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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 27, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook is the first movie I've seen in rather a while which I would like to see again. It is also the first time I have started to write a review during the post screening Q&A.

I'm not entirely sure why.

This is a funny movie, but I have seen funnier.

It is a romantic movie, but I have seen more romantic.

It is a dancing movie, and it isn't Dirty Dancing.

It is a Philadelphia sports movie, but it isn't Rocky.

And yet there is something about the interplay of these elements that fascinates me.

And certainly, there is something about the amazing cast that deserves a second viewing.

Bradley Cooper (the Hangover movies, and many other and sometimes better) is being sprung from the loony bin by his mom, on various conditions for what he has to do after release.  He did something he shouldn't have after seeing his wife doing something she shouldn't have. Hehas to use every ounce of his innate likability to keep you with him while he keeps doing things he shouldn't be.  He has to show something in his face with every close up that keeps his likability while his friends or his parents or anyone in a few feet of him might suffer the consequences of his not entirely restrained manic aspects.  He never falters.

Jennifer Lawrence, Hunger Games, is Cooper's soulmate.  Every bit as damaged as he is, but where he acts out she holds in.  The interplay between the two has to be pitch perfect, a guy who can't filter what he says matching emotions with someone who's like that clogged bit of hand lotion where nothing will come out until suddenly it does and it goes squirting all over the place.

Support comes from the likes of Robert DeNiro, who is excellent.  And Jacki Weaver, who does this brilliant 180 from her matriarchal role in the excellent Animal Kingdom from a couple years back.  Chris Tucker, Jennifer Stiles, there aren't many false notes, even a performance that seems a bit off at first like Stiles' gains something in retrospect during the film itself.  Is the performance off, or is it actually that the character is off, intentionally so.

The comedy of the film builds like an improv show.  Flashes amidst flatness in the early going, but as bits and pieces build on one another there is a living room scene that can hold its own with some of the best family gatherings in the classic TV show Soap.  It's an approach to comedy that I don't see in film all that often, I'm not sure I would want to, but it works here.

I am purposefully avoiding saying too much about the plot because I think a lot of this is better revealed as the filmmaker intends.  And you should see that for yourself.

As the film moved along, I couldn't quite see why Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal would call this the best film of the year, but as it continued to puts its spell on me I started to gain an appreciation.

The orchestrator of all of this is David O. Russell, who has had an interesting, varied and mostly quality career for twenty years.  I wasn't as big a fan of his last film, The Fighter, as some other people were, while Silver Linings Playbook has gotten good reviews overall I'm probably a bit more of a fan of this than some, David Denby for one is quite hateful toward in The New Yorker.  

One of Russell's earliest movies is Flirting With Disaster, a comedy which I recall liking quite a bit but haven't gone back to.  My enjoyment of Silver Linings Playbook not only makes me want to take another look at the Silver, it makes me want to refresh myself on the earlier Disaster as well.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wrecking It

Wreck-It Ralph is a surprisingly pleasant animated movie from Disney.

The lead character arises out of a video game Fix It Felix.  Ralph does the wrecking, Felix does the fixing and gets all the glory, and Ralph in his frustration soon ultimately finds himself in another game, Sugar Rush, where (no spoiler here, this is a an animated movie with hopes of getting kids) he finds his redemption.

The film boasts a great and knowing script, full of sly allusion to video games from 30 years ago and to pop culture in general.  It's the rare movie where product placement works, where there's nothing at all wrong when the bad guy will "unleash the Devil Dogs" or we have NesQuick Sand instead of regular quicksand, or the fate of the world might turn on that neat party trick with Mentos and Coca Cola, which wasn't willing to sell its soul for a product placement forcing the film to use a generic cola instead.

The voice talent is consistently good.

The animation is as knowing as the script in depicting the world of once-upon-a-time video games.

The end title sequence is a delight, be sure to stay.

The music is worthy of an Academy Award nomination, as it has to carry the film dramatically while also paying homage to classic video game music with every bit as much devotion as the script and the animation.

The one weak thing to me:  the video game culture of the peak arcade years in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a guy thing, I don't recall the girls in my dorm in college running off to have fun at the arcade.  But because the movie has to appeal to girls just as much as it does boys, too much of the game is spent in the Sugar Rush, and being that I'm a guy I started to get a little tired of all of these anachronistic appear-to-girl elements in the movie.

The main feature is preceded by an equally delightful short called Paperman, every bit the equal of the best Pixar shorts.  In totality, there's no denying the influence of the Pixar team on the Disney animation studio in both the feature and short.

Of course, what make Ralph especially delightful is that it is a burst of fresh air in the otherwise very tiring milieu of modern animated movies.  The coming attractions, I'm not sure there was a single carton film that I developed even a tiny interest in seeing.

And let me annoy some people by also saying that I couldn't really tell the live-action trailer from The Hobbit apart from the animated films.  Peter Jackson is just so in love with CGI and uses it so much that the world of The Hobbit is every bit as artificial looking as that of Wreck-It Ralph.   CGI existed when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out ten years ago, but things have come a long way since.  Peter Jackson doesn't have to use real world filmmaking techniques enough now, so the director who followed LotR with the rather dreadful remake of King Kong can now indulge himself in a tragic OD of artificiality.  Based on the coming attraction, I don't think I'll see The Hobbit.  Iron Man 3, which was in the pre-show when I saw Skyfall, also looks very missable.

Skyfall & the Dark Knight

To my disappointment, while the newest James Bond movie Skyfall isn't a bad movie, it nonetheless bears more resemblance to this past summer's genuinely bad The Dark Knight Rises than it does to the best of the James Bond movies, which are very very good indeed.

I didn't review The Dark Knight Rises when it opened, let me discuss it some now, to explain why I would say that this well-reviewed and well-received movie was (with the exception of the excellent fighting extras used in the climactic battle at City Hall)  genuinely bad.

For one, it is no fun.  It is a comic book movie, but there isn't a fun thing about it.  To me, comic book movies should be at least a little bit fun.

Also, it makes absolutely no sense.  Who is Bane?  What are his motivations?  What does he expect to get out of his plotting against Gotham City?  For all the laborious time spent on flashbacks, there's nothing to explain -- nothing! -- what he's up to in the forward moving story line.  And otherwise, the film is filled with all sorts of preposterous things, the whole plot with the concrete trucks doesn't convince remotely.  

So to summarize, it's a comic book movie which takes itself way too seriously except that it doesn't take itself seriously at all.  Or, to put it another way, it's a mess.

The movie is also assaultive.  The music is overbearing, the bass on the soundtrack excruciating.  And the sound mix so poorly done -- I'd like to think it's intentional because with all the money and resources it can't be as bad as it is, can it? -- that you often can't hear the dialogue.  The person I saw this with thought it was because we were too close to the screen at the Imax but the New  Yorker magazine critic notices this flaw as well, I don't think it was the theatre.

There's nothing like being in a theatre for 2.5 hours watching a very serious movie with a very unserious script that assaults the senses.

So here are some of the things that Skyfall shares with the dreary and dreadful Dark Knight Rises:

It is too long.  My friend Michael, whom I also saw Dark Knight Rises with, pointed out, which I hadn't thought of, that the movie could have ended at the 20-minute mark.  "She could've taken a second shot," my friend said, and he's right.  There are places that could have been trimmed, if not cut out entirely.  I dozed off for a minute or two during the casino scene without really missing much, the scene in the office building in Shanghai was very leisurely, and it's possible the movie could have gotten us to the villain a lot more quickly.  It might have been possible to end the movie nicely in London without going off to Scotland for the very long final act.  

It isn't believable.  This is an odd thing to say about a James Bond movie, which have always been full of unbelievable things.  But, the great James Bond movies are fantasies, and you can believe anything in a fantasy.  The Spy Who Loved Me, You Only Live Twice, Dr. No, The Man with the Golden Gun, Moonraker, Die Another Day, the list goes on, these movies are completely unbelievable, and that's exactly the point.  Nothing is real, so everything is.  Skyfall, on the other hand, is supposed to be a more realistic and serious and believable and relevant James Bond.  And yet we're supposed to believe that the villain can arrange to have all of these pieces exactly in place exactly at the time they need to be for his extravagant plot on M in London.  What would have happened if Q had been an hour later or an hour sooner with the work on the computer that helps to put the entire plot into gear?

It isn't fun.  Not remotely.  James Bond movies are supposed to be fun.  This movie, you have an opening car chase where some fruit stands are destroyed.  But not in a fun way.  Where's the redneck sheriff in the back of the car like Man With The Golden Gun.  Where's that bit of twinkle when the gondola is cut in two in Moonraker, the lady jabbering away in the phone booth when Bond needs it to make his call in Octopussy?  These are all examples from Roger Moore movies, but the earliest Sean Connery movies were often full of fun bits as well.  

But for all of that Skyfall is flawed, but not bad.  

If it doesn't have the Bond fun to it, it does have one of the most distinctly memorable title sequences in the history of the franchise, and the Adele song doesn't seem like a pop hit but it's moody and appropriate to the film and the title sequence.  

It is a successful and relevant "reboot" for the franchise, if that's what they're trying to do they succeed.  I couldn't done without Jude Dench reading poetry, it reminded me a bit too much of V for Vendetta, and there are other aspects of the movie that remind me of that (or of the Bourne movies, or The Untouchables, or other movies), but that scene also contains a cogent and clear explanation of the relevance of James Bond to a world full of terrorists that aren't state actors, of how this Cold War creation of Ian Fleming is important to today's world of the Arab Spring or drug cartel wars or terrorism.  

It extends some hope for the future.  When we get a glimpse of a room with a coat rack in that particular place right by the front door, we know that Miss Moneypenny has to be in that room, we know that room leads to another room where M will be present.  There is fun to be had with exploding pens, but there is also fun to be had without them, and I can take to a new generation of Q who has other things on his mind.  

It's very well-cast.  Javier Bardem enjoys himself as a Bond villain, at his best less swishy moments it's almost like he's auditioning for the lead villian in a remake of Wrath of Khan, and I say that in a very good way.  Judi Dench is a good M, her aide is just right, Ralph Fiennes is just right as the minister who wants to retire her.  Daniel Craig is an excellent Bond.  The Bond Girls are good Bond Girls.  

It is hard for James Bond.  He doesn't have the action film space quite as much to himself as 50 years ago.  There are so many action franchises that have come, that have gone, that are continuing, that are forthcoming, the producers of the Bond movie have a lot of challenges, and Skyfall is a serious attempt to deal with them.

There is some hope in the last few minutes before the credits that the caretakers of the Bond franchise understand that there are certain fun things like Miss Moneypenny that we want to see, and that maybe we will see them in the next Bond movie.  I hope so.  I'd like to have a next Bond movie that would be twenty minutes shorter, that would be fun, that would be fantastic and transportive enough that I could enjoy it without worrying about whether I believed it.

A note on the sound:  This may be the first movie I saw in the new Dolby Atmos sound system.  Variety's been talking a bit about Atmos, which is just rolling out with relatively little fanfare (the arrival of digital sound with Dolby Digital and DTS and SDDS twenty years ago was given somewhat more attention).  It adds another couple of speakers to the usual array and melds with contemporary digital technologies, and it's supposed to enable any sound to be specifically placed in the auditorium space.  Not "coming from this speaker" or "coming from that speaker" to emulate surround sound, but to actually fully immerse you in the sound environment of the movie.  That's the idea.  On the one hand, modern digital sound systems are so good that I'm not sure anyone can really notice if Dolby Atmos is better, and I wouldn't want to say that it is without seeing five minutes of the movie in Atmos and then in a regular digital sound format.  But I will say that Skyfall sounded terrific in the Dolby Atmos of the ETX screen (#6) at the AMC Empire 25.  And it did sound great very naturally, without ever giving the sense that you were hearing the bullet move from this speaker to that speaker as it progressed across the auditorium.  I'm not convinced it can move the needle on motion picture sound quality enough to drag anyone out of the house for the Atmos alone, but I can say that for me, at least, it's another good reason to pay the $3 ETX upcharge to see a move on screen #6 at the Empire 25.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Awards Season

This is the time of year when my membership to the Museum of the Moving Image is worth it, when the film distributors with movies they want to have in the mix for awards season get busy with screenings.  And as a general rule, if I can make it to a screening I will, it sometimes means seeing movies I wasn't interested in paying for that are screening late in their run, sometimes movies I'm not all that interested in at all, and not as often as I'd wish something I'm hugely enthusiastic to be seeing.

In the "purposely missed in theatres" category, was last weekend's screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild at the Museum.  This film has had buzz dating back to Sundance in January, when the Variety review called it a "stunning debut."  Hence, I was anticipating it.  But when it actually opened, and I read more reviews, I was quite certain of the fact that there was little the movie would have to offer me. Which, essentially, turned out to be true.  The lead character is a young child in a rural black island called The Bathtub quite isolated from even though on the US mainland. In that way, it reminds me of a movie called Daughters of the Dust about the gullah off the Carolinas.  Which I'm shocked to see came out 20 years ago!  Well, I remember it, not for the right reasons but I remember it.  And the lead character starts the movie by burning down the trailer she lives in, while the trailer burns down she retreats inside a cardboard box in the burning trailer and starts drawing little whatevers on the inside of it.  i.e., the lead character even by standards of young children is kind of a stupid idiot.  Thereafter, I decided it would be better to "rest my eyes" than actively engage with the movie.  I can report from my half-hearted viewing that the movie is technically well made, in that sense it is a stunning debut.  It has a loud blaring soundtrack that I found to be annoying interruption of my efforts to "rest my eyes," which other than the whole basic idea of the thing is the worst part of the movie from those things that the director can control.  The director and very young and very precocious lead actress did a Q&A afterward, which was quite interesting.  And the director grew up in Sunnyside, not far from the first home of JABberwocky.  If the director picks a more engaging subject matter, I'd try another film from him.  But this one, it's the last sentence of the lead para that's more relevant than the "stunning debut" at the start of the lead:  " emotionally wrenching if somewhat meandering parable likely to register strongest among critics and cineastes."  And I don't often like movies that will register strongest among critics and cineastes.  Even though I am in some ways both, I often don't like those kinds of movies.  Another recent example, the quite dreadful The Master.

Then a few days later, into Manhattan's First & 62nd Clearview Cinemas for The Variety Screening Series presentation of Anna Karenina.  Let us count the strikes against this one:  Tom Stoppard is a critic's darling of a playwright and screenwriter who rarely writes plays or movies that I like; the director Joe Wright is a little more of a tough call, his Hanna was an interesting action thriller but his adaptation of Atonement was entirely off my alley; the book isn't one I've had any interest in seeing.  So this one, if I'm enjoying an apple I can be enjoying it for a long time, and in this case, there was around 45 minutes that I watched the movie while noshing on a stayman.  During this time, I could determine that (a) for better or worse, the movie wasn't very good, but at least it was very good in ways completely and distinctly different from Atonement, so certainly Joe Wright isn't just doing the same thing over and over, he's experimenting and daring and putting it out there (b) whatever he was trying to do, he was entirely in control of it, everything in the movie was of a piece and with thought and logic behind it, which also has to be respected (c) that he had no interest in speaking to anyone who hadn't read the book, because after 45 minutes I had very little idea who the main characters were or what their goals or motivations were, or what their relationships were to one another, in fact the entire movie was incoherent, quite gloriously and perhaps intentionally incoherent, but incoherent nonetheless (d) that the casting seemed entirely off, with all of the young faces hiding behind period clothes that always seemed to be worn just a little bit self-consciously hidden behind (for the men) beards that were just a little too fake it was a little bit Bugsy Malone, if you ask me.  Those things having been determine, I again made a decision to "rest my eyes" which I did for most of the rest of the film.  Star Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright did a Q&A after, and I found them less engaging than the Q&A after Beasts, but it did confirm that there was a mind behind the movie making decisions, not decisions I cared for, but on both instances at least some respect is to be granted.

Finally, Life of Pi, again at the Museum of the Moving Images.  This was a pleasant surprise to me.  The book isn't one I've been interested in, the director Ang Lee has done things like Brokeback Mountain that I liked a lot and things like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon that I liked not at all.  In a nutshell, the story is about a boy who gets stranded on a boat with a tiger for a very very long time.  In fact, this was a movie which I saw when I was kind of tired, but where I wanted to fight to keep awake, unlike the others where I was quite happy to tune out.  So what did I like:  The screenplay takes a nice approach to framing the story, it has a certain artificiality to it, but once you get past that it works.  The casting is impeccable, the Pi at many different ages are good, there's an off note to the writer talking to Pi in the framing sequence but that seems intentional, and a closing monologue where we are presented with an alternate version of the story is genuinely exceptional, an acting tour de force where the camera keeps coming in tighter and tighter on an actor quite marvelously in control.  It's a rare movie that I might actually suggest seeing in 3D, it's very well done, never obtrusive or in your face but quietly adding to the story in all sorts of ways.  In that same vein, it's a movie that's filled with CGI, you don't have a live zebra on the boat with a live tiger, but never once did the CGI have the computer game feel that one can associate with parts of Star Wars Episodes 1-3, or Peter Jackson's King Kong, or the Transfomers movies, or a gazillion other things.  You know it can't be real, but you can't see the wires or the fakery or anything, and you end up accepting it entirely.  The music, that gets a thumbs up.  My one real quibble was with the shipwreck scene, which I felt was full of water and effects and noise and sound and things happening, but which on a storytelling basis of what was happening to whom where was every bit as incoherent as Anna Karenina, and in contrast to James Cameron's Titanic, which is everything in a shipwreck scene that this one isn't.  Q&A with the screenwriter.  The Life of Pi is a keeper, and well worth seeing when it opens in theatres.

While I did like Life of Pi, I think I would like even more if it had been a movie called Pitanic, about a star-crossed young couple who reach the lifeboats on a doomed luxury liner -- only to find out that the lifeboat also has a tiger on board!  Can Jack and Rose survive the tiger long enough to reach The Carpathia?  It might be a 4-hour long movie, but what a movie it would be!!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Election Quickies

The world is way too full of post-election pontification as well as pre-election and any other kind of election pontification, I'll add only a few quick thoughts.

The Tea Party:  So, yes, the Tea Party did help the Republican wave in the US House and in local legislatures.  The Tea Party also kept Harry Reid in his job by putting some "winning" candidates on the ballot for US Senate.  Without the Tea Party, odds are very good the Republicans would have had both houses of congress in 2010, and likely still today.  The people who think Mitt Romney lost because he wasn't more like all those losing hardcore conservative senate candidates need to think on this.

And just to say, more people voted for Democrats for the House than for Republicans, but I don't think we can make a big deal here.  I'm a guy who told people to stop complaining about 2000 because (a) the election was for practical purposes a tie (b) the guy who controlled the tiebreakers won.  We let political parties control redistricting.  And in the UK, the electoral system is skewed against the Tory party all the time, while here we can switch state-by-state every ten years who gets to make the rules.

Marijuana:  Yay!!  I have "under-tried" marijuana, which is one of my regrets in life.  So I can't comment from personal experience on an OpEd article in the NY Times on Friday that says liberals (me, most of the time) shouldn't be in favor of this.  But really.  I had an employee who was addicted to cigarettes, who spent his spare cash buying cigs, who lost hours of his life to ciggy breaks puffing away in the cold and the hot and the whatever (this was a good thing for the business because at conventions, it was a networking opportunity with the other addicts), who lost a lot of time from work with various health issues some of which were no doubt exacerbated by the cigarette addiction.  And do we want to talk about how helpful alcohol is to everyone ??  I'm sure that people can be addicted to marijuana in bad ways just like alcohol and cigarettes, but on balance you can't come up with a convincing harm analysis to say in more dangerous ways.  Or, to put it differently, if marijuana was the legal drug and alcohol the illegal one, in ways where if you switched everything around you couldn't come up with the same arguments to say that alcohol should or shouldn't join marijuana in the legal drug pantheon.

Furthermore, the legalization of marijuana has to be viewed in the context of the overall War on Drugs. Which we've been waging for decades, and which hasn't accomplished anything.  The real cost of all the drugs we're waging war on hasn't increased.  Some drugs are harder to find, others have become easier to find (once upon a time it was crack, which we don't worry about anymore, yay, we won the war on crack, only when we were waging the war on crack had anyone had crystal meth on their worry radar?), but all in all we're sinking huge societal resources into an unwinnable battle that we are not winning, jailing so many people that we have the highest incarceration rates in the western world with a huge investment in a prison industrial complex.  So if the trend toward legalizing marijuana means that some small piece of the war on drug resources will actually be reallocated toward things that are better for society instead of just into other fronts in the war on drugs, it is a good thing.

I'm not the marrying type, but I am happy to see gay marriage making inroads.  In the early 1990s I wasn't sure this was the thing to focus on, it seemed to me you could have the civil union thing going and be just fine, but over the past two decades I have become convinced that this is an important battle for basic equality.

Most western civilizations do not have two-year election cycles, they have two months.  Can we find some of that for ourselves?

Can we ban polling for even a week before the election?  For four days?  At all?  Please??

The next time you are convinced your guy is going to win against all the polling (which it would be nice not to have so much of, but we do), remember that four or eight years ago it was the other guy who was running around the week before the election looking at the bigger crowds, the greater enthusiasm, the momentum.  Because it happens every four years.  It's like that line in The Shining, it isn't really Danny.  So we can't go looking strange at all the wrong Romney prognostications this year, because it wasn't all that long ago that Kerry was pulling it our, and that Gore was pulling it out.

But that said, if we could ban some of the polling, we could at least more happily sustain ourselves in the belief that behind the black curtain our guy had the Big Mo, and it would force some of the election coverage either to disappear or to refocus on things other than the horse race.

And my final rant:  the margin of error doesn't mean that every election is closer than it seems, sometimes it means that the election is looking much closer than it is.  Yet we will never read an article that says "the poll has this guy up by five points, which means he's really up by ten points."  Nope, it's always, "up by five, within the margin of error" with the implication being that it's really a tie.  Yes, sometimes that is what it means.  And sometimes, it means it's really just shy of a landslide.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The After Sandy

So it's been an interesting last ten days or so!

For the first ten years of JABberwocky, I worked alone in my apartment, it's never given me cabin fever the way being forced to stay in my apartment by weather does.  It's not just a recent thing with Irene last year or Sandy this year, I remember an MLK day many years ago when there was an ice storm sort of thing and the sidewalks were too dangerous.  But Sandy might have been the worst of it, in part because of the subway flooding.  All the years I was working alone, I would go to the Post Office because I had to do it, I could stop at the library to read the paper, I did my own messenger work for a good chunk of that time and could go out laden with manuscripts and enjoy some fresh air and exercise.  But with Sandy, the office was closed last Monday and Tuesday, the subways weren't running, it was hard to do much of anything social, and there wasn't any choice.  And I had power!  Many of my Scrabble friends especially live in the part of Manhattan that didn't have power for days.

I am so glad the NYC Marathon was cancelled.  Mayor Bloomberg has always had this weak spot for sports, for the football stadium on the west side of Manhattan, or his Olympics bid, now this, he's lost most of those battles.  Currently, there are plans to expand the Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park, which have some community opposition, but which don't look to take too much more parkland, and also plans to build a soccer stadium in the park, which would take up lots of parkland. And would be in the "Fountain of the Planets" area, part of the grand design of the park for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  I'd rather the city find the money to restore that area of the park and to restore a little more of the public grandeur.  Sometimes people join me for the qualifying at the US Open, if they haven't been to Flushing Meadows before I'll take them around the park, and it's so much "that used to be, this used to be" and not near enough of what actually is.  One of the world's richest cities should do better.  I don't think it's just that I'm biased in favor of tennis.  Having spent a lot of time in the park before the expansion of the tennis center in the 1990s, I didn't perceive that the tennis was taking away a lot of high value area in the park, the soccer stadium would be.  When I walk people around the park, I've always pointed to where the soccer stadium would be as "shameful the way the city has let this fall to rot," deciding it can only be saved by covering it with a soccer stadium isn't right.

On tennis, Jerzy Janowicz continued his amazing run at the Paris ATP Masters, winning a semi-final match convincingly against Gilles Simon, currently ranked #20 and as high as #6.  Five wins in a week against top 20 players.  The run ended in the final against David Ferrer, top 5, who heretofore had the most victories in ATP Masters 1000 events without actually winning one.  Ferrer's a short player, it was funny watching the trophy presentation because Janowicz is tall, a foot higher at least, and he's quietly become one of the best players in the game outside the big 4 without getting much attention.  Janowicz moved up to #26 in the world, over 40 notches higher, going from nobody to somebody, from qualifying every week to making every tournament by direct draw and guaranteeing himself a seed in the Australian Open.

Comic books.  DC is filling "5th Wednesday" months with Annuals and other non New-52 books, it keeps the New 52 on schedule without leaving holes.  The last time we had a 5th Monday week the Annuals weren't very good.  This week I picked up a Batgirl Annual and a Swamp Thing Annual that were both quite good, and an Action Annual that was solid.  Steve Niles has a new horror story Lot 13 with a first issue out from DC that was a little like a Zebra genre horror novel from 25 or 30 years ago but with some nice art and on balance pleasant.  First of 5 issues, I look forward to the rest.  I didn't like the last in the 8-issue New Deadwardians Vertigo mini-series quite as much as the series as a whole, and I'm not liking the final issues of the current American Vampire arc as much as the first, but still, both were solid enough.

And now I want to get on my soapbox a bit.

I could talk a lot more about my personal experiences during Sandy Week, but I came off a lot better than most, JABberwocky didn't do so badly, for the most part I was just coming away with memories for the memory bank, of walking across the 59th St. Bridge with thousands of people instead of dozens, or watching dozens of cars lined up for gas.

Instead, I'm going to talk about human irrationality as viewed thru the prism of Sandy and 9/11.

The two events can't be directly compared, in part because you can't easily compare thousands of lives lost in 9/11 with the far-flung economic damages from Sandy and other weather events.  But we can safely say the events are in their different ways catastrophic.

So why did 9/11 inspire so much action, while a decade of ever-increasing natural threats like Sandy doesn't seem to get much to happen?

If you read my blog regularly, you know I've gone one at some of the things we tolerate in the name of stopping a terrorist event.  Enduring patdowns at baseball games, and rules that allow us to bring in factory-sealed water bottles but not an empty water bottle (i.e., a factory-sealed water bottle that we dump out the moment we pass thru the turnstile) to fill at a water fountain.  "Heightened security" at office buildings full of people that no terrorist cares about, showing photo IDs or even having drivers licenses scanned to gain admittance (what does building management do with your scanned license?), though happily very few of the buildings have magnetomers, so as long as we have photo ID we can go as postal as we want once inside.  All the BS at TSA checkpoints, the layers of reactive-to-the-last-threat security.  And the things I rant about are the tip of a vast and mostly hidden security apparatus (link goes to a major Washington Post series) that has huge costs, not just in actual money but in time and in loss of liberty. My point here isn't that all of these things are bad (random bag checks on subways, I think strike a good balance and are worthwhile), but to say that we definitely do a lot, and a lot of that not rationally.

As to extreme climate events?

Well, even if I limit myself only to things that deal solely with the extreme climate events themselves and not with underlying causes, we don't do very much.  Forget about if it's rational or irrational, it's not done.  It was often very easy for railroads and for highways to follow river valleys, so there are lots of railroad lines like the Metro North Hudson Line commuter rail here in New York, parts of the Amtrak line between St. Louis and Kansas City that are very close to water, all over, which are more and more likely to be damaged as sea level rises, which is currently happening.  We're not talking about that at all.  We've done very little in New York City to add "baby gates" in the subways that might keep the water from coming downstairs.  It would make lots of sense to bury power lines in DC which is getting walloped with lots of damaging stores, and fewer than 35% of the electric customers would want to see a dollar a month added to their bill to help pay for it.

What gives?

For one security silliness does gives an immediate sense of benefit, right or wrong but it does, so we don't ask what they actually protecting against, the odds of that bad thing happening, or multiply out the little costs to our time and to our wallet of all of these things. And we rarely pay directly.  It's buried in the rent or the price of a baseball ticket or a 9/11 security fee hidden in the fine print of the airline receipt.  Small but visible benefit, invisible damage to our wallet, often small time cost that we never think to multiply out.   Even small things to deal with climate events will have larger visible costs.  We don't actually know every dime our government spends on our homeland security apparatus which is hidden away in black areas of the budget, but if we spend money on sea walls in New York like those in the Thames which protect London or the tidal barriers which were built 50 years ago near Providence RI, those are large public expenses.  And after we spend that money, we don't visually see the result, people in Providence don't have a way to visualize the return on investment from spending a lot of money fifty years ago.  It's like this with a lot of infrastructure.

Second, we have a political system that reacts to money, and which is designed to protect streams of money more than one-time floods.  An example:  you give a private company a contract to run a prison, the private company makes a profit, it can use some of that profit to invest back into the political system via campaign contributions and ads in the right places to keep that profit.  It's the same with cable companies and health insurance companies and defense contractors and virtually any other business that relies on getting us or the government to give little bits of money on an ongoing basis (and just to mention, there are also people who get government benefits, but food stamps don't supply a lot of profit that you can invest back into the system in order to keep getting food stamps).  Some of our money, some of the government's money, goes to guarantee the need for us to keep paying that money.  The constructions trades and construction unions also lobby for infrastructure money, but there isn't quite as much spare cash splashing around because a lot of those things are one-time.  If you want to leverage the money the construction trades and construction unions have, it usually can't be for infrastructure being built as as long-term public good, but rather needs to be tied to something like the Keystone Pipeline.  There, the construction people get business, which leads to a steady flow of oil flowing through the pipeline, so the oil industry is happy to spend money to talk up the (likely inflated) number of construction jobs from the Pipeline, creating a nice resonant echo chamber.

And finally, human beings just aren't very good at evaluating risks.

Which makes it very difficult to do things the way Dr. Spock might logically have us do them.  There are way too many areas where we evaluate risk feebly.  And since government is us, all joined together...

So what do we have?

The NY Times reports there are many prominent office buildings that are closed for weeks or months in lower Manhattan as a result of flooding.  I'm sure over the past ten years that these buildings have, as a rule, spent very generously on lobby security, which has kept all of them safe from terrorist plots.  And all that money might better have been spent on something else.

I'm not all that optimistic that Sandy will change very much.  The buildings will reopen, and every day the people in them will feel very secure because they have a turnstile in the lobby, and each one of those days Sandy will fall a little further into the past.  And we don't have politicians these days of any stripe that want to fiercely advocate for the idea of government as a public good that sometimes needs to step in and do things -- great things, sometimes -- that we can't do ourselves.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Grown-Up Movies

There are two really good movies for adults playing right now, Argo and Flight both of which I'd recommend, with perhaps a slight bias toward Argo.

For those of you who don't know, which shouldn't be many, Argo is a new movie directed by starring Ben Affleck about an effort to "exfiltrate" from Iran six workers at the US Embassy who were able to escape and find their way to safety with the Canadian ambassador during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981.  It shouldn't work as well as it does, and certainly not from a contemporary standpoint where movies tend to be so loud and action-packed and overwrought.  But it wasn't always this way.  Before everyone spent so much money on special effects it was common to really cast a movie up and down the line.  Which Argo does, with Alan Arkin and John Goodman and Bryan Cranston all having major supporting roles  And even smaller roles filled very reliably, as an example the Canadian ambassador being played by Victor Garber (the captain in Titanic) or one of the hostages quietly filled by Tate Donavan.  And it's possible to generate a lot of tension very quietly, which this movie does.  There's a scene of a van carrying the "film crew" to "scout locations," when this van full of "Canadians" has to make its way through an angry crowd of demonstrating Iranians.  No money in the scene. Just a street in Istanbul (doubling for Teheran) and some extras, it could have even been done on a backlot Arab street in Hollywood.  But it's so well done, so well edited and the sound mixing so good and the quiet fright on the actor's faces so good that you don't need any much more than that

And because all of these little things are so well done, the film works even though the six hostages aren't well-developed chapters, and the CIA exfiltrator is a cipher with the most basic character traits (child he never sees).  That's the main reason why I'm surprised the film works as well as it does, because it doesn't develop the characters very much.  And yet the filmmaking so so muscular, so quietly powerful, taks such good advantage of the inherent drama of the situation, that it all works beautifully.

In its opening weekend, the "Cinemascore" service that polls audiences, came up with an A+ for this movie, which hardly ever happens.  And it wasn't a figment of something.  These days, it is common for a film to drop 40% from its first weekend box office to its second weekend.  Some genres like horror films will be happy to drop less than 50%.  Argo dropped more like 15%, which just doesn't happen at all any more.  It's a lot of good word of mouth and well deserved.

Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future or Forrest Gump in the good old days, more recently motion capture like Polar Express) and starring Denzel Washington, shares one key trait with Argo.  It doesn't stint on casting where it needs.  John Goodman is in this as well, as a friend and dealer to Denzel Washington's drunkard airline pilot, who knows how to use coke to level Denzel off from his drunken binges.  Bruce Greenwood (brilliant in Mao's Last Dancer and good in many other things) is a rep for the pilot's union, Don Cheadle an attorney hired by the union. And while the film centers on a dramatic airline crash sequence that's hardly quiet at all, there've been lots of movies with well-depicted disasters in them.  The film works because it backs that up with all sorts of quieter scenes that let the actors shine.  There's as much will he - won't he tension to wondering what Denzel Washington's going to do with the connecting room mini bar as there is to that van ride in Argo, and this is even quieter.  Just one actor, and the actor not even in camera, just lurking there while we look at a single bottle of booze in a hotel room.

The film doesn't glorify alcoholism.  The alcoholic is played by Denzel Washington, so he's charismatic.  But he's also a drunk, and often not a very likeable one.  This isn't something Hollywood does well, very often. I didn't feel like I was being asked to like the guy, but I wasn't being asked to revel in wallowing with him either.

The one thing that doesn't work for me is the ending.  How do you end the movie?  You can't send the audience out with Denzel Washington still being a drunk, who would tell their friends to see that movie.  You can't end the movie with some kind of miracle cure because it just isn't true to the character in a movie that is trying to be very true.  So where do you find the balance?  There's a valiant attempt to find the third way, but it didn't work for me.  Back in the '60s or '70s I think the movie would have been a little darker and would have worked for back then but recently watching the ending of Marathon Man, which I'd never seen before, you realize that those endings just don't work any more unless you want your $3M film to have a highly regarded run in art houses.  Here, it's not $3M film, that won't even cover the star and director.

But these are both really good films, and worth going to a theatre to see.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Show Must Go Off

Usually I'm very big on trying to get things back to normal as soon as possible, which may be exactly why I'm totally pissed that the city wants to run a marathon on Sunday.

Because in this case, that's not "back to normal," it's indulging the marathon over the interests of a  city that can't get where it wants to go.

Buses and trains from my neighborhood into Queens are totally packed.  You've got to wait and watch 'em go buy without stopping or without room to get on.  Even Thursday night, when the subway was running somewhat, the 59th St. Bridge was still being used by thousands upon thousands of people as their best route in and out of Manhattan.  Because it is.  The alternative is waiting for at least two trains or two buses, agonizingly long waits, and you can in fact walk faster.  In fact, Brady McReynolds in my office had two "commutes" yesterday that were longer than it might have taken for him to walk 9.5 miles to/from work.

So what is the city going to do on Saturday night?  It is going to close the bike/ped lane over the 59th St. Bridge for a full day.  And it's also going to disrupt the bus traffic over the 59th St. Bridge for several hours, which is just what we need.  And it's not like, as limited as the subway/bus service is, that I'm just going to hop on the couple of limited service subway lines heading into Manhattan.  So I sure won't be able to get my life back to normal.  I have theatre tickets on Sunday that will be very difficult to use because there won't be a good way to get into Manhattan.

And it's not just me.  The marathon will make it difficult for people to get to the Williamsburg Bridge.  It will make it difficult for people to get from the East to West sides of Manhattan above 59th St., or for people to get from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to other parts of Manhattan.

Obviously, the Marathon causes disruptions every year, but during a normal year I will smile and make do for a day because I might prefer to walk into Manhattan but I don't have to, I have a choice of fully operational subway lines that I and all the Marathon tourists can join.   This year, your Marathon turns Manhattan back into an island.

And if you can't tell, I'm not happy.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jerzy Shore

So back in 2010 I spoke quite excitedly about a young Polish tennis player, Jerzy Janowicz, whom I'd watched in the US Open qualifying.  "Too good for me" to be able to count on him being in qualifying for very long.

And then in 2011, I was left baffled, as he was again in the qualifying and looked really not that good.

Did he just have an off day in 2011?  Or was 2011 the normal, and 2010 the match of his life.

Today we found out the answer.  Janowicz was just good enough in 2012 to escape the qualifying at the US Open, and he came into qualifying for this week's ATP Masters 1000 event in Paris, one of the top tier tournies right below the Grand Slams in ranking points, ranked in the high 60s.  And he beat Dmitry Tursunov, once ranked in the top 20, and Florent Serra, once ranked in the top 40, to qualify.  Then he beat the #19 ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Then he beat the #16 ranked (and 13th seed) Marin Cilic.  And now he's just finished beating Andy Murray, the guy who won the gold in the Olympics and the US Open and is currently ranked #3 in the world.  And he did this after losing a tight first set, then having to prevail in a 2nd set tiebreaker.  Well, maybe he's just had the best week of tennis in his life, this could in fact be the best week of tennis in his life beating #19, #16 and #3, and he could still have a nice tennis career for a very long time and wind up in the top 20.  And if that's "all" he does, I can look at my blog post from 2010 and say I knew him when...

It also sets him apart from a player like Ryan Harrison, who has suffered from a lot of tough draws where he always seems to have a top-ranked player in the first or second round.  But Harrison never seems to beat any of them.  He takes a set here or there, he always looks nice, I don't even want to say if it's Janowicz or Harrison who is actually the better player, but right now today you've got to put money on the guy who just beat #19, #16 and #3 in quick succession, over the guy who occasionally takes a set from #3.  Harrison is an American, so I hope he can pick up his game that extra little bit, but today, I'm hugely excited by Jerzy Janowicz's run.