Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amazon Drops the Bomb

You may have heard the news about the fight between etailer Amazon and publisher MacMillan. If you're not an author or publisher, this may not seem important, but I am telling you right now, the outcome of this battle will define the future of the publishing industry.

Basically, the two disagree on the pricing of ebooks, and Amazon used their nuclear weapon: on Friday they pulled all MacMillan products from their store. We're talking paper books, not just ebooks. (You can still buy some MacMillan products via third parties, i.e. used books, but not from Amazon itself.)

I find this decision by Amazon shocking and I believe it will backfire and cost them dearly.

Amazon sees the writing on the wall and is terrified. They know that the future is all about the distribution of electronic content. Within the next decade, we are going to see a trend where physical media goes away. It's already pretty much happened with music, and is starting to happen with video and text. It's inevitable. People who are most opposed to electronic media are old and are literally dying off. The new generation is actually more comfortable with emedia than paper and that trend is accelerating. Many kids today have never even heard of an audio CD, let alone cassette tapes, 8-track, or records. It's a digital world for them.

For Amazon, this presents a problem. With physical products, they have a competitive edge: huge warehouses and a distribution system that can't be easily duplicated and they gain huge efficiencies in scale. But digital is easy: anyone can whip up a web store and beam electrons to customers and there is little difference from the customer's perspective between an outfit in a garage and Fortune 500 behemoth. Amazon's worry is that they'll become nothing more than a dumb pipe. They want to be more valuable than that, because dumb pipes are easily replaced.

Amazon's solution was to create the Kindle ereader hardware device and software platform in the hopes of building up a monopoly. That has been modestly successful. But Apple's upcoming iPad threatens to dwarf and obsolete Amazon's efforts. Apple's device is very different from a Kindle: for some hardcore readers it's a different category of product, but most people, who only read a few books a year, the more multi-functional iPad is all the ereader they need. In truth, far more people already read Kindle books on Apple devices than anything Amazon makes. Amazon has never stated Kindle sales numbers, because by their own admission the product doesn't make enough money to bother, but estimates are that Amazon has sold as many as 2.5 million Kindles after years on the market. Contrast that with Apple which has sold 75 million iPhones and iPod touches. With estimates of the iPad selling between 4 and 10 million in its first year on the market, the Kindle hardware is pretty much extinct and Amazon knows it. (If they were smart, they'd ship a $99 Kindle next week. Take out the cellular modem and ugly keyboard and sell it paperback cheap.)

That means Amazon can only make money off of content. With its iTunes and App Stores, Apple has set a pricing precedent: Apple keeps 30% and the publisher/author keeps 70%. It was logical Apple would do the same with their ebook store (which they did when it was announced last week). I recently put one of my novels up for sale in Kindle format and I was dismayed to see the paltry percentage Amazon would pay me: for simply selling my digital book they would pretty much give me the 30% and keep the rest! (This is, unfortunately, quite similar to the revenue of physical books, where the bookstore often makes more on the sale than the publisher and author.) Obviously Apple's store is a lot more attractive to me as a publisher/author.

To compete with Apple, Amazon must change its ebook terms to match. Yet if Amazon does that, Amazon becomes nothing but a dumb pipe. That's where it gets hairy, for Apple is delighted being a dumb pipe. All of Apple's digital stores are dumb pipes: they don't exist to make Apple a profit (Apple has stated their goal is just to "break even") but as a method of selling hardware. People are attracted to Apple devices because of the digital stores: iTunes makes it easy to buy songs for your iPod and Apps for your iPhone or iPod touch.

But Amazon doesn't have Apple's hardware sales to fall back on (Kindles probably don't make money already and if sales drop off because of the iPad, that's even less revenue). If Amazon competes with Apple's "break even" business as a dumb pipe, how will they make any money?

The solution is dangerously clear. There's a fixed amount of money on the table. Amazon can either raise prices to the customer, which would probably result in customers choosing to keep their money in their wallets, or Amazon can rape the publisher/author.

Amazon has chosen to do the latter.

They have announced new royalty terms that on the surface sound like they match Apple's 70/30 split. However, the fine print reveals that publishers must agree to Amazon's new terms to get that rate, and those new terms are insane. To get the higher royalty, the publisher basically hands over the reins of their business to Amazon, allowing Amazon to set the price of the product (even giving it away for free or dirt cheap if they want). The publisher cannot set a minimum price, and Amazon states that the maximum price will be $9.99. (So my niche-market technical books, which sell for $50 in print form, must sell for an absurdly low $10 in ebook form!) Even more outrageous, publishers agreeing to the terms are forbidden from selling their ebook elsewhere for more than Amazon charges!

That means that Amazon, effectively, would be setting the price of books on Apple's store. That's because Amazon sets the price on their store, not the publisher. So if Amazon decides my novel should sell for $2, I guess I have to lower the price to match on the Apple store or else I'm in violation of the agreement!

I do not foresee many publishers taking Amazon up on their offer. I know I won't. Those are ridiculous terms. Unfortunately for Amazon, their Kindle market is not strong enough for them to dictate them (Kindle ebook sales are still paltry). I'd rather miss out of the Kindle market completely and go with Apple's new and unknown market than be stuck in such a contract. (Kindle may have the edge today, but I'd be willing to be that by the end of 2010 Apple's iPad market will be larger.)

I feel sympathy for Amazon. They are caught in a bad position and don't see a way out. The future is digital and they want to be a part of that, but digital may not be profitable enough for them, at least at the terms Apple has defined. Amazon adds some value over Apple, but as anyone in retail knows, price reigns supreme and no matter how good Amazon's customer service and website is, they must compete with Apple on price (both on the royalty terms to publishers/authors and to customers). The danger is that Apple can afford to lose money on digital sales if they want. Amazon cannot.

If I was Amazon, I'd just accept that being a dumb pipe is the future and try to be more efficient at selling physical products. I would purchase UPS or FedEx and offer free shipping for all orders. That would give Amazon tremendous clout in the retail market of physical goods. But digital goods, by nature, don't care what pipe they travel down. Amazon is attempting to control that market by inventing weird contract terms and other artificial controls. (We're seeing this same battle for control developing in cellular networks and cable/satellite providers.)

Most alarmingly, and a clear sign of Amazon's panic and the high stakes in this game, Amazon has gone nuclear, dropping the biggest bomb it can on MacMillan by removing all their products. That is huge. I said earlier that it is going to backfire and it will: content makers are terrified of the clout of large sellers like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart. They are already wary of Amazon. Instead of Amazon trying to lure them in with more attractive terms than Apple, Amazon is attempting to bully them. The result, I predict, will be droves of publishers lining up to support Apple's book platform. They fear Amazon and don't want to be blackmailed. Amazon, by showing that they are willing to go nuclear, has made a horrible mistake. Publishers aren't going to commit financial suicide by abandoning Amazon in protest, but you can bet that every single one of them is exploring other options, such as Apple's new store. If Apple's iPad is even moderately successful as an ereader, you can bet that publishers will flock to it as a way to escape Amazon's grip.

This is an exciting time. Dangerous, thrilling, and unpredictable. Giant industries such as publishing, TV/film, and cable/satellite, are going to have to change the way they do business. Digital content and distribution is upsetting the old ways of doing business. It's not going to be an easy transition, but it will happen. It's inevitable. But in the meantime, there's going to be pain and adjustment on both sides. The Amazon-MacMillan battle is just the first skirmish of a long war.

[Update: Since I posted this, Amazon has capitulated and given in to MacMillan so this particular battle is done. It's also of note that Amazon has apparently used this nuclear option before, against UK publisher Hatchette, forcing them to capitulate to Amazon's terms. However, I don't think either of those things changes what I've said here: Amazon realized their mistake and they have spooked publishers just before a new option for those publishers opens (Apple's bookstore), and Amazon will regret their decision to go nuclear.]


Friday, January 29, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Movie: Edge of Darkness

Once again, my opinion is heavily influenced by the promotion. I saw the trailer for this film many times and its heavy-handedness did not give me much optimism. But it's much better than the trailer. For example, the trailer begins with a memory of the father shaving and putting shaving cream on his little girl, supposedly a fond, tender moment, and cutting to her death as an adult come home to visit and leaving the door open for the main story, the father searching for his daughter's killer. But the flashback comes across as schmaltzy in the trailer. In the film, I loved it: that shaving cream scene happens toward the very end and we already know all the characters and what they have gone through and the scene is longer with more details, and it's excellent. The rest of the movie is similar: what seems trite in the trailer, is actually pretty good in context. The film isn't that much action: it's a lot more about a grieving father, a complicated political cover-up, mysterious men, and a time bomb father who we worry might go off at any moment. I didn't much care for the story: the "mystery" isn't much of a mystery, and even when it's explained, it's nothing remarkable, but I did like the way the film worked overall. It's not a film I'd want to see again, but it's above average and worth seeing the first time. There are many nice moments. It's boring in places, and the cover-up and political intrigue is overdone and too complicated, but even within that there are some interesting scenes and ideas. (I really liked the way the bad guys sat around talking about various scenarios and how to handle with the situation. That showed that this wasn't an elaborate, well-planned scheme but people on the edge trying to stay one step ahead of getting caught.) The bottom line: a decent thriller. Not unbelievably awesome, but I don't think you'd be disappointed if you saw it. It's got some good action in places, and some of the human moments are very good. The overall ending is good and I really liked the very end.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

iPad: Second Thoughts

I've been reading nothing but iPad comments and news for the last two days and I see one clear trend: people into technology, the geeks and computer people, aren't too excited.

Why? Because they don't see a need for this product. They already have laptops, netbooks, cell phones, and other gadgets. They aren't intimidated by complex technology. Some even like it. Plus, all of them have been thinking about the "Apple Tablet" for months, dreaming of what they would want in a tablet. Instead, Apple has gone and produced something unique that doesn't fit in any existing category, and these tech people are bewildered and underwhelmed. They see all the "missing features" and think that's a mistake.

But that's the whole point: Apple is about reducing complexity. The key is that these idiots are not the target market! That's right: Apple did not create the iPad for them! The iPad was created for the non-tech person. It really is the ultimate "computer for the rest of us."

My grandfather, for instance, would have loved an iPad. He knew nothing of computers and always struggled with them. But he knew how to touch things. Babies know how to touch things. He knew how to read. He would have loved to do email and keep in touch with people, but a computer was far too complicated for him. An iPad would have been ideal. It has the form factor of a magazine, which he knew and understood. Email would have been dreadfully simple for him. No, he wouldn't use it to write a novel or do real work: he'd use it to read articles, books, emails, watch TV. Sure he could that with an iPod touch: but a touch is too small. That's why many people haven't gotten one. It's not the price. They look at the iPod touch and think, "Why would I want that? I've got a big screen Mac in the other room to read email on!"

But an iPad should appeal to everyone. Imagine being on the sofa watching TV. The iPad is lying on the coffee table. A commercial comes on TV or you're not really into the show. You pick it up and it turns on. You casually flick through emails, perhaps fire off a quick response or two. You check the CNN website, maybe browse a few other sites. The interface for web surfing is amazing, so natural: you hold the thing like a magazine and flip through content the way you flip through magazine pages. Maybe you open an ebook and read. Maybe your show is on and you hand the thing to your spouse who works on the latest NYT crossword puzzle on it or plays a game. Maybe it's so easy and convenient and handy that everyone in the family starts to use it for the occasional email. Most don't want to bother with the big, complicated, fixed-location computer in the other room, but this handy tablet can be read anywhere in the house. Read the news while eating breakfast. The thing is a gorgeous calendar for scheduling all those doctor appointments and church commitments. The thing makes a beautiful animated picture frame, wonderful for showing a slideshow of the great-grandkids. It'll even act as a weather station, showing you the weather coming for the next week!

Do you know how many people in the world are in that situation? Millions! Everyone complains about their computers being a hassle. I know many who respond slowly to emails (i.e. days). Why? Because it's a hassle. You do it when you have to, not when it's convenient. How many times a day do you think of a website you should visit (i.e. while you're watching TV and you see an ad or mention of an interesting site on the news) but you never do because it's too much of a pain to go to your office and fire up the computer and web browser and find the site. With an iPad, you've got the Internet right there in your hand, anywhere in your house!

Just like with iPhone before it was released, all the anti-Apple and supposed tech experts are predicting doom and gloom. iPhone doesn't have a real keyboard, limited battery, the screen will get fingerprints on it, it doesn't support Flash, won't "multitask," bla bla bla. Forget about them. Those people are either biased (i.e. employed by Apple competitors) or they aren't the target market for this. I fully agree it's not for everyone. Someone already with a netbook, or a tech guy who wants a fully customizable experience, won't go for this. That's fine. This isn't for them.

Think of the iPad as an elaborate digital photo frame. It's beautiful, handy, and narrowly functioned. It's not meant to replace a full computer. It doesn't do that much more than an iPhone. But it's a bigger screen than an iPhone, which means it's more convenient for reading, interacting with, and using. In some ways, it's expensive: $500 for a device that "doesn't do much." But it's a game-changer, a new paradigm. Your life will never be the same after you have one. Just like the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone industry -- every new phone now can do Internet, let you look up things on Google from anywhere, etc. (though few let you do it as easily and conveniently as an iPhone) -- the iPad will change everything. The iPad will change the way we live our lives. In a few years, many homes will have several of these lying around. You'll use them for reading, news and weather, checking email and social networking accounts (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), showing off family photos to visitors, etc. No more having to remember cryptic commands, worry about viruses or crashes, or even having to "save a file." (Like iPhone, all data is saved automatically, transparently, as you create it. You'll never lose anything again.) You'll integrate iPads into your life in such a simple, natural, elegant way that if your iPad was suddenly taken away, you'd be lost and confused, wondering how you'll get along without it!

And once that happens, $500 starts to seem like the bargain of the century. Which it is.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad: First Thoughts

Unless you're dead, you know that Apple announced their perspective on tablet computing today with their iPad. This was much anticipated with rumors swirling for months, and the result has been greeted with either awe, disappointment, or disdain, depending on what the person was expecting.

Here's the thing about Apple. They do not do what people want or expect. While some might see that as a bad thing, it seems to work for them. People wanted something revolutionary. They wanted a $2,000 laptop in a touch tablet for $299 with a magical interface. Instead, Apple gave them a giant iPod touch for $500. Many yawned and said, "What's that good for?" Those people are still stuck in traditional thinking. They are thinking in traditional product categories (i.e. cell phone, media player, netbook, laptop, desktop). What Apple has done is create a whole new category of device.

You could see the iPad as a media player or ebook, but that's limiting its purpose. It's more of a computer than that, allowing you to work on spreadsheets, presentations, word processing, and other computing tasks. But it's not quite the same kind of a computer as a netbook or laptop. Traditional computers are complicated devices. What Apple has done with iPad is create the first real computing appliance. Think of it like a toaster or fridge or multi-functional kitchen tool. Like those, it just needs to work without fuss or maintenance. No cryptic commands or software to install or viruses to worry about. It needs to be simple and clean, super easy to use, and fun. Traditional laptops and netbooks are such heavy maintenance they are only fun for geeks. It's like the difference between being a car mechanic and a driver.

The real dilemma for a tablet like this is defining the market. Who is this for? Tablets have been done, but done poorly. Most take a desktop OS (like Windows) and add touch or stylus capability. The result is a kludge. It's not any easier to use, it's still expensive, and the awkward form factor means it's not good as a traditional laptop either. It's the old "jack of all trades, master of none" problem.

Apple has chosen to address this in a few key ways. First, they focused on price. Price is critical for a product like this. Too low and it's not economically worth making. Too high and it competes with laptops and no one will buy it. I believe Apple could have released this a year ago, but held off until they could get the price point just right. $500 is an excellent price. They aren't giving it away, and certainly not everyone can afford this, but it fits in well in between the $200 touch and the $999 MacBook.

Second, they focused on what a tablet-form computer does well. It's light, portable, and handy. It's quick on and off, and the large screen is ideal for things like browsing the web, reading books, and watching video. It makes an incredible calendar and digital photo frame. They did not try and hamper this with a physical keyboard. They did not kludge on a traditional laptop operating system. They did not try to make this do everything. They kept it simple, so that the functions it does, it does extraordinarily well, even better than a laptop. (Reading a web page with this is an order of magnitude better than any laptop and even a desktop with a large screen simply because of the elegant touch interface.) It's full of nice touches: hand an iPad to a colleague and the display reorients itself to be right-side-up for that person. There's no wrong way to hold the thing: use it in whatever way feels right to you. It's visually designed so everything looks gorgeous. (That may not seem important, but it's part of what makes a device like this a joy to use.)

Third, they have leveraged the existing iPhone/touch platform, by making this run all those 140,000+ apps, plus new ones written for the larger iPad screen. That's a huge existing infrastructure. No one else who has tried a tablet has had a platform like that to build upon. This is already Internet-savy with all the social media apps it needs. (Imagine checking Twitter or Facebook on this thing while watching TV: similar to doing it on an iPhone, but the bigger screen makes it even easier.) And don't forget the games: iPhone games -- and eventually iPad games -- will rock on the larger display.

Finally, Apple hasn't forgotten productivity. If this tablet was merely a media consumption device (i.e. a media player), it wouldn't be nearly as significant. It would be nice, though perhaps expensive. But Apple has completely rewritten their iWork suite for the iPad. That means full word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. This not only signifies that this is a "real" laptop capable of getting work done, but Apple has set an example of how such software can function on the device. All those thousands of iPhone app developers are now working frantically on rewriting their apps to take advantage of the iPad's larger screen and faster processor.

The result is a simple and elegant device. It feels like it's no more complicated than a magazine. But the full color touch screen means you can interact with what you see. You move pictures around with your fingertip. You tap an email to open it. Touch a video to play it or pause it. It's natural, intuitive, and effortless. That makes it fun.

This isn't a traditional laptop. It really is just a big iPhone, but the larger screen size changes the paradigm far more than you'd think. Being able to see more at once gives you more power. Applications can be more complicated. Ebooks can be read at full size. Magazines can contain audio and video. This is the future we saw on Star Trek decades ago made real.

How useful will an iPad be? That depends on your lifestyle. If you don't have a computer at all, it's useless. (Apple products require a computer as a base to sync information.) If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you'll want this, but you may not need it. If, on the other hand, you have neither, or have been considering a touch, an iPad might just be the ticket. It can do many of the functions of a traditional laptop (not everything, but many). It can do just about everything you can do on an iPhone or iPod touch, but easier, since the bigger screen makes you more productive and efficient.

In my case, I had been considering a touch even though I have an iPhone. I use my iPhone constantly. A touch would give me additional storage, allow me a second device to read in bed, play games with without running down my iPhone's battery, etc. It didn't make a lot sense since the form factors are the same, but I was still tempted. Now I'm seriously thinking that an iPad makes more sense. It's that thing in-between a laptop and a phone. It's perfect for a guest computer (visitors could easily check their email, flight schedule, etc.) or for surfing the web while you watch TV. I can imagine using the case to prop it up in the kitchen while I follow the directions to a recipe on the screen (and even watch an embedded video demonstrating the cooking technique I'm trying to do). With something like Slingbox running on it, it's a portable TV! Or how about this: instead of buying those expensive DVD systems for your car, why not get a couple of these for the kids? You can store movies and TV shows and music and games on them, good for infinite hours of entertainment. They'd cost less than an in-car system and can be used anywhere, not just while driving. (Kids could do homework on them, too.)

In short, no one knows what this is for. The apps haven't been written yet. No, it's probably not essential (everything really essential in our lives has already been invented -- if it hasn't, we'd be dead). But I think the way the iPad works will be so wonderful, so natural and beautiful, that everyone will want one. And the reasonable price means that many people can afford one. (Why buy one $1500 laptop when you could get three iPads for the whole family?)

I picture these as being awesome for schools (goodbye physical textbooks), terrific for executives who don't need a "full" laptop, elderly people befuddled by technology or with poor eyesight (just make the book font larger), frequent travelers who find traditional laptops too heavy and overkill most of the time, presentation makers, doctors or consultants or salespeople (pretty much any person who needs lots of info at their fingertips and doesn't want to fuss with a clumsy laptop), and probably a few dozen other categories of people I've left out. The iPad isn't for everyone and that's fine. It doesn't need to be. But many will adopt it, I am sure. The iPad's going to be huge. It could even be bigger than the iPhone: more people want a cell phone than a pad, but there's a lot more competition in the cell phone area. Nothing really competes with the iPad (netbooks are the closest thing, but far inferior on specs and usability). Apple can own this market since they created it.

Sure, there are things Apple has left out. There's no camera, an odd omission, but no doubt due to cost cutting to reach the magical $500 price point. Apple will probably add that in a future model as manufacturing prices come down. Some are critical that it doesn't support Flash, but I never expected it do so (Apple does not like to support other company's proprietary standards and really would like Flash banned from the Internet and I full support them as I abhor Flash). Apple also does not support add-on memory cards, a removable battery, or apps not installed via the App Store. Those things were a given, and people who expected something else were deceiving themselves. Some are critical of the virtual keyboard, but people were worried about that before the iPhone and now many prefer it. (I personally feel that a software keyboard is fine for limited use, which is all most people would use this device for. If you really want to type, you'll use an external keyboard.) There are some dumb jokes about the name, iPad, but it really does make sense when Apple has the iPod. It's not my favorite name, but it's growing on me. (I wasn't a giant fan of the name "iPod" in the beginning, either.) As for most other criticisms, don't forget that this is just the 1.0 version of the device. In a few years this will be even better and sell for $200!

My only criticism is that I had hoped Apple would create an ecosystem for digital magazines. I had hoped there would be a new digital magazine format and a store for selling them, so that I could sell my magazine that way. Unfortunately, while Apple announced a book store, it appears that magazines aren't a part that (it's looking like only the big publishers can put their stuff on the store, though hopefully that's just temporary). Magazines can still be created as individual applications and sold via the App Store, but that's a lot more work than just distributing content. Because Apple hasn't created their own system, the magazine market will end up fractured, with everyone doing their own thing: not as good as the more unified book market. Still, this is a minor quibble, and just because nothing was announced today doesn't mean it will never happen. If this tablet takes off and magazine publishers find it lucrative, it could spark a whole new industry. I can't wait!

But I must. The iPad doesn't ship for 60 days!


Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Movie: Quarantine

This started of really well: a cute female TV reporter is shooting footage at a fire station. It's really well done with realistic dialogue, scenes, etc. My hopes went up. But then they go on a call where mysterious things are happening in a building, end up locked inside by men with guns outside, and it turns out there's a virus contaminating the place and the building is now under quarantine. The virus turns people into blood-hungry cannibals, and from that point on the movie deteriorates into non-stop screaming, darkness, shaky "real" camera movements, and gore. Depressing, annoying as anything, and pointless. Just watch the first 20 minutes and forget the rest.


Friday, January 22, 2010


Movie: Legion

I did not expect this to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this bad. The premise of angels as the antagonists had me intrigued, but I expected at least a token bit of theology to explain it. Instead I got nothing: this could just has easily have been zombies, monsters, or alien creatures destroying humankind. There was the faintest hint of moral conflict in the final confrontation between archangels Gabriel and Michael, but it was so lamely done it meant nothing. All the film has going for it is some routine action and one dramatic (and fun) scene of a nice old lady suddenly turning vicious. That scene is in the trailer and is by far the best -- and only -- thing in the entire film worth watching. The plot itself was non-existent as nothing made any sense at all: it's basically a small group of humans and one angel holed up in a diner fighting off humans possessed by angels with the angels wanting to kill the pregnant girl's baby which is somehow supposed to save mankind. Come on: if God wants a baby dead, it's dead. That a million angels can't do it is absurd. The purpose of the baby is never explained, nor is why God is so angry with humanity. Pretty much nothing is explained. A handful of the characters are mildly interesting (most are so annoying you're rooting for them to be killed off), but it's not like we care about anyone here. Just terrible.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

What the Dog Saw

Book: What the Dog Saw
Writer(s): Malcolm Gladwell

This book is a collection of Gladwell's terrific essays for the New Yorker. They're available for free on the New Yorker website, but I got the book anyway and found it an excellent read. There's an amazing variety of topics here, with essays spanning 15+ years, and always with Gladwell's unique story-based presentation and fascinating linking of the seemingly unrelated. There are far too many topics for me to cover them all, but I don't think there was even one article I didn't enjoy. The title one is about Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer, trying to explain how he can communicate so well with dogs. There are many others on talent, teaching, and even dog biting. Excellent.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Underword: Rise of the Lycans

Movie: Underword: Rise of the Lycans

This is a prequel to the Underworld series, detailing how the war between vampires and Lycan began. It's basically the tragic love story between a female vampire (daughter of the head vamp) and Lucian, the first Lycan (werewolf). It's stylish and violent and interesting, with terrific acting by the leads, but though I cared about the fate of the couple, I didn't much care about the vampires themselves. This is set back at a time when they ruled over humans and the vampires are arrogant monsters. That dislike took me out of the story. I wanted the couple to just elope and follow their story, but of course, that's not what happens. The key story elements were already revealed in the earlier films, so if you remember the backstory in those you know this plot already, but it's still a good story. For me the big draw of these films has always been actress Kate Beckinsale, so I expected this one to be lacking, but it's actually quite good. It definitely fits in well with the series, being a little better than the second one but not as good as the first. If you're a fan of the others, you'll like this one.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sugar and Spice

Movie: Sugar and Spice

Silly film about a pregnant cheerleader desperate for money who gets her fellow cheergirls to help her rob a bank. Stylishly done with quirky narration by a resentful "B-squad" cheerleader, it has many nice elements, but it's way too light. I read online that this was originally conceived as a black comedy but the script rewritten to make it lighter and I think that was a mistake. This would have been far better dark; instead it feels funny but meaningless.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Lakeview Terrace

Movie: Lakeview Terrace

Strange film. I wanted to see this when it came out, but somehow missed it, and the impression I had was that it wasn't that good. It's not that bad, though, just weird. Basically an interracial couple moves into a new house with a black cop as their neighbor. From the beginning he's a mix of politeness and meanness, and we're not quite sure what his deal is. That's both what makes the film interesting, and its biggest flaw. His true nature isn't fully revealed until late, which means the bulk of the film we aren't sure what's going on, making the experience awkward and tedious, as we're unsure how to think. It keeps you on edge, which is interesting, but you're uncomfortable, which isn't pleasant. The film would have been far better if there had been some indication right at the beginning that this cop was a really bad dude. We get that idea, but it's not clear enough, and he's so nice at times that it's confusing. Ultimately the film doesn't quite work. It's got some fascinating psychological elements, but either we're never privileged to get inside the heads of characters or its treated too lightly. Either way, the film feels slightly unpolished, a coarse rough draft. It's got some terrific scenes and excellent performances (Samuel L. Jackson is amazing as the cop neighbor), but the story's too disjointed and odd to be successful. Interesting idea, though. Reminded me a lot of the far better Pacific Heights.


Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book of Eli

Movie: The Book of Eli

I wasn't sure if I would like this or not, but I did. The story is slight: a mysterious man wanders a post-appocolyptic world hiding a book while a ruthless villain wants the book. The "mystery" of the book is extremely slight (and obvious), but what's initially unclear is why the villain wants the book. There's a twist at the end that's gimmicky and too much on the nose for true brilliance, but it is interesting. Overall, the film's more about atmosphere than story, and that's fine. This is a film about visual style, and in that role it succeeds. I loved the style: from the terrific action sequences to the look of the future world, it worked for me. The opening sequence was amazing: a snowy wood, panning across the ground, we come across an open revolver. As we slowly pan across that we come to an open hand, and eventually a dead body. Then a hairless cat approaches the body, obviously starving, and begins to gnaw on the leg. We continue to pan to the right, eventually seeing a strange astronaut-like figure in some sort of radiation garb. As we slowly zoom closer, we realize the figure is prone and there is a deadly metal-tipped arrow pointing right at the camera. It is our hero, and he has set a trap to catch himself some cat meat. Wow: obviously not our world, and sets up much of the story without a word. Late in the film it at times is little more than an action flick, and I wish it had more story depth, but overall it's a fun, stylish "what if" film, and worth seeing if you like the genre. I liked the revelation about the book, though it was slightly cliche and predictable.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Princess and the Frog

Movie: The Princess and the Frog

Let me begin by saying that the trailers for this film were horrible. Normally I love the whole "reinvention" of a legend or fairy tale, and on paper this sounded great: changing the setting to New Orleans, having the main "princess" be a black girl, having her change into a frog instead of the frog changing into a prince, etc., but the trailer was so poorly done and revealed so little of the key story that it turned me off and I had little desire to see this film. For instance, the black girl isn't really a princess: she's a waitress working two jobs to save up to buy her own restaurant. That is far more interesting, but that was not revealed in any of the trailers I saw. In the full film she and the frog prince hate each other: she's a workaholic and he's a lazy playboy, but of course, during their adventures in the Bayou as frogs, they grow to complement each other and fall in love. This is pretty fun and well-done. The animation is excellent, with many clever touches (such as the frog prince playing a "guitar" of a forked branch with spider webs as strings). Some of the characters were terrific, too. My only criticisms are that there was too much emphasis on the dark Voodoo magic (some of the imagery might frighten young children) and that the story gets stretched out too long toward the end. But the ultimate ending is sweet and fulfilling and overall, I liked the film. It's not the greatest ever (not up to Pixar standards), and some of the jokes aren't particularly inventive (and are too modern), but it's a decent return for Disney. At least they're finally returning to having a good core story.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Movie: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Director(s): Terry Gilliam

Gilliam's one of my favorite directors but his stuff can be bizarrely incomprehensible so my chief worry about this movie involving fantastic imagination was that it would be impossible to follow. To my surprise, the story's fairly linear, though presented in pieces so that the full puzzle isn't complete until the end. The story involves an ancient man who made a deal with the devil for immortality. That's the Dr. Parnassus of the title. He runs a tiny traveling show with his daughter and two assistants. I never did quite get the purpose of the traveling show: they apparently sold tickets but it was unclear what the customers got for their money. The troupe is very poor, living like gypsies in their delightfully ramshackle two-decker caravan, and show is artfully old-fashioned. The group come across a hanging man, played by the late Heath Ledger in his final role. He survives the hanging but has no memory and informally joins their troupe, where he uses his considerable persuasive skills to bring people to their shows. Meanwhile, Dr. Parnassus is depressed because his bargain with the devil means his daughter will become the devil's property on her sixteenth birthday in a few days time and he hasn't told her. This storyline is the bulk of the film, and it is intersected with aspects of fantasy: the Imaginarium. This is a fantasy land entered through a magical mirror that's part of the show's set. Inside the mirror the world becomes whatever you imagine it to be. This is where the film's style shines so brightly: while the outside world is grimy and delightfully disgusting, these fantasy worlds are absurdly colorful or ominously dark. The person who enters is invited to make a decision: dark or light. Basically they are choosing between Dr. Parnassas and the Devil, which fits in with a new wager the two make: the first to secure five souls wins the daughter.

A few words here about the role of Ledger, who died before the film was finished. In many movies, that might have ended all hope of the film being completed, or given us an awkward film with missing scenes. Here the solution is brilliant and so thoroughly handled that you'd never know there was a crisis. Early on in the film we're shown that people's faces sometimes change when they enter the Imaginarium, and fortunately it seems that most (if not all) of Ledger's "real world" scenes were completed, so only the fantasy scenes remained. Thus it works brilliantly to use other actors in Ledger's role inside the Imaginarium. The others are made up to look similar to Ledger (but not so similar as to be trying to pass as him) and with similar mannerisms, it works and actually adds a better touch than if Heath had done all those scenes himself.

My favorite things about this film are the striking visuals and the performances. Gilliam is unsurpassed in visuals and he's at his best here, with amazing contrasts between filth and fantasy perfection. The performances by the cast are astonishing. Every one is brilliant. Because of the chaotic nature of the story, all essentially have multiple roles, or at least play their character at different times of their life, and the variety is mesmerizing. I was truly impressed with everyone. (Heath's role is sadly smaller than it should have been, and he's probably the weakest of them all simply because he wasn't in that much of the film, though there are hints of more dramatic moments later in the film.) In terms of story, I am unsure how I felt. On the one hand, it was fractured and typical Gilliam, and I departed thinking I need to see the film several more times to truly understand it. On the other hand, I couldn't tell if it really was deep or just felt deep: ultimately the story feels too slight to be profound. But you don't see a film like this for the compelling story. This is all about fantasy and adventure and wonder. See it for the fun, the wild, the crazy, and just go along with the story. It eventually makes some sense, though you'll probably be scratching your head at a few things that didn't seem to fit. Gilliam is not a man who explains things! But it's a journey well worth the ride simply for the beauty of the experience. This is an amazing film. I'm not convinced it's great, and I didn't like it quite as well as my favorite film of all time, Gilliam's Brazil , but it's definitely one of his best and I am delighted that Gilliam is back doing what he does best: a delicious blending of fantasy and warped reality. I shall definitely watch this again and again on Blu-Ray. It is fascinating.


Friday, January 8, 2010


Movie: Daybreakers

Definitely an above-average vampire movie with a terrifically ironic conclusion that I loved, but it was much gorier than I expected (we're talking horror-movie blood splatter here) and the story itself is somewhat shallow. Things just happen too quickly without enough set-up or explanation of the whys and wherefores. The premise is interesting: it's a future world where 95% of the population has become vampires and now there's a severe shortage of human blood. The few remaining humans are hunted down to be stored in blood farms, milked for their blood. The main character's a blood scientist working on an artificial blood that would sustain the vampires. His money-hungry boss is head of the corporation and is the bad guy in the film. For some reason the scientist is human-sympathetic and ends up joining the humans in their battle against the vampires. The story's pacing is sometimes awkward, jumping around and leaping forward without warning, but mostly this is to give us pure action, and in that sense, the film delivers, but I found some parts that to be tedious and boring. Far more interesting to me were the detail moments, learning about this future world (i.e. cars equipped with blockout shields and cameras with internal screens to allow vampires to drive in sunlight). The most flawed character for me was the scientist's soldier brother, who appears out of nowhere with a "deep" backstory (it's implied that it's deep but it turns out to be trite) and though he's important by the end, I found his presence in the first half to be a distracting puzzle. I didn't buy the chemistry or bond between him and the scientist -- they were so different they felt like strangers and because I couldn't care less about the brother, I found the scientist's love of his brother not to be credible. The other characters were excellent: the CEO's spunky and beautiful daughter, Wilem Defoe's crusty former vampire, and of course the independent female soldier who was an obvious love interest of our hero. The film is somewhat inconsistent: at times it's visually striking and brilliant, but occasionally there's a shot or effect that seems mundane. That could be due to budget restrictions (this is an Australian film, not a huge Hollywood production). The filmmakers show great promise and I'd love to see more of their work. This is definitely better than most vampire films, and I enjoyed it a great deal. The story's choppy but does enough to keep you involved, and the performances are good. Recommended if you're into this genre.


Thursday, January 7, 2010


Movie: Invictus
Director(s): Clint Eastwood

For weeks I've been trying to decide if I should see this film. A part of me was interested: it's set in Africa and the historical aspects sounded intriguing. But it's also a sports film about rugby, which didn't interest me much, and the whole "uniting the country through sport" aspect sounded trite and predictable. While the reviews were positive, I didn't read anything that inspired me to go see the film. But today was the last day the film was showing at my local theatre, so I forced myself to go. Am I glad I did! It is an amazing film. Yes, like most sports films it is predictable. But that doesn't matter because that's only a small part of the movie. The first remarkable thing I found was not explained in the trailer and should have been. It's shown in the first few seconds of the film: rich white boys playing rugby on grass on one side of a road with the camera panning to the other side to see poor black kids playing soccer in the dirt. That is clearly the divide in the country. The whites play rugby, the blacks soccer. Thus "uniting the country" through sport is not the trivial task it seems. It is utterly remarkable, an astonishing achievement.

Thus the first two-thirds of the film is all about the politics of Nelson Mandela being released from prison, being elected president of the country, and his unusual ways of governing that transform and unite the country. He early on spots the importance of sport: for the whites, rugby is pride in their country. For the blacks, rugby represents everything they hate about white oppression. Their instinct, upon gaining power, is to repress it and forbid it, but Mandela uses his considerable charm and persuades the blacks to support their country. The result is the whites coming to respect him, while the blacks learn to grudgingly support the whites and even love the sport of rugby. The final third of the film is the actual rugby tournament which is shot as a traditional sports film: the South African team is painted as the lowly underdog which must somehow defeat the undefeatable. We have slow-motion rugby scrums and tackles, dramatic field goals, and whatever else happens in rugby. (The rules are not explained and could have been clarified but you get the gist of what's going on.) While this portion of the film is definitely the weakest of the story (especially if you're not a rugby fan), the drama is heightened because the film has built the fate of an entire country upon the results of the matches, and I found myself enthralled. What makes this film work so well is Eastwood's brilliant direction where he brings us wonderful human moments. The scene with the white and black presidential bodyguards who initially disliked each other, playing rugby on the grass during a break, was wonderful. The scene where the rugby captain brings home tickets to the big match to his family, was so precious because he brought an extra ticket for the family's black maid, and her surprised and grateful smile that she should be included in this historic moment makes you want to stand up and cheer. Best of all is the way Eastwood intercuts scenes of the critical rugby matches with human moments. One of my favorites is a terrific sequence, probably only thirty seconds long in total, but shown in eight-second increments and spread over five minutes of rugby footage. There's no dialogue, but we totally see what's happening. There's a parked taxi with a white driver and a white friend listening to the match on the radio. A small black boy nearby with wash rags is hanging out, his head tilted to hear the game. He inches closer and his longing to hear better is clear. In the first scene, one of the white guys scolds the boy rudely as though he's an undesirable insect and sends him away. In the next cut, he's closer, and as the rugby match is in a dramatic moment, the white guys are too excited to pay attention to the boy. Then the boy's on the bumper of the taxi, his face alight with joy at the game. In the next scene, he's cheering and dancing with the men, all animosity forgotten. It's beautiful, the entire movie told in a few seconds.

Go see this movie.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to Macintosh

Movie: Welcome to Macintosh (2006)

The key word to describe this documentary of Apple's history would be "competent." It is not ground-breaking, and the simple visual style, while adequate, is not ground-breaking or Apple-like (it's too plain). I learned little I hadn't already known (though some of the interviews were interesting), but then I've read numerous books and articles about Apple and have studied the company's history. One frustrating aspect for me, being knowledgeable on the subject, was information left out or giving short shrift, but for average viewers, this is a good way to learn about this fascinating company. Another problem is an unfortunate one of timing: the film was made in 2006, just before Apple unveiled the iPhone and leaped forward to dominate a brand new product category and revolutionized another industry. The documentary feels strangely lacking with no mention of Apple's most iconic product! Overall, this is well done and, like I said, feels competent. But Apple is not a competent company. They are a revolutionary one and deserve a revolutionary documentary. I'd love to see one from a truly innovative director with a big budget.


Friday, January 1, 2010

The Darkroom

Movie: The Darkroom

This felt like a low-budget slasher film, but turned out to be a surprisingly clever thriller. It opens with a young boy coming from the woods with hands dripping blood. He has no memory of who he is and ends up in an asylum for many years. Then a doctor arrives with an experimental drug that may help him recover his memories. What follows is a fascinating journey as the man escapes the institution and ends up homeless. He befriends a lonely boy getting beat up by some older boys and the two start hanging out. The boy's problem is his stepfather (brilliantly portrayed by Heroes' Greg Grunberg) who is acting strange. The dad is alternately sweet and angry, and switches instantly without warning, attacking the boy's mom (an excellent Lucy Lawless in a heartbreakingly submissive role a world apart from Xena). He is obsessed with his photography hobby and spends his nights going out to take pictures no one is allowed to see. The boy convinces the amnesiac to help him trail his stepdad and find out what he is doing, and their discovers are not pleasant. All this makes you wonder how this connects with the amnesiac's memories and I feared the connection would be lame, but it turns out to be terrifically logical in a way you don't see coming until late. Unfortunately, the film has far too many horror elements, with a Swamp Thing like monster seen in flashbacks murdering women and other slasher aspects that don't fit well with the cerebral and emotional story. That knocks a few stars off its rating for me as the gore is misplaced. Plenty of flaws, but surprisingly good with a terrific twist conclusion.