Sunday, July 31, 2011

Me and the Cap'n, Makin' it Happen

What a week, what a week, what a week. What a month, really. Without going into the boring details, the last two weekends were consumed with non-moviegoing commitments, but I'm making up for it in earnest. Reviews are forthcoming of the films I saw yesterday (which ran the gamut from awful to pretty good, so it wasn't exactly a banner day), but in the meantime, I have reviews for A Little Help, Captain America, and Cowboys & Aliens posted at Battleship Pretension. I wish I could recommend any of them in earnest, but at best they offer small pleasures and a certain earnestness that can be charming at times.

Had I more time or sufficient enthusiasm, I'd have had a piece about Attack the Block up weeks ago. I loved the film, don't get me wrong, but given the assault on the Internet the film has committed since its debut at SXSW, another review saying it's a near-perfect genre film and one of the most entertaining pictures of the year seemed unnecessary. Just know that if you're looking for the best summer entertainment for your buck and have the good fortune of living in a town in which it's playing, look no further.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Criterion on Hulu: The Devil and Daniel Webster

I had the good fortune of seeing The Devil and Daniel Webster for the first time this week. I resisted watching this movie for a long time, and eventually came around to it almost out of obligation - first, because of its place in the Criterion Collection, and second, once a movie gets mentioned by enough people whose tastes you admire, its place in the cannon rises considerably. The classic story of a man, (here, Jabez Stone, played by James Craig) who sells his soul to the devil (portrayed by Walter Huston) for fame and fortune but eventually finds despair never much appealed to me, for reasons I'll get into later,'m glad I took the plunge on this one.

The Devil and Daniel Webster had a wild ride from its initial success - critically, though not commercially - to near-obscurity. It was originally released under the title All That Money Can Buy not only to remove the word "devil" (which didn't play well in the South), but also to distinguish itself from The Devil and Miss Jones, which had been released that same year (and is one I highly recommend). Over the next ten years it was known by several names, from Mr. Scratch to A Certain Mr. Scratch to Here is a Man. One could have missed its running at a local theater and never known it. In 1952, it landed on a semi-permanent name through a re-release that removed over twenty minutes and several key scenes. Daniel and the Devil reportedly shrunk both the Devil and Daniel Webster's roles in the film, and nearly decimated the film's most striking tonal achievements. That version was thought to be the only one in existence until 1990, when a full-length 16mm print was discovered, which has since become the basis for future releases.

Though The Devil and Daniel Webster seemed a near-afterthought for its studio, RKO, in the years following its release, the opposite could not possibly have been more true during its production. The cinema of the 1930s, with the invention of sound, was characterized largely by people in rooms talking, and it would take a decade before filmmakers were able to capitalize on the visual freedoms their silent counterparts had enjoyed, and it took directors such as William Dieterle to do it. With The Devil and Daniel Webster, I would Dieterle did as much for sound film as Orson Welles had the same year (and at the same studio) with Citizen Kane. In parts, the editing (under the guidance of Robert Wise, also fresh off Kane), is shockingly aggressive and experimental, giving us a visceral window into Jabez's uneven hold on reality, sanity, reason, and his very soul. Other times, Dieterle is wonderfully patient, allowing tension to build within a space while his camera simply takes it all in. Meanwhile, Bernard Hermann's Academy Award-winning score (his only Oscar, competing against his own work in Kane no less) dances along, itself teetering on the brink of insanity and the edge of damnation. The whole film is remarkably free-wheeling cinema that seems to be the successor of the silent era (especially in abandoning reality in favor of symbolism and fantasy) while still capitalizing on sound's innovations.

But what I like best about the film is how it treats Jabez's plight. The classic Faustian set-up runs one of two ways. One is that the Devil tricks the protagonist into a raw deal, wherein your success comes only at a great cost to someone you love, or something along those lines. The original short story upon which the film is based takes the second tact - Jabez's only plight is that eventually the Devil comes to collect. In the intervening time, he only gets more successful and more popular. That whole time is pretty much skimmed over as "and things went well." Both of these scenarios let the audience off the hook. We can recognize some sort of basic moral, but in the end simply say, "well, if the Devil ever came to MY door, I'd turn him away (but good thing that will never happen)."

In this film, it's a different story altogether. While Jabez initially takes joy in his prosperity, and has no hesitation in sharing it with others, he soon gives over completely into a materialistic lifestyle, giving no regard to those who used to be his friends. When the Devil sends a temptress (played by the ever-captivating Simone Simon), he wastes little time before making her his mistress. His deal with the Devil plays out exactly as planned, and everything bad that happens from there on out is entirely his doing. And so the classic deal with the Devil story becomes something more than a cautionary religious tale - it becomes a tale of one's moral responsibility as a member of a society. Sure, it leans a little heavy on the idea that riches spoil a man, but it still allows for the possibility that good could have come of his wealth, if only he hadn't allowed his good fortune to give way to greed. All of the conflict of the story is rooted firmly in Jabez, and his moral weakness, so rather than the audience saying "oh, that darned Devil," we can see something of ourselves in that, something of the world around us, in which the wealthy do everything they can to keep the money on their side of the table.

It's a much more interesting take on the Faust tale, made all the better by Dieterle's supreme command of his craft. I've yet to see the film on Criterion's DVD, but the monochrome HD transfer on Criterion's Hulu channel is magnificent. The black levels, perhaps, are not as deep and abyss-y as one would like in certain shots, and there are some digital artifacts (compressions, etc.), but most of the time it felt a lot like watching an actual print. I was amazed to find out that a 16mm print has provided the basis for parts of this film (a better, 35mm version of the short version was used where possible, and the splicing between the two versions might account for the varying quality). It's as beautiful and clean a black-and-white presentation of such an old film (70 this year!) as I've seen from a streaming service.

The audio fares a little worse - there's a constant hiss throughout - but the dialogue is clear and Bernard Hermann's score is thundering. I eventually had to turn it down to spare the neighbors, but I loved soaking in the noise.

This is a different sort of thing that I really love from Criterion's Hulu channel. It presents an upgrade of one of their classic titles (the DVD was released in 2003), free perhaps from the bells and whistles of a Blu-Ray perhaps, but no less satisfying. I don't know if the HD presentation indicates a future Blu-Ray release, but for now, it's great to have available.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Netflix - The Best Barely Acceptable Way to Rent Movies

Ahhhhh...those were the days.

In case you haven't heard, Netflix has completely changed their pricing structure, and unless you were already on the streaming-only bandwagon, you will have to pay more for what you currently get. That's the way of the world. Eventually things get more expensive. Netflix, naturally, is trying to spin it as their "cheapest option ever," and while, yes, $7.99/month is the cheapest they've ever made an unlimited disc rental plan, the fact still remains that last week you could pay $9.99 and get all that with unlimited streaming. If you sign up today, that same plan will cost you $15.98.

And again, I say, that is the way of the world. Inevitably, Netflix was going to have to raise their prices. Streaming is way too lucrative for studios to not ask Netflix for more money, so on one hand, saying this is a huge greedy pull on Netflix's part is some form of ignorance, willful or otherwise. I do think there is some truth to the cries of "greed" in HOW Netflix chose to raise their prices.

For the past 18+ months, Netflix has made it very clear that streaming is the future. They've so buried the fact that they're a DVD rental company that, even now, there is a question in their "how it works" section that reads, "Can I get DVDs by mail from Netflix?" It's in their "Other" section.

And this is where we start of have problems.

There's very little that's wrong with their instant streaming plans. They offer an enormous selection for a very reasonable price, and it just keeps getting better. Next year, they'll have an original TV series, House of Cards, produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey. Even if they bump it up to $9.99 by then (and I expect they will), it'll still be an unbelievable value for those of us who remember the dark days of spending $3-$4 per disc every time we wanted to rent a movie. Now I can barrel through a season of television over a weekend, or school myself on some classic silent cinema in a couple of nights. It's all right there.

But in the wake of this, Netflix's quality of service in their DVD (and especially their Blu-Ray department) has completely shit the bed, and they seem content (sometimes intent) on shutting down their DVD division, which would save them boatloads of money (think of the facilities and people they'd no longer have to pay for!). I would have no problem paying $15.98/month for streaming and discs if I was actually able to rent the movies I wanted to rent. The problem is, they're asking us to pay more for an increasingly dwindling service.

I resisted Netflix for a long time, and for a lot of reasons, finally signed up in September of 2007. The biggest one is that they had everything. I had recently started diving into the classics of foreign cinema, and their selection was overwhelming. And I adored and defended and celebrated their service vigorously over the last three years. When I like what I'm getting, I make sure people know about it. And equally, when that service declines, I have no problem turning right around on it.

The past year with Netflix has blown. They added an extra charge for Blu-Ray use - fine - but then stopped carrying many new Blu-Rays, especially of classic films. First the Criterion Collection got thrown under the bus, then I found I couldn't rent Bridge on the River Kwai, Fantasia, and many other great, classic titles being released in premium editions. They also started removing DVD titles from circulation altogether. The Tenant, avant-garde film collections, even Droopy cartoons for God's sake!

I've been slowly finding a way to break up with Netflix, and that started with a free trial to Blockbuster online, which doesn't have a perfect selection, but is light years ahead of where Netflix is now. So far I've rented Fantasia, Shock Corridor, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Blow Out, Amarcord, Insignificance, and People on Sunday. All on Blu-Ray. None of them were available on Netflix. And these are all very recent releases. I fully intended to cancel my subscription, as their base price of $11.99 was a little more than I could swing, and they instantly offered me the same plan at $8.99. Sold. No questions asked. I'm in the process of porting over my queue from Netflix, and have encountered very few instances in which I've had to let something go. I've encountered far instances in which I've been able to add discs I never had with Netflix.

And while I'm keeping Netflix for streaming purposes, I've also added Hulu Plus in as well, and I cannot recommend this highly enough. As an alternative to cable, it's been a dream, and with the addition of The Criterion Collection to their service, it's been like a jukebox of classic cinema - all my favorite hits, plus many I never would have discovered otherwise.

We live in a paradise for film fans these days, but only if there are services available to enable it. Blu-Ray offers far and away the best quality available, but Netflix seems content with delivering the lowest. And for those of us with the set-up and the passion for cinema, that's simply unacceptable. That they are now charging even more for a service that seems determined to only get worse is the final insult. I'm canceling my DVD plan with them (which I'm sure has been their plan all along...eventually so many people will cancel that they'll be able to shut down their DVD division under the guise of "insufficient consumer support"). I've said it before - I'd gladly pay $20 for one service that gives me everything (by which I mean a sizeable streaming option and every disc on the market), and I think a lot of other people would, too.

The latest move by Netflix doesn't surprise me in the least after seeing their service circle the drain for the last year. I am somewhat surprised that they think this is a viable business option. Streaming is the future - for now - but we've seen what happens when other companies put all their eggs in one basket. I'm especially thinking of Blockbuster's in-store service, which dispensed with classic movies in favor of nine hundred copies of whatever was new that week, which made a lot of sense for a long time. Until suddenly it didn't.

Admittedly, yes, I should cancel my streaming service in protest. Unfortunately, I'm too poor to seek another option. Trust me, if I could afford to shell out to rent movies as often as I stream them, I'd be gone in a heartbeat. But until then, my constantly fluctuating viewing requirements have created a need for Netflix Instant. And that's just the way they want it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (dir. Michael Bay)

There are no words to describe how awesome that scene is.

So far no one has taken me to task for my very positive review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I take that as a sign that either I've so convincingly made my case that every reader has stood there and said "my God, man, how can anyone challenge such reasoning," or no one's plowed through the 1,600-word behemoth (if it helps my cinephile cred, my piece on The Tree of Life was longer, and I once wrote a 10-page paper on Pierrot le Fou...and I LIKED IT). Naturally, I'm choosing to believe the former, though my heart is certain it's the latter.

But enough about me. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a pretty great li'l flick by one of the most interesting mainstream directors working today. Here's how my review starts...

The auteur theory was developed nearly sixty years ago (feeling old yet, Andrew Sarris? HUH?), and yet critics still seem intent on reviewing films as though they were novels or plays, almost totally ignoring or marginalizing the work of the film's supposed author. I'm sure there are reasonable people out there who can acutely dismantle a Michael Bay film on its own terms, but by and large, every review of his career has reflected the same old tired "Bay doesn't understand plot or character argument, which are only valid complaints when Bay is making a film that concerns those elements (hello, Pearl Harbor). Bay's best films (The Rock, Bad Boys II, now Dark of the Moon) approach storytelling differently, starting by taking a page from Hitchcock's method in North by Northwest (oh, I'm going there) - build a plot around action sequences, rather than the other way around. And here, he's chosen to populate his world not with likable characters just tryin' to do some good in this crazy world of ours or people driven to success with a dark side that will undo them (you know, like good little movies do), but with cartoonish, oversized, near-sociopathic assholes.
And there's a good taste of what you're getting yourself into in my review, up now at Battleship Pretension.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Larry Crowne (dir. Tom Hanks)

How could anyone hate Larry Crowne? I ask this in spite of the dismal reviews the film has been receiving thus far, and if you don't like it, that's fine. That's your prerogative. It's certainly not a perfect movie - the "romantic comedy" aspect is such a massive afterthought, and the decision to suddenly make that the absolute focal point in act three is a strange one - but it's one of such generosity of spirit and modest ambitions that seeking is destruction seems like a display of excessive force.

Read the rest at Battleship Pretension!