Archive for January, 2011

26
Jan
11

Welcome to Aldi, exactly what is wrong with America

Last week I went down to see the grandparents, and to help them out I went grocery shopping for them. They asked me to go to Kroger, but it has been awhile since I lived in Fort Worth, and the location where the Kroger used to be has now changed. Instead of Kroger I was greeted by Aldi. a new supermarket you may see popping up in your neighborhood some day soon. Aldi, which is based in Illinois, but is German-owned is a new kind of smaller supermarket designed to lower costs and pass the savings onto consumers.

When I was a kid their was a store called Sack-and-Save that used the same premise. At Sack-and-Save customers had to bag their own groceries and the store used paper sacks because they were recyclable and less expensive. Not having baggers saved the store money and so they could pass the savings onto consumers. Since I was a kid when they were around I can’t honestly say I know how much you saved at Sack-and-Save, but since my mom shopped there a lot I will assume it was worth the trouble.

Aldi takes this premise to a whole new level. At Aldi the first thing you will notice is that you can not simply grab a cart, you have to pay for them. The carts only cost a quarter, but it is rather annoying. Instead of being able to just pull up and grab a cart you have to go dig for your change, or try not to buy a lot of stuff! I don’t know how paying for your cart saves you money, but I am guessing because they don’t have a lot of carts flying around they don’t have to pay someone to go retrieve them from the parking lot. I don’t really know, I am just guessing here.

In the store you have a very limited selection of goods, and the store is designed more like a Dollar General than a grocery store. There is a little of everything, but in very short  supply. You might see a giant can of nuts next to assorted jams that you have never heard of. For the most part Aldi does not carry any name-brand goods but rather stuff that local grocers put out or stuff that they can find at a cheap cost. The store is poorly organized, and you have to kind of walk around to find anything. There are no aisle’s or signs, just rows of random foods. Iceberg lettuce is in one section, Romaine is in another. Some of the costs are cheap but not significantly more than what you would see anywhere else. Wal-Mart has them beat on meat, but Aldi had cheap coffee and produce. If you shop there you can decided if the savings are worth it to you.

When you go to check out there is one cashier working at the front, sitting on a stool (because her job is so hard). I can’t imagine this store ever being real busy, but I’m guessing if it is you will be waiting awhile. They do not give you bags at Aldi, you have to pay for them. Only ten cents each, but you have to tell the cashier in advance or you are out of luck. And lastly, no cart when you leave, so you better have strong arms or not a lot of groceries.

Aldi is like shopping hell, but for some reason it is really trendy now, I can’t think of any way in which Aldi is superior to other grocery shopping, except maybe in costs, but even this is nominal, especially when you add in those bag and cart fees. But more importantly Aldi is symptamatic of what is wrong with American indsutry right now. Short sighted, cost-effective thinking.

I recently read a book called “The Value of Asthetics” and in the book the author makes the case that people around the world, regardless of class, desire objects that are asthetically pleasing. Even in China, where billions live below world poverty levels, there is an emerging middle class, and these people want new, exciting items like European fashion, Ipods, and new Computers. Of course everyone wants to save money, and Americans have always been known for valuing cost effectiveness, but strictly basing a customers wants on cost alone is a foolish business model.

The truth is that America can not and will not compete with China or India for cheap labor and goods. When it comes to manufacturing we have entered into an age in which we will always be behind. But what Americans do understand is the value of new, innovative technology, and how to make new, nice things that the world wants. Think cars in the fifties and sixties, VCR’s and televisions in the eighties, and computers in the nineties. We can’t make things cheaper but if we work hard we can make things better.

Right now retailers are hurting, and I hear many people claim that the reason for this is that Wal-Mart and foreign investment has put them under. But in many cases the retailers have done the damage to themselves. Yes, sometimes consumers want cheap goods, but they also want nice things, and a nice shopping experience. I go to Hastings to rent my movies not because they are cheaper, but because I like to shop a little, and the people are nice. I could go to Redbox, or rent from Netflix, but I don’t base every decision on cost.

When I go to a grocery store I like to have friendly people helping me, I like wide aisles that are easily marked. I like certain brands, regardless of costs. In short, I like to shop at a real grocery store, and I just don’t see Aldi as being one. I don’t know the future of this store, but I think they have read the American public wrong. Aldi is in many ways exactly what is wrong with American businees right now, and if we want to be number one again this will have to change.

Sincerely,

Jack B.

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26
Jan
11

Taking the “Romantic” out of Romantic Comedies

Every so often I have one of those “oh my god, I am old.” moments. Usually it occurs when I go out to the bar and see people ten years younger than me buying drinks. I wear sweaters and button-down shirts, they wear Affliction and Ed Hardy. I drink mixed drinks, they drink beer and cheap shots. I listen to music at a reasonable volume, other people at clubs must have the music at ear-shattering levels. Yes, all of this is a sign that I am getting old, but in some cases this may not be a bad thing. Certainly when it comes to pop culture if being young is right, then I don’t mind being wrong. Nowhere is this more evident than in my taste in movies, especially romantic comedies.

I can’t say the movies of my childhood were great, especially romantic comedies. John Hughes movies like “Sixteen Candles” and “Can’t Buy me Love” were hardly classics, but throughout the eighties and nineties most so-called “romantic comedies” were at least sweet and good natured. Of course the truly great romantic comedies, the classics, offered something for everyone. Comedy, romance, adventure, and even occasionally a lesson in morality, something in short supply these days.

“It Happened One Night,” perhaps the definitive romantic comedy, starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and was made by the masterful Frank Capra. In the film Colbert’s character was a stuck-up heiress that escaped from her dad’s yacht, and his money and ran off to the country. Along the way she meets a slick-talking newspaper man, played to perfection by Gable. He deduces who she is and decides to help her out, hoping to write a sensational story about her. Instead, as you could have guessed, they fall in love. This simple formula worked so well that most romantic comedies follow it in some way.

Other romantic comedies from that era were often called “screw-ball comedies” and they were perhaps best defined by “Bringing up Baby” which starred Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. In the film Hepburn plays a hair-brained woman who does whatever she feels like, including raising a real-live leopard. Grant, who is a nebbish, is scared of everything, especially the leopard. Hilarity ensues. These type of films are probably hated by feminists today because in screwball comedies it is usually the woman who is dumb or naieve, and the man who has to help her out of whatever predicament she is in. But in them we see the basis for real relationships. How women do crazy things to get a man’s attention, and how men love their women is spite of, maybe even because of their flaws, and seek to protect them from themselves.

Perhaps the last truly great romantic comedy was “The Apartment” starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. One of Wilder’s greatest strengths was that his comedies had a dark edge to them, an undercurrent of cynism. Never was this more true than in “The Apartment.” In the film Lemmon plays a put-upon office worker whose bosses use his apartment for their extra-marital trysts. This backfires however when Lemmon falls in love with one of his bosses mistresses. In essence he is asked to choose between the girl and his career. The film manages to embrace the darkest emotions from suicide and self-loathing, to the depths that men will go to have their way. But in the end the two do fall in love and love has a way of working things out. Great film!

Okay, those are some of my favorite romantic comedies, but they are a far cry from what passes as such today. If you take a close look at the box-office you may see one of three “romantic comedies” that are out right now. “Just Go With It” stars Adam Sandler as a guy who pretends to be married in order to “hook up” with women. His plan backfires on him though when he finally meets a woman he really wants (who happens to look like a super-model) and she sees his ring and assumes he is married. In order to explain himself Adam Sandler pretends that he is actually getting a divorce, but forgot to get rid of the ring. Of course in real life a man might do the right and natural thing and just tell the women the truth, but things are never that simple in Hollywood-land. No, Adam Sandler decides in order to convince the girl (who doesn’t believe he is actually getting a divorce), to hire a fake wife to divorce him, a woman he used to be with (Jennifer Aniston). He even goes so far to use the womans kids, and pretend they are his kids. All of this basically so he can get laid. I haven’t seen the movie, and won’t but I presume what happens is that in the course of trying to get with this woman he winds up rekindling the flame of his former love interest and ends up with Jennifer Aniston. But of course, such a thing is ridiculous. What kind of a man would do such horrible things just to get laid? And what kind of a woman would allow herself to be used as such a prop? Once again, only in Hollywood.

Another movie coming out right now is “No Strings Attached” starring Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman (who was great in “Black Swan” incidentally). In the film Kutcher and Portman who are both busy with their careers decide to enter a “Friends with Benefits” arrangement in which they will just meet and have sex whenever one of them feels like it, but without all of the hassle of a real realtionship. They sound like wonderful people! Once again, rarely do real human interactions work this way. It has been awhile since I dated anyone, but when I did I don’t recall ever asking a girl if we could just be “friends with benefits.” I think even in todays age of cynism and casual sex most women would like to be romanced a little, instead of being used for a man’s orgasm relief, but I could be wrong. In any event, I am sure the film ends with the two stars falling in love and deciding they really do want a relationship, which would be a sweet message if their was any truth to it. Once you knew that someone you loved cared so little about developing a relationship with you that he would just hook up whenever he feels like it, it is hard to imagine falling in love with such a person.             

Lastly we have “Hall Pass” starring Owen Wilson. In the film Wilson can’t stop looking or thinking about other women, so in order to solve this problem his wife tells him (are you ready for this) that he can have one week to “get it out of his system” and sleep with whoever he wants. This is his “hall pass.” Are you kidding me? Yeah, I asked my wife what she thought of the idea, and to my surprise she didn’t really go for it. I can’t really understand why either?  I mean you would think most women would react the exact same way as Owen Wilson’s wife did and just let men do their thing. In fact, why only a week? I can’t understand why she didn’t give him more time. Maybe a month, or a year even. Hell, why not just let the guy cheat whenever he wants to? I mean we wouldn’t want a marriage that is too encumbering for this poor guy. Right?

Of course “Hall Pass” is another prime example of Hollywood stupidity. Yes men do look at other women, even though we shouldn’t, but that is hardy an excuse for even more egregious behavior, and any woman that would allow that behavior to go on, unchallenged, is an idiot. When you take your marriage vows it says “forsaking all others.” The language is pretty clear. If that is too much for you than maybe don’t get married. In any event this movie is, once again, completely unrelatable to the vast majority of people who would never behave in such a way.

What all three of these movies have in common is that they are billed as “romantic comedies,” and they use the fact that they end happily as convenient cover for just how amoral they really are. I don’t pretend to be perfect. I have made many mistakes in my life, and in my marriage, but I would hardly go around justifying any of my behavior, let alone glorifying it. These movies do just that, and I think send a signal to people that love is really just a matter of choice, no different than sex, or casual relationships, and the films don’t treat marriage as the difficult, but rewarding life-long challenge that it is. Hollywood needs to put the “romance” back in romantic comedies, because from what I’ve seen true romantic comedies stopped being made a long time ago.

Sincerely,

Jack B.

07
Jan
11

Tron, then and Now

If you watch the movie “Tron”, not the new one, but the old one,  and you didn’t grow up in the eighties, your reaction will probably waver between “What the Hell is this?” and uncontrollable gales of laughter. I made the mistake recently of watching the original, something I hadn’t done since I was about seven, and my wife and I tried to make sense of the whole thing.

Basically, in “Tron”, Jeff Bridges plays a game designer that experiments with virtual reality, and somehow gets trapped inside his own simulation. The simulations AI, Tron, turns out to be a murderous dictator who runs around destroying corrupted data (people, to us) whenever he is not making them play a game that involves bouncing a frisbee at your opponent. Tron is kind of like the Emporer Marcus Aurelius, but without all of the angst. Anyway, the first movie involved Jeff Bridges and a couple of friends attempts to get out of the simulation by uploading a virus through the mainframe that destroys Tron. To make a long story short, they succeed.

Watching “Tron” now is kind of painful. It is kind of like when you think about your first love and what she ended up like, then at a high school reunion she turns out to be overweight, moody, and boring. If you didn’t grow up in the eighties you just can’t really appreciate “Tron”, and how cool it was. It was like” Star Wars”, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or even the first cordless phone. There was nothing like it.

Kids didn’t watch “Tron” and wonder if any of this stuff was possible, Kids in the eighties didn’t even understand computers, because we didn’t really have them. Asteroids was considered high-tech when “Tron” came out. But watching the movie at a friends house when I was a boy (yes, it was on VHS) was like stepping into a whole new world, a world where everything was black with neon lights, and you could ride a bike or a tank, or a plain that came out of thin air. Tron was a world like no other, where everything was possible, and that was what made the movie so ground-breaking, so unique, even if it doesn’t hold up so well today.

Last week I finally got around to watching the new Tron, “Tron: Legacy”, and I was equally impressed. “Legacy” sort of piggy-backs the first film, and is not exactly a sequal, but sort of a re-imagining with Jeff Bridges playing an older version of himself. In this version he plays himself as a younger man through the use of some great digital mapping, and he has a son, who he tells a little about Tron, but keeps him in the dark. Just like in the original Jeff Bridges gets sucked into the machine (somebody ought to tell him to put that damn laser cannon away, at least cover it up) but in this one his son comes after him to rescue him, almost twenty years later.

In this version Tron is an ally, sort of a protector for the sim, and the bad guy is a version of Flynn,(Jeff Bridges) that he created of himself to run the system while he is away. The new Flynn called Klue’ like the original Tron is obsessed with perfection and quickly resorts to gladiatorial type games to kill off programs, all the while seeking out the old Flynn who is trapped inside the grid, but remains secluded in his own little house. Klue’s plan goes beyound simply ruling the computer world. He wants to use the old Flynn’s memory disk to get out of the grid and bring his minions to earth. Think Hitler here.

Story-wise neither Tron really made a lot of sense to people. I suppose the first film released in 1982 hints at a future where machines can become corrupted and have too much power at their disposal, but frankly this was done much better in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Oddysey”. The new film deals with the idea the humans are flawed by nature, but that this is okay, and it is only in seeking perfection that we fail ourselves. Pretty heady stuff, but the theme has been explored before in films like “The Stepford Wives”, and “Gattaca”. In reality, I doubt many kids that saw either film will care too much about the plot.

What is remarkably simmilar about both films is how they completely immerse you in a world not like anything we have ever seen. “Tron: Legacy” takes awhile to get going but once you get into it you will completely forget you are even in the theatre. Iwas reminded of the first time I saw “AI”, or “The Matrix”. The groud-breaking effects and imagery so completely take over that you are lost for a moment, the film almost becomes reality.

I have often harped about new technology in film. I am not a big fan of CGI and I prefer traditional methods of animation, and traditional effects. but sometimes films need new technology to become fully realized, and “Tron: Legacy” is a prime example of this. This film could not have been made five years ago, and it is a better film because of it. The 3-d effects are not as spectacular as I thought they would be, and honestly if you can see it in 2-d you should save yourself the two extra dollars, but the imagery, effects, and awesome sound-track are truly revolutionary. Sometimes as a critic I get too wrapped up in story and acting in movies and lose sight of the over-all experience. With “Tron: Legacy” I did not have that problem. Just sit back and enjoy. For about two hours I felt like I was seven years old again, and that is what a good movie experience should be about.

Sincerely,

Jack B.