12.31.2012

My 2012 by the numbers

E-books published: 5

E-books downloaded/sold: 12,844 (from 26 June–31December, an average of 2,140 per month)

Plays produced: 1 (but produced at two separate festivals, with a total of 7 shows)

Items accepted for publication: 5 (4 prose pieces and 1 play)

Scripts advanced in competition: 1 ("St. Peter in Chains" as semi-finalist in Table Read My Screenplay)

12.30.2012

Actors, Character Actors & Stars: A Primer

I'm going to go over this one more time.

Actors (and I'm using this term to cover both men and women of the profession) are people who make a living by adopting other personae, personalities, characteristics, roles and portraying these things via a visible medium (television, film, stage). In layman's terms: they dress up and play pretend for our amusement (and often their own). For many an actor, this is a psychological exercise, a sort of exploration of "the other." After all, we define ourselves by what we are not as much as we define ourselves as what we are. Also, there can be a lot of money in it.

Character actors are a subset of actors who have become accounted as being good at a particular kind of role and have therefore established a niche for themselves. They are mostly known to audiences as "That Guy" (as in: "Hey, it's That Guy!"). Character actors would be stars except they don't have the power to draw large audiences on their own; they typically play roles that are incidental to a plot: judges, hard-nosed businessmen, secondary government agents, and the like. A character actor may or may not lack the range of other actors—that is, maybe they're just good at one kind of role, or maybe it's just the one thing they get hired for. But hey, either way it's a paycheck.

Stars are "actors" that play some hyper version of themselves in pretty much any movie. Whole scripts are written around them because stars sell tickets, and in the studio system it's often more important to have a big name and a mediocre script than a great script and no star attached. Stars have readily identifiable faces and names, though admittedly so do many actors. But a star's name will almost always appear above the title and his face is likely to be prominently displayed on the poster. Still, if you're wondering whether someone is an actor or a star here are the ways to determine the difference:

Make a list of the roles the person has played. Are they all more or less the same kind? Then this is either a star or character actor.

If you want to go deeper, take lines of dialogue from various movies. Do they sound interchangeable? Then it's a star or character actor.

Does the person use inflection when speaking his or her lines? Then he or she may be an actor. However, if s/he over inflects, s/he may be a star. If the line readings are flat and monotonous, it's a star or possibly a character actor.

Does the person in question have a set number of facial expressions he or she uses in every film (smirk, wink, grimace)? Star.

I'll assume you can tell the difference between a star and character actor in that you'll know the star's name but will sit and wrack your brain to figure out where else you've seen That Guy. (Hint: he was in that thing, that time, with that other guy.)

This isn't meant to suggest stars are bad people. I've worked with many lovely actors and stars. But there is a noticeable difference between the two when it comes to the actual work. Actors may eventually become stars, by the way, but once stars they seldom go back to being actors. The industry has a sort of pipeline; it likes to make things "easy" by pigeon-holing its talent. Many stars are fine with this because it's easy for them, too, and the money is good. But some actors (and even some stars) resent the narrowing of their opportunities. Certainly, as a writer I can sympathize. When people look to you for one kind of thing and you offer them something different, there's always the question of whether they'll be willing to try it. Actors, then, are a kind of buffet—they offer a wide variety of choices because they've done a lot of different kinds of work. Stars are the pizza. The toppings may change, but it's pretty much the same when you get down into it. There's a place in the world for both. Just depends on what you're craving.

12.29.2012

Disney Flashback: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

I received this Blu-ray for Christmas, a throwback to my Holmes-soaked childhood. The Great Mouse Detective came during one of those renaissances of Sherlockiana: Young Sherlock Holmes had come out the year before, and Jeremy Brett was acting in Granada Television's series. Other films capitalizing on Doyle's famed character were forthcoming, such as Without a Clue in 1988. He was having a heyday, so why wouldn't Disney join in?

I wouldn't count The Great Mouse Detective as one of Disney's greatest works, however. It was the last animated feature before the Mouse House relaunched itself with The Little Mermaid in 1989, and as such TGMD shows some hallmarks of decline and/or transition. Though I loved this movie as a child, watching it now only instills a desire to see a less bumbling take on Watson (here the mouse's name is Dawson), and more of a story—the plot in TGMD being rather thin, even for a children's movie, and most especially for a Sherlock Holmes tale. Questing minds require more meat.

What did surprise me on re-viewing this film was the violence. Though off-screen (a mouse eaten by a cat) or unrealized (villain Ratigan attempts to squash Basil and Dawson with an elaborate trap, a young girl mouse is nearly caught in the cogs of the Clock Tower), the implications are quite gruesome.

As an amusing aside, when thinking about mice living in tandem with humans . . . If one were to notice a stream of mice entering Buckingham Palace . . . And then notice they all had little hats and coats and such . . . Wouldn't you be primed to think, Holy shit they've learned to sew! or something? But maybe you wouldn't immediately assume they'd done it for themselves. Maybe you'd think, Who the hell is dressing up all these mice? It wouldn't be until you saw them in the little airship that you'd really start to worry. Isn't that cute? Kill them.

The fact that my mind was wandering in such directions during this movie probably reveals something about its inability to completely engage me. TGMD stands as a kind of testament to a time in which things were shifting—in entertainment, in sensibilities, in the world at large. It works as a kind of touchstone for that but doesn't hold up so very well on the whole. My kids found it marginally interesting, perhaps more as a relic designed to let them better understand me as their mother, but it isn't something they'll ask to watch again any time soon. And I probably won't either, until another wave of nostalgia hits me.

12.28.2012

Bond at 50: The Pierce Brosnan Years

You may recall I wrote previously about the Timothy Dalton films from the 1980s. In the 90s, after much haggling, Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role of James Bond. He starred in four Bond movies:

  • GoldenEye (1995)
  • Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
  • The World Is Not Enough (1999)
  • Die Another Day (2002)

I recently watched these all again via Blu-ray, not having seen them since their original cinematic releases.

I'll start by saying I was a young fan of Remington Steele back in the day, and so when these films came out, I could imagine no more perfect Bond than Brosnan, who had already proven he could do smooth and suave and so on. I remember liking GoldenEye when it came out; my dad took me to see it over Thanksgiving. Of course, watching it again now, one immediately realizes it fails to hold up over time. The computer interfaces alone are really terrible, and Alan Cumming's turn as Boris is a laughable caricature, while Famke Janssen is almost intolerable in her over-the-top Onatopp. Sean Bean, meanwhile, seems to be in some other movie entirely, the only one taking the work seriously. It really is too bad he's already had a turn as a Bond villain because he would be much better in the more current take on Bond than he was in the Brosnan years. Also, the dialogue between Brosnan's Bond and Judi Dench's M is painful.

The mid-90s, too, was still a time of working out the CGI kinks, and so many of the effects in GoldenEye are pretty awful, especially when viewed in crisp digital. In fact, throughout my revisit of the Brosnan films, I found many a cringe-worthy chroma keying.

Now, I'd always liked Tomorrow Never Dies, and I still enjoyed it upon review. Michelle Yeoh was a fine foil for Bronsan's Bond, and Jonathan Pryce requisitely smarmy as a Rupert Murdoch-like villain. Though his fakey typing really did bother me.

Can I just say, too, that I don't love Joe Don Baker's homeboy American schtick? It's quite revealing for an American to watch these Bond films, gives us an interesting viewpoint as to how we're regarded overseas. Big and dumb, but occasionally helpful, is what Baker's character suggests. A necessary evil. More money than sense. (Later, in Die Another Day, Michael Madsen is slightly more palatable though far from perfect in that he makes Americans appear intractable and somewhat more competitive than cooperative.)

The World Is Not Enough, meanwhile . . . Couldn't they have given Robert Carlyle more to do? Far too much of the film rests on Sophie Marceau, who is lovely but hardly absorbing. And if you're going to name a Bond film after his family motto, make it more about that. I mean, it's groan-inducing how the name of each Brosnan Bond film ends up as a line of dialogue. Also groan-inducing: Denise Richards as Dr. Christmas Jones. Because "Indiana Jones" was already taken.

M, too, gets short shrift in the Brosnan years in that she's spectacularly stupid. She fails to realize Sean Bean's 006 is still alive, she fails to figure out that Sophie Marceau killed her father Sir Robert King (despite being very close to the family, though I guess we're supposed to believe it's because she so close she can't see clearly), and then doesn't work out that agent Miranda Frost—who volunteered for her assignment and yet has failed to turn in any useful information—isn't somehow working for the bad guy and against British Intelligence. Seriously, M, how have you managed to keep your job? Luckily, the Daniel Craig years are much better for her . . . At least until that "vacation" in Scotland.

But as to Die Another Day, I must say my memory of it was far worse than the film itself. All I could remember from that movie was the invisible car and the ice hotel (and then I tried to block the whole Madonna bit from memory), so I walked away with a general sense of, Well, that was stupid. But after re-viewing the movie, it is better than I remembered. Not the Madonna bit, which was still atrocious, but mercifully relatively brief. But the story itself is pretty solid, and the movie held my interest, which is more than I can say for The World Is Not Enough. Rosamund Pike as Miranda Frost lays it on a bit thick once her true nature is revealed, but she's not the worst of the Bond actresses, so . . .

Next up: Daniel Craig in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

12.27.2012

Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (in 2D at 24 fps)

You may recall I first saw and reviewed this film in IMAX 3D at 48 fps. So I'm not going to go through everything again, at least not as far as plot is concerned. What I've said before stands: they've tried to take a small story and make it more epic, have really tried to make The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings. It is not. And does not thrive for being stretched and pulled like so much taffy. But whatever.

What I can say in favor of watching this film the "old-fashioned way" is that it is far less headache- and nausea-inducing when viewed in 2D and at the "normal" frame rate. And while parts of it still look like rides at Disneyland, the cartoonish and fake feeling, the sense of being on a small film set, is far reduced here.

I did detect, however, the difference in the wide outdoor scenes, the blurring that comes when the camera is forced to move quickly. While I can applaud the cinematic efforts of Jackson and Co. for their attempts to make New Zealand that much more attractive (by being less blurry in fight scenes?), I don't think there are enough such moments to justify the higher frame rate that detracts from the rest of the film.

Okay, and maybe just a couple things about the plot. Does Gandalf really have to say, "you fools" in every movie? Is that a "thing" now? Seems gimmicky, a kind of fan service that backfires when people take notice. And geek fans always take notice.

And really. That council meeting in Rivendell . . . Again, the attempt to build a bigger, more sinister plot, and to tie these films to The Lord of the Rings . . . Also, Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel must be the Worst. Protectors of Middle-earth. Ever. if they can't figure out Saruman is evil. Seriously. I mean, we all know Gandalf is fallible. He knows it too, and that's what worries him—that others rely on him so much when he's not perfect and not always capable. But please at least tell me that at least one of them can pick up on Saruman's evil intent? Or give me a reason why they cannot, why they would deny or refuse to believe it, or why they would keep it to themselves if they did suspect.

I guess of all the options it's most likely they don't want to see or believe it. Rulers are like that. They want to pretend all is well because to do otherwise is, in their minds, to invite trouble. What they don't want to acknowledge is that trouble has already invited itself to dinner, so one must prepare a place for it at the table. Gandalf more or less says as much when he counters their arguments that all is peaceful in Middle-earth by pointing out all that is not peaceful. But still and all, the whole meeting is a bit overwrought with this need to fashion a much bigger story from more than just the book itself, instead dragging in all the ancillary material as so much embroidery. Truth is, some things in this world benefit from additional decoration. But some things are lovelier when left plain and simple.

12.26.2012

"St. Peter in Chains" Screenplay Advances

My short screenplay based on my novella "St. Peter in Chains" advanced to semi-finals in Table Read My Screenplay. I'm pretty proud of that. After a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection, to finally have been given a nod feels good. I'm currently working on the sequel to the novella, and once it's done I might even script it, too, and possibly combine it with the standing short script to come up with something longer. But I've got a lot of other projects on my plate, so we'll have to wait and see.

12.25.2012

Television: Doctor Who, "The Snowmen"

I understand that one of the things that makes Doctor Who fun is its silliness and, on the whole, low production values. Though "The Snowmen" looked better than an average episode (probably by benefit of being the Christmas special), it was no less silly in a number of ways. Oh, humorous too, but in a lot of ways just silly. Sentient snow? Crystalline entities? (Hey, I remember that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) And what really is just an ice version of a stone angel? Though I suppose this Great Intelligence will be returning to cause more mischief.

I guess what most bothered me while watching it was (a) ripping off the Game of Thrones catchphrase, and (b) overselling the Sherlock Holmes angle. Not just by the mentions of Doyle and Strand Magazine and by the Doctor dressing in signature cloak and deerstalker, but by the very fact that this new companion—who is something of a South Park Kenny in her ability to die on a regular basis—has been set up very like Lara Pulver's version of Irene Adler. She clever and a liar, and the actress even looks a bit like Pulver. (Oh, and are we doing the dead-not-really thing again?) Yes, Steven, we know you do that Sherlock show, but please try to do something original instead of simply swirling your spit from one side of your mouth to the other.

Lack of plain logic also irked me in spots. Why couldn't she get out of the carriage? She wasn't tied up. She'd gotten in easily enough. And then, when they did let her out, she didn't leave. So . . . What was the fuss about? And why are ice people the equivalent of the last day of humanity? What are ice people going to do, exactly? What reason do they have for eliminating flesh-and-blood people? Ice doesn't need to eat, just needs to stay cold. Even with human DNA . . . What does that accomplish? Frozen corpse zombies? These things were unclear and failed to make sense, the end result being I never felt the required tension of truly believing anything was at stake.

That said, "The Snowmen" did at least set up an [possibly] interesting dynamic of having the Doctor pursue this Clara person to figure out who (or what) she is. I suppose this is meant to set the tone for the remainder of the season, and perhaps longer, depending on how long she remains the Doctor's [would-be] companion. But still, what it boils down to is: the Doctor chasing a girl. I'm not entirely sold on that. The payoff will need to be pretty spectacular, the answer to who or what she is a real stunner. I won't hazard any guesses, though if I were the one writing it . . . She'd be some kind of personification of a fixed point, not in time so much as . . . Or maybe she's a Time Lady? Who regenerates in the same form? Or maybe she's just a distraction. They did that in Sherlock Holmes, too, remember. "Red-Headed League" and all. If you send the Doctor on a chase, what are you doing behind his back when he's not looking? Just a few interesting possibilities, off the top of my head. If I took time to really think about it, I could come up with more. But I have other things to do.

I wonder if the Doctor is the reason she ends up in/as a Dalek?

12.24.2012

Happy Holidays

. . . to all my faithful readers. Enjoying a rare break in the rain here in California.



Looking forward to a bright new year. Best to you all. ~M

12.23.2012

Amazon Book Reviews

There's been a lot of chatter over this NYT article about how Amazon has been deleting reviews. I'll put in that one or two reviews of my books have mysteriously disappeared, though it's not clear why since none of them were written by anyone I know, so I'm not sure what metric they're using to determine these things.

"Everyone's a critic," the old saying goes. But whether they're all honest critics seems to be the core question. And an honest opinion doesn't appear to be what some authors really want.

As a writer, I'll admit it's always a blow to see a bad review. No one wants to hear (read) that someone didn't like what they worked so hard to produce. And some reviewers are needlessly cruel. I think if Amazon really wants to police reviews, they should consider culling the personal attacks and only keep the reviews that say, if not something nice, at least something constructive. Go ahead and say what you don't like about the story, the writing, etc. That's fair. But "this writer is an idiot," is not a helpful comment.

But in equal measure, keep the reviews that mention what's good (or great) about the book in question. It's hard enough for us little indie writers to get any traction, so pulling the rug out from under us is kind of mean. At least give us a warning first. And do make an effort to truly establish whether there is real cause to remove the review. I have friends who like my writing; why shouldn't they be allowed to say as much? I have fans, too. Shouldn't they be permitted to write reviews for works they enjoy? It's a slippery slope.

Certainly there are red flags. When a book has dozens—hundreds, even—of reviews, all of them five star, I immediately assume this is too good to be true. No writer pleases every reader all the time. So I automatically figure the author has friends doing all the reviews. (It doesn't really cross my mind that the author has paid for reviews, though apparently this happens?) So I'm actually proud that my books aren't perfect fives. That shows, I think, that my reviewers are honest and the ratings more trustworthy.

And really, therein lies the issue. Amazon must know that, with potentially fake and questionable reviews rampant on their site, their credibility is on the line. Which is why they have begun slashing and burning. But I'm just not convinced this is the best way to fix the problem. I can't say I have some better solution—how can one hope to police so much information? But cutting suspect reviews won't restore the site's reputation. In fact, it only makes everything less reliable. And for those of us relying on those reviews to help our books along, those of us too small for the big sites and magazines to bother with, it's as much a problem for us as for Amazon. Because Amazon will lumber along, behemoth that it is, but we indie authors are likely to get squashed between its toes.

12.18.2012

Actors: Ewan McGregor

In our house we call him "fancy." I'm not even sure how that started. But I do like Ewan McGregor. People who know me know they can e-mail me pictures of Ewan to cheer me up when I'm down. Like this one:

See? Fancy!

No idea where it came from, or I promise I'd credit it. But it was simply sent to me. (If you know where it's from, or if it's yours, let me know and I'll credit it properly.)

Thing is, I don't have any kind of crush on Mr. McGregor. (My friend Anne, on the other hand . . .) Though I did have him in mind—or a younger version of him—when I wrote the character of Dixon in my play 20 August (which made the short list for a festival in Arundel last year but ended up not being produced). In any case, I like his movies. Most of them, anyway. Perhaps he has a knack for choosing good and/or interesting roles. That's key for an actor; it extends his or her longevity. People like Hugh Grant who ever only did one thing were sort of flash-and-fizzle (never minding his other issues); it works so long as there is an appetite for that kind of thing and a call for those roles, but in the ever changing world of Hollywood trends, very little lasts forever. Oh, there will always be a need for action heroes and cute-but-luckless guys and so forth, but when you're a flavor-of-the-month it's a bad sign. Better, so much better, to be slow and steady. That's the way to win the race in the end.

I won't belabor the point except to say, yet again, there is a big difference between an actor and a star. And actors are [sometimes but not always] easier to work with.

Anyway, Ewan has done a lovely job of trying a lot of different kinds of things, funny and dramatic and dark and light. He's done the big stuff like Star Wars and littler things like Beginners (which ended up being bigger in the end). And I have to say, he's one of very few actors who can draw me into a cinema just by name. Because his good sense in choosing solid roles means I can be relatively sure anything he's in will entertain me or at least give me food for thought.

I haven't seen The Impossible yet, but I want to. Should probably screen it before the various awards and such. But while viewing some of these movies is a chore, I'm usually pretty happy with anything Mr. McGregor has to offer. He's a treat.

And fancy.

12.16.2012

Bond at 50: The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill revisited

The Living Daylights is the first James Bond movie I can ever remember seeing. It seems unlikely that it was actually the first one I ever saw because my parents were big fans of the Sean Connery films, but The Living Daylights was certainly the first I sat down and watched with them with the understanding that I was watching James Bond. It was airing on network television at the time.

Later, Licence to Kill would become the first Bond movie I would see in a cinema. (Not, however, the first R movie I saw in the cinema because Lethal Weapon 2 came out first, and Dad took me to that one while Mom was away. She wouldn't have approved, and I was still too young to be admitted without an adult.) I remember liking it, though I was horrified at all the [imaginative] violence: the shark, the conveyor belt, the decompression chamber. Not that Lethal Weapon 2 had been any less violent, come to think of it. What the #$%@ was going on in 1989?

At any rate, Timothy Dalton was my first Bond. Sadly, his tenure was short. I must fall in a very singular slice of the populace to have Dalton as my coming-of-age idea of James Bond . . . But then, I had also been a Remington Steele fan, so Pierce Brosnan as Bond was not a huge leap for me to make. Though he was very different from Dalton, far more urbane, while Dalton was really more like Daniel Craig is now: a bit gritty, rougher around the edges.

Over the past couple weekends we've re-watched The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill on Blu-ray (beautiful transfers). I hadn't seen either since my original viewings, and my memory of them had been hazy. Prior to review, all I could remember of The Living Daylights was the pre-credits scene and sledding with a cello; for Licence to Kill I had a far clearer memory, though it mostly consisted of Timothy Dalton in an opulent bedroom, guest of a drug lord (it was the era of Miami Vice, after all).

In truth Licence to Kill in particular does not seem at all like a James Bond movie. For most of it, Bond doesn't even work for MI6, is instead out on a personal vendetta. The plot seems almost retro-fitted to be a Bond film; otherwise, it is a rather generic action picture about taking down a drug lord. And Carey Lowell's character seems to be a version of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Tasha Yar (especially after the haircut)—the same tough-girl attitude and all. Well, but Bond girls were never hired for their acting abilities, were they? Talisa Soto as Lupe, and even Maryam d'Abo in The Living Daylights—neither are stellar in their delivery; they're any of them really just there to look good in a tight dress and give Bond someone to save and/or kiss.

It was strange revisiting this old ground, and of course watching the movies forced me to conclude they aren't very good. At least not by current standards, and that's where things like this get tricky: having seen Skyfall so recently, and when one takes into consideration the changes over the years in aesthetic . . . One can't really make a call like that. Craig is the Bond for today, for our current world climate and our sense of style, and he has become my favorite James Bond as well. But Dalton—though I can't now appreciate The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill the way I did when I was twelve; I've grown up too much and the world has changed too much for that—will still always hold that special place in my heart as my first. Bond, that is.

Next up: to watch all the Pierce Brosnan Bond films. I remember my dad taking me to Goldeneye on Thanksgiving day . . .

12.14.2012

Television: Elementary, "The Leviathan"

In a twist on the typical Holmes portrayal, Elementary has opted to make the protagonist far more sexual. Maybe this is to play better for American audiences? After all, Americans can't always detect sexual tension if they aren't clear that sex is an option. Meanwhile, Brits like to rely on repression as a way for building that tension.

Watson, on the other hand, is perhaps more ascetic, though it's been made clear she's had relationships, so she's not entirely asexual. While this flips the usual Watson-and-Holmes dynamic (Watson normally being the womanizer), it plays old-school in that here the woman is monogamous while the leading man proves his attractiveness by rotating through bedmates.

As for the story: Holmes is hired to find out how someone managed to get through a top-of-the-line security system (the titular Leviathan) and, via some convoluted plotting, ends up on the trail of a group of jurors who became a den of thieves. And since we've more or less discovered Elementary can't do anything more than murders, one of the jurors begins killing the others.

B Story? Watson's family insists she attend a get-together when her brother and his girlfriend come to town. She pleads having to take care of her client, but Holmes goes behind her back and breaks into her phone to text Watson's brother that she'll be there—and will be bringing Holmes with her. Watson accuses Holmes of wanting to put her family under a microscope, but I'd say it's more likely he wants to observe her "in her natural habitat" or some such.

Holmes does a nice turn for Watson by winning her family's respect not only for himself but for Watson, but of course demurs when Watson attempts to thank him. The dinner and cab scenes sum up everything I really enjoy about this show.

Meanwhile, the jury members must wonder why some British dude is thanking them for doing their civic duties; after all, he wouldn't be eligible to sit on a jury himself. Via a process of elimination that mostly has to do with which jurors died and which didn't, plus Watson noticing that a blood sample leading back to a completely unrelated person is connected to a marrow transplant, Holmes & Co. finally figure out who dunnit.

Watson's mother comes to visit to urge her to stick with Holmes even after her time as his sober companion is up. After all, Watson has never seemed happier than when helping Holmes solve cases. (Really? What's she like when she's unhappy, I wonder?) It's certainly nice to see some progress in this arena. Though I wouldn't want things to move too fast, and they've done a nice job of slowly growing the relationship between Holmes and Watson, there's also a danger of being too subtle for too long. This episode's hints were pitch perfect, and the complexity of the relationship is a wonderful seasoning over what would be relatively bland procedural plots.

9 Minutes of Star Trek

. . . which we've decided is really just a game tweens play at sleepovers when they're not brave enough to play Truth or Dare or Spin the Bottle. (Or what was that game? Seven Minutes in Heaven?)

But seriously, folks, while I am a lifelong Star Trek fan and very much enjoyed the first J. J. Abrams film, I have reservations about this one. I see the Enterprise under water and can only think, Oh, so the goal was to stick the Enterprise in a place no one has tried yet. Boldly go and all that jazz. Or maybe I'm just jaded.

The core of the clip was Spock trying to neutralize a volcano while Kirk and Bones run away from angry natives on some planet where they weren't supposed to interfere with the locals (merely help them by quietly stopping their volcano from erupting, I suppose). And of course Spock, wearing some derivative of one of Tony Stark's Iron Man suits, gets trapped in the volcano and tells everyone they must leave him behind. "The good of the many," as the old movie said, but wait! They use it here again too! How clever.

So while Uhura hyperventilates at the thought of losing her main squeeze, Kirk tries to figure out a way to save Spock and everyone else. He asks Bones what Spock would do (WWSD?) and Bones grimly informs him, "He would let you die." Not helpful, but thanks for your input.

All this is bookended with what I assume is meant to be impressive displays of villainy on the part of Benedict Cumberbatch's unnamed malefactor, but this is mostly conveyed by his angular hair and him smirking a lot, so whatever. "Family" seems to be the key motivation for this character. Is he channeling an inner Ricardo Montalban? I guess we'll find out. (If I had to guess—and it's a shot into darkness—maybe he's created a "family" of enhanced humans or something? Of which Uhura may or may not be a member? Since I assume she's the child at the beginning of the clip?)

In all, I'm not sold. The tactics used in this "sneak peek" were too transparent for me to buy in. I'll see the movie, of course, but my anticipation level was not heightened by these nine minutes.

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (in IMAX 3D at 48 fps)


Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage
Directed By: Peter Jackson
Written By: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line, 2012
PG-13; 169 min
3.5 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

There being so many possible ways to view this film, I felt it necessary to note in the post title exactly what form I was treated to. Which is to say, this review speaks specifically to this format of the film and may not be true of all versions.

That may seem like an odd thing to say, since the content of the film is expected to be the same over all possible viewing formats. But certainly each is different and presents a somewhat unique audience experience. (The fact that I saw this movie at midnight on opening night, too, could contribute to my feelings toward the movie, though in what way I'm not entirely sure.)

I'll start with the fact that the story itself is . . . average. To be clear, I have loved Tolkien's book since I was a child, far more than his Lord of the Rings, which I was never able to get through no matter how often I tried to read it. But The Hobbit is both a simple story and a masterpiece of detail; like a Hobbit, the book has a lot packed into a very small body. Here that has been pulled out like taffy, but not nearly as sweet. I'd liken it to that old torture favorite the rack, but it's not as bad as all that, either. It's just . . . not great.

I expected, of course, the Bilbo-and-Frodo frame story, but the return of Ian Holm and Elijah Wood gave nothing to the narrative; in fact, something was lacking there. I wondered whether the actors wanted to be involved at all, or if they'd merely been pressed into it and were (particularly in Wood's case) simply eager to be done.

Then, too, the inclusion of Sylvester McCoy as Radagast . . . I understand his character is meant to be lighthearted but I was left feeling like I'd fallen into a Disney movie whenever he was on screen. He seemed to come from somewhere else entirely, a whole other film, so that instead of adding to the movie I was trying to watch he more seemed to be interrupting it.

Now I certainly understand the writers' drive to pull everything together and so their seeming need to tell all about the Necromancer and such—in fact, I'm curious to see more of it in the other films. So I can't say all the extensions are without merit. But some of it, like the need to add this pale orc boogeyman as an additional enemy for Thorin (Armitage, doing his best to be the next best thing to Viggo Mortenson's Aragorn) . . . As a writer I do "get it" and all the reasons for it, but as a viewer and lover of the book, I'm more like: blergh.

I've also come to the conclusion that Martin Freeman chooses (or is chosen for) exactly one kind of role in his career. From Arthur Dent to John Watson to Bilbo (sorry, but I've only seen a few episodes of the UK The Office, so that may be different), there are two questions that any character Freeman plays must be able—possibly required—to ask at least once: "What are we doing?" and/or "Are you sure this is a good idea?" (Permissible variations are: "Where are we going?" and/or "Is this safe?") In short, Freeman does timid go-along quite well. He suits Bilbo, or maybe Bilbo suits him, just fine. But it's nothing amazing.

Also not amazing: the HFR (48 fps as opposed to the standard 24). Now here is where the various viewing formats mix in. I've seen plenty of IMAX movies, and I've seen 3D movies, and I've seen IMAX 3D movies. So I'm guessing the problems I had with my viewing of The Hobbit stem from the HFR. But I'm really only working from process of elimination. I'd have to go watch it in some other format to know for sure. (And maybe HFR works great but not in 3D or not in IMAX—what I'm saying is, I'll allow that there could be some workable combination.)

BUT. As far as IMAX 3D HFR? No thanks. Besides giving me a headache and making me nauseous toward the end of the film, everything that should have been impressive . . . wasn't. Instead, the HFR made it all look like an old made-for-TV movie. Everything seemed close and small and very set-like. Excepting the wide outdoor scenes, everything else appeared remarkably false. What I'm trying to say is, it brought attention to the fact I was watching a movie and made things less real as opposed to more. It was distracting.

So what can I say? I score The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as slightly better than average. And maybe if I hadn't had such hopes and expectations for it, I would have counted it better. But that last trilogy is a tough act to follow. I get that, too. But on the other side, if I didn't already love the book, I might have given the movie a lower score. So I think the biases balance out in the end and my rating is fair. I can hope for better from the next installment.

Or maybe I shouldn't hope too hard.

12.12.2012

Books: "1301: The Marquis" by Christine Rains

This tightly written, fast-paced novella heralds the start of Rains' The 13th Floor, a series of supernatural tales about the denizens of a hidden or non-existant floor in an old building in Carmine, Indiana. Each story will have a room number and tenant, six in total, and a new novella will be available every month from now through May 2013.

In "1301" the central character is Marc, once known as The Grand Marquis—a retired demon just trying to make a life for himself in the purgatory that is the world. The novella opens with Marc being confronted by a couple demons, one of which decides to make a personal project of tormenting Marc and trashing his town. Though the characters are quite clearly written, I might have liked a little more backstory here, a little more of Marc's previous relationship or dealings with this demon (whose name is Vetis).

As a character, Marc plays a bit like Hellboy of comic and film fame, though at least he has the luxury of looking human except when driven to use his latent demonic powers. Stoic and solitary, Marc nevertheless has developed a bit of a crush on a local café owner, a tenderhearted woman named Mae who serves coffee to ex-demons (if unknowingly) and local prostitutes (knowingly) alike. Though it's the frat boys who are the real troublemakers. Well, and Vetis.

Rains packs a number of action sequences into this short form, but when it comes to Marc's interior monologue she has a habit of telling more than showing; though the reader is assured many times over of Marc's love and devotion to Mae, at least in words, I felt little romantic tension. And Mae herself is almost too good to be true, and therefore suffers for lack of character flaws to make her human. (Unless she's not? Is she literally an angel? Perhaps more will be revealed in other stories in the series.) Marc, on the other hand, carries more than his fair share of failings. Well, they do say opposites attract.

What "1301" does very well, however, is set the tone for the other stories in this series by offering tidbits about the other residents of the titular 13th floor. I'll admit I'm curious to read more about each of them: the vampire Kiral, Harriet (a witch?), the harpy mentioned in passing . . . I'm waiting to see how it all ties in and plays out. The building is a character in and of itself, as is Carmine—there's something Stephen King-ish about the setup here: an odd little town populated with strange and interesting "people." It's intriguing. So despite a few weak spots, I'll definitely be reading more of this series. Nothing's perfect, after all.

Except maybe Mae.

12.10.2012

Books: Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson


Imogen Robertson
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2010
392 pages
Hardbound
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Last year I read Robertson's Instruments of Darkness and liked it very well, and I like this book, which continues the adventures of Mr. Crowther and Mrs. Westerman, equally as much. Fans of Sherlock Holmes might be inclined to count Crowther and Westerman as a sort of Holmes-and-Watson team (though Robertson's books are set a century earlier than the Great Detective's era), but I don't think that's quite true; Crowther and Westerman are more like a divided Holmes, with Mr. Crowther as the scientifically minded, quiet one and Mrs. Westerman the more animated personage, though her mind is equally quick, if not as streamlined in its efforts. But no matter how you choose to parse it, I think anyone who enjoys Holmes would also enjoy these books by Robertson.

I'll take a moment to say, though, that this book must have been rushed to press. There were numerous glaring typos in the copy I was reading (courtesy of my local library). The map at the front of the book, in fact, has a date of 1871 while the story itself is supposedly set in 1781. I found many such problems throughout. I do hope all those have been fixed in subsequent printings, and I suggest a more careful proofreader.

All right, but as to the story. Mrs. Westerman's husband, a sea captain, has come home with a head injury. Meanwhile, on the heels of their recent, if dubious, triumph (read Instruments of Darkness for that tale), Mr. Crowther and Mrs. Westerman are approached by the Admiralty to investigate the murder of a potential French spy. I'd say "hilarity ensues," but that's hardly the case.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story a Tarot card reader tries to warn a patron of something bad that's about to happen to her, and sure enough the woman is murdered. As she did in Instruments of Darkness, Robertson plaits the two narratives into one another in tidy fashion. And while the insertion of something so metaphysical as Tarot seems somewhat incongruous next to the logic of Crowther and Westerman, and also there is some amount of coincidence that stretches the reader's ability to believe that in all of large London these things could truly come together so neatly, the novel still works on the whole.

I realize I am a bit behind in the series, seeing as Island of Bones has recently been released and Circle of Shadows is soon forthcoming. I shall have to pick those up at some point in time. So far, Robertson and her characters have not failed to please.

12.08.2012

Television: The Office & 30 Rock

So two of NBC's comedies are finishing up their seasons this year. 30 Rock will wrap up shortly and The Office will end its run in the spring. I've enjoyed both these shows and will be sorry to see them go, but I know it's time for them to end. My biggest fear is that there will be nothing to fill the holes they leave behind.

In truth, The Office has been weak since the loss of Steve Carrell. It's clear they'd exhausted the use of his character, but perhaps the show should have ended with his exit. Instead there has been watery attempts to fill that corner office with limited results. James Spader's turn as Robert California was funny and strange but difficult to sustain. And Andy Bernard taking over has been a small disaster; his character has become not only unfunny but downright unlikable, especially with his vendetta against Catherine Tate's Nellie (she, I must say, has been a fantastic addition to the show), which I suppose might be designed to mimic Michael Scott's (Carrell) hatred of Toby but here seems far harsher. The show has benefitted greatly from Andy's absence the past few weeks.

As for 30 Rock, again, very tough to sustain that kind of absurd comedy. How many insane situations can one come up with? Well, a lot, and as 30 Rock slides toward its finale, things are getting ever crazier and yet . . . Saner? The show has hit a fabulous sweet spot, like the glory of the sun touching the ocean right before it sinks into darkness. The proverbial "beautiful sunset" as Liz gets married and straightens out her life while still being the character we've all come to love making fun of.

Comedy is truly a difficult genre because the goal is ultimately to up the stakes while always maintaining balance and the status quo. Characters in dramas are allowed to grow and change, but in comedy the rule is to keep things the same. It's only now, as The Office and 30 Rock are ending, that the characters can do things like find new jobs, move away, get married, and generally be happy. For characters in sitcoms, the end of a series is a release. Fly free, Dwight, Jim, Liz, Tracy! (Just don't poop on anyone, okay?)

I hope NBC (now on an upswing after years of being at the bottom of the heap) can find more funny fare to fill the voids of these two shows. I won't mourn the passing of The Office and 30 Rock because I know it's their time to go, and it would be far worse to cling to the moldering bodies. But they leave two big holes to plug in the schedule, and the typical zany family sitcom won't suit these audiences. Fingers crossed something just as fun and antic as The Office and 30 Rock be found.

12.07.2012

Ballot Season

I have Variety's little calendar of awards season on my desk to tell me when nominations and ballots are due for the bazillion awards that will be handed out over the next couple of months. It doesn't do me any good, though, because I don't have an actual calendar in my office, so I never know what day it is. I feel about Tuesday the way Eddie Izzard does in that bit about the Sea of Tranquility. "Tuesday? Is this Tuesday?" (If you don't know what I mean, you've just dropped by a significant amount in my estimation.)

I got a ballot in the mail the other day (don't ask because I'm not telling), except not really because it told me to go vote online. OR, if I didn't want to do that, I had to mail back something that told them to send me an actual ballot. Look, it's already a crazy system, folks, why are you giving me more steps? (Well, not "me" because I'll do the online thing, but I know a lot of people would rather not; asking some of them to create or remember a login is too much.) And at this time of year, when there's already a million other things going on . . . I've got a huge list of films to see . . . Oh, and there are holidays. Remember those?

Speaking of which, I have a party to get to. Ballot will have to wait.

12.06.2012

Television: Elementary, "You Do It to Yourself"

Nothing worse than a sick Sherlock Holmes. He's already a brat; not feeling well makes him more impossible than ever. Not that it slows him down as he sniffs out the murderer of a university professor with a gambling addiction.

Meanwhile, Watson gets pulled in by an old client boyfriend who asks for help clearing his name in a hit-and-run. Her utter reluctance to come to his aid is interesting given that she's usually written as emotionally generous, which leads viewers to believe there is more to this relationship than we've been given (or, alternatively, the writing on the show has gotten so sloppy as to sacrifice truth in character development for convenience in plotting). Holmes calls Watson out on her assumption that her ex must be guilty and gives her his file so she can come to a more informed conclusion.

The murder investigation moves forward at lightning speed: video footage of an Asian gambling parlor reveals the shooter, who was hired via cell phone, ostensibly by the professor's TA . . . But of course we all know (Holmes included) that this can't be true because the hour is only half over.

Can I just take a moment to say the attempted humor between Bell and Holmes ("Do you want to ask me how I knew that?"), while appreciated, fell flat. Write it funnier next time guys, and have the actors deliver it better.

After going through the standard Rolodex of potential perpetrators, Holmes finally concludes the victim arranged his own murder. I suppose it was only a matter of time before we had one of those storylines.

Nicely understated in this episode was that interplay between Holmes and Watson that I've come to enjoy: not only his nudging her to use the data rather than her assumptions, but his interest in the idea she might have slept with a client is a balletic step toward the idea that he might be interested, and the way his fuss about Watson's herbal tea later morphed into grudging admittance of its potency, and the turned tables in the final scene in which Holmes is the one to be there for Watson . . . All very well done. More of that if you will, writers.

But please, let's not make the product placement so very obvious. And if you're going to have Holmes sick and feverish, do something with it as a plot point (herbal tea notwithstanding). That could have been put to so much better and more entertaining use as a setup.


12.04.2012

Movies: The Dark Knight Rises


Starring: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy (kind of), Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gary Oldman
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Written By: Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan (screenplay), Christopher Nolan & David S. Goyer (story) from characters created by Bob Kane
Warner Bros., 2012
R; 165 min
3.75 stars (out of 5)

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Go on and be angry at me for not giving this film five stars, but really, though it's a good movie, it certainly wasn't as good as all the hype I heard had led me to believe it would be.

This is, of course, the backhanded thing about rave reviews. When a person walks into a movie with no to low expectations, it's easy to wow them. When they walk in expecting to be wowed, it's much, much harder to pull off. (Also, I've seen some really great movies lately, so maybe this one simply suffered by comparison.)

Now to be fair, I'm also the kind of person to get distracted by logic and the lack thereof, so when Bane is going around wanting to destroy Gotham—or, as he puts it, wanting to "give it back to the people" (via anarchy I guess?)—I couldn't help thinking, Why? What is it about Gotham and its fundamental bureaucracy that's got him so upset? It's easy to try and cover the whole thing with a sort of blanket, "Well, he's a terrorist. In fact, he's the terrorists even the terrorists didn't want," but I need more than that. So I sat through a good portion of this movie thinking it was either very poorly planned on the side of character development and motivation (being in a pit as a child makes you mad at Gotham?) or that there had to be another explanation. Which there is. But it doesn't come until the very, very end of this longer-than-average film. I know it's supposed to be a big reveal or twist or whatever, but for me it was just more of a relief. And that's not what you should want the end of your movie to be: a relief.

The other thing that bothered me about this movie was the ADR for Tom Hardy's character. (I'm assuming it was ADR of some kind, since I'm sure he could hardly be heard in that mask.) It just didn't jive with the fact that I knew it was Tom Hardy, didn't sound like what I thought he should sound like . . . I'm sure they were going for a Darth Vader intimidation kind of thing, but I found it oddly vertiginous. And then I started thinking it had to suck to have to be wearing that mask all the time. It didn't look comfortable, the way the skin of his face puffed out around it. So, in short, I guess I found a lot of the details in this movie distracting.

There's a lot going on in The Dark Knight Rises, too, which means no one gets much to do outside of hitting their plot points. This goes back to lack of character development except in places where it promotes the plot. Oh! So Blake was also a orphan! Well, that explains his dedication to helping the boys at the orphanage, which sets him up to confront Bruce Wayne about funding and . . . Nod, nod. The people in this film are not people so much as facilitators for the story. Which is itself rather messy with so much going on in it. It's built like a rubber band ball, with many layers and the bands cross and even tangle, but at the end of the day it's just a wad of rubber that will leave your hands smelling funny if you handle it too much.

Sorry, that's not the best metaphor. But it's late.

In the end, the film—meant to be the last of Nolan's Batman trilogy—is as neatly formed as said rubber band ball, everything and everyone in proper place. It is not an unsatisfying end by any means. And despite all the mess, the movie is entertaining (when one is not distracted by wondering why the streets are so clean and clear if Bane has dismantled the infrastructure of the city and, in fact, ruined the roads and buildings in many places). It's only that, after hearing so many wonderful things about The Dark Knight Rises, I felt a bit disappointed. It is a movie that is plotted so thoroughly and filmed so carefully it loses some of the interest that rough edges could have given it.

12.03.2012

Actors: Gary Oldman

You know what I like about Gary Oldman? He can act.

This may seem obvious to you, to say an actor can act, but not all of them can. In fact, the more of a star you become, the less of an actor you generally are. (I know; I've worked with my share of both actors and stars. There is a distinct difference.)

I have not had the pleasure of working with Mr Oldman. But I always enjoy seeing him in a movie, whether as a lead or in a supporting role. Gary Oldman is actually capable of being more than one person, more than one kind of person or character, and that's what makes him a fantastic actor. He, you know, does the job. He can be funny; he can be the straight man; he can be the all-out, over-the-top villain, or just the bad guy who thinks he's doing the right thing; he can be the quiet one . . . Love-lorn vampire prince? Check. Wizardly godfather/mentor who can transform into a big dog? Got it. Beethoven and Sid Vicious? Uh-huh. Drab ex-MI6 agent? Yup. Drab police commissioner for Gotham City? ::nodding:: Various space cases such as Zorg and Dr Smith? Pimp? Russian terrorist? Yes, yes, and yes! Always believable in whatever role he inhabits. He's amazing.

Stars, by contrast, tend to go from being actors to being a "type." Once they start using you as a pitch archetype, it's pretty much all over. If I were to say, "We'd need a Tom Cruise type for this role," you'd know exactly what I mean. Or a "Matt McConaughey type" (though he's working to break out of that) or a "Bruce Willis type" or whatever. These are more than big names with big paydays (stars), they are actors that have found a niche and have been more or less consigned to playing the same kinds of characters and roles again and again. They are a cinematic shorthand so that audiences know, going in, exactly what to expect of the movie they are about to see. It makes them safe bets for studios but really boring in the long run. It makes one wonder whether the stars are incapable of wider range or simply too lazy to do anything different.

What you don't hear in pitch meetings is "a Gary Oldman type." Because no one knows what that is.* He's all kinds of types and people, he's all over the map, because he's an actor. And that's fucking awesome.

*Here is what would happen if someone pitched "a Gary Oldman type":
Studio Exec: Gary Oldman in what? Batman Gary Oldman?
Producer: No, I'm thinking more like Dracula Gary Oldman. (to writer) That's what you mean, right?
Director: No, no, that—what kind of bullshit is that? That doesn't even make sense! This is True Romance all the way.
Hell, I'd say it in a meeting just to watch them argue over it. That'd be fun.

Books: Stuff I've Written (updated)

I've listed these before, but there's a new e-book available now to add to your stack. You can find all these on my official site PepperWords, but I'm also going to list them here for you in order of publication. All are available on Amazon in Kindle format.

12.02.2012

Movies: Love Actually


Starring: Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman
Directed By: Richard Curtis
Written By: Richard Curtis
Universal, 2003
R; 135 min
3 stars (out of 5)

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I saw this movie back when it first came out, not in the cinema but as a rental. I didn't really remember anything about it except that I'd come away vaguely unsatisfied by the whole experience, and so over time had the sense that I didn't much like this movie. But every year about this time a good many of my friends will begin to say, "Oh, and I've got to watch Love Actually! It's a modern Christmas classic!" So I began to wonder whether I'd missed something and it was better than I remembered and decided to watch it again.

Conclusion: Love Actually is better perhaps than average, but only just. Certainly, I see why people watch it at Christmas, and on the whole the storylines are hopeful, some bittersweet, but all generally palatable. But I also question the need for some of the plotlines, many of which are little more than sketches—did there used to be more of them but these were cut down for time? Why not remove them entirely then, make a whole other film? And was Rowan Atkinson supposed to be some kind of Christmas angel? I hope so, because I like that idea; I only wish there'd been more of that.

I don't know whether Love Actually was the first of these kinds of movies that take a number of plots and tie them up into a bouquet of sorts at the end (think: Valentine's Day and the like), but it must have at least been very early in that line. Although here the flowers are only tenuously held by loose ribbon: the prime minister's sister lives in the same neighborhood as his love interest, who lives next door to the woman Alan Rickman's character is . . . Well, and so on. And some of the links aren't even that clear, so that at the end it's just a bunch of people meeting at an airport, and I was sitting there asking, They know each other? Were we supposed to know that? So that it appears mostly to be a matter of convenience, or maybe just a wrap party with the cameras still running.

I take exception, too, to the portrayal of American women in this film. Was that Harriet girl supposed to be from Texas? Though I have to say, I'm not all that surprised. I travel to London pretty regularly, and I've been asked more than once by people there, after learning I'm originally from Texas, (a) where my hat is, (b) where my boots are, (c) why I don't have an accent, and/or (d) what kind(s) of horse(s) do I own. The first time a British person asked me these things, I laughed because I thought he was joking. He wasn't. And more often than not, when I'm asked these questions while traveling, they are posed in all seriousness.

Love Actually does please me, however, in confirming my deeply held belief that Liam Neeson would be the best dad ever. He's about the same age as my dad, so if he's ever looking to adopt . . . Really, though, it takes a lot to make me tear up, but that moment in which Neeson's character watches his son get a kiss from his (the son's) crush—yeah, okay, my eyes tingled a little just then.

For the most part, I liked Love Actually, though I felt it rough in a lot of places. And maybe that's a difference in cinematic styles; in my experience American films tend to be very slick and shiny, British films less so. Love Actually has a strange and interesting blend of the realistic (a family scarred by a husband's toying with his assistant while the wife tends to hearth and home, a man trying to get over the death of his wife, young love) and the fantastic (like the ugly British guy going to America and coming back with pretty girls, or the guy learning Portuguese so he can propose to a woman he's never even been able to speak to, or Hugh Grant as Prime Minister—and Emma Thompson's older brother). Therefore it comes off as half slick and shiny and half gritty, and then with all the stories that only enter in marginally (the Keira Knightly bit, and the porn star stand-ins, and Bill Nighy), there's something slightly unfinished about the whole thing. Even the stories that we're supposed to take as neatly wrapped up (like Christmas gifts?) don't really feel finished. But maybe that's the point. Life and love don't begin and end in handy plotlines; they are rough and unfinished, at least until you bow out and exit the stage.