Monday, October 17, 2011

Criterion on Hulu+ A Cinephile's Report

Early impressions of Criterion on Hulu+:

The selection, of course, is the major appeal. Not every existing Criterion movie is on there yet, but a huge number are already, and then there are the many titles that they have never released. You can keep a running count of those exclusives here. (go to the last page for the latest updates). Another pleasant surprise is the inclusion of all the major Chaplin feature films, up through the sound era.

So what are the negatives? The Hulu+ interface on your HDTV (a Panasonic Viera was tested in this case) is nowhere near as user-friendly or informative as Netflix's interface—especially for cinephiles. You can create a queue on the Hulu+ Web site. It has various sorting options, including customizing the order, same as Netflix, but that does not translate over to the TV, which jumbles the queue in an order it favors and which cannot be changed. If you add a lot of movies, and want to watch in queue order, you're going to have to scroll through the entire queue on the TV to find them. The next problem is the Hulu+ TV interface does not list the director or the actors. Criterion famously said they were dumping Netflix in favor of Hulu+ because "In short, they get it." Well, they certainly don't get it if they don't list who directed the frigging film!

A final selling point given to us by Criterion was that Hulu+ would add special features, something Netflix was unwilling to do. This has been sporadic. Perhaps one example isn't fair, but along with uploading L'Enfance-nue (1968, Maurice Pialat), it would have been nice if they included his breakout short "L'amour existe" (1960), which is on the DVD. Although it is understandable that that they already have more content on there than any reasonable person could keep up with. The treasure trove aspect basically wins out.

There is one remaining problem. Even at the highest HD streaming speed, the visual experience can be less than stellar. Dark black-and-white films exhibit significant compression artifacts as pixelization in the darkest areas of the frame. If one has Netflix and may gain access to the DVD or rent the blu-ray somewhere (Netflix doesn't carry many Criterion blu-rays unfortunately), it doesn't appeal to sit through a high-profile, artistically significant film with some splotchy pixels dancing around behind the characters' heads just because the scene was shot at night. Bright, color films, however, look perfectly fine—as long as they don't have any night scenes! It's the same with Netflix. This is simply a drawback of the streaming experience in general. If you know a film is shot dark, rent the DVD, or better the blu-ray.

Criterion on Hulu+ is a great way to gain access to the world's biggest library of great art films, but there are a few drawbacks to endure. If you are a bloodthirsty shut-in who has oodles of time to put your exploration of art cinema into overdrive, this is the deal for you. You don't need to wait for any discs, just keep clicking play, watching one film after another all weekend long. But if you are a high-minded snob who has come to enjoy not just the films but the award-winning visual quality of the Criterion Collection, you may find yourself preferring to wait for the discs, especially if your viewing habits are down to only one film a week.

UPDATE 10/28/11: Some other problems worthy of mention:

If you have Hulu+ on your TV, you're not going to watch online. So when you are online, it's usually browsing for things to add to your queue, but when you click a title for more info, it starts playing immediately. This makes for a very irritating shopping experience.

Any non-Criterion titles open a can of worms. 4x3 1.33 material, say an old TV show like Remington Steele or The X Files, displays incorrectly stretched to fill your 16x9 TV. Netflix does not screw this up.

There are commercials before and during every non-Criterion, non-Miramax movie/TV show. One may accept that on the newest episode of Glee, but on the 1999 British TV show Spaced? You would be better to rent the discs from Netflix. Miramax movies seem to be commercial-free, but other than that and Criterion you're facing commercials.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)

Starring Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Shea Whigham, Kathy Baker, Katy Mixon

Take Shelter storms into cinemas buoyed by the strength of Michael Shannon’s sensitive, intimate portrayal of a quiet family man who has frightening visions of devastating storms.

Curtis is a caring family man who sees visions of immense storm clouds that rain an oil-like liquid. His troubles increase when he realizes that no one else can see the visions. He hides it from his wife Samantha and young deaf daughter Hannah.

As the visions get weirder—his dog attacks him in one—he quietly decides to heed them as true premonitions. He starts by building a backyard enclosure to sequester his dog, which irks Samantha. At the same time, owing to his mother’s history of mental illness, he hedges his bets by seeking medical and psychiatric help, but nothing works.

To his wife’s horror, he takes out a high-risk loan in order to build an elaborate underground shelter by burying a shipping container in the backyard. He borrows a digger from his construction job and enlists the help of his best friend and coworker Dewart, who early in the film had told Curtis “Youve got a good life,” something that Curtis now seems to be endangering.

The tensions climax when Hannah’s cochlear implant is jeopardized by Curtis losing his job and health insurance, due to his increasingly paranoid preventive actions. An outburst at a community gathering finally isolates the family completely. Despite everything, Samantha draws closer to Curtis over his deep love for Hannah. The family must now face Curtis’s frightening visions together.

The film is simultaneously an intense and understated drama. There’s a carefully nuanced rendering of all events, but not much along the lines of dramatic plot developments. The slow-moving story is explored in minute details, with a rigorous singularity of purpose by the director Jeff Nichols. The performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain are incredibly well realized, both actors clearly capable of the highest echelon of roles. Shannon plays a taciturn, troubled man, but you can read huge emotion in the slightest facial movements. Even the lines on his face seem to ooze with depth.

The problem is the film is of that typical American indie ilk which only has one idea to communicate. It explores the idea thoroughly, and the revelations at the end are satisfying when we eventually get to them, but along the way there is not much else to stimulate the intellectually curious viewer. This is a cinema of emotion—an actor’s cinema. The filmmaker’s big idea is metaphorical, but the idea is so single-minded that it becomes a one-note metaphor, so you must really like that note to enjoy the film. To be fair, the full concept is not revealed until the end of the film, and even then it is somewhat ambiguous, so you actually are asked to think. But unlike a potboiler, the mystery is: What is this metaphorical film getting at? This results in a more satisfying time contemplating the movie afterwards than actually watching it.

Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed it, has a highly personalized take on family life, and life in general, that perhaps will not ring true with everyone. Things are bleak, although not without hope. As a metaphorical work, it may not have the universality that the director seems to feel it does: His film has a noticeably ponderous weight to it, arising from the snail-pace and carefully composed look. The film is so carefully framed and color-corrected that it loses a bit of the looseness that a more natural look, allowing in a few imperfections, might have provided. Despite the insularity of the filmmaker’s vision, the film achieves some powerful realizations in these characters’ lives which may please some viewers. But the audience is still left wondering why the world in this film so gloomy, and in the end the film may not have a good enough answer.

Take Shelter is worth watching for the deeply observed and nuanced performances of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, but it is a film with only one metaphorical idea behind it all. A bit of an oppressive night at the cinema, but if you let Michael Shannon pull you into his deeply troubled world, you may come away provoked and encouraged by the unexpected conclusion.