Thursday, September 29, 2011

Culture Shock: 09.29.11: The third-worst movie gets 'special treatment'

According to the collective wisdom of voters at, the worst movie of all time is "Superbabies:Baby Geniuses 2," which is arguably the career low for the late Bob Clark, considering he also directed near classics like "A Christmas Story" and the Sherlock Holmes thriller "Murder by Decree."

The second-worst film is a German production from 2004 called "Daniel the Wizard." I know nothing else about it, and I plan to keep it that way.

Currently ranked third is a little movie called "Manos: The Hands of Fate."

Plucked from obscurity to become the best episode of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," this cinematic cow patty was made on a dare by the late Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed and starred in it. That’s three strikes right there.

Warren, a fertilizer salesman from El Paso, Texas, knew nothing about making movies, and "Manos: The Hands of Fate" testifies to his every bad decision, both in front of and behind the camera. And yet "Manos" is hypnotic. You can’t look away. Every frame has something to offer, even when it’s out of focus, which is a lot of the time.

"Manos" is no ordinary train wreck. It’s a high-speed passenger train full of piranha derailing in Six Flags during spring break.

That’s probably why "Manos: The Hands of Fate" is the first MST3K episode to earn the royal treatment — a two-disc "special edition" DVD set that includes both the MST3K version and the original as intended by Hal Warren, left to stand, however wobbly, on its own. Add new interviews with the MST3K cast and the documentary short "Hotel Torgo," which details the making of "Manos," and you basically have the Criterion of crap.

This Shout! Factory release also includes the documentary "Jam Handy to the Rescue," directed by Chattanooga filmmaker Daniel Griffith and starring a deadpan Larry Blamire ("The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"). A clever, tongue-in-cheek parody of old educational films, "Jam Handy" is the story of Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy, who produced training films for the military and Chevrolet. And it’s here because Handy’s short "Hired!" is the comedic fodder for the MST3K crew at the start of "Manos."

Basically, Shout! Factory’s special edition is the ultimate "Manos" experience.

But what is it about "Manos" the film that makes it worth this effort?

Is it the characters saying lines of dialogue twice for no reason? The nonsensical script? The lapses in good taste and judgment? Bizarre characters like Torgo, the lovestruck satyr/caretaker with bad knees?

The protracted driving scenes? The lingerie wrestling sequence? The catchy, yet inappropriate jazz score? The two teenagers who seem to be in a completely different movie?

Who can say? All I know is "Manos: The Hands of Fate" has spawned no fewer than three stage versions, including a musical and one with puppets. And a sequel, "Manos: The Search for Valley Lodge," starring surviving members of the cast, is in the works for 2013 — as improbable as that may seem.

This past year, movie hostess Elvira,Mistress of the Dark, finally took her own shot at "Manos" on her revived "Movie Macabre" show.

Without a doubt, "Manos" has finally made it. It’s the big time, now.

Sadly, Warren didn’t live to see his movie become the phenomenon it is today, ridiculed but beloved, an inspiration to other independent filmmakers, giving them the confidence that comes only from knowing you can’t do any worse.

Thank you, Hal, for making a really, really bad movie.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Culture Shock 09.22.11: Can Netflix survive long enough for its master plan?

Netflix has had a bad couple of months.

Since the company announced its new price structure, which took effect this month and amounted to an increase for most subscribers, Netflix has been dealing with one PR disaster after another.

The rate hike was followed by Netflix's failure to renew its streaming deal with Starz, meaning lots of on-demand movies — including Disney films — will disappear from Netflix's offerings at the end of February.

As a consequence, the past two months have been ugly. Netflix has shed roughly 600,000 customers, while its stock has lost about half its value.

The backlash's severity caught Netflix's top brass off guard — and me, too, for that matter. I figured most Netflix users would complain and then suck it up, deciding Netflix was still worth the money. As it happens, most did. But, still, more than half a million customers actually following through on threats to dump Netflix. I don't think anybody expected that. It runs counter to the entire 20-year history of Internet griping, which had never amounted to anything.

Until now.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tried to stop the hemorrhaging this week in an emailed apology that doubled as an announcement for Netflix's next move, spinning off its DVD-by-mail business into a separate company to be called Qwikster, while Netflix continues to offer streaming video.

Cue yet another round of angry customers and widespread ridicule.

Adding the cherry to this self-inflicted pie to the face, the newly valuable @Qwikster Twitter ID is already spoken for, and the guy who speaks for it does so only in a vague approximation of a language, presumably meant to be English.

From a PR standpoint, you couldn't ask for much worse, which is why it's ironic that from a pure nuts-and-bolts business perspective, everything Netflix has done makes sense — in the long run.

In the long run, DVDs are a dying format, destined to appeal only to collectors, aficionados and aging hipsters the way laserdiscs and vinyl albums do now. Nobody is going to make bank renting discs by mail. Even the Postal Service can't make money on mail.

Anyway, Netflix would rather spend money on content than on postage.

But, knowing that, all of the Hollywood studios have started upping their demands, which is what forced Netflix's rate hike and restructuring. Movies and TV shows don't come cheap.

The long-run plan is sound, but in the short run, Netflix has all of the dead-eye aim of an Imperial Stormtrooper.

Still, how bad are things for Netflix, really?

Despite losing half of its market value, Netflix's stock is still in the neighborhood of $130 a share, which is about $100 a share more than where media giants Disney and Time Warner currently trade.

Netflix also still has 24 million subscribers in the United States alone, which is more than either Showtime or Starz, and not far behind HBO's roughly 28 million. And Netflix has yet to roll out its own original programing.

The biggest threat to Netflix is still that someone might beat it at its own game. Blockbuster's new owner, Dish Network, might turn that floundering brand around, or a new owner might try to make Hulu competitive — something Hulu's current owners seem to discourage, with the exception of offering Criterion Collection films to Hulu Plus subscribers.

But first things first. Netflix really needs to buy that @Qwikster Twitter account.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Culture Shock 09.15.11: Don't be too quick to blame 'SpongeBob'

Someone needs to study whether or not stupid studies are detrimental to the nation's mental health.

They're driving me crazy.

The latest example, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, says fast-paced TV programs could be harmful to preschool-age children.

Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. None of the studies claiming that TV is detrimental to children are all that persuasive. That applies especially to studies claiming to link television viewing and violence, even as violent crime rates have declined for most of the past 30 years. But one thing about this new study is clear: It offers no valuable evidence one way or the other.

Here's how the study worked. One group of 4-year-olds watched nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants." That was the fast-paced show. Another group of preschoolers watched nine minutes of a slower-paced PBS cartoon called "Caillou." Immediately afterward, all of the kids were given mental function tests, and the ones who watched "SpongeBob" scored lower and displayed less impulse control.

That led the study's authors to speculate that fast-paced cartoons are bad. Mmkay? (Tell that to everyone who grew up with Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry.)

I drew a different conclusion.

I suspect that when kids watch nine minutes of "SpongeBob SquarePants" and then are yanked away to take some boring old test, all those kids can think about is how much they'd rather still be watching "SpongeBob." What else would you expect? "SpongeBob" is one of the most popular kiddie-TV programs ever and, for the past decade, one of the most popular shows on cable.

Meanwhile, the kids forced to watch nine minutes of "Caillou" may have been somewhat less traumatized by no longer watching "Caillou," even if that meant taking a test.

After watching a seven-minute clip of "Caillou" I found on YouTube, I wanted to do something that was not watching "Caillou." I also realized why some parents online complain that the show's title character is an annoying brat.

Also, I never want to have children.

Even if the study's findings are valid, they apply only to the short term. Why not test the kids an hour or two after they watch "SpongeBob" and see how they perform then? Obviously that's too much like a real-world situation and makes too much sense. Besides, if the study's authors did that first, they might not have any need to include the usual disclaimer about how more study is needed.

It's a lot easier to get grant money for your next study if the first study's main finding is something may be a problem and its secondary finding is more study is necessary. Finding that something isn't a problem or that more study isn't needed is bad for business.

Despite my cynicism about this particular study, I actually do think our generally faster-paced culture — including movies and TV — may be rewiring our brains, adapting us to life's quickening pace and all of the information coming at us from every direction. I also suspect this is not necessarily a bad thing, and it may help us with things like multitasking. But if that's the case, then the way we test children's mental abilities must adapt, too.

Kids aren't getting dumber, and steady increases in IQ — the Flynn effect — back that up. But children  may be thinking differently, and our tests aren't accounting for that, which might partially explain why test scores have remained flat despite rising IQs and greater per-pupil spending than ever.

Or I could be wrong. Maybe more study is needed.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Darth Vader learns to say 'yes'

Tired of Darth Vader screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!" all the time? See what happens when the Dark Lord of the Sith learns to say "yes."

Culture Shock 09.08.11: George Lucas isn't finished ruining 'Star Wars' yet

"Art is never finished, only abandoned," or so Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, according to the entire Internet, apart from the websites that attribute the quote to E.M. Forster.

I'm going to side with Leo, because he was an eccentric genius, while E.M. Forster wrote novels that eventually became tedious Merchant Ivory films, if you'll forgive the redundancy.

But I'm not here to talk about Merchant Ivory films. I'm here to talk about films people still watch.

Next week, the three "Star Wars" movies that matter, as well as the three that don't, make their Blu-ray debut. They are why I mention da Vinci, although not because I think George Lucas is a genius — sadly, that day has passed — but because as far as Lucas is concerned, his original "Star Wars" trilogy has never been finished, only abandoned.

Abandoned and, unfortunately, revisited. Again and again.

Lucas has been making changes to the trilogy since at least the early '80s. For example, the subtitle "Episode IV: A New Hope" isn't on the original 1977 "Star Wars" print. But the first major changes that everyone noticed — the ones that really started to alter the films for the worse — came with 1997's theatrical release of the "Special Editions."

That's when Lucas revised the Holy Trilogy to change key scenes, add pointless footage and generally clutter one scene after another with needless CGI, all for no reason other than no one could stop him.

So, now Greedo shoots first, Han steps on Jabba the Hutt's tail and anonymous droids and giant lizards wander into the frame seemingly at random.

Next came the trilogy's long-awaited DVD release in 2004, and Lucas wasn't done yet. Among other, more minor tweaks, he replaced the ghostly Anakin Skywalker played by Sebastian Shaw at the end of "Return of the Jedi" with the prequel Anakin portrayed by Hayden Christensen. (I guess it could have been worse. Lucas could have replaced Shaw with Jake Lloyd.) Now it's seven years later, the original trilogy is set for yet another re-release, and Lucas is back to his old tricks.

The latest changes, leaked to the Internet last week, are almost trivial at this point, but they still leave me shaking my head. Now, Darth Vader screams an anguished "Nooooooo!!!" before grabbing the Emperor and throwing him to his death. I get that this "no" is supposed to echo the equally absurd "Nooooooo!!!" that Vader screams at the end of "Revenge of the Sith," but there's more to storytelling that just having one scene refer back to another. If that's all you've got, you've got lazy storytelling.

Congratulations, George. You've robbed what was once one of the screen's greatest villains of his last shred of dignity. To paraphrase Vader from back when he was still cool, "Your failure is now complete."

But why?

I've come to think Lucas does all this deliberately to irritate the legion of fans who made him the insanely wealthy film and special-effects mogul he is today. Maybe he really wanted to keep making small, personal movies like "American Graffiti." But the snowballing success of the "Star Wars" films, not to mention the "Indiana Jones" series, put him on a different path. Maybe, deep down in his soul, he resents that.

So, he takes his revenge with "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," the "Star Wars" prequels and his repeated defacements of the original trilogy.

It's that, or else he really has just flat-out forgotten how to make a good movie.