Talking Movies

August 15, 2012

On Refusing to Assemble

I’ll admit it, I’m one of the few people who still haven’t seen The Avengers aka Marvel(’s) Avengers Assemble. It was by choice. I’m going to wait for the DVD.

If you ask why I chose not to see it I have to admit that there were reasons for not seeing it that pre-dated the movie’s release, and then new reasons spawned by the movie’s reception. Perhaps the most important reason for not going to see the super-hero super team-up was that I quite frankly never really cared about it. I don’t like Thor or Thor. From the first moment that Thor and Loki appeared as children I was rooting for Loki, and Tom Hiddleston kept me onboard for the rest of the movie; down to the bitter end I was with Loki. I enjoyed Captain America, but if you check the piece I wrote about it last year you’ll realise that everything I loved about it quite literally died a death in the final scenes. As for the Hulk, I didn’t love either attempt at the grumpy green giant, and Iron Man 2’s introduction of Black Widow did very little for me. I’d effectively be watching The Avengers purely to see Robert Downey Jr wisecrack. But then I could just wait for Iron Man 3 for that, or, indeed, just watch damn near any old Robert Downey Jr movie.

Then there were the new and less important reasons spawned by the movie’s reception. The huge opening had the unfortunate effect of spoiling a key plot point, as with so many people chatting about it I accidentally overheard something. The problem was that ‘something’ struck me as the most aggravatingly clichéd thing that Joss Whedon could possibly do. There’s only so many times in your work that you can subvert a cliché before your subversion of the cliché itself becomes so expected when you’re writing that it is in fact now also a cliché. And anyone who read my review of The Cabin in the Woods will know that my Whedon tolerance has become very low after Buffy Season 8. Then there was the horror of finding out that Marvel had presented a business plan in the mid-2000s to get financing for their own studio which proposed making all the individual hero movies as prep-work for producing the cross-over flick The Avengers as the real money-spinner. So, before any one film even worked artistically, the cross-over film was planned as the payday. I don’t know what horrifies me more, such blatant prioritisation of business over show, or that it worked.

Finally there was Samuel L Jackson’s petulant Twitter war against the New York Timesfilm critic AO Scott, who described Nick Fury as a master of ceremonies rather than a mission commander. I’ve been told that’s actually pretty accurate. But Jackson decided to tweet his 825,315 followers “#Avengers fans, NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” Was it ever likely that Scott would lose his job? Probably not, which seems to have been Jackson’s belated defence for his actions, but then why call for it in the first place? The last drip of enthusiasm I had for dragging myself to see a film I didn’t care about ebbed away when I thought that I might thereby be endorsing the position that an actor who earns maybe $15 million a year very publicly trying to get his fans to start a witch-hunt so that a man who earns maybe $60,000 a year would lose his job is any way, shape or form acceptable behaviour.

I’ve read Mark Millar’s hilarious and exciting The Ultimates, and prefer his version of those iconic characters to the cinematic imaginings. The Avengers can wait.

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May 24, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part IV

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:27 pm
Tags: , ,

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Active Valour
I was quite taken aback after giving a qualified thumbs-up to Act of Valour a while ago to see the critical pasting it took elsewhere, accompanied by some veritable frothing at the mouth about American foreign policy and how this movie, as propaganda, was complicit in propagating the ethics of Al-Qaeda. Firstly, regarding the ethics of terrorism, equating a man jumping on a grenade to save the lives of his comrades with a terrorist setting off an explosive vest to kill civilians isn’t a valid comparison. To say that the American soldier being praised for giving his life for his country, his comrades and his cause is ethically the same as an Al-Qaeda terrorist who gives his life for his religion, his comrades and his cause is not just invalid, it’s insane; it requires ignoring the fact that one man is killing himself to save other people, while the other is killing himself to kill other people – and if you’re willing to ignore that crucial difference in your own case-study comparison then there’s almost nothing you wouldn’t ignore to make your case. Secondly, Chill everyone, it’s just a movie. I’m not as exercised as other people by the propaganda element because I just don’t think it’s that important. I’ve written before about how the rise of China is being accompanied by a decline in the ability of America to project its power, or even to agree on what to project courtesy of deadlock in D.C. Other people look at Act of Valour and see American soldiers rampaging around the world breaking international law and fume at being expected to endorse this as heroic. I look at all the hardware; the submarines, aircraft carriers and jets stationed all around the world to enable this rampaging; and just see endless dollar signs. It’s awfully expensive to maintain that sort of military infrastructure, and it’s inevitably not going to be maintained at that level in the near future because America simply won’t have the money to spare. So this is effectively the last cinematic hurrah of how that sort of world used to operate, and endorsing it or abjuring it is, really, irrelevant. Stand-up comedian Christian Finnegan did a very droll routine on Conan about just relaxing and enjoying America becoming just another regular country. Perhaps rabid haters of Act of Valour need to do likewise.

Avengers ‘Assemble’
And yes, it’s time for another bit of Avengers bashing hereabouts. It’s occurred to me that not only is the British and Irish title remarkably clunky, but that assembling, as a concept, isn’t very exciting. It’s certainly nowhere near as exciting as the marketers appear to think. The TV spots proclaim “Get ready to….” and you’re waiting for “ROCK!” or something of that order to appear next on the screen only to get the word “Assemble” thrown at you. Thing is assembling isn’t exciting, it’s like queuing; it’s a preparatory stage, unlikely to excite anyone except Arthur Dent.

April 23, 2012

NetFlix Killed the Video Store

In this blog’s first cross-over episode Think About IT’s Gerard Healy joins Talking Movies‘ Fergal Casey to discuss the arrival of NetFlix in Ireland.

1. What is NetFlix?


GH: So, NetFlix is here. What aspect of it should we discuss first?
FC: How about, “What is NetFlix?”
GH: “No one can be told what NetFlix is, you have to see it for yourself,” you mean?
FC: No, genuinely, what is NetFlix? I don’t understand this streaming business.
GH: (sighs) Fine… NetFlix allows you to stream movies and TV on your laptop, tablet or games console. Basically, it’s on-demand TV and films to a computer of your choice.
FC: How?
GH: It’s very much like YouTube. It’s essentially a website (or App in the case of Xboxes, iPads, other non-PC/laptop devices) that streams to your computer, except that it’s a paid service.
FC: So, they don’t post you DVDs in cute red envelopes?
GH: Initially NetFlix offered a “direct to your door” style service when it launched in the US, and it even extended into Canada, but NetFlix are yet to offer anything like this in Europe, and it seems unlikely we’ll ever see it as they’ve been trying to pull the service.
FC: Aw, but if they don’t do that then Netflix guilt is a thing of the past!
GH: I’m not familiar with this concept, but I gather you’re once again lamenting advances in technology, like when you moaned about the death of the cassette tape. It raises an interesting question about the future of physical media, which I’d like to discuss later.
FC: And we will, but damn it all I must lament this advance in technology! I’d rather looked forward to people I know having super-pretentious movies sitting around on top of a red envelope on their television for months on end. The same way people have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on their shelves, but really they’re reading the latest Dan Brown…
GH: What’s wrong with Dan Brown?! His books are being made into well-paced, action-packed cinematic adventures. Speaking of which, what do you think of it from a cinematic perspective?
FC: I think Dan Brown movies are definitely not well-paced. Oh, you meant NetFlix! Hmm, well I think perhaps, perhaps, it increases the likelihood of people seeking out offbeat movies simply because it will be so much easier. I think it’s also likely to lead to an increase in dual cinema and online releases as has happened with Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Into the Abyss. But… as much as I’d like to think that people will hunt about in the scrub for interesting stuff now that it’s easier to do so on Netflix, really, to continue shamelessly plagiarising a quote from Brian Eno, I think most people will remain content to stay on the train-tracks of the mainstream. When it comes to physical distribution I think it might well prove to be the death knell for cinema releases for a certain class of films. Into the Abyss for instance doesn’t seem to have as many showings as I’d expect at the IFI, and that could well be because it’s available simultaneously on Volta. It might also act as the final nail in the coffin of film over digital, Christopher Nolan’s IMAX rampaging notwithstanding.

2. What impact is it likely to have on the home film market?

FC: I’d say minimal to be honest for the immediate future. The catalogue just isn’t strong enough. The problem is that the new films aren’t new enough, the old films aren’t good enough, and there aren’t enough films to hide this problem. If you were to join this you’d probably get less choice and quality than browsing the catalogue and then reserving titles from your local council library. And that’s before we mention the fact that if you’re on an Eircom broadband package or using 3G mobile broadband you’ll get about three movies watched before you hit your monthly limit for usage of the internet in its totality, and then pay thru the nose to watch additional movies to the tune of maybe your entire monthly NetFlix fee for accessing just one of their films.
GH: Is that scarifying factoid courtesy of The Weckler in The Sunday Business Post?
FC: What do you think?
GH: (sighs) Sometimes I wonder if he said The Matrix was now operational would you just believe him without thinking twice… We’ve already seen the death of Zavvi and Blockbusters on their knees, not to mention Game’s recent demise. I can only see this trend continuing. HMV need to be worried and Amazon might need to be as well. While they’ve innovated with their cloud computing platform (EC2), they are still dependent on their on-line retail, of which DVDs and Blu-Rays form a cornerstone.
FC: I remember when HMV was all music, then downloading destroyed that, then it became all movies, and now that’s changing too… This will hammer HMV when NetFlix get their act together.
GH: I think we should revisit this at the end.
FC: Agreed.

3. Why is its catalogue so poor compared to the US equivalent?

FC: So, before we address the threadbare quality of NetFlix’s catalogue I think we should first applaud their political integrity.
GH: Because they help stop piracy without needing a SOPA law?
FC: No, because they are, uniquely in the Irish political spectrum, beholden to no special interest group.
GH: What are you on about, Fergal?
FC: Click ‘Special Interest’ on the catalogue.
GH: Okay. (beat) Ah! I see what you mean. They have nothing in this category.
FC: A less charitable person might say this was ineptitude that summed up the whole catalogue, but I see what it really is – a proud statement of their political ethics.
GH: So, the catalogue is different from America because of tedious legal reasons involving individual contracts with studios, distributors, and copyright laws and clearances?
FC: Basically I think it’s the hold-up in getting Spaced released in America writ large.
GH: You actually don’t know do you?
FC: No, I thought you were researching this.
GH: Lucky for you, I did. Looking at it from the outside, NetFlix appears to be struggling to get all the necessary studies and TV networks to sign-up and publish their content. The likes of Sky and Apple have stolen a march on NetFlix, seemingly signing exclusive deals for the territory. Add to that the unclear and generally untested nature of internet copyright law in the UK and Ireland; it can only make the studios more hesitant. The NetFlix catalogue is clearly suffering badly as a result.
FC: Can I step in?
GH: To slate the catalogue?
FC: Yeah.
GH: Fire away.
FC:  The best thing about the catalogue is the action genre. It’s just fun, and heavy on the Statham which I approve. Recently added films, which pretty much sink the whole enterprise for many people, are running about a year behind the cinema with Blitz, The Mechanic and Drive Angry heading the films. The front page promises material that doesn’t show up when you browse the selection: Nurse Jackie, Torchwood, 24, Dr Who, Dirty Sexy Money. When you browse you merely find good stuff like two seasons of Dexter, a whole collection of South Park, and cancelled shows like Heroes, The InBetweeners, Prison Break, and The 4400. There’s no sign of recent essential shows like True Blood, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire.
GH: Well, we were warned not to expect ‘recent’ recent stuff.
FC: Ah, yes, but it gets worse. Horror is a mixed bag of cult classics, awful shlock, the Saw movies…and the Scary Movie movies. Scary Movie is a horror of a film but it’s not a horror film…
GH: You mean that it’s a car crash, right?
FC: Not quite. I can definitely look away. Sci-fi has some decent films and again a huge amount of genre confusion. Ditto Romance, Bitter Moon and Tokyo Decadence square off with rom-coms. Documentaries can’t tell the difference between genuinely good work and the tendentious conspiracy stuff David Aaronovitch mocks in Voodoo Histories. And then there’s the simply bizarre. Gay cinema hilariously omits Milk and Brokeback Mountain, and Indie consists of unsuccessful British films and good American indie films. The thriller section features Hard Candy (yay!) but it’s sadly sub-par as a section, saving old classics like Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, while British films was so empty after tossing all the UK tripe into Indie they had to resort to dragging in TV like BBC miniseries The Day of the Triffids.
GH: My God, are you finished carping?
FC: Yes.
GH: Moving on!

4. Has Hollywood universally accepted NetFlix?

FC: Well, kicking and screaming is usually the way big businesses adapt to change. Not for nothing does Forbes advocate Blowing up the Enterprise as a leadership lesson to learn from Kirk. Nokia finally did it, and maybe Hollywood will too.
GH: What do you mean blow up the Enterprise?
FC: Get rid of something you love in order to compete with something new.
GH: What on earth has that got to do with David Lynch?
FC: Lynch said “Now if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think that you’ve seen a film on your f****** telephone. Get real.”
GH: That’s an interesting point.

FC: President Bartlett said “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Films are for people who go out, and NetFlix is for people who stay in. Lynch should be a bit less precious about new forms of viewing movies because I think generally his audience would be the type that stays in. Who knows, eventually NetFlix might start to fund auteur film-makers to produce his kind of content for them.
GH: But will people really look for films on NetFlix if they haven’t heard of them from the marketing push of a cinema release first?
FC: Let’s not over-state the power of a marketing push, apparently a 100 million dollar marketing budget for Marvel Avengers Assemble isn’t enough to avoid confusion with a TV show that started in 1961 and ended in 1970…

5. Will NetFlix see an end to piracy?


FC: If you believe The Weckler in the SBP placing a legal option next to an illegal option always withers the illegal option. I think the internet has kind of tutored people to expect content for free, like it’s a divine right. Indeed I read a very interesting piece on that last year. I’m sceptical that Irish people will download legally rather than illegally just because they now easily can. I think there’s a certain ingrained lawlessness in the Irish psyche that regards the law as an unjust imposition, and that any way to get around it is always worth exploring; I could at this point instance the entire nation apparently waiting to see how many people might not pay Phil Hogan’s household tax before deciding whether to pay it themselves. Having said which Moonshiners would seem to indicate the same mindset in America too so who the hell knows? Unless we get silly and suggest that Appalachian dwellers are suffering from a post-colonial hangover too.
GH: Sometimes I think you watch too much Discovery Channel.
FC: Wait till you see the series of Bear Grylls blogs I have lined up…
GH: I agree there will always be a hard core that will always pirate but I don’t think it’s as big as you give it credit for. You really have to start by looking at Google, Apple and Amazon. Once they properly enter the legal streaming sphere, things might really get interesting. That said, faster broadband is key to services like this surviving.

6. What parallels can be drawn between the challenges that NetFlix presents to cinema and previous challengers TV and VHS?

FC: I don’t think it’s quite the same as those two challenges, especially not TV.
GH: Do you not think there’ll be a flood of epics or innovations?
FC: No, because I think the rise of CGI devalues the production values that were behind the 1950s epics. A cast of thousands back then was a big deal, now it’s just blah because people presume they’re all CGI. That’s why flipping a truck in The Dark Knight had an impact, because it’s become so rare to bother doing something physically rather than digitally. Also I don’t think that HD and 3-D are the magic bullets dragging people into multiplexes they were initially thought to be. 3-D has proved to be a chore as far as most people are concerned, just look at how easy it is to see films in 2-D versions; and in many cases cinemas continue to run those versions after dispensing with the headache-inducing 3-D version. I’m still to be convinced that HD is actually a good idea because it tends to take the filmic sheen off of films. If you can see the make-up on the faces of the actors you’ve actually innovated to the point where the technology has become self-defeating.
GH: True, but one has to wonder what value the average consumer actually places on filmic sheen. The largest draws always tend to be the blockbuster and the best example of that in recent time has to be Avatar, which is an epic and an innovation.
FC: I think NetFlix actually poses a more essential challenge in that it might interrogate the medium itself. Is cinema something that’s visually driven story-telling, shown on a big screen, and viewed en masse? That’s a definition Hitchcock or Spielberg would recognise. NetFlix if it becomes too dominant might make it hard to tell the difference between cinema and television. If you’re watching NetFlix rather than cinema-going, and you’re watching what we’ve talked about earlier, the more personal movies, then at what point does a one-off story of a certain length, with a visual kick to dialogue scenes with high production values, that’s shown on a small screen, become indistinguishable from HBO? What would distinguish two episodes of Whitechapel back to back from a really good British crime movie?

7. NetFlix: the future/passing phase?

GH: So, is NetFlix the future or a passing phase?
FC: The revolution will not be televised, it will be streamed.
GH: Are you actually going to be serious now?
FC: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to affect things in Ireland until the catalogue ramps up – which apparently could take as much as a year or two. Right now NetFlix resembles a bookstore that’s opened with half-empty shelves. Yes, it will get better, but why open if it’s not ready yet? But I gather you think different about its potential effect.
GH: I think it’s the start of a revolution. I think it’s going to kill DVD and Blu-Ray stone dead. People will either go to the cinema, or stream films, and–
FC: Can I just cut in here and sort of agree with you in a tangential manner?
GH: Yeah…
FC: Jeffrey Katzenberg said a few years ago that in the future all tent-pole movies would be 3-D, and there would still be 2-D films, but that they’d be small personal projects. I think I’d agree with you that people will either go to the cinema or stream films, and I think they’ll go to the cinema for blockbusters where the mass manipulation of the emotions of the audience and the big screen wow factor is crucial, and they’ll stream smaller films which are more cerebral and demand close attention.
GH: And I think that DVD collections will become a thing of the past, something that’s solely for true enthusiasts like vinyl obsessives building a collection. Novelty box-sets will likely last for a short time before the DVD/ Blu-Ray itself eventually becomes the novelty. This could spawn a generation of DVD/ Blu-Ray enthusiasts like John Cusack in High Fidelity. Even now, I can imagine Nick Hornby drafting notes on High Definition.
FC: I stopped collecting DVDs when Blu-Ray appeared. I just thought “I will never watch most of these movies enough to justify the expense, and when I’ve got my collection to a nice point some new technology will just make it obsolete”. But the whole concept of a DVD collection left me cold. The idea of a bad film being worth buying purely for the extras, or the existential crises over differences in boxes between regions, or special editions with different cuts; it all made about as much sense to me as buying a rubbish book for the sake of a nifty introduction and a cool cover.
GH: Didn’t you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for an introduction by Chuck Palahniuk?
FC: Yes. But I think the true equivalent would be a Dan Brown with a foreword by Paul Bettany explaining how he used the role of Silas to make a feature audition tape for the role of the Joker…
GH: I think NetFlix is the vanguard of Google, Apple (and possibly even Amazon) domination of the streamed media sphere. Google TV and Apple TV seem to only be a few months away, maybe a year.
FC: The idea of Apple TV terrifies me, Google TV a little less so, but Apple TV… (whistles) It just seems like something out of a dystopian novel the idea that Apple control so much of your life, how you listen, how you read, how you communicate, what you watch, on and on and on.
GH: I think I’m not well known for my love of Apple fanboys so let’s not get into a nodding contest here about how scared we are by Apple TV. Do you think the concept will take off?
FC: Yes, purely because those companies have so much power that if they want to synchronise things I think they can synchronise things.
GH: I think that you’d really have to see what they can come up with. Certainly anything that Google and Apple touch at the moment seems to be turning into gold. However, both Google and Amazon are yet to enter the market, and Apple is barely dipping its toes. True, Google owns YouTube, but it’s simply not positioning it in the same market as NetFlix.
FC: So it’s safe to say that this is the beginning of a revolution?
GH: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of industry weight behind it and user interest seems genuinely strong, and besides, these things only getter better with time. The real measurement of success is how many studios and TV network sign up.
FC: Can I ask you a strategic question about all of this? Do you see a connection on the macro scale between cloud computing and NetFlix – the idea that we’re moving from the need for constant and often unutilised physical possession to just paying for something in the ether when we need to actually use the service?
GH: Cloud computing is a hefty enough topic, and I’ve covered it at some length. It’s mainly a concept aimed at the smaller business, a way of offering high-end solutions (servers with high up time or premium applications) on a much lower cost basis. Rather than paying for server hardware, data centre storage, server engineers, server licensing, clustering, etc, users simply pay a per-usage rate. Like for hosted email, you might pay for each mailbox for each month of use. So in that sense, pay as you go usage, they are some similarities.
FC: Huh, perhaps Tyler Durden got his wish after all. We’ve rejected the basic principles of western civilisation, especially the importance of material possessions.
GH: I don’t think Fight Club is on NetFlix…
FC: (groans) The revolution will begin once NetFlix have got their bloody catalogue together.

April 10, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part III

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Image

Fear of Marketing
In a nigh endless series of blogs last year about the state of Hollywood I noted the utter laziness of marketers when it came to doing their job. To wit, their reluctance to actually market something from scratch; they’d far rather market something that someone in the past had managed to make a successful brand than make something a successful brand themselves – which one might have imagined was what they were paid for. Anywho, I laughed hysterically when I discovered that The Avengers had actually been re-titled for the British and Irish market (we’re hard to tell apart apparently) as Marvel Avengers Assemble. Obviously Marvel Avengers Assemble is funny in its own right as a ludicrously clumsy title. Far funnier though is the idea that The Avengers, a show which ended its 9 year run in 1970, and which, even if one counts its second incarnation in the late 1970s as The New Avengers, has been off-air for over 30 years is considered to have such abiding brand strength that a $100 million marketing budget can’t defeat it. Apparently the marketers have decided that bus posters, Tube posters, cinema trailers, bus-stop posters, TV spots, huge outdoor advertising hoardings, radio spots, and endless media interviews across radio, print, digital, and TV won’t be enough to get punters to comprehend that The Avengers starring Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson will not feature Downey Jr in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella, even if it might admittedly feature Johansson in tight leather kicking people. I’ve started thinking about other films that have titles that could equally profit in the renaming stakes from such fear of confusion. Perhaps The Magnificent Seven in order to avoid confusion with The Seven Samurai could be re-titled Seven Gunslingers Assemble for the Japanese market.

Not all taglines are coherent
At the risk of harping on about this lack of effort on the part of people supposedly in charge of enticing us to the cinema, did anyone else raise an eyebrow at the tagline for Chronicle? ‘Not all heroes are super’. It’s meant to be enticingly dark; implying this is a movie about people like Fassbender’s Magneto. But…think about it for a second. ‘Not all heroes are super’. Yes, obviously. Heroes generally tend not to be super, but just ordinary people. Well, ‘ordinary’ in the sense that they are usually charismatic, have an exceptionally developed skill (like archery, or even just running like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man) or are an intellectual or practical genius, with a sound moral compass; even if rusty. The tagline meant ‘Not all super-humans are heroes’, but that’s not a good tagline, even if it accurately expresses the intended meaning.

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