Monday, July 30, 2007

Comic-Con International: San Diego -- A Retrospective

I am still feeling the lingering exhaustion of our annual trip to what used to be known as the San Diego Comic-Con; but is now Comic-Con: San Diego. But most of my photos are up now on Photobucket.

I had ambitions of posting blog entries and photos during the con; but the wrinkle in that plan was the meltdown of the con hotel reservation system, which resulted in every room in the convention block being reported as reserved within minutes of reservations going on-line. As a result, we ended up at the Holiday Inn on Hotel Circle, about eight miles from the convention center. Fortunately, despite the dire warnings on the con Website about nonexistent downtown parking, we got to town early every day and found covered parking at a building a block from Petco Park. It was a fair walk (seven blocks) from the convention center -- a trek complicated by the freight train that passed in front of the center every morning and night -- but it beat relying on public transportation to get to the center.

Here are some highlights -- and low-lights -- from this year's convention:

--As the above photo shows, Hollywood's love affair with Comic-Con (which waxed with the evolution of the Web, which allows thousands of attendees to rave or rant online as soon as they've seen the latest film preview) continues unabated. One of the best-looking previews I saw was the one at the Warner Brothers panel for the movie remake of GET SMART. Generally I think little of movie remakes of TV series -- particularly comedies -- but this one, starring Steve Carrell as Maxwell Smart, The Rock as his mentor, Anne Hathaway as 99, Alan Arkin as The Chief, Terence Stamp as Siegfried, and Masi Oka from HEROES as an armorer, looks delightful. Reportedly, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry are giving their blessing to this one (especially since it will likely make them a few more sheckels).

--Another highlight of the Warner Brothers panel was the presentation for the upcoming WATCHMEN movie. This project has been in and out of several film creators' hands for over twenty years; but if anyone can get it made, it's Zack Snyder. Snyder showed his adaptation chops this year by making a version of Frank Miller's 300 that had no stars, and yet grossed huge amounts of dinars. Here he poses with the poster WATCHMEN artist Dave Gibbons drew for the film project.

-- But the most exciting film project for me was the preview at the Marvel Studios panel for Jon Favreau's IRON MAN film.

The flick wrapped principle photography last month; and according to Favreau, because he prefers "practical" special effects (i.e., those done on-camera and in the camera) to CGI, the film will not require huge amounts of post-production. Favreau showed four minutes of footage, selected, he said, not to sell the movie to those unfamiliar with the character, but to convince comics fans that he was doing Shellhead right. And, speaking as someone who's been a Marvel fan for over 30 years, he nailed it.

In the footage, Robert Downey, Jr. portrayed IM's alter ego, Tony Stark, as a character reminiscent of Joe Gideon in ALL THAT JAZZ: an arrogant jerk who is so charismatic that people love him despite themselves. He's the sort who will pose for a photo with a soldier; but when the soldier flashes a peace sign, Stark snaps, "No gang signs." And the scenes with the armor. My goodness, people. The scenes with Stark clunking around in the early "Mark I" armor, battling a squad of soldiers, looked taken straight out of Shellhead's first appearance in TALES OF SUSPENSE. And the closing scenes in the trailer, where IM's red-and-gold armor is rocketing through the air, out-running F-16's . . . well, I was suddenly 12 years old again, buying comics at the 7-11 on a warm summer night.

Above is a photo with Favreau, Downey, and co-stars Terence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow.

I was not among those who were lucky enough to see the Mark I armor in all its glory at the Marvel booth; but I did get to see the massive crate in which it was housed -- and to snap a picture when the handler cracked open the crate to give us a glimpse of the gleaming cargo inside.

More photos and con reminisces later. For now, I'll leave you with a photo of Willy Wonka, who's beside himself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Irony Alert!

Jenna Jameson will be lending her likeness to a new comic book: "Shadow Hunter." The publisher? Uh . . . Virgin Comics.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Finished It!

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, that is. Now no one can spoil it for me!

Fastest 759 pages I've ever read.

No spoilers, but I do think it's the best of all the books. And if the eventual movie version (slated for 2009 or 2010) stays faithful to the book, they're going to drain the investors dry paying for it.

Same Bat-Pillow, Same Bat-Case

Of all the Batman collectibles in my collection, this is definitely the one that I've owned (or that has at least been in the family) the longest: a pillowcase with a print made up of Batman characters, sound effects, and the Batmobile.

Although, like most 1960's Batman collectibles, the pillowcase is copyrighted 1966 and was released as a piece of merchandising for the TV show, the artwork is done more or less in the style of the comic book, rather than the show. At ;east some of the art is traced from comic-book art; the shot of the Riddler holding a crossword puzzle as a shield, for instance, is a poorly-done trace of a splash page published in Batman # 179.

I don't know if this pillowcase was purchased for me or for (more likely) my brother Michael, but it graced my pillow many times when I was in single digits. Who knows how many dreams it influenced

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Monday, July 16, 2007

"I Must Not Tell Lies"

This past weekend I (like a good chunk of the world's population)went to see HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. As anyone who has read the book knows, Harry's world darkens considerably in this story. It comes off the climax of the previous book (and movie), which featured murder, graverobbing, dismemberment, mayhem, and torture of a child -- pretty much in that order. This story takes that atmosphere of joy and pretty much spreads it through the whole installment.

Voldemort and his power-hungry sycophants loom large in the story, of course, but the central villains are exponentially scarier --because they are so realistic. Those blackguards would be, of course, Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge (who proves full of "fudge" indeed) and his toady, Delores Umbridge. Umbridge -- played to perfection by Imelda Staunton -- is the treacle-voice Ministry bigwig who arrives at Hogwarts ostensibly as the latest Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher (a job akin to drummer for Spinal Tap), but in fact as the political officer meant to keep Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and especially Harry in step with the Ministry's party line.

Yes, it's the first post-9/11 Harry Potter novel, and the one that brings political satire to the fore. The plot hints of Britain under Blair and America under Cheney -- er, Bush; but Rowling did not tie it to any particular time or government -- it also contains elements of pre-World War II England under Chamberlain.

Meanwhile, Harry himself is dealing not only with the normal adolescent moodiness, but also his Dickensian history: his abusive upbringing; the horrors he's encountered; and in particular, big doses of survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the end of the previous installment. All that makes for one tense magic-boy. Daniel Radcliffe,who's grown tremendously as an actor, gives life to a Harry who's increasingly deep -- who goes to school and takes exams, but is plainly not just a kid anymore.

The movie adaptation of this story is perhaps the most economic of all of the HP movies. One of the benefits of constantly changing directors after the first two movies is that no one installment (again, after the first two) looks or feels like any other. Chapters one and two were brightly-colored jewelry boxes; chapter three was a painting; chapter four was a transition from light to dark. This one shows Potter's magical universe cracking around him, as nearly all of his adult support systems either distance themselves from him or are taken away. Director David Yates (who, incredibly, reportedly makes his feature debut with this $250 million movie) establishes the mood with the first, brilliant scene: Harry sitting in a nearly-deserted playground, clearly smack-dab in our world, drenched in late-summer sun, watching with quiet envy as a mother plays with her young child. Along the way, Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg manage to shove in major adult characters from all of the previous movies -- plus a passel of new characters -- build suspense, show some spectacular action and set pieces, and yet devote lots of quality time to Harry, Ron, Hermione, and even their pubescent supporting cast. None of the character scenes with the kids seem rushed, even as the plot moves inexorably forward.

I don't want to give the impression that it's all doom and gloom. There's lots of visual fun too. I may be jaded by watching decades of special effects, but I still watched amazed as Harry and a passel of wizards (each on a broom reflecting that character's personality) zoom low over the Thames, dodging ships; or when a yuppie apartment building in downtown London telescopes out to reveal Sirius Black's family manse. Then there's the slam-bang finale -- perhaps the best of all the novels published so far -- in which everybody throws down heavy and goes to wand city.

Although the movie, like the previous two, slices out huge gobbets of the book's plot in a Procrustean effort to fit a fat book into a thin playing time, it adds to the story as well. In the hands of gifted actor Alan Rickman, Snape -- who often comes across in the novels as a one-note mustache twirler -- is lent depth; even as he verbally tears into Harry, and commits the unforgivable crime of visiting Harry's fathers sins upon the son, there is a weird sense of paternal caring when Snape tutors Harry in blocking mind-probes. When he tells Harry, "Life -- is -- unfair," he's not taunting the boy; he's giving him sound advice. Similarly, first-time actress Evanna Lynch gives Rowling's "wise fool," the moon-eyed Luna Lovegood, a caring and affection (and attraction) for Harry that is at most implied in the books.

This is a terrific installment in the series. It deserves the success it's receiving.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Comic-Con Sells Out!

I've attended Comic-con International:San Diego (formerly the San Diego Comic-Con) every year since 1989; and also attended the '87 and '80 cons. To my knowledge, this is unprecedented: The four-day memberships to the con are sold out.

I should have foreseen this when we tried to get a hotel room several months ago. Although we hit the hotel Website as soon as con-rate hotels became available, those rooms were booked immediately. We ended up with a reservation at a Holiday Inn in Mission Valley, eight miles from the convention center. That leaves the issue of traveling to the con every day, since parking around the center is almost impossible to get. Our current plan is to park near one of the hotels on the convention shuttle route and then take the shuttle in. We can pretty much write off any early-morning programs we might otherwise have attended.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Wi-Fi Watering Holes: The Funnel Mill

My bike ride today brought me to the recently-opened Funnel Mill Rare Coffee and Tea at 930 Broadway, Suite A, in Santa Monica.

This place is like no other coffee house I've ever seen. It's in a large, airy room, with tastefully chosen art, strategically-placed coffee and tea apparatus, and eclectic furniture. Unlike the normal coffee house's thrift-store-chic furnishings, the furniture here is upscale; the front room has comfy saddle-leather sofas and chairs. New-agey Asian music plays softly in the background.

The main attraction, however, is the coffee and tea selection. Funnel Mill features siphon brewing, like nearby Cafe Balcony; but unlike Balcony, it has over 200 varieties of coffee available. These range from the $3 a cup house blend (which I had -- it was terrific) to the Moet & Chandon of coffee: Kopi Luwak from Indonesia, which retails for $60 a cup or $450 a pound! Kopi Luwak is infamous for its origin (bizarre enough to rate mention on an episode of CSI): It is processed through the digestive system of a civit-like animal called a Paradoxurus. That's right, the felines eat coffee berries and, er, excrete them whole. The resulting coffee is said to be magnificent. If you've got a stray $60, maybe you'd like to try it.

The service is also excellent. When the owner saw that I was stacking my backpack and the material on which I was working on the table next to my chair, he brought over another chair to stack my stuff on so that the table would be free for my beverage.

Another bonus is the bike lane that runs on Broadway from about Ocean to Centinela --allowing easy access by bike.

The only criticism I have is the paltry baked goods selection -- seemingly only an afterthought for those who demand pastry with their coffee. I advise folks to first get breakfast at the nearby Swingers or Jinky's, and then settle down at Funnel Mill for an apres-breakfast beverage treat.

Beach Blogging: The North End of the Trail

This morning found me bicycling out to Venice Beach and then north on the coastal bike path. For the first time, I rode the path all the way to its northern terminus, at the intersection of Temescal Canyon Boulevard and PCH in Pacific Palisades.

As these photos (taken at 10:20 am) show, Will Rogers State Beach was amazingly deserted for a Socal morning in July. By contrast, parts of Santa Monica beach were fairly crowded at 9:20 am.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Wonder Woman's Scissor Kick

From Colleen Doran's blog: A particularly ill-thought-out piece of superhero merchandising. It's a pair of Wonder Woman scissors. The handles are her feet, and the hinge is at her throat. Open the blades, and, well . . . .

What I did at Anime Expo

If you click on the link below to my Anime Expo 2007 photos, you'll see lots of pictures of people in costume. That does not mean that everyone who attended the Expo wore a costume. I, for instance, did not. Here are some photos to prove it.

I am, however, wearing a motorcycle and a big fancy Hellsing chair. I don't use either in real life. But those aren't costumes. They're props. There's a qualitative difference.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Video: Hellsing Photo Shoots at Anime Expo 2007

Here's a video I compiled yesterday of the Hellsing Photoshoots from June 30 and July 1. The video confirms my theory that when you set footage of people dancing (or even play-fighting) to rhythmic music, it will almost invariably look like the people are dancing to the music.

Rats in the Kitchen

RATATOUILLE, the second collaboration between writer/director Brad Bird and computer-animation powerhouse Pixar, confirms Bird's status as the greatest American director of animated features alive. John Lassiter's works for Pixar may have pulled in more money, and the Shrek directors (I forget their names) may make crowd pleasers, but no one grabs hearts and minds with binary numbers like Bird.

Bird's first feature, THE IRON GIANT, was a fantastic cell/cgi film that got great reviews but did poor box office. His second (and first with Pixar), THE INCREDIBLES, garnered both the critical acclaim and the big bucks -- not to mention the all-important merchandising success. Now, having conquered the boy-and-his-robot and superhero-satire genres, he has progressed to Disney's (Pixar's current owner) bread and butter: funny-animal comedy. With rodents, yet.

But Bird dares to deal with a much less cute and cuddly critter than Disney's flagship mouse: a rat. Riskier still, in telling the story of a rat named Remi who seeks to become a French chef, he dares to show a rat in the kitchen. Several rats, actually. Uncomfortably lifelike rats, especially when they swarm. At one point, one of the cooks in the film enters the kitchen, sees rats everywhere, and nearly pukes. We know how she feels.

Yet Bird pulls it off. The main reason is his characters. They are three-dimensional, both visually and psychologically. It's inaccurate, for instance, to say that Remi wants to be a chef. He truly cannot help it. With his intellect, and his discerning sense of smell, he is essentially doomed to be a gourmet. In one brillliant scene, he tries to escape from the kitchen of a restaurant where a stockpot of soup is being ruined. But he can't help himself. He tosses a handful of spices into the soup. As he runs, he compulsively turns back and throws in some wedges of garlic. Still he cannot escape, until he adds creme fraiche and cheese. And so on.

How he ends up teaming with a hapless young man, Linguini, as a front (especially difficult, because while the rats in the movie can talk to each other, they can't speak to humans), makes a fun, sometimes silly, and often touching movie.

Even one of the villians of the piece, restaurant critic Anton Ego (a cadaverous sort, voiced by Peter O'Toole, who gleefully types scathing reviews on a typewriter that looks like a skull, in a study shaped like a coffin), turns out to have hidden depths, leading to the most emotional scene in the movie.

One of the few recent animated movies to receive the now-reviled "G" rating (even though one of the plotlines revolves around a development that may be difficult to explain to kiddies), RATATOUILLE should delight and please kids and adults alike. Just, um, try to maintain during those rat-swarming scenes.


Here's the first of two compilations of video clips I made at Anime Expo Hellsing costume photoshoots. This one is of the "Beverage Bash of Doom" held at the Renaissance Hotel on Sunday, July 1. And yes, I was trying out a bunch of transition effects on Windows Moviemaker.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Benoit Tragedy -- a Perspective

My brother Steve has some insights into the startling murder-suicide committed by pro wrestler Chris Benoit.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

My AX Photos are Up on Photobucket

Three hundred and fifty images! Shows you what happens when I have a 2 gigabyte SD card in my camera. The camera battery gave out (several times) long before the card filled.

Anime Expo: This Year in Long Beach; Next Year in LA

From Friday through Monday, I took off time from work and participated in Anime Expo, the largest anime convention in America (44,000 attendees this year!) and the main one here in California. After a few years in Anaheim, the Expo returned to the Long Beach Convention Center, where it was last held in 2002.

I have bad memories of that 2002 Expo. We went one day -- the last day of the event -- and only went to the dealer's room (which they call the "Exhibit Hall." I miss the days when a convention's dealer's room was called the "huckster's room."). We waited in the hot sun for an hour to get into the room, then could only spend a few hours before the Expo closed.

This time was much more fun. The Expo had the entire convention center, including the outbuildings -- the Terrace Theatre, and the 6,000-seat Arena (the big round building with the whales painted on it). There were numerous restaurants around, particularly across the street at The Pike shopping center. I even found cheap open-air parking ($5 all day).

Another fun part was that this was the first Expo where we knew several attendees. Amy has been contacting fellow fans of her favorite anime/manga, Hellsing, on the forum; and some of them have even come to LA and visited our house. We therefore had pals (in addition to our old friends Don and Pam) to go to events and meals with. Shout outs go to Christie, Natalie, Laurid, Logan, Brandy, Sarah, and a bunch of other people.

Amy's activities (and thus to a great extent mine) centered on various costuming events concerning Hellsing. There were photo shoot gatherings of folks in Hellsing costumes on Friday and Sunday. Amy was particularly instrumental in setting up a morning gathering on Sunday, held at the Starbucks in the Renaissance Hotel. There is an outdoor patio there, so Amy brought her Kawasaki Motorcycle for people to pose on; and several of the costumes, including Amy's that morning, revolved around a "Hellsing's Angels" theme. As my photos show, the motorcycle was a big hit.

Geneon, which is releasing the Hellsing Ultimate OVA DVDs in Japan and the US, helped the festivities with a marathon showing of the three OVAs which have been released (including a subtitled version of Volume III, which was released in Japan just three months before); a panel of the American voice actors; and a fantastic booth, made up with the giant chair the main Hellsing character, Alucard, lounges in during the second OVA's opening scenes.

Another nice part of the Long Beach location was its proximity to the Queen Mary and its hotel. Amy and I stayed two nights in a stateroom at the QM, which was okay as a hotel but terrific as an historical location.

Problems with the change in venue included unfamiliarity among the staff on the convention center's layout; often uncooperative hired security; delays in events that sometimes lasted several hours; and a terrible screw up with the anime music videos event that resulted in only seven out of 35 AMVs being shown -- after people waited over two hours to get in. (The remainder were purportedly purloined from the MC's laptop bag. Backups would have been a good idea.)

Next year's Anime Expo will be held at the LA Convention Center. That's great for us, since it's just a clear shot down the freeway. But it won't be so good for out of towners, who'll have a choice of the somewhat run-down Holiday Inn across the street from the center; the Wilshire Grand, four blocks away (posh, but one hopes they will have a convention rate); and other hotels that aren't within driving distance.
A link to my other photos will be up shortly.

This is Batman! He Will Catch All Baddy!!

From a storefront on the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Gee, do you think these might be bootleg action figures?

Happy Fourth of July from Southern California!


I started off the holiday with a morning ride to Venice Beach, and then up the bike path to the Santa Monica Pier and back. Sights included beach volleyball, a 4th of July parade by the beach, and the Governator bicycling by, both ways. (No photos of him. I don't have likeness rights.