much they'd complain. There isn't a scene in the first part of Deathly Hallows that doesn't radiate love and attention and money and care and beauty and splendor. The forest looks spectacular. The village where Harry's parents died, looks spectacular. As always within the series there isn't a role that's been cast with anyone else than the best actor who could possibly have filled. Tom Felton hasn't aged into the (now admittedly abbreviated) role of Draco Malfoy as well as the three leads, but considering the challenges of knowing how an actor will age it's a prodigal achievement that Harry, Ron and Hermione are all played by people who've doubled in age quite beautifully over the course of the series. And you know they've got to pay well or have really good catering on set or something because nobody's ever decided it would make sense to not show up for the 6th movie, eight years later. The photography, the sets, the music, the everything, it's absolutely splendid. The animation sequence for the Deathly Hallows story could have been done 27 ways, and the way they choose is quite gorgeous. You look at the design of Dumbledore's grave, and again there are 39 ways it could look, and the one way it does look in the movie is just a thing to behold.

And of course there are wonderful scenes that take place on these wonderful beautifully appointed sets filled with fabulous actors. The scene in the village where Harry's parents died. The scene of Harry and Hermione dancing (lifted directly from when Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis dance in Witness, but still nice).

So let's just say if you walked in off the street having never read a Harry Potter novel, you'd probably say you got your money's worth. In this movie, a little more so on account of the set design than maybe the 2nd, but a lot less because we don't get to see as much of the excellent supporting cast of actors as when Snape and Dumbledore could go at it in the early days of the series.

But at the same time, if you haven't read the books, the movies have no heft or power at all. This movie has nice scenes, but as with all of the movies you sit in the theatre waiting for your favorite scene to come beautifully but also dutifully to life, but that's it. It's not so much like going to a movie as it is going to mass in a really nice cathedral.

And in the process of choosing to curate the books instead of making movies, they've managed to lose an important element of the books. The books flew by in the blink of an eye. You could easily read all 800+ pages of Order of the Phoenix in the blink of an eye, sit down with the book and wake up eight hours later and not believe the pages had just flown by so quickly and so delightfully. Can anyone say that for the typical two-plus hour Harry Potter movie that they just fly by in the blink of an eye? Certainly, at the showing of Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 that I saw (at Aud. #5 The Valencia of the AMC Loews Lincoln Square on Saturday 20 November) maybe 5% of the 400 people in the audience was still lingering by the time we got to the title of the movie in the end credits. As I said, it's like going to mass in a really nice cathedral. We're all very dutiful and admiring and worshipful, we sit waiting for the pageantry of the reenactment of our favorite scene, but there's no life to it. That's what I miss about the third movie. It had some zest and life, you could see it just for the closing titles instead of rushing out.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Borders Westwood

I just updated a blog post about bookstores that are set to close, and as promised I wanted to talk a little more about the Westwood Borders.

This was one of the very first Borders to open in Southern California, store #56, and one of the very first Borders I'd ever visited on the West Coast. That would have been in 1996 when I went out for the WorldCon in Anaheim, and made the rounds of what was then a relatively small selection of stores in the earlier days of the book superstore era. If memory serves, Borders in Westwood, West Hollywood, South Bay/Torrance and Brea would have been on the list.

It wasn't a great store for sf/fantasy, but it was a major location. I mean, you didn't have a lot of superstores then, they were big news, and this one was huge. Lots of room for books, for music, for videos, for everything. A United Artists movie theatre triplex was on the next block. Godawful underground parking garage, personified why I've enjoyed LA more now that I'm not renting a car.

But oh, how times have changed.

How many 1980s era sloped floor multiplexes are still around? They sucked, most of them. The screens weren't that big, you could hardly see over anyone in the next row. That UA multiplex next door to the Borders is long since a drugstore. A few miles south on Westwood Blvd. there's a fancy new Landmark Cinemas. I'm sure the loss of the movie theatre hurt traffic at the Borders.

There were three times as many Borders in southern CA in summer 2008 than in summer 1996. And B&N as well. Guess what's next to that spiffy new Landmark Cinemas a few blocks down Westwood Blvd? A spiffy newer B&N!

And then there's that whole Borders: Books Music Movies kind of thing that you had going when the Borders in Westwood opened up many many years ago. That's why the store was so big, after all. Because it had a really big book section, a really big music section, a really big movie section. In a 25,000 square foot store as Borders has been downsizing the music and movies sections at most locations in the past five years, they could put in a little toy/game stuff and a bigger bargain books section and kind of fill out the space. There was no possible way to do that in Westwood. You can't justify expanding the book section when people are migrating to e-books, this store was made for 1995 and now its 2010, and Borders had no idea how to fill the space in Westwood. So they didn't. The last renovation they just took some bookshelves, blocked off a big section of the upstairs, at least 1/8 maybe even 1/6 of the total square footage of the store, and called it an "events area." Where they really didn't have very many events.

Well, you can't run a business too well when you're renting 35,000 square feet of space for something you can do comfortably in 25,000 square feet of space.

And in the mid to late 1990s, Borders built a lot of very big boxes. With their same store sales drops in recent years, some of those big boxes could be doing two-thirds the sales per square foot of five or eight years ago.

I'm extremely saddened to see the Westwood Borders closing. It has been a part of my life for fifteen years, not a big part but a kind of comfort to knowing that it was there waiting for me.

But if Borders is going to be around five years from now, they've got to find ways to downsize large chunks of their real estate portfolio, or they've got to hope a whole lot of people have a deep and abiding urge to build their bears at their local Borders, because there is no way there's a viable business in five years selling books, music and movies in a lot of these stores at their current square footage. Many of the Borders which are confirmed as closing I haven't been to, but the Thousand Oaks store was another big and uneconomical box certainly.

B&N hasn't been hit quite as badly by this because their movie and music sections in stores that had were generally much smaller. They are now hoping to fill some of these sections with expanded toy and game boutiques. A B&N in Manchester CT that I will see during Thanksgiving week is one of the test stores for this section, and I'm looking forward to checking it out. And I've devoted most of this post to the problems at Borders, but don't think that B&N, even with the Nook, is immune. Does your local B&N look like it did last year? No way! They've added their Nook boutique, and more toys and games are on the way. Borders has bigger problems and more vulnerability, but if bookstores are going to be around in 2015 they can't look like they did in 1995.

It is a little bit frightening to think in a capitalist world just how quickly things can change. In the 1980s, the sloped floor six-screen cinema was really quite the big deal. Ten years later, the Borders in Westwood was quite the big deal. I hope the book superstore will have a bigger, longer, better run than the sloped floor multiplex, but there are no guarantees.

You can read here the latest earnings release from Books a Million. Same store sales down 5.8%, a small loss in the pre-holiday quarter, as weak hardcover sales don't compensate for strength in areas like bargain books. I've posted here about the declining hardcover sales we're seeing on many books, and the uncertainty of just how many are lost and how many are just migrating to e-books.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Youthful exuberance

OK, so to set the record on this straight, the TSA Director said at a senate hearing on Wednesday 17 November that they haven't done a good job of communicating that children under 12 are exempt from the "enhanced patdown."

So aren't we all happy and comfortable now. To know that our young children can only be subjected to the regular patdown! And, really, who doesn't mind having their 14 year old daughter felt up the thighs and buttocks.

If this is the security regime we have, then we do have to give people of all ages an equal opportunity to be subjected to it.

The problem is that we have a security regime that routinely subjects people of any age to this.

Benjamin Franklin may not actually have said “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security” but whomever said it, says it right.

Monday, November 15, 2010

homeland humor

So there's this ad by Lindor, the people that make those wonderful little truffle balls that you can buy at the Borders checkouts, or with a $2.50 coupon in the latest Costco coupon book. You've got that Roger Federer guy going through airport security, and the people at the x-ray machine see that his carry-on is full of balls. "Hey, look at this, he's a tennis player" says blue-uniformed TSA person #1 to TSA person #2. Then they open the bag and see that it isn't tennis balls, but rather a big full of those delightful little Lindor truffle balls, while Roger Federer says "Swiss tennis player." Because it's swiss chocolate, get it. And then the TSA people say they're going to have to confiscate the bag, and Roger says "you've got to be kidding me," and the commercial ends with a freeze frame shot of the two TSA people looking very very serious about needing to confiscate that bag.

I find this funny. I don't find much to laugh about at airport security, but I find this funny.

And then tonight I audited the first 15 or 20 minutes of Due Date. Where Robert Downey Jr. has his carry-on switched with one of Zach Galifianakis' that has marijuana paraphernalia and such, and Downey has a dialogue with the TSA guard that's full of the two talking past one another. And then he's on the plane and he starts lecturing Galifianakis on how he shouldn't use words like terrorist and bomb and ends up being shot at by an air marshal with a rubber bullet, tossed off the plane, put on the no fly list. And after not really laughing once, or smiling, or even grinning even the teeny-tiniest bit, even beseeching the gods of comedy to explain why anyone thinks the "driver pulling away when someone tries to open door of car" gag is supposed to be remotely funny, I decided I'd rather get to Whole Foods and buy some dinner before they closed and get home than stay around in the theatre to midnight or so watching a not very funny movie.

So why is this? Why am I willing to enjoy one comic look at the insanity we call airport security while the other leaves me absolutely cold? Is it because I like Lindor truffle balls more than Zach Galifianakis? Because the one is so clearly unreal and exaggerated that I can view it from a distance while the other seems all too real? Because Roger Federer is a better comic actor than Zach Galifianakis?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

closing time

News is trickling out here and there of bookstores that are set to close after the holidays or even before.

Here in New York, there's a big flagship Barnes & Noble by Lincoln Center that will be closing after a 15-year run with the expiration of its lease. A fashion discounter called Century 21 quickly leased the entire space.

Joseph Beth booksellers has filed Chapter 11, and will be closing half its stores. They owe millions of dollars to Ingram, hundreds of thousands of dollars to Random House, and more. This is a real shame. I went to Pittsburgh a few years ago when Brandon Sanderson did a signing at their store in Pittsburgh that will be closing. It was a great store with great staff.

Joseph Beth shares some lineage with Borders. In the dawn of time at Borders in the 1980s, Borders licensed its inventory system and may have even done warehouse fulfillment for some independent bookstores in the midwest, and if memory serves Davis-Kiss was among the chains they were doing this for. Joseph Beth purchased Davis Kidd several years ago and a DK location is among those closing as a result of the bankruptcy filing.

And in Charlotte, NC both a Joseph Beth and a Borders will be closing.

Besides Charlotte, I'm sad to see that the Thousand Oaks, CA Borders which was my 200th visited is closing down. Word is also coming out of store closings in West Windsor/Princeton Junction NJ and Bloomington IN. Their store on Chicago's Michigan Ave. will close, but this is one year later than originally planned after a last-minute lease extension. One write-up in Publishers Marketplace said Borders may be closing two dozen stores, but I'm not finding that many with the news already out.

The early and mid 1990s were peak times for opening superstores, so with 15 year leases from 1996 and years of declining sales, no real surprise Borders has real estate that it can't justify keeping. But it's sad.

On a happier Borders note, Borders does have 25 "pop-up" Borders Express stores in place for the holidays, full list in their press release here. This is a very good idea, to take advantage of the peak holiday shopping season and empty space at the local mall to broaden reach profitably.

With the Thousand Oaks Borders closing, good news that a nearby Barnes & Noble in Calabasas, CA that had been threatened with closure ended up having a new lease agreed upon. That has the same landlord as the B&N in Encino, CA, where the neighborhood protested its replacement by a CVS. This may be the B&N where Alan Ball found a copy of DEAD UNTIL DARK while waiting for a dentist appointment, so I'm particularly saddened that a historic site may be going. There's a store in southern Ft. Worth that appears to be on the way out. Will that help the Borders that's up the street a bit, i.e., can some of these store closings help those that remain or are we all doomed? And also a B&N in Hobart, IN, and one in Fremont, CA that is across the street from a Borders that could no doubt use a business boost.

And updating this on November 19 2010, thanks to a report in Publishers Marketplace, they have gotten confirmation from Borders that approximately 17 stores will be closing. They don't yet have details on all, but have confirmed additional locations in Marlton, NJ; Westwood, Santa Barbara and Carlsbad, CA; and Overland Park, KS. According to the Borders website, the Overland Park store was #23 and had been around for over 17 years, so likely similar for Marlton (#26). The Santa Barbara store was #123, so that would also have been around quite a while. I'm going to do a separate post about the Borders in Westwood.

My favorite rant

one man's adventures with TSA...

here the NY Times travel writer Joe Sharkey talks about his fun-filled pat-down experience...

and the Washington Post tells us there is starting to be some backlash against the patdown regime...

I'm getting genuinely frightened about this. I'm not sure I want to fly anywhere any more. I got a token patdown coming back through SFO in September for no particular reason, it looked like they were just having some fun where every second or third passenger at this checkpoint was getting one for one or another reason, in my case it was because I had cargo pants with extra pockets. It's a demeaning and degrading thing. The TSA isn't the SS, but it's still worrisome that the US is now proving that you can pay people to spend their day patting down and frisking people and having them touch their private and personal parts.

And it's wrong.

We will never have absolute security flying on an airplane, no more than we do driving a car or walking down the street or riding an escalator. Our cargo can never be entirely secure. The fact that we now can't ship toner cartridges in airplanes points to the ludicrousness of our approach to security, because tomorrow terrorists can put bombs into teddy bears and the day after that into hollowed out books and the day after that into power adapters.

What will it take for this to stop? Do we need to find some way that every Senator and Representative heading to DC for the lame duck session can be given a nice brisk patdown?