This is the real ghost train.
San Diego, Wednesday night, July 25, downtown, after dark. All that's here is a smattering of oases of light, from cheap drugstores to greasy spoons offering a "really big Taco Plate" for $3.50. The streets, for now, are mostly empty, and those riding the trolley around you are dirty and old, with faces that bespeak hard work for too little pay . . . and judging by the content of their mouths, no dental insurance.
Later in the week, a Los Angeles Times reporter will be assaulted in this neighborhood.
The allegedly spooky rides at the OC Fair have been easily bested by reality here. But a dose of unreality is creeping in. Invaders with lanyards, many overweight with ponytails or goatees, rarely both. And on this ride, they're nitpicking the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Good thing I read fast and got through it all the previous Saturday night. Like many a Comic-Con-goer, these folks don't seem to notice how loud they are, and they come up with elaborate nitpicks of which most wouldn't even conceive. But to go into detail here would be to spoil as badly as they do, and besides, tuning them out proved helpful to my sanity.
Two hours earlier, the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con opened its doors for Preview Night, and it appeared more or less exactly as it was in 2006. The obsessions may change—this year, Jon Favreau's Iron Man movie and Robert Zemeckis' new cinematic take on Beowulf are the major themes—but most of the booths are where we left them last year, and some, like the Sci-Fi Channel booth, look exactly the same.
No exciting costumes here today; they're not worth displaying for a mere two hours. Except for Star Wars video game character Scorch and his Republic Commando Clonetrooper buddies. Each costume is colored differently—this may be the only place where clones, rather ironically, don't look alike.
Some of the booths are subdued, hiding items to be announced later. Toy pickings are slimmer than one might hope. The DC Direct Catwoman doll I wanted for my birthday is nowhere to be had, so far, nor is a figure of Terry O'Quinn as Lost's John Locke that I didn't get when I had the chance. But there are the exclusive Star Trek figures to procure, spread out among four stands scattered throughout this half-mile hall.
With each one attained, I'm asked the same question: "Just one?"
Isn't that enough? Four of these, and $64 is out of the wallet. The fifth is a freebie, Genesis Khan, who is not in fact the long-lost brother of OC Weekly's Janine Kahn; just a toy resembling a bloody, bruised Ricardo Montalban. The game's not over.
Sideshow Collectibles are annoying, the way they make too few of their Star Wars dolls; but the prototype on display of "Snow Bunny" Padme is a thing of beauty, a dead-on Natalie Portman look-alike, something Hasbro has not managed in eight years. Hasbro wins some and loses some here—they're gonna show a new Indiana Jones figure later in the week, and Transformers are kicking butt. But Marvel Legends is a line being screwed up, and this is how you know: Every year for the past whenever, Marvel Legends—then made by Toy Biz, but now under Hasbro's purview—have been cash cows for the dealers. This year, prices are being slashed. Good time to fill the holes in your collection.
* * *
San Diego is decked out in relevant advertising—buses display ads for MGM's forthcoming slate of milking dead franchises even drier, with a fourth Species movie, a WarGamessequel and a Spaceballs animated series. Don't say John Candy would roll over in his grave—Candy had no shame in picking projects when he was alive. But since his character Barf was half-dog, he might roll over anyway. Coke machines are encased in Beowulf housings.
Thinking the trolleys stop at 10, I head for the motel early; even staying eight miles outside of town is not cheap come Con season. Turns out the trolleys are on a special later schedule.
But nothing near the Mission Valley motel is open, and supper was not to be had, unless you count Pringles from a vending machine and a bottle of Sprite.
Gas station—sign on the door says that it's locked, but come to the night window. Sign at the night window says only gas and cigarettes are sold through the night window. This needs to be confirmed.
"Only gas and cigarettes?"
"Yeah, only gas and cigarettes."
"I really need double-A batteries."
The man looks behind him, sees them. Picks them up.
"These are $6.35. But if you have $5 cash on you, we'll call it even."
The trade is made. Then he sees the Comic-Con badge.
"Hey, can you hook me up with a free one of those?"
"Nahh, man, but just publish something online and say you're press."
"You can't get me one? I'm helping you out here."
"Can't. I arranged it weeks ago."
"Yeah, I feel you."
* * *
It's Thursday, and waiting in line for half an hour was not sufficient to get me into the Paramount panel in cavernous Hall H. There are too many people here. Used to be they didn't use all the convention center space, and every year, as more people would show up, the areas in use would expand. Now it has expanded to capacity—and more people keep coming. Rumors fly that it's going to have to move to Las Vegas, or LA, or even Anaheim.
I'm disappointed not to hear the exclusive news on the next Indiana Jones movie and the new Star Trek prequel/reboot. But it turns out to be no big deal after all. Karen Allen is confirmed as returning for Indy 4, and the guy who plays Sylar on Heroes, Zachary Quinto, is young Spock. Leonard Nimoy shows up to call that particular casting choice "logical." He will also be in the film, though so far, William Shatner is not expected to join him and has been expressing his disappointment via weekly MySpace videos. No plot details or titles are confirmed for either film.
Not wanting to make the same timing mistake twice, I get in line for the Lionsgate panel a full hour in advance, at which point the line has already stretched all the way around the back of the building. But entry is gained.
People think this convention is a huge nerd-fest. Certainly, smug Fox News entertainment reporter Bill McCuddy—who's emceeing the Lionsgate panel for some unknown reason—has that in mind when he makes some unfunny jokes about virginity and mothers' basements. But it isn't entirely, and here's proof: After waiting in line for an hour, large chunks of this crowd leave the room the moment Jessica Alba's done talking about Good Luck Chuck. Clive Barker and Tobin Bell have yet to speak about their upcoming horror movies. Sorry, but true nerds aren't going to miss out on such things. (Just in case you did: Bell's Jigsaw character really is dead in Saw IV, and there won't be any cheating on that score, just "the best ending so far"; Barker, promoting the upcoming horror flick Midnight Meat Train, was hoarse and incoherent, prompting Vinnie Jones to mock him merely by screaming incoherently into his microphone.)
Later, at a panel featuring special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, the room will be only a third full, at least until more people start wandering in at about the halfway mark.
* * *
The best quotes of Comic-Con:
"It's going to be very different from anything people have ever seen." (Jessica Alba, discussing her upcoming horror film The Eye, which is in fact a remake of a Thai film many people have already seen.)
"Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." (Peter Fonda, describing his acting process during 3:10 to Yuma.)
"Let's have lunch!" (Leslie Bibb's reaction to seeing Clive Barker's paintings of giant penises.)
"It's an adult movie, if you call me an adult, which is a mistake." (Director Zack Snyder, 300, on the forthcoming Watchmen film starring Billy Crudup and Jackie Earle Haley.)
"[Director] Peter Segal never wore pants on the set, or any underwear. And I found that funny." (Steve Carell, when asked about funny incidents on the set of Get Smart.)
"I got to wear clothes." (Borat's Ken Davitian, describing his Get Smartcharacter.)
"I slept with the director way fewer times. . . . I was allowed to use my own teeth." (Kate Beckinsale, comparing her upcoming movie Whiteout to Underworld.)
"Gwyneth was my personal assistant for two months. That was after we wrapped principal photography. Sometimes you do prep after." (Robert Downey Jr., on preparing for his role in Iron Man.)
"When I told them I was coming with Robert Downey Jr., you should have seen the booth they gave us!" (Stan Lee, on finally getting a good table at his favorite restaurant.)
"Stan, they were just happy I wasn't in the bathroom the whole meal." (Downey, in response.)
"He likes to kill big animals." (Ashley Scott, describing her former Jericho costar Gerald McRaney.)
"It's kind of an honor, and it's kind of hilarious." (Edward Norton on becoming the next Incredible Hulk—and writing the script as well.)
"I'm gonna kidnap him. I'm gonna kidnap the president of the United States." (Nicolas Cage's big line in the newly unveiled trailer for National Treasure 2.)
"Will there be a giant CG dragon in Balls of Fury? Because it was left out of Reno 911." (Fan question to Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant.)
"Is it really hard for you to watch Armageddon without getting sad that Bruce Willis doesn't make it back?" (Fan question for Liv Tyler.)
"When you go to see a picture like King Kong, you don't really care about Ann Darrow's past." (Ray Harryhausen, critiquing Peter Jackson's Kong.)
* * *
It's 1:30 a.m. late Friday night/early Saturday morning, and I'm lying on a sheet of cardboard in the back of a minivan headed God-knows-where amid sliding packages of toys, many of them mine that I've hauled around all day in addition to the laptop slowly gnawing its way down into my shoulder. When offered a ride home, it never occurred to me to ask if there might actually be seats inside the vehicle of transit.
Thirty minutes earlier: I ask the driver if he knows where I'm staying.
"Yeah, Alvarado or something, right?"
"Doesn't sound like you do know." I check the directions in my pocket. "Okay, yeah, Alvarado Canyon."
"Oh ye of little faith."
Now: "You're on Alvarado Street, right?"
"Alvarado Canyon. Is that the same thing?"
No, says the other guy in the car.
"Me of little faith, right?"
I should point out that I would trust this particular driver with my life. But not, on this evening, with my directions.
This is relevant to Spike and Mike's Sick & Twisted festival of animation, and not just because that's why I'm still awake.
The first time I saw Sick & Twisted, I didn't like it. Aside from the Beavis & Butt-head shorts, it was mostly poorly animated student films about people taking a shit and wiping their ass on the cat, or something similar. Toilet scenes are not inherently funny, and if you think they are, you probably have at least one male relative who'll let you watch him crap. Leave the rest of us alone.
But when I worked at the Laemmle Sunset 5 movie theater, working the midnight shows, I got to meet a fellow named Brian Gaughan who ran the merchandise stand. Far from being twisted himself, he's now a stable father of two.
He still does work for Spike, and it's out of loyalty to him that I'm here, rather than at the Flash Gordon costume contest downtown.
Sick & Twisted has changed over the years. Spike now does a thing at Comic-Con called "The Gauntlet," in which cartoons that are booed heavily get yanked in the middle, and those that are cheered become part of the show.
Based on the show, these are the rules for getting cheered:
. A cum shot, or the promise of one, guarantees success.
. Any short that begins with a baby crying gets booed.
. A poorly animated animal movie will only get booed until it shows a horse fucking a bird. Then it gets a huge ovation.
. Shorts about anthropomorphic food dying a horrible death when a person eats it will always go over well.
. Any cartoon that gets booed at first can recover if an act of brutal violence occurs.
. Graphic sex is a sure thing. Graphic defecation, not so much.
. Anyone getting their ass beat is popular.
. Hip-hop is a minefield with this crowd. Use it—or Ebonics—very sparingly, if at all.
Anyway, this year's was a much better show than the old ones. One may not always agree with the gauntlet concept, but one must recognize it's better than Spike's judgment alone.
Meanwhile, back in the 1:30 time frame, Mr. Gaughan's Wild Ride has concluded. I try to buy a toothbrush from the vending machine, but while it accepts and registers the first dollar, inserting a second causes the first one to get spit out. I don't have the energy to debate this point with man or machine.
Five hours later, up again to have breakfast with Kevin Bacon, whose plane is delayed. Bacon's adversary in the upcoming movie Death Sentence, Garrett Hedlund, is there instead. He seems nice. A chef cooks custom omelets for all the press in attendance. I stow some of those mini-boxes of Froot Loops to have for lunch later. Been years since I've eaten this stuff—used to be only three colors, right? When did they add neon green to the mix?
* * *
You're not supposed to use the term "3-D" when describing those movies that pop right out of the screen when viewed with special glasses. The preferred term is "stereoscopic." That is what we are told at a Comic-Con press presentation for Real D, the new "stereoscopic" format that has been used so far on Chicken Little, Monster House, The Nightmare Before Christmas 3-D and Meet the Robinsons and might one day be used on a movie that's actually good. That movie could be Beowulf.
Coming out in November in 3-D, 3-D IMAX and plain old regular (not the way to see it, if you can help it), this is a performance-capture animated film, à la Polar Express. The obvious question on most people's minds is probably "OMG will this be like the Zombi kiddzors in PolarXpress LOL?????" First off, one way overstates the "zombie kid" thing —Polar Expresswas stylized to look like a children's-book illustration, and did it fine. The Steve Tyler elf was the only really creepy character.
But this is a mixed bag. Beowulf himself is a character who solves the classic action-movie dilemma of whether to hire a muscular actor or a good one. Pudgy Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) is given the body of He-Man to play our hero. On the other hand, Anthony Hopkins' King Hrothgar looks exactly like Hopkins, and Angelina Jolie looks like herself, but possibly even hotter. Hrothgar's queen, though, is clearly supposed to be attractive but isn't; she looks mannequin-like. And she's not the only one. The characters who look like the actors who play them are great, but the rest look a bit like the humans in the Shrek movies.
And then there's Grendel, played by Crispin Glover, working with director Robert Zemeckis for the first time since Back to the Future. Picture a giant Gollum, only he's got scales and is a zombie, plus his head is slightly Glover-shaped. There's an implication in what we saw that Hrothgar is Grendel's father, which I don't remember from the old story, but I never read the uncut original, so maybe.
We were shown the entire second reel. It opens with Grendel's arm getting ripped off and blood pouring over the camera's point-of-view. Beowulf is naked, his dick only just obscured. He is hailed as a hero, but meanwhile, the dying Grendel goes home to Mama, who appears to be a giant fish-demon (though she's not fully glimpsed). In a language that sounds like Old English, he tells his mom, before shriveling and dying, that Beowulf did this to him.
In the night, we see things through what must be Mama Grendel's eyes, flying in through the skylight of the great hall. Meanwhile, Beowulf has a bad dream about the queen, who demands, "Enter me and give me a son!" before getting freaky-evil-looking, and of course Beowulf jerks upward and awakens at this point, to see bodies hanging from the ceiling.
Once he figures out the deal, Beowulf sets off to face Big Bad Mama by himself. He enters her lair, and she shows up . . . but as a naked Angelina Jolie. Yup, naked. The Lara Croft ponytail moves like a serpent's tail. A tiny bit of dripping gold liquid obscures her nipples. Then she approaches Beowulf, and . . .
Look, we can't beat about the bush on this (no pun intended, she's smooth below the waist): She masturbates his sword until it dissolves into a thick liquid. Allegedly, this movie is aiming for a PG-13, but I do not see how. This will make teenage boys grow hair. Remember, it's gonna be in 3-D IMAX.
As for the rest of the movie—how is animation an advantage? Twofold: One, Ray Winstone as Beowulf. Two, it's easier to do cool 3-D stuff in CG animation.
However, it's a bit like Robert Rodriguez was with digital cinema—one gets the sense Zemeckis thinks this technology is a bit better than it actually is. This is an early cut, though. Who knows if there will ever be a market for actual porn in 3-D IMAX, so this may be as close as it "comes" for a while.
You know what sucks, though? McFarlane is doing the toys, and their Mama Grendel figure is the fish-demon version. Not naked Jolie.
A posed photo of us press folk staring at the screen would end up making its way into the pages of USA Today.
* * *
Sometimes the B-level stars who have autograph booths can misbehave.
Upstairs at the convention center is an area called the Sails Pavilion. In the morning, it serves as a holding pen for people waiting to enter the exhibit hall. During the day, several "celebrities" such as "wrestling superstar Virgil" have autograph booths there.
Part of the pavilion is roped off for an art show (no photos allowed). You can only enter this part through a couple of doors.
Posted on said doors is the following warning: "This is access to nowhere but the art show. If you try to use this as a pass-through, you will be turned back—even if you're Sam Jones."
So the star of 1980's Flash Gordon has been trying to break the rules?
"Security! Flash Gordon approaching!"
"Vhat do you mean . . . Flash . . . Gordon . . . approaching?"
* * *
Random observation No. 1: Cans of Coke are $2.50 in the convention center. Just a regular 12-ounce can.
Random observation No. 2: It seems as though every movie being promoted here is opening next May. That can't be right, can it? A new Narnia film is promised every May for the next six years.
On Sunday, the last day, I found the toys I was looking for.
When the announcer over the P.A. system said there were five minutes left till closing, I walked next door to the Marriott bar and had some drinks. It was practically empty. And there wasn't any food.
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The guy next to me at the bar was on a trip down the coast with his wife. He had planned this adventure with no idea what he would be finding himself in the middle of.
I wished him well. He admired my 18-inch talking Hannibal Lecter figure.
Time now for both of us to go home.