Friday, September 30, 2011

REVIEW: Moneyball

Most sports actively disinterest me. Baseball is one of the few exceptions.

But that's not why I loved Moneyball.

Director Bennett Miller has said that he hasn't really made a baseball movie, and he's right. Oh sure, the movie has some  baseball in it, but that doesn't make it a "baseball movie." A baseball movie is either about someone whose main occupation it is to play the game, or a movie in which the field action of baseball is central to the plot. Moneyball doesn't quite fit either description.

The story centers around a former player, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), but in the movie he's the general manager of the Oakland As. The story involves a lot of baseball mechanics but there's not a whole lot of on-field action. And in fact, those mechanics should be another strike against the movie for me. Mechanics in this case means statistics, and statistics mean math, to which I have a lifelong aversion. But the movie's not about math, either, thank goodness.

What makes Moneyball so ingenious is that the filmmakers have taken what was mostly a technical, mathematical book and have found the emotional through-line they needed to make it into a story - Billy Beane's story.

Beane in his youth was a promising player who chose playing baseball over a college scholarship. That decision came to haunt him. Once he got into the major leagues, Beane's potential vanished into a cloud of frustration. Not able to cut it as a player, he took a managing job with the A's instead. And it was there that he was faced with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding his team in 2002 after his star players left for greener pastures and greener bank accounts.

The subtitle of the Moneyball book was "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." Payroll-wise, the A's were more like the Z's. They simply didn't have the money to buy power players. After meeting economics major Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a composite character), Beane comes to believe Brand's motto: "Your goal shouldn't be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins." Brand's mathematical system values a player's ability to get on base above all else.

Of course, the system doesn't work at first, and the team's seasoned scouts scoff at Beane usurping years of tradition and intuition. Yet Beane scoffs at their antiquated system, in which the scouts actually consider the good looks of a player's girlfriend an important factor. But for Beane, the system means much more. It becomes a referendum on his own status. If he fails, he knows he's unemployable. And even more haunted to boot.

Two of our best screenwriters, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), deserve a lot of credit for cruching the numbers even while finding the story's heart. So, too, does Brad Pitt. who delivers one of his most engaging, self-effacing turns. But Miller deserves even more credit than he's been getting.

His film Capote struck me as a tad dry. but here, Miller finds his visual and aural footing, cleverly using wide shots and silences to bring home Beane's feelings of isolation and alienation. It certainly helps that he picked a fine cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who is Christopher Nolan's regular cameraman.

In the end, Moneyball isn't as much about money or baseball as it is about redemption and validation. One can argue just how much of either Beane finally has, but this excellent film pitches a great story - even if it's not really a baseball movie.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Netflix redux

Since I opined about the Netflix split in my last post, I have run across a number of well-written commentaries about this dunderheaded Qwikster move. My favorite was a smart and pointed editorial by Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits, who wrote:

My personal opinion is that it's ill advised. There's still a lot of life in physical media yet - especially on the rental side. There's no shortage of DVD rental subscribers. I also strongly suspect the streaming/downloading future is nowhere near as simple and rosy as adherents wish to believe. Broadband infrastructure upgrades are still way behind here in the States, and Net metering alone could prove a show-stopper to this model. As more and more businesses push cloud services and streaming content, Internet access providers are going to start asking SOMEONE - either those offering the content or those consuming it or both - to pay for the true cost of the bandwidth they're using. That means added and fees for consumers and a LOT of them. Streaming movies might not be so appealing to cash-strapped consumes as the costs to enjoy it continue to rise. The other problem with streaming is that sooner or later, the content providers (read: the Hollywood studios) are going to realize that they don't need Netflix and other content delivery middle men anymore - they can simply create their own streaming services and maximize their own profits.

But Netflix's decision reflects the uncertainty all of the entertainment industry is feeling. As the world of entertainment content continues to go digital and online, and as physical media eventually takes a back seat over the next decade, nobody really knows exactly how much people are willing to pay for such content and how profitable it will be. Yes, people might pay $15 a month for downloading, but no one is going to pay $35.99 for a single movie download. Likewise, while CDs and hardback books once sold for $20 each, most music fans are eschewing albums for $.99 song downloads and most ebooks are $9.99 or less. Plus, Netflix can't exactly be reassured by the fact that the Post Office seems to be having ever growing difficulties and some politicians are actually calling for it to be abolished entirely. Mailing and distributing physical discs requires a LOT of costly infrastructure - tracking software, sorting machines, distribution centers. Yes, streaming requires infrastructure too, but a lot less of it. Which means lower costs. The bottom line is that from a purely business standpoint, Netflix's decision probably makes sense to them - especially in the long run. But in the meantime, a company that's already pissed off its customers en masse multiple times, is apparently happy to piss them off some more and is betting that it won't matter in the long run because they're the biggest player in the streaming/rental business. This is classic corporate arrogance, plain and simple. Maximize profits at all costs - even at the cost of consumer service and convenience.

The bottom line is that while downloading is awesome in many ways, it's not so awesome in others. Quality suffers, content can suffer, and LOTS of jobs are going to be lost. Physical media needs to be authored, manufactured, packaged, shipped and sold in real, physical places by real, physical people. Digital downloads are stored on a server and are sent by computer to your playback device at the click of a button - all by computer with just a very tiny fraction of the human involvement physical products require. If you're a corporate shareholder, that's awesome - pure profit. If you're someone whose job is no longer required, well... maybe not so much. This is the trade off we're making as a society and it seems we're just all going to have to get used to it because it's here to stay. Welcome to the 21st Century, folks!

So the question becomes, what do we do now? I wasn't mad at Netflix so much for the price increase. Handled badly though it was, the cold hard cash always comes streaming out of our pockets when times are tough, whether we like it or not. Netflix could and maybe should have softened the blow by increasing the price gradually, rather than dumping it on everyone all at once. But it's also worth noting that Netflix's long-standing low price enabled a lot of laziness in the customer base.

Stories abound of people keeping discs for weeks or months on end because a lot of people figured "Ah, it's only $10, $15 a month. What the hey." Believe me, I know. I was guilty of this a few times myself. But all I and others were doing was devaluing that incredible bargain we had. As long as I kept a few of those titles, I might as well have BOUGHT the damn things or stuffed a few extra dollars in those red envelopes. If a price increase actually prompts people to turn the discs around faster, everybody gets more value for their money. That's one of the few - and maybe the only benefit of the sticker shock.

All that said, Netflix has enough egg on its face to keep the Easter Bunny hopping for decades. And I rather agree with this EW writer that Netflix is essentially treating its disc-renting customers as second-class citizens. I'm considering dropping Qwikster/Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs/whatever and sticking with the streaming, especially since I just bought a Roku box. Might even drop cable since I hardly watch anything except TCM.

Still, I would like to have physical discs to fill the gaps in the streaming catalog - especially TCM fare. Forget Blockbuster - I still consider them an evil empire that rightly and justly had its head handed to it on a silver platter in a red envelope. Redbox can help with new releases, but what about that older catalog material I like? I may take EW's suggestion and go with GreenCine, which caters to cinephiles like me. The disadvantage there, I suppose is that GreenCIne doesn't have nearly as many distribution centers as Netflix does, so the turnaround won't be so Qwik - er, fast. Still, I do have a number of titles in my own collection I've not managed to watch yet - not to mention a load of DVD extras I've never checked out.

And speaking of checking out, there's always the good ol' public library, which usually has a pretty good selection of classic fare. After all, the library was my first job. Sometimes it's good to get back to where you once belonged, as a certain fab foursome said.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix - Red for danger

Earlier this year, when Netflix hiked its prices and everybody complained, I rolled my eyes skyward at how spoiled people were acting. For years and years, customers had gotten quite a lot for next to nothing, so when they were asked to pay a bit more than next to nothing, they cried foul in droves.

I thought, and still think now, that people had lost all sense of perspective. If they were only paying $10 a month for unlimited movies, and then the price become something like $16 a month for unlimited movies, the bargain was STILL amazing. People used to pay a lot more than that per month at the ol' Blockbuster.

But no one remembered that. People cried like babies who'd just had their pacifiers snatched from their mouths. They reminded me of Louis CK's routine "Everything is amazing and nobody's happy." It sounded like people who moaned about the Wi-Fi on an airplane going out, and they forget they're in a chair in the sky. The world doesn't owe you a living, folks.

Now don't get me wrong. I know the economy's tough, and in times such as these, every penny counts. And I understand the principle that hiking your prices during a recession may not be the wisest business  decision in the world.

But remember what I said before about people losing perspective? I think readers should understand mine. You see, I'm not your average Netflix user. I don't flock to the New Release section for 99 percent of my viewing like most people do. I see most new movies I want to see in the theaters. If I had to guess, I'd say that 70 percent of my Netflix is catalog titles and 30 percent is new releases. And even that may be generous.

I go to Netflix to get the titles you can't get at Redbox or at the few brick and mortar places still in business. So for me,  me, paying $23 a month for a virtually unlimited selection of movies, many of which I can watch instantly, is a HELL of a deal. And that's true even if I was paying only $15 before. I'll eat the cost because I love movies.

But it's because I love movies that I find Netflix's response absolutely baffling. Basically, they've split into two companies. Netflix will now be the streaming-only service, and the classic disc by mail business will be spun off into an operation called Qwikster.

 Qwikster? What the hell is that? That name doesn't suggest movies and TV to me. That sounds like a name for someone who dumps flavored powder into milk.

But even more important than the name change is the operations change. Each customer who gets both services will now pay two bills. OK, annoying but not the end of the world. The bigger problem is that the sites will no longer be integrated.

So for example, if I go on Netflix, I see they have Steven Spielberg's first theatrical feature, The Sugarland Express. Oh, no, wait a minute. Like too many movies in the annoying Starz Play category, it's in the wrong aspect ratio. It's cutting off Spielberg's beautifully crafted images. Before I could always say, "No problem, I'll just dunk it in my disc queue." Oh, wait, not anymore. Now I have to jump through another hoop and find it on Qwikster.  Annoying.

Or let's take the flip of that example. Let's say I want to watch  Charge of the Light Brigade, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Haviland. That was available on Instant. Oh, wait, it's not there anymore. Let's go to Qwikster. Damn, they don't have it anymore either. Now I've gone onto two sites and struck out, doubling my frustration. Guess I'll try my luck with TCM. Oh wait - I was considering dumping cable because I now have a Roku streaming box. THEN what do I do?

Now, I realize that my own argument could still make Louis CK scoff at me, just as I scoffed at others. Fair enough. But it's one thing to pass on the prices of streaming to customers. Regrettable as that is, that's expected. But it's a big mistake to compound that buy making your sites more difficult to use. AND dilute your brand at the same time.

So what's the next step? Since I have that streaming box now, I might keep Netflix and ditch Quixster for Redbox. But then Redbox won't have all those classic titles I like to watch. Gah!

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is damn lucky I love movies, because that love will probably compel me to keep both of his companies. Other customers haven't been, and won't be so loyal. I may stick around, but I'm disgruntled. I agree with columnist David Poland, who writes that Hasting's email to customers ought to have said this:

“Dear Netflix Customer… we loved being in the DVD business, but it is no longer financially viable… for anyone. We’re as sorry as you are. It is where we have lived all these years and built a great relationship with you, our subscribers. But the simple truth is, we cannot move forward if we live in the financial structure of the past. Shipping and distribution centers and competition from new delivery systems, including our own streaming build-out, have made the great deal we have offered you all these years impossible. And the streaming business can expand to the entire planet… all we have to do is to pay for content rights for each country, which is still remarkably cheap in most places (at least until we raise that bar).

We believe we can sustain a DVD shipping business for a couple of more years and we are going to keep offering that option to you for as long as we can. It will cost you a little more, but there is no bargain like it.

We know the future is streaming. But this is also a very expensive proposition. We are working hard to deliver as much high quality streaming content as possible. If you choose to stream only with us, there will be a lot less product available than you are used to from the DVD-to-you business. But it’s still a better value proposition than any other streaming company in the world. It is our commitment to remain the biggest, best, most easily accessed streaming media company on the planet at an incredibly affordable price of less than $10 month.

Honestly yours,
Reed Hastings”

At least the pill would have been easier to swallow - with or without the Qwik.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Deathmatch! Zac Efron vs. Marlon Brando!

Some time back I read a very entertaining piece by a British critic named Mark Kermode, who waxed sardonic about the lamentable state of movies today. This particular passage  made me laugh out loud:

If you want kids' movies in which cameras crawl up young women's skirts while CGI robots hit each other over the head, interspersed with jokes about masturbation and borderline-racist sub-minstrelsy stereotyping, then Bay is your go-to guy. He is also, shockingly, one of the most commercially successful directors working in Hollywood today, a hit-maker who proudly describes his visual style as "fucking the frame" and whose movies appear to have been put together by people who have just snorted two tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium.

Yes, yes, I remember, I actually liked Transformers: Dark of the Moon earlier this year. But that was mainly because shooting in 3D forced Bay to edit his film like he'd snorted only one tonne of weapons-grade plutonium. He may  occasionally be able to pull a coherent action scene out of his ass, but he still has all the narrative skill of a lemming cascading over a cliff.

To hear Kermode tell it, maybe I really didn't like Transformers 3 after all. He says that to one degree or another, even educated film folk like me have become too forgiving of blockbusters. It's OK, they're supposed to be dumb.

Bollocks, says Kermode.

This has become the shrieking refrain of 21st-century film (anti)culture – the idea that critics are just too clever for their own good, have seen too many movies to know what the average punter wants, and are therefore sorely unqualified to pass judgment on the popcorn fodder that "real" cinema-goers demand from the movies.
This is baloney – and worse, it is pernicious baloney peddled by people who are only interested in money and don't give a damn about cinema. The problem with movies today is not that "real" cinema-goers love garbage while critics only like poncy foreign language arthouse fare. The problem is that we've all learned to tolerate a level of overpaid, institutionalised corporate dreadfulness that no one actually likes but everyone meekly accepts because we've all been told that blockbuster movies have to be stupid to survive. Being intelligent will cause them to become unpopular. Duh! The more money you spend, the dumb and dumberer you have to be. You know the drill: no one went broke underestimating the public intelligence. That's just how it is, OK?
Well, actually, no. You want proof? OK. Exhibit A: Inception.

He'll get no argument out of me there, said a guy who named Inception the best film of 2010.

Kermode's article was an excerpt from his new book, The Good, the Bad and the Mutiplex: What's Wrong with Modern Movies? The excerpt was so insightfully pungent, so I decided to give the book a try, downloading a sample onto my tablet. And wow. Kermode certainly has a sharp wit, but also a bit of a knack for well-read bullshit. He dares to compare Marlon Brando to Zac Efron - with Mr. Brando as the loser. Kermode writes of Efron:

He's young, he's talented he can sing, dance and act, and when I met him once (briefly), he was sweet, gracious, charming and very lovely to be around ... You can smirk all you want, but to my mind Efron is a reminder of the kind of fully rounded star appeal which was required of screen actors before Marlon Brando somehow managed to bamboozle everyone into believing that true talent meant mumbling and snorting like you've got a mouthful of cake, turning up late to work because you've been researching your role in the cafeteria, and refusing to accept Oscars because you don't like cowboys and Indians movies. For the record, Marlon Brando was a fool whose growing contempt for his audience caused them to stay away from his later pictures in droves ... rather than being the greatest actor of his generation, Brando was actually Ron Burgundy. 

Wow. That's gotta be written under the influence of a half-tonne of weapons-grade plutonium.

In fairness, there's more than a kernel of truth to what Kermode is saying. It's all too easy to snigger at Efron, but the kid is a genuine talent. He held his own in a movie called Me and Orson Welles, the title of which should tell you everything you need to know. And it is also true that Brando's latter-day antics make Tom Cruise seem rational by comparison. But any sane person, including Mr. Efron, I'm sure, knows whose legacy is more valuable.

It also must be said  that most of the movies that made Mr. Efron famous are every bit as prefabricated as anything Michael Bay ever shot. Or maybe Mark Kermode doesn't really like High School Musical. He just thinks he does.

Regardless, I'm going to read the rest of his book. Anybody this incisively insane has gotta be worth more posts.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Back to the Favorites!

I freely admit, I have a bad habit of leaving projects unfinished. Alas, one of these projects has been this very blog. 

Granted, I've been through a lot of trials this year, not the least of which was a tree falling through my house and briefly giving me the unusual feature of being able to see my living room from my bedroom. More recently, at my job, I find myself having to move from the entertainment beat to the education beat. 

Neither of these was a change that I expected, but I am making the best of both. My house has mostly been repaired, and the good news is that since I'm not writing about entertainment as much at work, I will be writing more often about it here.

In so doing, I will pick up one of those unfinished projects from this very blog. Quite some time back, I asked several of you to submit lists of your favorite films to me. In turn, I would comment on the list and maybe even gain some new viewing material in the bargain. And so would you, I hope! 

My friend Martha had been so enthusiastic about the idea that she submitted no less than THREE lists. Believe me, I can relate. When you're a film nut, it's kinda hard to narrow things down. 

Nevertheless, I will start narrowing down Martha's favorites, with the first of her lists. The titles are hers, the comments are mine. 

Ride the High Country - Just watched this for the first time recently. It's great to see two old pros like Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott go at it. It's also fun to see director Sam Peckinpah start to bend the conventions of the Western genre - you can see the road to The Wild Bunch begin here.

Elizabethtown - Sad to say, this is my least favorite Cameron Crowe film. He went so far into himself in this one, he got lost - so much so that his usually reliable soundtrack choices were disappointing. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" playing during a trip to the Civil Rights Museum? That's a liiiiiitle too on the nose, Cam.Breakfast at Tiffany's - Essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in Audrey Hepburn - but ye gods, Mickey Rooney's Asian caricature is the nadir of this film, and his career.

Casablanca - Bogie and Bergman rule - and Claude Rains matches them.
From Here to Eternity - Terrific acting from the largest role to the smallest. But I have to say I have a soft spot for Donna Reed, who can't help but be lovable, even when playing a woman of ill repute.

Suddenly, Last Summer - Another terrific acting showcase - particularly for how Liz Taylor more than holds her own with the great Kate.
The Green Pastures - This film buff has to admit he had never heard of this one. But Bible stories from the perspective of blacks - in 1936, no less - certainly sounds interesting.

Driving Miss Daisy - Too many people decry this as the "nice" civil rights film that came out the same year as Do the Right Thing. There's much more to this story than that broad brush will paint.

Fried Green Tomatoes - Believe it or not, I've never seen Miss Tandy's follow-up to Driving Miss Daisy. Come to think of it, I've never even tried a fried green tomato either.

The Green Mile - Hmmm. More green. I like the film a pretty good deal, but I thought the sequences with the "old" Tom Hanks were a bit much.

It Happened One Night: You know those cliches you saw in the last Hollywood rom-com? Most of them came from this movie.
Moulin Rouge (1952) - This is the John Huston picture, not the hyperactive Baz Luhrmann musical. But I've always wanted to see it, particularly because of the way it drains the color palette, which was daring for a film of that time.  

My Favorite Wife - I prefer The Awful Truth, but this is delightful too.
Paper Moon - Tatum O Neal didn't get her Oscar just because she was cute. She got it because she jolly well deserved it. And I was rather delighted to see they still make Nehi.
Sullivan's Travels: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that's all some people have? It isn't much, but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."

O Brother Where Art Thou?: Hmmm. I wonder HOW Martha got from the last film to this film ...

Do the Right Thing: 

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn't mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.- Malcolm X

The truth of this film lies in the distance between those two quotes.

Peggy Sue Got Married: This film, from one of Francis Ford Coppola's "I'll direct anything as long as they pay me" phases, gets a lot of juice from Kathleen Turner's wonderful performance. But it also hits a lot of sour notes thanks to Nicolas Cage's truly annoying performance. 

The Shawshank Redemption: I remember when I saw this film once in the theater, two of the reels were transposed. How did I know this?  Because Raquel Welch came before Marilyn Monroe on the wall.

More from Martha later. In the meantime, if you'd still like to submit a favorites list, feel free to do so in the comments.