Saturday, February 28, 2009

It May Be Called 'WonderCon,' But It's All About Watchmen

As I was having dinner with Nic Cage last night, I tried to press home the point that his new film, Knowing, is just like the last. Next, which was the last. See, even I'm confused. I mean, they even start with the same letter. Sorta.

Nic put down his Coke (sheesh, the guy doesn't even drink, which is really boring) and stared at me. It seems he can't stare without using his hands. "No," he shook his head, moving his hands above his head. He then closed his eyes for the longest time. Then he started to explain to me the concept of the movie, going on and on as he often does, and didn't see me mentally slip back to WonderCon.

But I will say: the trailer for Knowing at WonderCon did not allow anyone to daydream. Weak on concept it is, but heavy on action it is. Subway train crashing into subway train was just one of the thrilling rides, and the aircraft crashing in front of him was a close second.

We got to watch the Knowing trailer, an extended trailer, as it turned out, and it was spectacular. But there won't be any internet noshing or word-on-mouth in Mudville. There were maybe three other people in the room where it ran. It came right after an hour of Watchmen. What a mistake.

Watchmen is what everyone came to see. The entire cast was there except for....ooooh, who's that cool British guy from Matchpoint who plays Ozy. Matthew Goode. He wasn't there. But Zach Snyder and everyone else was. You had to laugh when a fan, who had been one of a thousand or so people to see the movie the previous night, said to
Billy Crudup, "Man, they short-changed you." He didn't fill in the details, but for those of us who know who Crudup plays -- Dr. Manhattan, the big, blue scientist who'd just as soon jump to Mars as read a newspaper -- know what he was referring to, as Manhattan is mostly nude. And apparently that even goes for the film. Crudup just replied, "Then I have to say to you: congratulations!" And we all laughed. (Pictured: Billy Crudup, then Jeffrey Dean Morgan below.)

We got to see extended portions of Watchmen, including the montage in the beginning that people were beginning to talk about that shows various historical moments in America -- it really rocks. And most of the beginning. I think it's a tricky move to kill off one of your superheroes in the first scene. And, as it turns out, he's not the best role model going.

I'm definitely going to see this one. I will probably save my DVD dollars for the extended director's version. I already know this and I haven't seen the film.

So, what else was going on today? Well, like yesterday, I immediately headed to the freebie table. I didn't realize that this table WASN'T the real freebie table -- it was just the DC table with a lot of freebies -- until I heard them announce that you can get a Watchmen button (smiley face with the drop of blood, rather iconic) at booth 242, the WonderCon table. So, I got in line there -- they had already changed everything around since 12 hours ago, but that's how it goes at these things -- and I got to talking to the guy behind me, who rescued another Watchmen coffee promo card for me. He wanted to know if Comic Con was any bigger than WonderCon. I just had to laugh.

But it turns out he and I had the same plan: get the freebies, run upstairs to the Espalanade room, which holds about 3,000, and sit there all day for programming.

I was greatly disappointed that there were no giveaway freebies at the door when you walk in, like the last two years, but it's always hit or miss.

As it turns out, I left after Watchmen -- went straight to the WonderCon table and picked up a Watchmen button -- and then the bathroom, then back into the room. I am always afraid they'll cap the room -- they did several times that day -- but nobody was attending the Astro Boy and Pandorum presentations, it seems. I got back in time to watch most of the Alien Trespass promotion.

Alien Trespass is a modern copy of a 1950's sci fi film, complete with cheesy monster. It stars Eric McCormack and Robert Patrick and a bunch of other actors like Dan Laurie from The Wonder Years. The director/producer, R.W. Goodwin, is famous for directing several X-Files episodes, so he knows what he's doing. And he's funny in his own right. It seems this is a genuinely cheaply made movie, as principal filming only took 15 days.

The Paramount Pictures presentation was Star Trek, the new movie, the one that's been in the can for some six months now, waiting for a May release. There was no announcement as to who would show up, but much to our delight director J.J. Abrams (Lost) kicked things off, then Zachary Quinto (Spock), Chris Pine (Kirk) and Zoe Saldana (Uhura) came out. We saw an extended trailer which didn't tell us anything new. And Quinto and Pine sound so much like new actors, talking all about the process, so we got nothing new from them. Except maybe gushing about J.J. Abrams. However, this film looks like a fresh, new look on the old franchise. I will try to see it the first day it opens.

It was interesting to see the crowd during Watchmen vs. Star Trek. The hall was completely filled for both. But the level of anticipation was so much higher for Watchmen than Star Trek. There is a great deal of worry, though, from director and the studios, that neither will make their inflated budgets. Watchmen is a particularly hard sell: there's a lot of jokers in costumes standing around talking, and, it seems, very little else. And you have to figure out all these characters and the mystery. Star Trek looks to be the easier sell, which is an action film where the characters we already love will build these relationships before our very eyes. I say: Bring 'em both on!

I was waiting for the Pixar presentation, but had to sit through something called 9. It seems it was a film school film that Tim Burton and his people took an interest in. It's produced by Burton but directed by Shane Acker, and it's another quirky animated film. The voice star, Elijah Wood, was on hand to talk with us. Elijah is always gracious, always fun in his answers. But one of the first questions was, how does the character 9 compare to Frodo? Elijah said with a resigned look on his face, "I guess I'm going to get that question for the rest of my life." I immediately felt sorry for him, then realized I shouldn't. He appeared in an incredible project at the age of 18, and now everyone compares everything he does to it. He's still very young.

9 boasts quite a cast and an interesting story, but it's very dark (I know, I know: it's Tim Burton). 9 comes out on 9-9-2009.

UP. Up is Pixar's new movie, a movie which opens May 29th. Director Pete Docter showed us several peeks at the film -- maybe 6, if you can believe that -- pretty much telling us the whole first and maybe second thirds of the film. Each and every bite was delicious. Very good animation. Very funny every step of the way. You could recognize Ed Asner's gravelly voice as character Carl Fredricksen spoke. Carl is 78 years old and sick of people. So, when they're trying to drag him off to an extended care facility, he ties his house to thousands of balloons and floats away to South America. Or at least that's his plan.
Just a delight.

I made another mad dash at 4 pm after Up for the dealer's room. It was interesting to see that Watchmen characters have replaced the usual Star Wars characters in costumes fans choose to wear. A few more freebies were available at WonderCon, including a Knowing puzzle. Cute. A puzzle. Won't help me figure out the plot.

My dinner with Nicolas wasn't very eventful. How could it compete with superheroes in campy costumes? I'll see your film, Nic, so I'll get back to you. It had better not be anything close to Next (which I liked, by the way). But in the meantime, I'll be waiting in line on the first day to see Watchmen. Have another Coke while you wait.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Spring. It's Baseball.

People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball.
I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
—Rogers Hornsby

I've got all my spring training plans all lined up. I will be there from Sunday to Wednesday, leaving Thursday, and have tickets for 5 games. Only two of those games are with the A's. I am actually seeing the Dodgers twice.

The Dodgers finally gave up a rotting Vero Beach complex and moved out west to Phoenix. Their new complex, Camelback Ranch, is being shared with the Chicago White Sox, a wise financial plan. The new complex should be a thrill to see, so I'm really looking forward to it.

And instead of driving for two days, I'm flying this time. Yay.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vineyards in the Snow

We started out on our wine tour at a place that's far removed from the rest of the wineries: Renner Winery. Renner is in the failing Copperopolis. You've probably heard the ads for them. Spacious homes on a golf course, yada yada yada. Well, it's a ghost town now. 8 shops have opened on the square, including the winery outlet. They grow their own grapes and olives, and just began selling last Halloween. They seemed happy to see us.

We did buy some wine at Renner, plus some futures which we'll have to come back to pick up. The futures were a red, while the two bottles of wine we purchased were whites. And it kind of seems that that was the way it was going to go all day: the reds didn't seem stellar, while the whites were quite different and appealing.

We then drove east on 4 into Murphys, and stopped at some of the wineries the Renner people had suggested. Most of them were on the Associate Member route, part of the Valentine's Day Weekend wine festival, and offered food along the way. The wineries we visited included:

Chatom(Both photos are from Chatom winery.)
Twisted Oak
- which featured really funny signs along the mile path it took to get there
Indian Rock vineyards - which had a wonderful BBQ'd beef for us
Irish - not on the route, but we liked the wine there more than most of the others

It was a tiring afternoon.

We rested during the rest of the afternoon, and around 7, we drove back into Murphys, looking for the Murphys Hotel. Our reservations were for 8, we showed up at 7:30, and they pretty much laughed at us, on Valentine's Day night, when we presented ourselves. So we schlepped into the bar only to find it full of mostly young people out on a Saturday night. But eventually a table freed itself, and we had cocktails. My margarita was mostly out of a jar, and was more akin to dishwater than any wonderful libation. But eventually, about an hour later, our table freed up.

So we had a wonderful, languorous meal, sharing a little of our entrees along the way. I had the fried chicken -- the yelpers had recommended it -- while others had venison, mushrooms, lumpia, lamb, etc. And we had another bottle of local wine. While Maryann didn't care for it, I thought that it grew on you. I still didn't have more than a glass. I was saving room for the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. It was worth it.

This morning is a lounge-around morning. It looks cold and windy outside. I think I'll stay in.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Settling In at Angel's Camp

It's interesting to see the foothills of the Sierras, the place where the gold rush began. There are a few signs that someone was here digging up the earth some 100 years ago, but not much. The place, Angel's Camp itself, has been built up. But the better places to go are up north.

We went into Murphys last night for dinner. We had gone to lunch there yesterday, and snow (but mostly slush) was all around. Most of the snow has melted but Murphys is a higher elevation and so there's still a trace.

Dinner was at Noto's Tradizioni di Sicilia, a nice little restaurant down the smallish Main Street of Murphys. We were a little delayed for our reservation, but they assured us that wouldn't be a problem. Still, seating 5 people would've been a problem if we had come in at 7:30 pm.

We really had a feast. We had appetizers: calamari, a small bowl of soup (which Maryann shared, actually everything was shared), a couple of salads, and carpacho (raw beef marinated with capers and oil). We each had an entree, and several of those were shared. I had the traditional spaghetti, but I put my meatballs out on a dish because I don't ordinarily like meatballs. Those who tried them agreed with me that they were quite ordinary.

We also shared a bottle of red wine from a local Murphys winery. It was quite good. It had "zinfandel breaks" in it, whatever that meant. And she actually gave us a taste of two other wines; she said she could do that if the wine bottle had been opened.

Aija tells me it's a Milliniere Ghirardelli wine brand, a zinfandel. Ha.

So, it was a very pleasant evening, topped off by two desserts (a chocolate tart and a raspberry cheesecake, both of which were quite unusual and quite good). Then we went out into the cold night, found our way through the slush to the car, and drove the 20 minutes back to Angel's Camp.

Today is probably a lengthy visit to several local wineries for their Valentine's Day weekend.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Angel's Camp

When I woke up this morning, I went over to the window to see what it was like outside. I saw fog. But when I looked closer, the white became snow.


Nobody knew it was going to snow today! The trees were covered in it, the cars below were almost buried. I wondered about my own car, white, almost invisible beneath the snow.

I went outside into the parking lot and took photos.

As a matter of fact, shortly after that, the snow began to melt, rapidly. By the time we drove out toward the grocery store, the roads were clear. When we returned about 2 hours later, traces of snow were all that was left. Amazing.

This is our first day in Angel's Camp. The other family comes in today. We have no idea what we'll be doing. Driving in the snow would've hampered that. But it would have been so beautiful.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Xena Convention 2009, Part 2

It was a pleasure to again see Steve Sears, one of the producers and writers on the Xena show. You can always spot Steve because he's wearing that wide-brimmed hat. Steve has kept busy in the writing game all these years afterwards, and has a couple of projects in the fire right now, but couldn't provide details. He always appears on stage, always takes photos of us (he's a very good photographer), and usually acts as Creation's photographer in this and other conventions. I saw him later as he was getting Creation to auction off an article for a charity near to his heart, and asked him to sign a copy of a Xena script he had written. He was accommodating, as always. And I mentioned, I wish he'd update his blog. He smiled and said he definitely had to get around to that. His latest entry told the world that he had a new girlfriend, that she's too good to be true, but that they've been seeing each other for about a year now. We're all happy for him.

Many of us wait, breathlessly, for the next guest, because we're not sure what she's going to do: Hudson Leick. Hudson played Callisto in so many episodes I can't count, but, as Rob Tapert once told us, you can't have a great hero without a great villain. She considers herself mentally gone from Xena, and asking her questions about it is pretty much useless. Actually, asking her anything is a risk. She pouts, she parades, she struts around the stage, always in a jaw-dropping outfit which she later auctions for charity. She demands that the audience be entertaining for her. We usually fail in the beginning, as we're just sitting there open-mouthed, but usually we start interacting with her after awhile and all are entertained.

One brief story about Victoria Pratt, who played an Amazon in, I think, only a two-part episode in Season Three, Adventures in the Sin Trade. And she was a dead Amazon at that, but memorable. Vickie used to be a physical fitness guru, and from there went into acting. She held up Mutant X for a couple of seasons (but it still was unbearable to watch, even with her and John Shea in it), and Cleopatra 2525. She told a story about going to the Superbowl, and only now appreciates that their seats were on the 50-yard line. But they didn't stay there, instead opting to go to the Press Box. She acted very spoiled about it, and it was a very funny story.

We got to see a lot of fan-created music videos and some professionally done short movies while we were there. Two of the music videos revolved around the Broadway play Wicked, or at least its music. I had no idea the gay community liked Wicked. My favorite music video, though, was by Deborah Abbott, and featured Christine Baranski's Mama Mia! version of "Does Your Mother Know?" It was wonderful.

We also got to see a live film called Lightswitch, about a young lesbian making choices. I liked it, and am wondering where it will go now. And Renee O'Connor showed two of her short films, ones she wrote and directed. She's looking to display them at festivals.

Of course, the piece de resistance was Renee O'Connor and Lucy Lawless. First Renee came on stage, talked about her films, showed us some. Then Lucy came on. Lucy, though, brought us a surprise: Claire Stansfield! Claire played Alti, a shaman who was early Xena's nemesis. However, I remember when we first saw Claire on stage: she's 6'1", in heels usually, and gorgeous, totally unlike Alti. Why do they put beautiful women in all this terrible makeup? Claire quit show biz to produce t-shirts with a friend (C and C ), became very successful when they were featured on Oprah, then they sold the business. And she's working for Oprah! Wow.

Lucy spent a lot of time after Claire left just answering questions, and when Renee joined her back on stage, they both did the same. This is 180 degrees from when they both used to appear on stage some 10 years ago. They didn't trust the audience, trust the fans, and always had a go-between. This time, just shout out the questions, people. Keep 'em coming. Just fabulous.

Like I said, just one big living room.

Xena Convention, 2009

If anyone wondered where all the lesbians went last weekend, we were all in Los Angeles for the 14th Xena Convention.

I had skipped a few years, but somehow felt the urgency to go back. I vividly remember the excitement of the first Xena convention, yes, 14 years ago. My nephew Ricky and I went. We were treated to a private party for Kevin Smith, who played Ares. When Danielle Cormack (who played an Amazon in about 7 or so episodes) came into the party, as she and Kevin are friends and had appeared in several Kiwi productions together, Ricky warned her: You have no idea what it's like to face 5,000 fans. I don't think she believed him; she did a few hours later, as she looked dumbstruck on stage. Kevin seemed more at ease, and I was able to talk to him at the breakfast -- he was down-to-earth, non-threatening, a family man who really enjoyed talking to people. He was wearing a see-through shirt, and I commented on the fact that he obviously worked out.

We had no idea that Kevin would die some five years later, right after the last season of Xena wrapped, in an odd accident in China.

Well, the 5,000 fans have kind of disappeared, and now it's a hearty group of New Zealand, Australian, German and British fans, as well as Americans, maybe 700 of us, who gathered for this latest convention. The difference, of course, is that the room has a very comfortable feeling about it. It's just a very large living room.

There were some firsts. Tony Todd finally got to his first Xena convention, but it's not because he hasn't been working. It seems he's working more than ever. He's slated to appear in 24 soon.

Jennifer Sky Band appeared before us many years ago when she was promoting Cleopatra 2525 -- I watched every episode, but I'm not sure why, all action and no meaning, but the three women attached are spectacular (i.e., Gina Torres, Victoria Pratt and Band). "I'm not in a band," she opened; it's just that she married a guy named Band. Who's in a rock band. She's now in her early 30's and has quit show biz. After Cleo, she came down with a rare liver disease, but was eventually cured, and is now writing a children's book about being sick. She looked kind of amazed to be there.

Another actress amazed to be there: Jacqueline Kim. Jacqueline is no longer acting as well, choosing instead to directing and writing. She is a particular fan favorite because of her iconic role as Lao Ma, an Asian mentor who taught Xena how to move. This was when Xena was a badass, still crippled, and knew no martial arts. She was only in two episodes, but we all remember them as our favorites.

The next day we were treated to Michael Hurst and Jennifer Ward-Lealand, the husband-wife team which works mainly in New Zealand in various stage and film projects. They kindly showed us a slide presentation of all the roles they had worked on, separately, in the last two years. They are amazingly productive. And they talked a little about how they split up parental housekeeping, how they keep their two kids while still doing all this performing. Michael directs more than acts, and sometimes directs himself.

We saw them later when Jennifer interviewed the Widow Twanky (Michael in drag). Michael was in two episodes of Hercules, not Xena, but we all recognize the character and applaud the Widow. She teaches Hercules and a young woman how to dance in a dance contest. Apparently the Widow Twanky is based on an old English music hall tradition. Well, he's, I mean she's, just hysterical. And a little consumed with herself.

And, gosh, we saw Michael again when he played his character in the Bitch Slap movie panel. I know, it's difficult to say such a title. But it looks to be in the tradition of Grindhouse and such sexploitation films. The panel included the two producers (who used to work on Xena), the three actresses who appear in the movie, and Michael. But halfway through the panel, a nun appeared and took the stage: it was Renee O'Connor (Gabrielle in Xena), in full habit. She plays Sister Bertrile in the movie. They showed a clip of Sister Batrile and Mother Superior (Lucy Lawless), and we ate it up. It's clearly slapstick.

Other noted Xena celebrities to appear include Joe Lo Duca, who composed the music for Xena's six years as well as her last two concerts at the Roxy that very weekend, and Rob Tapert, Executive Producer of Xena. When Rob was asked, "Did you fall in love with Lucy at first glance?" He laughed, and replied that he saw her first on video when she was auditioning for a part on Hercules. So, "I fell in love with her at first video." When we told Lucy about it later, she said she had never heard that story!