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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.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Maze Runner

It isn't often that I get to see a movie based on a huge bestselling novel that I had the good taste to turn down, but I got to do it tonight, when I headed off to the Ziegfeld after work for the 7:15 of The Maze Runner, based on James Dashner's novel of the same name.

Which is worth your time.

Spoilers follow:

I think I might've liked the movie less if I'd read the book.  One of the things I enjoyed about the movie was that it held surprises.  I was able to make some educated guesses about what would happen in certain instances based on my experiences as a reader of fiction and a viewer of films.  When a group of 15 people heads off somewhere, and half of two-thirds of them are characters who haven't had a line of dialogue, it is safe to say that a good number of those characters aren't going to be around for the end of the movie.  Cannon fodder, they've got cannon fodder.  And if the arch nemesis is left behind someplace, the suspense is in wondering whether the arch nemesis will return in the sequel or before the end of the film at hand.  Also, when characters walk in front of something that looks like the door to a loading dock, it might be a door.

But if I had a general idea of what was going to happen at points throughout, the movie held my attention, interest and curiosity.  I was never entirely sure what was behind the door, or who might be coming up on the elevator, or the exact point in time when the climax was going to be set in motion.

Casting was a definite plus.  Not a single complaint about any of the kids in the Glade, and their roles weren't all easy ones to play.  As an example, the role of the Doubting Thomas (and this movie does have not just a Thomas but a Doubting Thomas) is kind of cliche and very functional and full of pronouncement, but all those lines are delivered with fervor and self-belief by Will Poulter, in a very different role than his equally excellent performance as the son in We're The Millers.  And Dylan O'Brien as Thomas makes his character's actions seem perfectly natural even when, really, they're not, when it takes a lot of gumption or a job with McKinsey to arrive in a situation and start shaking things up like you've been doing it all along.

Well, maybe one false note in the cast.  Blake Cooper has the task of playing the analog to Piggy in Lord of the Flies, and he doesn't manage to surmount that burden.

One false note in the physical production, which is generally impressive, and which false note occurred to me in real time as I was watching, and not with thought afterward.  There isn't some giant dome over the Glade, like there is in the arena in Catching Fire.  Yet the weather in the Glade seems entirely and completely different than the weather beyond the Glade and its immediate environs.  I don't think it can work that way.

But on the whole, it's a movie that kept me interested all the way through, that didn't have me looking at my watch, that kept me awake and alert.

And as the Washington Post critic said, if I could've stayed around to see the sequel right afterwards, I would have.  It's a great ending.  A couple other reviews made it seem like this movie was a giant set-up for the next one.  And it is.  But it's also a quite entertaining movie in its own right.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Curious on Broadway

I am a bit jealous of Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. It is a novel that is indirectly about autism and which was published around the same time as Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, which is very directly about autism.  Of the hundreds of novels I have represented as a literary agent, Moon's is unabashedly the one I am proudest of.  It won the Nebula Award and has become a small part of the canon, used in a number of campus and community reading events.  But it hasn't been Curious Incident, which won many prizes and has been sold in twice as many languages and become much more of a thing.

My mild envy extends to the fact that the Mark Haddon novel has been adopted for the stage, with the play by Simon Stephens getting rave reviews in London and winning the Olivier Award for best play.  And now it's on Broadway.  And jealous or not, I am somewhat curious about the Curious Incident.  If I'm still not interested in the novel (ennui, disinterest, scared, who knows…) the play is an opportunity to experience it once removed.  So when I saw it on the TKTS half-price list last week, I decided "what the hey," and soon found myself in the front row for the second night of previews.

And I've got to say, the play is better than solid, and boasts and excellent performance in the lead role by Alex Sharp, a young British actor fresh out of Julliard, who has a two page profile in the September Playbill.

Sharp plays Christopher Boone, a 15-year old who is likely on the autism spectrum.  According to the Playbill article the book never states this clearly, but if you follow the duck test, a kid with poor social skills who hates to be touched, fares poorly in crowds, doesn't do well outside of his home environment, etc. etc. -- yes, tis a lot like autism.  He sets out to do detective work to find out who killed a neighbors' dog, which leads to revelations about his family, which leads to a road trip.

Among the many strengths of Sharp's performance is that he plays an annoying character without ever being annoying, which is not at all an easy thing to do, and this in turn enables the play to hit its notes without ever seeming manipulative or cloying.  It might have been an early preview, but Sharp received a stirring standing ovation from the near to capacity crowd, and the play seems quite likely to duplicate on Broadway the success that it has had in the West End.  And it deserves to.  Hard to believe I walked out of Harper Regan, the last play I saw from this playwright!

The production is directed by Marianne Elliott, and physically the play takes place in what is essentially a big modernistic hi-tech box with few actual sets.  Boxes, mostly.  Trap doors for a dead dog to emerge from at the start, or which open to present a trench for the Underground tracks when Christopher is journeying on the Bakerloo line. It works well enough; it enhances the words, doesn't get in the way of them, and connoisseurs of model train sets will enjoy some of what happens within the box of little boxes.  And people who remember the old Automat days may enjoy the way Christopher Boone is able to get things from the little boxes as well; it's almost like there's a little old lady putting new mac & cheese in, only in this case it's the ingredients for the model train.

This was a second preview performance.  As I exited, I could see a lot of people clearly not getting ready to leave, as there are notes to be given and changes and fine-tuning to be made.  Likely more notes for the supporting cast than for Alex Sharp.  He's about as perfect as I'd think he can get, but no one character in the supporting cast had quite that same effect.  And it's kind of hard, because almost all the supporting cast are playing multiple roles, and "just right" for one may not be exactly that for another of the roles.

There ought to be some notes on the play!  Good as it is the first act could be delicately trimmed, 30 seconds from this scene and two lines in another.  The second act can definitely be taken in a notch.  In particular, Christopher's road trip is done up quite a bit, choreographed cast-wide urgency up and down and across the stage, all staged beautifully, very energetic and thoroughly enjoyed by the crowd.  And it would still be all of that were it two or four minutes tighter.  My guess is people aren't looking too much at changes to an award-winning play that's getting standing ovations, but if it's four or eight minutes shorter (and almost certainly not ten minutes shorter; it's needs a bit of a trim but only that) it will be better.

Did the play make me want to read the book?  No.  But the people sitting next to me were thinking they should.  And while there hasn't been much sign I can see that people who read the Haddon novel go looking for more and fine their way to Elizabeth Moon's as a next stop, I can hope a successful play might say something to the people who have circled around doing a film or play from The Speed of Dark.