About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Print on Decrepitude

I've had a generally good relationship with Penguin over my 28 year career, but right now I am not feeling very charitable toward the folks on 375 Hudson Street.

Sometime in 2012 or 2013, it's hard to know exactly when because they don't really announce these things, they started a Print on Demand program.

Which is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.  POD has come a long way since its early days, and you can do very attractive POD books, especially trade paperbacks, that are hard to tell from the standard offset edition.

But that's not what Penguin is doing.  They are doing mass market POD editions, and they are awful and crappy and markedly inferior to the regular offset editions in pretty much every way imaginable.

Today's example, a copy of Simon R. Green's Hell to Pay, the 7th Nightside novel, spotted at a Barnes & Noble in CT.

I knew it was POD the second I opened the book.  That's kind of bad sign #1.  You shouldn't be able to tell a POD book from a regular book that easily.  But these Penguin POD books have Wimpy Spine Syndrome.  Which is...  well, if you pick up a regular paperback and open it a wee bit at the center point and kind of push on one side and pull on the other, you aren't going to get a lot of give. The spine is going to kind of hold itself firm.  Not the POD editions.  You open it up, and there's a spine, but it's very malleable and elastic.  This was that kind of book.

Then there's the paper stock.  It's a very bright white.  I gave my younger brother this book and another similarly sized Nightside book and asked if he could tell anything about them, and that was the thing he noticed.  It didn't look like a book.  It looked like it had been printed on copy paper, was how he described it.  That nice 87 brightness sort of copy paper.  The problem with that is that it offers a lot more contrast between the black ink and the white paper which can be a little annoying, and may also offer a little more glare.

Then there's the guttering.  Depending on a lot of factors, a regular paperback you can usually read without having to push the pages back too far.  There's enough space between the inside text and the spine that you can hold it open with one hand, and get enough room to read the book.  Not with these POD editions.  Even though they are the same size and use the same page plates in theory, the text is much more likely to run far enough into the spine that you've really got to hold the book open with two hands to read it.  This means there is a much bigger risk that you might break the spine of your book.  Happily, I guess, these POD editions have such wimpy bendable spines that they won't break in quite the same way?

In this particular book, the copyright page was very blurry.  The text was generally crisp enough, but you could really tell on the copyright page that this wasn't well printed.  It was the book version of watching a movie somebody recorded from their seat in the theatre.

The binding of the cover to the innards is just a little off.  In a properly printed mass market, the gluing of the cover to the spine runs to the edge of the spine.  In these POD editions, the gluing will be off kilter.  On this copy of Hell to Pay, the front cover was glued a fraction of an inch more to the first page than it is supposed to be.

According to our website, the last regular printing we spotted was 5th printing.  This one says it is the "1st".  On the copyright page, that's the "10 9 8 7 6" countdown.  The lowest number is supposed to be the printing.  I am pretty certain that the list of other books by Simon R. Green was updated along the way from the first printing to the 5th printing.  This POD edition has the list of other books by the author that was current when Hell to Pay was first published seven years ago.  The Nightside series was twelve books, but this "other books" panel only goes up to this 7th book.  Good luck figuring out from here the right sequence for reading all the books that came after.  There is no mention of the Secret Histories series, a NY Times bestselling series by the author. There is no mention of his Ghost Finders series.

The POD books are much more susceptible to generic printing errors than regularly printed books.  Another client of mine, Del Howison, has purchased a few batches of these POD copies of his first Dark Delicacies anthology to sell in his Dark Delicacies store.  Can't have purchased more than 20 or 30 of these.  One had a seriously wrinkled spine.  Another had the cover for his book wrapped around the innards of another book.  In another, they put the final pages of the book from page 340 on at the beginning of the book instead of at the end of the book.  All of these are the sorts of things that sometimes happen with books printed by regular means.  But they don't happen in 10% of the copies.

Penguin also tries very hard to say that these aren't POD books, because there are contractual implications to saying that.  They are "managing the inventory."  Maybe we have 5 copies, maybe we have 48 copies.  But the bottom line is that they are printing them in very very small quantities, and only when they absolutely need to print them.  Del Howison generally has to wait a bit getting his books from Baker & Taylor, because B&T doesn't maintain much more than a one or two copy inventory and has to wait for Penguin to supply if Del wants to get five or six.

Penguin now charges $9.99 for a shoddily printed copy of Dark Delicacies.  The better-printed copies cost $7.99.

How can you tell if your paperback with Berkley or Ace or Jove or Roc or NAL or whatever imprint of Penguin is being printed in this way?  Well, on the one hand, it's very easy, because if you've read this blog post, you might accurately get a "you'll know it when you see it" feel.  But  it's also very hard, because the publisher doesn't want to utter the words POD or let you know that their book is in their Special Inventory Program.  It's hard just looking at Amazon or B&N.com or anyplace to tell a book that has just a few copies around because it's in this program from one that is in its end of days with the regularly printed copies.  By definition they're doing these POD runs for books that don't sell a lot of copies and are probably not carried regularly at most bookstores (in fact, I'm surprised a Nightside book by Simon R. Green is being printed this way) so you may not know until you decide you need another five copies for your shelf or some reader complains to you via the contact link on your website.  However, on the very last page of the book opposite the inside back cover, I have noticed that the POD editions have some kind of string of characters, a printing code of sorts, that you don't see on the regular editions.  Of course, Penguin will now do its best to get rid of that, or to add a random string of characters to the back ad on the last page of all of its books just to confuse us.

Do you want your book printed this way?

I've had communication with people at Penguin about this dating back many months, and I don't get the sense that they really care.  We are supposed to be happy that our book is being kept in print.  And the decision to do this isn't the editor's department and isn't anything the editor can influence, and who wants to spend a lot of time worrying about things you can't do anything about.  So even though I don't usually like to do business blog posts like this one, I think at this point that it's time to let the sun shine in.

This is the kind of bad, foolish, short-sighted behavior that will end up putting big publishers like Random Penguin out of business.  Because any of us can go to CreateSpace or Lulu and print a book that looks better than these Penguin group POD editions.  And if I can't even count on the publisher of my clients' books to print them half decently...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Lone Survivor

Over the weekend I saw Lone Survivor with Myke Cole, my favorite Coast Guard Reserve officer.

Wow!

The only real question is this:  In ten years, when it is movie night at FOB Somewhere, are the troops going to be downing their popcorn with this, or Black Hawk Down.  Lt. Cole votes for Black Hawk Down.  I vote Lone Survivor.

An odd choice for me.  Black Hawk Down tried hard to let us get to know its characters, and Lone Survivor tries hardly at all.  The context comes from a montage of SEAL training under the opening credits, to give you some sense of what these men endure to get where they are.  And other than that, an email or two with the gal at home, some discussion of whether to get the gal an Arabian (or is it Arabic?) horse, a race around the base channeling either the yard race in Chariots of Fire or the volleyball in Top Gun.  Hazing the new guy.  But not much.  And all the guys are buried in facial hair so you can't see their features or tell them apart all that easy.  They have to act thru their hair thickets.

But when you get to the fighting it doesn't matter.

And I think this might be where I prefer Lone Survivor over Black Hawk Down.

I have seen plenty of urban war in my cinematic history.

Peter Berg, the director of Lone Survivor, did urban war in The Kingdom.  Kubrick did it in Full Metal Jacket.  Black Hawk Down wasn't the first or the last, and even if it is the best it doesn't lack for other films with similar scenes.  They abound.  And jungle warfare abounds in any number of Viet Nam movies and elsewhere.

But I can't remember a film that gave me the gut-wrenching chill of watching these guys tumble down a mountain like real life versions of a Road Runner cartoon, each bump against the rocks rendered in very verisimilitudinous Dolby Atmos. I felt like I was on the mountain with this band of brothers.  I liked Black Hawk Down but have no memory of it, no scene that sticks in my mind.  I can still feel those jolts from Lone Survivor a few days after.

I am assured that most of the details in the movie are spot on. Myke Cole showed me his Maverick gloves, vouched for the use of Under Armour.

I can vouch for the A+ rating from Cinemascore, the company that polls Friday might audiences.  The movie is that good.

The movie isn't a political statement.  Read it how you want, a study in the futility of waging war in Afghanistan with radios that don't work, or a testament to the strength of character of the American military, or anywhere in between.

The movie will not be shown at the next Raytheon annual meeting.

The Oscar nominations it has in sound categories are well deserved. Those jolts I feel four days later -- sound, baby, sound.    That Lone Survivor has about as many nominations as Lone Ranger is feeble. The movie doesn't lend itself to acting awards; hard to act past those 'staches.  But no Best Picture nod?

As a historical note, I have now seen a Ben Foster movie at the UA Court Street with both Myke Cole and Peter Brett.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Her -- See Her!

Rather to my surprise, Her turns out to be a great science fiction film, every bit as worthy of your attention as Gravity.  If you read my blog, there's an excellent chance that you have an interest in science fiction, and so you really really do need to go and see Her.

Why a surprise?  I like Spike Jonze's Weezer videos, but his previous feature films haven't been favorites of mine.  Being John Malkovich was a nice concept but petered out, and Adaptation I thought was just plain bad.  I've disliked these or thought these overrated enough that in my mind I've given Spike Jonze credit for other bad films by people he worked with on his own bad films.   While the coming attraction for Her made it look interesting, I just thought of Adaptation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or other dreary critics darlings.

Color me wrong!

Take your Mac worship to the next level, and imagine that Siri has a crush on you, that you have a crush on Siri, and that your conversations with your computer go another level or two in intimacy.  That's what we've got here.  Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, downloads the latest OS for his computer.  It asks for a few pieces of information in order to get to know and serve him better.  The sexy, sultry, but accessible voice of Scarlett Johansson starts coming out of the box, and it's pretty much love at first phonic. 

The lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix is amazingly good, a career best.  It isn't natural to fall in love with a computer voice, but everything, every word and note of Phoenix's performance, is real and believable.   He's just a guy, a very relatable guy.  His job is writing nice letters for other people, and he's kind of ready to have something nice happen to him.  Didn't happen with his ex-wife.  Can't happen with the girl next door, who's in a relationship.  It's not like he's trying to fall in love with his OS, but when it starts to happen he's ready for that.  There are a lot of good performances vying for a Best Actor nomination.  Tom Hanks alone has two of them, and Bruce Dern in Nebraska and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave and Robert Redford in All is Lost.  At least seven worthy performances and only five people can get on the ballot.  This performance is up there with all of them.

Scarlett Johansson is spot on perfect as the voice he falls in love with.

But the movie isn't great sf just because of the acting.  It's the vision of the world that's fully realized, and which works very nicely.  It wouldn't be enough just to have the idea of someone falling in love with Siri.  I haven't given Siri a spin on my new iPad, but I've got enough Apple love in me when I think of my iPad, or even think of how I first fell in love with an Apple when someone in my dorm turned one on and we saw how it smiled at us...  It's all the other little touches in the world.

Twombly writes letters for a website called beautifulhandwrittenletters.com which to me is just about the epitome of computer age personalization.  (For a dissenting view, theawl.com).  In a world where almost all my Christmas cards are email attachments that do nothing for me emotionally and a lot more to use up wireless data on my iPad, why not this.

The production design, the costume design, the apartments people live in and the places they work in, they all look just a little bit in the future.  Not what we have today, but not some rocket-ships-whizzing along vision of the world.  Walk across a pedestrian bridge and the security cameras on the lighting stanchions are just perfectly there.

Play a videogame, and it's a perfect example of a game that could be played tomorrow, but not quite today.

I could believe in this movie.

When the movie gets away from its central relationship, it loses a little something.  I didn't buy the relationship with the ex-wife, I didn't quite see what was there between Twombly and his neighbor.

The movie is around 15 minutes too long, and I did start to feel the weight of those extra minutes.  If it could have lost 15 minutes of some of the stuff that didn't work it would be just about perfect.

It is time to start filling out the Hugo Nomination ballot, and this will certainly be going on it in the Dramatic Presentation - Long Form.

SF Signal considers this one of the best sf movies in recent history as well.

Rushing Captain Phillips

In case you haven't noticed, I'm trying to catch up on a year of movie reviews in the week of/after the Golden Globes and before the announcement of Oscar nominations.

Lots of people have seen the excellent Captain Phillips.  As well they should!

Tom Hanks is fantastic in this movie.  Unlike in Saving Mr. Banks, you never forget that he is Tom Hanks.  But the much talked about last scene of the movie which is harrowing and amazing (and all the more so for being partially improvised, with Hanks playing against a non-actor) is all the more so for us knowing that if it's Tom Hanks in this situation, it really could be any of us.  It's directed by Paul Greengrass who is a quite perfect choice.  He started out as a documentarian, moved to doing documentaries like the quite excellent Bloody Sunday and United 93, jas done action-oriented feature films like Green Zone and two Bourne movies.  So here, he gets to take a real story which is full of ways to show off his action-shooting acumen.  Screenplay by Billy Ray, whose credits include hte fact-based Shattered Glass.

Alas, far fewer people have seen the excellent film Rush.  It was a pleasant surprise that Daniel Brühl picked up a Golden Globe nomination for Supporting Actor in the film, for a movie that came and went disappointingly at the US box office, and has also gotten nods from the Screen Actors Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics, and the BAFTAs (British film awards).

More to the point, Rush has a lot of people and things in it that I have long admired, doing very good work, in a well-crafted entertainment.  You need to see Rush!  You should stop reading this blog post and go find Rush to stream or rent or whatever!!

The director of Rush is Ron Howard.  As I mention here I think Ron Howard is underrated.  He has a career full of solid films, very few really bad ones, and deserves more of a reputation for doing consistent work for so very very long.

The screenwriter of Rush is Peter Morgan.  The Queen and Frost/Nixon are among his best-known credits, but his The Damned United is an excellent sports film about British football that understandably didn't take the US by storm but is really really good.  So this is another sports movie from him.

Daniel Brühl.  He first came to my eye in 2003 in a film called Good Bye Lenin! about a son trying to hide the fall of the East German regime from his mother.  A German actor, he hasn't done a lot of English-language film acting, but he's been in a Bourne movie and in Inglorious Basterds and I've never been sad to see him in something.

I really liked Thor, the first one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, which spent lots of time showing me Chris Hemsworth in a tight tee-shirt.  I did not like the new Thor movie, which had Chris Hemsworth covered up in a silly Thor uniform the whole time.  Hemsworth is under-rated by critics because he looks fantastic.  He really looks fantastic.  So it's easy to overlook that you don't just watch him on the screen because he looks fantastic but rather because he radiates charm and charisma, and the charm and charisma kind of hide the fact that he can act.  I think I'm saying that because he can act, and not just because I enjoy looking at him enough that I wish it was because he was acting, and not because he's posing.

So with all these things going for it, Rush can't be bad, and it isn't.  It's a darned fine movie.  Like The Damned United, it goes beyond beyond just a sports movie.  There are a lot of moral issues involved about the collision of safety and money in sports that pop their head up through the action.  There's enough going on with the characters and with universality of theme that I enjoyed this Formula One racing movie even though I don't have any interest to speak of in Formula One.

The making of the movie is smooth and unobtrusive.  The thing with Ron Howard is that he gets out of the way, and usually lets his story speak for itself.  So he gets some good actors, he finds a good DP in Anthony Dod Mantle (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Millions, 28 Days Later, all for Danny Boyle), and the film is attractive to look at.  Hans Zimmer does an amazing score, one of the best I've heard in a long long long long long time, and hopefully to become a masterwork in Zimmer's discography alongside Rain Man.  The overall sound editing and sound design of the film is excellent, so the music co-exists with the dialogue and the sounds of the race cars careening around the turns.

And of course the acting is really good.  You can't tell Chris Hemsworth is acting because he's just radiating charisma as a bad boy race car driver as famous for his sexual rondelays off the circuit as for how he drives the ovals on.  Brühl is one of those drivers who's full of respect for the game and his competitors and by-the-books, and he talks in a weird foreign accent while the driver Hemsworth plays talks nicely accented English.  The two are both very talented, fierce competitors.  And on a rainy day when Brühl is saying it's too dangerous to race, Hemsworth is using his charisma to say the show must go on.  The two pair off one another nicely.

What not to see?  The film is great to listen to, great to look at in every way, an interesting story that gripped me in spite of being set in a milieu I don't default to being interested in.

It would make me very happy to see nominations for sound, score, and in an acting category.  It will make me very sad if the film is overlooked entirely.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Subjects WIth Gravity

This post is going to link three movies that have absolutely nothing to do with one another -- Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and Philomena.  One movie is called Gravity, and the other movies are about very serious subjects, slavery in the US, and the Magdalene laundries in Ireland.  And the reason I'm doing all three in one post is that I'm not sure what to say about two of them, so I'm reaching to find a way to throw in a third movie.

Gravity:  The problem with talking about Gravity is -- well, if you're interested in the movie you've probably read lots and lots about it already, and what can I add to that.  Furthermore, it's often harder to talk about something that's really good than something you can pick at.  There isn't anything to pick at in Gravity.  I saw it in 3D, the rare movie that's worth seeing that way, on a pretty small screen in Connecticut.  Would have liked seeing it on a bigger screen, but that was how it worked out.  The movie's almost all Sandra Bullock's.  George Clooney is around for part of it, but it's mostly Sandra Bullock's movie.  And she's amazing.  Clooney is amazing.  The technical aspects of the movie are amazing.  Special technologies developed just for this movie. It's a better movie than any movie you want to compare it to.  Avatar was three hours, and All is Lost was 1:45, and this is the 1:30 that All is Lost should have been.  I will happily see this movie two more times before I see Avatar ever again!  It's a triumph from a director who doesn't get enough credit for having done the best of the Harry Potter movies, Prisoner of Azkaban. The music, the cinematography, the editing, if you can think of a technical category to judge a movie in, you have to judge this one pretty high up.  So what can I say?  I doubt there are many people who read my blog who need to be pointed in the direction of the movie if it's a movie they want to see.  I'm not a scientist, so they can quibble that Sandra Bullock's character should have snuffed the flame when she rushed past it in that once scene.  And even at that, the underlying science of the movie is generally credited as solid if not perfect.

And I'm not sure what to say about 12 Years a Slave.  I was a big fan of an earlier movie from the director, Steve McQueen; check out my review of Hunger, and go stream that sucker! I was much less a fan of his stylishly made but hollow and ultimately dull Shame.  This movie has all of the stylish sleek technique of those earlier movies put in the service of talking slavery in the US.  I'm not always in love with the cast.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent, giving a star-making performance many years after his star-making performance in Dirty Pretty Things.  It's hard to be black in Hollywood, and the fact that he keeps having to give start-making performances and still can't quite become a star speaks to that as well as anything.  But aside from him, less impressed.  The initial bad guys who kidnap Ejiofor's Solomon Northup into slavery are just a little too foppish for my tastes.  Brad Pitt played a key role in getting the movie made, but I'm not convinced by his role as an abolitionist.  So many actors slide in and out of small roles that the stunt casting ends up becoming a distraction for me.  I'm a movie music fan, so a quick shoutout for a very good score by Hans Zimmer.  But ultimately, the movie is so worthy and important and so talked about that I struggle to want to talk about it much.

Philomena is an interesting companion because it's a movie I want to talk about even though it presents some of the same issues as 12 Years a Slave.

It's a worthy and important subject.  For over a century, so-called "fallen" women were sent to the Magdalen institutions, most notably in Ireland where the two important movies on the subject (Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters) are set.  It was a form of slavery, overlooked and ignore, the woman kept apart from their children, forced to work long hours, not able to leave.  In some instances the illegitimate children were given and even sold off for adoption.

But unlike 12 Years a Slave or The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena approaches its worthy subject in a way that enlightens and educates while still entertaining.  In talking about 12 Years a Slave, we're supposed to admire the movie because every other movie about slavery has been some idealization like Gone With the Wind.  Is that true?  Did Roots idealize slavery?  There haven't been huge numbers of really gritty films about slavery, and in that regard I think it likely that 12 Years a Slave can become the film on the subject the way Schindler's List has become the film on the holocaust, but it's not like there hasn't been a way to know that slavery was bad until 12 Years a Slave came along.  And as a practical matter, the lighter and easier to handle Philomena is going to reach way more people than the more immersive and "worthy" exploration of the subject in The Magdalene Sisters.  As I discussed in talking about Saving Mr. Banks, the worthiest exploration of a topic can be the one nobody wants to see.

But let's get back to the "entertaining" idea.  Philomena is based on an actual story of an elderly woman (played by Judi Dench) who survived a Magdalene laundy, whose daughter encourages her to find help to find what happened to the son that was taken from her.  Help arrives in the form of a British journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, drummed out of a PR role to the Labour regime in the UK.  He somewhat reluctantly joins forces, and they go on an odd couple road trip to Washington, DC to find Philomena's son.

Through flashback, we see what happened in the Magdalene laundries.  If you see the movie, you'll know more about them than when you went in unless you're one of the relative handful of people to have seen the "serious" move on the topic ten years ago.   You'll understand the motives of the people who ran the laundries, you'll see something about how religious belief can drive people to do things that both do and don't seem very Christian in the fullness of time.

But you'll get this in the form of a very entertaining and quite delightful odd couple road trip buddy movie.  Steve Coogan, as well known for standup comedy as for acting, couldn't be more different of an actor than the classically trained Judi Dench.  He wants to write a book about Russian history, she likes to read romance novels.  He's very cynical, while she has an underlying sweetness despite what she endured in the laundries.  It's enjoyable to watch the two together.

Behind the cameras, it's a late in life triumph for Stephen Frears, who has been on and off for 30 years but has quietly put together a body of good films (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons,  Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity, The Queen) that's about as good as most anyone over the past 30 years amidst a lot of other not so good films.  The film music fan likes the solid score by Alexandre Desplat, who is one of the best and most active of the newer generation of film music composers.

And to tie things up just a little, it is Frears who directed Dirty Pretty Things which was the first breakthrough starmaking performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, which takes us back into 12 Years a Slave.

I don't need to talk to you about Gravity.  I can't muster enthusiasm as much as I can dutifulness for talking to you about 12 Years a Slave.  I enjoy presenting Philomena as a move that you will see, enjoy, and be educated by.

The Frozen, and the Wasteland

What makes a brand last forever?

Well, Frozen is an example of the kind and quality of animation that's never entirely left Disney, even during the darker time periods of the animation studio -- and which, just to say, a lot of other studios would probably be happy to have their darker periods defined by some of the movies that define Disney's.

And on the specifics, Frozen shows how brands that do last for just about forever manage to do it.  They go for that which is timeless, for things which will resonate decades after the advertising itself has ended.

Coca-Cola does this really well.  Coke would like to teach the world to sing.  The sentiment is timeless.  The shirts are a little period, but the hairstylings even today aren't so of their day that you notice them.  And Coke is The Real Thing.  It's Always Coca-Cola.  McDonalds has done this really well in many of their best advertisements.

And Frozen will be timeless without being frozen in time.  It's about two sisters, with a classic family bond that anyone who's ever had a sibling or a best friend or pretty much known anyone who has will understand.  It's about bad decisions, of running away from problems you need to face, or not being cognizant of the consequences of your action.  About bad decisions when you rush into things.

The animation is as beautiful and timeless as the themes and basic underpinnings of the story.  Really, really beautiful.  Disney has been melding computer and hand-held animation as far back as the waltz sequence in Beauty and the Beast, and they do it really really well now.  [as a complete aside, I thought watching the trailers before the film that Walking With Dinosaurs looked more real and live-action than Desolation of Smaug.]

The songs aren't quite up to the heights of some of the great movies like Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast from 15 or 20 years ago, but they are more than good enough.  

The bones of the plot aren't quite perfect.  Falling in love with Hans happens a little too quickly, a little too easily, that you can see the plot mechanics at work.  I'm sure an 8-year-old isn't going to notice this, but the adults certainly won't be surprised very much when Hans turns out to be not such a good guy after all.  I could have done without having the weasels come from Weaseldon.  

But overall, if you want to know why we still have Disney movies after almost a century while no other animation department has been around for near as long, Frozen is a good example.  It goes timeless.  

The best Pixar movies do the same thing.

Which is why, if you go looking at the box office rankings for animated movies, you find lots of Disney and Pixar, and other than for the Shrek and Despicable Me movies not very much else.  It's a little imperfect to compare box office against different eras, but for what it's worth, the highest-rated Dreamworks movie other than Shrek is the one that is inherently most timeless, which is How To Train Your Dragon.

It's no accident that the Despicable Me movies have a certain timelessness in their father/daughter dynamic.

The Shrek movies stand a little aside from everything else, and I think Dreamworks has been a little like the author who borrows from great writers without understanding what makes them great.  In many ways the Shrek movies were of a time, melding animation ideas with the height of the Austin Powers thing.  All too often since, Dreamworks has doubled down on thinking that fast-paced frenetic animation full of pop culture references is the way to keep replicating Shrek, and I don't think that's correct. 

Even in its worst days, Disney could come up with a solid, reasonably timeless movie like Oliver & Company with songs that at their best I'd say are better than those in Frozen.  And in fifty years, it wouldn't surprise me if more people are paying attention to Oliver & Company than to Madagascar.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Nebraska


I first remember Bruce Dern from Family Plot, not considered the best Hitchcock, but definitely the last Hitchcock and possibly my first Hitchcock.  That was some 40 years ago, and this veteran actor now gets to chew some scenery in Nebraska, which won him the acting prize at Cannes, and is the newest film from Alexander Schmidt.  Schmidt has garnered more consistently wonderful reviews over his career than Dern has over his of twice the duration, often for films like Election or Citizen Ruth or About Schmidt that have often been good or had their moments but not really been that good, and in the case of Sideways been downright dreadful.  But he is coming of his clearly best film, The Descendants.

So Nebraska...

It isn't The Descendants.  It isn't that good, though I venture to say some the pleasures of Nebraska might longer longer than those of The Descendants.

It is much better than his raft of other never-really-that-good movies.

God knows it isn't Sideways!

This movie

It definitely isn't Sideways.

So the lingering pleasures:  the photography is splendid, the sheer craft of the movie, the vistas of the big country and the small towns and the people and places that pass thru the movie and which the movie passes along in turn.

Bruce Dern is a piece of work in the film.  A shambles of an old man, someone who gets one of those "you may already be a winner" sweepstakes letters that we don't get any more because the government cracked down hard enough to take the fun out of sending them, in part because of the Bruce Dern characters in real life.  The performance is natural enough not to have that feel of trying way too hard for the Oscar that Oscar often rewards (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man).

The film finds an ending.  Bruce Dern's character hasn't already won, and you can't make him a winner. Yet the film finds a piece of triumph that works just well enough to give satisfaction to the journey that seems right and proper.

But the entire script is a conceit, and the conceit doesn't persuade.  It kind of requires there to be an entire town-full of people to believe what clearly isn't true.  A sane character could emerge at any moment and stop the film in its tracks -- maybe not Dern, maybe not his son (a surprisingly effective straight man turn by SNK's Will Forte to be witness to the events), but the things they encounter along the way go pffft the moment another same person enters the room.

While willing to recommend the film for the good things about it, I can't give it a full embrace because I can't lose sight of the artifice at its core.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is also full of stunning visuals and creative in its way, but you really can't turn a three page story into a two hour movie so easily, and Ben Stiller doesn't.  I have a hard time even giving points for the worthiness of the attempt.

Hustlers and Wolves


A year ago this time I was leading the cheers for David Russell's Silver Linings Playbook.

This year, I want to say clear as day that David Russell's American Hustle is a giant snow job of a good movie, and I cannot believe critics are falling for the hustle,

I cared about the characters in Silver Linings Playbook.  It was old-fashioned at its heart and sweet at its core, and very well acted.

I didn't care about a thing in American Hustle,  Christian Bale plays a two bit hustler whom I don't care about.  He runs a con with an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper, whom I don't care about.  All the movie does is remind me constantly. of films like The Sting or Catch Me If You Can that do it better.

There is the occasional pleasure.  De Niro is good and has a great moment.  Amy Adams is brilliant but too little seen.  But mostly, I was bored early and often.

If you're looking for a cinematic snow job this winter, The Wolf of Wall Street would be your better bet.

From the coming attraction there were hopes this would be another Goodfellas, an earlier Scorcese film that us one of the best American films of recent decades. And by that standard, Wolf of Wall Street disappoints.  By most other standards It is a darn fine piece of work.

It is the mostly true story of Jordan Belfort, who founded the serious sounding brokerage firm of Stratton Oakmont that specialized in "selling garbage to garbage men," persuading the middle class -- very very persuasively -- to invest in penny stocks, two bit companies with much better chances of becoming half pint runts. This was a very lucrative if not entirely legal business that made Belfort very wealthy, and the Wolf of Wall Street delights in the bacchanalia that resulted, at least until Belfort was imprisoned on a variety of fraud charges.

The movie is long, around three hours long.  When so many movies today are special effects spectaculars full of fast cut action or fast cut just about anything, this is unusually rare.  The last movie I can consciously remember being so leisurely scene by scene was a Romanian art movie that seemed almost a parody of leisurely art movies.  Before that, Jonathan Demme's remake of Manchurian Candidate was a movie where every scene dragged on a beat too long, an extra boring beat too long.  And here, these long scenes can be seen as a celebration of decadence and excess and tawdriness and sexism and so much else we aren't supposed to celebrate.

Yet I found the scenes in Wolf of Wall Street to be tightly edited, taut, and compelling.  For all their length, Scorcese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker were finding the pulse of the scene, letting it play out in its own time and rhythm.  Matthew McConaughey's slightly more veteran broker teaching Leonardo DiCaprio's newbie broker the ropes at a 30 martini lunch.  Jordan Belfort trying to romance the stone of a cold FBI agent on a luxurious yacht. Most memorably a scene at a pay phone in a country club that turns into sardonic slapstick that in term becomes almost Grand Guignol.  Yeah, some of the scenes could have been a little tighter.  A going away speech given at Stratton Oakmont is one. But on balance I was enjoying the slow building skill of the film.

That said, it could still have lost a half hour in its final hour.  We aren't watching this because we care about Jordan Belfort's wife and kids, and the resolution of that plot arc could have been left on the cutting room floor.

I can't criticize the movie for its excess.  It is what is is; these are things that pretty much happened.  I can't fault the film for not showing the victims. It isn't about them, and a movie about selling "garbage to garbage men," you can't fill in just a little where the money for the bacchanalia is coming from?

Scorcese can be up and down,  Goodfellas great, Hugo I walked out of and other of his movies I should have.  But this is a major canon addition for a major figure in American cinema and should be seen. iPad

Sunday, January 12, 2014

All is Llewyen, the Lost Snowpiercer


We'll always have Paris!  Llewyn Davis and I, that is. as the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is the first movie I saw in Paris, a few weeks ahead of its US release, at the UGC Rotunde.  A good film to see in France as it was a star of the Cannes Film Festival, and Joel and Ethan Coen poster children for the auteur theory of cinema.

I am not a fan of the Coen Brothers.  It is nearing 30 years since I saw Blood Simple while in college and couldn't understand the fuss, and for most of the 30 years since I haven't understood the fuss.  I have skipped the occasional film of theirs, loathed some I have seen (Barton Fink), liked the wrong films (Burn After Reading).

By those standards, I have to say that I consider Inside Llewyn Davis to be one of the best films by the Coen Brothers.

Llewyn is a bit of a schlemiel, to use a Yiddush term.  The kind of person who lets a cat escape though an open window but tries to make it right.  Who isn't quite a great musician but who strives mightily.  He is well portrayed by the heretofore little known Oscar Isaac, and he is surrounded by other fine actors and actresses, like a very John Goodman-y John Goodman, and Justin Timberlake not being an overshadowing charismatic Justin Timberlake when indeed he shouldn't be.  Lots of good music.  Nice photography.  A fine piece of cinema.

But...

I got to the end, which begins where it starts, and our lead character is still a schlemiel.  No growth, no development.  And that isn't what I care to see, What was the point, exactly, of spending 1:45 in a dark theatre with Llewyn Davis?

After my time with Llewyn I drifted across the street to the Gaumont Parnasse and saw Snowpiercer, mostly because it was not something I could see in the US, and was on one of the large screens at the complex.  This is a fascinating cross between the short-lived NBC show Supertrain from decades past and Mad Max and a Kung Fu movie, as people ride out a global post-warming freeze on a giant train where the oppressed poor people fight their way to overtake the rich people at the front.  It has known actors like Tilde Swinton, Chris Evans and Ed Harris, but a Korean director, and of course the Korean characters end up conquering all. Memorable in ways good and bad, it is safe to say it will not occupy the large screens at any multiplexes in the US.

And let me talk briefly about All Is Lost.

Like Inside Llewyn Davis, this is very much in the conversation during the film awards season.

In part, it deserves to be.

It's a one-person narrative film, which is extremely rare.  Usually a one-person film might be an adaptation of a one-person stage play or some kind of stunt, but this is an actual narrative film.  As can be expected, it's a simple enough story.  Man on yacht.  Yacht is hit by a container that falls off a big cargo ship.  Yacht is damaged.  Man has to struggle to survive until he can be rescued.

And therefore the story rests entirely on the shoulders of the one person in the cast.  That one person is played by Robert Redford, and his performance is magnificent.

The film is not so magnificent, and for a pretty simple reason.  If I tell you it's a one-person film about a man on his yacht and he has to survive until he gets rescued, tell me how long you think that film should be?  Admittedly Castaway was close to 2.5 hours. but this is one person, one set, a filmmaking exercise.  To me, a film like this should top out at 90 minutes.  Which is maybe unfair.  My Dinner With Andre, even, was 110 minutes.  But, whatever, it seems to me a film like this should be around 90 minutes.  Which this isn't.  It's 106 minutes.  With just one person in the movie, one set, no dialogue.

And there came a point, a very particular point, when I started to feel those extra minutes.

You can tell from the story, because you've seen any other drama that's set on a boat, like last year's Life of Pi, that there's going to be a storm, and there's going to be heavy rain and big waves and lightning.  And we have that scene in this movie.  And the scene just keeps going on and going on and going on and on and on and on.  And as the scene kept going on and on, I slowly started to tune out, to want to sleep even though the wonderful sound system was regaling me with the crash of waves and the beating drum of a hard rain.

It's a disappointment to me not to like this movie more, because the previous film by the writer/director J.C. Chandor, was the excellent Margin Call.  Taut, suspenseful, well-written, very well-acted.  Zachary Quinto fresh off his first Star Trek movie, Kevin Spacey in one of his best performances, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, more.  That got an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, and could and should have gotten more than that and been seen by way more people.  It's unfortunate to see a follow-up that again shows Chandor to be an excellent director of actors, and even a very good technical director just in terms of the staging and other aspects of the production itself, but which by and large is overpraised, and not necessarily even worth seeing for Robert Redford's performance alone.

Saving Mr. Banks


Saving Mister Banks started out kind of slowly at the box office in its initial limited release.  I went to see it opening weekend on the primary screen at the Village East, a landmarked beautifully ornamented former Yiddush play house surrounded by much smaller screens in the basement and stacked in the one-time stage area. The movie was playing on four screens,and there were maybe a few dozen people watching in this very large one.

Happily, to me, the film picked up some steam with families over the holidays.  It is quite entertaining, boasts some fine acting, and for my clients and people in my trade it poses some interesting questions about the boundaries between art and commerce. It is the story of an artist, the author of the Mary Poppins novels, and her money-driven flirtation with Disney over the making of the film based on her books, which the author wouldn't have enjoyed with a five-pound bag if sugar, let alone a spoonful.

The acting first.  Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney.  I didn't realize this when I watched the coming attraction until Hanks' name appeared, and I didn't realize it during the movie.  He submerges himself thoroughly in the role.  Even in his excellent performance in Captain Phillips -- in most of his excellent performances -- you always know you are watching Tom Hanks.  In burying himself here so thoroughly in the role of Disney, he gives one of his very best performances of quite a number of exceptionally good ones.

Emma Thompson is highly buzzed for Oscar contention for her performance as P.L. Travers and is also impeccable.  The author is not likeable in the movie or in life (I read that a grandchild said she died liking or being liked by no one), and Thompson doesn't shy away from this.  But she shows just enough admirable sternness or authorial pride/possessiveness, both virtues we generally cherish, that we never grow distant.

Myke Cole pointed me in the direction of a review from the LA Weekly that is one of the most extreme examples of one of the strongest critiques of the film.  It whitewashes, it sugarcoats, it hides inconvenient faces, it makes a mockery or just plain dismisses the importance of Travers' creative integrity.

Yes, the movie sugar coats.  It is a movie about the making of one of the most beloved family films of all time, and it is intended to be seen by families.  But for all the sugar coating there isn't a major point about Travers' dislike for the movie that isn't addressed in the film.

It is very clear early in that this was all about money, that she needed Walt's. One of the very first scenes is her agent/adviser saying "no one is buying your books, you have no money coming in, do you want to keep your house."

The movie has her say at one point "you are the only American I like" to Paul Giamatti's chauffeur, so it doesn't make a big huge announcement of how much she hated Americans, and why should it? Does this critic wish for American children to reciprocate her hatred, not read the books because of it?  No one seeing the movie would be surprised to know that Travers forbade American involvement in the stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, but the movie actually being made isn't the place to dwell on it.

It is very clear in the movie that she was not invited to the premiere.  In the movie, we see her deciding to go absent an invitation, Walt is seen saying something like "I should invite her to dump on it?" She shows up in Walt's office and we have a "gee, that invitation must have been lost, will have a fresh one delivered right to your hotel" moment where we know there was no sent invitation to resend.

Another review of this nature criticized the film for not showing Walt Disney's chain smoking, but the movie isn't about the evils of tobacco, and in one scene Travers barges into Disney's office and he hastily puts out a cigarette and says "have an image to behold, can't see me smoking" so we know that he smokes. Hanks also depicts his smokers' hack.  Here the filmmakers lose either way, because anti-smoking advocates would rather we see no smoking ever in movies, that people who did smoke shouldn't in cinematic reality because it encourages a bad habit.

Who would want to see the movie this critic would prefer?  Isn't it better to have a palatable movie where Disney says "bad to let people see me smoking" and Travers says "you are the only American I like" -- a movie that people will see that says these things? Few people will see the movie this critic is upset not to have seen.

I never read the books.  I know of them only because of the movie.

Which brings us to the teachable lesson for authors.  Don't quit the day job!  For almost 28 years I have watched bad decision making -- let me qualify that, necessary decisions that I shouldn't call bad, but which are detrimental to the quality of the work or to the long-term financial benefits which should accrue to the author -- by authors who need to do something for immediate financial reasons or feel the pressure of those needs.

Travers was aware enough to loathe her decision while she was making it, and I have to give her credit for that.  Too many authors remind of the adage about people never acknowledging a fact that their employment requires they ignore.

It is hard to tell from the movie the extent to which she did or did not later take ownership of her decision.

Which one should.

But sometimes the ownership is acknowledging that some decisions are forced upon us by circumstance.  I think it might have been Cory Doctorow who pointed out that the advance is in part a compensation for having to go along for the ride with the publisher when other options are foreclosed.  I can think of two books early in JABberwocky history with one publisher willing to buy, so what can you do but sell?  And when the publisher wants the bad cover, what do you do?  You can't pick up your toys and go elsewhere.

The last point I will make on this -- authors way more often than not are along for the ride, for better or worse or richer or poorer the publishers make decisions and after a point you just have to go along.  And perhaps because it is so often thus, the authors shy away when I point out that they can pick up their toys and go elsewhere that the decisions are in fact theirs.

The tragedy of Saving Mister Banks, that you hear a bit of on some excerpts from archival recordings made at Travers' request of her hectoring sessions with the film creators, of her fighting where she really can't.

As an agent, I hate those tragedies but know they are unavoidable. But what tears at me more are the rarer tragedies where we had the leverage to have things done some other way and failed to do it.