Sunday, September 28, 2014

Eugie Foster, 1971-2014

Nebula award winning-author Eugie Foster died on Saturday.

She was forty-two.

I knew her from my time reviewing for Tangent Online and The Fix, where she worked as an editor.

Eugie was one of the very first people I became acquainted with in the world of science fiction fandom, and the first with whom I actually worked in it.

She was always kind, considerate, patient and supportive.

The world is a colder place for her no longer being among us.

However, her work does remain with us. If you are not familiar with it, I urge you to check it out for yourself.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace: The Short Version

My recent post on Tolstoy's War and Peace has been getting a lot of hits lately, and so I thought it worthwhile to write up a quick summary of my thoughts on the book.

Exactly what I had to say about the book is the following.

The length of the book; its crowding with a huge cast of at times confusingly named characters; its loose, even plotless structure; and its frequent digressions into lecturing about ideas which are in some cases abstruse, in others deeply against the grain of twenty-first century attitudes; make it a challenging read.

It must also be admitted that the book has its limits of perspective. Tolstoy is in the main focused on Russian aristocrats here, and takes little interest in the strata below them, or in the modern, urban side of life. He also subordinates the variety, balance and color of his tale to his expounding of certain ideas about life and history. Unsurprisingly the story often seem sanitized, poorly paced and even dull in places--the contrast with his contemporary Dostoyevsky, for example, quite marked--while his relation of his ideas gets repetitious.

Still, along with its challenges and its arguable defects, it has very real strengths. Tolstoy's eye for detail, and the vividness this often gives his characterizations and scenes, often elevates the interest of his material beyond what might be expected from its limitations. As one might hope from he title, he is particularly good at writing about war (and as it turns out, especially the fog of war), and while his presentation of his ideas is one-sided (and frequently self-contradicting) the ideas themselves have enough interest to engage a reader ordinarily disinclined to consider such views.

The result is a book that may not necessarily live up to the claims made for it as the greatest novel ever written, but which remains deservedly a classic, and which I found worth my while.

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Box Office in Summer 2014, and The Movies of Summer 2015

A summer exceptionally short on megahits came to an end this Labor Day weekend.1

This season, only one movie crossed the quarter-billion dollar mark. By contrast, three or more has been the norm since about the turn of this century, with a few exceptional summers scoring as many as five (2007, 2009, 2010), and last summer seeing four.

The biggest hit was Guardians of the Galaxy, just shy of $300 million at the time of writing. By contrast, 2013 had Iron Man 3 with $409 million, and Despicable Me 2 with just a little less (some $391 million). The preceding year was even more impressive, with Avengers taking in $623 million, and The Dark Knight Rises pulling in another $448 million.

Overall, the earnings during the summer season were down almost 15 percent from the preceding year.

Of course, that is not really grounds for panic. The slow ticket sales do reflect a number of exceptional factors, like the fact that last summer's earnings had set a new record, and so skew the perception of the average; and that the bumping of a number of "tentpoles" (like Jupiter Jones) over to later release dates, and the fewness of big, family-oriented, animated films (no Pixar, etc.), meant fewer of the kinds of movies most likely to be big money-makers.

Still, the long-term picture looks worse when one thinks in terms of tickets sold rather than monetary grosses, as a quick glance at the data on BoxOfficeMojo shows.2 The fact that the top films in particular were such a letdown can be taken for a reminder of the limits of the blockbuster, "event movie" strategy--its high-risk nature, and the reality that one can only have so many successful releases of the type in any given period. The distribution of success and failure during the season also implies that not only critics, but audiences too, are weary of the kind of fare being served up. The films that did perform relatively well were the fresher and riskier releases (Maleficent, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, Guardians of the Galaxy), rather than the remakes and sequels of May and June that seemed such good bets (Spiderman 2, Transformers 4).

Will that fact make Hollywood a bit more adventurous in its future offerings? Perhaps, perhaps not (more likely not, given how few seem to be saying this), but 2015, at least, will come along too early to reflect any such change, and that year at least seems to be much in line with this one, with movies like Avengers 2, Mad Max 4, Jurassic Park 4, Terminator 5. A reboot of the Fantastic Four, remakes of Poltergeist and Point Break. Movie versions of Entourage, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Assassin's Creed. The Despicable Me spin-off Minions, and a sequel to Ted. More Insidious and Sinister, and more Melissa McCarthy in Spy. Another Marvel superhero franchise in Ant-Man . . .

Reviewing the list I still wondered if maybe there would nonetheless be material for another post like the one I wrote in 2013 about this summer's films ("And Now For Something Slightly Different (Maybe)"), and simply didn't see it, so I'll content myself with making guesses about how this crop will do.

As it seems to me, with even a steep drop from the earnings of the previous film, Avengers alone should be adequate to ensure one mega-hit for the summer of 2015. And there's no reason to think Marvel's luck is running out just yet, so Fantastic Four and Ant-Man have a shot at being decent performers.

Despite the flopping of Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West (yet another reminder that Westerns don't do well in summer, as if one were needed), I expect that there's enough goodwill left toward Ted to make Ted 2 a success--just as Minions will probably be a success.3 By contrast, the very hard push made for Melissa McCarthy seems to be running out of steam if Tammy's anything to go by, and Spy seems likely to suffer accordingly.

It has been a long time since either Jurassic Park or Terminator were on the big-screen, and when they did put in their final appearances, those franchises were well along a path of diminishing returns (though I personally liked the lean Jurassic Park III better than the lumbering The Lost World). That will work against them, and so will the ex-California governor's awful track record at the box office this past couple of years.

The idea of a new Mad Max film at least seems more relevant, but this franchise has been off the screen longer (thirty years!), was closely identified with a star no longer attached to it (and whose star is far from what it once was), and was never a big money-maker in the States. (Mad Max 3 made $38 million in '85, which even after inflation still isn't blockbuster money.) I'm not sure there are grounds for expecting this to change now.

I don't have much idea as to whether Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be another Mission: Impossible-like blockbuster--or an I Spy. Equally, Assassin's Creed may be the breakthrough Hollywood's been waiting for with video game-based movies--or it may be another Prince of Persia-style disappointment (though in fairness, a movie can do a lot worse than Prince did).4 And the decision to remake Point Break seems just plain incomprehensible.

This seems to imply a good many gambles--but not necessarily the kind of gambles likely to pay off. Rather than serving up something a little less conventional, it looks like a great deal of effort at squeezing exhausted properties (Terminator, etc.). And so I won't expect that 2015 will shift the talk from dismayed reactions to hopes for endless boom times.

Still, even if that summer ends up with another load of underperformers, Hollywood will not necessarily see it as reinforcing the disappointing signal from 2014, especially with foreign markets continuing to blunt its worry over the trend at home (and few in the industry seeming to worry much about intensifying competition for markets like China's and Japan's)--and in fairness, the absence of any clear alternatives that the studios might plausibly find attractive. So industry-watchers will once again talk about how something must be done, while business goes on as usual.

1. This was underscored by the following weekend being the weakest the industry has seen in thirteen years--with the last such low point due to highly exceptional circumstances simply not comparable to the events of September 4-6, 2014.
2. 2013 may have been a record year in terms of dollars earned, but ticket sales were down 15 percent from 2002, and was actually the fourth lowest year for ticket sales this century. This year seems likely to be worse than that. All the same, when the numbers are crunched at year's end, it remains more than likely that theatergoing in 2014 will be found to have been within the normal range for recent decades--4-5 tickets per capita for the twelvemonth.
3. Even before MacFarlane's film, the list of such flops was already quite long, with Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger recent memories.
4. Despite its reputation as a flop, Prince still made $91 million at the U.S. box office, $336 million worldwide--more than any other video game adaptation to date.

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