KING CON: The 36th Annual San Diego Comic Con International

SuperfriendsBy Mercurio D. Rivera

My first excursion to the San Diego Comic Con took place in 1980, when I was a bright-eyed, innocent fanboy who had never even heard the word “con” before. My brother, Jesse, who lived in San Diego at the time, had heard that the top creators at Marvel and D.C. comics held an annual conference where they would talk about their books and interact with fans. The memories of that first con have blurred together over the years with those of all the succeeding cons (around 15 or so in San Diego), but I do have a distinct recollection of walking through the corridors of the downtown Convention and Performing Arts Center, wide-eyed, seeing the hundreds of dressed-up fans and the dozen or so colorful booths in the dealer room. I also remember walking up and shaking the hands of the artists and writers I idolized, including Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, creators of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-man, among others. It was an intimate gathering with probably no more than a few hundred attendees.

Choked!Flash forward 26 years. My brother Jesse lives in Houston these days and I’ve been regularly attending the con with my childhood buddy, Luigi, and his brother Steve, for more than twenty years. The San Diego Con is an entirely different creature now. It has relocated to the new Convention Center, a mammoth facility literally six football fields long (1,500,000 sq. ft), able to accommodate (just barely) the 104,000-plus attendees. The dealer room has become a ludicrously cavernous space, jam-packed with vendors of every conceivable sort and so crowded that it’s impossible to move more than a few feet without banging against shoulder pads, holstered ray guns, various alien appendages and, of course, baby carriages. One of the meeting halls that seats 6,500 persons was routinely filled to capacity. And when I queued up for the Sony pictures “Spider-man 3” panel, I was astonished to find that the line stretched literally around the convention center; after thirty minutes of waiting, the line disintegrated into nothing. It turns out we weren’t actually on the line, after all.

JokerToday’s impersonal, celebrity-laden “presentation panels” made me nostalgic for the intimate panel discussions of the past. For example, this year Nicolas Cage (“Ghost Rider”); Toby Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Topher Grace (“Spider-man 3”); Samuel L. Jackson (“Snakes on a Plane”); Jennifer Love Hewitt (“Ghost Whisperer”); cast members of “Lost,” and studio executives pushing their upcoming “Aragon” dragon movie all came, marketed, and quickly departed, hustled in and out of their respective rooms, carefully shielded from any personal contact with the fans who were there to support their various projects. Despite my misgivings about these types of promotional events, I’ll admit we were first on line to see the cast of Battlestar Galactica, the best show on television. Edward James Olmos warned that the upcoming season will be the series’ darkest. We also saw some humorous scenes from the upcoming “Simpsons” motion picture.

Battlestar Galactica PanelApart from the shameless hawking, occasionally, a panel discussion brought back flashes of the past and reminded me why certain aspects of the San Diego Con still have their appeal. Most notably, a panel of expert “robotologists” debated the fighting prowess of their various favorite robots. In a surprise upset, the Yul Brynner robot from Westworld actually defeated MechaGodzilla while Vicki (the robot girl from “Small Wonder”) vanquished the robot from “Lost in Space.” (“He has a weak spot for young kids,” one panelist reasoned, “and Vicki is just the right height to pull out his power pack.”) Who’d have thunk it? Finally, kudos to this year’s winners of the Masquerade Contest, three couples, including Ming the Merciless and Barbarella, who tangoed their way to the title in a hilarious skit entitled “Dancing with Celebrities from the Stars.”

Huge ArenaYes, big-studio promotion abounds, and the charms of the old San Diego Comic Con are forever gone, but occasionally the curtain of commercialism lifts and I can catch a glimpse of cons past, of a wide-eyed 13-year-old boy walking down the corridors of the old convention center with his brother, captivated by the colors and the sounds and the sights of his very first con. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back.

The Top Ten Movies of 2005

Popcorn makes you fatThe Top Ten Movies of 2005
By Mercurio D. Rivera

In this year of declining tickets sales, the major studios continued their tradition of saving the best for last, releasing the majority of 2005’s best movies in December. This practice, along with the quick turnaround of movies from the big screen to DVDs, has contributed to audiences opting to stay at home to enjoy the slim pickings from the comfort of their living room sofas—not a bad strategy for those movies that don’t rely heavily on visual effects. Despite the dearth of quality during the first half of the year (with just a few exceptions), overall it proved a strong year for film, with an emphasis on the political thriller and gay/transgender subgenres.

As always, I begin by mentioning those critically acclaimed movies that are notably absent from my list. Among the year’s many political dramas, the ambitious and convoluted Syriana tops the list of the most overrated. Its multiple, murky storylines span the globe and left me scratching my head, perplexed by the plot and characters. Likewise, The Constant Gardener’s unintelligible, conspiracy-driven plot ruins a strong love story set in a striking African setting. While biopic Walk the Line has garnered some attention for the stellar performances of its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the truth is that its TV-movie script is utterly average and ─ unlike last year’s unapologetic Ray ─ makes a boatload of excuses for its protagonist’s bad behavior. Speaking of average-fare movies, I still don’t understand the firestorm over the beautifully shot March of the Penguins, which resembles any other wildlife special you can find on the Discovery Channel. David Cronenberg’s widely acclaimed History of Violence has a riveting beginning before settling into ho-hum comic book gangster violence. And Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, although technically well executed, simply fails to engage the viewer’s emotions until its final few minutes (in part due to the lack of chemistry between its leads, Russell Crowe and Rene Zellwegger, sporting bad Brooklyn accents).

But enough about the also-rans. Let’s get to the ten best movies of 2005:

10. Batman Begins ─ Christopher Nolan’s reinterpretation of the Dark Knight wisely focuses on the disturbing psychological aspects of the character, the childhood traumas and phobias that drive Bruce Wayne to play the part of millionaire playboy by day and bat-clad vigilante by night. More of an homage to Bob Kane’s Batman comics of the 1930’s and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns rather than its garish predecessor movies or the campy series of the 1960’s, there is a concerted effort to ground the character in the real world, which works to the film’s advantage. Christian Bale is terrific as tormented Bruce Wayne and he’s supported by a formidable cast that includes Michael Caine as paternal butler Alfred, Cillian Murphy as the demented Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as a villainous ninja and former mentor. Dark is good.

9. Match Point ─ Woody Allen’s engrossing drama stars the intense, pouty-lipped Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a former tennis pro and ambitious social climber who marries into a wealthy, upper crust British family and then risks it all by engaging in an adulterous affair with his brother-in-law’s American girlfriend (a smoldering, equally pouty-lipped Scarlett Johansson). Where the story heads is fairly predictable, but how we get there provides some surprising twists and turns. Unlike most Woody Allen flicks, there are no neurotic nebbish-y characters, no lame humor; these intelligent, self-absorbed characters play it dead serious. Reminiscent of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, this suspenseful, cynical drama ruminates on the subjects of adultery, amorality, luck and making our own destinies.

8. The Squid and the Whale ─ This low-budget, high-quality, slice-of-life drama about a dysfunctional family set in 1980’s Park Slope, Brooklyn provides an entertaining and honest portrait of complicated characters facing turbulent times. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels play literary intellectuals going through a messy divorce that forces their two sons to choose sides. Daniels is particularly effective as the family patriarch, an insufferably pompous penny-pincher and has-been writer who dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens.” With terrific dialogue and superb acting, The Squid and the Whale reminds us that the dysfunctional family subgenre is alive and well.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin – Director Judd Apatow, the creator of the brilliant short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, brings that same sensibility ─ a deft straddling of the line between crudity and mushiness ─ to this, the year’s best comedy. Steve Carell is hysterical as the gentle-souled protagonist who’s reluctantly agreed to be tutored by his obsessive co-workers ─ Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan and others with plenty of relationship problems of their own ─ on the art of “getting some.” Despite reveling in vulgar gags involving speed dating, bar pick ups and porn, the movie never gets nasty. The characters remain real, so we care and laugh. And when Carell and his sweet girlfriend (the appealing Catherine Keener) finally get it on, well, let’s just say they bring new meaning to “making beautiful music together.”

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ─ The latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the second-best of the bunch (only behind the original). Darker and more intense, the movie plays to its strength: the child actors’ development into gawky teenagers. Harry doesn’t merely face the challenge of participating in the Tri-Wizard Tournament; he also has to deal with his best friend’s jealousy over his selection and worry about getting a date for the Hogwart’s dance. The plot succeeds not so much because of its action sequences and spectacle – of which there are plenty ─ but because of the equal attention it gives to the adolescent angst of its characters. Also, Ralph Fiennes, oozing malevolence, is one heck of a frightful Voldemort.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha ─ Rob Marshall’s unfairly maligned follow-up to Chicago is a spectacular, lavish production that transports us to pre-World War II Japan, to the exotic and mysterious world of the geisha, women treated like “walking pieces of art.” Faithful to Arthur Golden’s bestseller, this captivating film traces the life of Sayuri, a girl from a remote fishing village who’s cast into indentured servitude after the death of her mother and eventually undergoes schooling to become a geisha. Kudos to Gong Li who eats up the screen as the tempestuous Hatsumomo, the most famous geisha in Kyoto and Sayuri’s jealous foil and rival. It’s a shame that the controversy over the casting of three Chinese actresses – Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh (all superb) – as Japanese geisha kept this movie from getting the acclaim it deserves. Its visual splendor, unusual subject matter and epic Hollywood romance easily make it one of the year’s best.

4. Pride and Prejudice ─ Having sat through plenty of yawn-inducing, period-piece costume dramas, I have to confess to approaching the latest adaptation of a Jane Austin novel with a few preconceptions and, yes, prejudices  but walking away completely charmed. This delightful take on the Bennets, an eighteenth century British family, and their comical, almost hysterical, efforts to marry off their five daughters pulls you right in and never lets go. Brenda Blethyn is funny and likeable as the single-minded family matriarch, and the incandescent Kiera Knightly “wows” as Lizzie, the film’s intelligent and witty protagonist who refuses to marry purely for monetary gain. Clever, funny and exceedingly romantic, even the most hardened cynics (yeah, that includes me) are guaranteed to fall prey to its charms.

3. Brokeback Mountain ─ Ang Lee’s heart-wrenching meditation on frustrated love is set in the beautiful backdrop of 1960’s Wyoming and explores a lifelong secret affair between two tough-guy sheepherders (Jake Gylenhaal and Heath Ledger). Ledger steals the movie with an Oscar-caliber performance as the gruff, taciturn rancher who rarely speaks about anything, let alone his forbidden feelings. The characters’ suffering is as palpable as it is poignant when they go their separate ways to meet only on occasional “fishing trips.” And their emotional absence also takes its toll on their respective marriages. (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are terrific as the tormented wives). Simply put, understated script + amazing acting + the agony of thwarted love = a movie that leaves a lasting impression. It deserves the accolades it’s received.

2. King Kong ─ Pass the extra large bucket of popcorn — it’s three hours long — for the year’s most exhilarating, action-packed adventure. As with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s magnificent, heart-stopping remake transports us to another world — this time two vivid settings actually, 1930’s economically depressed New York City, and the fog-enshrouded, dinosaur-filled Skull Island—but not before carefully fleshing out characters we grow to care about, including starving actress Ann Darrow (an Oscar-worthy Naomi Watts) and manically self-centered movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black). As a result, there are few “nameless extras” killed in the epic adventure that follows. Despite knowing the movie’s basic plot going in, it still manages to provide surprises and thrills aplenty, not to mention — yes, here we go again — the sadness of thwarted love. Peter Jackson is now officially the biggest gorilla in Hollywood.

1. Crash ─ Paul Haggis’s follow-up to his Million Dollar Baby screenplay is an electric, unpredictable and provocative exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes in America — and provides no pat answers. Set in L.A., the cleverly plotted drama follows multiple storylines with sympathetic characters of different ethnicities — all angry, desperate and arguably racist. When the plotlines inevitably intersect during a crazed 36-hour period, it results in a combustible, thought-provoking “crash.” The all-star cast includes standout performances by Thandie Newton, Sanda Bullock (who knew she could act?) and Terrence Howard (playing a rich, straight-laced director, a character diametrically opposed to the rapping, misogynistic pimp he portrayed in this year’s Hustle and Flow). It’s rare to be surprised at the movies in this day of the dumbed-down formula flick and unending sequels. Crash surprised me and moved me and left me thinking. It’s the year’s best movie.

11. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney’s relevant, stylish, black-and-white recreation of the on-air battle between Edward R. Murrow and Commie-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy); 12. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman disappears into the role of the egocentric author who stops at nothing to exploit the subjects of his book, In Cold Blood); 13. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings—a comparison guaranteed to work to any movie’s detriment—this gorgeous and engaging children’s fantasy actually compares quite favorably to the Harry Potter movies); 14. Munich (Steven Spielberg’s grey, political drama about an Israeli assassination squad sent to retaliate against the terrorists who executed its athletes at the Olympic games is intelligent and ruminative, refusing to preach and providing no easy answers); 15. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the acting is wooden and the dialogue stilted, but somehow—I’m not sure how—Lucas manages to connect all the dots and put together a dark, magnificent spectacle).

Aeon Flunks and Capote in the Men’s Room

Aeon Flux mounts more than a hillMercurio D. Rivera writes: Last week, I went to see Aeon Flux with a current and a former member of AlteredFluid. Not having seen the original Aeon Flux cartoon on MTV, I can’t say for sure whether the new movie successfully captures its spirit. It’s doubtful, however, given the convoluted Saturday-morning-cartoon plot and overall grade-B quality of the movie, which includes downright silly ideas about clones that retain the memories of their cell-donors and an invincible army of rebel super-heroines named “Monicans” for some unexplained reason (could they be angry interns?) who have inexplicably failed thus far to overthrow an oppressive Government. It’s the future, you see, and a virus has eliminated 99% of the planet’s population.

The survivors reside in a large metropolis, parts of which resemble, well, Boston, except that folks there wear really funny costumes. The most powerful agent of the rebel underground movement, Aeon Flux (played by Oscar-winner Charlize Theron) is a super-heroine with no apparent weaknesses save for her fashion sense and strange infatuation with the Government leader she’s been ordered to assassinate. Charlize Theron does the best that she can with the woeful script, playing it straight all the way. (Hopefully, she was well compensated for this role.)

Be warned: in the future there is very bad dialogue. For example, we learn two characters are brothers when one says to the other: “I’ve been your brother for a long time.” And as the one-note leader of the Monicans poor Frances McDormand (also an Oscar winner) is relegated to standing immobile and coolly issuing orders to her agents from afar. Despite the fairly good special effects and some interesting ideas (one Monican has genetically altered herself so she that her feet are now an extra set of hands, and Aeon’s arsenal includes hundreds of tiny metal spheres that answer to her whistle), you might want to skip this turkey unless you have a free rental.

Brush with the stars: After the movie, I spotted Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the men’s room. I wanted to say hello, but couldn’t remember his name—all I could think of was “Capote.” Plus, what is the etiquette about greeting celebrities in bathrooms anyway? Especially if they’re at the urinal next to you. I need some guidance.

Speaking of AlteredFluid (was I?), the reviews are starting to come in for Lauren McLaughlin’s “Sheila,” which was published in Interzone #201. Check out this and this.

The Very Late But Here as Promised Cascadia Con Breakdown (with pictures)

Trekker!Friday at the Con got off to a bad start when Chase Masterson (Leeta, Deep Space Nine) missed her “My Life as a Dabo Girl” panel. Crestfallen Trekkers abandoned their faux-starships (see attached photo) and later were seen teetering on hotel window ledges. (Not to worry, I eventually stepped back off the ledge when Ms. Masterson arrived later in the day.)

I had a true “fanboy” moment when I spotted acclaimed science fiction author Larry Niven in the hallway of the Hilton. Although I didn’t know what Mr. Niven looked like, when I read his name on his badge, without even thinking, I stopped him and shook his hand. (If I’d had a second to think about it, I would’ve been too intimidated to approach him.) I managed to stutter a few semi-coherent sentences about how much I enjoyed his sci-fi masterpieces, including Ringworld, The Mote in God’s Eye and Lucifer’s Hammer. His face turned a deep red and he nodded. As I started to walk away, he said, “Thank you,” and shook my hand again. This was the highlight of the Con for me.

Cascadia Con Panel(From Left to Right: Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and moderator David Silver) Later in the day, Mr. Niven and co-writer Jerry Pournelle engaged in a truly fascinating panel discussion in which they revealed how the legendary Robert Heinlein critiqued their manuscript of The Mote in God’s Eye and how his comments had vastly improved the classic novel. (Heinlein had sworn them to secrecy until his death.) Although not available to the public, they had with them copies of Heinlein’s lengthy letters in which he urged them to cut the first 100 pages(!) of the novel and to change the title, which was then Motelight. (Heinlein warned that readers would mistakenly read it as Motel Light.) Niven and Pournelle followed his advice—resulting in a sci-fi masterpiece.

Jay Lake Panel“The Liar’s Panel Club” in which the panelists answered typical Con questions—with wild, often hysterical, falsehoods—proved really entertaining. In this photo, mendacious Mark Bourne, deceptive Jay Lake and dishonest L. Pierce Duke tell brazen, bald-faced lies. For shame! (You mean, the next time the submissions editor visits the toilet I shouldn’t slip my manuscript under the bathroom stall?)

The Northwest Passages Anthology Launch Party on Friday night turned out to be a blast. Authors mingled with editors and vagabond Con-folk, who wandered into the room for the door prizes. I signed my first autographs and had a chance to socialize with fellow contributors and super-nice anthology editor, Cris DiMarco. A good time was had by all.

Silver CoupleGood news! Editors from Virgil VI (in the attached photo) solicited some short stories from me. I plan to send them a few submissions ASAP.

My second big disappointment of the Con (after the Chase Masterson debacle) was when I learned that the adults-only Fantasy Fetish Fashion Show was open only to costumed participants. Dang! Unfortunately, I’d left my leather thong and manacles at home.

Well, the Con is over and I have the inevitable post-Con blues. No more cheesy horror flicks playing down the hall from my room (especially the hysterical Night of the Chupacabra, which seemed to run non-stop); no more interaction with like-minded writers and sci-fi fans. Back to the regular pressures and responsibilities of the real world. Yep, it’s depressing. (Hmm, wonder if anyone from the AlteredFluid writing group is interested in catching a bad horror movie…?)

In on the Con

The blog entry below, with its extensive list of relief organizations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, jarred me back to reality. You see, there’s something about attending a Con that shifts you into an alternate reality of sorts, an otherworld that consists of nothing but photo ops and schmoozing and non-stop panel discussions about genre-related topics.

Cascadia Con PanelI attended a number of interesting panels today, including a fascinating discussion about the factors that guide a writer’s decision whether to set a particular story in the near or far future. In this photo, Virginia A. O’Dine (obscured), Bruce Taylor (who sports a white top-hat and is known as “Mr. Magic Realism”), Susan Matthews and Andrew Nisbett III tackle this subject with gusto. Bruce Taylor, who is a gentleman, also sold a story to the Northwest Passages: A Cascadian Odyssey anthology, by the way.

Tonight, I participated in a panel presentation given by some of the writers who sold stories to the Northwest Passages antho. Although I knew that the official “book launch” party is scheduled for tomorrow, I was totally unaware of tonight’s presentation until I browsed through the program schedule and happened upon it. Several contributors fortunate enough to have copies of their stories with them were allowed to read for five minutes. Those of us who didn’t were asked to speak extemporaneously about whatever aspect of our stories we wished to discuss. Luckily for me, since I had already blathered on and on about my story’s setting on this blog, as well as my after-the-fact visit to the San Juan Islands, I felt comfortable speaking at length about that subject in front of the audience.

I finally got a chance to meet some of my fellow contributors to the anthology, including Suzanne Church (who also has a story appearing in this month’s Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine), Louise Herring-Jones (whose Northwest Passages story features a giant slug that destroys Seattle), Donna McMahon, and the charming Mary E. Lowd.

Mercurio Rivera and the Cat Man!I also met Dennis “Cat” Avner, a fellow known for undergoing surgeries designed to slowly transform him into his Indian “totem,” a tiger.

Speaking of human/animal hybrids (what a segue!), my hotel is swarming with humanoid furry creatures. Yes, I mean “Furries,” people who for various personal reasons choose to dress up like furry fictional characters. If you want to read about this alternate lifestyle, including the competing “Furvert” vs. “Clean Fur” camps, check out this article.

See what I mean about the Con’s skewing of reality?

My final report from Cascadia Con will appear Monday.