28 June 2012


Sometime a while ago I stopped paying so much attention to movie trailers. In fact, I more or less now ignore any available information (you might call it "hype" or "previews") prior to watching a great many of them, and believe me, it's less easy to do that in these days of social media and instant connectivity. I can think of at least three movies I paid good money to see (as opposed to the many, many, many I borrow from libraries or stream online) without knowing more than the very sketchiest background about them. This is unusual for me, since I usually expend a fair amount of effort into decisions about the things I buy, whether they be shoes or laptops or cars*.

Just today I watched Chronicle, on DVD. The movie was enjoyable enough, but I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find the only special features included were a handful of trailers and previews, Prometheus among them.

I haven't watched that yet, and would prefer not to do so, despite hearing and reading interesting conversations about that film which most people have already seen (and formed an opinion regarding). While this does exclude me from no doubt enjoyable discussions and discourse about films, I don't think I'm missing out more than I gain from my (for lack of a better word) ignorance of movies before I watch them.

Two of the bigger, and more "recent" (I don't get to the cinema much these days) films I knew little to nothing about, were also two relatively successful blockbusters. Other than knowing from childhood that Iron man was a flawed hero (often mentioned as having a drinking problem) from comic books I didn't read, and knowing what his suit looked like, I didn't know anything about the film, but enjoyed it thoroughly. For most of its fans, watching the movie was more like the culmination of months of preview photo leaks, and canon arguments, and no doubt rumor mongering about star Robert Downey Jr's (Tony Stark-like) foibles on and off the set. Did they enjoy it more or less for having encountered that stuff? I don't know. The same goes for The Dark Knight, which I knew was about Batman, and I had seen did not carry over the logo from the (otherwise presumably dead) last iteration of the movie franchise. I still haven't watched Batman & Robin, and frankly have no intention of doing so, based on what I have heard about it. But when my father-in-law visited and wanted to watch it (apparently his wife didn't particularly want to see the film) I went with him anyway.

And wouldn't you know it, it was a great movie. Everything I saw was a surprise, down to the new Batmobile (I'd doodled the 90s version in many a school notebook) and all the other neat stuff. No doubt there were pages after pages and videos of the chases and other cool scenes, probably even in the trailer, but I hadn't seen any of it. And liked the movie all the same.

Prerelease movie content isn't always that easy to avoid. I block online ads, don't watch broadcast television or commercial radio, and I frequent movie discussion sites, but there are some times it's nearly unavoidable. I went to see John Carter recently, and actually closed my eyes (and considered humming too) to deliberately miss the trailers, one of which I believe was for The Avengers, which I won't be seeing for quite some time.

People have been discussing how good (or bad) John Carter was shaping up to be, and how well (or terribly) it came out, for a long time now, and I've opted out of reading most of those first because I've never read the old Burroughs novels, and thus have no major preconceptions of the stories or characters, and second because I'd rather not prejudge what some people have said is rather quite a fun movie.

And you know what? I liked it. When I get around to watching The Avengers I'll probably enjoy that too, but I'm in no hurry to see any of it before I actually sit down and watch it.

* The only other categorical exceptions are books and music. Typically I only buy a book well after I've already read it, and only then as, I suppose, some sort of trophy. Similarly the only time I buy an album anymore is well after I've already sampled it online (or borrowed it from the library) and know for certain that I like it. I buy so little music and so few books as a fraction of all the things I buy, so I wouldn't say they count.

16 October 2009

collected thoughts about movies

Looking up at my shelves of DVDs, I see the results of a lot of poor decision making, misjudgment, and silly impulsiveness. And the occasional good film.

I could count them now, but what would be the point? At last count they numbered close to two hundred, but there's really no need to quantify them exactly. We're talking about art here, right? It should be a matter of quality, not quantity.

I didn't always think that way, I suspect. For a long time I was important to me in some way to know, to a single digit's precision, how many movies I owned on optical discs*. That, in itself, wouldn't be so significant if I hadn't spent so much time, and to some degree, money on acquiring so many of them with such frequency as to need websites and a Palm Pilot to accurately count my collection.

My rationale for buying many of them, collected together on the same shelf, oddly enough, was that I couldn't otherwise see the movies easily. I speak primarily of my thirty-odd Criterion Collection DVDs, which, back in the early years of the twenty-first century, were rare and exotic, but primarily rare enough, such that a person could conceivably be able to own, or at least watch, every one of them. Back in those days I aspired to be such a person.

Prior to college, I'd watched movies, but more or less in the same fashion as any teenager with little else to do than opt for the easy out when looking for something to do with friends. My friends weren't the sort to regularly see things opening weekend, so I'm sure to have missed out on some briefly popular turkeys, but at the same time I do recall seeing more than a few movies in an otherwise empty theater.

For some reason, a year after I'd started college I started taking a greater interest in movies. Part of it may have been that I was a projectionist in the student center, but I approached that more as a social opportunity and a job than as some gateway to becoming a cinephile. The beginnings of my DVD question had nowhere near as lofty a goal, to be sure. An avid bargain-hunter, I stumbled across an un-refusable deal to buy movies for a quarter apiece... from the notorious low-rent film studio Troma Entertainment, well known to fans of messy splatterfests and cheesecake exploitation flicks, and entirely unfamiliar to me. Not knowing anything about the movies (though I'd heard of The Toxic avenger, the cornerstone of their catalog) I picked some twenty of them, more or less at random, paid a higher-than-necessary shipping charge, and patiently waited two to three weeks for the box filled with movies I had no way to watch.

I didn't have a DVD player, you see. My dorm didn't even have a DVD player, though I think some of the more students with more well-to-do parents did. I certainly wasn't going to hang out in somebody else's room to experience Rabid grannies for the first time.

This was a bit before I was known, by some, for having a taste for bad movies.

The Troma movies were bad movies. I may well have overpaid, even without considering the shipping. But they were more than just eighteen randomly selected movies (two had been out of stock and they sent VHS tapes I quickly traded away as substitutes). They were an excuse to buy myself a DVD-ROM drive, so I could at least play movies on one of my computers.

There was a brief time when I had more computers in my dorm room than DVDs. And such was still the case when first my eighteen discs arrived, unfortunately. The only one that mattered, though, was the one inside which I installed my first-ever DVD drive and its accompanying hardware decoder--computers not being powerful enough to decode the digital movies on their own back then--and could consider such a shrewd move because the real players were still hundreds of dollars more.

Also, I had no television, so I saved the money not buying that too.

Once I bought the drive, I was able to finally watch the movies, and it wasn't long before I realized I needed some better movies in my collection. A co-worker of mine did me the favor of having a couple of the discs stolen while he borrowed them, and I replaced those with a few "real" movies I bought on eBay.

The online auction site quickly became my primary source for new and used DVDs. My early purchases were less than consistent - I bought The Matrix and Contact around the same time, even though I was less than impressed with the former and didn't particularly need to watch the latter another time. I think I bought The Matrix because everybody who had a DVD player owned it. I'm fairly certain I bought Contact because it was an early example of a studio's labor of love, as it contains considerable supplemental features including an unprecedented three commentary tracks.

I was a sucker for supplemental features. I think it was their appeal that prompted me to buy my first Criterion Collection movie. It was Terry Gilliam's Brazil, about which I'd only read, and generally the DVD set itself was lauded more than the film. So I bought it, the first of many movies I bought hoping I'd like them, and as with almost all of them I was quite right.

I did love the movie. The attention Criterion had lavished on it, providing not only Gilliam's cut, but also the butchered studio version, struck me as very promising for the future of DVDs, and quite possibly set me on my path of seeking films that ended up a little outside of the mainstream.

More immediately, though, it made me want to make more of the Criterion Collection part of my collection.

In retrospect, had I known I could watch pretty much any of them, as well as a whole lot more important movies, by visiting the school library, I might've saved a lot of trouble.

For that matter, had I not been too cheap to pay the buck or two the town library charged for borrowing their discs, I might not have 'needed' to spend twenty bucks a pop (on sale) to buy my Criterion discs from Borders.

Seems a bit silly, that, when I think about it now. Especially for how many of them I bought without having seen the movies first. I'll never know if I'd consider myself a fan of the movies of Luis Buñuel if I hadn't bought Criterion's Discreet charm of the bourgeoisie for its interesting cover art and good price (considering it was a double disc).

I did the same, more or less, with the movies of Jacques Tati, when I bought Mon oncle, though I can't recall quite why I had done so, though I am of course now quite happy I did so.

Those were not the only films I bought for less than rational reasons. I bought several movies (Repo man and the original Wicker man among them) because they came in unique cases.

That's how I ended up seeing Akira for the first time, in fact. I'm almost suprised now that I never picked up other limited edition tin-cased movies like Supergirl, attributing that to either sheer chance, or perhaps some tiny bit of common sense.

Shiny collections also caught my eye. I bought Fox's collections of the Die hard and French connection films, and was yet again pleasantly surprised to enjoy them.

For every French connection or Conversation (also purchased unseen!) I own, though, I've got an Antitrust or a Swordfish.

Along the way I picked up about ten movies from BMG, picked as much based on value for the money as for me wanting to own (or see) them. That's how I finally got to see most of the movies of Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy being a Criterion disc, and one of the most widely available, I already owned it). BMG also fortuitously introduced me to the TV series The Prisoner, a series I am proud to own even now as it is available for free to watch online.

As I write this I keep glancing back up at the shelf. I can only wonder how many other collections feature The Prisoner alongside Knight Rider and Boston legal. When I started writing this I meant it to be a rumination on what I could possibly do to begin culling the collection of stuff I don't really need to own (like the forgotten Killer elite pitting rival hitmen Robert Duvall and James Caan against each other, or my Dutch imported Raging Bull (special edition) or Things to do in Denver when you're dead, neither of which really do much for me, but neither of which are playable to most normal people here in the US). I meant to touch a little on how I ended up with multiple editions of Highlander and Starship troopers and The meaning of life, but somewhere along the way I seem to have lost track of what I was doing.

Which, now that I think about it, is as good an explanation as any for many of the discs being up there on those shelves.

* For the sake of sticking to close to a single line of reasoning, I'm not going to even mention my large laserdisc collection.

19 August 2009

on theft and stealing

Three months ago* I watched two foreign films, though they were not totally unfamiliar to me. They shared a title, Ghajini, and a plot.

You see, they're both about a guy. He's the CEO of a growing telecom company, but finds himself thinking less about business and more about love when he meets a wonderful, outgoing girl who constantly surprises and delights him. She's a model-slash-actress who hasn't taken on any substantial roles, and he's letting her believe that he's also trying to break into show business or modeling. She's not the only person being fooled - in fact she's lying to the whole country, claiming that some telecom CEO has fallen in love with her, and the two are dating, even as she's more or less dating, unknowingly, that very same guy.

So, we can tick a few things off already - mistaken identity and a love story, love under false pretenses, even. Given we're talking about a Bollywood and a Tollywood movie, here, there are a few song and dance numbers, too.

But I neglected to mention something in the plot. The girl gets into some trouble. You see, she's got a heart of gold. she goes out of her way to help people, and incurs the wrath of some gangsters when she helps out some women on a train who would otherwise be headed for a life of slavery or worse. They come after her, murder her, and almost kill the guy, who happened to be nearby when the thugs show up. He was about to come clean about his deception, too. So the guy's beat up pretty bad, and the blow to his head left him with a terrible malady: he can't hold any new memories in his head for more than fifteen minutes. In order to keep track of anything he carries around a Polaroid camera that beeps every fifteen minutes for him to take a picture and record what's going on, who he's with, and what's he's doing. He has covered his body with tattoos with all the important details he knows about the girl's killer, and he's working on tracking him down for vengeance.

Oh yes, I know what you're saying. Polaroid didn't make a camera with an alarm, that's just ridiculous!

Or were you thinking the plot sounds awfully familiar. It's obvious that this Ghajini is inspired by Chris Nolan's Memento. Both of them are - remember there are two films here.

The one I watched first was the Bollywood one, starring Aamir Khan (better known for his starring turn in the period cricket blockbuster Lagaan). It dispenses with some of the more clever mechanics of Nolan's film, namely, showing scenes in reverse order, and adds cliche Bollywood touches like the songs and extra hour of love story, but the result is nonetheless enjoyable. With all its similarities, some would consider it a complete rip-off, even with those differences. It's more accurately considered a remake.

But it's not a remake of Memento. It's a remake of a remake of Memento. It was remade first in Telugu (Tollywood instead of Bollywood), and up until the ending, the two films are very, very close.

Without giving anything away, the two endings are different enough to make seeing both of them worthwhile.

But it's a fair assumption many people outside of the India wouldn't watch one of them, let alone both, due in no small part to the connection to Memento.

What brought this to mind, though, was something I read, about Warner Brothers taking out a full page ad in The Times of India. They were threatening legal action against any movies made "either in English or Hindi or other language, having a similar script, screenplay or story line or character sketches or interplay of characters or sequence of events" to Benjamin Button.

That struck me as a little bit odd. I know it's fairly common for there to be Bollywood movies borrowing pieces, or plots, or sequences of events from popular Hollywood movies (and, heck, some that aren't so popular*. I remember watching Partner and wondering how they could've gotten away with such a close ripoff of Hitch.

Well, it turns out in that case some legal action was threatened, and there may well have been some sort of settlement. But it made for some interesting quotes:

Producer Parag Sanghvi:

Seven hundred films are made every year. Can all of them be original?

Director David Dhawan:

It’s rubbish. How many producers can they sue? Five hundred films are made here that are inspired by Hollywood films.

I can't imagine Sony and Will Smith lost out on too many rupees from Indians paying for a version of their movie, in the local language, rather than buying the DVD of Hitch. But what do I know?

I do know that Hollywood producers work through official channels to secure the rights to remake popular foreign movies, and can get in trouble when they don't.

But, from an artistic standpoint, what's the harm? Is the original film somehow damaged by the existence of the copy? Did Johnny Cash's excellent rendition of "Hurt" in any way diminish the artistic merit of the Nine inch nails original?

Where do you draw the line? Innovations get copied. Watch a movie like Citizen Kane or A hard day's night or any number of groundbreaking films (hell, even The matrix. Sure, you can think back on other movies that have copied those techniques. Sure, some of the derivatives are equally as interesting, if not better. But does it make the originals any less great?

Well, maybe not The matrix. Influential and great aren't necessarily always the same.

* At least I think it was over three months ago I had the idea. That's when I'd dated the draft, but sometime in between I lost my train of thought, as well as the motivation to write the article. All that I'd written was "Ghajini, Ghajini, and Memento. Also, Coming to America." and I've tried to remember what I meant to say about them. Looking at the dates, that's when I'd just watched Coming to America, and the other two, two weeks previous.
** There is, from what I have read, a Bollywood remake of Who is Cletis Tout?. I recently also enjoyed Maalamaal Weekly which bore eerie similarities to Waking Ned Divine.

25 January 2009

something less than a return to form

Right now the date of the previous post just below this is from last year*. I'm not going to make much in the way of excuses for the gap. I've posted enough of those before. Believe me when I say the last several months were not uneventful.

Just before, or soon thereafter, that aforementioned previous post, I was told at work that my position was being moved to another non-downtown location, and my computer, my phone, my chair and me would move with it. At the time I was more than unhappy about that prospect, and everything hasn't yet played out completely, but for the time being I'm pretty happy there with things and people as they are. I just hadn't felt like writing about it. More changes are to come later this year as we are due to move again, so I can't get used to too much yet.

So what else? Why haven't I written? I've still been doing pretty much the same stuff, save for writing about it. I've been watching just as many DVDs as before, playing some video games here and there (I've come to think that the PSP was a great platform that is not too far from being the next Dreamcast for how a system's actual potential turns into how well it does for the market at large) but none of them was so noteworthy as to merit anything more than the odd mention on Twitter.

Oh yes, Twitter. To say I haven't written since August is to ignore all the words I've txted and tweeted to my Twitter status updates several hundred times, up to one hundred and forty characters each. It's no substitute for this site, and at some point I'll probably need to come up with some sort of export/dump so I can grab that chunk of my digital output and shoehorn it in with the rest of this, assuming I have some sort of output in the days and years ahead.

But enough with the melancholy. If I try to fit everything in I'll lose steam on what got me back at the keyboard in the first place. This post isn't very good, but I'm rather a bit out of practice. If you'd bear with me for a couple weeks (assuming I write during them) that'd probably be best for the both of us.

So I just watched a DVD. It was called Who killed the electric car? and it was not a great film, documentary or otherwise. It was too long, too slanted, too unfocused, and too often contrived. I recognized that, even while I was watching it (and really, knew about it going in thanks to most of the less-than-favorable reviews it garnered back in 2006), but it still got to me.

The argument put forward by the film, and I hope I'm not spoiling it in any way because people really should see this movie, is that the Zero Emission Vehicles mandated in California a decade ago, and produced by GM, Toyota, Honda, Ford and probably others not mentioned, were great technology that worked, and deserved far better than to have been swept under the rug, the cars not only forgotten but crushed and/or shredded, and their environmentally-friendly mantle taken up by less-than-worthy successors, and the blame falls upon not only the car companies, but also the government(s) and consumers alike. And a few other "suspects", but I don't want to give everything away.

Shifting gears slightly for a moment, I must admit I have a problem throwing things away that aren't yet broken and useless. The headphones I use daily at my desk only work in one ear. At least two of the digital cameras I use have pieces broken or missing. My iPod, already on its third hard drive, often needs less-than-gentle encouragement (that is, whacking it with my hand repeatedly) to get going. One of our cars, not my daily driver anymore, doesn't have working air conditioning. I'm using reclaimed car speakers for my home theater system. I have piles and heaps and bins of stuff that may turn out to be useful (and many have, though less than a majority of the things I haven't thrown out). So just seeing the stacked GM EV1s (read about them here), crushed and left to rot, bothers me on that level. Never mind the environmental aspects of crushing all those batteries, and metal and plastics that likely won't get recycled.

When those cars were crushed (and likewise the shredded Hondas, etc) with them was crushed a major hope for making things better for today and tomorrow both. Here (and now I'm talking about those EV1s) was a fleet of perfectly adequate, technologically advanced but entirely functional, people moving vehicles that people wanted to own, liked to drive, and loved to talk about. Sure, there are some doubts that switching cars from burning fuel to running batteries charged by burning other fuels, but those concerns could be handled easily if we, as a country, if not as a global society, stopped looking backward and dragging our heels today and looking forward with fear and trepidation, and embraced new and promising technologies for what they could do to get us from always needing to burn things to get what we want.

To oversimplify a related issue, new nuclear power plants could generate a whole lot more, relatively clean and considerably safe, electricity, but they happen to produce some by-products that could be devastatingly useless (read: dangerous and deadly) if they fell into the wrong hands. Fear of terrorism isn't the only thing keeping American reactor technology in the 70s, but from what I've heard, it's one major contributing factor.

Back to the cars, though. It's easy to follow the filmmakers when they point out that barely a month passed between GM's acquisition of the Hummer nameplate, and the shutdown of the EV1's assembly line. Hummers could, and did, make money for GM hand over fist, and they weren't the only oversized peoplemovers on the road, just the most ridiculous. It should be telling that the suburban SUV is an American cliche, this being the land of selfish demand and greed. It's easy to follow their implication that the auto companies wanted nothing to do with the electric cars because it would shut down the whole regular maintenance and repairs and replacement part revenue streams. That there partially explains why so much more support has been thrown behind hydrogen fuel cell cars (untested and as-yet-unavailable technology) and gas-electric hybrids (the benefits of an electric motor along with the regular maintenance of a gas one too!) instead of all-electric ones.

Anyway, I'm losing steam quickly. My rage and sadness are subsiding, somewhat. It's easy to see this whole thing in the same light as the current economic crisis, brought about by unchecked and rampant greed in the housing and mortgage industries. It's all about greed. I'd say I'm all for capitalism, but honestly, if there's a better way to make a better future than sheer profit motive alone, that'd be super. If there's a way to stay in business, and satisfy shareholders, while doing something innovative that can lead some real change (like, say, creating a fleet of working electric cars and pickups and actually letting normal people drive and buy them), companies should want to do it. Even if it means they take a hit on their bottom lines for a while. Hell, right now everybody's taking a hit anyway, and for doing business as usual, not from worthwhile research and trailblazing new technologies.

If I were in charge, I know which I'd want to make a case to do, but then again, I'm not in charge.

I have a daughter, and I'm likely not finished having kids, either (as scary as that thought may be, for you and for me) and I should not, cannot, must not act now without every thought of the consequences to the world I'll leave them. Hell, if I do no better than both of my grandfathers, I've still got sixty years of living here too.

* I'm of divided mind as to what to do with the only other unpublished post I even got around to creating in draft form. Most likely I'll publish and date it that day, instead of backdating it as I had many a time before. And at the rate I'm going, I'll be doing that around Independence day. Hopefully sooner.