Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Archive for September, 2010

Capitalism, a Dislike Story – Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 26, 2010

Does anyone remember Oliver Stone? Not the Oliver Stone who made Alexander, World Trade Center and W, but the Oliver Stone of the 80’s and 90’s. The guy who made movies that mattered, who swung for the fences every time and hit home runs more often than not. The Oliver Stone who stirred shit up, pissed people off, challenged the status quo, made people think differently about the world they live in. That Stone was the man back then, the big swinging dick of Hollywood who made grown-up movies about the Real World at a time when most of the mainstream film industry was mining pure fantasy and mindless Reagan-era jingoism.

I’m not sure where that guy went. Maybe he got tired of fighting the good fight. Maybe he stopped believing that his movies could change the world. Because, well, they apparently didn’t. But at least he gave a shit. After his disappointing output of the last decade or so (culminating in the frustratingly punch-pulling W, which could have and should have hit its subject a lot harder), I wouldn’t blame anybody for writing him off. But I still find him an interesting filmmaker, and I find it difficult to completely dismiss the man who made Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Natural Born Killers. You can argue the merits of those movies until the cows come home, but for me they were life-changing events. In a way, they were true punk-rock films, works of passion that raged against a corrupt and uncaring system. Those four films probably changed the way I looked at the world more than anything else I watched, read or listened to growing up, and they helped shape the person I’ve become from a naive teenager to a politically aware adult (although some would probably argue that was a negative thing). So yes, Oliver Stone’s films changed at least one person’s life, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

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I’m thrilled to report that there are glimpses of the old rabble-rousing Oliver in his new film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It’s not quite a home run, but it’s as close as he’s come in quite some time, and even a partial return to form is worth celebrating. The original 1987 Wall Street was never one of my favorite Stone films, in all honesty. While I recognized that it was well done and important, it never really connected with me personally. I found it hard to relate to those characters, even when I knew that Stone was criticizing them and their values and beliefs. I didn’t really care what happened to Charlie Sheen’s character Bud Fox, because I felt he was a corrupt person who chose a corrupt business. Fuck that guy! But it did make people much more aware of how bankers and businessmen control the fates of the average person, a fact that came thundering home two decades later when a bunch of greedy, privileged assholes “playing the game” practically bankrupted America. I never understood why people thought Gordon Gekko was a guy worth emulating – he was clearly the villain of the piece, after all, and Stone obviously meant the “greed is good” speech to be ironic. It’s like those rappers who watch Scarface and want to be Tony Montana – talk about missing the point.

All of which brings us to Money Never Sleeps, the seemingly inevitable follow-up which takes place before and during the 2008 financial crisis. Stone clearly doesn’t intend to reinvent the wheel here – stylistically, it’s practically a bookend to the original film, with the same style of opening credits and the use of Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” on the soundtrack (the film also features original songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno). But the original’s jaded view of the Wall Street shenanigans has been replaced by something softer, almost nostalgic. After all, the likes of Gordon Gekko are small time compared to the douchebags who nearly brought us to our knees two years ago. The “old guard” represented by Gekko and Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) are revered as relatively noble icons, while the villains are the younger sharks led by Bretton James (Josh Brolin).

For that matter, Gordon Gekko himself seems like a somewhat different guy. Having served time in jail, he’s not just older but humbler, his hair grown wild, regretful of the time lost with his family and the greed culture he helped create. He’s taken the position of know-it-all elder statesman, having written a book in which he questions everything he once believed in. But of course, he’s still got that hunger to be back on top again. Michael Douglas is again fantastic in the role (and looking more like his father than ever), but here he’s able to show different sides to the character that we didn’t have the opportunity to see before. He genuinely seems to want to reconcile with his now grown-up daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and be a mentor to his future son-in-law (Shia LaBeouf), a young Wall Street trader. If Gekko sometimes seems to be a supporting character in his own movie, his shadow hangs over everything that takes place. And to those of you who are let down by the ending (which I won’t reveal here), I suggest you watch Douglas’ performance again.

Stone clearly could have used this opportunity to eviscerate the people responsible for the financial crisis, or even make a Michael Moore-style polemic decrying the whole system. And maybe the old Oliver Stone would have done just that. Instead, he makes us like and understand these people and the situation they’re in. He obviously knows this world inside and out, and is just trying to portray it realistically. This may be disappointing to some who are expecting him to tear Wall Street a new asshole, but I think he does make his points here without hammering them into our skulls. Each of the characters has his or her own “moral hazard” to face – some pass the test and some don’t. But it’s never as easy as one might think. If Money Never Sleeps gives us a softer, more mature Gordon Gekko, it just reflects a more mature Stone, one who isn’t afraid to let the audience come to its own conclusions on occasion. Not necessarily a bad thing.

But I do wish he’d bare his teeth on occasion the way he used to. Come on Oliver, we need you now more than ever.

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The Antisocial Network: Netflix Has a Failure to Communicate

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 12, 2010

This may not seem too interesting to anyone who isn’t a Netflix customer, so I apologize for that in advance. But nobody else seems to be writing about this, so I thought somebody should. You might think I should be directing this to Netflix’s Customer Service department, but I find that kind of thing to be an exercise in futility. So I’m making the even more futile effort of posting this on my blog in hopes that someone at the company will read it. That probably won’t happen, but you never know. Maybe they have their drones searching Google for any mention of the company. Who knows? At the very least, it’ll make me feel better.

I want to start by saying that I have been a Netflix customer for several years now, and in general I love the service. I love the selection (a film geek’s dream) and the convenience of renting movies by mail, keeping them for as long you want and sending them back when you’re done. I know everyone’s crazy about the Instant Watching service now, but I don’t even use it (I don’t really want to watch movies on my computer; that’s what I have a damn DVD player for). I like using the service and I have no intention of ending my membership as long as they continue to rent discs.

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Having said that, recently they dropped some of their longtime features, and that really bugs the hell out of me. As of September 3rd, members no longer have access to the Community page or its various features. For the uninitiated, let me explain this. It’s basically a deal where you can invite other Netflix members you know to “Friend you” and once they’ve done so, you can send them film recommendations (or warnings), you can check out their queues, see what they’ve recently added, what they have at home, what they’ve recently watched, etc. And of course they can do the same to you. It’s like a mini-network for film buffs who use Netflix. It’s one of the things I liked most about Netflix when I first signed up – the ability to check out what your friends are watching, recommend films to them and receive recommendations from them. It was a sort of interactive thing that went beyond just “renting movies” – it was like you were part of a community. In a minor way, at least, you were interacting with fellow movie lovers, particularly people you knew personally and whose tastes you trust.

I’m sure some customers never used these features and just rented movies anonymously, and if you didn’t actually know any other members, it wasn’t much use. Fair enough. But if you did use it, it was an easy and direct way to communicate with other members about the movies you loved, liked and even hated. Also, some members would post lists of movies that were available on Netflix, ranging from movies that were coming out soon to personal favorites to movies grouped by director, actor, decade or genre, etc. that you could browse and queue anything you found interesting. I personally discovered a lot of movies this way that I probably would never have watched otherwise. That’s what was so cool about Netflix: the idea that members were sharing their tastes and interests with others. And one would assume that this only led to more rentals, more memberships and therefore more profits for the company. So it seems kind of counter-productive for them to suddenly yank these features away.

On the plus side, not having the Community page means I no longer have to read random nonsense like right-wing lunatic rants about Hollywood movies (hey, no one’s forcing you to watch them) or one-star “reviews” of films like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood. There’s always some bad apples in the bunch. But it was a small price to pay for the benefits of the service. Now Netflix members are no longer part of a community; we’re just anonymous schmucks who rent movies by mail. Yes, we can still rate movies, but our friends can’t see our ratings; we still have profiles, but nobody reads them. So what’s the point? Might as well take away those features too. For that matter, why not take away the ability to queue movies and arrange them in the order we want? Wouldn’t it be more convenient for the company to just send us movies at random? I know there’s a family in Ohio that hasn’t seen Salo yet. That may sound ridiculous, but what they’ve done is essentially removed one of the basic features of their service. If they’re going to do that, why not remove them all? Why not bend the customers over even more and make it a Blu-Ray-only service or an Instant Watching-only service? And after having taken away the most basic features, why not raise membership fees? That seems like a great business strategy. I mean, it’s not like any video stores are left open for people to go back to, right?

As absurd as all that sounds, that’s basically what Netflix has done. They’ve taken one of the most attractive features of their service and thrown it away. Yet somehow they expect us to pay the exact same prices even though we’re getting less out of the service. That simply doesn’t make any logical sense to me. Why should I, as a loyal customer, pay exactly what I paid before if I’m not getting all of the services I used before? As a wise man once said, “screw that noise”. I could cancel my membership over this, but then I’d be the one losing out. So my response is simple – I’ve dropped my membership from 4 movies at a time ($23.99 a month – yes, I’m an addict) to 3 at a time ($16.99 a month). That seems like the most logical and sensible thing to do. It’s not that I really think that extra $7 is going to make or break the company. Of course not. But I simply refuse to pay as much as I have been if I’m not getting the features that I did before. It doesn’t make sense to continue to do that. Of course I’ll get one less movie out at a time, but I can live with that. What I can’t live with as a consumer is paying the same price and getting less out of the service. I’m not saying everyone has to do what I did, but if you feel the need to, I say go for it. And yes, I’ll go back up to 4 at a time when they bring those features back. Knowing full well that will probably never happen.

Honestly, Netflix’s decision just seems counter-intuitive at the very least, at a time when millions of people are using “social networking” sites like Facebook and MySpace, twittering and tweeting and texting and whatever else they’re doing. Social networking is all the rage these days – why would they drop those kind of services when people seem to want them most? Doesn’t seem like a wise move to me. Netflix is already dealing with the fallout of another bad decision – making their Instant Watching service available to all members, even those who only get one disc out at a time (which only costs $8.99 a month). So basically they’ve inspired millions of customers to drop their services from 3 or 4 discs at a time to one at a time (costing the company tons of money) in exchange for all the Instant Watching they want. Brilliant move, Einsteins! Now you’re making 9 bucks off of people when you were making 17 or 24. At the very least, I would have limited the number of hours of online watching per month to people who get less than 3 discs at a time. That at least would have been good business sense. Instead, they’ve basically opened the floodgates for people to access thousands of movies for less money than it would cost them to rent a few by mail. And they wonder why the rental market is shrinking! Good luck with that, suckers.

But I wouldn’t advocate changing anything now – you’ll just piss off the rest of the customers the same way you’ve pissed me off. And if that were to happen, there would be a shitstorm of Biblical proportions headed your way. It’s not like people can’t just download movies illegally for free if they really want to. There are other options out there, and when you take away what people want, they find other ways to get it. After all, since Netflix isn’t a community any more, why should the customers feel any loyalty to them? As soon as something better comes along, people gravitate towards it and leave the past in the dust. Just ask Blockbuster.

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