Archives for January 2012

Netflix, What Is It And Should I Sign Up?

Netflix is the most successful Video On Demand provider in the US. And despite its impressive attempt at shooting itself in the foot last year by needlessly solving a non-existent problem, it’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

For a small monthly fee (€7 in Ireland), they give you access to their library of films and television series, which you can then stream as many as you like of via your internet connection.

So its principle selling points are, that on the one hand you don’t waste any of your precious hard drive space, as all of the titles are stored centrally by Netflix. And on the other, you have an extensive and limitless choice of titles to pick from. So, your access to the internet aside, what’s it like?

Well it’s certainly easy to sign up to, and they pride themselves on making it as painless as possible to unsubscribe from as well. The idea being, that the service they provide is something you can come back to at your leisure, when something you see there catches your eye. And I imagine that many of the people who availed of their introductory free month trial will very probably continue to subscribe subsequently. After all, you really only need to see a couple of films, or a tv series in any given month to justify the price of €7.

But if they’re hoping to make a serious dent in the market on this side of the Atlantic, then they’ll have to significantly expand the number of titles they give you to choose from. Naturally they’re only starting up now, and it’s very much a work in progress, but it is none the less a disappointingly limited selection.

On a more general level, what impact is streaming going to have on our every day lives? Well, as with most things connected with the internet, it’s not so much the death of one thing and the birth of the next, as it is a re-imagining of the overall landscape.

Just as cinema was not in fact killed off by the advent of television, and then video, dvd, cable and satellite. On the contrary, it was strengthened with their arrival by having its reach significantly extended. In effect, they provide cinema with what amounts to a whole new market in which to profit from. So too the internet, and specifically streaming will serve to yet further extend that reach, and to ever more firmly bind them all together.

The reason why streaming can never replace cinema or indeed television is simple. It’s completely reliant on the Hollywood studios that make so much of all the film and television that people most want to see for all its content. And those studios are only every going to drip feed the likes of Netflix after their cash cows, the Harry Potters and the Batmans, have duly earnt their crust in cinemas and on mainstream television first.

The only way around that is for Netflix to begin producing its own content, which is exactly what it’s begun doing. But it can no more be certain of producing the next sure fire hit than anyone else can, and would need in effect to become a rival studio in order to be able to compete on a level playing field. Which is of course what Sky has done by joining forces with 20th Century Fox. So rather than replacing anything, streaming becomes one more arm in an overall, global media strategy.

But the main and most obvious reason why streaming is most likely to add to rather than subtract from how we watch and listen to films, television and music is quite simply numbers.

In 1920, the world passed the two billion mark. Since then, it’s more than trebled, and by the middle of this century that number will have more than quadrupled. Furthermore, the number of people who now live in what is known as the developed world has exploded over the same period. So there are incalculably more people now all trying to watch and listen to the same sorts of things.

Add to that the fact all surveys suggest that those who do download, whether legally or illegally, tend to spend more than they used to on their entertainment, and it all points to the same thing. Streaming is one more means for a hugely enhanced landscape to expand even further.

“The Artist”- Michel Hazanavicius

This year’s smash hit at Cannes… Silent and in black and white… Classically French…  Charming performances… And the dog…! Hmmn, what? Oh I’m sorry, I think I might have dozed off there.

There have of course been some genuinely wonderful films about Hollywood. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (’50), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad And The Beautiful (’52), Robert Altman’s The Player (’92) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (’01) being the four most memorable.

All depict a pitch black world bereft of a moral compass, where blindly driven characters devote their lives to sacrificing their talent on the altar to personal ambition. The result is a landscape where anything can happen, and everyone’s careful calculations are forever undermined by the whims of the non-existent but mischievous Gods. They are all in other words European films, that just happen to use Hollywood as their backdrop.

They reek of the Old World, with its ironic insouciance and casual cynicism, and are free entirely of that unshakable certainty and boundless optimism that make the New World so appealing and give it its veneer of invincibility.

Mulholland Drive might look like Hollywood, but its correct title, as David Thompson so perceptively pointed out is Mulholland Dr., and the that Dr stands for “dream”, as in nightmare. The powers that be that govern this world are nebulous, nefarious and hopelessly inscrutable. This might be the dream factory, but these are the wrong kinds of dreams.

The Artist is the exact opposite. It’s an all too conventional Hollywood film clumsily dressed in European art-house chic. Sure, if you’ve never seen, say, a Madonna video (it’s in black and white!!) or a foreign film (what, subtitles!!! (well, titles actually)), then you might but briefly mistake it for something mildly un-conventional. But you’ll very quickly tire of the film’s un-rippled progress, as all the characters dutifully make their way down all too well worn paths.

The fact of the matter is, The Artist isn’t a pastiche of those early Hollywood films, it’s one of them. And it’s every bit as dull, dreary and predictable as those kinds of films have always been. That’s why, both then and now, we gravitate towards the likes of Méliès and Eisenstein, Lang, Murnau and Chaplin. Their constant invention and dazzling brilliance are a glorious corrective to the barrage of endless tedium we’re forever forced to put up with from mainstream Hollywood.

Still. There is of course one part of the world where they’ll see The Artist as a fantastically courageous attempt to buck the prevailing trend of drowning everything in a cacophony of wide screen, surround sound 3D Technicolor noise. Roll on the Academy Awards.

“Theme Time Radio Hour”, Bob Dylan’s Four Dazzling Acts.

There are famously no second acts in American lives. But as he has on so many other occasions, Bob Dylan has proved himself the glorious exception to Fitzgerald’s famous maxim.

Dylan’s first act culminated in an extraordinary 14 months between March 1965 and May ’66 when he released no less than three epoch-defining albums; Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and the still seminal double album, Blonde On Blonde. Then however, just as suddenly as he’d emerged, he disappeared into the undergrowth, opting for domestic bliss and the anonymity afforded by his basement in Woodstock.

To everyone’s surprise and amazement though, he burst back into relevance in the mid 70s with Blood On The Tracks in ’74, Desire in ’75 and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. But within a year or two his brief renaissance had passed, and by the late 70s he’d resumed his role as a relic of an era that had long since passed. The never-ending tour he seemed determined to persist with looked like little more than an excuse for him to avoid having to ever look himself in the mirror.

But to everyone’s further amazement, a decade later he sprang back into life again, first with No Mercy in ’89, and then with Time Out Of Mind in ’97, both of which were produced by Daniel Lanois. These three acts would comfortably have seen his name forever carved in stone on high.

Remarkably though, these last few years have been arguably his most productive period to date. Three fine albums in Love And Theft (’01), Modern Times (’06) and Together Through Life (’09), particularly the first. A novelty Christmas album, which was far better than it had any right to be. That extraordinary autobiography Chronicles: Volume One (’04), which had nothing to say about his personal life, but which was exceptionally candid and brilliantly illuminating on his music (particularly on the epiphany that resulted in the release of  Oh Mercy.). Plus Scorsese’s brilliant documentary, Bringing It All Back Home. And amongst all of which, somewhat improbably, he embarked upon a new career path as a 21st. century DJ.

The idea behind Theme Time Radio Hour is simple enough. For one hour every week, Dylan takes a theme, say “Marriage”, or “Cigarettes”, and spins discs associated with the chosen theme. He plays little or nothing from the mid 70s onwards, sticking for the most part to the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, though there are also a healthy handful from the 40s and even 30s. There are three series so far, comprising some 100 hours. And each and every single track, on every single one of them, is an absolute gem. Not only that, but his sly but enthusiastic intros are every bit as enjoyable as the forgotten finds he’s continually unearthing and correctly celebrating.

It is, by a considerable distance, the finest hour of listening to be found anywhere in the ether. Furthermore, it’s made for the “Shuffle” mode. As it’s almost as enjoyable having whatever it is that you’re listening to incongruously interrupted by one of Dylan’s droll intros before returning to your own playlist, as it is hearing the actual track that his intro was referring to.

TTRH is an education and a constant source of joy. And once again, that man from Minnesota has produced yet another rabbit from that apparently bottomless hat of his.

“Carnage” – Roman Polanski

I defer in almost all matters to the New Yorker’s film critic Anthony Lane. But I have to gently disagree with his huffy dismissal of Carnage

Our contrasting reactions to the film stem from our very different expectations of the theatre. Lane is as polite as he is effortlessly erudite, and having been brought up to respect the theatre, he clearly finds it difficult, not withstanding the endless disappointments he must have experienced there, to see it for what it is. It’s where writers who aren’t quite good enough for television or cinema go to hide.

That sign that met Nicholas Ray when he arrived in New York from Wisconsin in the 1930s, which read “the theatre is dead; let’s give it a decent burial” stood, and stands as an appropriate headstone.

So the play that this is based on, The God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza is exactly what one should have expected. As a piece of serious writing it will of course disappear into the ether, and will only ever be of use to am dram socs and secondary schools. But that’s hardly the point. It’s just a bit of fun, that’s all!

A pair of upwardly-mobile, New York couples spend a day together discussing what’s to be done about the boisterous behaviour of their respective children. Inevitably, the veneer of respectability is soon scraped clean, and they are promptly tearing strips off of one another. The film is every bit as predictable as that makes it sound, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

It’s the kind of thing Woody Allen used to make in order to raise the money for his more personal films. In exchange for getting his more serious comedies funded, he’d produce something light and frothy to keep the money men happy. So for every Manhattan, The Purple Rose Of Cairo and Crimes And Misdemeanours, there’d be a Hannah And Her Sisters, a Bullets Over Broadway and a Vicky Christina Barcelona. Devoid of substance and made entirely of sugar, they’re an instant pick-me-up, but are perfectly charming nonetheless. That’s what this is.

I would though challenge anyone to guess that it’s a Roman Polanski film if they hadn’t been told so beforehand. It’s not so much directed as it is a filmed play. But considering that Polanski hasn’t made anything of substance since Tess in 1979, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Any competent director would be flattered when working with actors of this calibre, all of whom deliver wonderfully. Though a better director would have insisted on imposing an ending, which the play plainly lacks, and which is exactly what Polanski himself had done on his best film, Chinatown. I don’t know. Perhaps he has other things on his mind these days.

Not withstanding all of which, Carnage should be seen for what it is. Quite silly, and hugely enjoyable.