Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Streaming and common sense.

1. The Costs Are Not The Issue.

The real surprise was not Netflix's recent rate increase; it was that so many people complained so vociferously about it. Streaming video content is the future of entertainment, and its costs will only rise. Even after the rate increase, it's still an incredible value. People who claim otherwise clearly have not explored the full spectrum of what's available on these services.

I have not had cable in years, but I do have Netflix and Hulu Plus. Even after this recent increase, I'll be getting more content than I'll ever be able to watch just over $30 a month. That's less than half what it would cost me to have cable, digital and/or satellite TV service, and with a fraction of the commercials to sit through.

So... duh. Ditch your cable, folks, and stop bitching.

2. The Content Is The Issue.

The biggest problem with streaming right now is quality presentation, and it's wildly, wildly variable. Here are some of the biggest issues:

Aspect ratios. Ever the irritant of the home-viewing cineaste, proper aspect ratios in streaming content continue to be elusive. Hulu, for example, offers an impressively wide spectrum of Miramax releases, for example, but all releases shot in full widescreen (2.35:1) are cropped to 1.78:1. Jackie Chan's whirling-dervish fight sequences look noticeably compromised; Chan's Hong Kong action extravaganzas are carefully composed for the widescreen frame and suffer when portions of the picture are missing.

With more titles being offered comes more problems, and Netflix has an even bigger melange of aspect ratio woes. Every single Warner Brothers title I have tried on Netflix streaming that was originally shot in widescreen is cropped down to fill the 1.78 standard widescreen frame. This includes several Clint Eastwood titles like The Gauntlet, and other various catalog titles. WB is normally a company whose titles are given exacting treatment on home video and it's a shame their streaming catalog offerings are so mangled.

The "HD" misnomer. Compression artifacts abound in most of the so-called "HD" streams I've sampled. It's less noticeable when viewed on smaller screens, but the larger you go, the more the fine detail breaks down. This is less of an issue to me than the aspect ratio problem, to be honest, but it's still important. Full, proper HD should have no such liabilities.

Another odd anomaly of streaming is something I call MFS (Missing Frame Syndrome). Many Lionsgate and Anchor Bay titles on Netflix, both newer films and older catalog titles, exhibit this problem; frames seem to be missing from the picture, giving the image an odd, jerky look every few seconds or so. Even some of the Criterion titles on Hulu exhibit this issue: Fellini's La Strada is unwatchable because of it.

Starz Play is the devil incarnate. Every single Starz Play title I have sampled via Netflix has been completely unwatchable. It's either in the wrong ratio, or it's crawling with MFS. If it's got the Starz Play logo on it, don't bother, because if you care at all about presentation, it'll just piss you off.

3. The Content Providers Aren't Screwing Up. The Studios Are.

Netflix and Hulu are not to blame for the above problems, popular though it might be to think so. The real problem comes from the studios supplying them with substandard broadcast masters. It's incumbent upon the faithful to remind the studios that they need to provide materials to Hulu, Netflix and whomever else that's in the proper aspect ratio and isn't a muddled mess.

The thing is, a lot of them are doing it right. Universal has many choice titles from their back catalog available in sharp, clear HD and in the proper ratios available on Netflix right now, like Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid, Fred Schepsi's Iceman, Jack Fisk's Raggedy Man, and Daniel Petrie's Resurrection, as well as fun genre titles like John Irvin's Ghost Story and newer offerings like BASEketball and The Shadow. Many of the aforementioned titles have never been on disc in their proper aspect ratios (or on disc at all).

MGM's titles on Netflix are also to be commended. The fun 1950s sci-fi offering It! The Terror From Beyond Space boasts a beautiful B&W transfer, for example, and several other titles, including the unintentional-comedy classic Revenge of the Ninja, are offered in widescreen, unlike their currently-available DVDs. Warner Brothers offers some great titles from time to time as well; last year, John Landis' Innocent Blood was available in a widescreen, extended cut, and gorgeous HD transfers of Terence Fisher's Hammer classic Horror of Dracula and Carl Reiner's riotous The Man With Two Brains have also been made available recently as well.

So anyway. Keep up the battle, film fans. Make the studios get it right.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Several beers later

...The Expendables is declared the greatest movie of all time, ever.

When the plane turns around...

That's all I'm saying.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

31 Frights #31: TRICK ‘R TREAT [2009]

And we end with Michael Dougherty’s criminally overlooked horror anthology, for my money one of the best Halloweentime viewing choices you could ever make. A stylishly visualized quartet of cleverly interlocked tales, the film nails the macabre, fanciful spirit of the holiday without defaulting to a cavalcade of brutality. Happy Halloween!

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

31 Frights #30: WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE [1994]

Wes Craven’s finest hour as a filmmaker to date. Of all the 1980s horror franchises, the NIGHTMARE series was easily the highest on the quality totem, and Craven’s inventive metafictional deconstruction of his own creation never got the credit it deserved, especially when his next film, the thematically similar SCREAM, was a huge hit.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

31 Frights #28: CEMETERY MAN [1994]

Cemetery caretaker Rupert Everett’s existential crisis visits him nightly in the form of the living dead; a frequently nude Anna Falchi just mixes him up even more, especially after he kills her. Dario Argento protégé Michele Soavi’s adaptation of Tiziano Sclavi’s “Dylan Dog” comic series is funny, stylish and inventive, with a memorably abstract finale.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

31 Frights #27: PEEPING TOM [1960]

British director Michael Powell was one of the most celebrated filmmakers of his time, responsible for classics including BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES; after this film came out, his career never recovered from the firestorm of controversy over its “sick” and “filthy” content. 50 years later, it’s lost none of its power to divide and disturb.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

31 Frights #26: ALLIGATOR [1980]

Lewis Teague’s snappy monster mash blessedly refuses to walk anything resembling a high road. The witty screenplay is one of several John Sayles efforts from his days as a B-movie script doctor for Roger Corman (another being Joe Dante’s classic PIRANHA, recently remade). Social commentary for the left brain, giant gator gore for the right, and Robert Forster to top it off.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

31 Frights #25: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES [1984]

The key US release art of Neil Jordan’s second film featured a wolf’s snout protruding painfully from a man’s mouth, an appropriately disturbing image for this dreamy Freudian shocker. Jordan’s work often leaves me cold, but his Gothic fairy tale has more than its share of memorably startling moments, and a refreshingly graceful feminist slant.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

31 Frights #24: KWAIDAN [1965]

Greek/Irish expatriate Lafcadio Hearn is best remembered for his 1903 collection of Japanese folk tales of the supernatural; Masaki Kobayashi’s later film adaptation won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Slow but engrossing, with stunning ‘scope photography and a fascinating electronic score by Toru Takemitsu that twists natural sounds into eerie harbingers of doom.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

31 Frights #23: RACE WITH THE DEVIL [1974]

A perfect example of a drive-in classic if there ever was one, this enjoyably dumb thriller spends a solid hour making the case that everyone in Texas is a Satanist before revving up with some groovy vehicular carnage (why else would you cast Peter Fonda?) and a classic 70s-style joybuzzer ending. Best enjoyed with a six-pack on a Saturday night – like this one.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

31 Frights #22: PLAGUE TOWN [2008]

Filmmaker David Gregory’s first fiction feature has the usual liabilities associated with a no-budget debut (most notably in the hit-or-miss acting). That said, it’s still a remarkably accomplished effort, and well worth your time. One stunning setpiece involving a character named Rosemary is a folklore nightmare sprung to unforgettable life.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

31 Frights #21: KILL, BABY… KILL! [1964]

Italian horror’s Big Daddy is one Mario Bava; fellow countrymen including Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi often struggled to escape his long-stretching shadow. Bava’s hallucinatory directorial technique was (arguably) never in better form than it was here. If you’re at all interested in the visual potential of cinema, Bava’s films are a must.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original is, like, my favorite horror movie EVAR, but his gonzo sequel is in a class of its own, equal parts splatterpunk epic and deranged send-up of itself. Dennis Hopper gets into a chainsaw duel with Leatherface; you should need no further encouragement. And no one will ever top Bill Moseley’s Chop-Top. Not anyone.

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