Monday, October 31, 2011

Boo! Yourself

Here on All Hallow's Eve/Samhain Eve/Halloween, it seems appropriate to talk about my favorite scary, gory, slasher films. As a film buff, I'm bound to have some real gems, right? Right?
Two problems: I've never really been a big fan of gore or of being scared.
Now, I like roller coasters and giant water slides and thrills of that kind. I love that kind of adrenaline rush. There's just something about having something jump out at me from the dark that I just don't like. It's almost like a negative adrenaline rush. My knee-jerk reaction is fight or flight, and - unfortunately for those who have tried to spook me - it's usually fight.
Like this guy:
This is why I don't go to haunted houses. It's just safer for everyone.

While a thrilling ride on a roller coaster leaves me with a bit of a "high," the feeling I have after a "Boo!" type of scare leaves me with a nagging, uncomfortable feeling in my stomach for hours afterwards. I just don't enjoy it. However, I recognize that other people do, and I've even utilized this fact in some of my own artistic ventures. About a dozen years ago, I directed a live theatrical version of Dracula that literally had people jumping out of their seats. (Fortunately, they climbed back into them to enjoy the rest of the show as well.)
As for gore, I don't necessarily have a weak stomach, I just don't think it's as "cool" as some people do. It's kind of like a joke in which I don't get the punch line. It doesn't bother me, really, but I don't really enjoy a movie in which gore is the central focus.
That's not to say that I don't like many films that fall into the "horror" genre. I love the ethereal feel of the old Universal Horror films: Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula, Boris Karloff's man-made monster, Lon Chaney Jr.'s cursed Wolf Man. I'll probably watch a couple of those tonight, in fact. I might even watch the Spanish-language version of Dracula, shot at night on the Universal sets after the American actors and crew had gone home for the night.

Then, of course, there are the Hammer horror films that revived (no pun intended) the old Universal monsters (many of them with Christopher Lee's face). These films pushed the envelope just a bit further in terms of on-screen brutality and sensuality, though some of the later efforts were perhaps a bit too heavy-handed in their execution (again, no pun intended.) I think that the initial films were among the best.

I can appreciate the skill of directors like Wes Craven in their ability to make audiences scream in surprise or cringe in horror, but I'm just not his audience. I thought the first Scream movie was very well-done, but I just haven't bothered with any of the sequels. It's not my thing.
I find that I tend to enjoy horror films when mixed with other genres. I found Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland more palatable for their humor. Movies like Constantine and Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (both based on comic books, by the way) mix horror and hard-boiled detective stories.

Priest, the Russian film Night Watch, and the recent Attack the Block are really more like action films with a horror twist.

So, unfortunately, I'm just going to have to let you down this time around since I really can't think of any good horror films to recommend for your Halloween viewing. Sorry.
(See what I did there?)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I'm Not Abandoning Netflix

I read an article this morning in the Denver Post about how the shares of Netflix - the DVD-by-mail and online streaming movie subscription service - have dropped over 35% recently. This is as a result of a loss of around 800,000 subscribers and some questionable business decisions over the last year. People are upset over the recent price hike - in some cases, as much as 60% - and I know many people who are frustrated by the number of movies and television programs that "expire" from streaming availability. The whole "Qwikster"idea - in which the DVD by mail service was to become a separate entity - made me angry, as did the elimination of the "saved" portion of the streaming queue, and I let them know about it by e-mail and by phone many times.
However, I am not among the 800,000 who gave up on the service recently, nor will I likely be among those who are still projected to leave the service in the coming months.

Here's why:

1. The price increase was inevitable.
Corey Feldman movie marathon: complete.
I have always felt that I was getting a great deal from Netflix - even before they started the streaming service. And by "great deal," I meant that I was robbing them blind. I can easily watch twenty movies in a month. Even for those months where I was busy, and I ended up holding on to my movies for several weeks (as many people do), I would more than make up for it over the next few months. Streaming made it even easier to watch more movies. A movie from a Blockbuster store could cost between 99 cents and 3 bucks, and, if you didn't return it right away, quite a bit more. Redbox movies are a buck, but are also subject to the automatic late fees. And let's face it, there's nowhere near the selection through either of those services. Netflix pays the big movie studios (directly or indirectly) for the right to rent DVDs and even more to make them available for streaming. As the number of subscribers increased and the library expanded, the cost of keeping that many movies under a rental license increased. The smarter move might have been to make the increases more gradual, but - in the end - it's still a pretty good deal.
For example, I have the 3-at-a-time subscription with unlimited streaming. That costs about 24 dollars per month. 24 dollars would get me somewhere between 8 and 24 rentals from a Blockbuster store, but I have to go get the movies and take them back right away. The Redbox and Blockbuster rental kiosks are a little more convenient, but there's still the late fees and the running back and forth. I can easily watch 24 programs in a month from Netflix, and I don't have to go any further than my mailbox. Now, I'm a serious movie buff who happens to have a lot of spare time these days, so I probably watch quite a bit more than most, but there are other Netflix packages that are geared for more casual watchers and priced accordingly.

2. Netflix isn't who's taking your movies off of streaming.
"Another Hilary Swank DVD for Brady Darnell?
Geez. Obsess much?"
Running a DVD by mail service is expensive. You have to have warehouses to store the DVDs. You have to hire employees to receive, sort, and mail the DVDs. You have to pay the postage. Oh yeah, you also have to buy the DVDs (in addition to the rental licensing contract.) If DVDs get lost or damaged in the mail - and it happens quite a bit - you have to absorb that cost. Believe me, if Netflix could have every title in their catalog available for streaming, they would. It would cut their overhead significantly, even offset by the increased bandwidth and licensing costs.
Just be patient.
They'll get theirs.
It's the licensing companies that say "yea" or "nay" on streaming and put end dates on the amount of time that their products can be available to stream. They even set limits upon how many times they can be viewed, which often fast-forwards their removal from the streaming catalog. These licensing companies are afraid that fewer people will buy their DVDs if the programs are too easily available online. (And they're probably right.) Netflix would rather that Dexter hadn't gone off of streaming, too. It wasn't their call. And I'll bet you they're working on negotiations to get it back, but it's probably going to end up costing them more money to do so.

3. Netflix appears to be learning from their mistakes.The fact that Netflix abandoned the idea of Qwikster just a few weeks after announcing the plan publicly may look like bad business planning (and it probably was), but it was also in response to many subscribers - including myself - yelling out a collective "WTF?" Now, to Wall Street, Netflix looks like it doesn't know what it's doing. To me, a company that's willing to swallow its pride in the interest of its customers can't be all bad.
I wouldn't expect a reversal on the price increase, though. See Item #1.

4. The alternatives still kind of suck.
Redbox and Blockbuster kiosks have late fees and fewer selections. Also, I once got a DVD out of a Redbox kiosk that was covered in grape jelly. (At least I hope it was grape jelly.) Blockbuster stores - the few that still exist - also have limited selection of anything but new releases, and there's still those pesky late fees. Hulu free is a great deal. Hulu Plus is also a pretty good deal, but the selection just isn't comparable. I've been trying out Blockbuster By Mail for a little while now. It's just a little more expensive and does not have an unlimited streaming option, but the selection is at least comparable to Netflix. They even have some new releases a couple of weeks before Netflix. The best feature is that with the 3-at-a-time option you get unlimited in-store exchanges. I live near one of the remaining Blockbuster stores in Denver, so that's convenient for me, and it makes up for how painfully slow (in comparison to Netflix) Blockbuster's by-mail program is. However, if I didn't live near a store, it wouldn't really be worth it.

So, why am I coming to Netflix's defense? They certainly aren't compensating me. I'll prove it. I think Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is a bit of a tool. I think Netflix still has a long way to go in terms of customer service and quality control. I just sent back a DVD that was too scratched to watch, and they still have the second season of the BBC sci-fi comedy Hyperdrive uploaded in the wrong order despite multiple complaints from users. Also, I want the "Saved" portion of the streaming queue back.
However, I still think that they're the best game in town . . . in the country . . . online . . . whatever, and I recognize that if they lose too many more subscribers, it's going to be very difficult for them to stay in business, much less continue to expand and improve the service. And don't get me wrong, my loyalty is just as fleeting: if a better alternative comes along, I'm there. That's why I took Blockbuster By Mail for a test drive. However, that superior competitor is only going to appear if Netflix is a viable model to copy (and I think it is), not if they are circling the drain.
I'm just thinking ahead here.
Hey, maybe Netflix should hire me. That's a skill that they have been pretty short on this last year.

By the way, this is streaming on Netflix right now:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

No One Like Danielle

When I watch this video of Danielle Ate the Sandwich (Danielle Anderson) performing a cover of Adele's "Someone Like You," I mentally add two items to my life's to-do list:
1. Learn to play the ukulele
2. Work up the nerve to chat up beautiful, talented women who play the ukulele


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ghetto Life

I don't have any children. Maybe someday I will, and, if I do, I look forward to sharing with them not only the books that I read as a kid, but also the many beautiful books that have been published since. One of my favorites of the newer books, however, presents a bit of a quandary for me:
At what age does one tell a child about the uglier side of the world in which we live?

The Cats in Krasinski Square is a children's book about life in Warsaw, Poland, during the Nazi occupation. The eponymous felines are the abandoned pets of Jewish families who have been moved into the ghettos (or worse). The cats now wander the streets of Warsaw, surviving on mice, with " no one to kiss their velvet heads." A young Jewish girl lives outside the ghetto with her sister Mira, hiding their heritage: "I wear my Polish look. I walk my Polish walk. Polish words float from my lips. and I am almost safe, almost invisible . . ."

The book is  beautifully illustrated by Wendy Watson with prose by Karen Hesse that is both lovely and haunting. The nastier aspects of that period in history are only hinted at in this story. We know that the little girl misses her friend Michal, still living somewhere "behind the Wall of the Ghetto." She refers to her sister as "my brave sister, Mira, all that is left of our family." We know that Mira and a young man named Arik are working with others to get food into the ghetto, but the Gestapo will try to stop them - the Gestapo and their dogs.
This is where the cats come into the story, and you'll just have to read it to find out what happens next.
The Cats in Krasinski Square is, at times, sad, suspenseful, funny, and beautiful. I look forward to sharing it with my hypothetical future children - even if it means that I may have to answer some tough questions about our world when the story is finished.
Look for it in your local library, or, better yet, buy a copy. See if you are as moved by this book as I am.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


When starting a new blog, the first post is often introductory and informational, filled with humble platitudes and hopefulness, explaining what this blog will attempt to be. Well, I don't really know, and I am  all platituded out (thank you, spellcheck, I know that's not a real word.)
So what do you say we just act like this isn't my first post, but rather my 21st  post, and go on like we've already been having this conversation for a while.
Her. Right here. This one.
As you know - from the twenty times I've already told you - I'm a movie buff, and I will sometimes get onto a movie-watching kick where I will watch several movies in a row by one director or featuring one actor. What's fun, though, is when I stumble upon one (or two) trends by accident.
For example, over the last week or so I have inadvertently been on a Jennifer Lawrence trend.

I finally got around to watching X-Men: First Class sometime last week. I was never a big fan of the X-Men as a young comic book reader, but I am at least as familiar with the characters as any casual reader of the stories, and, I like James MacAvoy, so, when the opportunity to watch it for free arose (thank you, McDonald's Monopoly game and Redbox) I gave it a look. I enjoyed it. Great special effects, smart storytelling, and a fun sense of humor make this an enjoyable movie whether you are a die-hard comic book fan or just someone looking for an adventure film. Purists may quibble with some of the story elements, but, come on, gang: have they ever made a comic book movie that met all of our expectations? Ever? Most compelling to me was the performance of the young woman taking on the role of the troubled blue mutant later-to-be-known as Mystique: Jennifer Lawrence.

A few days later, I watched the Jodie-Foster-directed and snicker-inducing-titled dark dramedy The Beaver. (See? You just snickered a little bit, didn't you? The internet has made us all twelve-year-olds.) There is a good deal more to this story than is even suggested by the trailer (and I think the trailer suggests quite a bit). I think that we will someday look back on this movie as a very important piece of film-making - even now, it's definitely thought-provoking.

Great performances all-around from Foster, Gibson, Yelchin, and . . . (wait, who's this?) Jennifer Lawrence.
Now, young Lawrence had come upon my radar last year when I read an article about how she had to learn to skin squirrels and chop wood for her Oscar-nominated role in the Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone. I had put the movie on my to-watch list at that point (it's a long list), but I hadn't gotten around to seeing it yet. Not many people have. Apparently, it's the lowest-grossing best picture nominee since 1983's The Dresser with Albert Finney. Well, if you haven't seen it, you should definitely rectify that (stop snickering, that's not what it means) as I did, because it is a very, very beautiful ugly film, and both it and Miss Lawrence are very worthy of their nominations. (You should also see The Dresser, by the way: One of Finney's best performances.)

Now, here is where the second trend comes in. I've had another "winter" movie on my to-watch list for a while now, but it has not been an easy one to find: Winter People from 1989 starring Kurt Russell and Kelly McGillis. Well, I managed to find a copy and, the day after I watched Winter's Bone (which, at this writing, is streaming on Netflix, by the way), I finally watched Winter People. This made for some very interesting comparisons.

Though Bone takes place in the Ozarks of contemporary Missouri and People is set in the hills of North Carolina in the 1930s, both stories take a look at the strong family system of honor and tradition and the often deadly ramifications of the same. Both films also do an incredible job of capturing the bone-chilling cold and bleakness tempered with the stark beauty of winter in the American South. Both films have strikingly beautiful female protagonists who somehow manage to overcome the ugliness of their situations. Winter People isn't quite the film that Winter's Bone is simply because of some strange editing in the third act (studio-driven would be my guess), but it is nevertheless a fine story.
Now, what is there to be learned from my little story of cinematic happenstance? Not much, probably, but you've got four movie recommendations (five, if you count The Dresser), and I have a new blog.
How about that?