Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culture Shock 09.30.10: Doomsday is approaching for the DVD

A little more than a decade after its introduction, the DVD is already on its way out. It's a quick end to what was the most quickly adopted media format in history.

The evidence of the DVD's demise is overwhelming.

Best Buy plans to greatly reduce the amount of floor space it devotes to DVDs this holiday season, using that space instead for netbooks and tablet PCs — products that are actually in demand. And if you've been in a Best Buy recently, you've probably noticed the big-box retailer has already scaled back its DVD selection. Just try finding anything other than recent films or classics like "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." The midlist selection has all but disappeared.

Earlier this year, Movie Gallery, the nation's No. 2 video rental chain, went out of business. Last week, the No. 1 chain, Blockbuster, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in a last-ditch — and probably futile — effort to avoid the same fate.

Neither Movie Gallery nor Blockbuster could withstand the onslaught of Netflix, which delivers DVDs by mail, offers an unsurpassed selection and never charges late fees. But even Netflix is trying its best to phase out DVDs.

Netflix is aggressively pushing its on-demand service, which streams movies directly to viewers via the Internet. This month, Netflix began streaming films released by Paramount, Lionsgate and MGM under a new deal worth nearly $1 billion.

Netflix would much rather pay the movie studios for the right to stream movies than pay the Postal Service to deliver DVDs to customers within one day. Netflix's executives can see the future, and it doesn't include physical media like DVDs, which are rapidly going the same way as compact discs. (Best Buy is cutting back on CDs this year even more than on DVDs. You can blame — or praise — Apple's Steve Jobs for that.)

None of this means that DVDs are about to disappear completely. The Hollywood movie studios are still banking on high-profile new releases, and Blu-ray, the high-definition successor to DVD, still appeals to people with home- theater systems. But the studios are already cutting back. Most older movies still languishing in studio vaults will probably never be released on DVD.

To meet the lingering demand for those catalog titles, a couple of studios are adopting a middle ground. Warner Bros. and Sony Pictures have launched print-on-demand services via their company websites and The studios burn films to DVD-R discs when you order them.

DVD-Rs don't offer the same quality as commercially released DVDs, but they'll have to do for fans of obscure films that have not, and likely will not, make their way to DVD. For instance, Sony had scheduled a DVD release of the 1965 Sherlock Holmes film "A Study in Terror" for last year, to coincide with the release of the latest Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. But the DVD of "A Study in Terror" never arrived.

This month, Sony finally made "A Study in Terror" available as a DVD-R at its website. Clearly, someone at Sony has reconsidered the studio's approach to older films with cult followings.

Warner Bros. has been especially aggressive in shifting to DVD-R. It's print-on-demand films include "Under the Rainbow" with Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher, the foodie murder mystery "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?" starring George Segal and Jacqueline Bisset, and Peter Sellers in "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu." A few years ago, when Best Buy was still stocking midlist titles, all would have been candidates for traditional DVD.

A few other catalog titles may find their way to DVD through small, special-interest labels that have always catered to the cult-film audience. Synapse Films will be releasing three long-awaited horror films that had been gathering dust in the Universal Studios and Fox vaults: "Vampire Circus," "Twins of Evil" and "Hands of the Ripper."

Vinyl record albums have disappeared except for the few pressed to satisfy a small but devoted following of aficionados. DVDs seem destined to follow the same path.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Culture Shock 09.23.10: Reading a book goes from solitary to social

It was bound to happen. Even the act of reading a book — seemingly that most solitary of pastimes — is starting to plug into social media.

Amazon's Kindle is currently the top e-book reader in terms of market share. And while the company hasn't said exactly how many Kindles it has sold, at least one source puts the number at more than 3 million, as of April, which was before Amazon cut prices, causing a spike in sales, and well before the new third-generation Kindles began shipping to customers this month.

Amazon says its new 3G Kindle is the fastest-selling model yet, and earlier this year, the online retailer said it was selling more e-books than hardcover books.

All that would be impressive enough, but Amazon isn't the only player in the e-book game. Apple's iPad has quickly gained 22 percent of the e-book market, according to Apple, whose CEO Steve Jobs is never shy about telling you exactly how many units his company has moved. Jobs says iPad users downloaded more than 5 million e-books in the first 65 days the iPad was on the market.

Is your head spinning yet? Well, hang on. Brick-and-mortar bookseller Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader has about 20 percent of the e-book market, according to company figures. The Nook is the one truly bright spot on B&N's balance sheet.

And none of this includes Sony's e-reader or tablet devices powered by Google's Android operating system.

But what does any of this have to do with reading becoming a social activity?

Books are making the leap from paper to pixels faster than anyone — apart from Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — could have anticipated. E-books are reaching a critical mass of readers. And where there is a critical mass of anyone in an electronic environment, social networking inevitably follows.

After swearing I would never give up physical books and all of the sensations that come with them — the feel and smell of the pages — I finally made the jump to e-books. I bought one of the new 3G Kindles.

It was a matter of safety as much as anything. One of the stacks of books I have piled on the floor of my home office — my shelves are all full and sagging under the weight of my library — toppled and nearly hit me in the head. E-books may not be a perfect substitute for real books, but at least they won't try to kill me.

One Kindle feature I discovered is it allows you to highlight passages of any e-book and then retrieve your highlights with just a few clicks. It's a handy feature, especially for those of us who cringe at the thought of permanently defacing a physical book. But that's not all.

Kindle allows you to share your notes and highlighted passages with friends via Facebook and Twitter. And, as you're reading, it lets you know if a passage has been highlighted by other Kindle users.

For example, I'm currently reading "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like" by Paul Bloom. It has more highlighted passages than any other book on my Kindle. The most popular passage, highlighted by 44 readers so far, begins, "What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses. Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think the thing is."

So, as I read, I can see what other readers think is important, which, whether I like it or not, will probably color what I think is important. (Good thing it's possible to turn this feature off.)

E-books are in their infancy. So it's only likely that Kindle, iPad and other e-readers will greatly expand on this rather simple social-networking feature as time goes on.

And it isn't as if reading has always been completely solitary. Weekly book clubs have been around for as long as there has been widespread literacy. But now I find myself in a virtual book club with strangers I don't know and will never meet. We just happen to be reading the same book and, sometimes, highlighting the same passages.

Welcome to the 21st century.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Culture Shock 09.16.10: Dating site reveals the stereotypes that unite us

As much as people hate to admit it, the horrible, rotten depressing truth is some stereotypes become stereotypes because they're true — or at least partly true.

I mention this because OkCupid, a free dating site that claims about 3.5 million active members, has released an analysis of its users' interests, broken down by race, religion and ethnicity. Some of the results are surprising. Others are not. And some are surprisingly unsurprising, if that makes any sense.

To see the complete results, visit people-like. (And if you don't get the joke behind the title "The REAL Stuff White People Like," check out the humor website Stuff White People Like, at It's devoted to making fun of trendy, white, urban hipsters who think recycling is a spiritual experience and tell people they vote Democratic even though they never remember when Election Day is. (Now there's a stereotype for you.)

I'll stick to the highlights or, as the case may be, lowlights. To avoid offending any more people than absolutely necessary, I'll save most of my negative and sometimes humiliating observations for my own demographic, the North American white male.

OkCupid's analysis took 526,000 users at random and scanned their user profiles, looking for keywords and interests that made each gender and racial grouping statistically distinct from the others.

A quick look at the results tells me one thing I've always suspected: White guys have terrible taste in music. One word: Phish. It stands out like a pimple on prom night — the sixth most distinctive-to-white-guys term in OkCupid's results.

Also: Van Halen, Soundgarden and Megadeth. I don't know what OkCupid's median age is, but obviously it's old enough to remember when MTV still aired music videos.

In terms of sports, white males are more likely to prefer hockey and NASCAR. (Duh!)

I don't have an OkCupid account, but I confess to having the following "white guy" interests listed on my Facebook profile: "Ghostbusters," "The Big Lebowski," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and Robert Heinlein — all of which are tell-tale signs of membership in an exclusive white-guy subgroup known as "the geek."

Judging from the rest of the results for white males, I can conclude that we are more likely than other demographics to think we "can fix anything" even after "a few beers."

White females are distinguished by liking NASCAR, bad music (Kenny Chesney) and the typing skills of Nicholas Sparks.

OK, enough about white people. It's not always about us.

Black OkCupid users of both sexes tend to mention God and/or religion in their profiles twice as often as do whites, Asians and Latinos.

To my amazement, Latino men and women outpace other groups in their fondness for salsa. How is salsa not universal by now? Everybody loves salsa more than everybody loves Raymond.

Nearly everyone also likes sushi, but Asian men like sashimi, too. And both Asian males and females, as groups, are unusually fond of the book "Freakonomics" and author Malcolm Gladwell, which struck me as strangely random.

Now, if any of these or OkCupid's other findings depress you or offend you, keep in mind two points. First, OkCupid users are not necessarily representative of the larger public. Second, we're talking about people on a dating site, so obviously they're lying.

OkCupid profiles aren't about who you are but who you want other people, especially potential romantic partners, to think you are.

That does, however, raise an even more troubling possibility: Pretending to like 1980s hair bands is a successful mating strategy.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Culture Shock 09.09.10: Veteran tough guy shines in gorefest 'Machete'

After nearly 200 movie and TV appearances, Danny Trejo finally has top billing.

Sure, it's in a relatively low-budget movie that pays homage to other low-budget movies made four decades ago. But he's billed above two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro. That's not bad for someone who did prison time before falling, by accident, into a career playing movie tough guys.

And they don't come much tougher than Trejo in "Machete."

"Machete" originated as the fake movie trailer at the beginning of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 exploitation double-feature, "Grindhouse." The fake trailers ended up being the most popular part of "Grindhouse," so now Rodriguez has expanded "Machete" into a full-length film.

And it's a welcome change of pace after a lackluster summer movie season in which only "Inception" lived up to its hype. "Machete" is unapologetically ridiculous, fun, bloody and over-the-top — a throwback to trashy 1970s drive-in movies. If you can see "Machete" at one of the nation's few remaining drive-ins, do so. That's how it was meant to be seen.

Trejo plays the title character, an ex-Federale hiding out illegally in the United States after narrowly escaping a Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal) who — as it happens in this sort of movie — also killed Machete's family.

While working as a day laborer, Machete gets picked up by a mysterious man in a limousine. The man, played by the great Jeff Fahey ("Lost"), makes Machete an offer he can't refuse: a suitcase full of money in exchange for assassinating a Texas state senator (De Niro) whose anti-immigration platform is bad news both for illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them.

But nothing is what it seems, and the assassination attempt turns out to be a set-up intended to boost the senator's falling poll numbers. Machete winds up injured, on the run and in search of evidence that will not only clear his name but also reveal a vast conspiracy of politicians, drug lords and border-control vigilantes, who are in league to build an electrified wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Yes, I guess you could say this is a political movie, with Mexican immigrants as the good guys and border-control advocates as the bad guys. But like the many 1970s B-movies that also strived for social relevance, the message here is beside the point. The real point is delivering a lot of crowd-pleasing action and some gratuitous nudity. And "Machete" delivers both.

Trejo's Machete is a man of few words, which is probably a good thing. No one will ever mistake Trejo for a great actor, but he is an imposing screen presence, and one of his few lines seems already on its way to becoming a catchphrase: "Machete don't text."

Trejo also benefits from a great supporting cast, especially Fahey's wonderfully sleazy Booth, Cheech Marin's scene-stealing performance as Machete's brother/priest and Don Johnson as the racist leader of a vigilante group that is most definitely not modeled on the Minuteman Project. As for De Niro, "Machete" seems like the most fun he's had making a movie in years.

Jessica Alba co-stars as an immigration agent on Machete's trail, and Michelle Rodriguez provides the film's heart as Luz, who may be the leader of an underground resistance group.

Then there's Lindsay Lohan, who is also in this movie even though she barely has anything to do. Her character's big scene is actually reused footage from "Grindhouse," with a different actress playing the role.

But obvious body doubles and occasionally shoddy special effects are part of "Machete's" charm. Robert Rodriguez has set out to make a cheesy B-movie, and he has succeeded. If he ever makes good on the two sequels he promises at the end — "Machete Kills" and "Machete Kills Again" — I won't complain.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Culture Shock 09.02.10: James Cameron takes a bite out of 'Piranha 3D'

While some may think it's just a gimmick, and film critic Roger Ebert deems it mostly a headache-inducing annoyance, James Cameron is definitely serious about this whole 3-D thing.

He's so serious about it, he has appointed himself arbiter of what is and what isn't proper 3-D. And he has an unambiguous message for the producers of "Piranha 3D."

That message: You're doing it wrong.

In an interview last week in Vanity Fair magazine, Cameron didn't hold back.

"I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that ('Piranha 3D') is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the '70s and '80s, like 'Friday the 13th 3-D.' "

In other words, 3-D should be reserved for true works of cinematic genius, like a remake of "Dances With Wolves" set in space with furry blue cat people standing in for the American Indians. It demeans 3-D to use it the way it has almost always been used in the past — as a gimmick to add a few thrills and chills to B-grade horror movies.

Well, Mark Canton, one of the producers of "Piranha 3D," wasn't going to just sit back and let Cameron have one of his now familiar "I'm the king of the world" ego trips without comment. He fired off an e-mail to — apparently — every entertainment reporter in the business.

His missive starts off with a low blow, noting that Cameron's directorial debut was a little B-movie called "Piranha 2: The Spawning," the sequel to the film of which "Piranha 3D" is a remake. He then mentions that Cameron didn't actually finish directing "Piranha 2" because he got fired.

The rest of the e-mail goes downhill from there. To tell the truth, I only skimmed the rest. It's a bit long and rambling. I believe the phrase these days is, "TL;DR" — translated: "too long; didn't read." Let's just say the word "dictator" comes up.

Improbably, Cameron does still seem to be smarting from his "Piranha 2" experience nearly 30 years ago. As he tells Vanity Fair, "I worked on 'Piranha 2' for a few days and got fired off of it; I don't put it on my official filmography. So there's no sort of fond connection for me whatsoever."

I could understand if Cameron's point were that "Piranha 3D" is bad because it isn't really filmed in 3-D. Rather, like most of the other 3-D films released this year, it was converted into 3-D in post production. That sort of "fake 3-D" doesn't look nearly as convincing as the true 3-D Cameron used for "Avatar" or that Disney is using for its upcoming "Tron: Legacy." But what Cameron seems to be saying is Piranha 3D's subject matter is unworthy of the 3-D format.

Again, this from the man who gave us giant cat Smurfs.

In its long history, involving various technologies, 3-D has mostly been used in films just like "Piranha 3D." Whether it was "Creature from the Black Lagoon" or "The Stewardesses," 3-D has had a long association with dangerous aquatic monsters and topless females, both of which "Piranha 3D" provides in abundance.

If I have to pay double the normal ticket price to see a movie in 3-D, I know what I'd rather see, and it's not giant cat Smurfs.

Now the Cameron/Canton debate is raging across the Internet, with partisans taking sides. Meanwhile, I can't believe this is an argument at all, but at least it gives me a chance to dust off my "Avatar" jokes.

Clearly, Cameron has ambitions of revolutionizing the movies, not unlike when Orson Welles invented modern film-making with "Citizen Kane" in 1941. And he's frustrated that 3-D still seems like a cheap gimmick because, well, it's a cheap gimmick.

Except for the cheap part, because ticket prices for 3-D movies are outrageous.