By now you've no doubt heard the news that VidAngel, the popular filtered streaming service, is back. "Back," because, you know, it was shut down by a federal judge back in December. Although it appears that, at least for now, the company's practices are on less skeezy legal footing than before, this writer is still not a fan. And I've decided to burn a few friendships to try and win some of you over.
First, let's talk about the old VidAngel and why it was so problematic. Martyr-cries to #savefiltering notwithstanding, the prolonged legal battle involving Disney, Warner Brothers, and 20th Century Fox really has nothing to do with filtering. It can't, because in 2005 Congress enacted a law titled The Family Home Movie Act. This act essentially allows for the creation of software or other devices to edit a DVD or transmitted film during playback. It maintains the integrity of any copyrighted intellectual property represented in a film by not effectually changing its substance, while permitting consumers to filter out content they consider offensive in a home-viewing setting.
Now, understandably, copyright holders might get concerned about this, since digital piracy is a massive problem. And they don't have to make it easy for DVDs or streamed information to be altered. Consumers that want filtered content also get frustrated, since many filtering products work pretty poorly. Enter VidAngel. The company offered a cheap, fairly-reliable solution that could basically be applied to any movie under the sun. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
But the trouble with VidAngel was never the filtering; it was their process prior to. That process, described by lawyers for both sides, was roughly as follows: The company bought a DVD of a given film, broke its encryption, and created a single master copy. That copy was broken into many pieces, tagged for potential offensive content, and stored in a cloud. When VidAngel then "sold" you that film, what you got was really an assemblage gathered from a single master, not a legitimate copy from the source. You know, like piracy.
That is what Disney Company, et. al., were unhappy about: not the on-the-fly filtering by home viewers provisioned by Congress, but the unauthorized copying and redistribution of copyrighted material, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
But now things are different. By filtering movies you can legitimately stream, VidAngel should no longer be in violation of any copyright law. But that makes them only marginally less-awful in my book.
VidAngel made a (very successful) business of hawking unauthorized wares to people who only want to do the right thing. Instead of setting up something legitimate, like it looks like they have finally done, they turned the guy in a hoodie selling ripped DVDs on the corner into the Last Bastion of Decency. Given the speed with which they have pivoted business models, one must conclude that it was a very intentional choice to take the low road in the first place: how much easier to simply raid the Walmart $5 bin than go through the rigamarole of streaming licensure.
It also irks me that VidAngel has always played and will continue to play the victim of a pernicious plot by "Hollywood" to remove anything good and decent from American homes. Hollywood knows families are big business--Sony just announced the release of family-friendly versions of some of its films--it just really doesn't like when people don't pay it for its stuff. Notwithstanding having amassed impressive profits, VidAngel deemed it needful to enlist the financial aid of its customers during its heroic fight against the persecution of the Mouse House. Indeed, it gathered some $10 million toward the noble cause of "saving filtering," one which needs no defense as it is under no attack. No, it duped its customers with misleading pleas and petitions to contribute tens of millions of dollars toward little more than protecting piracy.
Let's not talk about the casual (okay, pretty overt) misogyny and disability-shaming that permeates VidAngel's first entry into original content, Tim Timmerman, Hope of America. For a company that apparently worries so much about the disproportional amount of female nudity in American film and what depictions of aggressive masculinity teach our boys, it doesn't seem to be too concerned about creating anything that contributes positively to the lack of meaningful female roles or reverses negative gender stereotypes.
VidAngel is not what you think it is. It is not the Final Hope against corrupt Hollywood turning our kids into thugs and pornographers. It is not the little guy who has your side. It is a company that just wants your money. That's not any different from any other company, I guess, but from where I sit VidAngel goes about getting it in hypocritical, deceitful, and, it seems, less-than-legal ways.
I don't really care if you are into filtering or not, as long as however you watch your movies is supportive of the people who made them. I plead for you to seek out your entertainment through legitimate means, whatever it is that you watch or play or listen to. Or if not, I guess you can always #savepiracy.
I think we can all pretty much agree: 2016 kinda sucked all around. This writer, for one, will not be terribly sad to see it go, in part because 2017 looks like it holds some pretty good potential, movie-wise. So let us all give this year one final "good riddance" by having a little look at 4 movies I'm looking forward to next year.
John Wick: Chapter 2
2014's John Wick was a wonderful little surprise. It claims to be nothing more than straight-ahead action-flic, but like a good straight-ahead, no-frills rock song, sometimes that's all you need. Its action sequences were fun and inventive, and it managed to have a genuine sense of humor, something lacking in many contemporary action movies. Hopefully the next chapter continues in that direction.
John Wick: Chapter 2 comes out February 10th.
Kong: Skull Island
I know I'm the last person to be excited about another expanded franchise film, but the trailer above kinda sold me hard. It's a great cast, and the colors and other visuals have really been appealing to me. It's also directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who brought us The Kings of Summer, one of my favorite films of 2013. So that's more than enough goodwill to get me in line.
Kong: Skull Island comes out March 10th.
(The only trailer I can find right now is a red band one, FYI.)
I know a lot of you weren't totally impressed with 2012's Prometheus, and while I have issues with it I still enjoy it more than most. But certainly Michael Fassbender was one of the better elements of that movie. This looks to be more in line with Alien than many of the other entries in the series that followed. Hopefully it does have some original cards to play as well, though, especially as an expensive summer release.
Alien: Covenant comes out May 19th.
Blade Runner 2049
This film, of the rest on this list, holds the most promise for me. It is based on one of my favorite films from the early 80s, Blade Runner, and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who just gave us Arrival) and shot by master Roger Deakins. So I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a film as engaging as its originator, and not a legacyquel with great production design like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was. But at this point, I am confident of something quite satisfying.
Blade Runner 2049 comes out on October 6th.
That does it for this list, which I just realized has nothing that is not now part of some franchise on it, for shame. So I'll mention I'm also excited (to one degree or another) for Split (1/20), A Cure for Wellness (2/17), Life (3/24), and Dunkirk (7/21), to name a few. Happy viewing, and I'll see you next year!
Well, the end of the year is finally upon us, and that means it's time for me to recap the best of the year so you'll have something to watch instead of Ryan Seacrest on New Years. I have carefully selected my top five favorite films of the year and ranked them according to highly subjective criteria. And to clear things up right away, Star Wars is not on this list, though it made the number six spot. It was narrowly beaten out by...
Call this a case of my inner biased James Bond fanboy wanting his own way. This film has received kind of a lot of hate due to its plotting, but one can't really evaluate a Bond based on its plot, because they all have basically the same level of believability. What it does give us is a stylish, dangerous, and appropriately woman-izing spy fantasy that reintroduces the series' most wonderful baddie. Yes, the way he is revealed bugged me, and yes, Sam Smith's "song" is worse than salt and vinegar chips on a canker. But those deficiencies can't defeat my irrational love of these movies, which is, I suppose, what it means to be a fan. I won't judge you if you won't judge me.
This is not your Kenneth Branagh-issue Shakespeare, but it is also not as revisionist as its ultra-stylized visuals suggest. The play is plunged into a period in Scotland where pagan superstition shares the bench with Christianity and bathing is not a concept. Leads Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender are a grim delight, and a supporting cast featuring Professor Lupin rounds out a very introspective take on the Bard's grim play. The photography and immaculate composition often evoke a graphic novel-ish aesthetic which is occasionally a little distracting, but it also provides contrasting stimulus during soliloquies that other cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare lack. Check it out.
3. Inside Out
As the one film on this list that I know all of you have seen, I don't know that I need to say much by way of praise. But I love it as an example of the kind of wonderful thing that can be accomplished in the world of animation, when those in charge are not busy trying to figure out ways to make half a billion dollars on the backs of one-joke side characters. Ahem... Anyway, this film was a delight, somehow maintaining its light heart through some surprisingly complex emotional material that breaks with the black-and-white happily-ever-after doctrine of any mainstream animated feature ever released. (Okay, except Toy Story 3.) And those scenes during the credits, though.
2. Slow West
Like I have said before, Slow West is the neo-western fairy tale lovechild of Shakespeare, the Coens, and Frederico Fellini, and I loved every minute of it. It is, well, kind of slow, moving between detached scenes in a pretty observational way, but patches of brutish violence or emotional realization punctuate it throughout. Of those on this list, this is the film you probably have heard the least about, so I highly suggest going and renting it, like tonight. It is the kind of unexpected delight you only get a few of each year, and in another year would have been sitting at the top of this list. But what could possibly have topped such a wonderful little thing?
1. Mad Max: Fury Road, duh
I want to be careful not to wax too hyperbolic here, but Mad Max: Fury Road is as close to a perfect a movie as they come. It is, first of all, an absolute riot: an exhilarating, crazy, technically exquisite thrill ride. It also functions as the best, most concise symbol of the terror of the unbridled masculinism in our culture. It is the perfect marriage of pure cinematic showmanship and timely, uncompromising, but undidactic commentary on what we live with today. It is the result of of years of work by masters at the top of their game, visual storytelling the way it ought to be. And if you don't like it, our relationship may never recover. There, I said it.
This brings us to the real reason you're reading, to find out what I really didn't like. So here we go:
My issues with this movie are many and varied, but let's start off by saying that it just wasn't good, like in any way. There is not much to be entertained by in terms of character, plot, or action. In fact, it leaves mostly a bad taste in the mouth due to its bizarre sexism and constant "hey, remember this?" moments. I say that it is worse than what you think of as other "bad" movies because it is so intent on being as good and important as its older brother, and is so inexplicably popular. Bad movies usually have the decency to at least not make money.
It is what others more clever than I have termed a "legacy-quel:" a narratively unnecessary sequel that relies more upon nostalgia than novelty in order to bring in an audience. Here we see recycled fan-favorite sets, props, and animated characters that make us think of watching Jurassic Park on VHS after school. These winky moments trick us into thinking we like the movie, when really there are no likable characters or memorable sequences, only lots of cartoon dinosaurs and product placement. Other legacy-quels of note this year include Terminator: Genisys and, yes, Star Wars. Almost all of Star Wars. But what about Mad Max, you say. It is not, since it does not pander for attention by throwing in references to Bartertown or Toecutter. It supplies new material with the tools provided by its world. A fine line, but one that Jurassic World crosses repeatedly and unenjoyably.
But with all of the cinematic good out there, we needn't bother with the rubbish. And you needn't even bother with the rantings of this writer, for if you have enjoyed any movie, that ought to be good enough, and I can and should have nothing to say against it. Just please enjoy movies next year responsibly.
This week my home viewing has been concentrated on the work of M. Night Shyamalan, whose first four major movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village) were some of the first reasons why I began really loving movies in the first place. To be honest, I find it difficult to defend his latter work, and for many people this begins with The Village-–for them a convoluted period monster flic that slowly bleeds out what little believability it begins with until it limps, dying and confused, into its closing credits. But I am here today to proclaim that not only is it my favorite of Shyamalan's films, but it might be his best work altogether.
Reason #1: Dat Music, Tho
The films mentioned above all have superior music gifted to us by James Newton Howard. But the jewel in the collection is the beautifully melancholic suite he composed for violinist Hilary Hahn on The Village. Each note is full of sorrow and hope and loss, and the score is one of the greatest meditations on those themes in music. As a soundtrack it is risky, because it runs the possibility of overrunning the screen image it is meant to support, but it never overplays its hand or becomes pedantic. Indeed the music is the perfect accompaniment to the photography, and the mood which it carefully creates and maintains. Speaking of which...
Reason #2: Roger
I know, praising the work of master cinematographer Roger Deakins is like saying bacon is tasty, but that doesn't mean it can't be done genuinely. Of Shyamalan's films this is by far the best looking (although Eduardo Serra does some cool stuff in Unbreakable.) I mean, tell me that just the still frame of that chair on the porch doesn't make you want to cry. Tell me (if you've seen the movie, of course) that it doesn't infinitesimally increase your understanding of and sympathy for the characters. Tell me his use of color (while often brought to our attention by the dialog) never feels immaturely attention-seeking in itself. Indeed, it is the images Deakins captures, together with Howard's music, that floats the picture when the rest of it is shaky. This brings me to...
Reason #3: The Reason Most People Don't Like It
*This section gets spoilery.* While it is a solid aesthetic achievement, what really gets me (in a good way) about this film is how poorly its internal logic works out. And this is why most people don't like it. "Gee," they say, "it sure seems flimsy that they could live indefinitely in a wildlife refuge and no one would know." "Wouldn't Ivy immediately figure out that it was Noah and not a creature that she killed?" "Why do the elders speak in the weird 1890's speak even when they are alone?" "Couldn't they have brought modern medical supplies with them? No one born there would know the difference. Actually, why did they pretend to be homesteaders in the first place?" And so on.
The point is, I think that this flimsy logic is the point. Misreading it (and therefore being disappointed with the movie) comes out of misunderstanding what the movie is about. It is a love story above everything else. It is also an exploration of fear and guilt, and how those intersect with love. And to me, the fact that a story that they invented to preserve love from the corrosion of fear and guilt makes no sense at all, but that they desperately cling to it anyway, only adds to the poignancy of the whole thing. It is a kind of tragedy the sibling of which I cannot think of. Brendan Gleeson's character says of Ivy, after she has gone, to let her run toward hope. The beauty of the place is that she is free to do it, and if it is worthy, she will be successful. The tragedy is that the place is not worthy, but she will come back anyway and think, for a moment, that it is.
So I take for subtlety what others take for poor plotting. The film manages to tell a very sobering and melancholy tale without ever being despairing. It preaches earnestly and sincerely about love, its powers and wonders. And it turns around and mourns over the false hopes that love can inspire. I cannot think of another movie that makes me feel the way that it does. In doing so it reaches a tonal ambiguity that isn't found in the rest of Shyamalan's work. In that regard it is his most artistically satisfying piece for me, and the one that I can come back to most often. Finally...
Reason #4: Just Because
I know that the film is not without its faults. The dialect is sometimes clunky and distracting and the editing near the end cannot decide whether it is brilliant or just confusing. And I have tried to elucidate real reasons why I love this movie. But I think it comes down to the fact that I love it, just because I love it. Maybe it's because it came at just the right moment in my life: earlier and I would have ignored it, later and I would have scorned it. Maybe it's because it was the first movie that I ever sat through the credits of, thinking that I didn't know what I was feeling. Maybe it's because everyone has to have a terrible movie that they love, and this is mine. I don't know. But I hope you have at least one that you love and you cannot explain why, even when IMDb tells you that it is worse than that last Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Seriously. Look it up.
And here's a selection from the score, in case you didn't believe me earlier.
Well, loyal readers, I'm back after something of a hiatus. However, I'm back in something of a different context, being in what might be something of a cinematic sequester for a few months, for timely theatrical viewing, at any rate. So for these next couple of months I am going to indulge in some more studied and intentional home viewing, and all seven of you get to be on the receiving end of that.
First up will be a discussion of the two great mythology-beatifying westerns: How the West Was Won, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Both films are stunningly beautiful examples of the totally disparate schools that produced them and obvious high-water marks in the genre. In comparing the two, I want to look at individual merit as well as overall impact on the genre, especially since we live in a largely post-"western" world. First up will be the first of the films to be released, 1963's How the West Was Won.
The film is almost equal parts hubristic passion project and insane National Parks PR campaign, and indeed, the film is almost as large as its subject matter: the West. ALL OF IT. From early expansion in Ohio through the gold rush, Civil War, Indian conflicts and railroad encroachment up to glorious Boomer-era capitalist triumph. It boasts an impressive cast featuring anyone who had ever been in a western, and was co-directed by 3 giants of the genre. It was shot and originally presented using the new panoramic "Cinerama" technology, which used three cameras and three projectors launching three synchronized images onto a huge concave screen for a more enveloping experience. It was a mammoth picture.
And, looking back at it with a few days' insulation, it is the picture's mammoth-ness that most sticks with this writer more than anything else. The photography is a little overwhelming. Of course it is beautiful (as evidenced above) but it is not a film that can really be transferred for home viewing. Because of the original panoramic nature of the projection, when this is seen on a flat screen it is a little dizzying. Sometimes there are two points of focus on the horizon, and almost always more than the human eye normally takes in. After a while one wishes (for the only time ever) for some kind of reduction in presentation ratio.
As a landmark in the western canon, the film functions as more of a toast and tribute than anything else. It celebrates the triumph of good old wholesome American-ness, in an era when such was being questioned and criticized more than ever. And, really, what else could it have been? The western up to that point was never anything less than that, from Stagecoach to High Noon to The Searchers. The film is the culminating statement in the decades-long treatise chronicling the subjugation of all nature and people by the righteous white man. And few films make that statement less ambiguously than How the West Was Won.
Contrast that with Sergio Leone's 1968 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West. (Yes, it's even better, maybe, than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Maybe.) It is an operatic fairy tale, incorporating Wagnerian leitmotifs perfectly with Leone's quintessential grit. It is a film of stark beauty and deep melancholy: a eulogy where How the West Was Won was a celebration.
The image that ties the two films together is the subduing of landscape by the railroad. This was the only "spaghetti" western to shoot outside of Europe, and there is some spectacular photography of Monument Valley. Here, the railroad brings corruption, greed, and an end to what innocence the West had notwithstanding its inherent violence. It brings new life as well, embodied by the film's heroine Jill, but she is hardly the kind of Eve found in How the West Was Won. In that film, the railroad was only ever a good thing, bringing together all good and hardy people for the last great colonization of the last frontier. That film ends with a showcase of the railroad's modern technological descendants; Once Upon a Time closes with the departure of the last man of his kind as the train pulls into the station, no longer welcome in his only environment.
But the film, notwithstanding its melancholy and occasional mourning, is not cynical. It canonizes rugged individualism of a different kind than its more patriotic cousin. That film is clean and bloodless in its conflict; this uses grit and dust and blood as its medium to paint a final portrait of the kind of American that no longer is.
So I say that Once Upon a Time in the West is probably the better film, although they are both worthy of viewing. But its artistry is more lasting and resonant, and its impact more appropriate given the landscape of our American west today.
As a bonus, here's an excerpt from Ennio Morricone's overwhelming score for Once Upon a Time in the West. I put it easily in the top 10 film scores of all time. In case you don't believe how seriously beautiful of a movie this is.
by Chase Harrison