Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Archive for April, 2011

Stream and Stream Again: The Pleasures of Instant Gratification

Posted by CinemaPsycho on April 10, 2011

Greetings and salutations! First off, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the recent death of the great Sidney Lumet, one of the finest directors in film history, and probably the longest-working director in America. Between 12 Angry Men in 1957 and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead in 2007, Lumet gave us a half-century of intense, vivid and intelligent filmmaking. Beyond his several genuine classics – 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Verdict – there are lots of very worthy films that are worth visiting (or revisiting). I particularly like (and recommend) Prince of the City, Deathtrap, Power, Running on Empty, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan, Critical Care, Find Me Guilty and the aforementioned Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. The latter was his final film, but revealed a director still capable of growing artistically, trying out new techniques and getting fantastic performances out of his actors. While he never had the cult following or film-geek rep of a Scorsese or a Coppola, Lumet was a true Film God, and if you’re not familiar with his work, you would do well to check out the above titles as soon as possible.

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So anyway, here’s what I really wanted to talk about. I recently bought a Roku device for streaming movies from Netflix on my TV set. I thought I would be the last person on Earth to do the streaming thing – I had no interest whatsoever in watching movies on my computer, after all, and I wasn’t sold on the whole concept. Why download movies when DVD is still a perfectly good format? Well, I read an article by Roger Ebert in which he mentioned that he owned a Roku and that the picture quality was just as good as DVD. So when a friend suggested I should get one, I thought, well, if it’s good enough for Ebert… Since I already have a Netflix subscription and high-speed internet, it seemed foolish not to at least give it a try. I bought the basic model for $59.99, which wound up costing me $100 when all was said and done, but I have to say it was well worth it. I’ve only had it for a couple of weeks, but I now wonder how I ever lived without streaming. I am now completely convinced that streaming is the future of “home video” for several reasons. While I don’t intend to throw out my DVD player any time soon, I have to admit that streaming is pretty damn addictive. I don’t want to sound like a big commercial for the service, but I have to wonder how many people actually know how cool this is. The advertising really doesn’t do justice to the benefits, so I feel the need to point them out.

The obvious reason is the convenience of it – being able to just access thousands of movies whenever you want at the touch of a button. No waiting for a disc to arrive in the mail, no driving to a video store – your TV basically is the video store, and everything’s free with your Netflix subscription. It’s like owning a magic box with more movies in it than you can possibly find the time to watch. What self-respecting film geek wouldn’t want that? I used to dream of such a thing when I was a kid. When you own a Roku, you basically own thousands of movies. Why buy a DVD copy of something that you can just watch anytime you want, and looks just as good as a DVD would? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

But an even better reason to do the streaming thing is the selection. The thing that worried me most about streaming is that only the most popular mainstream movies would be available, and the rest would fall by the wayside. Not so. As it turns out, streaming is actually saving a lot of movies that the studios don’t want to bother putting on disc from oblivion. Studios like Paramount and MGM have licensed much of their back catalogues to Netflix, so there’s actually a ton of movies that aren’t available on DVD or Blu-Ray available to watch on the streaming service. As an obscure-film aficionado, this is the most awesome thing about streaming for me – the ability to watch movies you literally can’t watch anywhere else.

Now, of course they don’t have every movie ever made or anything like that (though I think we’re rapidly approaching a time when just about everything will be available through streaming). But I’m constantly surprised at the availability of obscure and semi-obscure films available on the service. Let’s put it this way: if you have an itch to check out, say, Roman Polanski’s rarely seen Cul-de-Sac, William Castle’s goofy horror-comedy The Spirit Is Willing, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum or Michael Mann’s medieval horror flick The Keep, streaming is the only legal way to do that (unless you have a bunch of old VHS copies stashed away)! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to get really obscure, how about James Caan in Curtis Harrington’s thriller Games, Jenny Agutter in the British shocker I Start Counting or Alan Arkin in the Terrence Malick-written trucker movie Deadhead Miles? Yep, they’re all here. Not to mention hundreds of spaghetti Westerns, kung-fu flicks, foreign dramas, cult horror titles by HG Lewis and Lucio Fulci, 80’s slasher films, bizarre thrillers, sword-and-sorcery craziness, documentaries, arthouse stuff and old movies I’ve never even heard of. The only genre that seems under-represented is Italian giallo flicks, and I’m hoping those will come in time. But you can find virtually everything else. Tell me, is this not a film geek dream? And even though these films are available on disc, there’s something kind of cool about being able to access movies like Cronos, Santa Sangre and La Grande Bouffe any time you desire. If you feel a sudden urge to watch anything from Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession to Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher to the Scott Baio sex comedy Zapped!, all you have to do is add them to your Instant Queue and hit that button on your remote. That’s all it takes. Honestly, how awesome is that? What more could you possibly want? And sure, you can watch a ton of recent releases (about 200 movies on my 450-plus DVD queue are also available on streaming) and mainstream stuff ranging from Zombieland to Smokey and the Bandit II to various B-movies starring Val Kilmer if you’re so inclined. No judgment here. How about the Theatrical Cut of Blade Runner or the entire 8:42 cut of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (god help you)? Yep, you can see them here if you really want to.

Needless to say, I’m pretty impressed by all of this, and I’m just getting started diving in to their selection. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched Michael Gough in the odd British thriller Crucible of Horror, Farley Granger in Mark Robson’s pro-religion Edge of Doom, JT Petty’s documentary of twisted underground horror films S&Man, and the underrated early 80’s slasher flick The Prowler (gore effects courtesy of Tom Savini), which probably hasn’t looked this good since 1981. I have had absolutely no technical problems with the service whatsoever. It’s awesome. The only drawback is that you don’t get the extras you would from a DVD, just the movie itself. If you can live with that, then there’s literally no reason not to subscribe to Netflix streaming (you can still rent DVDs for movies that aren’t yet available on streaming, after all). Plus the Roku device has several other on-demand movie “channels” available, some of which are completely free like the Sony-based Crackle, and others that require monthly subscription fees or pay-per-view charges. It’s like a whole new world of movie-watching has opened up here, and we’re just getting on the ground floor. I’m old enough to remember when VHS started, and what a revolution that caused in people’s viewing habits, and I’m willing to bet that streaming will catch on in much the same way. It’s extremely convenient for the studios, after all – they don’t even have to make the small expenditure of pressing DVDs, just license their films to Netflix and/or other streaming channels. It’s easy for the providers and easy for the consumers. I’m not advocating the death of DVD, of course – I love the format too much (and own too many movies on disc) for that. But it’s difficult to watch a movie on streaming and not feel like this is the future of the home video market. I know the argument (and I’ve even made it myself) that if everything is available, then nothing is “special” but I think that kind of thinking is for old people, frankly. When we get to the point where anything we want to see is available whenever we want it, I think that will be just as special for people who really love movies. There’s already a lot of buried treasure available for those who are looking for it, and I can only hope the selection will be even greater as time goes on. We are truly living in the future now, and for film fans it’s a beautiful thing.

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