Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Beautiful, Horrifying, Fascinating World of PSAs -- Thanksgiving Edition

Embedded Video

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Loscon 35

After a pleasant Thanksgiving at home with just the two of us, Amy and I spent three wonderful days at Loscon, LA's most prominent annual science fiction convention. I've discovered that the key to truly having a good time at a con is to know people there. Several folks who hadn't been to Loscon in years showed up at this one, including our friends Doe and Janine and writers extraordinaire Will Shetterly and Emma Bull. There was also writer GOH John Scalzi (who is a very nice guy) and regular writer guests such as Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, Jane Espenson, J. Michael Straczynski and others. The various combinations of the above folks on panels made for fascinating discussions on storytelling in its many forms. At the end of each day I could feel my grey cells tingling from stimulation.

I had a chance to talk with Straczynski about his screenplay for "Changeling," and how he managed to feature a broadcast evangelist and a lawyer as heroes. "Yeah, I'm probably going to hell for that," he replied.

Loscon does have its share of crackpots and annoying folks (none of the people listed above fall into those categories), but this one definitely delivered in the entertainment department.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

I Only Meant to Stay Awhile

Saw "Twilight" this weekend, as did many, many people who had only x chromosomes.

In honor of "Twilight"'s success, here's one of my favorite pieces of Japanese animation from the '80's: the opening animation to the Daicon IV SF convention. You'll see (or hear) the connection.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mazel Tov to Anea

The last time I saw my cousin Anea Barer, she was a pre-teen. Tempus fugit. She's gotten married. The above link goes to a photo of her from her proud papa Burl's blog.

(I've got a slightly better record with her brother Jordan. He was in high school when I last saw him. Ten years ago.)

Now, That's the Spirit

While I do wish the best to Frank Miller's movie version of THE SPIRIT, opening next month, I must say that the ads so far have not filled me with confidence. Yes, Miller was creator Will Eisner's friend, and his disciple, and much of Miller's comic book work has been, er, spiritually attuned to Eisner's. One of my favorite recollections of the Golden Apple Comics store in Hollywood is of the mid-1980's Saturday afternoon when I saw Miller -- who just weeks before had been feted at the same store for the release of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, with lines stretching out the door as fans waited hours for his autograph -- slipping into the store without fanfare, and buying the latest issue of Kitchen Sink Press's reprint of THE SPIRIT.

But those ads. The most recent features the Spirit's arch-foe, the Octopus. Eisner's Octopus was a criminal mastermind whose true face was never seen, who stood behind curtains or went about in disguise, his only distinguishing feature his gloves with three fat vertical lines on the back. In the latest ad, Samuel L. Jackson, as the Octopus, has the gloves; but he also has outrageous mascara, and platform boots, and, well, a pimp coat. Stuff like this makes me suspect that the SPIRIT movie might meet the same fate as SPEED RACER.

For those who'd like to see the true Spirit, I recommend picking up one of the two inexpensive reprints DC Comics has put out recently. DC, which obtained the rights to the Spirit from Eisner shortly before he passed away, has certainly done right by the property; it has reprinted the entire 1940's-1950's run of the comic in expensive color hardcovers; it has an ongoing Spirit series, currently written by veteran cartoonist Sergio Aragones and his collaborator Mark Evanier; and it continues to put out reasonably-priced collections of the best of the original run. A couple of weeks ago, it put out a wonderful trade paperback of femme fatale stories from the series (or rather a selection from those stories, since more femme fatales appeared in the Spirit than could be contained in a single volume); and the comic shown above, released this past week, showcases four stories that contain elements that will be highlighted in the movie.

Specifically, the SPIRIT SPECIAL features 1948's "Sign of the Octopus," a tale of the villain in all his sinister glory (a particularly brutal splash page has vignette after vignette of the Octopus's gloved hands beating the hero in the head with a cane and with brass knuckles); 1949's "Black Alley," an incredibly atmospheric tale of a hitman hired to kill the Spirit; and 1950's two part "Sand Saref" story.

The "Sand Saref" story is remarkable, not only for the fantastic storytelling and art, but also because it is one of the few SPIRIT strips to depict a character from the hero's past -- an odd point, since the story was originally not meant to be a SPIRIT story at all. It was prepared as a story for the first issue of JOHN LAW, a comic book that Eisner tried but failed to sell; the art and story were then retouched to turn eyepatch-wearing cop John Law into mask-wearing vigilante the Spirit.

I'm still hoping that the movie can capture the Spirit as well as these reprints do.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

As the Piemaker Makes His Last Pie

"Pushing Daisies" -- one of the most delightful network TV series in years -- will, alas, end. ABC is allowing all of the episodes produced to be aired, but is not ordering new ones.

Cabinet Priorities

Here's a sign of the economic crisis's effect: on the front page of the LA Times, Obama's pick of Timothy Geithner for Secretary of the Treasury got a bigger headline than his pick of Hilary for Secretary of State.

Wi-Fi Watering Holes: Espresso Profeta

This excellent WFWH is located in the slightly quieter part of Westwood Village, on Glendon across the street from the Napa Valley Grill. It's a quick (albeit uphill) bike ride from my house. It was previously known as West Burton Coffee and Tea (I'm not sure where the West Burton part came from, as it's nowhere near Burton Avenue in BH); it assumed its new identity a few months ago.

Besides the delicious espresso drinks (drawn Italian style), the standouts are the beautiful vine and rose covered patio (where I'm sitting now), the antiques-stuffed interior (many of the antiques are for sale), a large menu of teas, which the staff will happily make into lattes; and of course the free wi-fi, likely de riguer for any coffee, tea or boba establishment that stands in the shadow of UCLA.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The White House is Full of Excelsior!

On Monday, Marvel guru Stan Lee was among the recipients of the National Medal of Arts at the White House.

Other recipients included 92 year old Olivia de Haviland; and the Sherman Brothers, who wrote lots of alternatively enchanting and annoying songs for Disney and others.

More Monk

Everybody's favorite differentially-mentally-abled detective has been renewed for an eighth -- and reportedly final -- season. Thank goodness; if the series had ended with an odd-numbered season, the symmetry-obsessed sleuth would probably have gone catatonic.

Hurm. . . . .

A sign of how important the comic-book movie genre has become to Los Angeles: Sunday's LA Times had a box on the front page about its story discussing the legal battles surrounding the WATCHMEN movie project.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Forlorn Posters for Canceled TV Shows

Despite huge promotion during the Olympics, NBC's MY OWN WORST ENEMY has been canceled after only a few episodes.

After hearing about the cancelation, I saw the huge MOWE promotional poster that still adorns the bus shelter at Olympic and Sawtelle, and reflected how the poster would remain throughout the lease period, advertising a show that viewers could no longer see, serving no purpose except to hide a blank shelter wall.

The same goes for the gigantic poster for THE EX LIST that is plastered onto a main archway inside the Westside Pavilion mall. Advertisements for a product that is unavailable.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quantum of Disappointment

I wanted to like QUANTUM OF SOLACE. I really did. But I found it quite a disappointment after CASINO ROYALE. I still think Daniel Craig makes a good Bond. But here's what I didn't like:

1. Not enough fun. The best Bond films manage to balance both drama and fantasy. Heck, in Casino Royale lives were riding on a card game. The only fantasy here was Bond's ability to come through nasty situations without dying; and (spoiler warning) to knock out a whole elevator of fellow agents in two seconds. (And these are his co-workers! Boy, is he going to be unpopular in the service from now on.)

2. Lack of a good through-line for the story. CR benefitted from following the arc of the novel on which it was based (though it departed from the story, particularly in making Bond more active than reactive). This one was just one event after another until the story came shuddering to a halt.

3. Choppy action sequences. Credit the Jason Bourne movies and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN for the subjective, fast-cutting, shaky-camera action sequences that attempt to put the viewer into the action by making things confusing. Well, it was so confusing here that I couldn't tell who was doing what to whom. The editor needs to sit down and watch FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER fifty times so that he can figure out how to cut a fight scene and make it both exciting and coherent.

4. Too damn loud. The volume started with the commercials (used to be that The Bridge had minimal commercials; that's apparently a thing of the past) and stayed throughout the movie. I complained to the theater manager, who informed me that the Sony people had been out before the movie's premiere to calibrate the visuals and sound and that the director had prescribed the precise sound level he demanded. Sounds to me like the director is mistaking a loud soundtrack for a well-crafted soundmix.

5. (Spoiler warning) Bond doesn't get nearly as much sex as he should. (See Point #1.)

On the plus side, the trailer for the STAR TREK movie was cool, as was the one for Bryan Singer's VALKYRIE. (Singer just can't stay away from those nazis, can he?)

The Brave & the Bold & The Wacky

The first issue of the original run of the comics series "The Brave and the Bold" I read, nearly 30 years ago, was issue #150.

Although the art, by Caniff-inspired illustrator Jim Aparo, was fairly modern, I could tell that the writing was more old-fashioned than the other Batman comics coming out at the time. Seventies Batman comics stories by such writers as Denny O'Neil, Steve Engelhart, Archie Goodwin and Len Wein made an attempt to feature fairly modern and realistic (albeit stylized) dialogue. Writer Bob Haney, however, was quite willing to throw in such silliness as Commissioner Gordon addressing Batman as "World's Greatest Detective" in casual conversation, without a hint of sarcasm.

Upon reading back issues of B & B -- which, in the last approximately fifteen years of its existence, was a team-up book teaming Batman with whichever guest DC wanted to promote -- revealed that Haney's stories often tended toward the wacky. He wrote one story in which miniature superhero The Atom jumps inside the head of a brain-dead Batman; and animates him by dancing on the Caped Crusader's brain. (And yes, Batman is restored to normal at the end of the story -- after solving the case!) In another, Batman and the guest hero were battling a gang of terrorists when suddenly a group of the bad guys attempted to kidnap Haney and Aparo and force them to write an ending in which the terrorists won. Really.

Now Cartoon Network has turned "The Brave and the Bold" into a cartoon series. The first episode aired last night. And the creators are plainly dedicated to bringing to life the wackiness of the show's comic book predecessor. They have eschewed the current Dark Knight incarnation of Batman, and have turned for inspiration to the character's late fifties and early sixties comics incarnation -- a period when Batman might head off to an alien planet for an adventure, or travel in time, or volunteer for a scientific experiment, or perform for charity in broad daylight. Thus, in the premiere episode, Bats and the latest incarnation of The Blue Beetle (a character who, in various iterations, has been around almost as long as Batman) is rocketing into space to stop a meteor when a wormhole transports the two heroes to an alien planet. Batman, of course, takes this in stride. "Judging by the position of the stars," he observes, "we're on the other side of the Milky Way." The two B-heroes then square off against old Justice League villian Kanjar Ro to save a race of intelligent protozoa. Yep, wacky.

The series's challenge is to give full reign to this wackiness, while retaining the coolness-ratio of the character -- something those fifties-to-sixties stories had trouble doing. Judging from the first episode, the creators are managing to do so, by both playing Batman straight and using the Dick Sprang version of the character --replete with muscles, dramatic shadowing, and sharp angles.

If the rest of the series is handled as well as the first episode, this show should be wacky fun.

Writing Damages

The latest edition of CALIFORNIA LITIGATION magazine -- the publication of the California State Bar's litigation section -- features an article from me, as part of a "Point - Counterpoint" bit in which I gave the defense side on an issue, and a plaintiff's attorney gave the plaintiffs' bar's side. We made the cover:

As the cover indicates, the subject is of tremendous interest to attorneys who handle personal injury cases; and will be ultra-esoteric to just about anybody else.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Batman v. Batman

When a film is as big a hit as THE DARK KNIGHT, the weird lawsuits are going to come out of the woodwork.

Few are as weird as this one. The mayor of the city of Batman, Turkey, has told the press he is preparing a suit against Warner Brothers and TDK director Christopher Nolan for, er, using the city's name without permission. The mayor reportedly wants to blame unsolved murders and female suicides on the film's success's psychological impact on the Batmanians.

No word on where the mayor will file the suit. In fact, a WB rep says the studio hasn't seen a lawsuit. Could be there'll never be one.

Obviously, Wayne Enterprises needs to swoop in and simply buy the city. That'll settle things.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Quantum of Merchandise

There's a long, not-so-proud history of merchandising for the James Bond film franchise; around the mid-sixties, the markets were stuffed with Bond gewgaws for tots and adults alike.

The upcoming Bond flick, "Quantum of Solace" (which has the distinction of earning over $100 million before it's even opened in the US) is generating lots of upscale merch. Indeed, several of those obnoxious digital billboards that clutter West LA's lower airspace are devoted solely to images of 007 and the devices he's hawking. The images strobe between posters for the movie, ads for Omega watches, plugs for the incredibly expensive Sony paper-thin TV (the one early adopters will buy at 11 inches because they can't wait for the technology to be used to create a decent-sized TV), a billboard for Bond booze, etc.

It all stands in stark contrast to the worsening economy and the increasing penny-pinching of the world's consumers. One wonders how many Bond watches Omega will move when times are so tough that MI-6 likely confiscated Bond's timepiece and curtailed his expense account.

Besides, anyone who buys a multi-thousand-dollar item merely because James Bond endorses it needs some serious reality therapy.

Circuit City Short-Circuits

Circuit City has gone Chapter 11 -- and my reaction was, "What took it so long?" Its closest rival, Good Guys, is gone; and most of the CC's that used to be near us (on Sepulveda at National, and on Westwood at Wilshire) have disappeared. CC kept itself on life support for awhile, possibly by selling some DVDs and CDs along with the electronic stuff; but it probably couldn't compete in that arena with the big box Best Buy behemoths.

I used to go to CC to buy electronic stuff, because that was where you bought such stuff. Then I went there because you could haggle sometimes and get discounts. Then I went there to check out stuff in person and then find it on the Internet for less. Then I stopped going in there at all.

Mark Evanier has a good notion of what went wrong at Circuit City: Bad service. Specifically, sales people who know less about the items they're selling than the customers. Folks will go to a store for either low prices or superior service. They won't go to a store with higher prices than they can find online, and cruddy service (unless, say, it's 4 pm on Christmas Eve and there's an empty stocking).

As the retail market gets nastier, the weaker members of the herd are going to be dying off . . . .

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Graphic Novel Agents

Graphic novelist Colleen Doran has been doing budding creators a tremendous service by listing in her blog contact information for literary agents willing to represent graphic novelists. The link takes you to her latest list, which in turn has links to her prior lists.

The World of L.A. Wi-Fi

Here's a list of free wi-fi spots in the L.A. area. Warning: This contains some out-of-date listings (such as one for Circles Cafe, which was replaced by a Pinkberry a couple of years ago). So before heading to a new place, check with the location's Website or phone number to make sure it's still there.

In the Ballots of Madness

John McCann looks at the election from a Lovecraftian perspective.

Mud-Slinging Mess

This year's election, like many others, started out with promises that negative campaigning would be reduced; and, like many others, ended with the mud flying fast and furious.

Even with the election over, we are seeing the aftermath: Anonymous McCain campaign staffers allegedly lashing out at Sarah Palin by accusing her of not knowing Africa was a continent; Palin lashing back by accusing the staffers of being "cowardly" and "jerks"; folks blaming the "liberal media" for originating the story (said "liberal media" being Fox ); and Rush Limbaugh declaring war on the Republican Party.

And then there are the defamation lawsuits, like Kate Hagan's against Elizabeth Dole for campaign ads that had another woman imitating Hagan's voice and saying, "There is no God." (Hagan won the race.)

It's time to hose the mud off the walls and get to work rebuilding a shattered economy and a shredded constitution.

Extra! Extra! Barack Obama's election win sends newspaper sales soaring - Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Times's publisher may be gutting the print edition of the paper in favor of the online version, but this week's election showed that the electronic incarnation of the newspaper can't supplant the print version in one respect: as a commemorative of history.

The Times writes of its Wednesday edition, reporting Barack Obama's victory, selling out on newsstands and retail outlets; and of customers lining up at the paper's downtown offices to buy extra copies -- either to frame or to hawk on Ebay.

The Web may be convenient, but ultimately its the tangible medium of print we reach out for when we want to capture a moment in time.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Do You Solemnly Swear

On the Supreme Court docket: bleeeeeep - Los Angeles Times

It's a mark of the ambivalence with which Americans view centuries-old coarse terms for excretion and sex that this L.A. Times article discusses the upcoming oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court on FCC fines for fleeting uses of those terms, without ever stating the terms themselves.

I suppose the Times is protecting its reputation as a family newspaper -- on the off-chance that there is a single child in Los Angeles who reads the Times for news.

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Riding the Rails

Proposition 1A, on the ballot Tuesday in California, would authorize the state to borrow $10 billion as a down payment on a bullet train between LA and San Francisco. Sounds like a cool idea, and anything that moves people around while reducing the number of cars on the road is a step in the right direction, but it sounds like if the project gets built at all it'll be completed around the time mankind invents the warp drive.

Here's my not-so-modest proposal: Build a passenger railway through the desert between LA and Las Vegas. Bullet or otherwise. Fund it with private money from Vegas casino conglomerates and California tourist attractions. Charge a premium to passengers on high-traffic dates, like three-day weekends, on which driving to and from Vegas is hell on wheels. Have slot machines and craps tables on board that are unlocked when the train goes over the Nevada border. After paying back the investors, the train should generate plenty of money to pay for rail systems all over California.

Winners: The environment, the tourist industry in both states, and lots of gamblers.

Losers: The gas stations in Barstow; and The Mad Greek restaurant.

Saturday-Afternoon Syndicated Fantasies

In the mid-nineties, before cable TV original programming further fragmented the TV audience, there was a phenomenon known as the syndicated hourlong adventure show. The programs that ruled the syndicated roost were the HERCULES and XENA shows produced by Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert. At their best, these were fun, goofy, action-packed shows that carelessly tossed together Greek mythology, Conan-type sword and sorcery, fantasy martial art movie wirework, and superhero stories. They tapered off after they began taking themselves too seriously and the whole market faded.

Raimi and Tapert are now exploring the same territory 10 years later, with their new series LEGEND OF THE SEEKER. It's the first attempt I know of to bring one of those modern Tolkien-inspired fantasy series that have swarmed the SF-Fantasy sections of bookstores for the last 30 years or so. It adapts a best-selling series of really thick (in terms of page count) books by Terry Goodkind. I've never read them, so I can't analyze how faithful they are to the source, but the opening episode indicates that the TV series features a "chosen-one" type farmboy turned ultra-warrior, an attractive-yet-complicated magic-using warrior woman, an eccentric wizard who dispenses wisdom where needed, and lots of innocent folks to be helped and wrongs to be righted as they take on a nasty dictator. All set against the same New Zealand scenery as the prior Raimi-Tapert shows. So diverting, but not necesarily earth-shattering.

All of the actors were fairly competent with the subject matter, but the scene-stealer was Bruce Spence (the gyro captain in THE ROAD WARRIOR) as the crusty wizard. The teaser for the next episode shows that, as with most Sam Raimi projects, Sam's brother Ted will appear in a supporting role. And it's only a matter of time before Raimi's old pal Bruce Campbell makes an appearance.

Double-Maverick Sad Grandpa

I won't be voting for him; but I must concede Senator McCain's comic timing is pretty good. Here he is on SNL's "Weekend Update" early this morning.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Magazines Flip-Flop on Election

The new issue of the American Bar Association's ABA Journal, mailed to subscribers this past week, featured a flip-book format. One side featured John McCain being sworn in on the cover, and discussed the lawyers that McCain would likely include in his cabinet. Flip the magazine over, and the other side featurs Obama being sworn in and discusses the lawyers he'd include in his administration.

On his blog, Mark Evanier recalls that over 40 years ago, another prominent publication -- Mad Magazine -- did the same thing.

Doonesbury "Accuracy"?

In what appears to be a successful publicity stunt, Garry Trudeau has announced that his already-created Doonesbury storyline for next week will announce Barack Obama as the winner of the presidential election.

The Los Angeles Times, in turn, has announced that if Obama loses, the Times will not publish the strips. Instead, it will publish reprints that the syndicate will make available.

I find the Times' concern for "accuracy" incredible. "Doonesbury" is not a news report. It is a comic strip in which one of the characters is an anthropomorphic cigarette butt.

Perhaps, in the interests of "accuracy," the Times comic strip editor should note that dogs, cats, coyotes, pigs and horses do not talk; that no human being has a nose as long as Darryl's in "Baby Blues"; that the kids in "Family Circus" are now retirement aged; and that Dagwood and Blondie Bumstead are in their 90's.