Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Busted Block: The End of an Era

On September 23rd, Blockbuster Inc., the video rental company, filed for bankruptcy, ending one era and beginning another. Blockbuster is saddled with over $900 million in debt and has been in decline for the last few years due to the rise of mail-based rental companies like Neflix, On-Demand services from cable and satellite TV companies, and cheap rental kiosks. Blockbuster has been closing locations by the hundreds and old-fashioned brick and mortar based movie renting is on its way to the grave.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when people would venture out to the video store, browse the shelves, read the plot summaries on the back of the boxes, and select a movie or two to take home for the next few days. It was a family affair, parents often taking their kids out to find something to watch together in the living room. But times have changed. It’s an “on-demand” age now.

While Blockbuster is working out a deal with creditors to allow its doors to stay open (for now), the days of being able to go to a mainstream video rental house are numbered. They will operate with only a few physical locations and focus on a digital business going into the future. Digital is the new videotape.

Now it’s more common to simply click through your cable menu screens to select a movie to watch instantly on one of your three flat screen HDTVs, or to scroll through your Netflix queue to see what to bump up to the top so all you have to do is walk to your mailbox to grab the latest release. Netflix also has an Instant View option which allows you to stream movies and television episodes on your computer. This feature also works through some videogame systems like Nintendo’s Wii or through Blu-ray players hooked up to the internet. There’s also an increasing number of automated kiosk rental stations, such as Redbox. For about a dollar you can drive to the nearest Redbox machine and select a title from a list of new releases to be returned the next day.

For the consumer, these are all positive developments. Advances in technology allow viewers to have access to a greater number of titles with dramatically improved quality from the days of VHS tapes on 4:3 SDTVs, often for a lower price. You get to see exactly what you want, exactly when you want it. But could there be any downsides to this new digital, on-demand marketplace?

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t all that long ago when there were only three major television networks and the only movies you could watch at home were the ones the networks decided to run. It wasn’t until the 80s when VHS broke into the market, and up until then consumers had no real choices if they felt like watching a film at home. But it was this lack of choice that fostered a shared national culture. The entire country watched the same shows and saw the same movies, including older classics. Perhaps it’s easy to see the rise of on-demand media as purely beneficial, giving people real control over something in an otherwise stressful, modern life. But these benefits do come at a cost.

The fibers that bind Americans together are tearing. Politics are becoming more extreme at both ends of the spectrum, and part of the reason for this is because people are increasingly exposed to only the media they choose, directly. Instantly. While we have much easier access to media we immediately desire, it’s becoming much more difficult to be exposed to ideas we don’t already agree with, or to randomly discover a great film just because it’s the only thing playing on TV that night or because you stumbled upon the box at the video store. It might not be much, but think about that the next time you’re ordering a movie on-demand, instead of taking a trip to your local Blockbuster.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Busted: The Failure of the 2010 Summer Blockbuster

Thirty-five years ago, a film was released that ushered in a new era in Hollywood and forever changed the way movies were marketed to the public. The film, directed by newcomer Steven Spielberg, was called Jaws and it invented the “Summer Blockbuster”. It wasn’t long before George Lucas followed in his friend’s footsteps and released Star Wars, proving the concept was here to stay.

In the subsequent years Hollywood perfected the idea, often advertising the big summer releases 6 months in advance during the Super Bowl. Summer Blockbusters have the actors with household names, they have the biggest production budgets, the best special effects, and they’re adapted from the most popular books. At this point, 35 years into the game, it’s a tried and true formula that almost never fails to turn big profits for the industry. That is… until this year.

Sex and the City 2 took in $26 million less than its predecessor during its opening week. Comedies like Killers and Get Him to the Greek debuted with only $16 million and $18 million respectively, far less than similar films in recent summer seasons. Shrek Forever After, the forth film in the incredibly successful Shrek series, is pulling in the worst numbers of its franchise. Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood just barely cracked $100 million domestically, though it did much better overseas. It’s the same story with Prince of Persia. So far only Iron Man 2 has proven to be really successful, making more than the first installment did in 2008.

The 2010 summer season has studios scratching their heads as film after film expected to make a big splash has disappointed at the box office. But the explanation should actually be quite obvious. Hollywood’s own past success has crippled its creativity, and the lack of ideas is becoming all too noticeable. Exhibit A, The Sequels: Iron Man 2, Sex and the City 2, Nanny McPhee 2, Twilight 3, Toy Story 3, Step Up 3, and Shrek 4. Exhibit B, The Adaptations, Remakes, and Spin-offs: Prince of Persia, MacGruber, The A-Team, Jonah Hex, The Karate Kid, The Last Airbender, Robin Hood, and Get Him to the Greek. Starting to get the picture? The vast majority of the big films being pushed this season are either rehashed ideas or sequels made in an attempt to cash in a second (or fourth) time on the strength of previous success. It’s lazy, and it seems as though the public has finally caught on.

The thing that’s easy to forget about the original Summer Blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars is that they were simply really good stories that focused on character development and had well written scripts. They just so happened to be told in a big, flashy way and marketed on lunch boxes, but the core values of quality film making were never left out at the expense of a cool special effect. Jaws, Star Wars, along with many other big summer films that followed, were successful because they connected with people on a human level. Story first, spectacle second. Ultimately, whether they know it or not, audiences crave this type of personal connection, and this summer Hollywood isn’t providing it; instead insulting the audience by assuming that any old sequel will sell.

However, even after the darkest night, the sun will eventually rise. Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, fresh from The Dark Knight, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is due out July 16, and it looks to be just the kind of interesting, thought provoking, personal film that could salvage the summer movie season. Hopefully audiences go see it in droves, sending a message to Hollywood that it takes more than slapping a “2” at the end of a title to guarantee a hit.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New DVD/Blu-ray Release: Remember Me

New DVD/Blu-Ray Release: “Remember Me” (Available June 22)

Remember Me, a film by director Allen Coulter, starring Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, is the type of film that is becoming too rare in today’s Hollywood system. It oozes raw energy, drips authenticity and heart, has a thought provoking, well written script, and it only cost $16 million to produce. Too often films today are designed as franchise vehicles and use their $100+ million budgets as marketing tools. Remember Me, however, is a real film, centering around a young man named Tyler in New York struggling with the death of his older brother and a detached, workaholic father, played surprisingly well by Pierce Brosnan. Tyler is intelligent but directionless, and ends up in some trouble with the law. But it’s this incident, which doesn’t seem overly significant at the time, that leads him down a new path in life. He meets a girl named Ally (Emilie de Ravin), who happens to be the daughter of the officer (Chris Cooper) who arrested him. Despite the fact that they are very different people, they quickly form a strong bond, and suddenly the world is a little less lonely.

This movie is a must see for anyone seeking a quality, meaningful film in a year where we’re asked to endure Iron Man and Sex and the City sequels. Pattinson is proving to be an actual talent with real potential beyond the Twilight series, and he has real chemistry with co-star de Ravin, best known for her work on the TV series Lost. Brosnan and Cooper are Hollywood veterans and they lend considerable gravity to their supporting roles. Remember Me is exactly the kind of movie we need right now, a film that reminds us of the power of true film making, where character and story matter above flashy special effects. Make sure to stick this one through to the end, because the ending perfectly ties subtle narrative threads together that run under the surface throughout the whole film.


A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Remember Me is a film filled with raw emotion and as a viewer you never feel entirely safe. It has a dangerous, gritty quality while still retaining accessibility and charm. While A Streetcar Named Desire has a very different plot, it is also defined by a raw sexual energy and a general feeling of insecurity, set in an authentic urban environment. Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, and Kim Hunter, Streetcar is an all-time classic.

Blanche DuBois (Leigh) arrives in New Orleans, trying to outrun her personal problems, and drops in on her sister Stella (Hunter) and her husband Stanley (Brando). Stanley is a dominating figure and the presence of Blanche upsets the dynamic of his relationship with Stella. After learning about Blanche’s past troubles there’s a crash course to an inevitable confrontation that doesn’t end well.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sci-Fi at the Oscars

Most movies fall into only a handful of major genres. Drama, Comedy, Action/Adventure, Musical, Fantasy and of course… Science Fiction. You might think that since there are only a few basic categories that at one point or another a film from each major genre would have earned Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But not so. No Sci-Fi film has ever won the top prize, and in the entire history of the Oscars only a few have even been nominated for Best Picture.

Before this year, the only Sci-Fi films ever to be nominated for Best Picture were A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). That’s it. Three films since the annual ceremony began in 1927.

Then, in 2009, two Sci-Fi films were nominated among the expanded field of ten films, nearly matching the entire history of the Oscars in a single year. Those films were District 9 and Avatar.

District 9 was a relatively low budget film, set in South Africa, and it told the story of aliens being forced to live in a prison camp. It was a political film that echoed the real life struggle of the black population under apartheid in South Africa. Avatar was a massive three hour epic that pioneered a new type of motion-capture digital animation in 3D about a soldier who infiltrates an alien tribe using “avatar” technology. A human gets strapped into a machine and their consciousness is linked to a new body genetically engineered to look like those of the aliens. It went on to make more money than any other film in history, proving the box office viability of the Sci-Fi genre.

There were also other great Sci-Fi films in 2009. Star Trek, the re-booted story of the classic original characters, got the famous franchise that began in the ‘60s back into the mainstream. It got back to the roots of the original series, combining drama, humor, and adventure. There was also a very low budget film called Moon, starring Sam Rockwell who turned in perhaps the best performance of the entire year, about an astronaut on a three year solo mission on the surface of the moon. Science Fiction has a unique ability to make political points and comment on our culture by showing us other worlds, species, and time periods. Sometimes in order to learn about ourselves we need to put the story into a context that isn’t quite so familiar. Star Trek shows a future in which humanity has cured disease, stopped wars among countries, and united as a planetary race to explore the universe after it is discovered Earth isn’t the only home for life out there. District 9 exposes the ugliness of prejudice and racism by showing how fear leads people to subjugate those they don’t understand. Both Moon and Avatar make statements about corporate greed and the willingness to sacrifice lives and natural wonders for the sake of making money.

Science Fiction films have always played an important role in our popular culture, but have never quite gotten the respect they often deserve from the critics. They are never taken quite as seriously as they should, perhaps because of their subject matter. The very thing that allows them to be great can also make them appear silly on a surface level. But hopefully, 2009 was the beginning of a resurgence in the Science Fiction genre, and one day soon a Sci-Fi film will actually take home the Oscar for Best Picture.

Monday, March 8, 2010

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2009

10) A SINGLE MAN - No, NOT A Serious Man. That's a different movie altogether. A Single Man was maybe the most beautiful movie of the year. Each shot is meticulously composed by first time writer/director Tom Ford, previously best known for his work in the fashion industry. Colin Firth redefines himself as a leading man in this film, giving one of the best performances of the year. It's a film about realizing what's important in life and sorting out your priorities while you still have time.

9) THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS - This was Heath Ledger's last film. He died during production, but his final performance was fantastic, as were the performances of his friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) who filled in to complete his work after he died. Terry Gilliam directed a film in Imaginarium that is almost impossible to describe and it has to be seen to be believed. It's a wild, artistc free-for-all.

8) UP IN THE AIR - This is a film that on the surface appears to be very ordinary, but it's filled with such subtle quality, and it's the perfect film to define the economic times we're in today. Of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture, this is the only one that I agree should have been among the 10 best of the year.

7) MOON - Compared to the 3 big Sci-Fi hits of 2009 (Avatar, Star Trek, District 9) very few people saw this low budget gem. But I highly enourage everyone to see it now that it's been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Sam Rockwell turned in the single best performance of the entire year, and it's a shame he didn't even get a nomination for his brilliant work as an astronaut on a 3 year solo mission at a mining colony on the surface of the moon. This is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of this generation, without the psychedelic ending. That being said, it's still a bit of a mind bender.

6) CORALINE - UP was good, but Coraline was better. Digital animation may be king right now, but this old-school stop-motion animated film is a wonder to behold. Not only is the animation beautiful, but the voice acting is top notch, especially by Teri Hatcher. It's a dark tale about a bored kid who goes on an adventure to entertain herself, and it leaves the audience spellbound as well.

5) WATCHMEN - This film, adapted from possibly the greatest comic book/graphic novel of all-time, was said to be impossible to film. One, because of the sheer size and scope of the complicated story, and two, because it would just be so hard to do justice to the source material in a normal feature length film. But Zack Snyder was able to do just that. It's a superhero movie unlike any you've ever seen before. It supposes that costumed heroes are just regular people and it analyzes what their impact would be on society and on the psyche of those who wear masks to fight crime. It's dark, bloody, and not your father's comic book movie.

4) THE ROAD - Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic world in which almost all life on Earth is dying, food is scarce, and your life depends on staying hidden from bands of cannibals. The novel is a masterpiece, but the film succeeds in being even darker, bleaker than the source material. Viggo Mortensen turns in another amazing performance as a father trying to keep himself and his son alive for as long as possible, and the cinematic vision of the film is so complete you really fear for the lives of the characters and feel that any moment could be their last.

3) (500) DAYS OF SUMMER - This was the big surprise of the year for me. Just a wonderfully perfect movie. The soundtrack is fantastic and the two leads, Zooey Deschamel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, turn in excellent performances as lovers who weren't meant to be. (That's not actually a spoiler because they tell you in the first minute of the movie). It's a fantastic twist on the "boy meets girl" formula and it's a movie that can be re-watched 100 times and never get old. It resonates on such a personal, emotional level while still being able to maintain a light tone.

2) HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE - I don't know how they do it, but the Harry Potter series just keeps getting better. Half-Blood is the best installment from the wildly popular series so far, and that's saying a lot. While it may have been disappointing to those looking to see more magic and fantasy, the story instead really develops all the characters into three dimensional people, perfectly setting up the final film. It's a slow burn, and by the time you get to the end your emotions are running sky high. It's about love, loyalty, life, and death. Look for an excellent performance from the young actor Tom Felton as Draco malfoy.

1) ADVENTURELAND - And Finally, the best film of the year, Adventureland. It was mis-marketed as a silly teen comedy, trying to capitalize on the success of Suberbad, but Adventureland is so much more than that. It's a deeply personal story about a kid about to go to an ivy league college, but his parents are suddenly in financial trouble and can't afford to send him to the school he's been accepted to. Instead of taking a trip to Eurpoe with his friend he's forced to take a a job at the local amusement park. It's a coming of age tale told in such a delicate and honest way. Honest is really the best word I can use to describe the film. There is never a moment that rings false, and the acting and pacing is perfect throughout. Unfortunately, this amazing film only made about $16 million at the box office, but if there's any justice in the universe it will become a hit as people look back at it over the years.

Close, but no cigar...

The Hurt Locker
Where the Wild Things Are
Star Trek
In The Loop
Drag Me To Hell
Whip It
The Hangover
Inglourious Basterds
Away We Go
Public Enemies
A Serious Man
District 9

(and no, Avatar wasn't even in the running. An amazing technical achievement to be sure, but the script is so poor that it just knocked it too far out of the contest.)