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'm just going to come right out and say it, I think you should see this movie.
It Comes at Night is probably my favorite straight-up horror movie in a long while. That statement might not sound like very much on the surface, since admittedly a lot of horror isn't really my thing. But this film has much less in common with whatever iteration of Annabelle they were showing a trailer for than the casual audience member might think, which for me is a really, really good thing.
The film is the story of a family living in isolation in the woods to protect themselves from a deadly illness, and what happens when a stranger asks for help for his family.
What follows is straightforward enough on the one hand to not need further analysis on my part. It is solidly constructed, well-performed, unrelentingly atmospheric stuff. But on the other hand, this film raises far more questions than it answers, which I love it for.
So much of what I don't really dig about many horror films is how thoroughly explained they are. Say there is a ghost. By the end of the film we have a whole backstory for the ghost, know how it operates, what its plan is, etc. The only real open end is often a kind of obligatory, often unearned "But wait!" zinger after the resolution that loses any wait it might have had because we have forgotten the surviving protagonist's name. This after the trailer we saw thoroughly explained anything we might have wanted to know as well as where and of what type the jump scares would be.
An example: the only reason a film like The Birds has any impact at all is because it goes entirely unexplained. Tack on an explanation and you have a mad scientist B-movie, notwithstanding its brilliant sequences and pointed commentary. Leave it out and you have a social horror masterpiece. Explanations only work when they are themselves more horrifying than the events they caused--something like Psycho comes to mind.
There, I think I've mansplained that enough. For the time being.
It Comes at Night takes a different path than many of its contemporary horror brethren. While its story, as far as the characters are concerned, does find a resolution (and real human resonance to boot), the rest of the film just won't be boxed up. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults ventures into an imagistic dreamland time and again that begs for multiple viewings and (re)interpretations. We are invited to both participate in and offer psychoanalysis of the microcosm of self that is the solitary home in which we spend the film's runtime. It is as much about teenage loneliness and emotional anxiety as it is a study of post-modern naturalism and the bounds and limitations of society. All these elements meet under careful yet free-ranging direction. Its ideas truly are the focus rather than a thematically-minded afterthought, and the result is something that deeply terrifies without repulsing. Or mansplaining.
So I say again, go see It Comes at Night. And if you're sad that I didn't say anything about The Mummy, don't worry, I'm brewing something up as we speak. But priorities first.
It Comes at Night features Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr, and is rated R for general horrific stuff and a little swearsing.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
It looks as though summer is upon us, which of course means it's blockbuster season. And while you'll have to look elsewhere for commentary about anything stemming from a comic book, I'm happy to here present a look at Sir Ridley Scott's latest addition to the Alien world. In short, I found it to be generally satisfying, although I am left with some lingering potential reservations about the future of the franchise.
Alien: Covenant follows some 10 years after the events of 2012's Prometheus, and indeed is in many ways a direct sequel to that film. A colonization ship is brought off its course by a cryptic signal, and naturally parasitic mayhem ensues.
I'll first talk about what Covenant does well, and for this writer one of the chiefest of those things is to make Prometheus have some sort of purpose. I was happy with this, because I really wanted that film to work, and it has only become more of a disappointment as time has gone by. But Covenant does much to right its younger brother's course.
This feeds into another element of what these two films do right, or at least work toward. I think that the premise of Alien (1979) only really works once. One reason it is one of the great horror films of all time is that is not reproducible. The only reason Aliens (1986) works is because it pivots from horror to more straight-ahead action. Prometheus and now Covenant have tried to take the series into more classic sci-fi territory, mainly dwelling on questions of creation and the origins of life. I think Covenant does this better than Prometheus (mainly due to less muddled storytelling) but I also think a single, concentrated dose would work better.
That said, Covenant tries harder to be more of a horror film than Prometheus did, and it has some pretty great sequences. But it also fights the temptation of veering into self-parody at times. After all, at this point we know exactly what a xenomorph can do, and the process by which anonymous crew members are weeded out. And I would say that one of the film's greatest weaknesses is the general forgettableness of those crew members. It is difficult if not impossible to develop truly meaningful characters in an action-orient ensemble film like this without relying on simple stereotypes, but other films in the series at least succeed in developing some sort of affection for their victims. Here the film is almost entirely populated with redshirts.
As I said at the beginning, though, my biggest reservation (and that word might be too strong) about the film is about what Fox and Sir Ridley plan to do next. Because the film does bring up some really fascinating and chilling ideas about life and creation. But I fear that those ideas have the potential to undercut much of what makes the good Alien movies good, and even what makes the bad ones Alien movies. Such is the risk with prolonged film franchises, though, especially one built on such a lean, singleminded premise as an incomprehensible, uncanny space monster. Overall, this singular installment works, often quite well, and helps improve its predecessor. But taken in the context of the rest of the series, I'm not sure that its charted course is quite needed.
Alien: Covenant features Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride, and is rated R because it's an Alien movie why do you need to ask.
Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by Sir Ridley Scott
This isn't a great trailer but it's the not-redband one, if you aren't into that kind of thing.
Alright, folks, I'm back with another report from Movieland, and this time around it's Life, the sci-fi/horror film from Daniel Espinosa. While not a bad film, Life never really breaks out into anything particularly special, which is frustrating because it shows some pretty great initial promise.
Life is about a mission aboard the International Space Station, investigating a specimen from Mars representing the first evidence of life beyond Earth. And since it is a sci-fi/horror film things don't go quite as planned, for the humans anyway.
Ever since its first trailer, this film has been plagued by claims that it very closely apes Alien. And I will not seek here to refute those. Any film set on a spaceship where an alien runs amok will have to have parallels to that classic. Whether it does anything interesting with or against that archetype is where any new film will have to be measured. And Life does not accomplish much on that front. It shows skilled filmmaking in many areas, and is filled with well-paced, tense scenes. But it follows the established model faithfully, and therefore feels pretty by-the-numbers.
This is all the more frustrating because the film doesn't start this way. Its first scene, and by many measures the best, shows the real potential this film had. It follows the aesthetic established by Gravity and introduces our setting and characters in one long, slightly-disorienting take. Not necessarily groundbreaking, to be sure, but wouldn't an alien movie in that aesthetic be a great experience?
This scene feels like what was pitched to get the film made, and sadly it is quickly swept under the rug for a more conventional shooting style and story form. The remainder of the film is certainly competent, but lacks anything to distinguish it visually from any other space movie, and structurally from any monster horror film. Its thematic musings on the nature of life also have difficulty elevating themselves beyond the obligatory resting dialog before the film's final push. After a really gripping intro, we are left with little more than a generic riff on a genre that reached perfection in its first entry.
So Life is a film that, while not bad, is not quite good either. Its design, score, and actors' performances are all fine, but in the end do little redeeming work for a film that chooses to walk such an unadventurous line. Which was certainly a bummer for this lover of space movies.
Life features Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, and Ryan Reynolds, and is rated R for the things that happen when a terrifying space creature attacks you and some swearsing.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Daniel Espinosa
What do we talk about when we talk about monster movies?
The year's second major creature feature is here (I'm not forgetting about you, Monster Trucks!) and it has landed with a giant ape-sized wallop. Those of you who are interested in it are going to see it, and those of you who don't care aren't going to bother. So why am I writing about this anyway? Is there really anything to discuss? Short answer: I think so.
There is nothing new about the monster movie. And we keep gravitating back to them. Kong himself now has at least 4 features as a solo act, beginning over 80 years ago with his classic debut. So why can't we let him go? Kong: Skull Island answers this question, in part, in its own way.
The most obvious draw of the monster movie is the sheer visual spectacle. Think back to the 1933 original. Without that film's groundbreaking visual effects, where would we be today? There would be no Godzilla, no Jason and the Argonauts, Wallace and Gromit, Terminator, or, one could even argue, contemporary CG visual effects as we know them. It is difficult to overstate that film's impact. But it was originally produced as a piece of pop spectacle. Its poignant story certainly made it resonate, but its phenomenal effects made it a classic.
The visual elements are also what shine in Jordan Vogt-Roberts' new film, and, indeed, are what make it worth watching for the most part. In an age dominated by grayscale monoliths from Marvel and friends, the film's vibrant yellows and greens certainly stand out. The film is compositionally distinctive as well, mixing careful symmetry with off-center, floating shots to create something almost dream-like at times. The visuals are what sell its comparison to Apocalypse Now, although I find that comparison to be more than a little strained.
Story-wise, Kong is quite simple. It transplants the action to the days following the United States' abandonment of the Vietnam conflict, and depicts the exploratory expedition of the titular island, recently discovered thanks to satellite imagery. Here the movie, so controlled in its visual storytelling, might get a little lost in the woods with its human elements. It's not that it doesn't work: Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and company are all perfectly enjoyable. But it runs into the old monster movie dilemma of not quite having enough time for all of its characters. This doesn't make it deficient as a monster movie, but does leave one wanting a little more given its topical setup and superb visuals.
And about that setup: why make a Kong movie so flavored with Vietnam? It is an interesting flavor, to be sure, especially given the relative homogeny of other Kong films. It does also function as a motivating factor for many of the characters, but I don't think it really rises above that. Again, it doesn't mean that the film doesn't work. Kong's answer as to why we love monster movies is that they are just fun. And what we have here is a really fun, funny, spookily beautiful monster mash (with a great soundtrack and score, by the way.) So I say just go see it and enjoy yourself for a while. And anyway it is most certainly better than Beauty and the Beast is looking.
Kong: Skull Island features Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and John C. Reilly, and is rated PG-13 for savage monster beatdowns and some swearsing (mostly from Mr. Jackson, naturally.)
Written by: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts
by Chase Harrison