Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 15, 2014
The Criterion Collection built its luxury brand on an expectation of quality, and its formidable library is stacked with international classics presented in exacting restorations. This is a model without room for beat-up prints of forgotten programmers, though they’ve found a way to smuggle some in through their streaming channel on Hulu Plus (it was just announced that Criterion has renewed their contract with Hulu, so their 800+ films will available on the VOD site for years to come). There are endless independent productions that have been poorly preserved, and are not famous enough to justify extensive restoration work. Hulu has allowed Criterion a place to distribute these orphan titles, those from directors too obscure to even put out in their more budget-conscious Eclipse line of DVD box sets. As I was idly searching for Criterion titles only available on Hulu Plus’ subscription service, I scrolled upon William K. Howard’s The Squeaker (aka Murder on Diamond Row), a low-budget British mystery produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. Howard raises auteurist alarm bells because he was a favorite of legendary film historian William K. Everson, and was the subject of one of Dave Kehr’s “Further Research” column in Film Comment. A fleet, funny and noir-tinged detective yarn adapted from an Edgar Wallace play, The Squeaker is an unpolished little gem.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 5, 2013
In the third quarter of 2013, Netflix’s streaming service passed HBO in its number of subscribers, reaching 31.1 million. Buoyed by the success of its original series, as well as exclusive “season-after” deals on shows like The Walking Dead, the streaming business continues to grow exponentially. In comparison, the company’s original DVD-by-mail operation has become an afterthought. Only 7.1 million still receive those red envelopes, less than half of DVD subscribers from just a few years ago, and the company has been shutting down distribution centers in response (down to 39 from a high of 58). While CEO Reed Hastings pays lip service to the importance of physical media, all of its actions indicate that Netflix DVD-by-mail is close to extinction (for more, read this article by Janko Roettgers). These are distressing times for movie lovers, as each technical innovation paradoxically makes it more difficult to view the vast majority of film history. With higher resolutions come higher print standards for transfers, and so many original negatives no longer exist from Hollywood’s early days. This leads to the recycling of established classics with HD-ready material, while the unlucky unacknowledged get kicked into the analog dustbin of history. A once-totemic figure like Frank Borzage, who was honored in a Fox box set in the long-ago year of 2008, has no titles streaming on Netflix. But for years the Fox discs have been available to rent from Netflix. As one of the 7.1 million still renting physical media from Netflix, I took advantage and watched 7th Heaven for the first time.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on April 14, 2013
Last week the film series I program was graced by a visit from Eric Stough, the animation director for South Park. He was kind enough to let me select a recent episode for him to both screen and then provide us with a behind-the-scenes look at how it got made, along with a Q&A session. I picked the show they aired last October, A Nightmare on Face Time, because its riff on The Shining dovetailed nicely with the recent theatrical release of Room 237, and because it deals with a subject of interest to any movie lover: the demise of the video store.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 8, 2011
In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).
All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 14, 2011
After a ten-year absence from the screen, John Carpenter’s welcome return is with a haunted insane asylum quickie entitled The Ward (released on cable VOD June 8th, it will receive a limited theatrical run starting July 8th. Playdates are here.) Following the box-office failure of his underrated Western-in-space yarn Ghosts of Mars (2001), Carpenter felt “burned out” and took a step back from Hollywood. He was unofficially retired, aside from happily cashing the checks from studio remakes of his work (Assault on Precinct 13, the forthcoming They Live). But after directing two episodes in Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, with tight budgets, compressed schedules and little oversight, “it was actually fun again” (interview with Fangoria). He looked for a similar setup for a possible feature, and found it when actress Amber Heard invited him to direct her in The Ward, an indie horror film funded by Echo Lake for a modest$10 million (the estimate at IMDB). He did not write the script or the score, and The Ward misses his sense of group dynamics that he studiously gleaned from Howard Hawks. Instead it’s a solid job of craftsmanship, punching up Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s hacky story mechanics with an effortlessly controlled visual scheme that creates a circular, suffocating sense of claustrophobia.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 11, 2011
In December, a truckload of William Witney-directed Roy Rogers films were dumped onto Netflix Instant. I was clued into this trove by a conversation between Jaime Christley and Vadim Rizov on Twitter, an indication of why I’m addicted to this unruly microblogging service. As a source of cinephile news-gathering, it’s essential, and more than enough reason to endure the self-righteous posturing that flares up every so often. Witney’s one of the anonymous artisans who pumped out movie serials for the Mascot and Republic studios, often in tandem with John English. He’s credited with 130 film and television projects at IMDB, and it’s a rather daunting corpus to approach without direction. With supporters as diverse as Quentin Tarantino and Dave Kehr, I took this Netflix cache as a sign I should dig in further (the only one I’d seen before is his so-so Apache Rifles, which I wrote about here). So I sat down with the earliest films on the list: Roll On Texas Moon (1946) and Home In Oklahoma (1946).
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 7, 2010
In November, Netflix introduced a “streaming only” option to their membership plan, for $7.99 a month, another marker in the slow death of the DVD. Their “Instant” offerings are frequently presented on faded and cropped masters likely made during the VHS days, but the rarity of their hodgepodge collection makes it a near-essential outlet for those interested in American film history. Unless one lives in a cinephilic megacity like New York or L.A., VOD offerings like Netflix Instant and DVD-on-demand outfits like the Warner Archive are the only (legally) easy way to view older titles.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 6, 2010
The inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival kicks off on April 22nd, and there’s going to be wall-to-wall coverage here once it begins. Jeff Stafford has already posted a wide-ranging, must-read interview with Norman Lloyd, who’ll be introducing Saboteur on the 25th. But like the Cannes Film Festival a few weeks later (May 12 – 23), I’ll be unable to attend, marooned as I am on the East Coast. But I’ll be checking back here at Movie Morlocks for reports on the TCM-fest, and there will be an endless array of outlets covering Cannes. But what about seeing the films, the vast majority of which won’t receive stateside distribution?
The on-line cinematheque The Auteurs has come through for me on at least one title on my list, with an assist by Stella Artois. They’re streaming nine former Cannes selections for free thanks to that mediocre Belgian beer sponsor. These include Our Beloved Month of August (2008), a Portuguese experiment highly regarded by Cinema Scope’s Mark Peranson and Robert Koehler, Jonathan Romney of Sight & Sound, and filmmaker C.W. Winter (The Anchorage, which I wrote about recently), who placed it on his best-of-the-decade list. It was never picked up for the U.S., and I was ecstatic to find it offered along with a group of higher-profile past Cannes selections including L’aaventura, Mon Oncle, and Amarcord. The kind of curatorial adventurousness that led to August being included among this canonical group is sorely needed in programming these days, and The Auteurs should be praised (once again), for loosing this strange beast upon American eyes.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 18, 2009
After exploring Hulu for cinematic surprises two weeks back, I discovered the nifty search engine SpeedCine [Speed-Sinny], which claims to make “it easy to find legal feature-length movies on your computer”. Founded by film publicist Reid Rosefelt, it trawls the web for films that can be viewed on VOD for free or through rental, purchase, or subscription. It’s very simple to use, and with a quick click on the FREE button, and a leisurely scroll through its large A-Z library, I uncovered a wide variety of oddities and masterpieces that won’t cost you a dime (the FAQ informs us that not all titles are listed in the index, that some can only be found through the search function. Mysterious! Let me know if you find any hidden nuggets through this feature). These free titles are all ad-supported on various sites, with commercials popping up at different intervals. Most sites offer their “top” titles as rentals or purchases only (without ads), while shuffling their lesser known material into the “free”, ad-supported category.
Searching for free titles filters out the Herculean efforts of The Auteurs to bring a cinematheque to your computer (at a reasonable $5 a film, with a few titles gratis), but I discussed them earlier this year. They’re the most forward thinking VOD operators around, with the best content, so by all means check them out. But this week I’m focusing on the questionably curated free VOD sites that SpeedCine introduced me to, like Crackle, Jaman, Fancast, and EZ Takes, all of which vary wildly in quality. I’ll profile each of these sites on various arbitrary categories (streaming quality, commercial interruptions, etc.) and offer some viewing recommendations on each. In any case, SpeedCine is a remarkably useful tool for those interested in excavating the vast trove of cinema available on these here tubes.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 4, 2009
The fabulously popular streaming video site Hulu is useful for keeping abreast of contemporary pop-culture effluvia, sure, but if one peeks into their dusty old movies section, there’s an eclectic collection of auteur rarities, 50′s horror, Poverty Row Westerns, and public domain slapstick comedies to be unearthed. With only 3.77% of the titles listed on TCMDB available on home video, dutiful cinephiles need to devour repertory screenings, lobby intractable studios, and pluck the desirable titles out of what is available, and so Hulu is another prime portal to chip away at our film-historical ignorance. I had used it primarily to catch up with TV series I had fallen behind on (like the ubiquitous 30 Rock), but in researching my piece on Bruce Surtees last week, I discovered that Don Siegel’s The Beguiled was streaming for free on the site. Delving into their archives produced a fascinating hodgepodge of titles, some of which are quite hard to see otherwise. Below the fold is a list of titles ready to view on Hulu that I’m eager get to know, and others with which I’m already in committed relationships (with selected commentary, and each title links to its page on Hulu).
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