Friday, May 30, 2008

You Win, Cozzalio! My Answers to Last Weekend's SL&TIFR Quiz

Every so often, Dennis Cozzalio of the very cool Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule puts up these massive movie lover quizzes and every so often I consider participating in them and then I don't. Can't explain why other than I look at it and it suddenly looks too big to handle, but this one felt pretty simple to me and since I've been promising myself I'd participate in one one of these days, I figured it was time to put up or shut up. So here's my answers to the "Prof. Brian O'Blivion's All-New Flesh For Memorial Day Film (and TV) Quiz", one week after Memorial Day. I would have handed it in sooner, but I had a bunch of crazy Spaniards dragging me around Austin for most of the weekend. More on that later.

1) Best transition from movies to TV (actor, actress, producer/director, movie/show)

Lucille Ball and William Shatner. Say what you will, you've gotta admire how Shatner has persevered throughout the years.

2) Living film director you most missing seeing on the cultural landscape regularly

Well, John Carpenter hasn't made a film since GHOSTS OF MARS (love it!), but more importantly, it's been 10 long years since BULLWORTH. Surely Warren Beatty must have something up his sleeve.

3) Eugene Pallette or Charles Coburn


4) Fill in the blank: “I pray that no one ever turns _____________ into a movie.”

Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume. It's my favorite book and I just get the feeling it would get screwed up as a movie.

5) Jane Greer or Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake. Please!

6) What was the last movie you saw in a theater? On DVD? And why?

I saw INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL for a second time because I wanted to.

7) Name an actor you think should be a star

Sam Elliott. A real big star, I mean.

8) Foxy Brown or Coffy

COFFY. It's still the original and it's grittier.

9) Favorite TV show still without its own DVD box set

There's still a lot of episodes of SCTV yet to make their way to disc that possibly never will. PARKER LEWIS CAN'T LOSE. TWO STUPID DOGS is another. That's pretty much it.

10) Jack Elam or Neville Brand

Jack Elam, mainly because I grew up with him as the westerns guy with the weird eye and later learned that he did a lot of solid work well before I was born.

11) What movies would top your list of movies you need to revisit, for whatever reason?

I guess THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so I can maybe finally figure out what the fuss was about.

I've also been meaning to revisit Roger Corman's THE INTRUDER, mainly because it's a really excellent film and it's been a long time since I've seen it.

So many more, but none of them come to mind at the moment.

12) Zodiac or All the President’s Men

Pretty unfair, but you have to go with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. ZODIAC, as great as it is, is clearly influenced by PRESIDENT'S, but they're both great films.

13) Using our best reviewer-speak, what is an “important” film comedy? And what is to you the most important film comedy of the last 35 years?

I took in Albert Brooks' REAL LIFE about two months back and thought to myself, "Is this the first modern film comedy made by a comedian for comedians?" It certainly feels that way and I can't think of any other film like it. And for proving to the world that Albert Brooks' greatest gift was as a filmmaker, I think it earns that honor.

14) Describe the ideal environment for watching a movie.

Not to rub it in, but the Alamo Drafthouse has it down just right.

15) Michelle Williams or Eva Mendes

Michelle Williams. Both are gorgeous, but Michelle Williams' eyes, and her smile... I'm not going to go into that here.

16) What’s the worst movie title of all time?

Any generic title that sounds like it got spit out of a computer, like NEVER BACK DOWN or something like that, always tells me that such a movie will not be worth my time.

17) Best movie about teaching and/or learning

This is my one wise-ass answer of the entire quiz: LAMBADA - SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE. Lambada dancin' for the greater glory of math!

18) Dracula (1931) or Horror of Dracula (1958)

All DRACULA has going for it, really, is Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER is a much better film). HORROR OF DRACULA is a much better picture, overall - better directed, better acted, better scripted - and one of the few Dracula films whose Van Helsing is as intriguing as its Dracula. In fact, you're reminding me that I'd like to view it again some day.

19) Why do you blog? Or if you don’t, why do you read blogs? (Thanks, Girish)

I blog so I can collect my thoughts and get them heard clearly. I blog in order to shine a light on films that might not otherwise be remembered (The Forgotten Movies series). I also blog so that I can get my heart broken.

20) Most memorable/disturbing death scene

DEATH PROOF. Don't want to get into it for those who haven't seen it.

21) Jason Robards or Robert Shaw

Shaw. Not as many movies, but what was there was stellar.

22) A good candidate for Most Blasphemous Movie Ever

MAGDALENA - POSSESSED BY THE DEVIL. Contains the following lines of dialog:

"Magdalena wants to go to church today. Can we risk it?"

"I don't want to take confession in the church, I want to take it in my pussy!"

Not the answer you were expecting, huh, Dennis?

23) Rio Bravo or Red River

RED RIVER has more heft, more dramatic weight. RIO BRAVO is, however, a hell of a lot of fun.

24) Werner Herzog is remaking Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage—that’s reality. Try to outdo reality by concocting a match-up of director and title for a really strange imaginary remake.


25) Bulle Ogier or Charlotte Rampling

Rampling. She's still got it.

26) In the Realm of the Senses— yes or no?

Yes. Required viewing for pretty much everyone interested in cinema.

27) Name a movie you think of as your own (Thanks, Jim!)

I've written about John Mackenzie's UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO quite a bit and always recommend it because it remains a buried treasure that not many know of.

28) Winged Migration or Microcosmos

MICROCOSMOS. The ladies like it, and it's a better movie.

29) Your favorite football game featured in a movie


30) Wendy Hiller or Deborah Kerr


31) Dirtiest secret you have that is related to the movies

When, as a 17 year-old usher at the HQ 10, some of my fellow ushers witnessed one of our assistant managers doing it with her boyfriend in the balcony while watching THE BIG EASY. And by "doing it" I'm talking about fucking.

32) Name a favorite film and describe how it is illuminated and enriched by another favorite film.

I keep seeing 2001 in THERE WILL BE BLOOD's structure, but god damn if it doesn't work like a son of a bitch.

33) It’s a Gift or Horsefeathers

HORSEFEATHERS. It's got that whole "swordfish" thing going on.

34) Your best story about seeing a movie at a drive-in

I recall seeing JAWS 2 on opening night in 1978 and loving the hell out of it. I haven't been to a drive-in since.

35) Victor Mature or Tyrone Power

Interesting that Dennis mentions this, as I've been checking out a decent amount of Mature's work lately, like a screening of MY DARLING CLEMENTINE at AMMI (just before they close for renovations) and I've found myself intrigued by him. Seemingly an actor of not much range, there's also a strange depth to him, a handsome movie-star face an body that masks a tortured soul. Can't quite explain it, but I think it's there.

36) What does film criticism mean to you? Where do you think it’s headed?

It only means something when I read a review that makes me think about the film in question in a new way (such as your SPEED RACER piece; thanks for the link, by the way). If it can't sway me or make me think, it's not very interesting.

As to where it's headed, it's in an interesting time. Some of the best film writing is found online - by you, Dennis, along with the likes of Stacie Ponder and Kim Morgan - and it's great to see print critics like Glenn Kenny embrace the blogosphere as a place where they can write about what truly interest them. It's scattered, yes, but there's so much that needs to be brought to light that it's OK to be a little all over the place. Mainstream criticism hasn't been interesting in a long time (with a few exceptions, like Denby in The New Yorker, who I've always liked), so the fact that the fans are taking over is rather refreshing. I just hope that they're able to keep it up and not screw it up somehow. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

There's a Story Behind This Photo

And it's a good one. But it's for another time.

Texas sure isn't New Jersey, that's for damn sure.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Glen Jones - Still Standing, 7 Years Later

This was originally posted on my MySpace blog (remember MySpace?) to mark the 5th anniversary 2 years back, but as it's Memorial Day weekend, I can't help but remember the amazing accomplishment of one Mr. Glen Jones. Enjoy the piece and, by all means, check out some of the broadcast:

This weekend marks the 7th anniversary of Glen Jones' incredible 100 hour radio marathon of WFMU. Some of you may have heard about this when it happened, maybe you're just hearing about it now, but all I can say is that it was an tremendous experience. Glen Jones, host of WFMU's Sunday afternoon "Glen Jones Radio Program featuring X-Ray Burns" took on a dare from station manager Ken Freedman when it was reported that the world's record for the longest continuous radio broadcast had been broken by someone in Great Britain, going over 73 hours nonstop. Jonsey (as he is called by many) saw in this the opportunity to make radio history and bring the great days of crazy DJ stunts (although Jonsey was very serious about the whole thing) back to radio. Once the whole thing was agreed to and DJs cleared their schedules, Jonsey and the rest of the station played the event up for several weeks while few in the mainstream media paid attention (although The Today Show interviewed Jonsey just before it began). Then came the big day, 5 years ago today, when Glen took to the microphone at 9am and announced "They aint ever getting me outta here!" and played Richard Kiely's version of "The Impossible Dream". I remember pulling into a Hoboken parking garage to hear the start of the show, knowing that when I got out of work later that day, Jonsey would be there to guide me back home. And a few hours after that, I would be there to help guide Jonsey.

If you know anything about WFMU then you know that volunteers run the station, with only a few full time staff members. All the DJs are volunteers and to get anything done on the station you're going to need volunteers. This weekend's marathon being a massive undertaking, volunteers were needed like crazy and I was more than happy to be one. In order to get the official stamp from Guinness, you needed to document the entire thing, with logs, videotapes, and audio recordings, so I was down as a logger (writing down everything Jones played and when he took mic breaks) for a few hours on Friday night. It was a huge kick for me to hang out in the FMU studios with Jonsey and the rest of FMU crew (Ken and Scott Williams doing the lion's share of the other work) and when they asked if anyone wanted to stay a while longer and help with some extra work, I gladly raised my hand. My three-hour shift ended up being a six-hour one, and I even got to help pick out some music for Jonsey to play. Guinness had some crazy rules that had to be adhered to no songs over six minutes, 15-minute bathroom breaks were only allowed once every 8 hours, every song had to be either intro'd or outro'd, and we all made sure they were.

I woke up Saturday morning and took my radio Walkman with me on my jog just so I didn't miss a moment of the marathon. As a fan of Jonsey and the station, the entire thing was such a huge kick for me that I gladly volunteered for more shifts throughout the weekend and spent another three hours there on Saturday evening. I would have been there on Sunday, too, but I was throwing a small barbeque for friends that day, so that was out of the question. But what did I have playing in the background at the BBQ? Glen Jones, of course.

As the marathon went on, Jonsey was becoming deprived of sleep more and more. Even though he didn't begin to partake in any kind of caffeine until 24 hours in, he was doing pretty good for someone who hadn't slept in a long time. (A local doctor would stop in to check on Jonseys condition and if she began to raise any objections, the plug would have been pulled on the whole thing.) Jonsey did various interviews throughout the weekend with people like Gene Simmons of KISS, boxer Chuck Wepner (the inspiration for ROCKY and one of Jones' idols), Penn Jillette, and former FMU DJ Vin Scelsa. Jonsey wanted to know if they could get his hero, Bruce Springsteen, to call in, but he was apparently away for the weekend, and there were rumors that Bush might call in once Jones broke the record (the word was that he was aware of the event). When the time came to break the record at 10:33am on Monday morning, the FMU studios were packed with press (CNN aired the moment live), staff, volunteers, and, well, me. I sure as hell wasnt going to miss this for the world, was I?

It was one of the greatest moments in the history of radio as far as I was concerned. You know how Queen once sang "Youve had your time, youve had youre power, youve yet to have your finest hour" in the song "Radio Ga-Ga"? It may not have been radio's finest hour, but it was way up there, because here you had a small band of outsiders, mostly volunteers, at a listener supported, commercial-free station just outside the biggest radio market in the U.S. and they showed them how radio should and must be done. It was radio with heart, done strictly for a love of the format, of the art form and it was something that youll never, ever get anywhere else. Glen Jones had shown them all how radio was really done.

So once the record was broken and the hoopla began to die down, there was Jonsey, still at the mic. What had been joked about was something that Jonsey was actually very serious about: He wasn't just going to break the record; he was going to obliterate it. Jonsey was going for 100 hours. Now think about that. 100 hours means no sleep for four day straight. No sleep from Friday until Tuesday. No sleep til Brooklyn. And Jonsey was serious about it, too. He intended on making it all the way until Tuesday at 1pm even if it killed him, that's how much this whole thing meant to him. And after getting energized for a bit after breaking the record, Jones began to get tired again by Monday afternoon. He was being fed, getting massaged, and getting quickie naps during slightly longer songs, but you could tell that Jonsey was really having a hard time of it. I went to bed Monday night fully expecting to hear "JM in the AM" when I woke up. But I didn't want to. And I didn't.

Having pulled into the Hoboken parking garage on Friday morning looking forward to the long Memorial Day weekend ahead of me, it was more than a little strange to pull in on Tuesday and still have Glen Jones on the air. Jones sounded completely out of it and you could hear fellow DJs whispering things for him to say and Jonsey just repeating them. When I got into work there was an e-mail from Scott Williams announcing that Glen was "Still Standing", intending to go as long as he possibly could and that more volunteers might be needed. I once again made my services available and would tell co-workers about the marathon. But at around 1pm another e-mail announced that Glen Jones had indeed packed it in after 100 hours.

Jonsey apparently was starting to lose it, beginning to think that he was in one of the brainwashing scenes from THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and it was decided it was not a good idea to keep him going. A bed had been set up for him on the top floor of the station and Jonsey plopped right on it and was expected to be there for a very long time. But strangely enough, Jones woke up after only two hours and, convinced that he wasn't going crazy, went back on the air to recount the marathon that had just passed. He quickly began to get tired again and was whisked off to a warm bed while news of the marathon stretched throughout the world. Pretty much every major news outlet reported the event and every FMU DJ sincerely praised Jones. As well they should, since it raised the profile of the station dramatically, as the entire broadcast was heard the world over on the Internet (the archives can be found on the link above) and made Jones a local legend. After a few months, Guinness officially certified the event (a plaque still hangs on the station's wall) and it was all set to be in the next edition of the book when some jerk in Sweden (I think it was Sweden) went and broke Jones' record by going to something like 102 hours. Early last year a DJ in Florida tried to take it to 115 hours and I don't know if he made it, but I know that the event wasn't as well covered as Jonsey's marathon. Its a hell of an accomplishment, not just to be up that long but to keep the spirit of radio going for that long. It may just be a crazy stunt to some people, but when someone tries to do something like that, theyre keeping real radio alive, if only for a while. And I feel like I know what real radio is thanks to Glen Jones and WFMU

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's All in the Reflexes: Why I Still Love John Carpenter

I’ve got John Carpenter on the mind a lot lately. More so than usual, I mean.

The Alamo Ritz is screening BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA this week as part of their “Big Screen Sci-Fi Classics” and pretty much everyone I know is going, even though we’ve all seen the film countless number of times. I saw it the other night with a group that included Terror Thursday’s Zack Carlson, Spanish filmmaker Eugenio Mira (in town specifically to see INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL at the Alamo), Media Licks’ Kayla Kromer, and numerous other Austinites of note. There’s no real question as to why the film is being screened or why we’re going – it’s a terrific fucking movie – but rather the question as to why BIG TROUBLE, which has found a large and appreciative audience on video and cable, wasn’t a hit in the first place. As a Carpenter fan from way back, I was there opening weekend, when it came out of the 4th of July ‘86 weekend with a slew of other new films (PSYCHO III; THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE; ABOUT LAST NIGHT; UNDER THE CHERRY MOON) that also flopped, with BIG TROUBLE the lowest grossing of them all. When a film flops they usually blame the marketing, but BIG TROUBLE had an excellent poster (replicated and parodied many times since), a great tagline (“Jack Burton is in for some serious trouble and you’re in for some serious fun”), and a trailer that I know made me very psyched when I first saw it and I think still plays quite well. I suppose it’s worthless to go back and figure out why BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA tanked (OK, this might not have helped); it happened, it can’t be changed and folks have caught up to it, but man it would have been really nice if it was a hit way back in ’86, because Carpenter sure could have used it then. Hell, he could still use it now.

It’s weird how Carpenter has become one of the grand old men of the genre while back in the day he was something of a polarizing figure within it. His work appealed mainly to the younger set (that’s me!), while the traditionalist (yes, the genre has traditionalist) rejected him as a filmmaker who favored special effects over content. I think over the years that theory has been pretty much laid to rest, with such films as BIG TROUBLE, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (a picture I disliked when I first saw it back in ’87 but has seriously grown on me) and especially THEY LIVE and THE THING have undergone serious critical reappraisal over the last few years. About ten years ago, around the release of VAMPIRES, Kent Jones had a very nice piece in Film Comment that called Carpenter the last genre master in American movies and I guess did a bit to help his reputation, but GHOSTS OF MARS, a brilliantly goofy movie, still got stiffed by the critics and wasn’t that big a hit. That’s actually something that holds true for Carpenter after all these years – 30 years later, HALLOWEEN is still his biggest grosser – which I would think (or hope) keeps him humble but I guess also keeps the major studios and big projects at bay (that and the whole “creative control/final cut” business Carpenter usually demands). The guy is a “fan favorite” and not necessarily an audience favorite or critic’s favorite for the most part, but his work holds up so much better than many of his contemporaries (the sold-out audience at BIG TROUBLE was loving it big time) that I get the feeling that Kent Jones won’t be the only one who’ll be writing appreciations of his work as the years go by.

While watching BIG TROUBLE last night, it occurred to me that Jones is indeed quite right about Carpenter being an auteur, as every shot in the film is so uniquely his that you can’t imagine the film to have worked with anyone else behind the camera (I also can’t imagine any other filmmaker of the period cutting to close-ups of two warriors as they fly through the air swinging swords at each other). Every Carpenter film has such a specific look and feel that goes beyond Carpenter’s distinctive music and the widescreen photography (of which Carpenter is one of cinema’s true greats), but a tone that’s at times a bit distant and cold, yet strangely draws you in. And in an unusual, Carpenter is a very commercial filmmaker, though I think it has more to do with his filmmaking talents than for any of his films being overly warm or fuzzy-friendly. Carpenter has almost always made a point of identifying with outsiders, criminals and numerous other anti-social misfits, but you love these characters regardless and it’s one of these things that’s not only made his films endearing to me but also adds to the fun; Carpenter is more than happy to raise a middle finger to the establishment like many of his characters do and who can’t admire that? Oh, and his scores rock like crazy. Can’t leave without mentioning that.

Sadly, Carpenter hasn’t made a feature since GHOSTS OF MARS (which is brilliant!), while his two episodes of Masters of Horror are not regarded as being among his best work (this despite the fact that a character in Pro-Life is named after me, a very nice tribute from pal Drew McWeeny) and it’s looking like there isn’t anything on the docket anytime soon. Luckily, many of Carpenter’s films are worth looking at again and again (though I have to admit that VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED isn’t one of them) and if he goes out on GHOSTS there’s still an excellent legacy of films here. But Carpenter will certainly be back and I suspect he’ll kick ass once again in a way that will remind everyone that’s he’s still one of the best we’ve got. The wait’s gonna be a bitch, but knowing Carpenter, it should be worth it.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

It's Not the Years, It's the Milage.

It seems as though James Dean had the right idea: Live fast, die young, and leave behind three classic films. As tragic as his loss was and however many great films he might have gone on to make, we were spared the idea of Dean getting older and outstaying his welcome in a bunch of second-rate films.

There’s been a bit written lately about how such respected actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman have spent the last several years wasting their time and talents in material that’s beneath them, and it’s difficult to disagree with that when you consider their most recent efforts: Pacino in 88 MINUTES, Hoffman in MISTER MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM, and De Niro in most everything he’s made in the last decade, not to mention De Niro and Pacino teaming again in RIGHTEOUS KILL, which doesn’t look all that great and supposedly isn’t (I’m willing to cut Pacino more slack than the others for continuing to do stage work and for the occasional quality film like THE MERCHANT OF VENICE). Add to that the likes of THE BUCKET LIST, which certainly made money but didn’t win any respect for Jack Nicholson or Morgan Freeman, and it’s looking like everyone’s cashing in on what’s left of their name value before they have to make up a bucket list themselves. I can’t speak for any of these guys as to why they did any of these films, though I’m sure the paychecks were fine and maybe there was something in the material they liked or perhaps they got to work with friends they really like working with. But I think if you look at all those films, along with many (though not all) of the recent films these talents were all involved in, and you can see a long-unspoken fact come to light once again: Hollywood has a long history of having little to no idea what to do with aging actors. It’s almost no wonder that Paul Newman, Sean Connery and Gene Hackman have retired and Warren Beatty hasn’t made a movie in almost a decade.

Name some of the greatest movies stars of all time and then name their final film (or films) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Bette Davis had WICKED STEPMOTHER and Joan Crawford had TROG; James Stewart did AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIVEL GOES WEST (voice work does matter for the purposes of this piece); Marlon Brando had THE SCORE; Katherine Hepburn went out on a cameo in LOVE AFFAIR and a slew of rotten TV movies; George C. Scott had Lumet’s GLORIA remake and Lee Marvin said goodbye with THE DELTA FORCE while Bronson’s last film was DEATH WISH V; Olivier had WILD GEESE II while Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. all said goodbye with GHOST STORY, it’s a sad list that unfortunately goes on and on, so you get my point. Of course, the argument can be made that there are a number of great stars who finished their long careers by either going out on top (Henry Fonda in ON GOLDEN POND) or at least in a quality film (John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST or Lancaster in FIELD OF DREAMS). There’s even the career of Don Ameche to consider, an actor who gained greater fame and recognition when he came out of retirement to co-star in a series of successful films and even ended up with an Oscar. But look a little closer and my point becomes clearer. Fonda was making movies like THE GREAT SMOKEY ROADBLOCK and CITY ON FIRE just before ON GOLDEN POND and Wayne had a lot of losers in the mid-Seventies (ROOSTER COGBURN; McQ; BRANNIGAN). In their final years, many of the great actors had better roles on TV than they did in the movies, while some turned to the stage for their final bows. It seems to me that the real problem here is that the movie industry doesn’t really seem to know what to do with people of age, and I don’t simply mean older actors but also stories about older folks. This really isn’t a shattering insight by any means, but when people complain about the likes of THE BUCKET LIST and 88 MINUTES, you also have to ask in return, was this really the best they’ve been offered?

Older actors in Hollywood are usually cast as grandparents, wise sages, crooked politicians, or now, thanks to GRUMPY OLD MEN, foul-mouthed old farts. Occasionally there’s a romantic lead or a COCOON or DRIVING MISS DAISY (though let’s not ask for too many of those) or even something offbeat like Ossie Davis in BUBBA HO-TEP to stand out, but when you consider how senior citizens comprise a large bulk of the movie-going (and renting) audience, it’s pretty much a slap in the face when you think about how few great roles and stories there are for older actors. Unless you’re Clint Eastwood and have the power to create your own roles or find your own material, the pickin’s get slim once you turn 65. In this regard, Harrison Ford and Sylvester Stallone are probably right to return to the role of Indiana Jones, John Rambo and Rocky Balboa in their sixties, giving themselves one more huge box office hit and allow everyone a reminder that not only are they still here, they’re still in shape and can still kick ass. There’s an overall problem in this country of a lack of respect for the aged, and the common perception that youth has always equated beauty and freshness to most isn’t much to be surprised about, but it’s been a real problem in movies and it truly needs to be addressed. Studios have arthouse divisions and genre divisions (some even have urban divisions and Christian divisions), so why not senior divisions? A couple of years ago I was working with an upstart DVD label called Riverside Entertainment, who were distributing titles that appealed to older audiences; I understood what the label was going for, the people behind it had their hearts in the right place and some good titles, but it turns out they didn’t know jack about the realities of the industry and they quickly sank, a rather unfortunate occurrence. Had they had their shit together, they could have succeeded and marked out a solid niche for themselves, but that was not the case. However, the idea still has a lot of merit: Seniors comprise a large part of the audience and can turn small pictures into hits. You can go the BUCKET LIST route and make sappy, sentimental comedies or you can make smarter adult works like ATONEMENT or MICHAEL CLAYTON and as long as you market it right, don’t spend too much and release it properly you can do pretty well. And don’t those types of movies always do well at Oscar time? Am I the only one who thinks this idea has merit? (This advice is free, by the way, so anyone who wants to steal it is more than welcome to. Just invite to the premieres and we’re all good.)

The baby boomers are all hitting retirement age now, so the concept of just what appeals to older audiences has changed radically than what it was before. These are the audiences who helped usher in the changes in movies from the studio days of old, just as the likes of DeNiro, Hoffman, Nicholson and Pacino were among the trailblazing actors who made that change possible, which is partly why the lack of quality of their current work is so upsetting. Movies need to change the misconception that old people aren’t cool. Granted, I’ve know a few uncool older folks in my time (I might be related to one of two of them), but seniors can be just as cool as Johnny Depp or Denxel Washington combined, so let’s give them the opportunity to prove it. One of the coolest people I know (a former filmmaker and lifelong movie nut) is turning 80 next year; John McCain is 72 and he could be the next President of the United States (that might not be such a cool thing, but for a person of 72 to achieve that would be cool in theory); Neil Diamond currently has the #1 album in America, while Willie Nelson’s 75th birthday is something of a month long holiday here in Texas. Let’s not count out the aged just yet, movie industry. They’ve been around a long time, they have monumental name recognition (Pacino’s face is on more t-shirts in this country than Miley Rae Cryrus, for pete’s sake!), and they happen to know what they’re doing. Kiera Knightly? She’s nice, but she’ll be around a while. Give some respect where respect is due, show some balls and you’ll get results.

You’re welcome.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gotta Love the Alamo

This is what I see when I come into work every day:

And they're originals, too! Yeah, my job don't suck.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Goodbye, DVD Industry!

The DVD industry has been my life’s work for over a decade now. I was there when the first players from Panasonic showed up at Digitainment in Whippany, NJ and I became as addicted as anyone ever could to the format which went on the change the film industry. I made it my career, in part because I liked it so much but also because I was good at it. I figured that someone who really cares about the format is better at selling them than some pinhead who’s just looking for a job. I’ve worked for one-stop distributors, I’ve done DVD label management for exclusive distributors, I’ve been a critic and a publicist and I’ve been paid to do all those jobs. But doing one thing for so damn long is bound to bring with it a certain burnout, but with DVD it’s gotten much worse. This industry actually used to be fun, discovering old films and bringing them out to the a new audience looking better than they ever have before, but now it’s becoming a burden. The market is evaporating to the extent that it’s killing off great labels and killing off any enthusiasm anyone has for putting together DVDs. I still love the format, but I can’t do this anymore; I’m out. I mean I am literally out of it, moved to Austin to work for a great film festival and no longer having to concern myself about how you can sell obscure (but good) indie titles to an overcrowded marketplace. I still care, but I can’t do that anymore.

It’s occurred to me that not many people really know the ins and outs of the DVD industry, especially the millions of film fans who continue to be its lifeblood and support the labels that matter. Many people foolishly assume that these labels are making the big bucks and that the people who run them are spending their weekends on their yachts, but they’re mostly lucky to make ends meet. Because of the death of the CD (a slow, torturous process), many outside the industry have simply assumed that digital downloading will take the place of DVDs; while that may some day be the case, we’re actually a long ways off from it and the parameters (Will downloads or On Demand PPV be the prominent service? Who will the major players be?) are a long ways from being determined, so don’t come to bury and not praise the DVD any time soon. Plenty of new and old titles will be available for quite a while, although getting them isn’t going to be as easy as it once was, through no fault of you or the studios. Retail is going through some major shifts that you should all be aware of, because if you happen to love DVDs it will affect how you purchase them and what else comes out down the road. Pay attention.

Four years ago, I was working for a major independent music and DVD distributor and the market was good. I was the company’s DVD guy, bringing in third party indie DVD labels for distribution and working with the sales team on getting their titles sold, and it was good work because we were hitting our goals. There were more retailers available; they all got what we were selling and they all wanted in. You could typically rely on Best Buy for a minimum order of about 1200 units that they would hold on to for about 90 days; now, you’re lucky they take any indie titles at all (only if the title is some kind of known quantity, like a cult classic horror movie or was a successful theatrical release) and the title has 30 days to prove itself on the shelves or else it goes back to the distributor. Four years ago, you also had Tower, the Suncoast and Musicland stores, and the Virgin Megastores, all of which have gone out of business, though Virgin holds on to a handful of stores, while the Trans World chain (FYE, Coconuts and Saturday Matinee) struggles to survive. Borders and Barnes & Noble used to be reliable for decent numbers, but not anymore; they avoid indie titles for the most part now, and classic catalog titles are mostly verboten, while rumors of Borders’ demise (they have publicly stated that they’re for sale) continue to grow. Target and Walmart never took an interest in indie, cult films or classic catalog, only major studio titles (Best Buy is the same now), so they never really mattered. As for the online retailers, Amazon’s great as long as folks want your title, but if they don’t know what it is, the orders will match that attitude, while most of the other online retailers follow the same route. You used to be able to go out with about 4,000 to 5,000 units with a return rate of 20%, 25% at most, but now you’re lucky if you can get 2,000 units out the door and that return rate and be 40% if you’re not lucky. Ask most indie DVD manufacturers right now and they’ll all tell you the same thing – the market fucking sucks right now and will probably never improve.

So how did this happen? Lots of reasons:

1) Overload. Too many titles and too many SKU’s taking up shelf space. When Warners offers 4 different variations of the new HARRY POTTER DVD, it’s taking away shelf space from newer, more interesting titles from Criterion, Synapse, Kino, and all the others. And no one is adding any new shelf space.

2) TV on DVD. It’s great to have all of your favorite TV shows on disc, but all those shows are also taking away that shelf space from your favorite indies. And keep in mind that those TV shows have bigger boxes and last several seasons.

3) The buyers are fucking idiots. This is what the labels and distributors always discuss amongst themselves but can never acknowledge in public, that most, if not all, of these chains employ buyers for their chains that know next to nothing about movies. The way these things usually go, the buyers are always shifted around; last month you were buying computer parts, this month you’re buying DVDs. These people may “like” movies, but their knowledge of them is pretty much nil; the titles are just that – titles on a list. In a sense it doesn’t quite matter if the buyers know movies, as everyone has to work within their budget, but it certainly helps all concerned if the chains were able to make more informed decisions, don’t you think? Oh, I’m sorry, but that would make sense.

4) Netflix. Some people think it’s the great equalizer, and I love the fact that they make a point of getting every title they can get their hands on. But for indie titles they only buy a box at most (30 units) and will buy more only if it rents like crazy. Which is part of the other problem, that consumers pass over buying most titles because they think they can just rent it on Netflix at any old time. And don’t depend on Blockbuster, either. If you’ve got an urban comedy or you won the Oscar for Best Documentary, then OK, you’re in, but otherwise you’re going to go hungry waiting for them to make a buy. I’ve dealt with them on numerous occasions and they’re fairly reasonable people; they pay close attention to what works for them vs. what doesn’t and will make changes accordingly, but most indie titles are M.I.A., while classic catalog is all but forgotten. Seriously – go to your local Blockbuster and look to see if they have any Bette Davis films to rent. Good luck on that one.

5) Indie overload. Every idiot wants to make a movie these days and with digital technology those dreams are becoming realities. But how many of them are any good? Not many, but plenty of them get picked up for peanuts and get picked up by tiny labels that want to be the next Magnolia. Those titles tend to sell in the hundreds of units. Same goes for most arthouse titles, too.

This is not exactly to say that the majors are doing all that great, either. The classic catalog titles are still coming out (and god bless Warners and Fox for their commitment to them, while I damn Columbia for sitting on the Randolph Scott/Budd Beotticher films) but they’re not selling as well as they once did, either. Still, the mere fact that Warners can get their gangster series and star collections into the big chains is a small victory for classic movie lovers. Criterion can still have hits (titles like IF… and THE LAST EMPEROR did extremely well), though some of the more obscure foreign films struggle despite the Criterion name (and no, they’re not budging on those price points). Lionsgate’s recent purging of the Canal + catalog, with the Alain Deleon and Bridgette Bardot sets have racked some decent numbers, but they hardly promote them and are getting by on press alone. Dave Kehr’s Tuesday column in the New York Times has been a big plus to any title he writes up (they always see a nice Amazon bump), but he’s one of the few major press players left who writes about the likes of Abel Gance or even LADY TERMINATOR in a major American publication of any kind. I honestly can’t think of a single online DVD critic who carries the same weight (sorry, Michael Den Boer). Meanwhile, you’ve got bloggers and supposed “critics” hitting up labels for review copies only because they don’t want to pay for them, though no one at the labels has ever bothered to inform them just how insignificant those reviews can be.

So where are things going, exactly? Buddy, if I knew the answer to that I would have stayed in the business and become a very rich man. Things will become worse before they get better and some great labels will probably go out of business in the next year or so. People point to Blu-Ray as a possible savior, and as cool as that is, it’s basically the DVD variation of laserdisc, something for the die hards and the videophiles. Those few indies who have ventured into that world have discovered that the costs of putting out a Blu-Ray disc will make it tougher to recoup (at least at this point in time), especially when the likes of Best Buy still resist indie and genre films on the new format. This is leaving a lot of great labels in a bind, as they struggle to stay afloat and not just acquire new titles but to release titles that they acquired when business was better. The well isn’t as dry as you would think; although some licensors are still living in the early Aughties and are asking for too much money for some titles, plenty of interesting stuff is making its way that needs to be seen. The floodgates for films from all over the world (like the current Nikattsu series touring around the states) are still gushing and should continue for a while, but who’s going to put them out if more labels tend to go under? Any new labels that bravely try to get into the biz will soon learn that there’s no real money in it, and while this should be more about the greater good of cinema than making money, it can’t pay for itself. There are too many movies out there and too many that need to be seen. You can’t watch them all.

I’ll certainly keep paying attention to the ins and outs of the industry and I’ll keep in touch with all of my friends still involved in it, but it would take something stellar to lure me back in. They’re wonderful things, these DVDs, but to work them is too much of a chore that I no longer want any part of. Good luck to those who are.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

He's a Demon and He's Gonna Be Chasin' After Someone - SPEED RACER

One of my many problems with the digital film revolution is in how so many of the filmmakers working within it don’t really seem to have any grasp to meld the digital possibilities of the medium with proper storytelling techniques. Too many of them seem to be too impressed with the digital toys that everything else suffers; you can do almost anything with a movie’s visuals now, but it seems that you can’t teach technicians or second-rate filmmakers how to use those tricks in order to serve a story. This is what separates the Warkowski Brothers (and they’re still brothers, or at least are still credited as such) from most everyone else is that that they get it, they understand how to take the tools at hand and use them to their advantage and make a fairly flimsy story sparkle. SPEED RACER works (and works well) because the visuals and the story go hand-in-hand in a surprisingly effective fashion that even jaded, seen-it-all and sick of FX viewers like myself can appreciate. It’s an explosion of color and technology that still has a heart behind it that’s the cinematic equivalent of a big ice cream sundae with all the fixing’s and is pretty useless to resist.

One thing about SPEED RACER that particularly impressed me was how the Warkowskis make a specific point by emphasizing character in the opening act. We start with a big race, which is a pretty predictable way of going about things, but the race itself serves only as a manner of telling the background not just of Speed Racer, but also his entire family. We see constant flashbacks to Speed’s childhood, his relationship with his brother Rex and future girlfriend Trixie with the race itself being secondary. It sets the tone very well, letting us know what to expect on a visual and storytelling level, so by the first reel’s end we’re settled into it and can get with the rest of the film and into what story there is. The film doesn’t go much into the story department after this – it’s pretty much just plot from here on in – but it gets the job done very well. The plot is something that doesn’t stray too far from the show (Speed and Racer X work together to expose corruption in the racing game) but that’s OK because this is a film that doesn’t depend too much on such slight things as a plot. That would otherwise be meant as an insult, but SPEED RACER is one of the few films of this type that gets it right. The Warkowskis seem to working off of a very specific design for what they want to achieve (I wouldn’t quite use the word “vision”, but design is perfectly fine in this case) and that’s something akin to a live-action anime or video game. Again, I could care less about such things, but I did here, and I think it’s in part because the Warkowskis have their hearts in it and also because they’ve cast the film extremely well and the roles are all played with just the right tone to make it all work. The proper word to use here is sincerity, as all of the major good guy roles are played with a significant amount of it, and the bad guy roles (with special mention going out to lead villain Roger Allam, who’s just great) are appropriately over the top. Everyone is just right for their parts, but I can’t let it pass without signaling out John Goodman, who is absolutely wonderful as Speed’s dad, Pops. The best scene in the film is his, as he recalls watching a classic race with his son, and if there’s one person in the movie who is able to take his character and make them more flesh and blood than possible, it’s Goodman, and he owns much of SPEED RACER. He hasn’t been this good in a movie since THE BIG LEBOWSKI, which is saying a lot.

Trust me; I’m very surprised by how much I enjoyed SPEED RACER. Those of you out there who are going to brush this one off as Hollywood blockbuster crap will be missing something unique: A technological blockbuster with some heart. It’s a most enjoyable movie going experience and it deserves a shot. It’s not the second coming of cinema, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Went Looking for America, Couldn't Find it Anywhere.

I completed the NJ to Austin drive in time to catch the very entertaining EXTE: HAIR EXTENSIONS (which I missed at three different festivals last year) and the Weird Wednesdays screening of THE MOLESTERS, which I dozed off during. Tennessee and Arkansas were lovely, people were friendly, but I'm focused on getting settled in and starting up the job. I promise to have something posted by early next week.

In the meantime, a song about the wandering cowboy I have become. Enjoy!