Sunday, January 30, 2011

Forbiddance

A semi-regular customer of Fernando's rents a couple of movies, Up and A Serious Man. The individual in question had always been...flaky. Not very timely about getting movies back, at all, though the late fees were paid, eventually. Fernando kept a watchful eye open and made reminder calls for tardy films far sooner and more regularly than he did other customers.

Only this time when the movies went unreturned, the phone number provided in Fernando's records was no longer in service. Bollocks.

Fortunately, Fernando has an internet connection and generally lax privacy standards are coupled with peoples' obsessive need to plaster their personal information all over cyberspace, so it was an easy-pants matter of hunting down the individual's updated information. Phone calls were made and Fernando was assured the films would be returned.

Of course, they were not, despite follow-up calls having been made. But Fernando had extra copies of both films and he does not like to call up the authorities over every little infraction because, well, they are not a collections agency, so after about a week and a half he just charged her for the replacements, added that to the already-sizable pile of late fees, and called it a day. The account was placed on the no-rent-until-paid-off list and life continued apace.

About two weeks later, the lady comes in and tries to rent a couple of movies.

I'm sorry,” says Fernando, “I won't rent to you until you pay off all your late fees.”

Oh, ok,” she says. “How much?”

$108.”

WHAT?!

Fernando shrugs. “You still had late fees from the time before, then late fees from this, and then I just charged you for the replacements of the movies you failed to return last time. $108 is reasonable, all things considered, since I stopped the late fees before tacking on $40 to replace the movies.”

Why $40? That doesn't seem fair. You sell the movies for $8 when you're done with them.”

That would be correct. However, I was not done with either of them, and now need to drop money on replacement copies because other people want to rent them. It should really be $28 a pop, based on your true statement that I would otherwise have made an additional $8 through their eventual resale.”

Well, how about I just pay for the movies and you let me rent?”

Fernando shakes his head. “Sorry, but no. Setting aside the $40 on those, there's still the matter of $68 in late fees.”

B-but I've always been a good customer and we've paid them off!”

$68...sorry, $108, is a far cry from $20-ish. Frankly, it's not a sign of a good customer to go for two weeks without returning a pair of movies and to not have made at least a token effort to call me letting me know what the deal is and to perhaps nip this problem in the bud. Furthermore, I had to track you down and do all the legwork in opening a dialogue with you in the first place because your phone number was changed at some point between the previous time you rented here and now. This is my property we're talking about, and the people to whom I lease it have managed to gain some degree of trust with me about its handling and return. You've broken that trust for the moment, and from where I sit the way to regain it is to pay off the fees you're accrued as a gesture of good faith. I am not a totally na├»ve idiot.”

She left in a huff and has not returned since. However, there is a Part II to this story....

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More Freebies

Fernando has three days during the week which contain rent-one-get-one-free specials. People of course take advantage of them, and the way Fernando handles which movies are rented and which are free depends solely on the number located on the tag; the ones with lower numbers are the free ones.

So one Monday a lady rents four movies and Fernando writes up the slip initially without issue. “Seven dollars,” he informs her.

Why seven?” she asks. Then she peers at the slip for a moment before indignantly stating, “You charged me for the new releases but gave me the $2 one for free!”

Um, that's right. That's the way it's always been. The ones that are free are the ones with a lower tag number. And you have three new releases, so you did get one of those free.”

That's not fair. I shouldn't have to pay the full price on the new releases!”

I mean, nothing's stopping you from returning the older movie and picking a new release instead. That'd be fine by me.”

There weren't any other new ones I wanted to see. I still think you're not being fair!”

If you had rented two older movies, do you really think it would be rational for me to have you pay for both of those while getting two new releases for free? That would result in reduced income on my part.”

But I didn't rent two older movies!”

And right there is where Fernando decided to end his thought experiment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fishing Hole

Fernando is retrieving change for a young man who had just rented one evening when said young man begins pawing around in Fernando's stamp card box. “Um...what are you doing?” Fernando asks.

I think I've got a card in here. I want to see how many stamps I have.” See, every time someone rents, that someone gets a stamp on one of Fernando's business cards. Once the individual accrues ten stamps, he or she is entitled to a free rental. Fernando, as an option to the customer, keeps the card in a little box in the store if the person doesn't want to lose it to the dangerous world of couches/car seats/washing machines/dog mouths.

I can find that out for you in about ten seconds,” Fernando says. He really doesn't like it when people dig around in the stamp card box.

No, it's fine,” the obstinate young man replies. He pulls out a handful of cards and quickly rifles through them. “Where would mine be?”

Fernando sighs in consternation as the cards are crammed back in a place they definitely do not belong. “You realize that they're...well, they used to be alphabetized, right? That I had them divided up by the person's last name so that I can easily find who I'm looking for, and that they are now no longer in that condition?”

I'm just trying to find my card. I put those back for you.”

You shoved people with last names beginning with I somewhere around those who begin with P.”

Hey, my last name starts with P. Just let me see how many stamps I have on my card...” The arm extends again.

Fernando at this juncture reaches out and places the box containing the cards on his office desk, well behind the counter and out of the reach of this overly inquisitive person. “That was going to be the next thing on my agenda, but something more pressing just came up. It seems I have to sort through this box of hundreds of cards to ensure they are in proper alphabetical order. Would you like to wait around for anywhere from ten to twenty minutes for me to finish this unanticipated project?”

The man left.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On the Book of Faces

The Social Network. What can I say about this film that hasn't already been said by people more famous and more articulate than me? It captures the spirit of the times magnificently, with clarity and pizazz. It chronicles the life of Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the birth of the single biggest Internet phenomenon of all time.

I was around in those heady, early days; my Facebook account goes back to late 2004, under an old college email address that I have been unable to access in nearly half a decade since graduating. I know full-well what Eisenberg's character meant when he refers to the “exclusivity” of Facebook (even though my alma mater hardly deserves to be called “exclusive” compared to the likes of Harvard, Yale, Stamford, and the others). It was at a point in history “chic” to have a Facebook account.

The film recounts the development and spread of the website in a series of flashbacks that occur during the (well known?) legal troubles in which Zuckerberg was enmeshed a few years back. I initially had my doubts as to how well the film would flow; after all, under the dramatic licenses taken by the filmmakers, we still have a computer science story that the Jens among us Roys and Mosses would undoubtedly find pedantic and meaningless.

But it all worked out in the end. I was engrossed throughout; not because I'm a shameless nerd who reads websites on the inner workings of Pac Man for fun, but because the film is that good. The pacing is just right. It didn't feel like two hours of movie, but the necessary exposition dumps weren't compromised in any way. Someone ignorant of Facebook's general history would be able to follow the website's developments and drama without issue.

I could go on about the casting, the soundtrack, the filming locations, more; but I won't. That would be the sort of pedantic prattling that is best avoided. Instead, see this movie. My words simply don't do it justice.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Automation

One dingy and dreary Christmas Eve Eve Fernando has to call up a guy who's had an overdue movie for a couple of days.

Hello?”

Hi, this is Fernando calling from the Dominion of Movies. I'm calling to let Blitzcrank know that he still has out a movie from here, Inception, so if you could remind him for me to get that back as soon as possible it would be much appreciated.”

Hey. Is this some kind of prank recording?”

It is not often that Fernando is utterly flabbergasted by the words that people say. “W-what?”

It sounds like some kind of prank. Is this a real person?” At this juncture, a customer enters the Dominion and Fernando nods politely to him by way of greeting.

This...is Fernando. From the Dominion of Movies. Blitzcrank B. rented Inception on the 18th and hasn't returned it yet. I'm calling to remind him of that fact.”

No, he returned it. Who is this, really?”

Fernando. And, no, he did not. The fact that I am calling about his not having returned it should belie the fact that the movie in question has not been returned.” By this point the customer has stopped browsing the store and is looking on in amusement at the over-the-phone wrangling taking place.

Now it is the other person's turn to be confused, probably because Fernando used the word “belie.” “W-what?”

Inception. I am calling to dispel the notion that it has been returned. It's not returned, despite what rumors you may have heard.”

Hang on a second.” The man on the other end of the phone is heard speaking to someone else for a few moments. “We'll have it back in two hours.”

That would be much appreciated. Thank you.” And Fernando hangs up.

The customer looks at Fernando somewhat bemusedly and asks, “They thought you were a recording?”

Yeah, I know. Who would ever think that I would go about business in a businesslike manner?”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Freebies

One Saturday the phone rings.

Hello, Dominion of Movies.”

Yes, hi. I was in yesterday and rented a couple of movies from you. I just wanted to let you know that I won't be able to get them back until Monday.”

Oh, that's no problem at all. It'd just be a little bit extra for the additional days you've got it out. I'll give you the extra-day-rental-rate instead of the full late fee since you called.”

Ok, what's that?”

It'd come to $2 total. Two movies times two days times fifty cents a day.”

Ok, well, we did get the one movie free.”

I am aware of that.”

You're charging me for the extra nights on that one?”

Er...yeah.”

Even though it was free?”

Well, I mean, it's a one-night rental. If you had told me up-front you wanted the movie for extra nights, you would have had to pay for them then.”

Finally, the person speaks. “So I can leave the money in the case when I drop it off?”

Yeah, that'd be fine.”

Ok. Thanks. Bye.”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Not So Easy After All

Easy A is a movie that, refreshingly, makes an attempt at something many movies these days neglect: they assume viewers aren't morons. Sure, it explains the joke by having high school student Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) give a nice, three minute rundown of the basic plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne's infamously torturous The Scarlet Letter, but it's left to the viewers to put two and two together as to why all the A's on the packaging are red as well. Well done, marketing guys! And here I thought going in the movie would be about an honor roll student (well it is, but yeah).

So, Olive is a student with a problem she relates in the opening scene: she's ignored by her peers (let's set aside for a moment the slight implausibility that someone who looks like Emma Stone could possibly be unpopular in the hormonal haze that is high school). She finds her popularity in an un-looked-for place: upon lying to one of her friends to get out of an awkward social obligation, it turns out that, through the vagaries of the scholastic rumormill, she slept with a community college guy on their first date.

Naturally, this drives the movie's central conflict: on the one hand, sweet, desirable popularity; on the other, a queerly old-fashioned stigmatization of sex, spearheaded by the super-religious popular girl Marianne (played by Amanda Bynes). Olive takes the ball (pun intended?) and runs with it, and before long she's the school's resident pseudoharlot, catering nearly exclusively to the undesirables at the bottom of the social pecking order—you know, your average dorks, geeks, dweebs, and nerds. She trades rumors of sexual favor for Amazon and Best Buy gift cards to raise her clients' status.

Thing is, this exchange of goods and services isn't a conflict handwaved or outright ignored by the larger plot. It impacts on the life of her favorite teacher (Thomas Hayden Church) in an incredibly intimate manner (not in that way, guys) and the film's climax revolves around resolving the snafu that pops up.

While this plot point is gripping and certainly more important to the overall narrative, I feel the true turning point of the movie comes a few scenes later, when Olive is out on a date with a young man desiring her services, only he's got a significantly more physical idea of what those services should entail (But, come on. It's $200 to Home Depot. They have kickass air compressors). It's at that juncture that the full weight of Olive's choices fall upon her shoulders (not that there hadn't been fallout earlier) and at that point that she comes to chilling awareness of exactly how devastating “mere” words can be.

Easy A does a bang-up job of revealing just how devastating labels can be, and the reader will forgive me if I tie this thought into the heinous shooting in Arizona this past week. It is a sad parallel between the film and real life: words come before and define action, both on the part of the one being labeled and the ones giving and hearing the labels. Sticks and stones indeed break bones, and words are the things that drive people to throw them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Specificity

Hey, do you have that one movie with Woody Harrelson?”

Zombieland? Yeah, let me check for you if it's in.”

No, not that one.”

Oh? Which one then? Defendor?”

No, it came out a while back. You know what I'm talking about?”

Er....”

It's got him and that chick in it. You sure you don't know?”

I'm sorry, but the movie you're thinking of is just not coming to mind.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Packaging

Each week, Fernando has to, of course, saw through a number of plastic wrappers and security stickers and lord knows what else in order to move the enclosed plastic disc from one holder to another. In eighty percent of these cases, the process is straightforward and painless: a slide of the razor over the top to break the plastic seal and security sticker and then a quick one down the side to allow peeling of said plastic seal. Ten percent of the time there is no plastic seal, so Fernando just has to cut through security stickers. Five percent of the time there is the annoying double-security sticker that forces Fernando to make an extra cut along the bottom.

The remaining five percent of the time the packaging of the movies in question is so godawful moronic that it defies logic and should require whoever came up with said packaging to take a remedial course in packaging at Michigan State University (no, f'real, they offer a major in packaging).

The worst offenders are “beyond big hit” titles. Things like the Twilight movies, which have a wrapper surrounding the paper sleeve that holds a fold-out house with its own plastic wrapper and security stickers. Sometimes there are flaps of paper attached to the inner moviehouse by some sticky-tac.

Fernando thought he had seen them all. But then came The Social Network.

Imagine, if you will, a rectangular box. This box has a plastic wrapper around it, and has inside of it a slide-out smaller container that holds the actual DVDs. The wrapper is cut through and it turns out the image on the front of the package is not painted onto the package, no, but is a U-shaped piece of paper that is actually not attached to the package proper at all. And, yet, this piece of paper is the only object that provides any obvious clue as to what the contents of the inner box are.

Fernando wonders if Mark Zuckerberg perhaps had a say in how the film of his life story would be packaged, but then remembers that the case has something resembling privacy settings.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Geese and Ganders

Dinner for Schmucks is a fun movie. It's not the end-all, be-all of cinema and it really doesn't have anything we've never seen before; Paul Rudd plays Straight Man Paul Rudd with his comedic foil being Steve Carell as Dweeby Doofus Steve Carell. The movie, overall, still comes together quite well despite the individual characters being ones we've seen before in other movies like Role Models or 40 Year Virgin.

That's it for the non-spoiler bits. If you haven't seen this movie, be warned that I'm giving away plot points (obvious ones, in my opinion, since we're dealing with American cinema).



Paul Rudd has a girlfriend in this movie, portrayed by Stephanie Szostak. She's an art broker/dealer/manager/relationship supervisor and Mr. Rudd is a mid-level finance guy at a company that's looking to impress an eccentric millionaire into putting his money into their pockets. He's up for miraculous promotion, with two conditions: he nails the deal with said eccentric millionaire and he attends a dinner hosted by his boss. The purpose of said dinner is for guests to find the weirdest person they can in a contest to find out who is the most absurd and socially repressed. Like a dog show for people with strange hobbies.

Anyhoo, Rudd finds Carell and there are wacky hijinks, and the movie is funny throughout on that front. But then there's the obligatory romantic subplot: Rudd's ladyfriend doesn't want him to compromise what she feels are his ethics by attending this dinner and making a mockery of some random schmo. Long story short, he goes ahead and ignores her misgivings and she gets pissed off at his antics (helped along by the socially inept Carell) and storms out on him.

The real spoiler/not-spoiler is this: at the end of the movie, despite her loathing him with every fiber of her being by that point and dumping him and moving out and the whole shebang, she shacks right back up with him because he gives a silly heartfelt monologue about how much he loves her as she's conveniently ninjaing her last box out of the bedroom.

Last I checked, real people don't act that way. Sure, they could eventually get back together after long talks late at night and maybe some relationship counseling; and, yeah, it's a movie (a fictional one at that!) and they need to push things along. But here's the thing: an epilogue is provided by Carell after the screen fades to black for the first time. Why not stick the feel-good rekindling of true love in there with everything else that happened after the main plot ran its course? Is it truly, truly necessary for outrageously forced and contrived positive romantic resolutions to be shoveled down our throats in not only this but every other movie out there?

The movie's title is Dinner for Schmucks and you're damn right there are multiple meanings behind the application of the word “schmuck” to the dinner in question. The hosts are schmucks, the attendees are schmucks, the guests are schmucks. Paul Rudd is a schmuck for going along with some harebrained attempt at pseudo-people-watching just to get a promotion. Most of the schmucks at the dinner get their comeuppance. Paul Rudd doesn't, by dint of him being the main protagonist.

Would it have been that devastating for the viewers to have seen Mr. Rudd get his just desserts for his being an asshole? Even a delayed reunion with his gal-pal would have sufficed. Protagonists don't deserve immunity to the laws of narrative karma simply because they are the guys we (generally) root for. What's good for the goose should be good for the gander. That isn't the case in much of American cinema, and it is worse off as a result.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Arithmetic

A lady comes into the Dominion one evening. She selects four rental tags from the rack and then selects a movie from the sales rack, bringing them all up to the counter. Fernando sets about filling out the rental slip and gathering the films in question while the woman digs out a $10 bill from her purse and sets it on the counter.

The total comes to $15,” Fernando explains when all five discs are gathered and he begins transferring the purchased film—The Last Airbender—to the DVD case proper. The woman replaces the $10 and exchanges it for a $20, and the transaction goes through and she leaves.

About two minutes later she comes back waving the receipt.

The sign says it's rent one get one free,” the woman says.

That...is correct,” Fernando says. “Hence why the total came to $15.”

Well, I bought a movie. That should make one of the DVDs free.”

Fernando raises his eyebrows. “Ok, we'll go with that. $8 for the purchase, plus two $3.50 rentals makes $15.”

But I get one free because I bought one. You just said so.”

I'm not disagreeing. But that still makes $15 total.”

I don't understand. I bought the movie and that gets me one free. Then I rented another one and get another one free.”

Yep,” Fernando agrees. He points to the fifth rental. “But that one is unattached. Hence not free. Hence $3.50 rental. Hence $7 for two rentals, plus $8 for the purchase, makes $15. If you would like to return one of them, I could certainly refund your money.”

Confusion flickers across the woman's features. “I don't want a refund. I want to get one free.”

You're getting two free,” Fernando patiently explains. He plucks five slips of paper from his fill-me-out-weekly-drawing bucket and divides them into three groups. “Purchase plus free rental,” he says, pointing to one group. “Rental and free rental,” he continues, pointing to the second. “Additional, not-free rental,” he concludes, pointing to the lone fifth paper slip. “Now, if you like, you could pick up a sixth movie. That one would certainly be free, because you have this fifth one here by itself. But the fifth one is not by itself free.”

A pregnant silence lingers between Fernando and the lady, while Law and Order: SVU drones on about rape in the background.

Finally, she speaks. “I still don't get it.”

And people wonder how on earth the data could support the US scoring so poorly in mathematics compared to other countries in the world.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Recommendations

A high school girl plucks a case from the rack and brings it up to the counter one January afternoon. “Hey, I've heard a lot of different things about this movie. Have you seen it? What do you think?”

Fernando rises from his seat (he's currently speaking with one of his friends via the internet), saunters over to the counter, and looks down. He's expecting one of the newer releases; The Town or Resident Evil: Afterlife or the like. But then he draws in a hissing breath between his teeth. The Human Centipede is looming up at him. Very few things are capable of looming up at someone, but that movie is definitely one of them.

Fernando's personal opinion on the aesthetic merit of this and similar movies has been explained previously, but as he is in the business of renting movies for profit, it behooves Fernando to put the best face he can onto the film.

In order to do that, though, he needs to find something positive to spin.

Um,” Fernando begins, trying to stall for time as his mind percolates, “I actually have not. It's a very...idiosyncratic movie and, um, doesn't really appeal to my tastes. If you've heard anything about it, you know the basic plot, I'm sure.”

Yeah,” the young lady agrees. “I've heard it's pretty gross.”

Fernando shrugs, but now he's latched onto a sales pitch-y thread of conversation. “You won't get me to disagree. But if you're into that sort of thing—and some people are—then it may well be up your alley. One of my friends watched it not long after it came out.”

Oh? What did he think?”

She described it to me as, 'A man doing a bunch of people the favor of putting them into a permanent rimjob circle but lacking in the courtesy to close the loop.' That's probably not a spoiler, since a picture of exactly that is on the back of the case.” The girl laughs and Fernando continues, “She told me she and her friends laughed pretty much all the way through. If you can get past the squickiness inherent in what the, um, attachment surgery necessarily entails and you've got the right mindset and people around, I guess it can be one of those so-bad-it's-good guilty pleasures. Just be sure to have some sort of brain bleach around if you're feeling brave enough to tackle it.”

The girl laughs again at the last sentence. “Ok, I'll take it!” and she plucks the tag from the case. Fernando replaces the dread artifact in its nook on the rental racks while the high schooler follows him and after a short while selects a second movie, Friday Night Lights.

In case I need something to try to forget the other one,” she explains as Fernando fills out the rental slip.

Sometimes it hurts being this good.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Troubleshooting

Fernando owns the store and rents out the DVDs, so of course he is also fully aware of the inner mechanical workings of the electronic devices that play them. While Fernando does have a modest bit of general knowledge on the functioning and upkeep of DVD players, he is probably not the guy someone should approach if his or her player gives up its ghost and is in need of professional repair or outright replacement.
Nevertheless, this does not stop people from calling Fernando up or stopping by the store for troubleshooting advice on not just DVD players, but all sorts of electronics ranging from VCRs and televisions to laptop computers.
One mid-July day one of Fernando's most regular customers enters the store with a battered laptop that looks to have seen its fair share of food and drink spillage and Odin knows what else. "Hi, Fernando. Do you think you could help me with something? My ex-wife wanted to get rid of this laptop and instead of letting her throw it out I figured I could take it, have something for the kids to do. But every time I started it up a window appeared telling me I need to update my antivirus. I clicked the link and now it doesn't hardly work anymore."
Fernando palms his face at that. "It sounds like you've got some kind of virus, probably picked up because you followed the recommendation of the so-called antivirus program."
"Oh. Well, how do I fix it?"
Fernando shrugs. "That would depend on how finicky and annoying the virus in question is. Some of them can be fixed relatively easily by finding the file in question and deleting it straightaway. Others are assholes in that they make you scan your task manager for unnatural programs that refuse to close themselves, which you jot down so when you boot up in safe mode you can troll your hard drive for them and hopefully delete them while they're inactive. And then you have to hope they're not one of the asshole-asshole ones that leave nuggets of themselves elsewhere to repropagate should the 'mama'"--here Fernando makes air quotes--"file be missing."
But all of this went straight over the head of this middle-aged man cradling his laptop. "Could you fix it for me?"
Fernando is ever such a nice guy. "I can try, I guess." And so Fernando and the customer come to an agreement that Fernando will travel to the man's nearby residence that Saturday morning before opening to see about fixing things.
Saturday comes along and it turns out that the virus in question is the sort that only needs a quickie boot in safe mode to have its surface annoyances scoured. Ten or so minutes later, Fernando sits back as the laptop churns away on a coffee table and partakes in small talk. "Ok, I think things are all better. I've gone ahead and run a malware program to scoop up the bits that might be left behind, and I've also gone ahead and installed ClamWin for antivirus, and that should update automatically and will hopefully catch most of these things before they can cause any trouble. I'd just like to know how your ex-wife managed to get the initial virus on this thing in the first place. They don't just jump out of nowhere."
"Well," says the man, "she told me it started acting up after she went to a website that offered up the new Twilight movie for download."
"Oh, New Moon?" Fernando asks a bit naively, thinking it was some streaming Netflix or whatever.
"Eclipse." Which, of course, had just been released in theaters about two weeks prior.
Fernando sighs and bows his head. And this is why you shouldn't pirate movies, people.
But Fernando was paid $20 for his trouble, so it wasn't all bad.