To start things off, here's a conversation I have fairly regularly.
Me, to a friend: "Hey I think you should watch [some movie]."
Friend, to me: "Oh, really? Is it on Netflix?"
Me: "I don't know, I don't have Netflix."
Friend: "You don't have Netflix? Why don't you have Netflix? I thought you liked movies."
Since it seems like it's been a while since I've alienated any of my 7 readers, I thought now would be as good a time as ever. We need to talk about Netflix. If you saw my column on VidAngel, this piece will not focus on Netflix's business practices (of which it divulges nearly nothing but at least seem above-water). No, I will instead focus on the company's impact on the world of film, specifically its needlessly antagonistic view of film as a whole and the potentially catastrophic effect the service could have in the long term.
But first: what even is a movie? One of the things Netflix has forced us to do since its inception is to question in new ways what it means to be a movie. Specifically, does where or how it is watched make a difference?
Some, including Netflix, would say, "No." It's simply a moving picture. It may or may not contain narrative elements, sound, or color, but the forms in which it is created or exhibited make no effectual difference. And I would agree, in part. Whether a film is short or long or produced for TV or the big screen or is never seen by anyone again, it is still a film. But I would certainly claim that the where and how make a tremendous difference in how one experiences the film, even that such considerations are essential when thinking about movies. And Netflix does not give two of your neighbor's dog's old turds about that.
Film is a unique art form. On the one hand, it is the most holistic of them all, combining elements of every other form of art Man has yet invented: visual composition, storytelling, music, and on. It relies on the talents and cooperation of a large group of collaborators even for the simplest of endeavors. For this reason, it has had a much more intimate and fraught relationship with corporate business than any other art form. Yes, they all require some sort of sponsor at some level, but how many sponsors will devote hundreds of millions of dollars to the commission of a single piece? So, yes, film is undoubtedly, unabashedly commercial. But it is also fine art.
Netflix does not see that. And indeed its business model is actively hostile to any notion of "art." It sees what it terms to be merely "content" to be "consumed." I take serious issue with both of those words. Art is not "content." The endless and meaningless material that spews from a company's social media manager is "content." Logan Paul is "content." Baking hacks are "content." Art is meant to make a mark; "content" merely to wash over or through its audience in as constant a stream as possible. Netflix's users are encouraged now to merely consume what is given them, not to be a reflective, discerning audience enjoying and being impacted by the artistic statement of other human beings. Indeed, Netflix is anathema to art.
Surely that is a strong word, but I stand by it. For most of the history of film, it was, like theatre or music, a performative art. It was shown, in public, at given times that were not negotiable. In order to see it, one might have had to wait in line for hours. If the performance was missed, it was missed without recall. And once a film was through with its public performance, very few ever saw it again. It was an event.
But it was an accessible event. People who could not afford to see a stage play or symphony or opera had a nickel or two for a nice Saturday matinee. Film, next only perhaps to popular recorded music, became the great democratically enjoyed form of art in the 20th century.
The advent of home viewing removed some of the "event" status of film while expanding the democratic elements. Now one could own a copy of a favorite film and enjoy it at will. And rather than devalue the theatrical viewing experience, I think it opened up a beautiful new opportunity: the potential for a curated collection of art. Like one might collect treasured and meaningful books and music and paintings, one could now do so with the motion picture. In a form different from its original presentation, yes, but with all crucial elements intact.
It is the express mission of Netflix to set fire to all of that for the powerfully undemocratic purpose of pushing "content."
For with Netflix, one does not get a cultural event on the level of King Kong or Jaw or (dare I say it) even Infinite Wars. Neither does one get a personalized collection cultivated over years, an accumulated statement of enjoyable and perhaps important expressions of art to be admired and discussed and studied. One gets a parade of "content" tailored only to keep you watching enough to warrant your monthly subscription. With Netflix and its ilk, it is as though we collectively decided to tear down our libraries and book stores and entrust our literacy to the algorithmic recommendations of e-readers we have no control over.
But surely that is a little overdramatic. Netflix isn't Fahrenheit 451ing on us. Are they?
It's hard to tell for certain. Netflix is notoriously non-transparent, and this carries over into their searching capabilities. Browsing their categories feels like cycling in an endless loop, with titles appearing through multiple genres with little rhyme or reason. With that and no complete catalogue available from which to glean titles, no one really knows what is on Netflix on a given day. But I wanted to know. The best I could do was to enter in all of the DVD titles available to me, which totaled 415 (not all mine, I protest, but I don't disavow a perhaps-misspent youth). The number of those titles currently on Netflix?
For those keeping score, that's less than 8 percent. "But!" I hear you protest, "That's an incredibly skewed sample!" True. The home-viewing habits of my associates and I are arguably more niche than that of Ma and Pa Kettle. But, for a service that still clings to the public notion that it has everything and that states that it honors and promotes film, there is an incredible amount of embarrassing omissions, and what it does have is haphazard and even lazy. For example:
"Yes, but you're still not reconciling your crappy sample size," you say. True. But let me just point out one more thing. Prior to entering the streaming game, Netflix had amassed a library of some 35,000 DVD titles. To put that in context, the current American commercial film market produces around 300 titles a year. At that rate, it would take more than 115 years to create such a body from scratch. So the Netflix library of yesteryear would have contained contemporary and popular hits as well as a HUGE catalog of classic and international pictures. If Netflix didn't have what you were looking for, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that it couldn't be found.
I'm sure that now their library still ranges into the thousands, but it is a library bereft of any weight or purpose due to its incomplete arbitrariness. For example, it does not contain:
So how could any company that depends on giving customers what they're looking for get away with such a reckless disregard for the goods it provides? Easy: due to the runaway success of some of their original programming, Netflix has learned that it doesn't need to keep a sizable or competitive film library because people are fine with spending 8 bucks a month for Black Mirror and Stronger Thongs (excuse me, "Stranger Things"). In fact, Netflix recently announced a plan to spend $8 billion on original content this year, equating to some 700 (!) movies and TV series in various languages.
This investment is impressive and no doubt exciting for fans of their programming. But it should also give you serious pause. That doesn't look like the kind of company that wants to stand out from its competitors by offering selection. It looks like a company that just wants to be its own network.
"But what makes that any different from any other existing studio or network?" you ask. The difference is that Netflix has destroyed movie renting and is waging war on the public exhibition of films. It almost acts insulted when, as Cannes had the nerve to do recently, film organizations require that films be shown theatrically for consideration for awards. As Netflix continues to demonstrate that it doesn't need public showings to make money or even garner industry respect, other producers will surely take note. And first look no further than Disney, who are preparing their own streaming service armed with their stable of popular titles ranging from their own classics to Star Wars and Marvel and, now, potentially all of Fox. Considering how crappily they tend to treat theaters and how hellbent they are on total industry domination, don't be surprised when they first discontinue circulating DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital copies of their films, then move to "exclusive" material only available on their service, then finally a gradual discontinuance of any public exhibition at all. If every family in America is paying them 8 bucks a month whether they watch anything or not, why would a studio consider any other business model that requires them to give a cut to manufacturers or distributors?
To be bluntly clear: I do not think that Netflix in its current iteration is doing anything good for movies. Indeed, I say that Netflix is possibly the worst thing to happen to film in the history of the form. It is actively and needlessly hostile to the distribution and exhibition of films. It is going out of its way to destroy access to a century's worth of films from around the world, substituting the potential for cultural literacy with a bafflingly crappy algorithm. It has taken the great art form of the modern era and watered it down to "content" used to fill the gap between crappy comedy specials and TV you are supposed to like because everyone at the office does. ("This show is like we're in the 80s again even though I born in 1998!") And, I fear, Netflix will teach other producers and distributors of film that how something is watched doesn't really make a difference; that, as long as your subscriptions continue to grow, it doesn't really matter what you make because you are getting paid regardless.
Users of Netflix, I plead with you: cut your ties with them. They don't need you, and are offering you increasingly poor returns on your subscription at the cost of the reason you started subscribing in the first place: movies.
Hey, remember that time that Jim Halpert and Mary Poppins made a movie together, and it was really, really terrifying?
I'm glad we live in a time where that is now a thing we can say. Yes, real-life Most Adorable Couple In The World Emily Blunt and John Krasinski teamed up to make, of all things, a limits-pushing horror film. And yes, you should see it.
A Quiet Place is a tricky little film operating on a deceptively simple premise: What if there were vicious monsters that hunted only by their sense of hearing? This initial conceit is a perfect, pulpy little kernel that leads to an excellent portrayal and exploration of primal fear.
I love it because it feels like the kind of thing Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson would cook up, an arbitrary menace making something as commonplace as a closing door a potential death-knell. It's also the kind of story that if you squint too hard at seems a little ridiculous: really, monsters that are basically ears with teeth? But it's also the kind of story that, due to its extreme formal limitations, yields really intense, terrifying results from competent, creative hands.
Director Jim's hands are, indeed, very much up to the task. He claims to have not seen many horror films prior to making this one, and in a way I think it shows. He is often loathe to indulge in the features that plague so many mediocre horror outings--for one, he does not rely on a theatre's overloud sound system to deliver the percussive shots indicating when to jump. In this case, any sound--even quiet ones--are scary. For this reason, the film is one of the most tense films start-to-finish I can think of. There aren't the typical "quiet" moments where characters regroup because they are all quiet moments.
I guess I can't say much about the film other than I think you should see it. If you are a die-hard horror person or general film enthusiast, you'll find the film's imposed limitations a delightful, highly-effective novelty in a world of doll-hauntings and other spooks-of-the-week. More importantly, if you are a person that doesn't really get into horror, I think this film still has a great deal of appeal for you. Indeed, in many ways I'd say it was made with you in mind. Who knows, it might even end up being a gateway of sorts. C'mon, everybody's doing it.
A Quiet Place features John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, and is rated PG-13 for general scariness, but zero swearsing because you can't curse if you can't talk.
Written by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski
Directed by John Krasinski
Welcome back movie lovers! Now that the holiday fog has lifted and screens aren't being tied up by Disney's really upsetting screening requirements for their latest Star War, the rest of us are getting a chance to look at some of the films that snuck in at the end of the year. For me, that meant getting out to Phantom Thread.
This is the latest from eclectic writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and the supposed swan song of legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In my estimation, neither disappointed.
The film is the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a fastidious high-end dressmaker in 1950s London. He meets and becomes involved with strong-willed Alma (Vicky Krieps), and a provocative relationship ensues.
As with Anderson's other films, 'Thread' almost develops its own cinematic language. People have criticized them for being opaque or unsympathetically misanthropic. I think those readings are tremendously flawed. I believe he throws some audiences because, in many ways, his films do not function like most tend to. They often have no endgame, no fixed narrative point toward which everything hurdles or grand mystery to unwrap. Instead, they explore relationships, often through a series of interactions that may or may not build off each other or lead to one another directly, but that combine to form complete portraits. Characters are contradictory, feature uncomfortable elements, and subvert genre expectations. 'Thread' does this within the confines of postwar England, draped in a beautiful, inviting claustrophobia.
It wears the clothes of a period costume drama. I've heard comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, comparisons which are, I think, appropriate. But it is also, perhaps more so, one of the most subversively provocative films to come out in a good while. 'Thread,' over the course of its two-plus hours, asks repeatedly the question: "Is love, either as an act or idea, inherently selfish?" And it answers that question with a resounding "Yes!--but that is no bad thing."
An example: Toward the middle of the film, Alma decides she wants to "surprise" Reynolds with a dinner she has prepared for him. It is how she must show him she loves him. Reynolds, however, is decidedly not pleased with her gesture; indeed he feels attacked, asking her in exaggerated jest if she has a gun as well.
We, like Alma, are hard-wired to assume that romantic gestures are and should only be taken as the well-meaning tokens they are. We tell ourselves they are meant for the benefit of the lover, but how often are they designed more for our own gratification? 'Thread' sees this, calls it out, and then settles on that being perfectly acceptable.
Love (even the emotional type of love explored in the film) is, after all, an appetite. And appetites can only be satisfied by the requirements of the one that hungers, not the one that supplies.
All of this is wrapped up in a superbly-written, ravishingly photographed battle of two persistently immovable people. And did I mention the score? Johnny Greenwood has produced some incredible scores during his decade of collaboration with Anderson, but he has far outdone himself here. It is by turns overwhelming romantic and deeply unsettling, taking influence from Debussy and old Hollywood romances: a perfect counterpoint to a film that flirts with and defies those same states. See it for no other reason than to bask in the sounds he conjures for a couple of hours.
There is also, of course, the leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (matched perfectly by Vicky Krieps, thankfully with a long career ahead of her yet). It shows the kind of control we have come to expect from him, with impossible nuances of expression in a character who spends the entirety of the film in essentially a single gear. It is a delight to behold, and I am glad to know it will be his final performance. It is a worthy send-off for a modern master, and one that will continue to yield fruit as the film ages.
So, yes, go see Phantom Thread. Go find a theatre showing it and support them. Go enjoy this complicated, demanding, and exquisitely delicate piece of motion picture art.
Phantom Thread features Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Leslie Manville, and is rated R for a little bit of angry swearsing.
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Just to be clear here: I'm not a fanboy.
I really don't care for fanboyism or, necessarily, its practitioners. I think fanboys are to some extent responsible for the terrible quality of our franchise blockbusters these days. Their vocal expectations of fealty to some supposed "canon" inform studio decision-making and stifle creative film-making. And as fanboys become the filmmakers themselves, the results are more often fan-fiction love letters than original or inspired cinema. One can do no worse by a fanboy than to challenge or surprise him in any way with beloved characters or material. Their truest satisfaction is to be justified in their theorizing, not to be shown something new. It causes me great joy that the latest Star War is causing so much suffering among fanboys.
But what if we step away from all of that and look at The Biggest Movie Of The Year™ through vision unclouded by the self-righteous tears of betrayed fandom and instead focus on what is presented on screen? This is what I'm concerned with today.
But as much as I would like to divorce this film from any others that bear the great Lucas seal, I cannot. For this is a film dictated, in many ways, by the follies and failures of its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens, and its home planet of the Mouse House. These combined influences prove insurmountable stumbling blocks for what could be an incredible film, Star War or otherwise.
This film has only served as confirmation for what I have come to suspect: that The Force Awakens is one of the worst blockbuster films of our time, possibly of all time. It fails to understand established characters while also profoundly neglecting the development or even establishment of newer, more important ones. What characterization choices it does make (mainly with antagonist Kylo Ren) are fatally flawed, then needlessly undercut by the film's daft tone. This is not a foundation upon which a single film can stand, much less a giant trilogy.
But such was writer-director Rian Johnson's task. And to his credit, he manages to introduce and begin exploring some pretty cool ideas about the Force, the Jedi, and the universe of Star Wars (--you know, the reason to have more films at all). Segments involving Rey's training and Luke's inner struggle are by far the film's strongest. The issues I have arise whenever Johnson needs to engage with the haphazard work of Abrams and company, which, unfortunately, ends up being most of the time.
Take Kylo Ren, for example. It's possible that Mr. Abrams was shooting for a complex, layered bad guy that people could try to relate to. What we are given in The Force Awakens ends up being an unstable, unintimidating, unskilled thug. Remember: he is bested twice by an untrained Rey, and is not taken seriously by anyone in the movie--not his master, not the First Order, not the resistance. That is a dangerous path to walk in characterizing your primary antagonist, because the audience is not given reason to take him seriously either.
Rather than start Kylo over from scratch, The Last Jedi tries admirably to lean into his crappy characterization and make it work. And it does, kinda. He can be manipulative when he isn't taken at his word. Perhaps he is aware of his shortcomings. But any advances are immediately erased, because people still laugh when he is in the room. Think: did you ever laugh during a scene with Darth Vader? Kylo is not terrifying when he loses his temper or makes threats because, ultimately, the movie doesn't let him. Its constant humor works efficiently to undo whatever advances are made in character or escalation is made to drama. He is the villain of a children's serial cartoon: bad because he has to be because the good guys need someone to foil, not because of any justification to the audience.
And let's talk about that humor for a moment. Think of one would-be powerful or profound or poignant moment, and there is a joke there to dissipate the mood. We finally meet Luke, weathered and conscience-ridden: he glibly tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder. The Millennium Falcon looks to be in danger: there's a porg squashed against the window to tell us they'll make it out. 13 pilots strike out in a heroic, futile last stand: Poe kicks his foot through the floor because it's just another day at the job. All that is left of the resistance fits into the Millennium Falcon after the events of the film: Poe jokes about Rose being "not dead." Disney is in full conflict-aversion mode, subverting any meaning the film's individual moments might have had, as well as its really cool thematic stuff about the meaning of balance, which must necessarily include conflict. What plays well in a children's narrative does not translate into a film that looks like it wants to generate real stakes for its characters.
So, why are people still fine with these movies? I mean, on the one hand, you love what you love and that is (and should be) good enough. But I mean people saying they are good good, not, "it was fun but, yeah..." And I think the answer is, to some extent at least, fan expectations and conditioning. We cannot abide saying it wasn't the best ever, so we make it so in our minds. But I think that is a lacking explanation. The truth is, these films are simply being made of parts that do not, and I would now say, cannot work. And that isn't simply the fault of the filmmakers, although they are not totally absolved. Let us also look squarely at Disney, who apropos of nothing willed these films into existence without the planning needed for such a gargantuan undertaking as they have outlined.
Consider this: JJ Abrams only pitched his idea for Episode IX two weeks ago. Pitched. A trilogy-capper which is arbitrarily scheduled for release in 18 months. I would submit that such is not the amount of time needed to conceive and realize a functioning story of this scale. But for us, the filmgoing public, Disney says it is. Because that institution is now no longer interested in the telling of stories or the creation of magic, or even in pretending that it is. Its focus is the mere accumulation of property and exploiting it through commodification. It has gambled that no one for as long as their are people on this world will tire of Star Wars, and so any product it makes with that branding need not be of any particularly rigorous quality.
It is at this, not unexpected turns for Luke Skywalker, that fanboys should be upset about. As for me? I don't now particularly care what happens in another Star War. If over the course of two films characters cannot be created that engage me in an emotional or intellectual way, I do not know that my time is well-spent in furthering my perusal of that series. Such did not have to be the case, and Heaven knows Mr. Johnson tried to make it otherwise, but a sound structure cannot be made from material already on fire.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi features Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, and Kelly Marie Tran, and is rated PG-13 for fantastical space violence.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
If you're a human living on Earth, you are going to fight the madding crowd this weekend to see the new Star War that Disney is releasing. Early notices for the film are overwhelmingly positive, which should no doubt be encouraging for fans of the franchise or the work of director Rian Johnson. As a fan more of the latter than the former, I am feeling good about attending. So to do his work justice, I decided to brush up on the other Star War of this modern dispensation, The Force Awakens. And I had some thoughts I wanted to share.
Basically, it's really not that good.
To qualify that: there are good (or at least cool) parts throughout The Force Awakens. First to mind is the overall design of the film. It does an incredible job of marrying practical on-set creatures and effects with digital creations and manipulations. (But let's please agree that the one horrifying exception to this standard is the Jakku junk dealer.) The universe feels very real, something the first trilogy always succeeded at. Taken in isolation, there are also a lot of cool parts. The opening sequence with Poe on Jakku is arresting and well-paced. There are some cool "wow" moments in various dogfight situations. The film really has a lot going for it on a design and technical level, which should be expected if you spend infinity dollars making a film.
Unfortunately, very few of those infinity dollars went toward creating a story that worked on its own or was made of mature components. Two examples particularly stuck out to me on this viewing: 1) there is an incredible amount of narrative string-pulling, and 2) there is a baffling amount of expositional dialog. Let's look at these a little closer.
Narrative string-pulling is what I'm calling the phenomenon, rife throughout this entire film, of a force outside the film (i.e., the storytellers) propelling action forward in an arbitrary or at least unearned way.
Expositional dialog takes many forms, but is always used to inform the audience of important material. It isn't inherently bad, but it is often awkward or at least obvious, and detracts from any realism that may have been desired. Basically it is a lazy way for a storyteller to directly communicate with the audience. For my tastes, I think good films jettison expositional dialog almost entirely, instead using other, subtler devices to portray the film's world to the viewer.
The expositional dialog in The Force Awakens takes one of its worst forms: two characters talking about things they both know as if they don't. And it takes it often. A prime example is basically everything Han and Leia say to each other. You know our son, the bad guy who split us up? As you remember, it caused us to split up. It's too bad we had to deal with that in our own way by falling back on what we were best at. But it's good we still kinda like each other too. And so on.
But there are other forms for the fan of expositional dialog to feast on. There is plenty of "This is what I'm thinking" and "Remember, our plan is to do these things" and "Those are bad guys" and "Those are good guys" peppered around. Taken together, there are very few conversations which don't amount to explicitly clueing in the audience to new material or reminding them of or referencing old material, instead of revealing layers of character. Watched muted, the experience would be largely the same.
I bring all this up because I think that fans of franchises, especially franchises that have the resources to achieve anything they want, deserve films with complexity and depth. And The Force Awakens is a fundamentally depthless movie. Fun, yes, particularly on first viewing, but depthless. I brought up some specific storytelling issues here, but there is also the thing taken as a whole: Nothing new is really explored in terms of the Force or characters' relationships or even the geo-political situation of this fantasy universe. There are suggestions, yes, but so much has to happen that we get only a handful of non-expositional moments between anybody, which means we end up not really knowing (or caring) much about anybody. The characters themselves are hollow: either caricatures of themselves if they are old ones, or thinly painted in broad strokes if new. Indeed, the film has many of the symptoms of overstuffed contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, above all placing supposed spectacle over characters and conflicts that mean anything outside of the brand.
Again, I think that fans of franchises should hold what they love to a higher standard. Massive franchise movies can be fun and also really good--that's the whole reason you got into Star Wars in the first place. As a fan of Rian Johnson's other work, I really hope The Last Jedi has more going for it than a great-looking exterior, and I know he can deliver. I guess we'll see this weekend.
by Chase Harrison