Posts Tagged: film

Theaters remain vital to moviegoing

Several times this year, I’ve written about the decline of theaters and the rise of streaming, exacerbated through the effects of the pandemic. While there has been a recent theatrical comeback for big franchise properties, smaller budget indies haven’t enjoyed the same success. It’s harder than ever to find movies that aren’t a gigantic four-quadrant blockbuster on the big screen. For the exception of those fortunate enough to live in a film hub like New York or LA, moviegoing is a bifurcated experience: Marvel, James Bond, and other mega family-friendly IPs play at every cineplex around town, transitioning over time to heavily marketed streaming, VOD, and Blu-ray opportunities. Everything else gets quietly dumped off direct to VOD or streaming.

That void in theatrical availability is a lost opportunity that streaming can’t replicate. Powerful sound on a giant screen can give an enveloping, immersive quality to a film. In an increasingly distracted world where multi-tasking is the norm, theaters are a rare setting optimized for focus on a particular movie image. Audience reactions – laughter, clapping, gasps, cheers – provide a unique character.

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Indie movies and their uncertain future in theaters

Last week I caught a screening of Titane at the TIFF Bell Center here in Toronto, the first theater experience I’ve had in over a year and a half. It was an arresting ride with excellent sound, a high quality projection, and welcoming staff. But as the lights came up, even in a theater that can seat hundreds for an eight PM show, I counted only six people in the audience.

My knee jerk reaction was that a mix of pandemic caution and Titane‘s penchant for body horror and violence (Palme D’Or winner aside) kept many at home. But afterward, I had a sinking feeling the screening’s low attendance may be part of a larger trend.

Back in January, writing about the pandemic’s impact on cinema, I predicted theaters’ only path to survival would be on the backs of four quadrant blockbusters. Distributors would push smaller budget independent movies to VOD and streaming services. Ten months later, I’ve seen little to dissuade my opinion. Frankly, the state of indie movies in theaters is at best uncertain, at worst fairly bleak.

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Older films are getting harder to find

Popular streaming services like Netflix make it challenging to find films older than a few years. As these services increasingly dominate our movie watching time, fewer will be watching older movies. The net effect accelerates an already on the rise movie monoculture dominated by Disney, DC, and Fast and Furious. Fewer films that aren’t blockbuster franchises get made.

The problem starts with streaming service UI patterns, most of which have the same opening interface: a big highlighted promo area up top, followed by long rows of thumbnail content segmented into categories. As I wrote earlier, categorization in the rows can feel arbitrary. Navigating through a single row requires too much horizontal scrolling. In addition, the promo area dominates the visual hierarchy but rarely offers more than a single movie or TV series at a time.

So streaming UI makes browsing dicey for any film. Considering older films tend to be a fraction of the content on the opening page, they, in turn, become exponentially more difficult to find.

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The wide range of next episode UI

How we get from one TV episode to the next on your streaming service of choice requires finesse. The right design pattern saves time through less menu navigation once you reach the end of an episode. But too aggressive of a yank to the next show generates a hurried feel, giving you barely a breath to process what you watched before zooming off to the next show.

The services I subscribe to today – Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus – take different approaches to this next episode design challenge. All but Disney Plus have an algorithm that detects when you’ve finished an episode, generally the moment the closing credits begin to roll. At that point, UI appears to suggest moving on to the next show. This feature ensures I get the correct episode when I pick back up the series later.

Disney has no next episode detection and no corresponding UI at the episode’s natural endpoint. Continuing the “latest” episode of a show usually drops me midway through the previous episode’s credits. The net effect means I have to manually browse to get to the next episode.

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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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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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Recommended podcasts, pandemic edition

As I write this, NYC is a hotspot amid a global pandemic. I spend my days jumping between work, family, and too much coronavirus-related social media, almost exclusively within the confines of a one bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan. I’m aware this level of stability is, in many ways, a privilege, but it’s nevertheless a stressful time.

I find solace in podcasts covering subject matter removed from chaotic world events: film, gaming, and technology. COVID-19 is a big enough story that some virus talk per episode is inevitable. Still, hearing it from familiar voices, especially when they share the same feelings of anxiousness and isolation I have, is comforting. Podcasts are also easy to squeeze into my day, be it going on a late-night stroll outside, taking care of chores, or unwinding before bed.

What follows are a few of my favorites, grouped by subject. I purposely prioritized podcasts with smaller followings, though I note several more popular options at the end. Subscribe in your podcast app of choice or through the links I provide below.

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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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