Monday, November 22, 2010

Netflix, I'm Warning You!

Apparently, Netflix is going to do something every other month to piss me off. It started in July with Party Down being removed. Then, in September, they took away the "Friends" feature (which isn't a feature that let's you watch Friends ad nauseum or substitute the Friends cast into any movie you're watching). Now, they are increasing prices.

In theory, I don't have a big problem with this. I use Netflix pretty much every day of the month, be it DVD or Instant View. Clearly, I'm getting my money's worth. However, the reasoning is so incredibly flawed that it reeks of bad business.

I've long been impressed that Netflix shifted from each plan plus 100+ hours of streaming (or whatever the plans had) to each plan with unlimited streaming without increasing prices. It was a great way to get people watching streaming content without making them pay for something they may not use. Now, they are forcing all customers to pay more for this service even if they don't/can't use it without offering a DVD-only option. This is just the start of the problem.

Netflix, apparently fashioning itself as a streaming provider over DVD provider, thinks that it offers enough quality on Instant View that it can do this without pissing off customers. For example: I have 381 films in my queue (with and additional 42 unavailable on either DVD or Instant View) and 112 are available on Instant View. That's about 3.5 times as many DVD options that streaming. Taking into account that I stream though my Nintendo Wii where the quality is definitely below DVD quality and I can subtract another 11 that I will only watch on DVD because I want the complete visual experience intended.

The only time I use Instant View is when I don't have a DVD at home. Usually, this falls on the weekend or Monday. Instant View has been great to watch The X-Files and some other shows, but most of what it offers doesn't interest me. And, there's always the risk of something being removed from Instant View (like Party Down).

This news comes at a particularly unfortunate time in my relationship with Netflix because I'd already been considering bumping my account down from 3 DVDs out to 2 for financial reasons. I decided not to because the difference wasn't all that huge. But now that the difference is $5 instead of $3, or $10 instead of $8 (for the 1 DVD level), I really have something to consider.

Many people are complaining about the lack of access to new movies on DVD and Instant View, but clearly those people were content to wait three months for the movie to come out on DVD. They can wait a little longer. The real issue to me is taking advantage of the customers who legitimately love movies and not understanding that there are still people who value things other than convenience.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: Runaway Train

I've been thinking about films that take place on trains a lot lately. Maybe it's because I just watched Strangers on a Train again. The realization just hit me that, by and large, I love movies that take place on trains. The General, Silver Streak, The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock really loved trains), The Taking of Pelham 123 (the original), Murder on the Orient Express, The Darjeeling Limited. Perhaps it's a deep-seated yearn to have a train set. Regardless, these films can be like rolling chamber pieces (limited sets/characters) or be travelogues.

Upon one of my ruminations about train films, a coworker suggested Runaway Train (not to be confused with the song, which greatly differs in subject matter). Jon Voight plays Manny (using the voice Michael Scott used for "Prison Mike" in The Office) and Eric Roberts plays Buck (doing his best Lenny from Of Mice and Men). They just escaped from an Alaskan prison and hopped a train heading... somewhere, but the conductor has a heart attack and various train malfunctions result in a, you guessed it, Runaway Train! Oh, and somewhere along the way, Rebecca De Mornay pops up.

The great thing about Runaway Train is that you not only get a film about a runaway train, but it starts out with a prison break! How many movies have you seen that have some huge event like a heist happen before the movie starts and the characters just talk about it? Prison Mike apparently made it a hobby breaking out of this prison, so it comes pretty easily to him, but Lenny just had to tag along, who is really pushing the limits on how much irritation one can take and is probably the least enjoyable part of the film.

Aside from the train, you've got the control booth where they are trying to figure out how to stop the train. The best part of these scenes is seeing Nauls from The Thing (T.K. Carter) pop up dressed very much like he would fit into the Portland scene today. Also, the head of prison security is trying to track down Prison Mike as they have a long standing feud.

I have to give the film a lot of credit. Once you establish that a train is careening down the tracks, it seems pretty limited as to what all of the option to stop it will be, but Runaway Train defied a lot of my expectations. Sometimes the results of this defiance weren't as spectacular as I imagined they'd be, but it's nice to be kept guessing.

Probably the most interesting tidbit about the film is that it's based on a screenplay by Akira Kurasawa and was apparently going to start Henry Fonda and Peter Falk. Now that I have that knowledge, I can't help but feel sad and a little bit empty inside that that film doesn't exist.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Get Your Start In Horror!

We're all well aware that the horror genre has been a pretty good jumping for director's. Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Joe Dante just to name a few. What people may not realize is how many of the biggest stars working today got their start in schlocky horror films. There are the classic examples of Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it goes much deeper than that. It also helps that those are good to great movies. I'm sure every actor thinks that their next role will get them the attention they surely deserve, so let this list inspire those people to believe that maybe greater things are ahead of them. I'm certain there are many more, but that's just a lot more effort than I'm willing to put in right now.

Jennifer Aniston -- Leprechaun
I like to think the creators of Friends (which began the next year) saw this and just had to have "that girl from Leprechaun." Bonus points for starring with Warwick Davis in her first film. I'm always amused by how prominent she is on the post-fame artwork. Even the tag line changed.

George Clooney -- Predator: The Concert, Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes
I'm not going to lie, Predator: The Concert sounds pretty awesome, even if it isn't a live, musical version of the movie Predator. And it's got a pretty impressive cast for what's your typical psycho-bear attacks rock concert film. I also want to give a shout-out to his appearance in The Harvest where he's billed as "Lip-syncing Transvestite."

Tom Hanks -- He Knows You're Alone
While Clooney had been on The Facts of Life prior to his film appearances, this is Hanks' first credit anywhere. He got his start in silly comedies before getting all serious on us, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that he has this pretty awful slasher on his resume. However, I was shocked to discover that Hanks is 100% charming and funny in He Knows You're Alone. Apparently, I wasn't the only one since audiences liked him so much, the filmmakers changed the film to let him live. Nice guys do finish first, sometimes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfuss -- Troll

Not to be confused with the "Best Worst Movie," Troll actually features the eponymous creatures (as well as Sonny Bono and the characters Harry Potter Sr and Jr). Louis-Dreyfuss gets to frolic nude in a fantasy land contained in an apartment building. It's an interesting and not all-together terrible film.

Brad Pitt -- Cutting Class
I don't really have anything to say about the movie, though I'm interested in it just because I like slasher movies and apparently it tries to be intentionally funny (the presence of Martin Mull seems to support that). Doesn't Brad look just dreamy on the box art?
Cutting Class Poster

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Punk Movie Night

Last night, I went to the Hollywood Theatre to watch Rock 'N' Roll High School (35mm, of course) and it was awesome! Not only is it hilarious, but Joe Dante was involved (and even directed a few scenes) which only reinforces my undying love of him. It was part of a book tour for Destroy All Movies, a history of punks in movie history (from about 1975). Before the screenings, the folks at Everything Is Terrible edited together a ton of clips from movies featuring punks. While it was a bit on the long side, I couldn't help but want to do a punk movie marathon. As my recent Evil Dead marathon showed, it's hard to sustain 4.5-6 hours of movie watching. People drop out, get tired, lose focus. It's hard work to sit on your butt. So even though the marathon won't be happening, I still like to think about what I'd program, so here it is. If you think there's a glaring omission, it's probably because I haven't seen it or just plain forgot.

Rock 'N' Roll High School (12 PM - 2 PM)
Why not start off with the film that inspired this list? It's light and fun, with lots of stupid (read: amazing) puns and giant mice (made by Rob Bottin, the man responsible for the special effects in John Carpenter's The Thing!). Plus, P.J. Soles will instantly win over any audience with her infectious charm. A+!

The Road Warrior (2 PM - 4 PM)
Next, we shift to the barren wasteland of the Outback for epic car chases and crashes. This film is visual adrenaline. The bad guys are assorted crazed maniacs led by the same guy who literally crashed the party in Weird Science (just realized that connection last night). Great use of the punk aesthetic in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (and if the and of Rock 'N' Roll High School is any indication, that's an inevitability if these punks aren't contained).

Doomsday (4 PM - 6 PM)
From one island to another (well, part of an island). This may seem a bit redundant as it's directly inspired by The Road Warrior (and Escape from New York, 28 Days Later, and whatever medieval films you can think of), but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Scotland has been quarantined after a virus outbreak, but the virus got out and England needs to go in to find a cure. The survivors are resistant, but to more than just the virus. To everybody, even family. Not just resistant, but hungry, too. I'll admit, I feel validated for including this just for the line, "First we're gonna catch 'em. Then, we're gonna cook 'em! Then, we're gonna EAT 'EM!"

Phantom of the Paradise (6 PM - 8 PM)
Released a year before Destroy All Movies cut-off (or what they told us was the cut-off), but you can't look at The Phantom or Beef and not see at least a little bit of punk. Phantom of the Paradise runs the gamut as far as genres (both music and film), but it's all good. Like Doomsday, Paradise is a pastiche of several existing plots with many references to other films (most obviously, Touch of Evil). Another musical, but sometimes you just need music.

The Warriors (8 PM - 10PM)
Technically, not about punks, but gangs. I just have a hard time convincing myself that in all of those gangs, there aren't a bunch of punks at heart. Plus, it's all about attitude and appearance that separate one from the status quo. They share an ethos even if not a point of view.

The Return of the Living Dead (10 PM - 12 PM)
The series that gave us fast zombies, "Braaaaains," and parties in the graveyard. Just an all around awesome movie and a great way to finish the night.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Top 5 Films: Kansas

The Ice Harvest
Harold Ramis as a weird career as a director. His successes are classics (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day), but his failures are far more numerous and easily forgotten (Analyze This/That, Bedazzled, Year One). Of course, his work as a writer helps puff up his resume into respectability, again. So, while in my mind, I'm a huge fan of Ramis as a director (and I am a huge fan of his, in general), in reality, I'm pretty indifferent on his work. It was his involvement with The Ice Harvest that put it on my radar at all and I'm glad it did. The Ice Harvest is a pretty great black comedy that doubles as a Christmas movie (and Billy Bob Thornton's second Christmas-related black comedy). The twisty script was co-written by Robert Benton who really has a stand-out career. Definitely an enjoyable movie. Perhaps watch it with Grosse Point Blank for the Cusack double feature.

National Lampoon's Vacation
We've already had our discussion about Harold Ramis, so I'll leave it at that aside from the fact that, clearly, I think this is one of his successes. I suppose one could view this as a cheat because it's a road trip movie and can therefore be attached to a number of states. Certainly, Kansas isn't the first thing one thinks about when one thinks about Vacation. My reasoning regarding road trip movies is that if a major or memorable plot point happens in the state, it qualifies and what could be more memorable than Cousin Eddie and his family? Not only are we introduced to Eddie, but they load the Griswold's down with Aunt Edna and her dog, both of whom are treated pretty poorly in death.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
And while we're talking road/John Candy/John Hughes-written movies, let's hit up Plains, Trains, and Automobiles, unintentionally making an appearance just in time for Thanksgiving. This film is more about trying to get out of Kansas (which, come to think of it, all of the films on this list are to a degree) as Neal Page (Steve Martin) is rerouted to Kansas on the way home to Chicago from New York. Del Griffith (Candy) tags along, much to Neil's chagrin and their first night in Kansas, most of their money is stolen. The film is hilarious and sad, mostly due to Candy's fantastic performance. In lieu of a trailer, I'm giving you my two favorite scenes.

Mars Attacks!
I have know link between Mars Attacks! and the films above, though it seems impossible that there isn't one with this cast. Nicholson, Close, Bening, Brosnan, DeVito, Short, Parker, Fox, Steiger. It seems like there isn't a no name in the cast. Even Jack Black and Christina Applegate (at the height of my desire for her... hey, I was 14) are in there. It's a fun homage to the B-movies of the '50s and I can't help but think it would be received better had it been released in this decade, what with success and continued success of Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Wright, all of whom where their influences proudly. OK, so maybe they have mostly cult appeal and Mars Attacks! is right where it belongs. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Plus, the way to kill the aliens is discovered in... Kansas!

The Wizard of Oz
I suppose this was inevitable. My antipathy towards leads me to not care for this as much as others and I generally like it more because of the who Dark Side of the Rainbow thing. However, the film is amazingly impressive. The Wizard of Oz also represents my only experience as a stage actor (when I was 11-years old, I believe). I've never understood it's relationships to Christmas, as shown in A Christmas Story, so if anyone can explain that to me, that would be great. Interestingly, perhaps the most famous line from the movie states, "we're not in Kansas any more." I may have to rethink this entry.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: Clue

The entire concept of movies based on boardgames seems horrible. Battleship. Monopoly. Ouija Board. Magic 8 Ball (which can only be some horrible romantic comedy). Candyland. It all reeks of an idea bankrupt industry looking for a quick buck based on name recognition and nostalgia (so the status quo, then). There are so many people trying to write original material or adapt something from and interesting source struggling to find a place in Hollywood, why do we even need to cull the board game shelf for ideas? If you went into a pitch meeting and said something like, "warring ships" or, "a ball that tells the future," you'd be thrown out immediately. There's no story inherent in these games. It's just vague ideas with a goal to win. Totally ridiculous.

However, aside from the names involved, are these such bad ideas? Pretty great movies could (and have) been made about war at sea. The battle for economic supremacy could be interesting. Ouija boards are already a staple in the horror genre (more specifically, haunted house movies). Even Candyland could be fun for a child (just look what it did for Homer):

The fact that they are blatantly using the name of a successful brand seems to be what sets most people (including myself) off. Incidentally, I can make no excuses for Magic 8 Ball.

Perhaps the reason I'm feeling rather lenient towards the people making these board game adaptations is because I'm already in love with one. Inspired by the recent The New Cult Cannon article at A.V. Club, I've got to recommend a perennial favorite of mine: Clue.

We were well underway into the world of the Blockbuster and massive corporatization/commodification/synergization of the film industry by 1985 (not to suggest it didn't exist before, it just wasn't as whorish-seeming before), but compared to today, it seems like an intellectually vibrant era. I can only imagine what people would have thought about turning a board game into a film (as I was only 3). The poor box office receipts surely put a halt to any other designs of board game adaptations. However, adapting Clue seems like an obvious place to start. There's already a literary and filmic history of murder mysteries, not to mention sketch comedy's contribution to the subject:

Of course, it helps to have any amazing cast of character actors and comedians at your disposal when making said adaptation. Martin Mull. Michael McKean. Madeline Kahn. Tim Curry Lesley Ann Warren. Eileen Brennan. Christopher Lloyd. Plus based on a story buy John Landis. That's a line-up I can get behind.

I'm not really sure why people didn't connect with the film. The dialogue is hilarious (personal favorite, "I was in the hall... I know because I was there) and the way the actors play off of each other is perfect. I first saw Clue as a child. For some reason, my family had taped it off the TV (though I'm pretty sure no one had seen it) and my older sister and I watched it constantly. Only upon viewing it in my adult years did I realize that I didn't get half of the jokes (pretty much anything related to Communism). It's a film that rewards rewatching because of it's lightning fast pace, which becomes absolutely manic in Tim Curry's performance summing up the events of the entire night.

Maybe by that time people were expecting "the Christopher Lloyd show" since he'd just been in Back to the Future. I have no idea. I'm just glad it's been a part of my life for so long and that I've had the chance to share it with others.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Top Films from Each Year of My Life: 2004

Shaun of the Dead

"You've got red on you"

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that Shaun of the Dead is my top film for 2004. I've mentioned my love for it many times in this space. Hell, Google should be giving me kickbacks for all the times I've embedded the trailer. This is the film that introduced me to the greatness that is Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, a love that has never waned.

I'll never forget my excitement at hearing about Shaun of the Dead and seeing the trailer. I was in the early stages of my horror fandom. I only started watching them actively my junior year of high school and I was in the process of filling in all the classics I'd missed out on. In fact, I'd only just seen the original Dawn of the Dead a few months before Shaun came out. All summer long, while I was back home from college I watched the trailer online, frequently dragging family members to the basement to watch with me. Two jokes that stood out to me at the time were the throwing of records in effort to try to fend of attacking zombies (er... zed-words) and when they accidentally hit the man with the car and return to see if he's OK. Yeah... this was my kind of movie.

I saw it three times in the theater with different people (one of whom was my dad who also went to see Saw with me, which did not live up to expectation), much like I would later do with Hot Fuzz. Shaun is the perfect parody where the film stands alone even if you don't get the references, but the references are there if you love zombie movies ("We're coming to get you, Barbara" is the most obvious example of this). Shaun doesn't skimp on the gore, but keeps the funny coming and all of the characters are immensely likable. In fact, the characters are incredibly well drawn, which is rare for both horror movies and comedies. Perhaps in further support that this film is for everyone, it was billed as a rom-com-zom, or a romantic comedy with zombies.

The film also introduced me to Peter Serafinowicz (who follows me on Twitter even though I don't post much anymore) and Kate Ashfield. The former is notable now because he's in Running Wilde, but he is one of the funniest individuals in the world and is an amazing mimic:

As for Kate Ashfield, I've never seen her in anything else that I know of, but every time I watch Shaun of the Dead, I fall a little bit in love with her, especially the way she ends her phone message with a "Bye bye bye" (in order for it to not seem like an N*Sync song, you'll just have to watch the scene).

And just so you know what Shaun of the Dead beat out: The Incredibles, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and A Tale of Two Sisters. A pretty amazing list of films (a slight dip in quality follows the fifth spot).

Friday, November 5, 2010

Weekly Film Rec: The Front

I hesitate to bring this up because he didn't write or direct The Front and because it's mildly sacrilegious for a film lover to say, but I'm not a huge fan of Woody Allen. I've enjoyed the clips of his stand-up act and his films before he got serious (Bananas and Sleeper), but am generally underwhelmed by his oeuvre. Perhaps his lack of presence (a weird thing to say about the star of a movie) is why I like The Front so much. Allen's character, Howard Prince, doesn't come off as superior to everyone, which is how Allen usually seems to me. Howard Prince is a genuinely nice guy (with barely a hint of neurosis) who is just looking to help out some friends.

For me, The Front is inherently interesting from the start because it's about such a strange time in America's history: the Communist witch hunt in the 1950's. I have such a hard time fathoming how people could get so worked up over ideology and how it could bring about nation-wide hysteria. Really? Communism is going to destroy our way of life? It's all so irrational. It's insanity that they blacklisted people based on hearsay (I wish I'd thought about the subject more before I started writing this because I'm having trouble expressing my exasperation over it all. I can't imagine how I would've felt at the time it was happening).

The Front deals with Howard Prince, a largely non-political small-time bookie, who is convinced by a blacklisted screenwriter friend to act as a front in order to continue working. Prince quickly becomes a success and eventually takes on more blacklisters to front for. That's the short of it all and obviously Prince will learn something about himself and the nature of blacklisting, but the film handles everything so elegantly. Along the way, Prince meets Hecky Brown (played by the always amazing Zero Mostel) who is the example of how much the blacklisting has effected people. Brown's story is particularly harrowing.

Many of the people involved with the film were blacklisted (that word is appearing a lot in this space) including director Martin Ritt and screenwriter Walter Bernstein. In many respects, The Front reminds me of To Be or Not to Be (for now, just the Mel Brooks version as I haven't seen the original) in that it takes a comical look at a serious subject using a slightly detached main character. Though the film received mixed reviews, but I found it funny and engaging without beating us over the head shouting, "look how bad blacklisting is!"

I couldn't find the trailer, but here's an early scene setting things up:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

World Series and Ratings

Apparently, the World Series this year tied for a record low for the broadcast. In addition to this, the MLB playoffs routinely lost out to regular season NFL games in the ratings. Many would like to cry doom and gloom. There's some bizarre battle for propriety over the title "America's National Pasttime." It's been going on for years, but this seems to be the nail in the coffin. Amidst all of this, for the life of me, I can't figure out why anyone cares. OK... that's not true. I understand why the TV networks care. They have money on the line (but why make the playoffs such an unpleasant experience with all of the bizarre tie-ins and keeping Joe Buck and Tim McCarver around? Surely that's hurting as much as anything).

The only sport I give a damn about is baseball. The Red Sox are my team, and though I have other teams I'm fond of, they occupy very little of my time. When the Sox were inevitably eliminated from the playoffs, I picked the Rays and the Phillies as my playoff teams. When they were eliminated, I moved to rooting against the Yankees. Finally, when left with the Rangers and the Giants, I really didn't care which team won. Both had good stories while one had George W. in the stands and the other had Barry Bonds. Easy to root for and against (though the against is far more petty).

But I didn't actually watch a single playoff game. The most effort I put into it was watching the scoreboard online. Part of this was due to the fact that I don't have cable or an antenna, but most of it was that none of it really mattered to me. If I, a huge baseball fan, can't be bothered to watch all of the playoffs, why should we expect the general public to do so?

This year, the World Series played out as it should: for the fans. The Rangers and Giants fans got to see something unique for each team. The Rangers had never been to the World Series and the Giants had never won in San Francisco. It doesn't matter to them whether people watched on TV. They got to see their cities get swept up in the excitement. That's really all that matters. The only time playoffs get get ratings is when there is a team for people to root against (Yankees, post-2004 Red Sox) or for (Cubs, 2004 Red Sox).

As far as ratings go, I'm not sure what people expect. Of course the ratings are low. Look how ratings stack up historically. Everything is low. The hit shows of today don't match up with the highs shows like MASH, Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Seinfeld reached. It's a different entertainment landscape. Plus, not everyone watches on TVs. You can get live streams of the games for free or pay online. Television ratings are an outdated way of measuring, but most people realize that (which makes the fact that people are making this an issue even more asinine).

Finally, with fantasy football, every game takes on added personal meaning for people. So while the Giants are playing the Rangers, some random guy is trying to beat his buddies at a game, usually for money. For real stakes.

So who cares that football drew more viewers? History will simply show the Giants beat the Rangers in the 2010 World Series and there won't even be a note about the ratings. It doesn't effect football. It doesn't effect baseball. And it doesn't effect us.