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James Berardinelli's ReelViews


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May 30, 2008 (Friday):

Ultimate Chick Flick

Looking at the few films opening in theaters this weekend, I can affirm that it's a good time to go to the multiplexes for horror fans and devotees of Sex and the City. Everyone else might do better staying home. Big summer movies often have the capacity to disappoint. 2007 opened with three consecutive duds, all of which made a ton of money (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean 3). So far in 2008, with the notable exception of Iron Man, things haven't been any better.

My Pick of the Week comes with a caveat: you have to like horror films. I don't mean the dumbed-down remakes of Asian ghost stories. I'm talking about hard-core horror - the kind that creeps you out and deflates you. The kind that generates plenty of suspense but in which everyone doesn't live happily ever after. The kind where foreboding takes precedence over blood. The Strangers is that kind of movie. It's not a feel-good experience. It's horror at its most basic stuff the likes of which has happened in the real world and which makes one doubt the basic goodness of humanity. If you consider yourself to be a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to give The Strangers a shot.

It goes without saying that most of the 6 million die-hard aficionados of a defunct HBO TV show will be in multiplexes this weekend for an update on Carrie and friends. Sex and the City is made for fans and only for fans. If all 6 million of those viewers see the movie, they will contribute about $50 million to its box office gross. The rest of the populace won't add much (except for those significant others who are dragged kicking and screaming to it). Is that good enough to knock off Dr. Jones? Possibly. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have limited staying power. Everyone wanted to see it, and they did so last weekend. Now, how many will go back for a second or third trip? This doesn't seem like a movie to compel viewers back time and time again. So I'm going to choose Sex and the City as this weekend's Box Office Champion. (There is an alternate possibility. Teenage boys, unhappy with no new option this week, could return for another shot at Indiana Jones IV. This could tilt the balance. Then again, with so many of their moms going to the movies, the boys might prefer to hang out at the mall instead.)

What's interesting about Sex and the City is not its TV roots, but the gender gap. I don't know any straight men who are interested in seeing this. Those who are planning to go are doing so because their wives/girlfriends expect their companionship. (For the record, I saw this with my wife. She's not a big SatC fan, although she owns the first two seasons on DVD, and was unimpressed by the movie.) It's rare that Hollywood targets a film at this demographic. The average big summer blockbuster is geared toward teenage boys and/or families. We have seen the power that tween and teen girls can exert upon occasion, but this is the first time we'll see whether women ages 20-60 can have the same kind of impact. The question remains whether a majority of the SatC fans will go to theaters to see the film or whether a significant portion of them will wait a few months for the DVD release. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brought a lot of nostalgic DVD-only watchers into multiplexes. Will SatC be able to do the same?

It will be fascinating to see how Sex and the City fares this weekend. If it tops Indy, it will be one-and-done, but can it get that far? This is unquestionably an "event movie," but how big will the event be? Even if Sex and the City becomes phenomenally successful, I don't foresee an upsurge in chick flicks geared to a mature audience. That's a genre that has failed repeatedly in the past. This is a referendum only on Sex and the City. Reading anything more into it would be a mistake.

By the way, my negative review should be taken for what it is: the opinion of a non-believer. I am a straight male, which automatically puts me at a disadvantage where this movie is concerned. I am not ignorant of the series or the characters, having seen a smattering of episodes over the years, but I have no deep love for Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, or Charlotte. Fans will look at this film much differently than bystanders like me (I know this from personal experience with other kinds of fandom). It would be dishonest for me to write from a perspective other than the one in which I find myself. The Star Trek: The Motion Picture comparison I use in my review is appropriate. Other than Kim Cattrall, Star Trek and Sex and the City may seem to have little in common, but there are similar dynamics in the fan base and how it reacts to a movie that fails to be inclusive of those without a vested interest.

May 28, 2008 (Wednesday):

Rambo: First Price Break

Can it be that Sylvester Stallone will lead the way?

For Blu-Ray, the victory in the high-def DVD format war was only the beginning of a long struggle to convert the masses from standard DVD to its 1080p counterpart. With the cash cow of the last decade showing signs of weakness, Hollywood is looking for another source of reliable revenue, and they have elected to stake their claim in the valley of Blu-Ray. It remains to be seen, however, whether DVD adopters will make the hoped-for transition. Will Blu-Ray be the next big thing in home video? Five years from now, will it be the standard? Or will it be like Vista, shunned by all but a loyal few. (In this scenario, standard DVD is XP.)

The end of the format war came at a bad time. Just as HD-DVD folded, the economy went in the tank. Now, people are too busy worrying about filing up their cars with gas and buying food to concern themselves with replacing a perfectly good DVD player with something new and shiny. In a hot economy, there's little doubt that Blu-Ray would be thriving. But it's hard to convince people to upgrade their video system during a time of shaky job and housing markets.

Two main factors are preventing Blu-Ray from going mainstream. The first is the cost of the players. Yes, they're a lot cheaper than they used to be, but not cheap enough. Blu-Ray players should be positioned to replace DVD players. That's not the case. Today, if a DVD player breaks, the consumer will buy a sub-$100 model rather than move to the high-def alternative. By Christmas, bottom-of-the-line Blu-Ray players may be selling for $250 to $300 (right now, they're $350 to $400, with the PS3 the most popular version at $400), but in this economy, that may still be too much. Shave off another $100, and the market looks better.

Then there are the actual disc prices. Consider last week's big seller: National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Discounted at, the standard DVD sells for $15 and the Blu-Ray for $24. That's a significant difference. If software titles are meant to be an enticement to adopt Blu-Ray, prices are a mitigating factor. The reality is that for Blu-Ray to be successful, prices have to come down to be in line with those of DVDs. Consider a consumer who owns a Blu-Ray player and loves National Treasure 2. He wants to buy a copy not rent one, but money is tight. In this hypothetical situation (which is what it surely must be for anyone to want to buy National Treasure 2), the $8 differential means there's a decision to be made; however, if the price was equal (or nearly so), Blu-Ray would unquestionably win.

That brings us to Rambo.

As part of a push for the home video release of Rambo, the three previous First Blood movies are getting Blu-Ray treatment. They are available singly or as a three-pack. The prices are surprising. Discounted, the box set is $35. The individual movies are $14 each. Admittedly, the standard DVD releases are even cheaper, but these are prices I can live with. $14 may be a new low for a major Blu-Ray release. It's an older movie, but that hasn't stopped studios from charging in the $20-$30 range before this.

$35 is a nice price point for a three-movie pack on high-def. Costs like this not only encourage those who don't own copies of the movie to buy them but may even encourage fans who own copies of the movie on standard DVD to upgrade. Ultimately, upgrading is where a lot of the money will be made. The studios are relying on collectors re-buying high def versions of standard DVD titles. This is only going to happen if the price is right. I'll re-buy a lot more movies at $14 than I will at $24. It's a simple matter of economics. With the Rambo set, I bought the $35 Blu-Ray package because I don't own the movies on standard DVD and they are cheap enough that I wasn't annoyed by the price. At $50, I might not have made the purchase, and at $60 or $70, I certainly wouldn't have.

While the Blu-Ray for the new Rambo is at a more pricey $23 (versus $18 for the standard DVD), it's the vintage movies that offer a ray of hope for those of us who prefer to buy high def but don't like paying a premium price. Then again, there's always NetFlix...

May 26, 2008 (Monday):

Upgrade Update (Final)

So I have nearly reached the end of what has been a longer road than I initially envisioned. To remake the site required that I add CSS, PHP, and MySQL to my arsenal of web tools (which previously contained HTML and some Java). I won't claim to be an expert in any of these, but I have enough of a working knowledge that I was able to do what I wanted to do with the site without having to bring in much in the way of outside help. I'm not much of a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to landscaping and home expansion projects, but with my website, I'm more flexible. So, for better or for worse, I'm pretty much responsible for everything except the logo for the new site. (Credit for that goes to Gary Seiler, my longtime graphics designer. This is actually an older design that I elected not to use at the time. However, it fits the streamlined look of the site nicely.) I would also be remiss not to thank those who have engaged in e-mail discussions with me over the past few months. How much time have I devoted to this project? I haven't been keeping count, but it's around 200 hours to this point, and it's far from over. There have been times when I have felt overwhelmed.

This week, as I put the old site to bed, I'll add new ReelThoughts columns today, Wednesday (the video update, focusing on a Rambo-related topic), and Friday (the theatrical openings update, focusing on a Sex and the City-related topic). New reviews will be added on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The last update to this version of the site will occur Friday afternoon. The transition, which should be painless, will occur as close to midnight on Saturday as I can manage. (In the event that I fall asleep early Saturday evening, it will take place Sunday morning.) All old bookmarks should work. The main areas of the site will be re-directed to the new pages as necessary.

What will be there on June 1? The main sections of the site - new reviews, ReelThoughts, and VideoViews - will be shifted intact. There will also be a greatly expanded search engine that will allow flexibility in what it can look for and find. At this point, however, it is unforgiving. Things have to be spelled correctly for the proper retrieval to take place. But there are ways beyond title and text searches to find things. There are enough options on the search page that it should be possible to find almost anything - if it's on the site. The search area in the upper right segment of every page is a text search. It will scan the entire site - reviews and ReelThoughts - for whatever expression you request.

About 1000 of 3600 archived reviews will be in the database at the outset, with more being added on a regular basis going forward. Most of the 300+ ReelThoughts entries will also be present. The bottom of the search page will keep a running track of how much has been converted. There will also be a link back to the old site in case there's an unconverted review you want to read. The old site won't go away completely until the transition is 100% complete. Old "commentary" entries and film festival reports will eventually be added as ReelThoughts, but they'll be among the last things I move.

The ads are still there. I'm curious to see whether I'll have more success with the new design than I have recently been having with the old one. One of the most difficult things is to find a balance between keeping the ads relatively unobtrusive and placing them where they will attract interest and attention. Going too far in the former direction results in too few clicks to make the site viable. Going too far in the latter direction can result in mass defections.

I am braced for an upsurge in e-mail (positive, negative, and mixed). I welcome all input on the new site, although I will probably not be responding to many comments. If you send it, I will read it but, until the volume diminishes, replies will be few and far between. The most important thing I need to know about are bugs, but I welcome general impressions as well. I expect to get quite a few screams of horror - that's the way it always goes with redesigns. People become comfortable with the way things look and feel. Every time I have redesigned in the past, I have gotten e-mails bemoaning how I have ruined the site. I anticipate more of the same, especially since this change is much bigger than anything I have previously attempted.

Now, like any parent, I await the reception of my child.

May 23, 2008 (Friday):

Raiders of the Box Office (Theatrical Releases)

This week is all about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It will unquestionably be the Box Office Champion, although the jury is still out whether it will set any receipt records. It's a curious thing. This is the summer's most hotly anticipated movie and it will make oodles and oodles of money; however, in the end, I think it will disappoint a fair number of viewers. Maybe it's the "Is that all there is?" syndrome. The film delivers action, adventure, jokes, and Harrison Ford. What's missing is the magic. This movie does not turn everyone in the audience into a 10-year old child awed and amazed by the antics of an iconic hero. I was as excited as anyone to see this movie. I got to the screening location early and went in with high expectations. I left the theater discouraged and a little sad. Indy deserves better than this.

I can't recommend anything this week because The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the only game in most towns, and I don't feel enough enthusiasm about it to advise movie-goers to spend their hard-earned money on tickets. (Uwe Boll's Postal is opening in about 17 theaters across the country, but none in my neck of the woods.) Not that my opinion matters much, nor should it for an "event" like this. There are some films for which critical opinion is important. Then there are movies like The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull where we're merely providing words for people to agree with or disagree with.

I have followed with interest how the tide of public opinion has changed regarding my review. Shortly after it was posted, it was picked up and copied (without permission but with attribution) to several forums. This led to a round of name-calling and insults and a debate about whether I even saw the movie (fueled by the error, since corrected, in which I called Mutt "Mudd"). I had a few defenders, but the climate was ugly. However, after the movie opened, a funny thing happened - many posters to those forums indicated that they agreed with me or even thought I was too "kind." I have always found it to be in bad form to comment on a review until having seen/read/experienced the source material. Those who waited to respond until after seeing the movie were able to offer something to the discussion beyond unchecked venom. It's the lack of basic civility in some posts like these that reinforces my belief that ReelViews should remain free of discussion groups. There are plenty of other places on the Net where one can bash me with impunity. I don't need it to happen on my own site.

Some have predicted that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will shatter records. The one in play is $153 million, the best-ever Memorial Day weekend total - a sum acquired by the third Pirates of the Caribbean tale last year. Can a 60-something action hero knock off Johnny Depp? I don't see it happening, even factoring in the nostalgia factor. And the predicted spectacular weather for the northeast won't help. A few hundred thousand people will be on the beach instead of in a multiplex. Indy should do fine, blowing past $100 million with ease, but it would surprise me to read on Monday that he has eclipsed the previous mark. And, in terms of longevity, it will be interesting to see whether The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the staying power to outlast Iron Man. Viewers are returning to see the latter two, three, four times. It's hard to imagine many people returning on multiple occasions to re-experience Dr. Jones' fourth adventure.

If you're looking for variety this weekend, avoid multiplexes. There's a 24-plex within easy driving distance of me. Seven of its screens are devoted to Indiana Jones 4, six are showing Prince Caspian, and four offer Iron Man. That leaves seven screens for a variety of unimpressive titles like Speed Racer and What Happens in Vegas.

May 21, 2008 (Wednesday):

Spectacle in Miniature (Video View)

The biggest theatrical movie being released on DVD this week is National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Within a week or two, it should be at the top of both the sales and rental charts. However, as is the case with all action-oriented would-be blockbusters, this one suffers in the transition from the big screen to a smaller one. To work, movies like National Treasure 2 require immersion. Certainly, things like plot and character development aren't big on their list of laudable characteristics. They're effective as no-risk amusement park rides. Placards at theater entrances should read: "Please turn off brains. Anyone observed thinking during this movie will be escorted to the exit." It's possible to become involved in an experience like this in an auditorium with a giant screen and 400 seats. At home, things are a little different.

Admittedly, watching a movie in one's living room isn't the same experience it used to be. With the advent of HDTVs and Blu Ray disc players, it's possible to get a clarity of audio and video that would have been unthinkable in the early days of VHS. Still, clarity isn't size. A 40" or 50" TV with six or seven speakers gets you closer to the theatrical experience than a 28" conventional set, but there's still a significant gap. The number of people is small who can afford a home theater that approximates a multiplex. While it may be every videophile's dream to have a top-of-the-line front projection TV with a 10-foot screen and acoustically perfect walls, not many of us have the funds to make that a reality. Other things take precedence like saving for the kids' college education or planning for retirement. And many CEOs who can afford a "real" home theater don't have enough spare time to enjoy it.

With a normal movie, size doesn't matter. Something like Juno works just as well at home as it does in a theater. The film is driven by story, characters, and dialogue. But what about National Treasure: Book of Secrets? The story is crap, the characters are paper-thin, and the dialogue is laughable. It's all about spectacle, and that's the aspect of a movie that takes the biggest hit in downsizing. A lot of big movies that impress in multiplexes aren't as overwhelming when viewed at home. The experience can't be replicated without similar equipment. And, in a more intimate setting, flaws that aren't apparent in theaters begin to stand out.

The more assiduously Hollywood attempts to turn multiplexes into amusement parks, the more they threaten to alienate those who have given up on the theatrical experience. Unwilling to cope with endless pre-movie advertisements, unruly audiences, and uncaring employees, many of my generation and the generation before me have given up on "going to the movies." When something like National Treasure: Book of Secrets arrives on DVD, they rent it and wonder what all the fuss is about. Popcorn movies can work at home, but there has to be more than flashes and bangs. We can get that with a good thunderstorm. Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, doesn't need a gigantic screen and a primo sound system to entertain the hell out of a viewer. Indiana Jones is bigger than life even when squashed to TV-size dimensions. Twister, on the other hand, is a lot of fun in a theater. No matter how much you crank up the subwoofer, however, it gets cut down to size at home. Those behemoth tornadoes lose a lot of their ferocity outside of the multiplex.

There always has been and always will be a place for mindless movies like National Treasure: Book of Secrets (although I can think of a lot better examples of "good trash"). The problem is that Hollywood seems to be drifting in a direction where formula and effects are the two most important characteristics of any movie. While there may be a payoff for this at the front end (at least in the short run), it hurts the back end. The movies we remember are the ones that touch us on one level or another, not the ones that are the loudest or the flashiest. The more National Treasures we get, the fewer titles there will be to remember in years to come.

May 19, 2008 (Monday):

The Hobbyist

As many of my regular readers are aware, I have been analyzing the revenue potential of this site during the last year, attempting to see whether I can make enough via a bigger, better ReelViews to pay the bills. My conclusion can be summed up in five words: "Don't quit your day job." Or, to put it another way, ReelViews is a great way to earn a little extra money, but it doesn't generate enough to make me financially independent. In the final analysis, I have to admit that it's no more than a revenue generating hobby.

That's not how it looked in January and February, but the nosedive started in March and turned into a free-fall in April. Without revealing actual numbers (something that would make the advertising agencies I work with unhappy), I can state that my daily earnings from advertisements today are one-third of what they were on Groundhog Day. The downturn can be attributed to a number of things including how the decline in the economy has impacted the Internet advertising market. There's also a direct correlation between click-throughs on the ads and how much I earn. Early in the year, I would get (on average) between 80 and 100 clicks per day. That's a modest number but it generated cause for optimism. Yesterday, I got 38 clicks. That's across all reviews/reelthoughts/etc. on the day I posted the Indiana Jones 4 review. Not good. Ad blindness? Perhaps. Maybe things will improve when I switch to the new site design next week.

So how will this impact ReelViews? In the near-term, not at all. The upgrade will occur on schedule June 1. Although the original impetus for the changes was to make the site more commercial friendly, there are a lot of good reasons for revamping these pages beyond giving the ads a nice home. A steady diet of new movie reviews will continue unabated. ReelThoughts columns will be added on a regular basis (three or four per week). VideoViews will be expanded to become a more vital element of the site. However, some of the planned and proposed add-ons will not now happen.

One of the most frequently requested "new features" is to provide a place for reader feedback. The more time I spend surfing the Net, the less enamored of this I am. In principle, it's a great idea. It encourages expression and dialogue. It permits readers to air contrary opinions in-line and allows me to interact with them in a public forum rather than merely via e-mail. But there's a dark side to this. Nearly every site where reader comments are encouraged runs the risk of debates turning into vitriolic bickering. It's deflating to see how some people (presumably a vocal minority), given the cloak of on-line anonymity, turn vicious. They ignore the rule of never writing something on-line that they wouldn't say to someone's face, and it can get ugly. One solution is to moderate the message board, but that's time-consuming. Asking people to be civil only goes so far and I wouldn't want a section of ReelViews to turn into the venom-saturated feedback features of some popular websites.

I have never had a problem with people criticizing my reviews. While opinions can be neither "right" nor "wrong" in the strictest sense of the word, when they are expressed in a form that attempts to be an informative and entertaining piece of writing, they are as open to analysis and commentary as the works they are assessing. But there's a difference between criticism (explaining why a review is poorly written - and God knows I have written some horrendous reviews over the years) and personal attacks. I don't take umbrage with a statement like "Berardinelli really missed the boat on this one. His review indicates a lack of background and a complete misunderstanding of what the director is trying to accomplish." That's legitimate. I'm a big boy. I can take it. But insults and mudslinging, the vocabulary of many forums, cross a line. So for now, no feedback sections for reviews or ReelThoughts.

I never like ruling anything out, so I'm not closing the door on future growth. Maybe the advertising revenue situation will improve enough that I can once again begin thinking about ReelViews as being more of a second job than a hobby. Perhaps the design of the new site will result in so many clicks on the Google ads that I'll be swimming in money - something that would lead to a rapid expansion of the site in directions unforeseen. For now, however, my outlook is less bullish and my expectations for ReelViews more subdued.

May 16, 2008 (Friday):

At Play in the Forest of the Lion (Theatrical Releases)

While most pundits expected Speed Racer to underperform, I don't think any of them expected the kind of debacle that resulted. For a film that was once touted as one of the summer's big blockbusters to finish third during its opening weekend is unprecedented. And, when one factors in the feeble overseas sales, it becomes hard to see how Warner Brothers can turn a profit on this movie, even if it does brisk business when it hits the home video market. Speed Racer, with its $300 million production cost + advertising budget, is destined to join Ishtar near the top of the all-time theatrical debacles list.

There's only one new release this weekend (as is the case next weekend). Apparently, no one wanted to compete against the second chapter of the Narnia saga, and that represents sound reasoning. While it's easy enough to counter-program an action movie with a chick flick, it's harder to counter-program a family friendly fantasy movie. Anything released against Prince Caspian would probably sink like a rock. There's no doubt it will be this week's Box Office Champion, decisively dethroning Iron Man (not that it will hold the position for long...) The film's tone is darker and it is more battle-oriented than its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This may widen the audience to include teens who were put off by the somewhat juvenile feeling of the first movie. The filmmakers have clearly patterned the look and pace of Prince Caspian after The Lord of the Rings. And, in an attempt to further widen the net, they have replaced the boy Caspian of the book with the hunky man Caspian of the movie. It remains to be seen whether that change will capture a fraction of the female teenage crowd. I enjoyed Prince Caspian more than the earlier installment of the Chronicles, so it's my Pick of the Week.

It's interesting to speculate where the series will go from here. Book Three, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is a slam-dunk. It's already in pre-production and is due to be released in two years. It's bigger and bolder than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, so director Michael Apted has an imposing task in front of him. (Apted has yet to prove he can handle big movies, although he's excellent with smaller ones.) But Dawn Treader is the book where the cast starts to fray. While Caspian, Lucy, and Edmund return, Peter and Susan are left behind. Book Four, The Silver Chair, doesn't feature any of the five principals from Prince Caspian. The main characters are Eustace (who is introduced in Dawn Treader and provides the bridge), Jill, and Caspian's son.

After Book Four, things get interesting. Book Five, The Horse and His Boy, is a stand-alone story set after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and follows a different group of characters (although there are cameos by the Pevensie children during their time in Narnia). Book Six, The Magician's Nephew is a prequel about the creation and early days of Narnia. The Londoners are Digory and Polly, and Digory will eventually grow up to become "The Professor" who appears in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Finally, The Last Battle is a tale that some consider to be unfilmable. While it wraps up the Chronicles, it's a decidedly bizarre story that draws heavily on themes from the Book of Revelation.

Disney is committed to filming the first four books. If the series remains financially successful through The Silver Chair, there are decisions to be made. The most likely fifth movie would be The Magician's Nephew, since viewers need to meet Digory and Polly before they appear in The Last Battle. The screenplay of The Last Battle will likely require major changes from the book in order to make it palatable to a general audience. (One would also assume Susan will be "redeemed" in the movie rather than callously discarded as she is in the book.) The Horse and His Boy could be done as a "bonus" movie after The Last Battle if demand was high for more trips into C.S. Lewis' world. It should also be noted that the previous filmed forays into Narnia, a late-80s British TV endeavor, quit after The Silver Chair. As a result, attempts have never been made to film any of the three latter books.

Ultimately, what will drive Narnia beyond Book #4 is money. As long as there's stuff to film and the series is successful, Disney will keep cranking out product. It's no different from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows being split into two pieces or The Hobbit and an unnamed "linking movie" being made. (Interestingly, after the disbanding of New Line Cinema, Warner Brothers now owns the U.S. theatrical distribution rights to both The Lord of the Rings franchise and the Harry Potter franchise.) However, irrespective of how well Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair fare, there's little doubt that Prince Caspian will ignite the box office this weekend.

May 13, 2008 (Tuesday):

Double-Dipping with Dr. Jones (Video Views)

Beginning this week, I have decided to re-structure the "Video Views" weekly column so it no longer represents a prose catalog of new releases but instead concentrates on one or two hot topics or something interesting associated with a new release. Hopefully, readers will find this more interesting. The other format, while informative and more comprehensive, wasn't a lot of fun to read.

George Lucas is once again pissing off his loyal fans. When it comes to the process of "double dipping" (re-releasing a differently packaged version of a movie), no one has perfected the art better than Lucas. Long-time, Star Wars stalwarts know whereof I speak. The original trilogy was released in pan-and-scan on VHS some time in the mid-'80s. A few years later, it came out in widescreen VHS. Then there were the original laserdiscs, the "last chance to get the originals" versions released shortly before the theatrical openings of the special editions, and the box set which included the special editions. With DVD, Star Wars has already seen two releases and there's at least one more coming. So it's not unreasonable that a true believer could own as many as seven copies of each installment of the original trilogy. How does Lucas do this? By savvy marketing and an understanding how the fan mind works. The obsessive, completist need to have everything assures that any new release, as long as it offers even a crumb of something not previously available, will be successful. (To be fair to Lucas, he's not the only one to do this. Paramount has been similarly milking Star Trek fans.)

Our pal George is at it again, this time with Indiana Jones. This week, the Indy movies are arriving as stand-alone special editions. If you're a fan of Dr. Jones, you may wonder whether you should buy these "new" versions or whether the four-disc box set from a few years ago is good enough. It goes back to the completist question. Lucas is betting that enough Indy fans MUST have it all, so they'll buy the new special editions to complement their existing box set.

So what's different? Not the movies. They are exactly the same transfers that came to DVD a few years ago. So, if you're like me and don't care much about special features, there is no reason whatsoever to even consider these special editions. No deleted scenes, no outtakes. Yes, the title of Raiders of the Lost Ark has been changed to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that was true of the first DVD release as well. (Given Lucas' history of revisionism, perhaps we should be glad that's the only thing he has changed.) The content of disc #4 of the original set is entirely missing. Instead, it has been replaced by a series of featurettes on each movie disc. So, if you want the featurettes, you have to buy the new special editions.

What's curious is Lucas' decision to release the Indy trilogy in standard DVD rather than Blu-Ray. Okay, maybe considering Paramount's HD-DVD flirtation, that wasn't possible within the allotted time window, but what better way to market both high-def discs and the series than by making 1080p versions of the first three films available a week before the fourth opens? Of course, that doesn't fit Lucas' m.o. of milking his properties for all they're worth. This is only the fourth version of the Indy films to be released (VHS, laserdisc, two DVD editions). Why go straight to high-def when there's still a segment of the standard DVD market left to be conquered? Originally, the movies were available only as a package. Now, viewers can get them individually. One might assume that Raiders will outsell the other two by a significant margin.

If you don't already own these movies, by all means go out and buy them. Join the Lucas gravy train. I'm on it, although I will be giving these special editions a pass. I'm happy with my box set and I can wait until the high-def versions arrive. It will be interesting to see what Lucas does in the fall when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes out for home viewing. Does he release it in both Blu-Ray and standard DVD or does he buck the blockbuster trend and go standard DVD only? And if it comes out in Blu-Ray, what about the earlier films?

The problem with this release is that Lucas isn't giving us anything truly new. He's not doing anything for the fans. He's using this as an opportunity to fatten his already-bulging purse and to market the new film. He could have accomplished the same aims with a Blu-Ray release (plus providing a gift to those fans who have adopted the new format), but that's not the direction in which he chose to move. If George Lucas wonders why his name is dragged through the mud in fan circles, all he has to do is look at the price tag associated with loving his films.

May 12, 2008 (Monday):

The Lost Art of Sneaking

October 1982. My seventeenth birthday was nearly two years in the future and, unlike many of my contemporaries, I looked younger than my age. On that fateful afternoon, I was standing in the lobby of a single mega-theater (2000 seats), awaiting my opportunity to pass the ticket to the usher and have it ripped. An older friend had purchased two, allowing me to bypass the crabby old woman at the box office who surely would have asked to see my nonexistent driver's license. The movie I was in line for was First Blood. The MPAA's rating: R. (For those unfamiliar with United States movie rating system, R designates "Under 17 not permitted without parent or guardian.")

First Blood was not my first R-rated movie. That was Conan the Barbarian, which I had seen some five months earlier (in the same theater with the same crabby woman at the box office and the same middle-aged usher). On that occasion, I had done it legitimately, dragging my poor father with me. I'm sure there were many things he would have preferred doing than watching the future Governator hack and slash his way through the hoards of snakes and men led by Darth Vader without his black costume. (Side note: While I liked Conan, the highlight of the afternoon was the preview for Star Trek II - "Beyond the darkness, beyond the human evolution, there is Khan, a genetically superior tyrant...")

The doors were open. My hands were sweating. With my friend in front of me, I shuffled forward with the line, trying to appear as inconsequential as possible. Suddenly, I was there, ticket proffered to the usher. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on the floor but I couldn't resist glancing up. My eyes met his. For a moment, he regarded me skeptically. Time stood still. My heart thudded so loudly that I was sure everyone could hear it. Then the beginnings of a smile touched the usher's lips. He ripped the ticket and I was in.

Twenty-six years later, that theater is no more. The crabby old lady at the box office has shuffled off to other realms. (She died in the early '90s.) I have only a fuzzy memory of the movie. But I recall with crystal clarity my first (and only) experience sneaking into an R-rated movie. I also wasn't the only one. When the movie started that Saturday afternoon, there were about 900 people in that theater and at least one-third of them were underage. A good portion of that group was not accompanied by a parent or guardian. Some got in the same way I did. Others entered via a more clandestine means: getting a compatriot already inside to open the exit door the time-honored way to beat the system or avoid paying for a ticket.

Today's underage movie-goers don't have to work so hard. The advent of multiplexes and megaplexes made Sneaking a lost art. Now, all one has to do is pay for a PG-13 movie and wander down the endless halls of the theater to an auditorium showing the R-rated movie. Budgetary constraints at the 24-plex mean there are only two ticket takers (one at the entrance to each of the two wings) and no ushers to check for unauthorized patrons viewing R-rated films. At a Saturday evening showing of an R-rated movie last year (300), more than 50% of the audience was comprised of teenagers. None of them looked like they had endured sweaty palms and heart palpitations to get in.

There's a paradox at work here. Even as it has gotten pathetically simple for a 14-year old to see an R-rated movie, the number of such films in which this segment of the audience might be interested has dwindled to nearly zero. In 2008, the average male-centered action/adventure yarn (the R-rated staple of the Schwarzenegger/Stallone era) is no longer rated R. It's PG-13. The violence and sex have been toned down just enough to cross the thin line between what's acceptable and what corrupts. So no sneaking is necessary.

Still, once in a while, along comes a Matrix Reloaded or a 300 - R-rated movies that 15-year old boys are dying to see. In 1982, I had to strategize a campaign for entry, from having someone else buy the ticket to the far-fetched story I was going to tell the usher if he stopped me. (Don't ask what it was. I don't remember, but I do recall it was outlandish. Fortunately, I didn't have to use it.) Today's teens don't have to worry about such things. They don't even have to dodge into the bathroom then furtively head for the R-rated auditorium.

All of this makes me wonder if there's even a point to the R-rating. If a boy or girl wants to see an R-rated movie, there's nothing stopping them. And things are more lax on home video. How many Best Buys check ID when a 15-year old buys an R-rated DVD? The idea that the R-rating is preventing anyone from seeing a title is an illusion to comfort out-of-touch adults. The only rating where entry is policed by theaters is NC-17, and there aren't many movies with that classification. (Plus, most major chains don't show them.)

The "R" classification is worthwhile only in that it allows viewers to know that the content is "harder" than in a PG-13 movie. It therefore has some (dubious) informational value. In terms of actually limiting a portion of the movie-going public from seeing the films, it's a failure. Theaters don't have the manpower to enforce the rating and, even if they had it, one doubts they would aggressively pursue such action. Because the majority of multiplex revenue comes from snack sales, it doesn't make a difference to the local AMC whether a teenager is actually seeing a Disney cartoon or torture porn. The rule when the bottom line is involved: don't mess with the revenue stream. Don't force teenagers to go elsewhere because of a strict policing policy.

This summer, there won't be any teenagers wondering if they're going to be caught in the act of jumping from a PG-13 movie to an R-rated one across the hall. (In fact, they could probably see both without paying twice. Theater jumping for multiple features is as frequent an occurrence as misrepresenting what's being seen.) The first and most obvious reason relates to the lack of high-profile R-rated movies arriving during the next few months. The second reason is that the art of Sneaking, like so many other relics of the pre-multiplex world, is a foreign concept to today's movie-goers.

May 9, 2008 (Friday):

Theatrical Releases: May 9, 2008

This was supposed to be the weekend of Speed Racer - or at least that's how it looked a few months ago. May was supposed to be neatly compartmentalized. First weekend: Iron Man. Second weekend: Speed Racer. Third weekend: Prince Caspian. Fourth (Memorial Day) weekend: Indiana Jones and the Too-Long Name. Fifth weekend: Sex and the City. Looking at things from a closer perspective, it appears that Speed Racer isn't going to hold up its end of the bargain, resulting in Iron Man claiming the Box Office Champion badge for a second weekend in a row. It won't be three-for-three, however. Narnia, regardless of whether it's good or bad, has enough magic to knock the superhero into second place.

So why is Speed Racer unlikely to win the race? The simple answer would be that it's not very good but, when it comes to summer blockbusters, that's not a realistic explanation. Instead, this is a movie without an audience (or at least without a large audience). While the style and ADD-friendly race sequences might seem like the kind of things that would appeal to children, the lengthy, exposition-riddled dead spots will cause restlessness and the 135-minute running time will prove to be insurmountable in many cases. Keeping kids seated and quiet for the 90-minute length of a Disney movie can be a challenge (depending on the youngster); try multiplying that length by 1.5. Speed Racer is a cult movie. It just happens to have cost and lot of money and was foolishly positioned as a would-be summer blockbuster. The film is going to get favorable reviews from those viewers who are "into" this kind of thing. But it doesn't work for everybody (including me). In fact, it won't work for most people. The problem: while the visuals are disorienting and exhilarating for a while, once you get past the opening euphoria, there's nothing left except two hours of dull cinema. Contrary to what one might expect from the name, Speed Racer is slow going.

Counterprogramming comes from a romantic comedy for the second week in a row. Last week, Made of Honor stared down Iron Man and got blown away. This week, it's What Happens in Vegas, which will probably do as well. If one assumes the same number of people will go to multiplexes this weekend as did last weekend, the May 2-4 Iron Man audience will probably be split about 55/45 between those who go back for another dip in the superhero pool and those who brave Speed Racer, leaving the Made of Honor audience to venture into the Cameron Diaz/Ashton Kutcher rom-com. More people will watch Patrick Dempsey on TV this week than in movie theaters. What Happens in Vegas is a more enjoyable experience than Made of Honor but it has problems, especially during the early-going.

So what's a critic to do when it comes to making a Pick of the Week when there's nothing new that's worthwhile? Fall back on Iron Man again. Hey, Robert Downey Jr. is worth seeing a second time. That's exactly what a lot of teenage boys and older men will be doing this weekend. Women and girls might give it a shot, too, since it's got more going for it than the average superhero movie.

Next week: Aslan roars again as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian opens unopposed. But the guy in the fedora is just around the corner, coiling the whip to strike.

May 6, 2008 (Tuesday):

Video View: May 6, 2008

A bit of consumer advice: if you don't have a Blu-Ray player at this time and you live in the United States, don't use your stimulus rebate check to buy one. Wait until November - that's when price cuts and sales will drive down prices into a range that's close to reasonable. Right now, if you walk into a Best Buy to get one, the cheapest unit you'll find is $400. There are several stand-alone players available at that price as well as the PS3 (which, because of its upgradeability, is the best choice at the moment). However, by the time the holiday buying season arrives, there will be a big push to sell Blu-Ray players. A $100 drop in price is not out of the question, and there may be opportunities to nab something as inexpensive as $250. So, if you want to go high-def but have six months' worth of patience, you'll be rewarded. Besides, there are not a lot of exciting titles arriving on Blu-Ray in the next few months, even with both Paramount and Universal entering the market.

This week's roster of new titles is dreadful, but that's to be expected now that Hollywood is drawing on the early 2008 theatrical release roster for their prime DVD titles. Movie-goers showed little excitement for films that came out between late January and late April. DVD watchers will have the same complaint from now until August. Iron Man could show up on DVD any time between late August and early October. Until then, don't get too excited about home video. If you avoid theaters and simply wait for the DVDs, now you'll see why so many people were unenthused this past winter.

Leading the way this week is a late-2007 leftover, P.S. I Love You, an insipid romantic weeper that is being released in both standard and Blu-Ray formats. This week's other dual format release is the comedy First Sunday. The artsy Bob Dylan bio-pic I'm Not There, which features Heath Ledger in one of his final roles, is available in standard DVD only. Also out: Teeth, an offbeat coming of age story about a girl with a unique defense system that ensures she'll never be raped, and Over Her Dead Body, which sounds like a horror movie but is actually a romantic comedy. Then, for those who want to see how bad it can get, there's The Hottie and the Nottie.

Three catalog titles arrive on Blu-Ray this week: Twister, which should benefit greatly from the enhanced video and audio - this is an event movie that's entirely driven by spectacle; The Devil's Own, a Harrison Ford/Brad Pitt vehicle; and Shall We Dance, an inferior American re-make of a Japanese film. I can readily understand why Twister is being released in high-def, but who's going to buy the other two?

The TV-to-DVD roster is light this week as well. There's The 4400 Season 4, Bewitched Season 6, and Crossing Jordan Season 1. Now that virtually everything from the TV vaults is available, I'm wondering how long it will be before the Blu-Ray repackaging starts. HD-DVD already tried with Battlestar Galactica Season 1 and Star Trek Season 1, so how many months until we see the Fonz in high-def?

May 5, 2008 (Monday):

Consistency as a Hobgoblin

Generally speaking, consistency is a desirable quality in a film critic. It's how individuals use reviews to determine the likelihood of liking or disliking a movie. If a reader doesn't have a barometer for a critic, it's impossible to tell how well his/her opinions will mesh with the reader's. On the other hand, when the critic is a known quantity, it becomes easier to make a comparison. It's not necessary to regularly agree with a critic for a review to be valuable; it's merely necessary to understand where the similarities and differences lie. This is the reason I always preface a discussion of my "star" ratings with the following qualifier: "Recommended/Not Recommended/etc. for someone whose preferences closely match my own." That's why the meaningfulness of a star or numerical rating is highly subjective. It's the review text where the valuable information is to be found.

If a critic is inconsistent, he or she may still have value as a writer, but his/her ability to function as a recommender is compromised. Roger Ebert is an excellent scribe and his understanding of film is arguably without peer, but his recent trend of doling out four-star ratings to films he would likely have been harsher to ten years ago makes it difficult to trust his reviews with respect to recommendations. A decade ago, my views correlated strongly with Roger's. Now, we disagree more often than we agree. Have I changed? Perhaps - I have moved twice, married, and grown more cynical since I was 30. But Roger's recent and ongoing health issues have more likely given him a deeper appreciation of life and a sense of mortality. (This is speculation, of course.) So it's understandable if his perspectives and priorities have shifted. He has become more forgiving. But this makes comparing Roger Ebert 2008 to Roger Ebert 1990 a difficult and puzzling task. On the other hand, there are many critics I agreed or disagreed with in 1998 that I still agree or disagree with at about the same rate.

Going forward, let me concentrate on myself rather than speculating about Roger. I would estimate my consistency rate at about 98%. That means that 98% of the time when I watch a movie a second time, I have the same opinion of it as when I first watched it. So, while my feelings don't often change, they do change. Apply that 98% to 3500 movies and there are about 70 reviews where the star rating would shift one way or the other by about 0.5 star. In some ways, it's amazing that I feel the same way about so many titles I saw when I was 25 as I do about them at 40. Certainly, the same would not be true of the prior 15-year span. My tastes at 25 did not match those when I was 10. (Favorite movie at 25: Patton. Favorite movie at 10: Star Wars.)

As a general rule, I do not re-write reviews or re-rate movies even when I know my opinion has changed. There's value in the review representing a "snapshot" of my opinion at the time I write it. I can recall having changed three reviews after their publication (although there may be one or two more that I don't remember): Casablanca ("upgraded" from 3.5 to 4.0 stars), Crash ("upgraded" from 2.5 to 3.0 stars), and 3-Iron (rating unchanged but significant changes to the write-up). I have long toyed with the idea of authoring new reviews of select movies I have previously written about; it would be interesting to see whether I notice the same things. This project has ended up on the back-burner but may at some time end up as a regular feature.

I am aware of the titles over the years for which I have diverged the most widely from the consensus. Heat and The Sixth Sense top the list of movies about which I was considerably less enthusiastic than many of those who read this site. I have revisited both more than once in the privacy of my home theater and my opinion remains the same. Maybe I'm just stubborn. On the other hand, I admit disagreeing slightly with three of my six Star Wars reviews - I would knock a half star from Return of the Jedi, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones. I'm also not as bullish about Forrest Gump as I once was, but my enthusiasm has increased for The Story of Qui Ju. Twister would no longer get three stars but The Mummy might.

The importance of consistency in a film critic is largely a function of what one believes the primary responsibility of such a person to be. This opens up the argument about whether a critic should be "scholarly" or "popular." I think there's room for both types - one to provide broader views about a wide number of movies and the other to explore the dry corners for a select audience that chooses to delve deeply into the nuances of cinema. Consistency is one of the most important characteristics for one who would define himself as belonging in the former category. It is easily trumped by knowledge and experience for those who set themselves up as members of the latter. Scholarly and Popular critics both employ the same tools - film theory and opinion - but they weigh them differently and there is some tension between the two groups as a result. (Scholarly critics belittle Popular critics as having anorexic critical facilities. Popular critics call Scholarly critics elitist and out-of-touch.)

Do film critics change their opinions over the years? Probably more than they're willing to admit. Age changes everyone. That's why so many 20-year old liberal Democrats are conservative Republicans by the time they turn 60. It would be a fascinating project to examine ten critics by having them re-review a few movies today that they initially reviewed during the 1980s (without allowing them to re-read what they once wrote) and see what changes emerge. Ultimately, such a study would be an examination of consistency in all its forms: consistency of style, consistency of opinion, and consistency of film knowledge. My sense is that the critics who are regarded the most highly will be the ones whose 2008 re-reviews track their 1980s original reviews closely. (I'm sure there's a book or a doctoral dissertation in here somewhere.)

May 2, 2008 (Friday):

Theatrical Releases: May 2, 2008

This is the weekend of Iron Man. Anything else is pretty much inconsequential. This opening has been awaited for a long time by a wide variety of people. Web publishers who operate movie-related sites have been holding out for May 2 because increased interest in movies represents more traffic, which translates into a greater number of clicks on advertisements and more revenue. Hollywood is in desperate need of good news; there hasn't been much since January. And the average movie-goer has been waiting for something worthwhile to abandon the sofa and head for the multiplex. It's not much of an exaggeration to label Iron Man as cinema's 2008 savior - provided it meets expectations. If it fails to come close to what's being projected, we may be in for a bleak summer.

What's encouraging about Iron Man is that not only is it highly anticipated but it's also best summer-opening blockbuster in years. When all is said and done, 2007's Spider-Man 3 will still rule the roost (with an opening weekend grab of $151 million) but, in terms of quality and general audience appeal, Iron Man trumps his older and better-known sibling. The future of the Spider-Man franchise is in question but, barring an unforeseen and unimaginable box-office disaster, Iron Man should be back with its creative team intact in another two or three summers. If the superhero movie trend holds true and the second film is the strongest of the series (as has been the case with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men, that means there's something to look forward to. Meanwhile, Iron Man is this week's uncontested, projected Box Office Champion as well as the Pick of the Week.

Common wisdom dictates that Iron Man is aimed at a primarily male audience, although the film has a broad enough appeal to cross age and gender lines. Nevertheless, Columbia has decided to counterprogram with the feeble romantic comedy Made of Honor. The mediocre quality of the movie is irrelevant; some people will see it because it isn't Iron Man or because they can't get into Iron Man and don't want to wait around for the next showing for which tickets are available. The film's main draw is Patrick Dempsey; there really isn't anything else worth mentioning. The script and lack of chemistry between the protagonists are major downsides.

There are three movies opening in various stages of limited release. Fugitive Pieces was the 2007 Toronto Film Festival's Opening Night feature, but its lukewarm reception with critics and film-goers north of the border resulted in it being passed by the major distributors. It opens this weekend in very limited release and probably won't go wider. For those who are intrigued by the premise, DVD availability should be just around the corner. The other two limited releases will be going wider in the next few weeks, and both should expand to enough theaters that anyone with a desire will be able to see them. The first, Son of Rambow, is an endearing, if a little unsurprising, coming-of-age story that arrives with Sylvester Stallone's official "Rambo" seal of approval. The second, Redbelt, has David Mamet dabbling in Mixed Martial Arts. This may not be a marriage made in heaven but the idea alone is almost worth a trip to a theater. The concept isn't bungled but it's not an unqualified success.

Ultimately, however, all these secondary films are footnotes. This weekend is all about Iron Man. Perhaps the more interesting question is not how much Marvel's newest superhero grosses this weekend, but what it does next weekend. Conventional wisdom indicates that Speed Racer is the Big Event for May 9, but the advance buzz is tepid and there are early indications it may underperform. (The Wachowskis have long since lost their Midas Touch.) If that happens, it could open the door for Iron Man to take the top spot for two consecutive weeks - something almost unprecedented when the competition is this hot.

©2008 James Berardinelli

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