Tag Archives: movies

Pandora Revisited

That's still straight-up CGI...

That’s still straight-up CGI…

We were cleaning out DVDs a few weeks ago, largely because we don’t watch as many as we used to, yet also because Meg is accumulating more, so we need the room.  Brooke pulled a few to get rid of, some of which I was fine with and others I had to put back.  For the most part, these were movies that I/we hadn’t watched in a long time, so they were good choices.

But I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of Avatar.  To be fair, I hadn’t watched it in a long time.  Perhaps years.  But it was a nice Bluray collector’s set and it didn’t seem right.  Brooke and Meg were out of town this past weekend, so I took the opportunity to pop in Avatar again and see how it held up.

Avatar was released in late 2009.  At the time, I was pretty high on it, mostly from the tech perspective.  Having re-watched it, nearly five years later, I think it still holds up.  The CGI characters still look pretty good, though perhaps not as impressive as they did in theaters (though, bear in mind that I saw it in 3D, “as intended,” so it could never look that good again unless I watched it in 3D).  What really stands out to me is the world of Pandora itself.  Many, if not most, of the scenes in the film take place in the jungle, all of which was done on a green screen.  Like, literally all of it.  All that stuff, in my view, holds up quite well.  The characters still integrate perfectly into the background, looking as real as if they’d filmed in the Amazon.

Only a few CGI-centric movies age this well.  Jurassic Park comes to mind.  Perhaps even The Matrix (before CGI was over-used in the sequels, I’d argue).

So in large part, I still feel that Avatar is an important film.  One of those that may not necessarily have the greatest acting of our time, or the most involved story (as evidenced by the nominees and winners from the Oscars in 2010).  But the technology developed to make the movie in the first place changed film making.  Heck, the tech used in Avatar has been integral to some of the greatest video games of the last generation.  Motion capture certainly existed before Avatar, but not to the degree James Cameron took it.  In many respects, this movie that took 15 years to make, has touched all blockbusters that have come after it.  It’s a profound achievement.

That all said, it’s a long movie that I won’t be returning to all the time, perhaps for another few years.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Avengers close to 10 times in the last not-even-two-years now and I wouldn’t qualify it as “important” (however, it’s definitely more entertaining).  Yet a lot of the tech required to make The Avengers happen in the first place was developed in order to create Avatar.  Though one can absolutely enjoy other movies more, credit should be applied where it’s due.

It’ll be interesting to see how James Cameron does with the next three movies in the burgeoning Avatar franchise.  Somehow, I doubt they’ll be as revolutionary as the first film…

…which I intend to hold on to…

Upcoming Movies

The last two years have yielded something of a famine with regards to summer movies I’m excited to see.  To be fair, the last two years have also encompassed this little thing called “fatherhood,” so I haven’t exactly had the time or money to go see as many movies as I used to.  That, and living in Iowa away from my usual movie buddy made it difficult to get to see the flicks I wanted to check out.

To be fair, last year especially didn’t really have much I was excited to see.  Within the realm of comic book features, movies like Thor, Captain America and Green Lantern didn’t really entice me to find someone to go to the theater with.  I caught most of these movies, and others, through Netflix rentals in the Fall and Spring and I don’t really think I missed all that much.

That said, now that we’ve made our triumphant return to St. Louis, I thought it best to outline the movies I’m excited to go see this Summer, provided The Wife (…and Josh’s wife…) will allow such things…  :-)

  • The Avengers (May 4, 2012) – This one is gonna rake in tons of cash, if only for the slate of actors they’ve got lined up.  Just about everyone is in this movie and it promises to blow up everything in sight.  Definitely a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.
  • Men In Black III (May 25, 2012) – To be honest, I don’t like the idea of effectively replacing Tommy Lee Jones with Josh Brolin. Then again, if you wanted a young looking Tommy Lee Jones, you could do worse than Josh Brolin.  I loved the first movie, but didn’t particularly care for the second one.  We’ll see how this one turns out, I guess, but I’ll probably end up seeing it.
  • Prometheus (June 1, 2012) – Billed as a loose prequel to the Alien franchise, Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi horror after a long absence.  This one probably won’t bring in the bucks as the others on this list, but I expect it’ll still be pretty awesome.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3, 2012) – I like me some Spider-man, and this re-boot takes the story back to the beginning with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.  When I heard those two names announced, I was a bit apprehensive, but Stone’s good in just about anything she’s in and Garfield was good in The Social Network, so I’ll cut him some slack.  That, and at least in the clips I’ve seen, he seems to pull off the “wit” of the character a bit more convincingly than Tobey Maguire did.  Call me “optimistic” on this one.
  • The Dark Knight Rises (July 20, 2012) – Uh.  I don’t need to write anything here really.  While Batman Begins was a great movie, The Dark Knight practically redefined what a “comic book movie” could be.  I will be shocked if this movie is anything less than stellar.
  • Total Recall (August 3, 2012) – To be honest, I haven’t seen the Schwarzenegger version in quite awhile, but the trailer for this one, this time with Colin Farrell, could be good.  The effects look pretty sweet and it’s got a good slate of actors.  My only concern is that Len Wiseman is directing it, mostly known for the Underworld franchise, so while I’m hopeful this movie turns out to be good, I won’t be too surprised if it’s “middling,” at best.
  • The Bourne Legacy (August 3, 2012) – So, as I was compiling this list, I saw this movie coming up.  I’d heard they were continuing the franchise without Matt Damon, but didn’t realize it was coming up already.  Jeremy Renner will be carrying on as a new character, though some old favorites from the previous movies will show up, too (Renner is also in The Avengers, earlier in the summer, so he’s packing quite a payday this year).  It’s a strong series of movies, so as long as they stick with the fiction, it’ll probably be alright.  There’s a bit of concern, though, as Paul Greengrass isn’t directing these (he did the previous three), but it is being directed by the guy that was involved with writing the earlier movies, so at least there’s some pedigree there.  Again, I’m hopeful for this one.

 

Pirates on the High Seas (of the Internet)

I read a pretty spectacular article from Forbes.com today about how the MPAA and RIAA are fighting a losing battle against piracy.  The article echoes statements I’ve made in the past, though not on this blog (…that I can find, anyway…).

The author is blunt and to the point: the movie industry is being dragged kicking and screaming to a future that practically all their customers want, and they’re losing revenue in doing so.  They could make their money back on volume by making their movies a). easier to access, and b). cheaper.

The primary problem movie studios have to realize is that everything they charge for is massively overpriced. The fact that movie ticket prices keep going up is astonishing. How can they possibly think charging $10-15 per ticket for a new feature is going to increase the amount of people coming to theaters rather than renting the movie later or downloading it online for free? Rather than lower prices, they double down, saying that gimmicks like 3D and IMAX are worth adding another $5 to your ticket.

They have failed to realize that people want things to be easy. Physically going to the movies is hard enough without paying way too much for the privilege. Going to a store and buying a DVD instead of renting or downloading is generally an impractical thing to do unless you A) really love a particular movie or B) are an avid film buff or collector.

Here’s the part I’ve been most concerned by: rising ticket prices.  Why go to a movie theater to spend $10-$15 on a ticket, plus an additional $10+ on “food?”  Granted, I have a toddler so my movie viewing in theaters has decreased tremendously in the past few years anyway, but with the advent of Netflix, I have all kinds of things to watch, and now I have the will to wait until a movie comes out on DVD.  Especially when the summer blockbusters are looking more and more like that “Battleship” ad you saw during the Super Bowl.  Now, if I could see a non-IMAX, non-DTS movie in the theater and get a medium-sized non-refillable soda for $10?  I’d do that.  No question.

Finally, the author suggests a solution to this problem: the movie industry needs their equivalent of the gaming industry’s digital distribution platforms (e.g. Steam). Heck, they need Apple’s iTunes.  Make buying the product so stupid simple that it takes less effort to buy it than it does to steal it.  As he points out, it takes 7 steps to download a movie illegally, and depending on your internet connection, you could have an HD-quality movie in a half hour.  If the movie industry would just get behind an Apple or Amazon model of 1). find movie, and 2). click “buy” (for a reasonable price).

Let us recall music piracy of the late-90s/early-2000s for a moment.  Back then, you could go on Napster or Kazaa and search to find music you wanted, but you’d easily find tens or hundreds of the same track, each one with different sound qualities.  You could easily download a track you thought was good, but after downloading, you’d find actually had multiple “hiccups” in the file.  iTunes streamlined the process.  Search to download one song that you knew was of relatively high quality and was consistent with the rest of your iTunes library.  Moreover, you’d see that you could get a song for $1, but the entire album for $10, undercutting what was easily $15 at most brick-and-mortar retailers.  So in many respects, at least with iTunes, there was a chance you’d “up sell” your customer on getting the whole album, rather than just a single song.

iTunes made it easy and people flocked to it.  Does music piracy still happen?  Absolutely, but now, people have a reasonable, viable alternative that I’d argue most people consider before pirating albums.

Steam did the same thing for the gaming industry, making it stupid simple to download a digital copy of a computer game without having to search through seedy sectors of the internet looking for a pirated copy (that could include viruses or other malware).  They can even upgrade your graphics drivers and more for you when you install the game, streamlining the process further to make life for the consumer that much better.  Many PC games are released day and date with their “physical media” counterparts.  In many cases, you can actually have the game downloaded and then get it “unlocked” at midnight on its release day.  For PC games, you can’t get much more convenient.  You don’t even have to get out of your pajamas…

If piracy has taught us anything it’s that the movie industry thinks that an audience watching their movies on a computer or TV screen, while that same movie is still out in theaters, is important.  If this is really the case, the movie industry should do the smart thing and release movies online day and date with their release in theaters.  Charge $10 to rent it, making the cost comparable with a ticket to the theater (though that $10 is then divided up among the number of people watching the movie in your living room).

Obviously, some people don’t care if the movie is in IMAX or has super-duper Dolby Digital Sound or smell-o-vision: they just want to watch the damned movie.  They don’t want to deal with crappy popcorn prices.  They don’t want to deal with screaming kids or people talking through the whole thing.  They don’t want to fight for a decent seat in a packed theater.  They don’t want to drive their car and park in a lot.  They don’t want to pay upwards of $30 to see a movie on a Saturday afternoon.  There are any number of reasons folks don’t want to go to a movie theater, while others still like going.  There’s no reason the movie industry can’t cater to both demographics and make money doing it.

So, take heed, Movie and TV Industry. You’re being surpassed by other content purveyors.  Make it easy to access your content and I assure you, people will return to you and buy more of your stuff.

And stop taking your anger out on Netflix…that isn’t helping anything…

Nine Days of Potter

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Famously (or infamously), I avoided the Harry Potter franchise.  Not quite to the same degree I refuse to watch Titanic, but perhaps similar.  I jumped on the Lord of the Rings bandwagon and figured I’d put off Harry Potter until Meg would be old enough to appreciate the books.

Well, she’s not quite old enough, but now that all of the movies are available on DVD, we figured it had been long enough.  Brooke had never seen them either, though she read all of the books, a few more than once.  Last weekend, Meg was visiting my parents, so we borrowed the early movies and watched them, starting last Friday night.

Between Friday and Monday, we watched the first five movies.  The next three we spaced out due to Netflix DVD travel time.  Therefore, in a period of 9 days, we watched 8 Harry Potter movies.

Kinda nuts, I know.

Regardless, I must say that the movies, overall, hold up quite well.  The first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was released in 2001, so I expected the various CGI effects to have aged to a significant degree, however I found them to be surprisingly decent, even 10 years later.  This isn’t to say that the effects didn’t improve over the decade these movies were coming out: the last few, Deathly Hallows Part I and Part II had all the effects trappings of any other big-budget blockbuster.

The acting was always good, yet still improved over the years, likely because the three primary actors, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were all 11 or 12 when the movies were released.  By the time they reached the end, they were all doing very well in their roles and had likely surpassed the adults that had been alongside throughout the series.

Each movie had its own “flavor,” of sorts, to contribute to the franchise.  Some focused more on the school experience at Hogwarts, others focused on some specific activity, like the Triwizard Tournament, and later movies (and the books, of course) laid more of a focus on the Good vs Evil aspects that run throughout the series.  Thus, the latter movies tend to be much darker than the earlier movies.  Also, I felt that the earlier movies were better at being “standalone” features, while the latter movies (Order of the Phoenix and later) flow into each other to some extent.

Speaking of which, Order of the Phoenix was probably my favorite in the franchise.  This movie featured a level of “political upheaval” in the fiction of the series that I found to be interesting, and I wish they could have explored it further.  Brooke says that there was quite a bit more of the Ministry of Magic (the group that acts as a sort of governing body over wizards and witches) in the Deathly Hallows (the final book, separated out into two movies), but very little of it remained by the book was translated to the silver screen.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

One interesting bit about watching all of the movies in sequence in a short time like this is that you can observe all of the kids growing up.  I suppose it’s part of why these actors were chosen in the first place: their characters first attend Hogwarts when they turn 11, which is right around the age when the actors took on the roles.  Each book is supposed to represent an additional year at the school and, while they couldn’t quite keep the movies churning out each year, they still stayed close enough that the actors could have passed for 17 in the last story.  If my math is correct, Daniel Radcliffe turned 17 during the filming of Order of the Phoenix, which is the fifth book/movie of the series.  Still, looking at the pictures I’ve posted above, the actors have obviously aged during their tenure in the roles.

Overall, I was pretty impressed.  I’d expected a bit more “kiddie fare” throughout the series, but in actuality, it was really only persistent in the first movie, and followed into the second one to an extent.  The characters “grew up” relatively quickly, so the movies didn’t get bogged down in young-minded storylines to the extent I’d anticipated.

The latter half of the series, though, really seems to ape the “Star Wars” franchise, with Harry being Luke Skywalker and Lord Voldemort as…well…Lord Vader.  Much as Luke and Vader were connected by family, history, loss, good/evil, and so on, so were Harry and Voldemort.  I kinda wanted a bit more out of the Voldemort character, honestly.  He was present the whole time, and he was certainly bad, but somehow, he just didn’t seem evil enough to me.  They would constantly talk about their fear of “He Who Must Not Be Named,” yet the scenes we saw him in, he just wasn’t doing much that was particularly…evil.  Granted, it’s a children’s series, so you can’t get too dark, but I can’t help but think more could have been done.  Watching the movies, I was more disturbed by Dolores Umbridge, the teacher sent from the corrupt Ministry of Magic that is trying to sweep the return of Voldemort under the proverbial rug.  I’m sure the books make Voldemort seem more evil than he turns out to be in the movies, but I found him to be a bit lacking.  Perhaps it’ll take a few more viewings of the last two movies before I really settle on why that is.

In the end, I still prefer the Lord of the Rings series over this one, though the Harry Potter series was fun, interesting, and well-produced.  In many ways, the effects in the first few movies hold up better than the effects from LotR, though they were definitely less complicated (e.g. putting a light at the end of a wand is a bit cheaper than modeling Gollum, let alone developing the technology to create the character in the first place).  Order of the Phoenix was my favorite of the movies, though I really liked Chamber of Secrets, despite it being an “early” movie.  The later ones got quite a bit more confusing, but it’ll make more sense when I re-watch them in a few years, once Meg’s old enough.

Maybe I’ll even read the books when Meg does.

The Value of Content

I watched “Page One: Inside The New York Times” on Netflix Sunday.  It’s a documentary that focuses on the NYT as an institution in news reporting in the United States and the world, but also discusses the changing face of media (e.g. blogs, Twitter, etc.) and the ability of just about anyone to put out “unfiltered” news directly to the general public, as in the case of the WikiLeaks debacle from last year.  The documentary is pretty interesting, though I think they “bounced around” a bit more than I would prefer without any good transitions.

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was the battle currently being waged between “Old Media” and “New Media.”  For example, you can go to practically any news blog now for your news as many people do, but practically all of them just re-word and re-post the same information that was originally presented in the NYT.  Thus, the regular consumer of news gets their information for free without every having to visit the NYT website or pick up a paper, and therefore, the NYT never gets any ad revenue or subscriber fees from the reader.

Which leads to the central question of the documentary: how long will this be sustainable?  Or, re-worded, how long can the New York Times, and institutions like it, survive in a “digital world” using their traditional economic models?

I heard a related story on NPR last week talking about Amazon and Apple (but mostly Amazon) and how the European Union is investigating them for antitrust violations with regards to e-book prices on their respective stores.  These two companies essentially dictate to the publisher how much money they will sell their books (typically around $10), while the publishing companies used to be able to charge quite a bit more than that for a hardcover new release (let alone the fact that they set the price, not the distributor).

Now, in the case of the Times, I’m not really sure what the solution is.  They have already taken steps to increase revenue by charging for their website, and I think that’s helping.  At the very least, they’re making an attempt to survive the transition into digital media.  Likely, as tablets broaden their reach to consumers, they will be able to charge for their app, or access to stories, effectively turning tablets into digital NYT readers.  There is certainly money to be had if you produce a good app, and the NYT has a pretty decent one.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of people out there don’t understand where news comes from and that most of these blogs a). don’t actually investigate their own news (they just re-post it from other sources), and b). frequently have some kind of agenda, so it may not be as objective as it should be to be considered capital-J “Journalism.”  There is a value in actual news and people are willing to pay for it: the NYT just needs to figure out how to sustain the same standard of Journalism while operating under realistic expectations of what the public will pay for it.

In the case of book, movie, and music publishers, though, I think they need to adjust their model quickly.  For example, if one considers a new-release book at Barnes and Noble, it’s likely it would cost you $20 or more.  It simply doesn’t make sense to charge $20 for a digital copy (as publishers would love to do).  The same thing goes for movies: I’m not going to spend the Bluray price of a movie for the digital version.

Now, those full prices don’t typically occur for movies and books because of the digital systems that have grown up to deliver the content for you.  For a new movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll spend $22.99 for the Bluray and you’ll spend $14.99 for the digital version, so there’s some premium for the physical copy and some discount for the digital copy.  In video games, this typically isn’t the case, however.  When the newest Call of Duty game came out on PC, it was $60, regardless of whether you got a physical disc in a box or if you downloaded it.  With games, though, there has been something of a “relationship” developed between the publishers of games and the retailers (e.g. Gamestop, Wal-Mart, etc), where the publisher could offer a discount on a digital version, but in order to appease the brick-and-mortar retailer, they keep it the same price so you still may go into their store.

Ultimately, “Old Media” needs to realize that they can’t support the distribution systems that they used for the past few decades.  This is starting to happen with books, where locations like Borders went bankrupt because they couldn’t make the transition to a digital age.  Companies like Gamestop are starting to make the transition, offering a digital streaming service not unlike Netflix Instant.  Companies like Wal-Mart will probably just stop offering games and movies, eventually, but they’ll survive because they sell other things (among other reasons).

But the publishers still have much to worry about.  Their teams of editors, binders, layout people, and so on and so forth.  Teams of people that were needed in order to lay out print for publication or to set up distribution chains for each product.  Or that were needed to design the inside of game manuals.  Or to design the cases that your DVD or Bluray came in.  These are all things that just aren’t (as) necessary in a fully digital world.  You don’t need to worry about distribution when you can just sell it on the internet to everyone.  However, publishers are still trying to charge additional money on the digital side in order to support these folks on the physical side of their product.

Now, my solution to this problem is to increase the cost of the physical media and further decrease the cost of the digital one.  If there’s anything apps on the iPhone or Android have shown developers, it’s that selling your product for $1 means that you’ll sell to additional people, and you’ll make your money back on volume.  I mean, if you could just buy a new release movie for $5, would you do it? Would you even think about the purchase?  Would you care if you only watched it one time?  That’s cheaper than a single ticket to go see the movie in theaters.  If new movies, digitally distributed, without any special features were $5, I think they’d sell more.

But again, publishers should still hang on to their “physical media” production scheme, as there will still be people that want an actual Bluray disc.  And I definitely know that there will be people that want a physical book, rather than an e-reader form.  But wouldn’t more people buy books if they were $5 for a new one, rather than $20?  Sure, pay the premium if you want a nice, hardcover, bound, indestructible copy of a book for your collection, but don’t make people that just want to read the book help finance other people’s need for a physical copy.

There’s a somewhat longstanding psychological “principle” in gaming related to the $100 price point.  Once any gaming console hits $100, then many consumers won’t even think about the price.  It’ll become an impulse buy.  A similar phenomenon happened with the Wii when it released, and it cost $250.  But at that price, it was cheap enough as an impulse buy for many people just to play Wii Sports.

“Old Media” publishers need to find the “impulse buy” price for their products.  In the case of movies and books, I think $10 is a fair price to charge, but $5 is the “impulse buy” price.  Once publishers start selling their wares down there for a digital form, I think they’ll make their money back on volume, and only then will they survive.

Edit: I read this article from Slate today, discussing Amazon and its tactics that end up hurting brick and mortar bookstores.  I particularly liked this line:

But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.

Yup.