Monthly Archives

October 2010

Movie Review: MEGAMIND

While DreamWorks’ Megamind (opening Nov. 5) is diverting enough, it breaks no new ground and doesn’t have the emotional resonance of Pixar movies. It’s more like a Chinese meal you enjoy but end up hungry again an hour later, perhaps even forgetting you had dinner at all.

Megamind’s origin story is similar to Superman’s in that his parents sent him to Earth when his planet was destroyed. But he wasn’t the only baby who escaped. The other infant’s ship landed in a rich couple’s home, where the boy received every advantage that comes with his class, while Megamind’s pod landed in a much more unsavory place, supposedly setting his course in life. He decides his only choice is to become the baddest supervillain ever.

His biggest obstacle? The other baby growing up to be Metro Man, an alpha male in every way and protector of Metro City. Metro Man thwarts Megamind’s most dastardly deeds until one day, he can’t anymore, causing Megamind to have identity issues. What good is a supervillain when there’s no superhero to stop him? He gets a chance to find his true purpose when another bad guy shows up to wreak havoc on Metro City. Will Megamind stop him or join forces with him?

The movie has good things to say about how we judge people and free will vs. destiny. As a kid, the giant-blue-headed Megamind always got picked last for dodgeball and he grows up thinking a life of crime is his only option after an unfortunate childhood. Ferrell does decent voice work, knowing when to turn on the frenzy and when to keep it quieter, but the movie’s casting is too obvious. Need a brainy, dry-witted brunette? Tina Fey, of course! A hunky guy who has it all? Who else but Brad Pitt? A nerd who can’t get the girl? Hey, let’s get Jonah Hill! Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Pitt play nerdy and Hill be heroic? In animation, where actors are unencumbered by their physical appearance, they should be able to play anything but Megamind seems content with making easy choices. In contrast, I wouldn’t have thought of Tom Hanks first to play a cowboy or Tim Allen to voice an astronaut.

While I’m comparing, I might as well mention that Megamind works fine as surface entertainment but I saw a missed opportunity for it to move viewers on a deeper level the way Pixar movies can. Megamind struggles with his image and outsider status, themes most of us can relate to, but the filmmakers merely do a gloss job on these matters. It’s okay to strive to only entertain, but playing it safe keeps the movie decidedly earthbound instead of blasting its appeal into infinity and beyond.

Nerd verdict: Megamind makes small impact

Photo of Tina Fey by Michael Murphree


Movie Title Challenge

Someone started a meme on Twitter today which challenges people to come up with funny movie titles by adding “in my pants” to the end of existing titles. I know many of you don’t tweet so I thought I’d post it here and maybe we could have a few laughs on Monday morning.

Here are some of my examples:

  • I Know What You Did Last Summer In My Pants
  • It’s Complicated In My Pants
  • It Happened One Night In My Pants
  • Swingers In My Pants
  • All the Right Moves In My Pants
  • Something’s Gotta Give In My Pants
  • You, Again In My Pants
  • No Country for Old Men In My Pants

To make it a little more creative, I avoided titles with obvious words like “balls” (e.g. Balls of Fury) or “hard” (e.g. Hard Target) in them. Yes, this is decidedly a low-brow game but if something involves pantalones activity, I’m in. You? Let’s see what you can whip up in your pants!


My First Halloween

My nephew Max on his first Halloween

Among the kids who come trick or treating at my door every year, I always see a handful of adorable babies in dog or lion costumes experiencing their first Halloween, something they’ll have no memory of years from now. But I remember my first Halloween because I was eight years old when I was introduced to this interesting American tradition.

My family and I had been in this country for about five months when one day in late October, one of our sponsors, Mrs. Morrison, came over to tell us about this fun thing we kids were going to do on the last day of the month. The way I understood it, we had to pretend to be a scary character, dress up in costumes and walk around asking strangers for candy.  I liked free candy just fine but didn’t know begging for food was encouraged here in America. I thought we had left Vietnam so we wouldn’t have to do things like that.

Mrs. Morrison finished her briefing and asked if we had any questions.

“Can we ask for rice?” I asked.

“Ah, no.”

“Meat?” my brother asked.

“Candy only,” Mrs. Morrison said.

I had one more. “You do trick for candy?” Though I wasn’t sure what it meant, I’d heard it was bad to “turn tricks,” especially on the street.

Mrs. Morrison laughed. “Don’t worry. No one ever has to do any tricks.  People will just give you candy because that’s the point.”

I still felt uncertain about this weird thing we were being talked into but next thing I knew, we were all hustled into Mrs. Morrison’s car to go shopping for costumes at K-Mart. Once there, we just stood and stared, overwhelmed by all the crazy-looking choices.

Mrs. Morrison started making suggestions to my brother. “How about a pirate?”

“No. They bad to boat people,” he said.

“Oh, okay,” Mrs. Morrison said.  “Then let’s pick out something else for you.” She led him over to a different area.  “How about a skeleton?” She held out a black outfit with the white outline of a skeleton on it.

“No skeleton,” my brother said.

“Too scary?”

“No.  My uncle in Viet Nam skinny like that.”

“Oh.” Poor Mrs. Morrison. She had no idea selecting Halloween costumes could be such a landmine. Next to the skeleton outfit was a set of fatigues labeled as a G.I. Joe costume.  “You probably wouldn’t want that one, either. Let’s move on.”

“Wait.” My brother hesitated, his eyes on the camouflage. He pulled out the costume, considered it for a moment. Then, “I want this.”

“Are you sure? You want to be a soldier?”

“Yes. They help my family,” my brother said.  End of discussion.

“All right, then.  I’m glad you’ve found something you like,” Mrs. Morrison says.  She turned to my sister.  “Are you all set?”

My sister was holding up a pink gown and tiara. “I’m a princess.” Of course she was.

I was the only one left. I looked around at the options, not really sparking to anything. I didn’t want to be a cat; the costume looked scratchy. A witch? The mask had a giant nose bigger than my face. An angel? I wasn’t.

And then I saw it. A fake plastic face with blond hair attached, peeking out at me from behind giant mouse ears.

“I want to be Miss America.”

The previous month, I’d seen the pageant for the first time. The singing announcer man said the women were the most beautiful in the country. Many of them were blond and blue-eyed, had big hair and bigger teeth, long arms and legs. I could never be Miss America, even if I drank lots of milk. Except here was my chance.

The costume came with a royal blue gown, sash, and a full mask depicting a pretty blond woman flashing dazzling Chiclet teeth. I slipped it over my face and my entire Asian-ness disappeared. I sighed. For one night, I could be a beauty queen.

“This one, please,” I said. I wanted to keep the pretty face on as we left the store.

But the next evening, as I walked down the street in my polyester gown and plastic mask, I found it hard to breathe. The mask kept fogging up and I couldn’t see properly through the eye holes. Worse, every time someone opened the door and said, “Oh, look how pretty you are!” I felt like a fake. How do you say thank you for a compliment you didn’t really earn?

So, I took off the mask and shook out my sweaty flat mask hair. I stood for a moment on the sidewalk, just breathing in the night air. I looked down at the gown. It was too long and the hem was dragging on the ground. I slipped out of that, too. (Luckily, I had on a tee and pajama pants underneath.) Then I said to my brother and sister, “OK, I’m ready to move on.”

At the next house, when the door opened, I gave the lady the biggest smile I had. She asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” Just me, I answered. As Mrs. Morrison said, I didn’t have to worry about tricking anyone.

Happy Halloween, everyone. What’s one of your favorite Halloween memories?


Book Review: Dennis Lehane’s MOONLIGHT MILE

Two years ago, Dennis Lehane said in this Entertainment Weekly article that it was unlikely he’d write another whodunit and was pretty much done with Patrick Kenzie, one of the protagonists in the author’s popular PI series about a pair of Boston detectives. He says, ”My publishers, they’ve been clear if I ever wrote one, they’d back a truckful of money onto my driveway, but I don’t want to be the guy who goes back to the well just so I could buy another house.”

So, when I heard that Lehane’s next novel, Moonlight Mile (William Morrow, Nov. 2), is indeed about Patrick and his partner Angie Gennaro, I was partly elated as a fan of the series and partly skeptical, thinking, “Maybe the publishers sent in TWO trucks of money?”

I needn’t have worried—Moonlight is no sellout novel for a vacation home in Bora Bora. It’s a strong addition to the series, dealing with the aftermath of events in Gone, Baby, Gone. Twelve years after Patrick and Angie went looking for four-year-old Amanda McCready in that earlier novel, her aunt Bea is back saying Amanda has disappeared again. According to her teachers’ testimonials, Amanda is a stellar student on her way to a full scholarship to an Ivy League school and a bright future far from the miserable existence she has endured with her worthless mom, Helene. The consensus is Amanda wouldn’t run away with so much at stake. The situation is further complicated when Russian thugs enter the picture and Bea discovers that Amanda might be trying to assume a false identity.

Having found Amanda once before, Patrick goes looking for her again, faced with subtle accusations from others—Angie, included—that he could’ve helped Amanda avoid this whole mess if he hadn’t done what he did twelve years ago.

Lehane once again proves he writes the kind of crime fiction that explores societal mores as well as any literary novel can, and with wit and snappy pacing to boot. He said in that EW article that he was losing interest in writing whodunits because he was tiring of “whipping out the kitchen sink just to obscure s—, like the identity of the serial killer or whatever.” Well, this book isn’t about hidden identities (though there are some fake ones). Lehane is more interested in examining the conundrum of how one can do the right thing and still be wrong, how there aren’t easy answers to impossible situations. As Patrick explains to someone, “I know damn well I don’t want to live in a world where people can just pluck a child out of a family they deem bad and raise a stolen child as they see fit.” In defense of his actions regarding Amanda twelve years ago, “It was a case of situational ethics versus societal ones, I guess. I took society’s side.”

Patrick’s position is even more understandable considering he has a family now. He and Angie are married with a four-year-old daughter (the same age as Amanda when she originally went missing) and worrying about things like health benefits and job security. Angie is working towards a master’s in sociology while Patrick questions the toll his work has exacted from his conscience, wondering if he’s doing more harm than good. When he shows a woman a picture of Amanda and asks if she’s seen her, he’s shocked by the vitriol the woman spews in response:

You asked a simple question lately or made an innocuous aside and suddenly you were the recipient of a howl of loss and fury. We no longer understood how we’d gotten here. We couldn’t grasp what had happened to us. We woke up one day and all the street signs had been stolen, all the navigation systems had shorted out. The car had no gas, the living room had no furniture, the imprint in the bed beside us had been smoothed over.

But Patrick and Angie’s world isn’t all melancholia. They still have a sexy banter, their dealings with their daughter are amusing, and Lehane leaves them in a hopeful place, a temporary refuge from the darkness, a hard-earned life that may be imperfect but not without its sweetness.

Nerd verdict: Sharp, beautiful Moonlight

Buy Moonlight Mile from Amazon| B&N| Powell’s| IndieBound


Movie Review: 127 HOURS + Notes from Q&A with Filmmakers

It’s been about 72 hours since I’ve seen Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours (opening Nov. 5) and I can’t stop thinking about it. You know how some experiences stay with you? This movie has clung to me the way Aron Ralston clung to life while stuck deep in a crevice in Utah’s Blue John Canyon.

Adapted from his autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Hours recounts the 5+ days in 2003 that Ralston, an experienced canyoneer, spent alone and trapped after falling and having his right arm pinned by a boulder. Not having told anyone where he was going, Ralston (James Franco) knew it was up to him whether he lived or died there. He eventually freed himself by doing something most people probably wouldn’t have the physical or mental strength to do. It sounds grueling—and it is—but Franco, director Danny Boyle and his production team have managed to make an incredibly moving and uplifting film about it all.

Let’s start with Franco. Holding the audience’s attention in every frame of a feature film all by himself has a difficulty level of at least 9.85 but the actor pulls it off with aplomb. He’s charming, raw, and even funny as he tracks Ralston through frustration, delirium, and Hell-no-I-won’t-die-here determination, giving life and energy to what are essentially monologues (well-written by Simon Beaufoy). Though Franco has delivered award-winning performances before in Milk and the James Dean TV movie, his work here should take the already busy actor’s career to new heights.

The movie’s impact is also helped along by striking cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak. The blue skies, brown earth, Ralston’s red T-shirt with a bright yellow sunflower combine to create vibrant tableaux. Even as Ralston is stuck in what could’ve been his death trap, he caresses the rocks around him and reaches his leg towards sunlight, heartbreaking gestures of appreciation for the undeniable beauty around him. At one point, there’s a long continuous shot that starts in the narrow trench with Ralston and slowly pulls out to a wide aerial view of the canyons that’s breathtaking.

And then there’s Boyle. Working with several of his Oscar-winning team members from Slumdog Millionnaire, the director has, in his own words (see more below), made “an action movie where the hero can’t move.” The movie begins with the kind of kinetic energy we saw in the street scenes in Slumdog, full of speed and movement. Ralston is shown as an adrenaline junkie, never stopping in one place for long, until nature, the thing he loves most, stops him cold and forces him to re-evaluate his path in life. The movie’s momentum could have come to a crashing halt at this point but Boyle found a way for us to continue on Ralston’s journey by taking us into Ralston’s mind as he reminisces about the people he loves most. I didn’t realize how deeply entrenched I was with Ralston in that canyon until the moment help finally comes after he climbs out and encounters other hikers. I wept, hard, shaking with tears of relief for several long minutes, exhaling and realizing my heart had been in my throat.

I imagine that those of you familiar with the story will want to know how graphic those scenes are depicting what Ralston did to survive. I couldn’t watch but did observe the reactions of the people around me. Judging by that and the sound effects, the scenes are quite disturbing. But they don’t last long and shouldn’t deter you from seeing this amazing film.

Nerd verdict: Tense, gripping Hours

I attended a screening sponsored by Variety which had Boyle, screenwriter Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson doing Q&A afterward. Some highlights from the discussion:

  • Boyle first approached Ralston in 2006 about doing the film but Ralston had wanted to make it as a documentary back then.
  • Once Ralston came on board, he shared with Boyle the videotapes he made in the canyon for loved ones when he thought he would never see them again. Boyle thought they’d be hard to watch but was amazed by how dignified and lacking in self pity the messages were.
  • Because the story is mostly internal monologue, Beaufoy didn’t think it could be adapted into a movie. Boyle figured out how to make it cinematic through the video clips Ralston makes and his memories, when he talks to his family back home.
  • Ralston is extremely detailed. When the filmmakers sent him a 60-page script, he sent back 70-page notes.
  • Ralston genuinely believes the accident was a blessing because it made him stop and re-think his life.
  • Shooting was done in the canyon where the accident happened, with close-ups done on a set in a warehouse in Utah.
  • The first test screening was done in New Jersey, where the audience stood up, pumped their arms in the air and yelled “YES!” at the end. This mitigated the painful experience for Ralston, who was watching it for the first time.

Photos: Chuck Zlotnick


Winner of John Le Carré’s OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

I know I’m late making this announcement but my randomly selected winner is:


Congrats! Contact me by Tuesday Oct. 26, 5 p.m. PST and you’ll get a hardcover copy of Our Kind of Traitor.

I’ve got fantastic giveaways already lined up for the next couple months so check back often if you didn’t win this time!


VIDEO: Lee Child on Jack Reacher vs. Joe Pike & Research

To celebrate the release of Lee Child‘s Worth Dying For today (my review here), I’m posting a couple clips of Child being interviewed by Jacqueline Winspear in a spotlight interview at Bouchercon 2010, the fantastic event from which I’m still recovering.

In this first clip, a fan asked Child something he’s been asked often: If Jack Reacher fought Robert Crais’s Joe Pike, who would win? Click play for his answer. (Go here to see Crais’s rebuttal.)

This next clip has Child talking about his diligent research process:

Do you agree with Child’s assessment of how a Pike vs. Reacher fight would turn out? Where should he set his next book and what movie should he watch for research?

Check back later this week for more Bouchercon videos!


Bouchercon 2010 Report: Part 1

It’s a gray cool Sunday in Los Angeles as I recover from my very first Bouchercon. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s an annual mystery convention for authors and fans that’s criminally fun. This year, it was held in San Francisco and impeccably chaired by Rae Helmsworth. I don’t know how she did it—she looked fantastic and calm every time I saw her while I felt like nine miles of rough road just running around to different panels and parties. Not that I’m complaining. If I had any more fun, my face would crack from laughing.

I taped some of the panels and will be posting highlight clips later this week. Check back for videos of authors including Lee Child, David Baldacci, Denise Mina, Laurie R. King, and Michael Connelly.

Meanwhile, I wanted to post some of my own highlights—the people I got to meet and/or spend time with:

  • My friend Lauren aka LolosLetters, who fought off at least two would-be muggers with an Elite Uniball pen on her way to the ‘con
  • Author Hilary Davidson, who is gorgeous, funny, smart, talented, nice and impeccably dressed. Come on! Leave some for the rest of us!
  • My friend Christine from Tennessee, who is nicer than I can ever hope to be
  • Authors Brett Battles and Rob Gregory Browne, two good men who can definitely handle the truth
  • Author Martha Flynn, who shared an incredible personal story with me
  • Publicist Dana Kaye, who is a rock star
  • Mulholland Books marketing director Miriam Parker, who is smart and energetic enough to run the country
  • Author Reed Farrel Coleman, who won’t be suing me for defamation
  • Shamus-Award-winning author Brad Parks, who, uh…no comment
  • Author Stephen Blackmoore and his bewitching wife Carrie, who offered me late-night cupcakes
  • My thieving roommate, who absconded with every book and cookie that wasn’t tied down, and my roommie in absentia, who helped make it all possible

I regret not having a chance to spend more time with superstar blogger Jen Forbus, who literally took my hand and guided me to the right places; Elizabeth Duncan in her lavender disco pants; birthday girl Juliet Blackwell, with whom I never got to consume sauerkraut; and Sophie Littlefield, who was busy winning awards (she won the Best First Novel Anthony Award for A Bad Day for Sorry).

Besides all the fun, I take away an overwhelming sense of gratefulness for the generosity of old and new friends, and the kindness of people who don’t even know me beyond a Twitter handle. In a community built around crime fiction, I found nothing but lightness and laughter.


Book Review: Lee Child’s WORTH DYING FOR

In Worth Dying For (Delacorte, Oct. 19), Jack Reacher is making his way to Virginia to hopefully meet the woman with the sexy voice with whom he spent much of 61 Hours conversing on the phone. But a driver who gives him a ride drops him off in Nebraska where Reacher intends to spend only one night at the sole motel in a desolate town.

His plans change when he runs into a drunk doctor at the motel bar and offers to drive the man to a patient’s house to treat a broken nose. When Reacher realizes how the woman’s nose got broken, he tracks down the husband to teach him a lesson. This gets him embroiled in a power struggle between the townspeople and the nasty family of four men who control almost every aspect of the residents’ livelihood. When the fight is over, as Reacher says, “some will be dead, some will be sheepish, some will have self respect.”

You’d think that by this time, the fifteenth book in the series, Reacher has seen and experienced everything. But something happens to him in this installment that has never happened to him before. And boy, is he not happy about it. He kicks butt a plenty and engages in some spectacular fight scenes but we also see him in pain. There’s a sense that the wear and tear of his exploits are catching up to him but this only humanizes him. At one point, he even frets if his roughed-up appearance would be acceptable to Susan, the woman he’s traveling across the country to meet. I can’t remember any instances in the other novels where he worried about his looks.

The situation Reacher gets entangled in carries more emotional resonance than some of his previous cases. The locals have long been beaten down by their hard lives but Reacher lights a spark that restores their fighting spirit. One resident in particular, Dorothy Coe, has such a heartbreaking story, it demands the kind of justice Reacher excels in doling out.

Nerd verdict: Worth the price

Buy Worth Dying For from Amazon| B&N| IndieBound| Powell’s

Note: I’m heading up to Bouchercon so I’ll be back next week with a report on all the hijinks!


Movie Review: RED

Every summer, Hollywood rolls out loud, explosive blockbusters and this past season was no exception. Most of them were duds, though—Prince of Persia, anyone? Maybe that’s why we had to wait until fall for Red (out October 15) because this is no dumb action movie. Based on graphic novels by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, the thriller is a rollicking good time, a shoot-’em-up that works because someone was smart enough to cram it not only with fun action pieces but talented and charismatic actors, too (sorry, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t do it for me).

Urban and Willis

Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a Retired, Extremely Dangerous former CIA agent whose biggest thrill nowadays comes from flirting with Sarah, the telephone rep (Mary-Louise Parker) in charge of sending him his government checks. He decides one day to travel to Kansas to see her in person but before he can get there, something happens which forces Moses to kidnap Sarah and take her on the run. It soon becomes clear someone is out to assassinate him and other R.E.D. agents. They reunite to face the threat head-on and make their attackers regret they started the fight.

I skipped Willis’s recent flops—Cop Out, Surrogates, etc.—wondering if he’s still got what it takes to anchor a decent flick. He settled this issue quickly, turning in an effective performance as Moses, former Marine and highly competent field agent. It’s been over two decades since he was anointed an action star in Die Hard but Willis can still pull off the badassness. The movie even addresses the age issue when Willis has a confrontation with a young agent played by Karl Urban, who makes cracks about Moses’s age until Moses shows him who’s boss.

The other R.E.D. agents are portrayed by Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich, looking like they’re having a blast. It’s great fun to see Mirren decked out in an elegant gown then whip out a massive machine gun and just go to town. (There are more flying bullets fly in this movie than shoppers at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.) Malkovich plays yet another loony-tunes character but the man can’t help it if he does it so well. Urban, who left no impression on me whatsoever as the young Bones in last year’s Star Trek or as Eomer in the Lord of the Rings movies, finally made me sit up and notice his intense Agent Cooper.

Director Robert Schwentke may have stumbled with his adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, but he seems to have found source material with a much better fit this time around.

Nerd verdict: You’ll like seeing Red

Photos © Summit Entertainment



My 3 randomly selected winners for an audiobook of Jon Stewart’s Earth are:

  1. Jen Forbus
  2. le0pard13

My 3 winners for audiobooks of David Sedaris’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are:

  1. joy
  3. Naomi Johnson

Yes, EIREGO, your name was drawn in both drawings! I think you should immediately book a trip to Vegas this weekend.

Winners, please hit the “contact” tab above (or the red envelope button in the sidebar) and send me your addresses. Hachette will ship the prizes. I must hear from you by Wednesday, Oct. 13, midnight PST or alternate winner(s) will be selected.

Thanks to everyone for your clever, witty entries. The animal personal ads made me laugh. You can still enter my giveaway for John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor here. I’ll also have lots more drool-worthy items to give away in the coming months so stay tuned!