Archive: film

The algorithms will not save you

The pandemic has upended movie watching. Our theaters are now our homes, with streaming services like Netflix and HBO Max our de facto movie watching hubs. Even long after COVID-19 is behind us, film distribution will not revert to the way it was in 2019. Brick and mortar theaters stay in shambles. Premium VOD will be untenable. Subscription services increasingly dominate.

Paradoxically, a movie watching landscape under the control of new technology can make finding content to match your tastes more difficult. Algorithms are not the answer. Instead, you’ll have to use some proactiveness and legwork to find your next great film.

That’s because almost every streaming service makes hunting for good content an ordeal. So much content can appear at once. Most services are intentionally obtuse with the details and it’s hard to know when a service adds or removes movies. Categorization can feel vague, misleading, and manipulative. A service will happily pay inflated prices for critically acclaimed festival winners and then proceed to bury them off the home page.

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The decline of premium VOD and its aftermath

With Wonder Woman 1984 debuting here in Canada as a $30 CAD rental, I can’t help but consider the premium video on demand (VOD) market on shaky, unstable ground. Long term I suspect it’s more of a stopgap action out of studio desperation than viable future for movies.

At a glance it shouldn’t be this way. Premium VOD is a great value alternative to theaters. While VOD means the loss of a theater level screen and sound you avoid the time and coordination of commute, loud audience members, and pay a lot less. Here in Toronto, a $30 CAD rental matches two tickets at $15 a pop. Add in transportation costs and expensive concessions and there’s a significant savings with premium VOD. Also, by swapping out the theater middlemen in exchange for streaming distributors like Apple and Amazon, studios ensure a higher percentage of box office income from every sale.

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Conveying intimacy in Portrait of a Lady on Fire

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Many shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last movie I saw in theaters before COVID-19 landed stateside. While I’m sad that watching movies on the big screen won’t be an option for a while, at least it ended on a high note. Portrait is an astounding film with unimpeachable craftsmanship, from acting to script and cinematography. And now, with the film’s availability on Hulu, it’s also a great film to enjoy at home. For this post, we’ll look at how the camera — its distance from subjects, characters in the frame, where, and for how long — can convey growing intimacy between characters.

What follows is light on spoilers. We’re only covering content from the first thirty or so minutes of the film, glossing over dialogue and plot developments. That said, some setup is in order: Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) on an island in Brittany during the late 1700s.

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Subverting genre conventions in Drive

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Click or tap to enlarge.

A great opening scene grabs the audience’s attention while establishing setting, tone, and key characters in the story. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive does all of this while memorably defying our expectations of the action genre. When I reflect on my favorite films from the 2010s, Drive ranks high, and its opener is a significant reason why.

However, eight years removed from Drive’s debut, subverting action conventions isn’t the film’s legacy. What lingers for many is Cliff Martinez’s electronic score and Refn’s 80s visual pastiche punctuated by bursts of graphic violence. So while the general critical consensus on Drive is positive, many critics write the film off (if not Refn’s whole filmography) as self-suffocating style over substance. It’s an unfair rap because beyond the synth-heavy music and neon-drenched L.A. setting, Drive has superb craftsmanship that makes it unique and compelling today.

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Breaking the 180 degree rule in The Souvenir

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Click or tap to enlarge.

The 180 degree rule is one of the most fundamental tenants in cinematography. It’s commonplace across every genre and filmmaking style. Once you understand the basics, it’s easy to spot where it’s used and intentionally broken. This year’s excellent drama The Souvenir breaks the 180 rule in one pivotal scene we will examine here.

At its most essential, the 180 degree rule states if you were to draw an imaginary line between the two characters, the camera stays on only one side of the line for the length of the scene. The camera’s placement limitations to a 180 degree arc give the rule its name.

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The Criterion Channel and the appeal of smart curation

The Criterion Channel has upended my expectations of what a streaming service can be. Smart curation changes everything in a way that makes Netflix feel flat-footed.

It shouldn’t have turned out this way. Years ago I expected the powerhouse streaming trio of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu to be must have destinations for movie content. The ingredients were all there: multi-billion dollar war chests, A list talent, and big tech to drive smart recommendation algorithms. But today it’s a struggle to find a decent movie to watch on any of the three big services. “Netflix original” has become the modern equivalent of a made for TV movie of yesteryear. Occasional highlights do pop up (Roma, Moonlight, You Were Never Really Here, Annihilation, Minding the Gap), but they are few and far between, buried under mostly lukewarm content.

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Burying the long tail on Netflix

On slow nights I’ll often watch something on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. There’s many great films and TV shows available; if you’ve had access to all three services over the last year you could have caught The Witch, Under the Skin, The Handmaiden, and OJ: Made In America. But most content is hard to find, buried under poor suggestion algorithms and even worse user interfaces. Given how our watching habits are consolidating around streaming, that’s a big problem.

Let’s focus on Netflix: the service spent $6 billion on original content in 2017, with plans to release 80 original films this year. However, that rapid pace becomes an undigestible blur when any single title’s discoverability is so limited. Take Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (IDFAHITWA). The Netflix exclusive won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and got decent reviews elsewhere. Genre-wise, its off-kilter sensibilities are a match for what I’ve seen elsewhere on the service. Or The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected); it’s one of Noah Baumbach’s best films in years, and I watched his earlier feature Frances Ha on Netflix. But browsing through the Netflix app on my Apple TV, IDFAHITWA and Meyerowitz completely flew under my radar.

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Bright is big budget action at its worst

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Most shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

Bright is a flat out bad movie. Its screenplay has too much sophomoric dialogue and tonal whiplash. Unresolved plot threads abound. Any charisma from leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton rarely registers above the film’s mediocrity.

Bright is also an action film with a ninety million plus budget, yet the shootouts are barely comprehensible. Fights lack a clear sense of continuity, editing, and direction. To examine how and why that is we’ll break down a single action scene midway through the film (watch the scene on Netflix; it starts at 1:01:36.)

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Mindhunter and the power of smart shot rhythm

All stills are property of their respective owners and are used here strictly for educational purposes only. Most shots are combined into a grid format – click or tap to enlarge.

Mindhunter shows how simple shot and editing techniques can elevate a series above a routine crime procedural. For this post we’ll look at one standout scene in the final episode of season one. Subtle changes in shot length, distance, and angle heighten emotions. David Fincher directs, Erik Messerschmidt serves as DP, and Kirk Baxter, who’s been Fincher’s primary editor for almost a decade, edits. (Mild spoilers follow.)

On paper the scene is a conversation between two characters that turns threatening. FBI agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) profiles and studies serial killers. Incarcerated mass murderer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton) is Holden’s interview subject early in the season. This last scene serves as a reunion after many episodes apart; Kemper tried to kill himself, and Holden visits him in the hospital.

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Blade Runner 2049’s visuals can’t escape character and pacing issues

Blade Runner 2049 stands up well to the 1982 original on a surface level. The film has an immaculate sense of place; DP Roger Deakins captures future L.A. in all its neon, rain drenched glory. The production design is stunning. Yet amazing visuals can’t overpower 2049’s thin supporting characters and pacing issues.

(Major spoilers ahead for Blade Runner 2049.)

Joi (Ana de Armas) – K’s (Ryan Gosling) futuristic mashup of Stepford wife and manic pixie dream girl – encapsulates Blade Runner 2049’s character problems. She starts the film with promise; Joi opens questions on how AI intersects with love, mobility, and even societal rank (Joi is technically a slave for another artificial slave.) And in a later memorable scene, Joi uses sex worker Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) as a physical substitute for herself. Joi tries to “sync” to the movements of Mariette; the unsettling imagery of this Joi/Mariette “hybrid” making out with K has implications for identity and even future-scape pornography.

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