Saturday, October 3, 2009

Five reasons you should see Zombieland

If you read this blog, you already know that I've been looking forward to Zombieland for weeks. If you follow movie reviews, you've probably noted that the film is holding at 89% on RottenTomatoes and that io9's Annalee Newitz gave it glowing coverage. So, rather than pile on the review stack, I'm going to give the undecided among you a handful of reasons--some of them on the edge of being minor spoilers--that you should see this film.

5. Newitz is right: It's a date movie, maybe the first feel-good, zombie date flick ever. Don't you want to be able to say you were in the theater to see this one?

4. It never loses sight of what it wants to be. There's quite a lot I dislike about this film's approach to zombies. For one thing, these zombies run and climb, which to me is just plain wrong; zombies should shamble, period. I also wish the four humans demonstrated better zombie survival skills. Seriously: a double-barreled shotgun? Despite those misgivings, however, I enjoyed the vision of the movie, its not-so-subtle messages, and its relentless focus on both its simple relationship story and gory zombie killing.

3. Twinkies. Tallahassee (Harrelson's character) loves 'em, and he will invade any zombie-infested store to get them. They're the zombies of the packaged food world, after all, because they go down about as well dead (stale) as alive (fresh).

True confession time: I once ate a bite of a twelve-year-old Twinkie. It was no worse than a fresh one. It's a long story.

2. The integration of type with the film. From the titles to the rules that Columbus frequently spouts, type keeps appearing in the movie in consistent and fun ways. Yeah, that's a geek thing to list, but it's a geek movie.

and the number one reason to see Zombieland.

1. Woody Harrelson. The man is amazing in his role as Tallahassee, a guy who finally found the one thing he was good at doing: killing zombies. I've enjoyed a lot of Harrelson's performances, but this was far and away his best.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Five bars in my house

I'm a big fan of the iPhone, and I've owned one since it appeared--and upgraded each year to that year's bright and shiny new model. As a handheld computing tool, it's the best I've seen so far.

As a phone, though, it sucks. Part of the problem is in the device itself, of course. I've seen more than one example of other AT&T phones having signal in the same place where iPhones do not. Apple clearly needs to improve the quality of the iPhone's antenna.

The real issue, though, is, as every iPhone user knows, AT&T. AT&T's 3G network sucks. I'd leave AT&T in a heartbeat if I could, but the iPhone remains, at least for now, available only for AT&T.

One consequence of the extreme suck that is AT&T's network is something that has caused many of my friends to (correctly and with cause) mock me excessively: Since my first iPhone, my mobile phone has not worked in my house. The moment I turn off my car, my iPhone effectively turns into an iPod Touch. The ways in which this sucks are many, but they certainly include all work and external family attempts to reach me.

I'm happy to announce that this problem is now gone. I have five bars of signal in my upstairs, and three to five bars downstairs.

This seeming miracle comes courtesy of a hundred and fifty bucks and the legal theft of some Time-Warner Cable bandwidth by AT&T. In other words, I bought an AT&T 3G MicroCell. This handy gadget hooks to your local network and basically acts as a cell tower in your house--but a tower that sends your calls to and from your network and thus your own broadband provider. It was a snap to install, it worked the first time, and it performs as advertised. Its big weakness is that it cannot hand off to the cellular network calls that I start in the house, but I can live with that.

Now, you may reasonably ask, Mark, aren't you paying AT&T more money just to do what it should already have been doing?

Absolutely. It is in every way a rip-off and another reason to leave AT&T.

Except that I now have five bars and a cell phone that works in my house, so even though I'm out $150, I'm happy.

Of course, the day Verizon sells a full-featured new iPhone, I am so out of AT&T....

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My take on the Kimbo Slice fight

For those of you who don't follow the UFC or its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, last night on that show--which, yes, I watch--underground fighting star Kimbo Slice fought former International Fight League Roy "Big Country" Nelson. Slice (real name: Kevin Ferguson) lost the fight in a second-round TKO via referee stoppage. I've had some fan mail asking for my take on both the fight and the behavior of both fighters in the house that all 16 fighters/contestants share, so I thought I'd give you a few of my observations here.

What we see about the fighters and life in the house is only what the show's producers and directors want us to see.

This point is vital and one we should never forget, because we can't trust what we see for most of the show. In the build-up to this fight, they made Slice look like a wonderful fellow and Nelson appear to be a jerk. Maybe those perceptions are valid, but maybe they're not; we can't be sure.

What we can know for certain is that the producers cut this show to maximize its appeal because, hey, that's their job. They cut it after the fight was over, so they knew Slice had lost. Making one person a good guy (in pro wrestling speak, a "face") and another a bad man (a "heel") is a standard way to boost ratings, and these folks are well aware of that fact.

Nelson's skills were clearly beyond Slice's.

If you can't see that, then you weren't watching. Nelson took down Slice with ease, went immediately to side control, then without a lot of effort put Slice in the crucifix position, where Slice was helpless.

Of course, both these guys could kick my fat old ass, but I wasn't in the octagon with either of them. Nor will I be, unless the purse is huge--and then, watch for a new record in falling down fast.

The fact that Nelson doesn't want to sustain damage doesn't make him a bad person.

Nelson has said in blogs and, more or less, on the show that he wants to win the entire contest without sustaining any significant damage. Given that the winner must fight three times in about six weeks, this strategy strikes me as intelligent--even though the result can be boring fights. These guys either already fight for a living or hope one day to do that, so taking care of themselves is a good move.

The fact that once Nelson was controlling Slice he didn't hit the guy hard does not make him a bad person.

Slice was helpless. Dana White was correct to say that Nelson hit Slice with weak shots, but what would have been the point of Nelson putting all of his power into the punches to Slice's head? To hurt the guy more? Nelson had the victory in the bag, and he knew it. If anything, this behavior suggests Nelson was being nice.

This was a sorry fight.

The UFC hype machine is pushing this bout for all its worth, but the fact is that the fight was dull and already over well before the ref called it.

In fact, all the fights so far on this show have been bad.

None of the guys we've seen fight could hang with any top ten heavyweight.

Six of the heavyweights have fought so far. All have punching power, so in any given fight each of them would have a puncher's chance, but put them in the octagon with anyone on pretty much any site's top-ten heavyweight list (such as this one), and they will lose quickly. Nelson is the only one we've seen so far who might make it out of the first round. Might.

None of this matters to the UFC.

Good fight or bad fight, truthful or heavily doctored versions of the fighters--none of this matters, because last night's episode averaged 5.3 million viewers, a huge figure and a record for the show. Slice is, at least for now, ratings in the bank, and the UFC, despite White's earlier criticisms of him, is smart enough to cash in on him for as long as it can.

We'll see Slice again in the octagon.

He's already leaked as much on the blogs, but we didn't need that info to know this would happen. The ratings of this episode guaranteed that later appearance. Fighters who put butts in seats get return engagements. Period.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


is another of the several movies that the late-night crowd at my house absorbed this past weekend. Somewhat to our surprise, the film was generally enjoyable and a cut above most of the B movies we try.

The cast was part of what made the flick decent. James Caviezel, though never particularly emotive or believably effective, managed to carry off the role well enough that only a few times did we go, "Really? That guy did that?" Sophia Myles did her best to look sexy, fearsome, and feminist, as the wandering script demanded. John Hurt played the grizzled new king with an appropriate level of scene chewing. And so on.

Like so many other movies, however, Outlander suffered from a script that simply couldn't be bothered with internal story logic. From the backstory to the climax, whenever the movie felt the slightest urge to swerve off the logic highway, it went off-road.

I've come to find this phenomenon a bit puzzling. I know what writers will work for. I have a pretty good sense of the budget of these films; most of the data is online. It just wouldn't cost much to invest in a writer (or writers) who could both construct an interesting and exciting plot and deliver a story that didn't force you to turn off all higher cognitive functions before settling into your seat. I also don't believe movie people are stupid or incompetent; they have to be good at what they do, or at least as good as most people in most fields are.

My guess is that the collaborative nature of filmmaking coupled with the need for a lot of things to go BOOM leads to an abandonment of story logic in favor of those more important (to the producers) factors. If that's the case, I think the answer is not to settle but instead to hire better writers--and then to listen to them.

Again, Will Smith, if you're reading this and wondering about collaborating with me, have your people call my people, and we'll do lunch. On you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What you can't control

In one of the conversations at Sunday's pig-pickin', a few folks asked me a lot of questions that all began with the same phrase: "Why don't you...?" The topics included covers, prices, and all sorts of things related to my novels. The answer was always the same: Because I don't get to control whatever the topic was.

Before I go any further, let me say something about my particular situation: I have an amazing amount of input into many aspects of my work. For a writer. For an early-stage novelist. Toni, my publisher, is incredibly nice to me, as she and all of Baen Books generally are to writers. At the end of the day, though, it's her job to publish books, while mine is to write them.

For those who are curious, here's a list of just some of the things you don't get to control as a writer (unless, of course, you're a huge bestselling writer, but if you are, you already know this stuff):

your book's cover art

You might get input, though even that is uncommon, but the final call belongs to the artist, the cover designer, the art director, and the publisher.

except at the moment you sell your book, whether it's a hardback or a paperback

You can choose not to sell your novel as a paperback original or a trade paperback or whatever format you don't like, but that's the last time you can control its format.

the book's price

Sales and marketing and market conditions affect the price, which the publisher ultimately sets.

when the book appears

You can affect this one by being late or early, and begging never hurts, but ultimately the publisher slots the book in the month that she or he feels will work best for both your title and the entire line.

whether Hollywood makes a movie of your book

I'd love Hollywood to option and then film my novels--all my novels. I'd love to see Will Smith on the big screen as Jon, Angelina Jolie as Alissa (yeah, I know, Jolie is not of Asian extraction, but I don't care: she's Angelina!), and Spielberg directing. I'd love to cash the checks. But I can't do anything to make any of that happen.

In the interest of accuracy, I should say that you can control one person making a movie of your work: you. Get out your FlipHD, and go to town.

Lest this all sound negative, please realize that there is one bit of extremely good news, one thing that you can control: the work.

Focus on that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yum: pig

Yesterday was Dave's annual birthday pig-pickin', a time when a lot of us get together to celebrate with him and eat a great deal of good but fatty food. The pig was particularly tasty this year, and more people than usual indulged in the old-fashioned approach to sampling the pork: take out your pocketknife, and cut a bit off the pig while it's still sitting on the cooker. I certainly did, and the meat was juicy and delicious.

The weather cooperated by providing a truly beautiful day: clear, warm but not hot, and vibrant with life as the field and flowers and trees glowed with life from the previous day's rainstorms.

I enjoyed a wide variety of conversations with an equally wide variety of people. A few were actually fans of and interested in my books and writing, something that still catches me off guard. I always worry about boring those folks, because if you get a writer started on his or her writing, he or she can talk forever. I tried to control those impulses, but I'm not sure I did a very good job. I need to do a better job of listening.

The sheer quantity of fat I consumed this past weekend is stunning (and nap-inducing), so to help you do the same, let me pass along this article on secret menu items of fast-food restaurants, which Bill first showed to me. The Fatburger Hypocrite is wonderful, and the notion that at In-N-Out Burgers you can order meat like lumber (a 4X4 is four hamburger patties and four slices of cheese) is simply amazing. Go, America!

Sunday, September 27, 2009


After a nice Italian dinner last night, a small group of hardy SF fans headed to the local cineplex to catch this science-fiction extravaganza. It was a pleasant enough couple of hours, but it ultimately exhibited two sorts of flaws that meant that the only way to enjoy it was not to think about it.

First, its internal logic sucked. You can feel everything your surrogates feel, but you can handle being beaten senseless. No. No, you can't; if you've never been beaten up, trust me when I tell you that it hurts like hell. Surrogates had to work, which one would expect, but none ever appeared to be doing the jobs necessary to keep their meat-puppet masters fed and housed; instead, all the jobs we saw were surrogates taking care of other surrogates. People rarely move, but none of them have atrophied muscles. Etc.

Second, and here I must warn of a spoiler, the ending displayed a complete lack of second-order thinking. When Big Bad Bruce lets the bad guy's virus destroy all the surrogates, the film acts as if this development just means that people will have to go back to living on their own. What about all the planes in the sky, the ships at sea, and the trucks on the road that are now moving without control, their cargoes essential to the economy? The economic collapse that would rapidly follow this film's ending would be sure to kill a lot of people.

I'm fine with bad movies. I'm even a fan of good bad movies, a term bad movie fans understand. I'm also a fan of SF action flicks, and on balance I had a good time watching Surrogates. I would, though, occasionally like an intelligent, well-thought-out SF action movie that didn't force me to turn off my higher analytical functions to be able to enjoy it.

Speaking of which, Will Smith, the film rights to my books remain available. Should my people call your people?


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