Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Book Review – The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull

I stumbled on the The Garden on Sunset by Martin Turnbull while I was trying to pad my Amazon Wish List for Christmas. I'd found a couple of books that I wanted including a collection of anecdotes about old Hollywood. In the Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought section about two or three clicks back was a novel that caught my eye, Citizen Hollywood, historical fiction set in Golden Age Hollywood. To be honest, I've never read any historical fiction, ever, but this sounded interesting. 

Turns out Citizen Hollywood was the third book in a series now up to six (Hollywood’s Garden of Allah). I poked around a bit and found the title of the first book. I was in the mood to start something new, so I went out to look for it. I just hoped I'd be able to find the first book. I don't like reading things out of order. There's a good indy bookstore I frequent, Mysterious Galaxy. As the name implies, they specialize in mysteries and science fiction, so I thought I'd try B. Dalton first. They didn't have it, in the three fiction sections I tried. There was no one at the info desk, and the guy who looked like he worked  there seemed to be trying not notice me. I gave up and went to Mysterious Galaxy. They didn't have it either but were happy to order it. I'd just as soon give them my business anyway. It showed up the day before I planned to take the train up to L.A., a good way to jump into a new book.

The Garden on Sunset was a pretty fast read, I got through about a third of it on the train up and back and finished a couple days later. The story centers on the struggles of three characters (what follows is just a little more than what you'd find on the back cover, so don't worry about spoilers):

  • Marcus Adler comes from a small town in Pennsylvania. After his father catches him with his pants down, literally, with another man, he comes to the only place he can think to go, the home of silent film star, Alla Nazamova. She had visited him in the hospital when he was sick as a kid and told him to look her up if he ever came to Hollywood. He arrives to find that her house has been turned into a hotel, the Garden of Allah.
  • Kathryn Massey has recently left home as well, all of 9 blocks away, to get away from her domineering mother. She meets Marcus when she trips over Marcus, tying his shoe, sending the two of them into the pool. They soon meet another new arrival at the Garden of Allah.
  • Gwendolyn Brick is a native of the other Hollywood, the one in Florida. She has come to Hollywood after her mother died, and her brother has joined the Navy. 

The trio end up living at the Garden of Allah, a place where Hollywood's elite and wanna-be elite gather for the legendary parties around the pool. The Garden on Sunset covers about a 7-year period from 1927 (the winter before the release of The Jazz Singer) to roughly mid-1934 (people are talking about the Catholic League of Decency, end of the the Pre-Code era, by the end of the book). At first, that seems like a long time for a 300-page book, but all three of them are trying to make it in Hollywood, and almost the entire book is them getting jobs, meeting people, making contacts, and trying to make their way in Tinsel Town.

It's a fun read, as the trio hobnobs with the likes of Tullulah Bankhead, Ramon Navarro, Errol Flynn, and George Cukor. They all are trying make it different ways. Marcus and Kathryn are both writers. After seeing The Jazz Singer and an off-handed remark about Hollywood needing writers if talkies take off, Marcus decides he wants to write pictures. Kathyrn is more into journalism and spends much of the book stalking William Wilkerson, trying to land a job at the newly created trade paper, the Hollywood Reporter. Of the three, Gwendolyn wants to act and has the toughest time, having to navigate the mine field of agents, producers, and talent scouts, most of whom are more interested in getting laid than discovering the next big star. 

Through all of this, the trio finds themselves at places like the Cocoanut Grove, The Brown Derby, a gambling ship, speakeasies, and cattle calls, not to mention the ever-present Garden of Allah parties. I was often tempted to google people they met and things that were happening, but mostly resisted. The couple of times I did succumb, I found what was going on in the book jived with what the Internet was telling me. 

The one thing I found a little weird about the book was that it took you up to, but not including the sex. Characters would start a sex scene and then the next paragraph they were done. You would be like, did I miss something? In a way, I can see why the author did it this way. People are pretty hung up on sex, and considering you have both gay and straight characters, maybe he thought it would be weird to have both gay and straight sex scenes in the same book. 

It's not a big deal to me. I just seemed odd, but not enough to keep me from recommending the book. It did give a you the feel of what it was like to be in Hollywood in its heyday in an entertaining way. I glanced at a couple reviews, and it seems that the other books in the series are good as well, so I ordered the next two. It's a fun read, and I heartily recommend it to anyone into old movies.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Arrival, Best Science Fiction Movie Since Moon

On Monday, I got a chance to see The Arrival in an advanced screening. It is the best science fiction movie, I've seen since Moon. I really hope it does well, but sadly, I have a feeling that modern audiences who are used to being spoon fed dumbed-down plots, will not know how deal with a movie that makes them think. 

I'm not sure how much I can say about the film without giving too much away. In The Arrival, twelve alien ships have landed at various points in the world. Amy Adams is a top linguist, charged by the US military with learning how to communicate with the aliens on the ship that landed in America. She is teamed with Jeremy Renner, a mathematician, who thinks that that the universal nature of science and physics is the key to communicating. Forest Whitaker is the Army colonel in charge of the project. There are good performances by all. 

Since there are twelve ships in different locations, each government takes a slightly different approach to interacting with the aliens. At first the governments involved cooperate and share information, but become suspicious of what others might be learning from "their" aliens. 

The Arrival has a twist ending that I don't even want to hint at. While the aliens are shown, these and the ship interior are pretty much the only special effects in the film. It's not about special effects. It's about the nature of communication. The film really makes you think and as such, it's one of the best new movies I've seen in a long time. Go see it. Just don't expect any running laser gun battles.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Missed My Chance at the Twilight Zone

This actually happened to me this morning. I was buying the Sunday paper. I gave the woman two bills and the rest in change, but I gave her the wrong amount. What I thought was a quarter was a nickel, so she handed it back to me. I dropped the nickel on the counter and handed her a quarter. It turns out the nickel landed on its side. But I didn't think. I picked it up before I could read anyone's mind.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Teapot Racing 2 – Tanks, Perfect Solution, Sort of

Meet El Guapo, a Teapot Racer made on a tank
roughly the size of a Hot Wheels car
What, you may ask, is Teapot Racing? Simply put, it is mounting a teapot on and Remote Control (RC) vehicle and racing it on an obstacle course. This is the second in a series of posts on Teapot Racing. The last post talked about the difference between Toy-Grade and Hobby-Grade vehicles. In short, you have two basic types of RC vehicle (these also apply to tanks):
  • Toy-Grade –  Toy-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in places like Toys"R"Us, Target, and Walmart. Toy-Grade RC vehicles have the main advantage of being inexpensive. They can also be underpowered, but the better Toy-Grade cars can have the opposite problem, too much power for their own good. The biggest problem with Toy-Grade vehicles is lack of control.
  • Hobby-Grade – Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in brick-and-mortar and online hobby stores. Hobby-Grade RC vehicles can be extremely expensive, but what you get for that extra money is both power and precise control. Hobby-grade tanks tend to be even more expensive than conventional vehicles and are probably going to be harder to find secondhand.
If you haven't done so, you might want to check out my RC Basics post here.

I was first exposed to Teapot Racing at Gaslight Gathering this year, so I'm not really an expert, but I figured I could share what I learned making my first Teapot Racers. At Gaslight, there were only six cars competing. My car turned in the second fastest time, but also had the dubious distinction of being the only car to drive off the stage. I kind of suck at driving the things. As we were leaving the event, Madame Askew, who officiated mentioned that RC tanks tend to do well in Teapot Racing.

Having done it only once I could immediately see where she was coming from. A big part of the fun of making a teapot racer is making it look the part, but ultimately you are going to need to drive the thing, and driving means navigating the course. You're going to need to navigate two types of obstacle at a minimum:

  • Ramps – Figure on at least two ramps. These will usually be a wide slanted one that you drive up and down and make a U-turn on and two straight ramps of the same height placed end-to-end (up one side and down the other), possibly with a small gap between them that you need to jump.
  • Slalom – These are obstacles placed on the ground that you need to drive between. 
The ramp is probably going to be made of 3/4 inch plywood, which means there is going to a bump where the plywood meets the floor. You're Teapot Racer needs to get up that as well as the slope of the ramp itself. At Gaslight Gathering, the course was set up on the outdoor stage, about 12 feet by 24 feet, I'm guessing. The slalom was four obstacles placed about 30 inches apart and offset by about 6 inches. My Teapot Racer (based on a Toy-Grade RC four wheeler) had to back up and go forward several times to make it. This is also where I drove off the stage, but that is mostly due to me being a doofus driving an RC car. 

In theory, a tank should account for both of these types of obstacle well. Tank tracks climb quite well. In fact, they should be able to drive over just about anything and handle ramps with ease. Also, the way tanks turn is turn is by switching the direction of the tracks on opposite sides of the vehicle.  They should be able to rotate in a circle without moving forward or back, perfect for even the tightest slalom.

In practice, it's a bit more complicated. First off with tanks, you still have the issue with Toy-Grade vs. Hobby-Grade. Now, if Hobby-Grade cars are expensive, Hobby-Grade tanks are real expensive, and because they are so expensive there are less of them around, both in the local hobby store and secondhand. I went to two different hobby shops recently. One specialized in ground vehicles, and they didn't have any tanks. The other carried ground vehicles, planes, helicopters, and drones. They had two tanks that looked like they were barely better than Toy-Grade. The people working couldn't tell you anything about them beyond what was written in the box.

That leaves Toy-Grade tanks. A big problem is that tanks almost always come with other stuff besides what make it go. This one fires airsoft bbs:

This one fires Nerf darts:

This one fires lasers:

This one has a spycam. I think this is real big among the upskirt crowd. I'm sure Donald Trump has dozens of these running around every time he hosts a beauty pageant:

Not to mention construction vehicles:

If you're a hacker, you can buy the tracks and build yourself from this tank chassis:

Finally, this one you can drive in the water and literally turns into a boat. Oddly, this is one of the better options.

There may be cars that have tank controls that would be good options as well. Unfortunately, I haven't found any being made right now, beyond really tiny ones.

What makes tanks so well suited to Teapot Racing? Tank tracks, obviously. But also tank controls, provided they use true tank controls, two up-down joysticks/switches that control the left and right tracks separately. 

  • ↑ – Forward
  • ↓↓ – Reverse
  • [Left track neutral right track up– Turn right
  • [Right track neutral left track up– Turn left
  • ↑↓ – Spin right
  • ↑ – Spin left

Some Toy-Grade tanks have a hybrid controls.

  • Forward and Reverse on the same control
  • Left and Right on the same control
On the surface this might seem simpler, but it could be problematic. If you have the ability to move one track at a time, that might make it easier to turn just a little because only the track on the one side is doing anything (the other track is doing nothing). But if the turn control always does both tracks in opposite directions, that could make it harder to turn only slightly. For example, say the tank has a powerful motor, this means that spin would be spin in circles way fast, making it next to impossible to spin just a quarter or and eighth of a turn.

Want a demo. The Teapot Racer at beginning of this post can show what I'm talking about. It is surprisingly fast for its size. Control. Not so much. It's just too powerful for it's own good.

I really wasn't being serious with this. I was mostly wanted to get proof of concept, that I could carve something that looked like a teapot out of Styrofoam (this was my second attempt). This brings me to another issue with tanks, tank tracks fall off, especially on Toy-Grade tanks. Aside from the above, being overpowered, it throws off the tracks on just about any surface but tile, hardwood, and similar surfaces.

What follows is a cross section of is currently available and my best guess as to how I think it would perform (1 to 5 stars) based online reviews and videos. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are a ton of tanks out there. The biggest issue I have is finding a review or video of the model you're looking at. I've provided links for ordering and videos of what they look like in action:

  • GoolRC 777-215 Tank-7 Mini RC Tiger Tank R/C Toy with 49MHz Transmitter  – This is what I used for the mini Teapot Racer above. Its big problem is lack of control and throwing off its tracks. I give it two stars, mostly because it is cute. It probably deserves just one star. **

  • iPlay RC Battling Tanks -Set of 2 Full Size Infrared Radio Remote Control Battle Tanks - RC Tanks – This comes as a set of two tanks that work out to about $20 apiece. They just seem to be slow and underpowered to me. Plus as a set of two, if they don't work out well, you have two worthless tanks instead of one. I'll give this two stars as a much more realistic option over the GoolRC Mini Tiger above. **

  • Tamiya Remote Controller Kit 2 – This is the same chassis as the build your own above but sold as a kit with a grabber arm. There should be a cheaper version without the arm, but I couldn't find it when writing this when I know I found it a couple of weeks ago. You could build without the arm. No idea how well it runs on non-smooth surfaces. It does seem pretty underpowered to me. Also a wired remote seems lame to me. I'll give it two and a half stars because it should be easy to attach a teapot to, provided it's built without the grabber arm. ** 1/2

  • Tamiya Remote Control Rescue Crawler – This probably deserves two stars, but the extra tank tracks are way cool. Still, I have no idea how you would attach a teapot, because the arms would get in the way. Again, drawbacks are it doesn't seem very powerful and it has a wired remote. The super cool design pushes it up a notch. ***

On the last two, you may run across a number tank chassis kits, with or without motors. The big problem is getting a remote control to talk to a tank chassis.

Finally, I'm going to do three more, which I think are the best options:
  • Sided armored off-road crawler All-terrain four-wheel drive high-speed remote control toy car with lights, Blue – At $30, this is my personal top pick, but this may be my own bias, because it is the only one beside the tiny Tiger tank above that I have actually driven. The small flat design should be relatively easy to build a platform on for your teapot. It's not super fast or powerful. On the racer I'm making, I'm doing my best to keep the weight down with a tiny aluminum teapot and balsa wood platform, so the lack of power should be less of a problem. It is fairly easy to control, and it doesn't seem to have enough power to throw the tracks off. ****

  • New Bright 1:14 Race Car Fast Forward Green - Badzilla – This also appears to be the same thing as a New Bright Trak Attak, that I found at Walmart in store for about the same price. This is a lot faster than the Side armored off-road  crawler. I think it does have a tendency to throw off the tracks, but I think you have to push it real hard, so I don't think that is going to be an issue. I'm giving it the same four stars as the Side armored one because the body might be an issue when you get down to attaching the teapot. It should have enough power that weight would be less of a concern. ****

  • Air Hogs, Thunder Trax RC Vehicle, 2.4 GHZ – This might be your best bet. I think that Air Hogs is one of the top names in Toy-Grade RC. This one is fast, has plenty of power, and you can drive it into the water, where it turns into a boat, kind of a useless on a Teapot Racer, but still. This is the most expensive of these last three and you should be able to find them anywhere. I saw one in Target yesterday for $65. Also this is likely to be cheaper come Black Friday. It doesn't have true tank controls, but still seems to be fairly precise. Not sure how you would attach a teapot, but it has the power to carry it. I read a number of reviews and no one mentioned throwing the tracks. This should rock and roll, just wish it wasn't a boat. **** 1/2

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Book Review – Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

If you're not in Southern California, Hawaii, or Japan, it's unlikely that you've ever heard of Bookoff. Bookoff is a Japanese chain of used book stores that also sells music and movies and has started to open stores here in the states. I go there because it reminds me of the days when you could go to Tower Records and spend and hour or two browsing books, music, and movies, before piracy put the final nail in the coffin of the music/record store industry.

I don't go there often, because I have a tendency to overspend and at the rate I read, I have more books than I will ever get through in the rest of my lifetime. Still, when I go to Bookoff, I usually go straight to the shelf dedicated to movies. There's always a book or two I can't resist. A few months ago, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt was one of them. It sat on my shelf until last night (Halloween night). I'd spent the better part of the day/evening watching horror movies back-to-back-to-back. I couldn't handle another. Despite this, I kept the TV on, to some cable network showing Frankenhooker. I think Mr. Oswalt would approve. I ended finishing it up by lunchtime the next day. 

I honestly didn't know what to expect. I know that I love his stand-up and the improvised rant  he did about Star Wars for Parks and Recreation showed a depth of knowledge and geekiness, that I couldn't help but admire.

If he was planning a similar rant on classic film, I was all in.  It wasn't that, well, only partly that. It was more of a personal memoir about a certain period of his life, almost a coming of age story, about him coming to terms with what it means to be a standup comic and find a place in the entertainment industry, all the while trying to cram as much film into his head in an attempt to eventually direct films. 

Silver Screen Fiend centers around about a four-year period of Oswalt's life between 1995 and 1999 when he did little but perform standup and watch mostly classic films. It opens with  a double feature at the New Beverly in Los Angeles, Sunset Blvd. and Ace in the Hole and how this was the start of his downward spiral into hardcore film addiction. Now, hardcore film addiction sounds like something from one of his comedy bits, but as you go through Silver Screen Fiend, you come to realize that he's not really joking.

The first chapter sets up how he got to the point in his life which led him into his descent into screen fiend madness. It was smart and insightful and always interesting, but I find didn't much in that first chapter that was funny, like he promised in the intro. It was almost like watching the first part of a movie, where you're just getting introduced to the characters and their place in the world before the real action starts. The rest of the book is interspersed with laugh out loud funny observations and anecdotes.

The subtitle sums up the entire book, Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. In his effort to become a success as a stand-up comic, writer, actor, and would-be director, he immersed himself in two things, performing stand-up comedy and going to the movies 3 or 4 times a week. All of this is told through great stories about his short stint as a writer for MADtv and the LA alternative comedy scene, told with insight and self-deprecating humor, and tied into the classic films he was watching at the time.

One of my favorite things was the story about his first movie role in Down Periscope (1996). He played Stingray Radioman (not a name of a person, but the guy on the submarine Stingray who operated the radio). As much of the film was set in a submarine, he was in the background much of the time, turning the knobs on a fake radio on submarine set that one of the producers said was the same one used on Run Silent Run Deep. He had one line, "Radio message for you, sir. It's Admiral Graham." He was in the background much of the time and wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, so he would think of things to use in the role. He would be drinking coffee. Maybe the coffee tastes really bad, so he would take a drink, make a face, and put the cup down like it contained nitro glycerin. At which point, the director, David Ward, who wrote and won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Sting, stopped and said, "Patton, don't do that."  He'd seen enough well-meaning background actors, trying to breathe life into their parts to know that he meant no harm, but he still was distracting from what was really going on in the movie.

Through all of this, his love for film shines through, despite the insanity and weirdness of the entertainment biz. Eventually, he comes to realize that while he is telling himself that spending every chance he can get in a dark theater watching movies preparing him for a film career, in reality, he is using film to avoid having a life outside of comedy and film fiendishness. Still, we get the benefit of his broad knowledge of film and the humor of his experiences in the world of modern film and television. 

The final chapter is partly a reprint of a blog he did as a tribute to the former owner of The New Beverly Sherman Torgan, when he died in 2007. He programmed a month's worth of films that Torgan could watch in the afterlife, none of which were ever made, but might have been had the cards fallen different or the people lived longer. It's an incredible list. Every film is something I would love to see. 

The Appendix is a list of every film he saw in the theater from that Sunset Blvd./Ace in the Hole double feature in May 1995 to Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in May 1999. Set in two columns it runs over 20 pages, often two or three films a day. Though mostly classic film, the list is interspersed with first-run films from the period just about everything worth and not worth seeing from Saving Private Ryan and As Good as It Gets to Spice World

As a film aficionado, Silver Screen Fiend makes me feel good about myself. He is so much a bigger film geek than me. At the same time, it makes me feel bad. He is so much a bigger film geek than I could ever hope to be. According to IMDB, Patton Oswalt has never directed a film, what he was dreaming of sitting in a dark theater all of those hours. I hope he gets a chance to. I'm sure it will be worth watching.