Friday, June 27, 2008

Robots In Love!

Wall-E hit theaters today and packed the seats a noon at my local movie house. I’ve enjoyed every Pixar movie that’s come out, and this one is no exception. However, I have to admit that after the deluge of trailers that have haunted the television set later I was expecting to be blown away.

I wasn’t blown away, but don’t misunderstand. The movie was a good romp that kept all the tykes in the audience on the edge of their seats throughout, and there were quite a few giggles for the adults too, but the movie just hit all the expected twists and turns without becoming anything more than an adventurous love story mixed with ecological and physical health issues.

The movie takes place about eight hundred years in the future. Message #1 comes about when all the viewer can see is endless mounds of compacted refuse stand as towering high-rises. Wall-E, our everyman hero, toils alone in the garbage heap that used to be our planet. Well, there’s no denying that axe because everyone in the film grinds that one home. When there was nowhere left to stack refuse, humanity abandoned the world and went out into space.

That’s a sour but realistic take on the world’s current population, but I have to wonder if a spaceship would actually launch into space with no destination. According to the story, the people aboard the Axiom have been in space for 700 years. How was population growth maintained? How about food sources? If the ship was capable of regenerating food and water every day, why wasn’t that done on earth? But I digress. In my defense, Pixar writers and developers generally do a much cleaner job of world-building.

Wall-E is an adorable character. The thought and care that went into his construction is immediately evident. In a way, he reminded me of Johnny Five from the movie Short Circuit, but that was good because Johnny Five was a kid-friendly character and movie as well.

I loved Wall-E’s mannerisms and the motions he was capable of as he went about his daily job of crushing trash. His home was a delight and many of the kids, including mine, laughed and enjoyed everything. Pixar is so good at details in these movies that I’m constantly surprised at the depth to which they think about everything. Having Wall-E visit the graveyard of his fellow robots was a great touch. It introduced the pathos of his loneliness, pointed out his eventual future, and explained how he kept working away after wearing out parts. The bit with him hanging his treads up as he entered his home was terrific.

Eve is a robot of a different sort. She’s sleeker and more powerful, and definitely quicker on the trigger. I didn’t quite warm up to her as much as Wall-E, though she is our heroine and female romantic lead, but the expressions they were able to create with her eyes alone were fantastic.

Wall-E continues showing up for work every day even though the rest of the world has bailed on him or become totally dysfunctional. That was incredibly touching, though no explanation is given for why he developed a personality. Eve’s arrival to search for plant life (though we don’t know that for a long time, and there’s not really any reason given for why the Axiom couldn’t simply have gone on to another planet) changes Wall-E’s existence forever.

The fact that he was able to fall in love with her was great and served the story, but Eve is portrayed as having no personality. I had to let that go because part of me wanted to be an adult and learn how the AIs had progressed that far. See? I struggled with technology versus fantasy throughout the film, but that may have just been men.

When I looked at the movie through a child’s eyes, I was kept happy. The characters are cool. The visual aspects are beautiful. And the pacing is thrilling.

I was impressed by how much could be done with the computer “voices” of the characters. The feeling and emotions I projected on them were as much from the situations they were in as from the tonal quality.

I also especially liked Auto, the robotic second-in-command of the Axiom, because he was so nasty. His design as a ship’s wheel was awesome, and the holes in the ceiling that allowed him to pop out anywhere was exciting and made for tense moments.

The plot is simple and straight-forward, but the Pixar people obviously had a blast putting this one together. It runs like a Swiss watch and hits all the emotional triggers for the audience as plucky Wall-E and Eve take on Auto to bring the earth back to the people lost in space.

Wall-E is definitely going to be another hit masterminded by the Pixar people. One of the best treats is the short cartoon feature before the movie. Don’t get to the theater late and take a chance on missing it. This one left me laughing out loud because it was so inventive and wildly funny. Take the kids out to this one. And if you don’t have any kids, take yourself out and be a kid for a couple of hours. You’ll have great time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

New Book By A Master Wordsmith!

Keller is a professional hit man. He specializes in paid-to-order death that looks like an accident and has always gotten away without being caught. However, Keller is also a man with a conscience. Not about the people he kills, because that would get in the way of him doing his job. But he dwells on how he spends his life, the people he spends it with, and what life is ultimately all about. That aspect of Keller is the one that I most enjoy spending time with in the books.

Hit And Run is veteran mystery/suspense writer Lawrence Block’s fourth book about Keller. It’s also the first of the four books that’s actually a novel. The previous three books were collections of short stories gathered in a loose novelistic style. Block first published the stories in Playboy magazine and other magazines. Block always threw in a few new stories each volume as well.

I love the characters of Keller and Dot, the woman who brokers the services Keller offers to discriminating and wealthy clients. I look forward to the times they sit and discuss the world and their lives after Keller’s adventures. Despite the lethal business they are in, Keller and Dot appear like people you could meet on the street and engage in an idle chat that would give you something to think about. Each time I closed a Keller “book” in the past, I could think about different thoughts or revelations that Keller experienced in those stories.

Block took his time writing the stories. I can tell how much he enjoyed exploring the characters and themes he developed over the course of bringing Keller and his assignments to the page. Throughout the books, the character and his situation changed. The relationship with Dot altered too, and the two of them became even closers friends than business partners.

Hit And Run changes a lot of things, though. For the first time, Keller’s face is in the news for a murder. The kicker is that Keller didn’t kill the governor of Iowa. He was framed, and he doesn’t even know who did the framing.

The book divides neatly into three acts, though I didn’t notice that at the time I read the book. I started on the novel intending to read just a few pages, just enough to close the book on Keller’s first kill. Instead, Keller never even gets to whack the guy he hired on to kill. By the end of the first chapter, he’s running for his life. Not only are the cops pursuing him, but so are the faceless people he just became the fall guy for.

I read the book from cover to cover. Could not put it down. As I said, the book divides neatly into three acts. The first act is pure adrenaline as Keller doubles back and tries to figure out what to do. Dot is off-line for the first time since forever, and there’s not a single other person in the world that Keller can talk to about his career.

Keller makes it back to New York and his apartment in time to see the story about Dot’s “accidental” death on the television news. In his apartment, he discovers that someone has ransacked his home and taken his stamp collection. Regular readers of Keller’s adventures know that the stamp collection is the one thing that the hit man has allowed himself to care about other than Dot. All the money that Keller once had is also gone – his retirement, etc., because his real name is known to the police and he’s a person of interest.

Act two covers a lot of ground. I enjoyed watching Keller trying to get it together, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do since he’d been cut off from his other life. The sincerity and weight Block brings to his character’s ruminations are dead-on emotionally. In this time when so many drastic changes occur in a person’s life, seeing Keller struggle with the same things is almost cathartic and lends hope.

The relationships Keller builds at this time, not only with others but with himself, are extremely well done. The love story and the resolution of the woman’s sick father was well played. All the characters are vivid and believable. Block even takes time to dig into the problems New Orleans (the city where Keller ends up) faces even now.

The third act, even though it’s predictable in nature to a degree, revolves around Keller’s search for the men that burned him and Dot. It offers some introspection and humorous moments as well, and a lot of tension because I really didn’t know how Block was going to bring everything to a close.

Hit And Run is a game played by a master. Block put me on the ropes even though I was dead tired that night, and he kept me there. The gentle delineation of character, the effortless plot twists and surprises, and the pared-to-the-bone writing infused me with new energy that kept me turning pages till I reached the final one with a mixture of excitement and sadness.

I’d really recommend reading other Keller “novels” before this one, but you don’t have to. But to get all the subtlety Block pulls off with the character and the plot, I think it’s better if you have a passing acquaintance with Keller. This is a great book.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The G-word!

In addition to me trying to recover from my nasal surgery this week, we welcomed new family members. My oldest son and his wife delivered Kashton (above) on Tuesday, and my daughter and her husband had Adam (below) just this morning.

Now I'm the g-word. I just turned 50. I'm too young for this to happen to.

Two grandkids in one week. Surely I've bagged my limit. But my son Chandler is 10 and is excited to be an uncle. I told him if he coulda hit the trifecta in nephews this week, he coulda been like Unca Donald. His own Huey, Dewey, and Louie posse to do DuckTales with.

I'm gonna do next week nice and slow. I hope.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Got Spleen?

My wife is in the process of turning one of the bedrooms into my new home office. It's a mass of destruction at the moment, but I have to admit that I'm looking forward to it.

For twenty years, I've lived and worked in a windowless garage conversion, adrift from the rest of the family and barricaded by the washer and dryer. People have had to shout back to me to get my attention. I think the distance was good when the kids were small. There were five of them, after all, and the house got noisy.

However, my nineteen-year-old just moved out a few weeks ago and my wife decided I needed an office with windows. I didn't feel that way, but as I've listened to what she's got planned, I'm getting pumped. Can't wait.

But -- my ten-year-old's bed was in there (he's getting the bigger room, but that's okay with me). So she asked Chandler to help take the bed apart. Primarily the screws on the lower section of the bed.

I have to pause a moment to tell you about my ten-year-old in case you're new to this blog. Chandler is precocious, articulate, and way intelligent. We just found out he's got a touch of Aspergers, which gives him his mutant ability of hyper-focus and tendency to get overly involved in thinking things through. And his IQ is higher than mine.

At any rate, he gets exposed to a lot of information. I read to him every night, and not the slower pace of an audio book, but as fast as I can go. He's learned to keep up and anticipate. (I'm ADHD, and he is too, so my wife says listening to us read and talk about a book is like walking into a buzzsaw.)

He loves words. Absolutely loves them. He tries them out when he hears/reads them, and asks me for definitions. I love words too, so usually I'm able to answer his questions. When I was little, I tried out words I heard too. Usually got my mouth washed out with soap, but Chandler hangs around a better crowd than I did.

But yesterday he was helping his mom and he got frustrated. He told her that the screws were too low and the position was making his SPLEEN hurt. My wife and I got a good laugh out of that and wondered where he heard the word. It hadn't been in anything I'd read to him lately.

Later that evening, we were on the way to his karate practice. He was drinking cranberry juice because we thought he had a mild bladder infection. He didn't care for the cranberry juice and said he thought it was going to make him sick. I told him that he'd know he was sick if the juice made his SPLEEN hurt.

He flashed me that look of knowing disgust that he has down so perfectly, then said, "I know what a spleen is."

"Oh yeah?" I challenged (I can't resist a good debate with him, especially when I know I'm going to win. Not very mature, I admit, but my immaturity keeps us close at times too).

"Yeah," he said. "It's that bone in your back that helps you stand up straight."

I died laughing, then explained that was the SPINE, not the SPLEEN. But the pain he claimed earlier made sense at that point.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Reviews Are Posted!

You can find them at Bookhound or at my Amazon site. Please feel free to come by, check them out, and gimme a few votes. I'm trying to move into a Top 500 Reviewer position at Amazon. It takes so little to keep me happy!

First up, The Magic Thief is a great read with solid characters. It's the beginning of a new trilogy.

Generation Dead is a YA book that kind of spans several genres.

As you know, if you read this blog, I got to meet Dr. Parker recently. I got a signed edition of this book and enjoyed it.

The retelling of the origin of one of my favorite heroes, and it was done very well.

A great crime novel that promises at least one sequel.

Another crime novel, and this one from a woman's perspective that is guaranteed to take your breath away.

A YA novel whose author is new to me, but the raw words and the well-drawn atmosphere and background kept me turning pages.

And the fourth book in the Percy Jackson series. Now it's a whole year till the next one! Arrrrgggghhhhh!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hulk Smash!

After seeing Ang Lee’s version of the Incredible Hulk a few years ago, I was dead-set against seeing the new release. Just didn’t need the aggravation. But two things changed my mind. Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. just blew me away, and my ten year old developed a raging interest in the Hulk while at a recent science fiction convention.

So bright and early this morning, after reconstructive nasal surgery yesterday, I took my wife and son to see the movie at 10:30. I’d stayed away from any reviews because I wanted to see the film cold and walk away with my own opinion. I figured being post-op would allow me to be numbed if the movie stunk.

Instead, I got a trip back to my childhood, and a chance to introduce my son to the television Hulk I grew up with (not exactly the Marvel Comics, but close). The second film has evidently completely done away with the previous film and leapfrogged from the television series that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. While the title shots rolled, so did a similar short backstory that echoed everything that the television series had perpetrated during the creation of the Hulk.

Interestingly enough, the serum that changed Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) into the Hulk was part of the same Super Soldier project that created Captain America back in World War II, though General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt in a great supporting role) didn’t mention Cap by name. However, that link was one more linchpin tying the Marvel/Hollywood universe together. The cameo with Robert Downey Jr. playing Tony Stark was another one. There are also references to SHIELD although Nick Fury was conspicuously absent.

After the opening credits finished and the backstory was in place, the movie jumped right into Bruce Banner’s life just as it would have in one of those television episodes. The backdrop of Brazil was amazingly beautiful, and watching Banner trying to learn the language and co-exist with the culture while maintaining his isolation was great. The premise of a man on the run isn’t a new one, but it’s really well rendered in this movie. I felt immediately for Banner’s plight.

The story seemed to move slowly at first. I have to admit, I had a Hulk jones. Probably most filmgoers did. My ten year old took it in stride, though his patience was waning at the end. We wanted the Hulk, we wanted, “Hulk smash!” echoing in our ears.

The first taste we got of it only left us wanting more. The fight scenes were occluded by the shadows and the darkness of the factory, but the choreography was pretty well done. I was almost frustrated, but I knew it was early in the movie. The monster remained just out of sight.

Tim Roth plays Emil Blonsky/the Abomination and does a really good job though the role is somewhat truncated by needing to fit the film into a two-hour delivery. The bits between Ross and Blonsky, where Blonsky basically sells his soul to the general in exchange for power, are well done. Ross is a complicated character, and Hurt portrayed both sides of the man fairly.

Liv Tyler was terrific as Bruce’s love, Betty Ross. She’s intelligent, emotional, and – next to the Hulk – incredibly fragile. The scenes she shared with the monster (especially since we know they were computer-generated and nothing was really there for her to act with) were fantastic. I loved the scene with her and the Hulk in the cave, especially when the lightning and thunder arced across the night and scared him into growling back at it and throwing a boulder.

I also enjoyed the fact that Banner wasn’t reduced to simply being a geeky wimp. He learned to fight, adding martial arts to his doctoral degrees, and handled himself well until he was outmatched. This was the same kind of intelligent, resourceful Banner we got in the comics and in the television show. Man and monster were both given time on the stage, and both worked well.

Of course, the movie wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without a Stan Lee cameo, and it was there. I didn’t expect it the way it was shown, but it was funny. However, what would have happened to him if he drank a soda containing some of Banner’s gamma-spiked blood?

The movie paces itself well throughout, and doesn’t quite become a scream-fest of action till the end. The section where Banner meets Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a confidant he’s been doing research with on the gamma radiation, is quite unexpectedly humorous. It doesn’t last long, but Sterns’s obvious fanboy appreciation of the monster before him plays well.

The movie paces itself well throughout, and doesn’t quite become a scream-fest of action till the end. The section where Banner meets Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a confidant he’s been doing research with on the gamma radiation, is quite unexpectedly humorous. It doesn’t last long, but Sterns’s obvious fanboy appreciation of the monster before him plays well.

Looking at all the numerous crumbs seeded throughout the movie, I knew that Marvel hopes this will only be the start of a brand-new Hulk franchise. Betty is dating a psychologist named Leonard Samson (Doc Samson in the comic series) and Sterns is said to be set up to become the Leader (another gamma-radiation spawned opponent for the Hulk).

I had a good time with the movie. It wasn’t Iron Man but I enjoyed it a lot. The Hulk is a difficult character to deal with, and I think this approach was probably the best way to take it at this time. I was really thankful we weren’t marched through another origin story so soon after the last movie. This way we got Hulk action nearer the beginning.

Go see the movie and enjoy.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to the Cecil Hotel!

I'm a procrastinator when it comes to taking trips. I had my travel tickets locked in, but I didn't get a hotel room till about four hours before I left Will Rogers Airport. I got frustrated trying to figure out the geography and how close hotels were to the LA Convention Center.

Finally, I called, refused all the exorbitant rates, and found a hotel for $71 a night in South Central L.A. I didn't know it was South Central, but I was by myself. When my wife and kids aren't along, I like to veer off the beaten path to experience real life instead of the tourist attractions.

The Cecil Hotel was built back in the 1920s. Writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett could have stayed there. I liked the idea of that, and maybe the hint of danger that clung to the streets just outside.

I stayed on the 14th floor, which was really the 13th because they skipped that number on the elevator keypad. I kept flashing on Stephen King's 1408 and waited for the madness to start! Sadly, no madness. I coulda been on Oprah!

The marble floor and walls looked elegant. They had a security desk in front of the check-in desk.

Here's another view from the mezzanine level.

And another. The security desk is in the foreground.

This is from the other side of the mezzanine. Loved the stairwell!

The only place I could get an internet connection was on the mezzanine. They had glassed-in room for meetings, but there were a lot of tables and outlets around. I was reminded again of how the computer community really pulls together to make sure everyone has space and electricity! We all took care of each other up there.

This is a rooftop swimming pool just outside the hallway window.

I had to try out the zoom feature of my digtal pocket camera, don't ya know. I have to say, I was mightily impressed. And this guy struck out, for those of you who are curious.

Loved the gargoyles!

The street outside the hotel was dangerous. I was told not to go out after dark. But I went on a hot dog run to the 7-11 four blocks up the street with the security guard at midnight. You see a whole different clientele out there after dark.

I also got hit on by a wheelchair hooker my first day there when I walked up to a neighborhood cafe to eat. The hotel restaurant was closed for rennovations. I was so stunned by the approach that I didn't take her picture. I just wanted to escape. Momma never taught me how to let a wheelchair hooker down easy!

This building, a bank I believe, looks a lot like a castle turret. Don't be surprised if it turns up in a novel some time!

My room didn't have enough room to swing a cat. But I loved it. Except for the lack of internet connection and desk. I learned I could type on the laptop in bed, though. Which could be a good or bad thing, depending.

All in all, I had a good time getting to know the security guards and wandering around through the hotel. I could almost imagine I was a private detective back in the 1920s and 1930s of early LA and Hollywood!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Book Expo in Los Angeles Rocked!

This was my first BEA and I had a blast seeing everything. The opening hallway was filled with massive banners advertising new and upcoming releases. I can't wait for the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Had to have a shot of the Nickelodeon banner for my kid.

And one of the anime stuff.

And here's one a lot of people are waiting for.

Booth babes! Only a few, though.

I spent most of my time with the Harlequin crew.

A lot of people came through that area, all of them picking up the free books that were given away.

Meetings between PR and editorial constantly went on.

Diane Moggy, one of Harlequin's top execs, stayed right in the trenches. I wish I had some pictures of her helping me sign. I busted her up several times by going beyond the call of duty and attracting people to our table. Put me in front of a group and the shyness goes away. For a while.

Farah is one of my faves. I met her at last year's Comic Con in San Diego.

Independent publisher Ellora's Cave rolling claim to fame. Now this is a sales promo that just can't escape notice!

I found this wonderful woman walking around in costume. She's a character from Scooter McDoogal.

So I had to have my picture take with her.

All in all, I had a blast signing books, seeing people, and meeting people. The BEA is going to be in New York next year. I've never been there so I'm really looking forward to it. If you ever get the chance to go to one, you should go. There was a LOT to see. It was one of the best conventions I've been to in a long time.