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Judge David Ryan's Blog

Judge David Ryan • Location: Natick, MA
• Member since: July 2004
• 92 full reviews
• 65 small claims

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Review: Hotel Chevalier
September 28th, 2007 9:09PM

First of all, put your pants back on. This isn't about Natalie Portman, or her lovely buttocks, or her slightly-too-visible ribcage. Lost in the fanboy fervor for the notoriously skin-shy Portman nudity is the fact that this little 14-minute short, available for free on iTunes and Google Films (and possibly elsewhere by the time you read this), is the first real film from Wes Anderson since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Plus, it's a "prequel" to Anderson's forthcoming feature, The Darjeeling Limited. Admittedly, this only matters to you if you're a big fan of Anderson's, and have been wondering whether or not he would follow the increasingly somber tonal path he's been on.

Well... looks like he is. Hotel Chevalier -- which also features a fully-clothed Jason Schwarztman, by the way -- is a quiet, grim quarter hour. Anderson, by his account, is establishing the backstory for Darjeeling by showing why its protagonist winds up on a train in India with his two brothers (Owen Wilson and Anderson newcomer Adrien Brody, if you're wondering). Of course this is Wes Anderson, so he doesn't just tell you the story; he lets one small fragment of it unfold in front of you, and lets his cinematography and direction fill in the blanks. There's barely any dialogue in this short; but what dialogue there is oozes exposition, including one truly great line that speaks volumes about these two characters. There's a tiny bit of humor in the script, but much like Life Aquatic, it's hard to laugh when the melancholy levels are this high.

Visually, it's almost more Wes than Wes: the film couldn't be more Neoclassical if it were painted by David. I'm hoping that the Anderson style -- rigid, static framing, primary colors, heavy use of color balancing in the editing process, structured composition, and wide, fisheye shots -- doesn't turn into self-parody in the future. It's a fine line between "instantly identifiable" and "inflexible". The color tone here -- primarily the yellow-orange of low-wattage incandescent lighting -- fits the depressing mood of the short well. It's leavened a bit by a dusk-blue scene on a balcony that closes both the film and a chapter in these character's lives, but a yellow light in a window across the street metaphorically and subtly reminds us that you never truly leave your past behind, no matter how hard you try.

Hotel Chevalier is a tiny little gem. Prequel or not, it's a great example of efficient and powerful short-filmmaking, and whets the appetite for the forthcoming Darjeeling. In this case, you wing up getting more than you pay for. But it does make me worry a bit. Life Aquatic was a difficult film to like. It was an excellent film -- but it was powerfully depressing, and didn't have the sprightly charm of Bottle Rocket, nor the wry humor of Rushmore. This short is definitely a lot closer in tone to Life Aquatic than Bottle Rocket. I'd hate to see Anderson become a director who makes outstanding, fantastic films that you never want to see again after viewing...

Adventures in iPhoning
July 5th, 2007 9:01AM

First, a programming note: the HSX Report remains on indefinite hiatus until I can find the time to start it up again.

Now... Yes, I caved in to overwhelming peer pressure and got myself an iPhone. As a loyal AT&T/Cingular/AT&T again customer, I figured out that it would only cost me about $12/month more to have one (service-wise), for which I'd get a heck of a lot more features and usage than I did with my current phone. So it was off to the Apple Store in Chestnut Hill (the AT&T Store closer to me didn't have any left, and actually referred me to the Apple Store) to pick up the gizmo.

They only had the 4GB model left, which was fine by me -- I don't intend for the iPhone to replace my 40GB iPod, just to supplement it, and the iPod features are the only thing that memory size really impacts. The transaction took maybe 8 minutes to complete, including the obligatory attempt by the clerk (genius?) to convert me from Windows. And off we go, hand in hand, me and my iPhone.

The iPhone, from a hook-up perspective, works the same as an iPod: you get a USB 2.0 connector and a dock, plus a wall socket thingy, and you use iTunes to manage the device. (Again, this is all Windows stuff; I can't say how it connects with Macs, not owning one.) Unlike most phones, which are activated over the wireless network itself (usually involving inputting certain codes into the unactivated phone and such), the iPhone activates over the Internet through iTunes. Hence, you have to have an iTunes Store account to activate it, besides the obvious AT&T account that's necessary. If you're an iPod user like me, you already have one, so no biggie. ITunes asks you some questions, you pick your rate plan (in my case, keeping the same one I had), and press "submit". And presto, your phone is ready to go!

Um.... not so fast.

The first inkling that trouble was afoot: a message from iTunes saying "your activation requires more time to complete". Uh oh. About half an hour later, I get an email saying that AT&T has not accepted some information I provided (?) -- puzzling, since I AM ALREADY A CUSTOMER OF THEIRS. (And have been for nearly a decade.) There is a phone number to call. But first I try the AT&T customer service line. That person checks my account -- nothing amiss -- and starts to walk me through the REGULAR phone activation process. Which I can't complete, because the iPhone is utterly functionless until iTunes tells it it's activated. There's no keypad to enter hardware codes or nothin'. So after consulting with his supervisor or something, he tells me that I have to call the iPhone line. Which I do.

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES later, I come off of hold on the iPhone line and speak to someone. He checks the account -- nothing seems amiss. Then he goes to dig into the account to see what's holding up the activation. After ten minutes or so of research, he finds the problem: My rate plan was a legacy AT&T Wireless plan, whereas one must have a Cingular plan if one wants to move the plan to the iPhone. But of course they don't handle billing on that line. Back to AT&T customer service.

The plan issue was easy to fix -- after the $36 change fee, of course. (In fairness to AT&T, the Cingular plan gives you a bit more value for your money, due to the rollover minutes that the AT&T plan didn't have.) The AT&T woman stayed on the line to transfer me to another iPhone-related line, where I was supposed to accept the terms, yadda yadda, and get the phone activated. That guy told me that everything was fine, and I should get an email saying the activation was complete within 4-6 hours, and to leave the phone hooked up to the computer (and to iTunes) until then. (By the way, it's now 10:30 on Monday night.) Okay, fine. Meanwhile, my old phone is now inactive, since the account has been switched to the iPhone's SIM card number.

I'm a bit of an insomniac, and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night for no reason. Which happened at roughly 3AM on Tuesday morning. So I got up and checked the computer -- no email, no active iPhone. Uh oh. Got up at my usual time in the morning, and checked the computer again at 8:15 or so. No email, no active iPhone. So I call the number of the last guy to speak to me -- the accept and yadda guy -- and get a nice woman on the line. I explain the sitch, and she checks the account. Well, there's the problem -- the account doesn't have the phone's hardware ID number. So I give her all the code numbers from the phone, which are put into the account, and she says that it looks good, and I should get an email, etc. And if I don't, call the iPhone line (the 45-minute-wait line) and get them to finish the activation.

Off to work I go. No email, no active phone. I put iTunes on my work computer and hooked the phone up -- nothing. So around 10AM, I call the iPhone line. THIRTY MINUTES LATER, I get a lovely young woman on the line. Explain the sitch, etc. She looks at the account, and sees no reason why it shouldn't be activated. Puts me on hold for five minutes. Comes back and says she's fixed it, and I should immediately get the email. The email comes about a minute later, et voila, active iPhone. Huzzah! And it only took 14 hours! For an existing customer with a non-corporate account!

Functionally, the iPhone is four devices in one:
(1) A phone (duh);
(2) A small-capacity video iPod;
(3) A Blackberry-style remote email client;
and (4) A near-full-function web browser.

It is both WiFi and Bluetooth 2.0 capable, and should work with most (if not all) third-party Bluetooth headsets. Apple sells an iPhone Bluetooth headset that automatically pairs through a special dock (that is included with the headset); I didn't get that option. The iPhone package includes a set of headphones similar to the standard iPod headphones, but with a microphone and button integrated. It's a functional, if not optimal, handsfree option.

But how well does it work? Well, the phone is a phone -- competent, unexciting. The interface is the main advantage; it is much easier to navigate your contacts list (especially if it is large) compared to a normal phone, and dialing is a one-touch process. The Visual Voicemail feature is great -- organizing your voicemails as if they were emails is a bit of brilliance. Negatives: currently no support for MP3 ringtones, so you're stuck with what they give you.

The iPod functionality is basically the same as that of the current video iPods, although you can flip through your albums in Cover Flow (a la iTunes), which I don't think is supported on the iPod. Could be wrong. In any event, the sound repro is identical to the iPod's to my ears, and you do get the same iPod equalizer presets for fine tuning. The only consideration here is storage space. The iPhone slots into the iPod lineup basically alongside the iPod Nano (which also has 4GB and 8GB models), except unlike the Nano the iPhone has a full-sized color display and can handle video. Another difference is this: the iPhone needs memory overhead for all of its other features, whereas the iPod can dedicate the storage competely to music. For example, my iPhone is the 4GB model. About half a gig is dedicated to the operating software and applications right off the bat, leaving roughly 3.5GB available for storage. However, if you filled that space up with music or video, you'd have no room left for photos, the browser's cache function, and all the other things that use up memory space. So it's a balancing act. If you only have a small number of albums/songs, the iPhone could probably serve as your primary iPod. For people like me and my 11,000 songs, it's not going to replace the Pod. In practice, I have a playlist set up in iTunes that's a subset of my library, and have set the iPhone to synch to that playlist only. It's a relatively simple way to control what goes on the phone, and definitely is workable without too much hassle. Video playback is quite good on the large screen; you can watch iPod-based video either vertically (like the iPod) or horizontally in widescreen.

The Safari web browser is both a strength and a weakness of the iPhone. On the plus side, it is a full service browser -- it's not some bastardized GSM browser like you see on other phones. You can browse any normal website with it; you don't need to find special cellphone-friendly reduced-content websites. It does have its quirks, though. while it can handle Javascript, it doesn't appear to handle Java applets at all. Which has another consequence: no built-in games, or game support, as of now. Second, since you browse with your finger and the touch screen, there isn't actually a pointer hovering over the webpage, so context-sensitive popups don't work at all. However, these are relatively minor annoyances for the most part, overcome by the neatness of seeing a real webpage on your phone, in living color.

The weakness is, of course, bandwidth. Real webpages aren't optimized to be small and quickly transmitted over G2 (or in this case, G2.75) networks. The iPhone is WiFi capable, and you can set it to look for and use detected WiFi networks (e.g. a WiFi hotspot at a Starbucks). This gives you a pretty good throughput on web/internet stuff. You can also set it to automatically log back into known WiFi networks as you drift in and out of range -- so, for example, you only have to set up your home and office WiFi info once, and the phone will connect whenever its in range of either. If the phone doesn't have a WiFi network to hook up to, it uses AT&T's EDGE network. Which is a mixed bag. In theory, EDGE has bandwidth performance that's more than respectable for a wireless GSM network -- but in practice, a LOT of variables go into your download speeds. If you've got a good link and there aren't a lot of users, you can get near-DSL-like speed -- not bad at all. But if you're in a poor signal zone, with a lot of cell traffic, be prepared to wait. A lot. But -- and this, I think, is important -- it does work. And one of the advantages of the iPhone platform is upgradability -- so there's no reason why the EDGE (or whatever comes next) performance can't be improved through software upgrades combined with hardware improvements on the network end. Or maybe I'm too optimistic....

Finally, we have the mail client, which is where the iPhone goes head-to-head with the Crackberry. Cons for the iPhone: except for Yahoo mail accounts, your mail isn't "pushed" to the handset, as I believe it is with the Berry; you have to manually check it (or set it to periodically check automatically, with a minimum interval of 15 minutes). However, it is pretty easy to set up and configure most email accounts to work with the iPhone. I had my Verizon email account up and running in no time. Corporate networks may be more of a challenge, because the iPhone currently doesn't support Microsoft Exchange mail servers. I'd expect to see that corrected very, very soon, though. When you do get it set up, the mail client works pretty much like every other mail client out there. You can view most major kinds of attachments, including Word and Excel documents (although, as noted above, they may take forever to download). Embedded links will pop open in Safari if you click on them. Contacts can be synched up with Outlook, Outlook Express, or Windows Mail. The client doesn't appear to support user-created lists of addresses, but I may just not have figured that out yet. In any event, to me it's been the functional equivalent of having Windows Mail on the phone. I haven't found anything that I couldn't do that I wanted to do.

There's also a built-in digital camera; pretty much a requirement for phones these days. A tiny lens on the back of the phone provides good, but not terrific, picture quality. A "soft" shutter button (i.e. a non-corporeal one on the touch screen) means that it's difficult to take a good picture of yourself. It is very easy, though, to sort and manage pictures, and to email them to whomever you want. You can also synch a folder or folders of pictures with the iPhone, using it as a portable display for your pix.

Beyond that, the iPhone incorporates -- like the OS X platform it's based on -- "widgets" to do little fun things. For example, there's a weather button, and a stock button, and a world clock. Not earth-shattering stuff, but cool and well implemented. There are two extremely super-cool things built in as widgets, though, that deserve mention.

First, the iPhone is integrated with YouTube. It sounded wacky and unnecessary to me in theory, but in practice it's bizarrely fun and fascinating. If you hit the YouTube button, you're brought to one of four screens. You can look at the "featured" YouTube clips for the day, the most popular ones, your bookmarked clips, or you can search for whatever you want. The clips are compressed (on the YouTube side of things) into a more streamlined format for use on the iPhone -- not all of YouTube's clips have been converted into the new format, but YouTube says they should have their entire catalog converted by the fall. IF you have a decent connection, the clips load surprisingly fast, and look darned good on the iPhone's screen. Necessary? Hell no. Fun, useful time-killer? Absolutely.

Then, there's the feature that's probably sold half the phones already: Google Maps. I can say that the iPhone has a specially-integrated version of Google Maps built in, but that doesn't begin to describe it. It really needs to be seen. Functionally, it's like having a combined map and yellow pages that's easy to navigate and search. All it lacks is a GPS function to tell you where you are. (If it had that, though, I think my head might explode.) It's also dependent on download speeds, incidentally. The mapping function is basically the same as the web-based Google Maps, including the option to view the satellite imagery. (You can't overlay the map on the satellite, though, as you can online.) But wait, there's more. If you wanted to find a local bar, say, you'd just enter "bar" into the search bar, and pin marks will pop up showing all the bars within the viewed area. A couple of touches, and you can call said bar to find out if they're open; if they are, you can get directions to the bar, and the phone will walk you turn-by-turn to your destination on the display. (Again, without the GPS function, you have to be proactive with it, but it's still useful.)

Finally, there's the interface. As with the iPod, the iPhone has a simple, clean, and intuitive interface. A number of people have complained about the onscreen keyboard, but I haven't had any problems with it whatsoever. Zooming in and out is as easy as using two fingers to "pinch" the screen. After an hour with the device, you'll be discovering that you intuitively know how to do certain things without reading the manual. I don't know how Apple does it, and why others aren't nearly as successful as they are at it, but human interface design on Apple products is impeccable.

So that's my review of the iPhone. Am I happy? Heck yeah. Do I think it was worth the $500? Actually, I do. I can see myself using this phone for internet/GSM type stuff a lot more than my old Motorola, simply because the iPhone is so much better at it, and gives you "real" webpages and mail. The lack of MP3 ringtones is a drawback, but I assume that could be fixed in software in the future. There are some other negatives that I haven't already mentioned -- MMS text messages aren't supported, and there's no cutting and pasting of text, for example -- but on the whole, I think it's a rousing success of a device. I wasn't going to get one at all, but now I'm glad I did.

The HSX Report -- 6/8/07
June 7th, 2007 10:53PM

Viva la revolucion!

The Girl from IPOnema

(1) Guerrilla (CHE2) -- H$15
The sequel to Steve Soderberg's The Argentine (CHE), which... hasn't been released yet. Part two of a Che Guevera biopic, with Benicio del Toro as the lead. Sure to be good filmmaking, but not sure to be a big moneymaker. Buy it on prinicple, though.

(2) Darfur Documentary (DARFU) -- H$4
Not the most cleverly named documentary, it features Don Cheadle, and -- you guessed it -- the Darfur genocide. Documentaries don't make money. Pass.

Saturday's IPO
(3) 36 (36) -- H$36
Clooney. DeNiro. They're cops. Buy.

Today's feature isn't a feature; it's a news update. This blog will be going on hiatus for two weeks after today, due to the fact that I'll be crewing for my cousin's team in the Race Across America. If you're so inclined, you can track our progress -- we're Team Psycho. A whole week of extreme sleep deprivation and driving cross-country at 25 MPH awaits me! Take care of yourselves while I'm gone -- and don't forget Pirates 4's IPO on Sunday the 16th! Excelsior!

The HSX Report -- 6/7/07
June 7th, 2007 12:29PM

Today's feature -- after the IPOs, a quick look at the upcoming releases for the weekend.

The Girl from IPOnema
You know, I'm starting to hate Thursday IPOs. They're always borderline projects -- stuff that could be great, or could never amount to diddly, and it's a toss-up as to which outcome will actually occur. So I'm not even going to comment on the potential for these three films -- you're on your own; use your best judgment. Instead, I'll just make fun of the actors in them...

(1) What Happens In Vegas (WHAPV) -- H$25
Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher accidentally get married in Vegas! Wacky hijinks ensue! Wow... there's a lot of brainpower on display. You know what you'd get if you let those two breed? Kuato.

(2) Laws of Motion (LAWSM) -- H$18
Hilary Swank and Matthew Perry in a dysfunctional family comedy! No word on whether it will be the fat Matthew Perry, or the overly-muscular Hilary Swank... but I think we know Chad Lowe won't be buying tickets. BOO YAH!

(3) Cry of the Owl (CRYOW) -- H$12
Sarah Polley is a woman who falls in love with her stalker! Gee, I wonder if Sarah will.... will.... oh, I can't make fun of you, Sarah! You're my doe-eyed blonde sweetie 4-eva!!!!!!! BFF!!! xoxoxoxoxoxoxooxoxox

(Sorry... briefly turned into a 16-year-old girl there for a second.)

Today's Feature: Weekend Releases
Three new flicks this weekend, which should see some tight competition. First, we've got Ocean's Thirteen, which -- given the success of the first two and the stars involved -- is practically sneaking into theaters, it's gotten such little fanfare. This should be the "mom & pop" film of the weekend; i.e. the one that the average mainstream filmgoer will try to attend. Grabbing the kid audience is Surf's Up, Sony's CG animated surfing penguin film. Surprisingly, this film could have a lot of crossover appeal, much like Ice Age before it -- I wouldn't be surprised if Surf's Up drew in a lot of adults, too. Rounding out the weekend is Hostel 2, Eli Roth's follow-up to his surprise horror hit. It probably will delist in the $45-50 range like Hostel did, as is typical of successful horror films. Of the three, the safest bet to open big is Ocean's, which could easily make $50M or so for the weekend, if not more. Surf's Up is the big question mark -- if it gets good reviews and good word-of-mouth, it could grab a healthy box office take; maybe even as high as $35M. Hostel 2, unless it's absolutely godawful, should roll in at about $15-20M or so. But who could be the REAL big winner this weekend? Knocked Up. I can't remember the last time I went to see a film on a Monday night, and the theater was full. This film's definitely got legs -- and the market is reflecting that, driving its price up H$10 beyond its weekend adjust.

Remember, comments and suggestions always welcomed here -- send them to dryan@dvdverdict.com. Enjoy your day. Excelsior! Long live Kuato Diaz-Kutcher!

The HSX Report -- 6/6/07
June 6th, 2007 12:07PM

In honor of the anniversary of D-Day, we get.... a couple of Bret Easton Ellis-related IPOs. Huzzah.

The Girl from IPOnema

(1) The Frog King (FROGK) -- H$15
Darren Star (Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place) jumps from TV to movies, with a screenplay adapted by BEE. I had a random "hey" encounter with Joseph Gordon-Levitt one time in Hollywood (I think he was reading for a role in Herbie Fully Loaded) -- seems like a nice kid. I wish him well. Honestly, this film sounds kind of promising -- so I'll bite. Buy.

(2) The Informers (INFRM) -- H$15
A 1995 BEE book about 1983 Los Angeles, adapted by a first-timer, Nicholas Jarecki. (Who is not the ridiculously f---ing lucky bastard guy married to Alicia Silverstone, by the way...) I say let's have some fun and hire Jay McInerney to adapt it, eh? Ah, late-'80s New York literary circle humor -- I love it! Anyhow, this one's too speculative for H$15. Pass.

Also, we get the gaggle of derivatives for the June 15th openers. The interesting thing here is the $60 strike price for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Not only doesn't the market agree right now, but money has been leaving FOUR2 so far today. Usually, a stock will adjust up or down to 2.9 times the strike price (or fairly close to it) on the day the options are issued -- unless the market feels the strike is unrealistic. Hmm.... Perhaps the underlying stock is the value purchase here, and not the options?

You might also want to look at the put for Nancy Drew. I just don't see a lot of marketing for this film going on, and question whether it's going to open at a (relatively strong, given the competition) $15M.

Today's Feature: So you like Judd Apatow, do you?
If you're a regular reader, you know of my fondness for Judd Apatow, of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up fame. And hopefully you've made a little money on KNCKD, too. This is now two strong performers in a row for Apatow, so you might be interested in seeing what he's got in the pipeline. Well, let's take a look, shall we? (As always, prices are as of this posting.)

(a) Walk Hard (WHARD) -- H$19.37
Release date: 11/14/2007
The inimitable John C. Reilly in a spoof of Ray and Walk the Line-type biopics. Apatow's script is helmed and co-written by Orange County director Jake Kasdan. I can't wait for this one. Buy now while it's cheap.

(b) You Don't Mess With the Zohan (ZOHAN) -- H$37.11
Release date: unannounced
A Mossad agent (Adam Sandler) fakes his own death and becomes a hair stylist. Apatow co-writes the script with Sandler and Robert Smigel; Dennis Dugan (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) directs. VERY promising; could be one of the big 2008 summer blockbusters.

(c) The Pineapple Express (PNAPL) -- H$39.93
Release date: 8/8/2008
Two stoners -- Seth Rogan and James Franco -- go on the run after one witnesses a murder. Apatow's only involvement here is contributing the story (he didn't write the script)... but it's got all the usual Apatow suspects. I'm less interested in this one than in the others -- stoner comedies, if done wrong, wind up having very limited appeal -- but it could be another Knocked Up-level hit.

(d) Step Brothers (STEPB) -- H$73.88
Release date: 7/25/2008
It's Talladega Nights all over again, with a different script. Sure to be huge.

(e) Forgetting Sarah Marshall (no MovieStock yet)
Release date: unknown
Keep an eye out for this one. Apatow is producing; Nicholas Stoller (who co-wrote Fun with Dick and Jane with Apatow) takes his first turn behind the camera, directing star Jason Segel's script, with the atrociously cute Kristen "Veronica Mars" Bell as the eponymous Sarah. A guy goes to a resort to forget about his ex-girlfriend, when the girlfriend shows up at the same resort with her new man. Sounds like the kind of thoughtful romantic-ish comedy that's Apatow's bread and butter.

That's it for today. A tip for the future: start saving your dollars and cents now, because we're getting Pirates of the Caribbean 4 IPOed on June 16th. Excelsior!

The HSX Report -- 6/5/07
June 5th, 2007 8:45AM

Horrors!!!!!

The HSX database went down at 9:30ish EDT last night; it's still not back up as of this morning. Which means you can't log in, or access anything that pulls info from the database -- like, say, every MovieStock page. Therefore, today's blog will be kinda short, since I can't do my normal linkage thing. Let's get the girl out of the way first.

The Girl from IPOnema
A bond for a hot chick who's in Transformers, and two Bollywood films. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Today's Feature: Why I Shorted Grindhouse (And Made a Killing)
Since I've got nothing else to talk about due to the outage, I'll tell a little story. Back in the halycon days of April, when all was fresh and new in the world, people were eagerly anticipating the release of Grindhouse the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez homage to crappy films from the '70s. It had a lot of buzz from the cool kids; it was getting a full (not a limited art house) release courtesy of the Weinsteins, and it was trading in the H$90 range. I thought about it, pondered life, had a sandwich, and then shorted the bejesus out of the stock. As we all know, Grindhouse tanked. I made something like H$5M on that decision -- and I never once doubted that I had made the correct decision after I hit that "short" button. Why? Allow me to illustrate my thought process in the hopes that it may illuminate how to be a better trader....

(1) Grindhouse opened.... on Easter weekend!!!!
This, more than anything else, made my decision easy. Holiday weekends are often big box office weekends... except for Easter. It's a religious holiday that typically involves family gatherings. Grindhouse was always going to be a hipster-film buff-college kid kind of film -- it wasn't going to bring in the Cheaper by the Dozen crowd even in the best of circumstances. And where were those hipsters and college kids on Grindhouse weekend? At home! With grandma! And are you going to say "hey Grandma, we're going to take you to a splatter film where Rose McGowan has a machine gun for a leg"??? Of course not. Grindhouse's target audience was stuck at home that weekend. It wasn't going to open at $20M, period.

(2) Grindhouse is an homage.... to bad films!
To pull numbers in the H$90 range, a film has to have relatively broad appeal. It can't target a single, narrow demographic -- say, girls between the ages of 10 and 16 (yes, I'm looking at you, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants...) -- and expect to have a $30M opening weekend unless there's something there for everyone else, too. Grindhouse's real target was ultra-narrow: film buffs with knowledge of/experiences with the grindhouse genre. And that's fine. But grindhouse films weren't good. That's actually what makes them "grindhouse". If you're not in that target group that was familiar with the genre, are you going to go and sit for nearly four hours to watch an homage to films that were pieces of turd? Probably not. Without huge, huge word-of-mouth buzz, you just aren't going to attract casual viewers to this film. And -- as noted above -- the people who could give the film that huge buzz were sitting at home with Grandma.

There were other issues, too -- for example, I don't think the marketing campaign for the film was particularly good at making it a compelling must-see experience -- but these two factors, more than anything else, told me that Grindhouse was almost certainly going to have a very small take on its opening weekend. I was right; I profited.

The moral of the story is this: It's sad to say it, but the quality of a film isn't the determining factor in how well it does at the box office. You need to look at who is likely to (a) want and (b) pay to see it. If you can't think of anyone you know who would get a babysitter, or find a date, or do whatever they need to do to get out to the theater and see that film... it's probably not going to make $100M. Sometimes, a bit of common sense is all you need.

That's it for today. Let's hope these tech difficulties clear up soon. Excelsior!

The HSX Report -- 6/4/07
June 4th, 2007 12:59PM

Happy Monday! Today, your IPO report and a wrap-up of the weekend.

The Girl from IPOnema
Two offerings today -- one highly intriguing, and the other highly intriguing... but not a good buy. To wit:

(1) Money Never Sleeps (WALS2) -- H$25
I really didn't get much past "Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gekko". A sequel to Wall Street is absolutely going to be a big, big film... if it moves past the development stage. Mike's had a pretty poor run of critical success recently (You, Me, and Dupree???), but he's an honest-to-God Movie Star, and can still open films fairly big based on his name alone. H$25 seems cheap for a potential blockbuster, but keep in mind we (a) don't know how solid a project this is, and (b) don't know when it is potentially targeted for release. Still, the potential rewards outweigh the risks here. Buy!

(2) The Counterfeiters (CNTRF) -- H$3
For some reason, HSX prices every documentary feature (other than Michael Moore films) at H$3. And all but maybe .01% don't even delist at H$1. Come on, HSX! Throw us a bone and IPO one of these docs at H$30 so we can make a killing shorting it! Well, anyhow.... This sounds like a really fascinating film, but is it going to be the next March of the Penguins? No. Pass.

Today's Feature: Weekend Update
The official HSX box office totals for this weekend's openers:
Knocked Up -- $29.284M
Mr. Brooks -- $10.02M
Gracie -- $1.35M

And your returning blockbusters:
Pirates 3 -- $43.2M ($216.5M two-week total)
Shrek 3 -- $26.7M ($254.6M three-week total)

So what does this mean? Well, one thing jumps out at me -- Short Shrek the Third!!!! SHRK3 is trading at H$300 right now. It's NOT going to have a $50M weekend next week, especially after dropping over 50% of its B.O. in consecutive weekends. We're looking at a delist in the H$270 range -- so that's H$30/share of shorting potential there. Jump on it!

There may -- may -- be profit left in KNCKD, too. After its adjust, it's been increasing in price, because it's getting extremely positive critical and word-of-mouth buzz. As Your Humble Servant said a couple of weeks ago, this one could be a snowball film -- starts well, and gains momentum in its second and third weeks. This could be at $100M in a month, leading to a tidy profit.

That's it for today. Enjoy your hard-earned profits if you've got them. Excelsior!

The HSX Report - 6/2/07
June 3rd, 2007 1:20AM

A special weekend update -- and a late one at that, due to my being easily distracted by pretty girls -- to discuss today's weekend IPO. So without further ado...

The Girl from IPOnema

Sgt. Rock (SGROC) -- H$30
On the one hand, it's a comic book. On the other hand, it's not a superhero comic book. On the gripping hand, it's a DC (Batman) property and not a Marvel (Spider-man) one. On the... um... other gripping hand (and now we're talking about watchmakers, I guess*), it's a World War II DC-property comic book. The flood of comic/superhero film stocks is the bane of a trader's existence on HSX. Every comic/graphic novel character is floated as a potential franchise these days; however, few of these films are actually destined to reach the screen. So we need to ask this: what makes Sgt. Rock stand out from all the rest, if anything?

Well, it's got an easy premise to describe: "An action-adventure version of Private Ryan". It's set in WW2, which people understand -- it's not some alternate-universe-where-mutants-walk-among-us film. It will almost certainly be dumb fun at best. Since Arnold can't play the role -- he's got another job, and Sgt. Rock really can't have a German accent -- you've got a number of possible ways to go with casting. It also very well could suck donkey balls.

So the bottom line here is: I don't know. HSX is IPOing it on a Saturday, though, which means that they think it has blockbuster potential. You'll rarely lose money in the short run on these Saturday offerings, so go ahead and put a little money into it if you like. But comic/superhero films are a crapshoot. For every Spider-man, there's a Daredevil.

Mini-feature: Screens, screens, screens!
I really should have mentioned this earlier in the week... but one thing you should be on the lookout for is the announcement (usually mid-week) of screen totals for the films in release on the upcoming weekend. Your pet film may be the greatest work of cinematic beauty since cinema was invented, but it ain't gonna adjust to H$300 if it's opening on 40 screens. There are only so many movie screens in the US, and if you're debuting a new film, it means some other film has to come off that screen. This not only affects openers (the more screens, the more potential cash on opening weekend), but stocks in release heading towards a cash-out. If you see that last week's blockbuster is on only 1000 screens this week, versus the 4000 it was on last week, you're going to have to figure that into your estimate for how much the film will make before delisting.

How do you learn this evaluation technique? Well, just pay attention for a few weeks. See what the per screen earnings for certain films are, and see how they change from week to week as films go through their release cycle. After a while, you'll get a big enough basis for comparision that you'll be able to see "2485 screens" and come up with a reasonable range of box office by instinct.

That's a lot of math for the weekend. Sorry about that. Have a good rest of the weekend, and see you Monday. Excelsior!

*Obscure Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle reference.

The HSX Report -- 6/1/07
May 31st, 2007 9:58PM

Happy June! The second weekend of the official summer season is underway, with Judd Apatow's Knocked Up, Gracie -- a film about a girl who wants to play sports at her high school, and Mr. Brooks, with William Hurt as the evil side of Kevin Costner's split personality, as this weekend's openers. The big question is how Knocked Up -- clearly the best financial bet of this group -- will fare against the second weekend of Pirates and the third weekend of Shrek. I expect a pretty close race here.

The Girl from IPOnema

Two offerings today, with some pretty big names involved:

(1) Swing Vote (SVOTE) -- H$18
"The fate of the country is in the hands of Kevin Costner." God help us all. Right now, I'm not getting good vibes on this. Kevin Costner doesn't have a huge track record with successful comedies. H$18 is a cheap price for a film with a star of Costner's level... but I'd tread very cautiously here. If you do think it will work, I'd monitor it closely. A good co-star could make or break this film.

(2) Ghost Town (GHSTW) -- H$18
Greg Kinnear? Ricky Gervais? Now we're talking! Competent direction from David Koepp... Clever-sounding premise... Yep, this is a keeper. Buy it.

Today's Feature: What I've Learned From HSX
I've been trading on HSX for several years now, and I've found it to be more than just a game. You can learn a lot, too. So what have I learned about HSX?

(1) A little bit about real-life financial markets.
HSX isn't a carbon copy of the NYSE or NASDAQ, but there are a lot of similarities there. It's a good way to learn about options, short selling, and other vicissitudes of securities trading without putting real dollars at risk. In a highly simplified way you also learn how markets value securities. Like I said in an earlier post, the factors that go into valuing a corporate stock are numerous and more complex than the simple "total box office" metric used by HSX.... but starting with one factor and seeing how it affects price is a good way to get your feet wet.

(2) A lot about what product is in the Hollywood pipeline.
If you've been following my IPO news, you've seen that most of these films are still in development; many aren't even in pre-production yet. Some are only concepts. These are 2009's blockbusters you're trying to evaluate... so by the time 2009 rolls around, even the "sleepers" are old hat to you. You're in the know!

(3) How to think like a studio executive.
It's easy to think about and understand the artistic side of film. Movies are fun; good acting can generate powerful emotion in the viewer; compelling stories can leave you pondering what you've seen for days afterwards. (Heck, I'm still pondering Children of Men, and I saw it in early January.) It is difficult for most, however, to see a movie as the studio sees it: a product that has to be marketed and sold. HSX puts you in the shoes of a studio boss, and makes you ask the same questions they would: how much money is this film going to make? Is it worth investing in? Will it have broad or narrow appeal? You may think you're betraying the Muses by buying a Larry the Cable Guy MovieStock instead of Woody Allen's latest... but you're almost certainly making the right business decision. And if you want to understand the film industry, you have to understand that it's an industry -- it's there to make money by producing a product that consumers want to consume. HSX has helped me understand that side of the business.

That's all for now. Look for a brief IPO post for the weekend's IPOs coming tomorrow. Until then, keep trading. Excelsior!

The HSX Report - 5/31/07
May 31st, 2007 12:13PM

It looks like the Pirates shock has passed, and things are once again back to normal on the Big Board. We're now a day away from Knocked Up -- a HSX Report recommended stock -- hitting theaters. It's been trading in the H$80-85 range fairly steadily for the past few weeks, meaning the market is looking for about a $27-30M opening box office take. I still think this is a film that could do $50M of business on its open... but I guess we'll see, won't we?

No feature today, due to the large slate of IPOs today. Plus, I can't think of anything to spotlight. So on to the gal who's tall and tan and young and lovely....

The Girl from IPOne ma (yes, I've been spelling it wrong all this time....)
Four IPOs today, each of which merits serious consideration...

(1) Old Dogs (OLDOG) -- H$30
A John Travolta/Robin Williams buddy comedy, that sounds like a modified version of Three Men and A Baby. As Wild Hogs showed, these movies tend to do solid business if they're released at the right time (i.e. when they have no competition). Plus, it's directed by one of the founding members of Steely Dan. (What? Different Walt Becker? Um... never mind, then.) Strong buy.

(2) Six Bullets From Now (SXBLT) -- H$16
It lacks true star power (although Josh Lucas and Lena Headey are certainly far from obscure names), but the story is compelling, so it could be a decent film. Interesting thing to note: this one is a resurrected stock. It was IPOed in 2001, then delisted in 2005, but is now being re-IPOed because the project is active again. I'm on the fence here.

(3) Ira & Abby (IRABY) -- H$3
Good directoral pedigree (Jennifer Westfeldt), and very positive reviews (from its festival appearances), but mostly unknowns in the cast. Has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures, but no release date has been set yet. At H$3, I think it's a good -- but risky, as all indie films are -- buy. This could be a sleeper.

(4) Steel City (STLCT) -- H$2
Note the release date: last Friday. It's currently playing only in NYC, and MAY receive an expanded release later. If you have H$100,000 to waste, go ahead and buy it. You may make some cash if everything breaks in the film's favor. But the odds are that this film will delist at H$0.08 or something, so I'd recommend avoiding it.

That's it for today. Remember, comments and suggestions are always welcome; please pass them along at dryan@dvdverdict.com. Excelsior!

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